Author Archives: Pearce Melcher

Enginursday: Hackaday Supercon Super Wrap-Up

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

In the wake of Maker Faire going away, it's inevitable that other events will soon take the spotlight among electronics enthusiasts. I see the Hackaday Superconference stepping up in this regard. The three-day conference (loose term) hosts a number of workshops and talks on a large range of topics. I use the term conference loosely as it's more of a gathering of electronics enthusiasts and makers with structured talks - truly something for anyone who may identify in one of those groups. So while it might not cover the range of topics that Maker Faire once did, it definitely fills a good chunk of the void.

As mentioned, Superconference consists of three days of workshops, talks, and general discussions and convening. What really sets Supercon apart from other events and conferences is the large area dedicated to working on projects or badge hacking. This also draws small group discussions that I feel are lacking at most conferences I attend.

I've been lucky enough in that for the past two years, SparkFun has spent its sponsor ticket on me. While I'm technically there on behalf of SparkFun to get a pulse on what people are finding interesting and what's the cool or new, it makes for quite the enjoyable trip to Pasadena. And while I try to carve out after-hours time to do some sight-seeing in the area, I always find it difficult to peel my attention away from Supercon. It's too fun and interesting.

Day one goes down at the headquarters for the parent company of Hackaday: Supplyframe. Mostly it consists of a few early workshops and check ins, but this presents a pretty cool opportunity to talk with others about what they're working on or start exploring the conference badge.

For those out of the loop, interactive conference badges have become a feature of a lot different electronics-oriented conferences in the past few years. This year, the Hackaday Supercon badge was something to behold. Featuring a Lattice Semiconductor FPGA, a fairly large screen and enough features and work spent on it that it warrants a separate article. So when the badge itself is powerful enough to run Tetris, it makes sense that a good a chunk of the conference is dedicated to the badge. Areas with tables and soldering irons provide a place for those who want to really dig into the badge and create something unique with it (more to come on that).

Hackaday Supercon Conference Badge

The workshops present their own unique aspect to the conference. Now, to be fair, it could just be that the conferences I've been to focus more on the companies attending, but the more free-form nature of the workshops seems a lot more appealing to me. I have yet to be able to sign up for one, but the topics such as "USB Reverse Engineering" always catch my eye. The workshop sizes seem fairly limited, so it's easy to hear the instructor and asking questions is a much more attainable task (I've been in some 100+ attendee workshops that made for a bad time). It seems as though I'm not the only one who appreciates the format and topics as they fill up fast. So if you plan on attending, register for the workshops you want as early as possible.

Day two happens at the Los Angeles College of Music down the road a bit (but still in Pasadena). While Supplyframe has a cool, co-working-type space there, the big differentiator is a room big enough to hold larger talks and the main stage. In addition, a smaller second stage is set up in the co-work space (but still pretty big). The topics of the talks are all over the map - everything from reverse engineering older pieces of equipment to learning the hot new trends in electronics, and even covering some very unique projects you might have seen on the Hackaday blog. With the two stages, it presents a bit of need for planning to make sure you're going to see the talks you would like to see. To get between the two stages, you have to go outside the building to an alleyway and then back in. The alleyway is where all the tables for badge hacking and general project work (along with the workshops) reside. I think this is one of the most special parts of the conference.

Main Stage at Hackaday Supercon

This brings me to another cool part of the conference: they feed you. Above I talked about trying to carve out some time to see the sights of Pasadena and do some tourist stuff. This included hitting some of the incredible looking restaurants I would walk by everyday from the hotel to the conference, but the power of free food and good conversation proved too powerful. It presented a time when most attendees' attention would be free and you could easily meet new folks or those who you only know from the web. Most conferences I attend focus your attention to talks, workshops and vendors exhibiting. There's very little time or opportunity to talk with other attendees. The meals at Supercon provide a great opportunity for this. I would even argue it presents a better opportunity than the parties they would host every night.

