Arduino: A Big Revolution in a Small Package

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Tom Murphy has worked as a producer and cameraman specialising in current affairs and documentaries, filming in many different environments, hostile and otherwise, throughout the world. @tom_murphy

Having shipped over a 120,000 boards since their inception in Italy in 2005, Arduino microprocessors are becoming increasingly popular beyond the usual circle of tech heads and dedicated do-it-yourselfers. To help me find out why this may be I talked to Darren Tighe, who is currently working on his own Arduino projects.

The first significant aspect of the Arduino is its accessibility. Darren explains, “ Well it’s a microprocessor and traditionally they come in a little package with a couple of pins on them. To program them, play around with them and learn how to use them you would have to plug it into a programmer... and then unplug it and put it on to whatever project you were working with.
Whereas the arduino uses an Atmel chip which is a fairly common micro-controller but it’s set up for proto-typing. So it gives you a USB port so you can just program directly from the PC and it has lots of in and out ports for the electronics to be attached."

The programming is done by using Arduino Sketch an off shoot of Processing, a language developed by the MIT Media Lab specifically to make programming easier and more accessible for people who would not normally want to, or think they could not, take on the task of learning a full blown programming language.

As Darren says, “They are used by a lot of artists who want to use LEDs in their art. Just to control them, to drive all the LEDs and send them into different patterns.”

While making technology relevant and usable to wider and wider sections of the population is undoubtedly a good thing Darren argues that this not the main reason for the Arduino’s success.

“I think the revolutionary part has nothing to do with what it actually is but with what people are doing with it. People are going out and saying “what can I hook this up to?” They’re playing, they reverse engineer, they hack away. Then they’re going back to the community and saying is there anything else I can do? I think the revolutionary thing is the community that has built up around it.”

The community seems to be the key. Arduinos come with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic licence alongside the Copyleft GNU General Public license. These agreements encourage sharing of knowledge gained and lessons learned. The Arduino's existence and the way it is shared is creating the community that is creating things.

“There’s nothing brand new and innovative about it but the way people use it, that’s brand new and innovative. There is a huge amount of information on the web, a big community backing it up, all posting up what they are doing with their Arduino. How they’re doing it so you can learn from what they are doing.”

There is no ‘killer app’ in the Arduino world. Darren goes on to say, “It has an enormous amount of flexibility and an enormous amount of utility. You can turn it to almost any project you have in mind. If you need any level of any automation or you need to give your project a bit of a brain so that it knows what it’s doing rather than you having to tell it everything then the Arduino is ideal.”

Through hardware like Arduino and programming languages like Processing and Arduino Sketch it is now possible for more and more people from a range of different backgrounds and disciplines to be given access to the tools to turn an idea in their head into physical reality. We can reasonably expect to many new and varied applications for the Arduino micro-controller come over the horizon.

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