One of the unique features of my work as a fellow (the “trailblazing” part) was building open hardware on top of closed-IP hardware (closed intellectual property, i.e. proprietary hardware and patents). The Loom Pedals system is an alternative software/hardware interface for the TC2 Digital Jacquard loom, a product of the Norwegian company Tronrud Engineering. I want to discuss “interface” from a couple of different angles. First, we’ll take the literal definition of “interface” in digital technology and go into some technical details in the software and hardware development process. Then, I want to explore alternative interpretations of “interface” for the Loom Pedals: a social interface between academic researchers and industry engineers, a craft interface between weavers and their looms, and a translation interface between two communities of hackers.
The Loom Pedals system directly replaces the existing software interface for the TC2. The TC2 communicates via Wi-Fi with this driver software, which is running on the weaver’s personal computer. Over Wi-Fi, the TC2 and driver exchange instructions—such as “start weaving”, “send the next row”, and “roll the fabric forward”—in byte packets according to Tronrud’s unique protocol. While we had to reverse engineer this communication protocol, we really didn’t have to take apart any of the underlying TC2 hardware like the motor drivers or vacuum control, or even reverse-engineer the driver software. The protocol seemed to have some quirks that hinted at the TC2’s system design, such as the loom expecting a particular sequence of start-up commands. But again, it was enough to just figure out what bytes got the right response through trial-and-error. Knowing the underlying system implementation would likely help us figure out the commands more quickly, but it was just icing on the cake.
In the middle of our reverse-engineering and development, we were very fortunate to get in touch with Tronrud about our lab’s research, including the hardware work with the TC2. Rather than discouraging any further hacking on their product, they were instead intrigued to talk to members of a newer, growing group in their customer base. Many TC2’s belong to art schools, university textiles departments, artists, and designers. Because the TC2’s development was led by weavers and intended for weavers, Tronrud has put in remarkable effort in creating a community of TC2 weavers and showcasing what users do with the loom. Yet in recent years, more STEM research groups and makerspaces have become interested in the TC2 and other textiles equipment in general.
We were up front with Tronrud’s engineers that we intended for our work to be open-source, but part of our existing codebase depended on their proprietary protocol. As someone who does not have industry experience in a large, well-established company like Tronrud, talking to their engineers has exposed me to new perspectives. Like many companies in industry probably worry about, Tronrud’s main concern is protecting their unique invention and preventing another business from copying their product to undersell the TC2. A key focus in our conversations has been identifying a clean separation between what could be shared and what could be kept closed, and we have been proposing an open API specification that any software could use to communicate with a TC2. This would open the proprietary communication protocol, but as I mentioned previously, Tronrud would not have to reveal any other components.
Personally, I believe that Tronrud would be capitalizing on a huge opportunity if they ended up releasing their communication protocol. My lab will certainly not be the last of their customers who want to hack the loom, and supporting users who want to customize their TC2 interfaces would only encourage this particular user group to grow. Rather than making their design more easily copied and possibly less unique, I think this would make the TC2 an even more unique product. After all, can you think of another hackable, maker-friendly, prototyping-scale Jacquard loom where the manufacturer is so involved with their user community? And what’s more, could Tronrud’s communication protocol become the standard for open hardware Jacquard weaving?
Can you think of another hackable, maker-friendly, prototyping-scale Jacquard loom where the manufacturer is so involved with their user community? Could Tronrud set the standard for open hardware Jacquard weaving?
Grappling with the interface between open/closed systems has been a challenging, yet rewarding experience, made even richer when we consider the wider context of weaving and the history of technology. Weaving is a craft that often relies on complex machines, yet it is also steeped in thousands of years of history and culture. Our human eyes and hands are how we interface with a weaving loom and its various accessories. The loom is our interface to the yarns and emerging cloth design. The (first) Industrial Revolution actively opposed many of these interfaces with its emphasis on automation and large-scale production. Ironically, the Jacquard loom was an invention of this era and drove much of the industrialization of textiles. By establishing many features of our current technological paradigm, I would also theorize that the Industrial Revolution set the stage for the closed-IP, black-boxed hardware, and planned obsolescence of modern electronics.
The OH community, maker movements, and contemporary craft revivals represent what some call a “new” Industrial Revolution, one that values small-scale, on-demand production and celebrates the hand’s ingenuity. By looking at traditional craft tools, we can find technological interfaces that are already “open” in their design and highly hackable, despite the earlier Industrial Revolution’s efforts to make them obsolete. Traditional looms come in so many different forms because they have been hacked on and modified throughout millenia by countless communities. There is an elegance in being able to see all the mechanisms of a hand-powered loom or spinning wheel, an almost self-documenting system. I see potential for new machines, like the TC2 and the Kniterate, to find a compromise between closed-IP equipment and their open hardware ancestors through open interfaces.
If you have more business experience than Shanel Wu (i.e. any business know-how at all), please send them your version of how you’d make the business case to Tronrud. You can find them at: (website) sminliwu.github.io / (Github) @sminliwu / (Instagram and Discord) @pipernell / (email) firstname.lastname@example.org