Alley where badge hacking and workshops happen

The big event of day two is the presentation of the Hackaday Prize, which presents an incredible opportunity to the recipients every year. This year it went to a project called FieldKit, which is working toward an open source hardware and software platform for collecting and sharing field data in environmental sensing. As a small aside, more than one person told me how excited they were that FieldKit won with what they're doing for the citizen science and environmental sensing communities. The team won the grand prize of $125,000, which will hopefully provide a solid launchpad for taking the project to the next level.

Day three looks a lot like day two - more talks and workshops at the same location. The big difference is the badge-hacking prizes presented at the end. If the workshops and talks didn't convince you how talented the people who attend Supercon are, this will. It's amazing to see what folks are able to accomplish with these badges and their spare time during the conference (of which there is very little). Of the things I can remember, there were people running VGA monitors off the badge, someone had a PowerPoint presentation running on theirs (because all conferences need PowerPoint), and a bunch more incredible things a conference badge shouldn't be able to do (if you were there and remember others, please put them in the comments below, I'm seriously spacing on them). Best of all, the prizes were just as impromptu as the projects, with the moderators judging the winners by audience applause and handing them a rolled $100 bill.

Robotic, 3D printed cat

Supercon has what you're going to get from most conferences, but there's something different about it. It could be that I just go to the wrong conferences, or don't pay enough attention at them or that Supercon pertains heavily to my interests, but I think presents a different atmosphere. It's less of a conference and more of meet-up of internet friends (if you plan on attending, have your Twitter handle ready, everyone is going to ask for it). The conversations I have there will remain etched in my mind for years to come. The talent and brilliance of every person I encounter is incredible, along with their willingness to share such. If Supercon has been something on your list to attend, I highly recommend it.

Talk on the main stage

Best of all, Hackaday puts all their talks up on their YouTube channel. Check them out if you have a free moment. Additionally, feel free to share your thoughts on Supercon in the comments below. I'm always interested in other perspectives as I have only attended in a certain context.

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Enginursday: Housing Fixtures

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Connected devices have always held one appealing characteristic to me; making life easier. In recent months, I've added a number of connected devices to my house, most of them home automation related. while most are minor conveniences, one, in particular, has solved a huge problem for me, but in doing so has presented a new problem. In this Enginursday, electronics and 3d printing help me cover my outdoor connected outlet from precipitation.

I both hate and love living in a Townhouse. On the one end, upkeep is minimal, on the other end, It's a jungle of red tape when I want to change/fix something on the exterior of the house. A poor drainage design has lead to my window well filling with water during heavy rainstorms. It's not something I can readily fix, yet it can't go unattended as it will leak into my basement if it gets too high. My solution has been a pump made for situations like this, fashioned into a makeshift sump pump. The pump has a float switch which, once powered on, will only run the pump when liquid is above the 1-inch mark. While it's very capable and solves the problem, it presents a new problem. The pump's manufacturer recommends not leaving the pump powered while idle for longer periods of time (weeks). To keep the one thing keeping my basement dry happy, I only plug it in on days where I think it's going to rain. Here in Colorado, that can be highly unpredictable. Some days I leave it unplugged, then a rainstorm will spring up in the afternoon. I'll have to drive home from work, plug the pump in, then drive back. After tolerating this possibility for a little too long, I decided a smart switch would be a good addition. The ability to control the pump remotely has proved to be an excellent way to spend $50.

The smart plug from Kasa (TP-LINK) plugs into my existing outdoor outlet, but has a pretty novel way keeping the plug part dry. In addition to rubber covers over the outlet port, it hangs off the outside outlet similar to a drooping flower. This keeps the outlets facing down and away from precipitation. Despite this, I still fear a situation where water might get in and cause the plug to act erratically. There's currently a small piece of acrylic covering the house-mounted outlet, but it doesn't cover the smart outlet as well. So I figure if I'm 3D printing a better cover, why not make it the best it could be; add some self-sufficient lighting as well? (Congratulations, if you've gotten this far, you've reached the bottom of the rabbit hole of this dilemma.)

Current Outlet Cover

While it works for just the outlet, the current cover falls a bit short of covering the new smart plugs.

