August 7, 2009 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. (Previously) posted by DU (35 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
Ha. I have an Arduino and some sensors and buttons sitting in the "someday, when I have spare time" box* on my shelf right now. I need to get over my solderphobia.

*full disclosure: I have many such boxes.
posted by rokusan at 8:25 AM on August 7, 2009 [4 favorites]

I have an Arduino! I love it, even though I have only ever managed to get a semi-functioning synth-noisemaker thing out of it. It has a quaint map of Italy on the underside.
posted by molecicco at 8:26 AM on August 7, 2009

And an item of similar interest: The NetMedia SitePlayer, which includes a teeny tiny web server and ethernet port, so you can remote-control anything over the internet. Also in the box.

Oh, the things I'd do with infinite time!
posted by rokusan at 8:27 AM on August 7, 2009

You don't need to solder anything to use an arduino (or to do electronics in general). Get a cheap breadboard and some wire and away you go.

(I actually have 3 Arduinos. 2 "real" ones and a Boarduino for smaller profile projects. And speaking of that link, I highly recommend the LadyAda site. Very open, clear and helpful.)
posted by DU at 8:30 AM on August 7, 2009

Here is a really hasty video of me making a fun device with my Seeduino. I'm hoping to start building interesting robotry around my Mega soon, using the more event-driven programming methods.
posted by SteelyDuran at 8:31 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nice clock. One thing I have not done but want to is connecting a screen of some kind (even plain digital LCD). My clock had a more minimalist display.
posted by DU at 8:32 AM on August 7, 2009

I'm building a roller racing setup (Opensprints) that uses an Arduino for timing/scoring.
posted by fixedgear at 8:36 AM on August 7, 2009

I am with rokusan. The last use my soldering gun saw was melting through some very annoying plastic.

And it's a phobia in that it is a trifle ridiculous. They made me build my own o'scope, function generator, and other stuff in college, then calibrate them. I still have the frikkin' lab book. I did some very neat (for the time) things with electronics. I've done this stuff, but I'm just a little scared of the whole process now. Why?

Does this end with me staring at 12:00 AM on my Supra-UV-Disc player in thirty years? Note to self: build a machine which will painlessly put me to sleep should my technophobia reach unacceptable levels. A self-reassembling machine that will attempt to kill me on a regular basis, over and over again. I take it apart, it should come back together a few hours later and give it another shot. That reminds me, Hardware is seeing an R1 release in the next two months.

There's some good "getting started" kits that I have my eye on. I just hate to blow a couple of hundred bucks on something that will probably gather dust, then fill me with unease whenever I see it. I need a specialized, cheap board: Failduino, the board you know you'll never get around to making do anything besides run a BlinkM.
posted by adipocere at 8:43 AM on August 7, 2009 [7 favorites]

I just hate to blow a couple of hundred bucks on something that will probably gather dust...

I know exactly what you mean. In fact, I hate blowing even tens of bucks, which led to an Arduino-based AskMe on my part a couple years ago. But the board only costs $20-$30 (or less if you are OK assembling it yourself). Throw in a breadboard, some wires and LEDs and stuff and it's all less than $50, which no fumes or heat whatsoever.

I'm actually off to the store in a few minutes to try to find some temperature sensors for a science project I'm working on.
posted by DU at 8:46 AM on August 7, 2009

I got my kit a few months back and I've been having a blast. If you have ANY Comp Sci 101 experience, skip the "Getting STarted..." book. It's a nice intro, but the projects are pretty thin. "Making Things Talk" by Tom Igoe is way better.

That said, no Arduino book ever even seems to broach the concept of electronics and circuits. It gives you a lot of diagrams and says, "Put a capacitator here, put a resistor here, plug the LED into the ground" without EVER telling you what a capacitator is, what a resistor is, what an LED is etc etc.

WIthout those core electronics concepts, a lot of people get fed up with Arduino. It boxes you into pre-packed projects. An Arduino book that focused on core Electronics/Circuits 101 would make a mint.

It just struck me as weird because the "Getting Started..." book is like "Okay, have you heard of a computer before?" and walks you through downloading the IDE like you'd never seen a keyboard before, but doesn't even touch on "This is a resistor...", it just says "Copy the picture! Watch it blink!" .

Anyway, it's a killer thrill, especially if you're like me and enjoy programming, but also enjoy real objects.
posted by GilloD at 8:49 AM on August 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I found that the most important factor in getting rid of my own solder phobia was buying a decent soldering iron. The task that seems impossible with that crappy iron you got at Rat Shack is magically transformed into not too bad. And you'll actually start to improve, which you'll never do with a bad iron because you're always fighting the tool.

