For the past five years, Peter Jansen, a Canadian scientist whose PhD is in neural computation and cognitive modelling, has been developing a series of open source hardware "tricorders" -- handheld sensor packages running GNU/Linux that can be used by everyday people to make and record observations about the world around them. There are several versions of the tricorder, some with sensors attached (atmospheric, electromagnetic, spatial), others that are "blank," with places to mount your own sensors. The latest version, the Mark IV, is still in development, and is intended to be mass-produced at low cost.
the Tricorder project:
The Tricorder project emphasizes accessibility. The devices we build are meant to be as inexpensive as possible, so folks might have access to them without having to worry about the cost, or their difficulty of use. My hope is that someday every household — and every child who wants one — might have access to a small device that can easily be kept close in a pocket or bag, and quickly pulled out when curiosity strikes. By turning a walk home through the park into a nature walk, and Dad's spring time home repairs into a lesson about heat flow, it's my hope that everyday experiences will become opportunities to learn and develop an intuitive understanding and deep fluency with the science of our everyday world.
It is my deep belief that knowledge brings about positive change. It's possible that the same instrument that can show a child how much chlorophyll is in a leaf could also show how them much pollution is in the air around us, or given off by one's car. As an educator and a researcher, I feel that if people could easily discover things about their worlds that were also important social topics, that they would then make positive social choices, like reducing their emissions, or petitioning for cleaner industry in their communities. By having access to general tools, people can learn about leaves, or air, or clouds, or houses — or light, or magnetism, or temperature — or anything the Tricorder can help them see.
Most of all, the Tricorder is designed to discover things that we don't already know. I'm excited about what you can discover with it. And that's what it's about. Little discoveries, everywhere.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.