The new Wired magazine has an article about Lego Mindstorms, a programmable extension of Lego building blocks that can be used to build robots and other dynamic hardware projects. In developing the third generation of this product (Mindstorms NXT), Lego enlisted the help of some enthusiastic expert customers to form the Mindstorms User Panel (MUP). Far beyond simply serving as a focus group or beta testers, the four core MUP members actually helped to design the new product (NXT was previewed at the recent CES in Las Vegas, and this blog has some great information on it). These enthusiastic users (three Americans and one Canadian) even flew to Denmark to attend meetings and brainstorming/design sessions - all at their own expense. Why? Of course Mindstorms is just one example - why do some people devote massive amounts of time, energy, and even money to specialized pursuits like this?
The article quotes MIT professor Eric von Hippel, who in his book Democratizing Innovation says, "the joy and the learning associated with membership in creative communities" drives people to generously share their time. This really struck a chord with me when I thought about the amount of time I have spent working with Orbiter in the last year, much of it related to its potential as a tool for science education. I spent a couple of months writing Go Play In Space, and since October I have also spent a lot of time writing this blog. Both Orbiter and the "blogosphere" seem to qualify as "creative communities," and I think that is a large part of why I do this stuff. Other bloggers and Orbiter fans have their own reasons of course, but I can't help but feel that the community factor is a part of it for many of us.