I'm a bit conflicted about the Arduino - I have several and it's really nice to have a simple board with lots and lots of hobbyist support. On the other hand I really wish they had used an ARM chip, the more powerful Mega is relatively overpriced, and don't even get me started on the infamous pin spacing... At this point it has a ton of inertia and it gets less and less likely that any other hardware can compete for the limited hobby development resources.
posted by ecurtz at 8:54 AM on August 7, 2009

I had a hoot figuring out how to get my Arduino to control one of the Airtronics servos laying around in my basement left over from my slope-gliding days. It was both easier and more difficult than I imagined it would be, and the result was very satisfying. Good to see it in the blue.
posted by dylanjames at 8:56 AM on August 7, 2009

If you feel a hankerin' to get involved with microcontrollers and sensors, do check out this. I've used the easyPic board to develop a number of projects and regard it as the cheapest, most reliable and bulletproof system I've come across.
posted by digsrus at 9:13 AM on August 7, 2009

Awesome stuff. Nice post!
posted by Kwine at 9:15 AM on August 7, 2009

This is the kit I bought, BTW Maybe overpriced if you're knowledgeable enough to pick your own components, but for a n00b it's worth the extra bucks to have someone else pick them for you.
posted by GilloD at 9:19 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, n'thing the LadyAda link, which was the first resource that actually attempted to include electronics theory along with "HEY MAKE SHIT BLINK" stuff. It made me realize that my capacitators could affect how bright my LEDs are and that I was probably going to burn one out soon. Which no other Arduino book mentioned.
posted by GilloD at 9:29 AM on August 7, 2009

I've been having a ton of fun with this stuff ever since I attended a soldering workshop at Noisebridge in San Francisco. I got hooked immediately, went back a few times to solder together various kits, then eventually ordered an electronic toolkit from Ladyada. The kit is a bit pricey at first glance, but it really has everything you need to start going deeper.

If you learn how to program AVR chips directly, you can bypass the Arduino all together. It's a steeper learning curve, but the AVR chips (which can be programmed with C using the free avr-gcc compiler) are only a few bucks each.

The best AVR-for-beginners tutorial I've found so far is Sparkfun's Beginning Embedded Electronics.

One word of warning: many online resources for this stuff assume you have a serial port, which can be a major stumbling block for some of us with newer laptops. You can get a USB-to-serial cable, but they're agonizingly slow -- it might take a whole 20 minutes just to load a simple hello world program onto a chip! The best alternative I've found so far is the USBtinyISP controller. You do have to build it (it only takes about an hour), but it's compatible with just about everything and programs chips almost instantaneously.
posted by treepour at 9:42 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I also have noticed a lot of the Arduino tutorials tend to accentuate the programming. But, despite being completely hopeless at deciphering even moderately complicated circuit diagrams, I haven't been boxed-in. You can do a LOT with just a few sensors and motors, each hooked up independently to a very simple loop circuit. The software basically emulates all the rest.

My most ambitious, technically challenging project so far had basically no electronics problems. The thing that took me the most time was finding a breadboardable power supply that would give me enough amps to turn the knobs. (It looks a little complicated, but those two chips in the front are clones of each other and I got all the wiring for them out of the aforementioned Making Things Talk.)
posted by DU at 10:10 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been nostalgic lately for breadboard-type kits, although when I had them as a teen I did them paint-by-numbers stylee without actually getting into the technical explanations. I'ma start up something like this, or maybe one of the LadyAda projects, after Infinite Summer is over.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:31 AM on August 7, 2009

Hey treepour, maybe I'll see you at Noisebridge. I'm just getting into electronics and I've been meaning to hit up the soldering workshop (hosted, as I understand it, by the guy who created TV-B-Gone) for a while now. Yeah, Arduino is a part of my long-term plans, but first I need to get my soldering skills up to snuff.

Noisebridge meetup for the Bay Area MeFites?
posted by lekvar at 10:58 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

You really, really don't need to be able to solder. Really. I've built dozens of useful and fun projects without even heating up the soldering iron.

Not that soldering is so hard. The biggest difficulty is finding enough hands to hold everything.
posted by DU at 11:04 AM on August 7, 2009

I might not need to solder to use an Arduino, but I certainly will if I want to make a polyphonic Atari Punk Console with full MIDI control.

Hey, I said my plans were long-term....
posted by lekvar at 11:38 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been waiting to pull the trigger on an Aud' until I get Some Electronics in me (or a project idea I can just stack together), but I've been amazed at the ongoing development of main boards and shields. LilyPad wins for hands-down coolestness of form factor. Fun plug-in shields: Danger Shield, Piano Shield, Wave Shield. Liquidware keeps putting out all sorts of zany stuff including the Tank Shield and the monster Quad Core.

