Maker Faire 2013: The Open Clock Project

By Wesley Fenlon

The Open Clock couldn't be easier to read, and its creator offers instructions online so you can build one yourself.

The expo hall of Maker Faire is packed with hundreds of projects. Some Makers are there to sell things they've built. Others are just there to show off something fun. Craig Bonsignore, maker of the Open Clock, had a slightly different motivation for his project: He hated his alarm clock, so he built one of his own as a completely open source project. And every component, from the 6.4-inch resistive touchscreen to the 512 LED red/green display, is available online.

"It's the maker thing. Something bugs you, you just make a better one," says Bonsignore. "The design criteria were: Easy to use, easy to see, intuitive. I don't sleep with my glasses on, so with my glasses off, arm's length, I can read the digits without squinting."

The Open Clock looks a little like the time-telling equivalent of one of those cheap calculators with oversized buttons, and its numbers are big enough to read from across a room. But it's hardly a simple project. In his quest to make the perfect alarm clock--or, at least, an alarm clock that he won't hate--Bonsignore has given the Open Clock a fun array of features.

The display is touch-controlled, so a simple tap will switch from displaying the time to displaying the date. Another tap can open up the menu and adjust the time, and tapping at the top or bottom of a digit increases or decreases the number (if you've ever had one of those alarm clocks that makes you press a button 24 times to cycle through every AM/PM hour, you probably love this idea already).

The clock is green during the day from 7 o'clock in the morning to 7 o'clock at night, when it turns red.

"The clock is green during the day from 7 o'clock in the morning to 7 o'clock at night, when it turns red. So it's intuitive that right now it's day time, it's 1:52, it's green," says Bonsignore. He gestures to the three different models of the Open Clock he has on display at Maker Faire. A rough plastic frame houses the earliest model. "This is the first one--it's been sitting on my nightstand for about a year. I've sort of refined it over time. I think I started it with green at night, but decided, hey--red, submarines, there's kind of a night vision thing--red is better. You actually have more receptors on your retina for green. Green is an exciting color, and red is a subdued color, so that kind of made sense...The brightness adjusts automatically so it doesn't bug you at night. I had to go through some iteration on that."

The second Open Clock model has a smoother black shell. The third is made from transparent plastic, which shows off the Arduino board and speaker inside the clock. The LED face on the transparent model is also noticeably brighter than the other two, which he explains:

"With the clear one, if I have this next to me, it's too bright. Even on the lowest setting it's too bright. [The first model] has a sheet of paper in front of it that makes it kind of opaque and dims it down. And [the third model] has an actual tinting film over it, so it's paper and a tinting film. This gets you just right, the just right level of dimness."

The entire clock runs off a $30 Arduino Uno board. A Wave shield kit that attaches to the Arduino costs another $35, but gives the clock the ability to play any wake-up sound off an SD card. Bonsignore also loaded his clock up with audio files for each digit, so the clock can read out the time of day. He also threw in a real-time clock chip and battery to keep the time accurate.

Add in the costs of the touchscreen, red/green LED display, and plastic case, and you can see why the Open Clock isn't going to compete with most bedside alarms. All told, its bill of materials totals about $260 bucks.

"The barrier right now is that it's a pain in the neck to get all this stuff and it's expensive," Bonsignore says. "It's $230 before you shipped it and before you paid taxes. So you've got to be a lunatic to make four of them, right? So I'm crazy. But that's okay. The next step is going to be to figure out how to take all this stuff and get it onto a [printed circuit] board and make it cheap, either as a kit or a thing you can buy."

If you are crazy, you can build the Open Clock right now. The entire bill of materials, with convenient links to online vendors, is a shared Google Document. All of the instructions for the clock are available under a Creative Commons license on Github. And Bonsignore maintains a blog about the project on his website.

Of course, like a true Maker, he's still tinkering with it, and future features may further set the Open Clock apart from your average bedside alarm.

"The original idea, actually, was that.. you would set the time, and when you activate the alarm, you just turn it on its side, and it turns into an hourglass," Bonsignore says. "Cause what do you care about when you're asleep and you wake up? You don't really care what time it is, you just care how much time you have left to sleep. So I may do that, still. It's easy enough to do with an accelerometer or tilt-sensor."