May 17, 2007

Arduino Workshop @ The Takeaway Festival

Arduino Workshop @ the Takeaway Festival

Event type: Conference

Date: 2007-05-10

Last week I took some time off work to attend a workshop at the Takeaway Festival. The festival was an interesting event, aimed more at artists and "creatives" than geeks. Three days of workshops and talks to introduce people to a range of computer-related topics from Web 2.0 and podcasting to computer-generated music and (the session I attended) how to build little hardware projects.

The festival was held at the Dana Centre, a well-chosen location just round the corner from the Natural History Museum in London, with free WiFi and good coffee. A typo on the festival website meant that I arrived an hour early, but that just gave me time to try out the facilities in the cafe (the pain au chocolat were divine too...).

The Craft of Interactive Prototyping by Massimo Banzi

I was hoping for some hands-on playing with hardware, but given the number of people in the session (just over a dozen) and the time it would take to get the assortment of laptops up and running with the development tools it wasn't feasible.

Instead, Massimo set about overcoming our fears of playing around with hardware and infusing us with a desire to build something.

He stated that computing devices all have three attributes:

  1. Sensing. They have some means for sensing input, even if that's something as simple as a button.
  2. Deciding. They somehow make a decision based on what they sense - usually through software.
  3. Reacting. Based on the decision, they'll generate some form of output.

The best way to get started in building such devices is to start playing around with the hardware. Take things apart... wire them up differently... experiment! The voltages and currents in battery-operated devices aren't high enough to do you any harm, and the components themselves will generally cope with some abuse.

The guide at Lowtech Sensors and Actuators is an excellent primer as it details how to hack cheap electronic toys (which are often one of the most cost-effective ways to get raw components). Then look at what other people have done in fields like circuit-bending and keyboard hacking. Basic hacking could be something as simple as getting a PIR sensor with an LED that comes on whenever it senses movement; cutting the LED off and wiring the connections to a hacked keyboard. Then you'd have something that pressed a key on the computer whenever someone walked past it - combine that with Powerpoint and you've got a movement-activated slideshow.

The Arduino boards were something that Massimo and his colleagues developed to let people take such hardware experimentation a stage further. It's an open-source hardware design which gives you a simple 8-bit processor with a couple of kilobytes of RAM and about 15Kb of flash memory for the program. Plus about 20 input and output channels so that you can hook the board up to some sensors, LEDs, motors, whatever... and interaction with a computer via USB (if only to download the initial software).

The development environment runs on Windows, Linux and Mac, and you program the boards using a simplified C/C++ or Java-like programming language. There are libraries available to ease the programming task: flashing an LED on and off - the microcontroller equivalent of "Hello World" - is about a dozen lines of code, including comments. They run three-day workshops for people to get started with Arduino, and by the end even those with no prior programming experience will have built something.

All in all, I came away with lots more knowledge, a host of links for further investigation, and an eagerness to find some time to play around with things.

Once we're settled in Torino and I've got some time, I'll be buying a soldering iron and an Arduino board. And maybe taking a drive up the road to Ivrea to search out the big computer junkyards that Massimo told us about.

YouTube has a huge selection of videos about Arduino boards, ranging from how to install the dev environment to finished art installations using the boards in anger.

  • Tags: arduino workshop takeaway festival sensors hardware

    Posted by Adrian at May 17, 2007 09:54 PM | TrackBack

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