Digital Toys Inside-Out

I’ve described a number of gadgets before, but we’ve typically looked at these from the outside – the consumer view of digitalzoa.  This article, however, is for anyone who loves taking apart electronics – it’s about a digital gadget that you play with from the inside-out – the Arduino.  The Arduino is a “cheaper-by-the-dozen” digital microcontroller, with a huge selection of plug-and-play add-on components.  It’s based originally on the ATmega328 microcontroller, but there’s now a variety of Arduino boards that range from $25 to $60, depending on which chip, capacity, or form you want.  Along with the hardware comes a straightforward programming language and free development environment that make it easy to write the code to run on your Arduino project.   

So what’s up with this – why is this a big deal?  Now you no longer have to be an Electrical Engineer working in a skunkworks in Silicon Valley to invent your own digitalzoa.  Really, you’re only limited by your imagination!  Artists, hobbyists, toymakers, and inventors – you can invent your own gadgets.  Wearable electronics, interactive art, home automation, industrial automation, measurement logging – these are just a few possibilities.  The Arduino is just one of a number of inexpensive, do-it-yourself gadget building blocks. Using the prefabricated boards and other components, you can prototype an idea, put a case around your project, and turn the prototype into a final product without any expensive manufacturing.

I have a couple of Arduino concepts that I am tinkering with – the first is for monitoring analog values, like outside temperature.  I put a WiFi shield on an Arduino board and created a web server that displays the analog values of its six inputs.  I have this plugged in and it just keeps running – I can open the IP address in a browser and it shows me the current values in a web page.  I just need to try different input sources.  Another project is a monitoring camera with two servo motors controlling the horizontal and vertical angle of the camera.  It seems that the less powerful ATmega328 chip cannot do video streaming, but the mega 2560 can, so I’m working on turning the CMOS camera memory into a video stream.  I could just put an IP camera on the rig and use the Arduino just as the position controller – so many possibilities.   Other possibilities: interactive game pieces (a controller in each) that interact using infrared LEDs and sensors; an infrared controller for home theater.

Some of the ideas may take more advanced programming skills, particularly for integration with other devices or systems, but the programming tool is easy to use.  The interactive development environment was derived from Processing IDE which is designed to promote software literacy and has its origins in the MIT Media Lab. 

If you ever wanted to try building your own electronic gadget that interacts with the physical world, give the Arduino a try – you might just get hooked.

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