Oft mentioned for electronics references is the Paul Horowitz's Art of Electronics. This page lists more and no (meta) Arduino hacker is without a link to "The Index of Knowledge.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:33 PM on August 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Like many here, I have an Arduino in a semi-project state right now. I have a prototype Nikon controller thingy to take photos of lightning, and I just saw the intervalometer on the Make site that looks pretty sweet.

What should be interest to folks (if you ask me) is not really the specifics of the platform, but the lowered barriers to entry to basic embedded development it represents. The hobbyist/maker/crafter explosion that is happening around us is being powered by cheap and easily accessible interfaces that allows anyone with a little curiosity to get involved.

I've done my share of "bit-banging" -- it is how I cut my teeth as a coder -- but you only have to grok the barest of geek approaches to problem solving to dig Arduino stuff. You don't have to be a gear-head at all. (Though gear-heads love to wrangle over the pros-and-cons of these turnkey systems, of course.)

But, really, there is a 12-yr old hacker in me that saw the Arduino and was all "squeeee!" This stuff is so accessible now that I'm a little jealous.
posted by clvrmnky at 12:49 PM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great shield links! Never even heard of the quadcore. Would be a great way to distribute something like an LED cube (although the Mega has the ports now, soo...).

I've tried to get through Art of Electronics more than once and it's just...a brick wall. YMMV, but IMO it's one of those things that's exceptionally clear and elegant only if you already know the subject.

But, really, there is a 12-yr old hacker in me that saw the Arduino and was all "squeeee!"

I've debated handing my older models down to my kids. And I will. Eventually.
posted by DU at 2:04 PM on August 7, 2009

I too have an Arduino, and like a number of other posters, I haven't had the time to do much more than the blinky thing. However, this post does make me think it might be a good idea to do a Metafilter Arduino project of some description.
posted by johnny novak at 2:47 PM on August 7, 2009

For a while in grad school, I was working with an embedded software system known as TinyOS. I wish that TinyOS had the community and manufacture support that Arduino sees, because it's got some impressive stuff going for it. Wireless mesh networking, small form factor, and open source.

Unfortunately, I think the TinyOS networking stuff cuts both ways. Wireless mesh networking is great, but Zigbee was/is too bleeding edge. Ideally, you'd have Zigbee adapters for laptops and PCs, and some common networking protocols. This has not happened. When I was looking at it, it didn't even really make sense at it's core job: wireless sensor networks. You'd have to schedule polling for each node. They've since created a sensible "Collect" system that polls a homogenous set of sensors, but for some reason I've yet to understand, their manufacturer wasn't participating in TinyOS 2.0.

That said, I've not tried out Ardunio, so maybe the grass is always greener...
posted by pwnguin at 3:01 PM on August 7, 2009

GilloD: "It gives you a lot of diagrams and says, "Put a capacitator here, put a resistor here, plug the LED into the ground" without EVER telling you what a capacitator is, what a resistor is, what an LED is etc etc."

I've been watching these MIT lectures, along with these Make Presents youtube clips. It seems Presents has uploaded a new video since I last looked. Need to put that in my RSS video feeds then.
posted by pwnguin at 3:07 PM on August 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've tried to get through Art of Electronics more than once and it's just...a brick wall. YMMV, but IMO it's one of those things that's exceptionally clear and elegant only if you already know the subject.

Glad to hear I'm not the only one who found it daunting.
posted by exogenous at 5:46 PM on August 7, 2009

GilloD: "It gives you a lot of diagrams and says, "Put a capacitator here, put a resistor here, plug the LED into the ground" without EVER telling you what a capacitator is, what a resistor is, what an LED is etc etc."

<mode = "GrumpyOldMan">Part of the problem is that it's a "capacitor", not a "capacitator".</mode> ;-)

(Sorry, I've been playing, working, and involved with electronics for 30-odd years now, hearing people mispronounce that name for all that time, and it still annoys me. Mostly because it largely goes uncorrected until it's too late for people to change...)

Nice to see, though, that people are using things like the Arduino to learn a bit about electronics. One of my (other ;-) pet peeves, ever since the popularity of things like the PIC / Basic STAMP / Atmel / Arduino kicked off 10~15 years or so, is that people tend to concentrate on the software side.

