There’s something special about the tangible nature of electronics. Moreso perhaps for geeks and nerds who tend to work with the intangible: maths, software, science. Taking those incorporeal concepts and turning them into physical phenomena – flashing lights, moving servos – unlocks something deep in the geek psyche. Perhaps the toolmaking caveman, repressed by years behind the keyboard?
A few years ago, if you wanted to dabble in such physical indulgences, you generally needed to learn the dark arts of direct EEPROM programming. It’s not impossible, but you tend to be working at a very low level: directly reading and writing from registers.
More recently, the Arduino project has taken a particular class of microcontroller, and wrapped it in a complete, easy to use physical package. Beyond the physical platform, the Arduino project also provides a C-like high-level language, and a handy integrated development environment that will compile and upload your code to the physical hardware.
What this means is that if you know what an if statement does, and you can read a resistor code, then you can make a physical electronic object based on an Arduino. It really is that easy. Within about 30 minutes, using the Arduino board along with a creative kit from local Auckland distributor Mindkits, I had a basic passive infrared alarm set up. Using the included hookup wires and breadboard means no soldering required for a temporary test setup.
If you have a teenager showing an interest in software development, or perhaps you’re looking to learn yourself, then I’d suggest programming physical hardware is a great way to learn. Having the visceral feedback from lights and sounds in response to your code is an excellent confirmation that you’re doing it right. Or wrong! If you don’t know where to start, or you just want a leg-up, Mindkits are running a course in Auckland soon that will get you up and running with Arduino hardware programming in the space of a single weekend.
When you get tired of basic tinkering, the capabilities of an Arduino board are limited only by one’s imagination. Among some of the cool things that people have built based on Arduino include:
- A fuel economy sensor for most vehicles;
- An autonomous blimp, or more incredibly, an autonomous aerial drone;
- A plant monitor that will post a message to Twitter when it needs watering;
- And a whole bunch more.
And you’re not limited to the chunky form factor of the Arduino prototyping board either. The Lillypad for example sticks the same processor into an attractive circular package, and you can use conductive thread to stitch your hardware into your clothing.
Get hacking! Grab an Arduino Starter Kit from Mindkits today!