You know all those projects where you wire up some electronic circuitry and then hook it all to a bunch of LEDs, then you have fancy or fun lighting? Like a Halloween costume, or a Griswald house, or some nice mood lighting in your home?
It is harder than it looks, though doable if you have a soldering iron and some basic electronic knowledge. The RocketLife project, which is starting a kickstarter any day now, claims to make this much easier.
First, a word about Arduino and why you should care. An Arduino is what is called a “prototyping micro-controller” aka “really fun electronic gizmo toy.”
Micro-controllers are everywhere. When you “turn on” a machine in your house, chances are there was already a micro-controller sitting there, running on a minute bit of juice from a built in battery, waiting for you to push a button. Then, you turned a dial or selected an option on your dishwasher, or changed the setting on your thermostat, or picked some alternative mode on your coffee pot, or shifted into a different gear using a “gear shift” in your fly-by-wire Prius, or you opened up the birthday card and cats meowed out “Happy Birthday.”
All of those events involved a micro-controller, which consists of thee parts. There is a brain inside it, there is a set of sensors or actuators (a thing that detects that the greeting card has been opened, and an actuator that is the thing that makes the meowing sound by playing an WAV or MP3 file), and some software. The software gets in there by hooking an in production version of the micro-controller, likely once in its life, to a regular computer via a COM port (the same kind of interface used by your mouse, or a USB connection, etc.), and stuffing the software in there.
The Arduino Uno is a micro-controller that is very generalized, very large (a bit larger than a credit card), has a well behaved power supply, lots of connectors for either sensor or actuators, and a pretty fancy brain for a micro-controller, with lots of room for code written in a very powerful and fairly easy to use language similar to objective C. You can hook the Arduino up to most computers, using freely available software to communicate with it and compile your code. For the most part, you don’t have to actually write code, it is provided by the developers of projects you are poaching, but if you want, you can go to town with it.
There are hundreds and hundreds of sensors and actuators, from thermostats to motors, gyroscopes to myriad things that light up, available for the Arduino, and in fact, anything that runs on low voltage can be hooked one way or another to it (if you know what you are doing). High voltage uses (like shifting a car or opening or closing a garage door) are done, of course, by using relays that are switches operated by a micro-controller but that pass any voltage level you want, if you get the right one.
The Arduino and its associated equipment can thus be used to replicate, design, and experiment with pretty much any thing a micro-controller can do. After “prototyping” it is trivial, for an expert, to rebuild the circuit using a less capable but perfectly adequate bunch of parts, and solder instead of just sticking things together (called “breadboarding”) and so on. But no one really does that with Arduino. With Arduino you may leave the final product at it is (like the robot we built a few weeks ago) or, as in the case of the projects in an introductory book on how to use and have fun with an Arduino, you may just take the thing you built apart and build another thing.
Of all the intro Arduino books I’ve seen, this one is unique in a way I’ll explain below.
The book gives detailed, understandable, and learning-oriented instructions for a home stoplight (helpful with toddlers in the house), a reaction time garme, a balance beam game, a diminutive greenhouse, an small piano, and a handful of other projects.
The coolest project might be a living breathing Logo turtle. Logo is a computer programming environment developed years ago to serve several functions including helping kids get interesting in coding. Logo is actually one of the oldest computer languages still in use (dates to the late 60s) and it is a general programming language, but it is mainly adapted to running the Logo turtle. The turtle is a curser that is moved around on the screen, and instructed here and there to drop a specific pen (it can have several different pens) so as it moves along it draws.
I mentioned above that this book is unique. Here’s how. I’ve looked at a Lot of Audrino project books, and there are no introductory books that provide detailed information on how to make interesting project enclosures and cases. The projects in this book rely heavily on the stuff you built the electronic into. The project enclosures are generally made of simple corrugated cardboard that you can get from an old box, or, if you want, from a craft store (for more interesting colors, better quality materials, less cat hair, etc.)