The Free Universal Construction Kit is a wonderful idea, "a matrix of nearly 80 adapter bricks that enable complete interoperability between ten popular children’s construction toys." It is not a set of physical objects, but instructions for a 3D printer. My first thought upon seeing it on every website from Kottke to Geekologie is that the patent lawyers will be on the case in seconds; In Canada, we have watched the endless battle between LEGO and Montreal's Mega Blok that went all the way to the Supreme Court. (LEGO lost).
It turns out that the designers of the Free Universal Construction Kit (I cannot use the acronym on this family website) were preoccupied with the issue as well. In fact, it seems to be one of the prime motivations of the design, " to provide a public service unmet—or unmeetable—by corporate interests."
In producing the Free Universal Construction Kit, we hope to demonstrate a model of reverse engineering as a civic activity: a creative process in which anyone can develop the necessary pieces to bridge the limitations presented by mass-produced commercial artifacts.
The designers describe the Free Universal Construction Kit is a sort VLC open source video player for hardware; a tool that disrupts the system, that lets anyone play with their toys any way they want instead of the way the toy manufacturers plan it.
Today’s manufacturers have little or no intrinsic motivation to make their products compatible with anyone else’s. Indeed—despite obvious benefits to users everywhere—the implementation of cross-brand interoperability can be nearly impossible, given the tangled restrictions of patents, design rights, and trademarks involved in doing so. So we stepped up. The Free Universal Construction Kit is the VLC of children’s playsets.
The most important aspect of the Free Universal Construction Kit is what it portends for the future.
The Free Universal Construction Kit is simply one “toy” illustration of a coming grassroots revolution, in which everyday people can—with desktop tools—overcome arbitrary restrictions in mass-manufactured physical culture. The burgeoning possibility of freely shared downloadable adapters has significant implications for industries where the attempt to create “technological lock-in” is a common business practice.
No wonder that the first people they thank in their credits, after their families, are their lawyers. More at Free Art and Technology.