I, Arduino

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If you’ve experienced any design project or New Media art in the past five years that reacts to movement, sound, touch, or other external stimulus, then you’ve likely been in contact with Arduinos.

Arduino is the brand name for a microcontroller developed by Italian interaction designers Massimo Banzi and David Cuartielles. Their site succinctly describes their creation as “an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software.” Arduinos have become ubiquitous in New Media and electronic arts as interactive design continues to permeate both fields.

      

There are about fourteen standard variations of the original Arduino in circulation. Some are manufactured by third parties and each has a different use. For example, there is the basic Arduino, the Duo, the BT (programmable over a Bluetooth), and the Lilypad, which is flexible and can be sewn into fabrics (more on wearables and e-textiles in a future post). The basic unit has several inputs for sensors, outputs for activity, and space for executable software. Each input or output can be analog or digital. A physical activity can deliver digital values or variables, while a digital input can create an activity such as an on/off switch, motor movement, luminance delivery, or frequency variations. The newest addition to the Arduino family, the DUE, was rolled out earlier this month at the International MakerFaire in New York.  The arduino doesn’t look like much, but neither does a single piece of lego until it is used in conjunction with other parts.

   

These other parts include the various programs installable on the Arduino, the numerous sensors, and output activity hardware. There is also a lot of accessory hardware called shields. These connect to the Arduino and allow for a larger playing field than the basic input and output ports; more things can happen at the same time and more sensors, motors, or lights can be connected. Each shield is designed for different types of projects and can be bought online, customised, or built from parts.

Basic computer knowledge is all you need to get started. Everything is available online or at your local electronic store. Ask around. Ardunios start at about $25 and work up in price depending on what you are using it for. If you want to get hardcore, you can even download the open source hardware design from the webpage, buy the components, and build your own from scratch. The site also offers a starter kit, complete with hardware and novice projects.

With your Arduino in hand and a quick download of the open source software , you are ready to go.

Beginner test projects range from turning LED lights on and off to offering sensory data that can then be processed through if/then statements. Before connecting your computer to your new toy, it’s recommended you watch a few videos online and take an introductory course through your local art school or electronic arts space. They will likely have some courses offered on various components and their uses. You don’t want to start fooling around with wires while your projects are plugged in. Remember: you are dealing with electronics, so a basic understanding of electricity, circuitry, and skills like soldering and basic programming are advised.

Circle Mirror by Daniel Rozin, 2007

There are well-known early microcontroller projects that predate the Arduino such as Daniel Rozin’s Peg Mirror and Trash Mirror . Frequently, artists and designers will experiment, find something that works, and then re-create variations of the original with interesting results. It’s often artists pushing boundaries who have the most interesting projects. You can buy kits online for complete projects known as instructables to see what Arduinos can do. Everything from larger industrial projects to home hacks for controlling your blinds to are available. CERN uses arduinos in their systems and you can too with project kits like Botanicalls which are arduinos attached to sensors you can put into your plants. When your plant needs water it will send you a text or tweet to you on twitter.

Instructables: Arduino-Controlled Robotic Drum from WEREHAUS on Vimeo.

 

One great thing about learning interactive design with Arduinos is the help you can get online and in the community. Many electronic arts and design communities foster a healthy sharing attitude about hardware use, modification, and software development. This open source community is quickly becoming the norm. Websites like www.instructables.com and www.arduino.cc have long lists of open source software for download. Mobile APPs like Arduino Companion  and Arduino Manager offer program shortcuts, tips and walkthroughs for programming.

 If you want a more hands-on approach to learning, contact your local art school or electronic arts space and ask about workshops. In Toronto, Interaccess offers regular sessions on interactive design as well as Arduino-specific workshops to tackle the various components.

This blog post originally appeared on Akimbo.ca on October 9, 2012.