Open-source hardware: utopia or reality?

Arduino Workshop
London (Paddington Art)
25 November 2005

The idea of an open-source hardware might sound strange, but that is exactly the intention of Massimo Banzi, David Cuartielles and David Mellis. The designers/programmers/mathemathicians (the list keeps going) wanted something simple but that could handle complex needs of new media creators and help in educational purposes. All of them where present in the London workshop, making it clear that the Arduino Klan was diverse, intense and, yes, fun.

The workshop, held in Paddington Arts, was a three days experience, covering from top to bottom what the italian project was all about. In fact, the project started in the italian school Ivrea, but might be considered a (positive) result of globalization. Massim Banzi, italian, teaches electronics and interactive physical computing in Ivrea, David Cuartielles, spanish, teaches at Malmo University, and David Mellis, american, former student in MIT, is now in his second master year in Ivrea.

The board started as a further develop of Wiring project, by Hernando Barragán. Although the Wiring board is powerful, it is not user-friendly, specially when it comes to beginners assembling it by hand. With Arduino, some features are simplified and, most of all, everything made cheaper; everyone can assemble a board for less then £10, and its simple to use structure makes changing the components - if eventual parts are burnt during prototyping process - easy to be done. "Engineers like to study every possibility before putting their hands in the hardware. But is only with prototype that we can communicate to people, test ideas. With Arduino, we want to bring the ideas to physicality." says Massimo. In his lecture, he makes it clear the tinkering process behind it: you might not know what you are dealing with but, most of all, you are curious, and the understanding starts from that point. Besides the electronic parts, the Arduino i/o board has a Atmega8 processor, from Atmel.

One great thing the crew offers is both the possibility to buy a ready-made board, the result of an agreement made with a manufacturer to produce low cost products, or to build your own board. In the website, you can download the CAD files for the PCB, the list of parts that can be bought in any electronic store, a guide to assemble and the bootloader code, that must be uploaded to the chip so it can understand the programming language. The website also even gives you tips of soldering, which can be very useful for new comers. Lastly, the crew asks for you to send any modification of bug fix, leaving the authorship of the projects for everyone in the web. During the workshop, we assembled our own boards, a very interesting process that varied from 3 hours up to 5. "The workshop world record is 2 hours, in Canada, let's beat it!" shouts Cuartielles. Maybe for the first board is interesting, since you get to understand the purpose of each component. But if you need a bunch, my advice is buy the pre-built one; it is cheap, clean soldered and you help the project to finance further studies.

During the hands on part of the workshop, the hacking philosophy could be sensed. While "Junk is gold" is projected on the screen, Massimo affirms "You don't have to build your prototype from scratch. A lot of devices out there have the exact control you need, you just need to understand how to transform that information. Toys, for example, are an amazing source of components." The pieces of radio controlled cars around the area signed with direction we were going.

In order to run the board, the open-source Arduino program is needed. The programming environment is based on Processing, which makes it easier for those familiar with the language. What is funny, however, is that the software inherited even Processing's bugs. But the team up of the two doesn't stop there. Processing is a great option to be used together with Arduino, and vice-versa, as stated in the official Processing website, where you find a link to the board: "The idea behind Processing can be extended to other domains such as programming electronics." The software is already in its second version and runs on both PCs and Macs.

"The basic idea is reading and writing digital or analog inputs and outputs. Any thing that reads and writes through the serial port can be used with Arduino" says Cuartielles. Bearing that in mind, we can control different physical devices and/or computer interfaces using not only previously mentioned Processing but other programs such as Max/MSP, PureDate and Flash. During the workshop, an example of each environment was given. The bootloader is the trick used to upload programs to the board. The other possibility would be using a hardware called programmer, which is quite expensive. The code, that runs in the memory of the board, "listens" to the serial/USB whenever you reset it. Then, is just a matter of uploading your program.

The information read by the board is bytes, which gives 256 different symbols to use. In case you need to handle more than that, the information needs to be encoded with the ASCII code. With the use of different sensors, the possibilities of interaction is endless. An animation can be controlled buy how far or close you are from a ultra-sound sensor or a sequence of led can be activated according to the temperature of the room. Sensors emulate human behavior, making them the neurons of physical computing.

By the end of the workshop, another legion of Arduino affictionados had raised. Looking to the forum, in the official website, we are not alone. From stand-alone installations to the possibility of off-screen interfaces, the little board made the transfer of concepts to real functioning prototype look really simple. Although it is still quite experimental, Arduino is being used all over the world. "Every day we receive an email, from a new country, asking for the workshops."

So, is open-source hardware utopia? Well, we still have to pay for the components, but the rest really sounds like a dream. Congratulations on the idea and good luck!

Official website
Workshop depository

User login

Mazine Partners