Using the Arduino: Turning Thinkers into Doers

The Arduino is a physical computer based on a microcontroller board that can be directly programmed from a regular computer using a USB cable and the Arduino development environment. It can sense and control the world around it and is enabling thousands and thousands of users worldwide to build almost anything they dream of, from a simply blinking LED to a plant that twitters when it needs water. This open-source electronics platform is giving individuals the ability to have control over things by accessing technology in a way that was never thought possible.

A previous article, Arduino: A Big Revolution in a Small Package, introduced and discussed the microcontroller, its accessibility, and the value of the huge community surrounding it. Projects that are constantly emerging from this huge online community show that the real potential of the Arduino lies in the notion that physical computers can be used to improve the quality of everyday life, from novelty tasks like using a wii nunchuck to control an espresso machine, to useful energy saving solutions such as a wireless electricity monitor.

The Arduino enables even complete beginners with no prior electronics or programming knowledge to hack, make, build and customise objects and environments to make things work better for themselves and others in their daily lives. Whether you want to program your television to turn on when you arrive home in the evening or remotely activate your home heating, it can allow you to do this. By making DIY projects like this easier than ever the Arduino has paved the way for a wave of makers and hobbyists to add interactivity to everyday objects and environments, simplifying or adding an element of fun to everyday tasks.

I was introduced to Arduino at college when doing a Masters in Interactive Media. My first project involved learning some basic soldering skills and creating a very basic circuit using a potentiometer to control an LED. I have since gotten an Arduino starter kit which comes with tutorials and everything you need for the projects like sensors, motors, buttons, switches and LEDs. There are also really useful online tutorials.

In jogo I used an Arduino to control an LED array which I built to act as a playhead that indicates the sequence of the notes playing in the sixteen steps of the concentric circles. This was left out of the final project for other reasons.

I had previously learned some Java and Actionscript so I already had a grasp of object-orientated programming which meant I didn’t find it to be a steep learning curve for me. Even so, one of the strengths of the Arduino system is the massive community that surrounds the project. One of the benefits of this community is having a massive library of examples and tutorials to learn from. Someone, somewhere, has more than likely done something similar to what you plan to do. For some projects you want to create you may not even have to start writing code from scratch.

With the Arduino, individuals, rather than businesses and institutions, can now make intelligent tools customised for their own particular needs. From DIY home alarm systems, to a robot that reads and speaks RSS feeds. The power is now in the hands of everyday people to have control over things in a way they only ever imagined was possible. Everyday objects and environments are becoming more and more embedded with computational power.

The technology of the Arduino and the community that surrounds it enables people to be doers, not just thinkers. Rather than sitting back and letting the technology that surrounds us have all the control, people are now using Arduino as a tool through which they can sense, control and automate things around them.

All that is required is an Arduino, a computer and your imagination. Access to the online community of hackers and makers would greatly assist DIY-ers of all skill levels. Inspiration and help can be found on the Arduino-Tutorials page, the Arduino Playground, Makezine and Instructables.

The possibilities are endless for amateur and expert enthusiasts to use Arduino to improve aspects of their daily lives or simply make things more fun. So whether you chose to make your sitting room furniture re-arrange itself according to your mood or remotely control your microwave to cook your porridge while you’re still in bed, you are only limited by your imagination.

From my own perspective the real benefit of the Arduino is that it is an accessible platform that allows me as an artist and designer to add interactivity to my work. Currently I am using Arduino to build sound based interactive pieces that aim to encourage playful and social interaction among both adults and children. My first project on this theme, jogo, was developed using a web camera. While this works perfectly, it is unfortunately restricted to being used in environments with controlled lighting. To overcome this I plan to use the Arduino to make a hardware version of this in the near future.

The pictures in the text are from an Arduino project that Emma and Loraine Clarke contributed to Tweak.
You can visit Emma at her website or follow her on twitter: @legolady

Arduino: A Big Revolution in a Small Package

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.

Jogo: Interactive Play in an Interactive World

Click on image for video of Jogo in action

Play is an essential part of a person’s development from a child into an adult. Robert Hughes says that our biological drives are “genetic rivers, whose primeval forces come from deep within us and that play, as a drive exists to help children make sense of their immediate worlds.” One can’t help but intuitively accept this observation even without all the evidence that supports it but a question does need to be answered and that is what constitutes healthy play that aids positive development and growth in the individual? (It’s not only children that need to play.)

We can’t send children to play on the streets anymore to find and make their own entertainment. The times and social mores have changed too much for us to go back to that. Yet those concerned with how children are growing up know that constant interaction with a computer screen is OK as far as it goes but is no replacement for the wild rides of the imagination that can be construed from old cardboard, discarded bric a brac and a bit of space to move around and make some noise.

Emma Creighton has been working on a project called Jogo, (the Portuguese word for play), which marries technological innovation with real world social interaction.

“I wanted to create something to bring back this free spontaneous play. Moving away from computer play. I wanted to make something that would bring old and young together, playing together and creating their own play. I wanted to explore how embedded technology could encourage these playful interactions.”

Jogo conists of a circular table with four rings of sixteen holes laid out concentrically. Each hole represents 1/16th of a musical measure and pitch varies on distance from the centre. The sound is defined by the placement of multi-coloured table tennis balls being placed over the various holes in combinations limited only by the player’s imagination. At the base is a camera which was pulled from a play station which looks up at the holes and can recognise the colours of the different balls. Each colour generates a different note. There is also some additional lighting present to aid the camera in picking out the colours.

The form of the table was defined by Emma’s idea that, “A tabletop is a natural social space and I use the circular shape because it can be approached from all directions. There’s no head of the table, it’s circular and everyone is on a level playing field.”

While the project is still ongoing, initial research took three months of focus groups and watching children and, just as importantly, adults in the play environment. Emma points out, “There are no social boundaries with children but adults would be more wary with interacting with strangers. So I wanted to create the same sort of play first talk later that children would to bring about this new social interaction.”

It took another month to build the Jogo displayed in this article. Emma learned computer vision code to hack the PlayStation camera and the project itself is programmed in Processing a programme specifically designed to make coding a more accessible process for the ‘visual design communities.’

As well as being naturally interested programming she also felt it was important for the project to understand the process and have more control. On her experience with arduino which she will be using for a hardware version of the project she says, “the program is quite usable even if you are not technical minded yourself. It’s a good introduction for creative people to get into making things talk.”

In the case of Jogo this is technology facilitating the experience of play. A table tennis ball is a tangible object that is familiar and easy to use and by choosing a particular colour of ball and a place to put it sound can be produced. There is no game of Jogo as such. It is open-ended in nature. One can invent as many rules or form of play as one likes. Or not. Just let the balls fall where they may and enjoy the results.

Emma says, “ It’s quite meditative. It could be used in therapy situations as it is quite soothing. It was interesting that people were saying that they enjoyed seeing other people playing with it or hearing other people play with it.”

As more ways, such as Processing and Arduino Sketch, become available and make seemingly difficult programming tasks more accessible to non-programmers or people who would not normally consider themselves as remotely techy all sorts of possibilities can come into existence.

Ideas can cross-fertilize in these newly created pastures of possibility. Talents from different disciplines can come together in ways previously unimagined and maybe essential activities like play and socialisation will become reinvigorated by these new developments.