Don't get me wrong - the software side is important; it's what makes them a component rather than a mystical black box that does shit - but the fact is they live on the borderline between software and hardware is the interesting and clever bit. Concentrating on the former rather than the latter (or vice-versa, which also annoys me - I'm looking at you, Australian electronics magazines...) is dumb. Being able to, for example, vary the duty cycle of a PWM signal in software to control the speed of a motor or dim a bulb is fine and dandy, but ultimately pointless until you learn how to build a buffer/driver circuit to drive that motor or bulb from the 20mA available on the output pin...

(Which reminds me - I've got a half-built clock radio based on a PIC sitting around here somewhere. It talks I2C on 1 I/O pin to a RTC chip to get/set the time, I2C on another I/O pin to a display driver chip to drive the LED display I designed, scans a multiplexed bunch of switches for time setting etc. via two more I/O pins and a shift register, and uses another 2 I/O pins to drive another shift register to talk to an ISA bus radio card. I should really finish that sometime - it's only been 10 years or so since I started...)

Oh, and learning to solder with a $20 RatShack iron? A doddle ;-). Some of us learned to solder on an old 120W electrician's iron. Including DIL ICs. Uphill. Bothways. In the rain, with a mouthful of hot gravel ;-)

Hell, last week I repaired my digital PVR with nothing more than $9 of new components and a Portasol!
posted by Pinback at 12:06 AM on August 8, 2009

I have a habit of leaving my garage door up. My plan is to make a gadget that closes it after it has been open 15 minutes. An Arduino is overkill for this, but is a good way to learn how to get the job done.

I also want a gadget that will vary the MIDI master clock for several MIDI instruments by tapping my foot on a floor switch so they play in time with me rather than the other way around.

The thing that will keep you interested in this is looking for things to control. Having something to shoot for keeps you learning new stuff, which makes you think of new things to control, like motors or relays or servos or even the MPGuino, an open source DIY miles per gallon computer.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 7:40 AM on August 8, 2009

Ideally, you'd have Zigbee adapters for laptops and PCs, and some common networking protocols. This has not happened.

I'm using two xbees. One attached to the arduino, one plugged into the computer via a USB cable (on one end). It's pretty simple. Granted, it would be nice if the computer end was even simpler and cheaper, like bluetooth.

The instructions say there's some special communication protocol and that I can use an open-source module to interpret it, but I'm reading it just fine as plain serial data, so I don't know what that's about. Either way, it's easy.
posted by DU at 10:24 AM on August 8, 2009

Xbee looks nice. It wasn't apparent from before, but looking closer it seems they are indeed Zigbee compatible, and not just a poor man's Zigbee as I had assumed from the knock-off name. I don't think they were available a few years ago when I was on this task.

One of the challenges is that wireless mesh networking requires every participating node to be on the same page. If your arduino is trying some direct addressing scheme while everyone else is doing a tree route scheme, it will fail. Worse, network numbers in tinyOS were handled in firmware; so your node 2 and my node 2 can crosstalk.
posted by pwnguin at 2:51 PM on August 8, 2009

I have gotten sucked in to this. I started by looking for a cheap panel-mounted digital voltmeter with a nice display, and the best thing I could find was an atmega-8 based kit for about $15. So I started programming that in C and haven't looked back.

I initially found all the arduino stuff wrapped around a plain ol' atmega to be kind of irritating and opaque, but a) it has improved since then, and b) there is already an arduino library for whatever you want to do.

I do have some recommendations, having pretty much tried everything out there (Arduino, Boarduino, Sanguino, AtTinys, etc.). If you don't solder, don't worry about it. Get a regular old Arduino and have at it. LadyAda has totally reasonable prices on everything she sells -- you don't have to worry about getting ripped off on a few items, but she also doesn't have the absolute lowest price on anything.

If you do or want to learn to solder, and you are cheap like me, invest $20 in one of those USB-to-TTL cables and build a boarduino or one of the rbbb 'duino boards from

And if you want to just program up atmega chips directly, invest $20 or whatever in an ATTiny USB programmer from ladyada.

My biggest project success so far is a microcontrolled self-refilling water cistern with multi-color LEDs to let you know what it's doing (those are a holdover from when it just displayed the state of the cistern rather than activating an ice-maker valve to turn on the water when it is low, as it does now).
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 2:43 PM on August 9, 2009

A few years ago I did a workshop with Jed Berk at Machine Project where we built one of his blubber bots, which is a small powered blimp with a few sensors and a Atmel AVR (the same microcontroller Arduino uses) brain. It was so much fun that I contracted Arduino fever, and soon after I was driving servos with accelerometers, like this:

Metafilter Arduino project. I do like the sound of that.
posted by jjwiseman at 1:18 PM on August 12, 2009

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