Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Ardunio Cookbook

(The book no enlightened parent, artist, school teacher, or engineer should be without…)
Guest post by Bil

The Arduino Cookbook

The moment I added 'Engineer' to my list of things to become

My parents had a pretty small selection of babysitters to choose from, and I remember the one and only night they called on the teenager next door, Todd, to watch us.  I always looked up to Todd, he was tall, played basketball and football, and had a drum set with sticks and brushes in his basement.  Sometimes I would go next door to watch him through the window as he played fills and did really intricate solos. The night Todd came to watch me and my younger sister, he brought over a riveting set of toys that kept us entertained for hours.
3V DC Motor
They were small DC Servo Motors that could run off of a 3V battery.  First, Todd showed us how to tape the wires to the motor leads and make the run, then he could pull one lead off and the motors would stop.  Now the fun began-- in an awesome variation of the Spirograph, Todd taped color markers to the motor shaft, and Betsy and I would hold on to the motor and battery, holding the spinning markers to paper and let them do their thing.  I felt like a wizard.  This experience solidified in my mind Todd's coolness; there seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do.  .

20 Years Later:  My University Senior Project

Flash forward almost 20 years:  I’m working on my senior project at DeVry University, with my friend Richard Frychel.  The most common senior project at the campus time was creating a Door Alarm Security system.   I had already worked for three years as a Door Alarm Security technician, so this was pedestrian stuff.  Richard and I were going for the *gold*, we decided we were going to make a Digital Music Synthesizer.  The biggest challenge, we discovered, wasn’t in designing it, but actually being able to afford all of the components that would go into it.  We had a couple of microcontrollers on hand, but none of them was powerful enough to handle everything we wanted, and a basic STAMP controller that *could* do what we wanted cost at least $100 each.  There were tech suppliers that were willing to give us samples of microchips for prototyping, but no one was crazy or dumb enough to offer us samples of valuable microcontrollers.  By virtue of cost alone, we were forced to abandon tried-and-true ways of developing our synthesizer, and kill off most of our senior year’s free time inventing ways to develop the design more cheaply.  We pulled it off, but I can’t help wondering how much more we would have been able to accomplish in our project if we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

A group of students in Italy start a technological, cultural revolution

Two years later in 2005, these same economic challenges would lead a group of students to develop their own microcontroller, the Arduino, (whose flagship product, the Uno, sells for under $30).   Six years and 300,000 units sold later, it was apparent that they didn’t just make a good product, their idea started its own open-source hardware revolution, complete with its own introductory comic book.

There are dozens of websites dedicated to publishing open-source code and designs for a wide variety of fun-to-incredibly helpful devices (A Wi-Fi Video Camera, Wi-Fi Speakers, a Washing Machine Instant Messenger , a Laser Clock, a 3-D Printer, an Air Quality Meter , a Pet Water Dispenser, or even a Polygraph Machine) all using the Arduino board as the main building block.  

Michael Margolis’ book is exactly like a cookbook for people who know what they want technology to do for them, but don’t know how to do it (yet).  In 2003, my senior year of college, I wouldn't have believed that something so novel could actually exist—a book that explains in the plainest English how to read measurements from sensors, then do something with those readings, take control over a computer over a USB port, send audio or video data wirelessly, host live web data over the internet, and yes, even create a music synthesizer.  Its approach is direct and compact, like this:  “Problem statement: How to Detect Movement, Solution: [Brief explanation prefacing code and electronic circuit], [Code], [Circuit Diagram], See also: [References].”

If you are already good at assembling electronics, you will love how this book provides all of the code necessary to get your hardware up and running quickly.  If you are already good at programming, you will love how this book gives you the most pertinent information: what external sensors you need, how to wire it together, and what to be mindful of during set up.  Since all of the electrical connections to the controller can be made quickly in a 'breadboard', you won’t be wasting hours sniffing solder fumes, and you can assemble and troubleshoot problems more easily. 

If you have no experience with either assembling electronics or programming, then I would suggest that the Arduino is one of the most accessible learning tools you could have to familiarize yourself with crafting new technology.  The Ardunio Cookbook isn’t intended to teach people the nuts and bolts of electronics any more than a cookbook is intended to teach you the molecular chemistry behind food ingredient interaction… they are both all about working with the knowledge you have to produce results quickly.  But I need to point out that this book isn’t just limited to the information within its pages; recipes also include a helpful section called “See Also” which provides links to online resources and videos that are intended for more in-depth learning and gleaning deeper explanations of concepts and design patterns.  Margolis’ book is like a gateway to a larger, living body of knowledge—it gives you an idea of what is possible, teaches you how to do it, and gives you ways to learn more about it.

We may never use the word “Arduino” like a verb the same way we use the word “Google” but it’s not hard to picture an explosion of technical competence among youth and adults, from the application of knowledge contained within this book.  


Flannery said...

Huh, now that is interesting. Could someone with minimal skills in electronics (uh, not friend, really) actually understand this book? I might have to check that out...for my friend, I mean.

That's a great post. My hubs might like this too.

B1L said...


I honestly think most people can grasp the fundamentals of using this board. I imagine there's a bit of a learning curve if you've never done anything like this before, but with the wealth of information (videos, forums, etc) I think any level of inexperience can be overcome with some diligence, and with an end goal in mind of what you want to accomplish or create.

Starting cold with any new technology can have the potential to be scary, frustrating, or otherwise overwhelming, but luckily for us, this product has such a strong following and support base, that many of the potential difficulties can be alleviated. Answers ARE out there.

IMO, This is definitely a product that the makers want to be in the hands of children, parents, and educators-- not just engineers. They even check them out at some libraries! :)

Good luck!