Daniele Benedettelli is a modern Renaissance man. An engineer who composes rock music, a teacher who also draws comics, and most of all, an inventor who has managed to render his main area of study - robotics - more accessible using LEGO Mindstorms kits. He's known as a Mindstorms guru on an international scale, even if he feels that this recognition is lacking in Italy. In collaboration with openPicus, Daniele developed NXT2WIFI, a wireless interface to control LEGO Mindstorms NXT units - an interface that greatly increases the creative possibilities of the LEGO kits. We sat down with him to better understand his experience as a maker and the invention of this module.

How did you develop your passion for robotics applied to LEGO? Where has this taken you, and where might it take you in the future?

My love for robotics started young. I recently found some school books covered in drawings and sketches of robots. I was a bit concerned, but really it's no surprise. My career choice was made to bring a dream to life, not in relation to one job or another: I dreamed of creating robots of all types, knowing how to develop and make hardware, mechanisms, electronics and software.

LEGO is an excellent and flexible way to build. I am not a purist - I often mix NXT, Android and Arduino with custom interfaces. When it becomes necessary I plan to move on to heavey metals - I have a set of Tetrix here and soon enough I will learn how to solder.

Despite my lack of success in the working world, this passion has taken me places, even though I haven't yet invented anything really useful... but I have helped a lot of people have a lot of fun! My experience in this sector has allowed me to work with LEGO, in direct contact with official LEGO designers. Plus, I travel around the world without spending a penny, invited to events and conferences on a frequent basis.

In the future, although this is a hope that, like invites from international conferences, I can't predict with accuracy, I would like to see a little attention from Italian institutions. Nemo propheta in patria

When was the first time you felt like a Maker?

For sure in 2007, when the first prototype of my Rubik solver spat out a properly executed Rubik cube! I was euphoric: even though I knew I had made its every working part, I still couldn't believe that I did it!

What is your favourite technology and how do you use it?

At the risk of seeming banal: internet. Without it, I would not exist. Email, skype and paypal are three tools I use every day for work, and without them I suppose I would have had to leave the country already years ago.

Do you subscribe to the values of Open Hardware / Software? Why?

Yes and no. NXT2WIFI is based on Flyport, which works on the logic of Open Hardware and Open Software, but in itself is not actually open, for obvious reasons of competition from the market. OpenPicus allowed me to do this thanks to special agreements. Other inventions of mine, like the Android app NXT Chatterbox that allows LEGO Mindstorms NXT robots to speak and understand speech start from pieces of open source code (under GNU license) and so they are freely distributed. Other projects, like portrayer, are closed, because, as the Joker said in Dark Knight, 'If you know how to do something well, don't do it free.'

Tell us about your typical Makers' day, and one moment being a Maker has come in handy.

Believe it or not, when I wake up in the morning I start inventing, be it for the American franchise of LEGO for whom I am in charge of design, or my long term projects with LEGO Mindstorms, or with Arduino/Android/ADK.

Being a good Maker came in handy one day recently when I managed to hack my home's telephone box instead of calling out the Telecom man. Nothing illegal, just a good amount of money saved!

What struck you about MakeTank and what objects have you chosen to sell in your marketplace?

The Italianness, I must say, and specifically the Tuscanness. I put up for sale the NXT2WIFI, a Wi-Fi adaptor for LEGO Mindstorms, the production of which was financed through crowdfunding on the Italian crowdfunding website Eppela.

Speaking of Eppela: how did you convince backers and what goals do you plan to reach with the funds?

I convinced backers simply by the quality of the product because they were all major LEGO Mindstorms users. We reached the goal - the product has been made and marketed.

Tell us about the creative process that led to developing the NXT2WIFI

NXT2WIFI starts out with a personal need combined with the excellent platform by openPicus. Existing Wi-Fi adaptors for the NXT were simply unsatisfactory: they are hard to use, don't have internal batteries, are lacking a graphic webserver, and are not customizable. So I turned to openPicus, where I found a team of people who are open and easy to work with, rather unlike many Italian companies who tend to jealously guard their work. I had a good idea and they had a mature platform that allowed me to quickly industrialize the product, supporting me with their extant infrastructure.

Here's a fun detail: we created a product together, but we never actually met physically! I live in Grosseto and they are in Rome - the two cities are not that far apart, but we did everything remotely. Try to do that with another Italian company... good luck! The attitude here tends to rely on in-person encounters, as if videoconferences didn't exist yet or worse, that they transmit lies.

You are often abroad - what's your view of the Maker movement in Italy?

Italy has brought to light some interesting international phenomenons, like Arduino and openPicus, but it still lacks a strong network of collaboration like those found abroad. In Italy, sadly, it is each man for himself.

 

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