So to fully define the project. I want a device that will direct precipitation away from the house and outlets while providing a lit view of the outlets. This system should be self-powered (I'd rather not lose an outlet to powering this) and illuminate the outlets only when necessary. This breaks this project into two smaller projects; an electronic setup that will work well for most solar-powered lighting projects and the enclosure for such. I'll use an Arduino Pro Mini and the Sunny Buddy as well as a mini photocell and 3.5W solar panel for the electronics, but there are many ways that you can configure this project.

3D Printing

Ah, our old friend the 3D printer will come in handy here. The design is fairly simple, we want a roof-like structure to go over the outlet that will direct water away from the side of the house and the outlet. It'll need somewhere to store the MPPT Tracker for the Solar Panel and the Pro Mini controlling the LEDs and reading the ambient light sensor. The "roof" will have a way of keeping the solar panel securely in place. Finally, holes on the underside to mount the LEDs and a hole on the side for the photocell to properly detect the ambient light. This is definitely a structure that can be done with the laser cutter, but I feel this 3D printed part will make for a cleaner solution. I'll provide this direction for the structure, but stop short of providing the files for you. The big reason is I want to utilize the screw holes that are already in my siding, so not only does it not look right, but it probably won't work for your own application. If you really want the file, send me a private message.

The final design looks like this:

Redered View of Outlet Hood

There's 1 hole on the "roof" part which is a port for the solar panel's cable.

Rear View of the Outlet Hood

The shelf inside the structure will hold all the electronics with the exception of the solar panel.

It should keep everything dry and happy while providing a clean mounting point for the solar panel. Again, I'm not happy about the mounting points of the structure, but I'd be less happy with more holes in the siding on my house.

Electronics

The electronics are fairly simple; A Pro Mini, Sunny Buddy, 3.5W Solar Panel, Mini Photocell, 3 Super Bright White LEDs (5mm), and 3.3V Lipo Battery. In addition, you'll want wires and connectors for hooking everything up. You'll notice most of my projects use connectors and more temporary wiring solutions. When you have a clean enclosure for a project, you can sacrifice some of the cleanliness of the wiring in the interest of making parts more reusable/swappable. Finally, don't be lazy like me, use current limiting resistors on your LEDs to keep them happy and healthy. Also, a 4.7kΩ Resistor is needed for the voltage divider circuit for the photocell.

The LEDs will each be hooked up to their own digital pins on the Arduino (though you could do one I/O pin, this offers a bit more configurability). The Mini Photocell connects to one of the analog pins. But before that happens, I need to figure out some base readings for the light in the area this will be in. Using the hookup guide for the Mini Photocell I'm able to get proper readings for the day, shade, dusk, and night. I really only want an on/off configuration, but with each LED having their own pin, the potential for different lighting for different situations (if you use PWM pins, you can add dimming to the configurability). With the readings I want for day/night, I can set the threshold for our if-then statement in our code below:

//Illuminated Outdoor Outlet Cover. Most of this code was derived from         Hookup Guides on SparkFun.com for the various parts used.

const float VCC = 3.22; //Measured Voltage of Pro Mini Pin.
const float rVal = 4650; //Measured Resistance of 4.7 Ohm resistor.

const float DARK_THRESHOLD = 10000.0; //Threshold for light and dark, the one from the hookup guide for the Photocell works well.

void setup() {
  // Set pins to control 3 White LEDS individually (set both power and             ground pins as an output):
  pinMode(2, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(3, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(4, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(5, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(6, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(7, OUTPUT);

  //Set the Pin Connected to the Photocell Voltage Divider output as an          input.
  pinMode(A0, INPUT);
 }

 void loop() {

  digitalWrite(3, LOW);
  digitalWrite(5, LOW);
  digitalWrite(7, LOW);

  //Read Photocell and Calculate

  int sensorVal = analogRead(A0); //Get the sensor reading.
  if (sensorVal > 0) {
    float photoV = sensorVal * VCC / 1023.0;
    float photoR = rVal * (VCC / photoV - 1.0); // Calculate the resistance at current reading.

    if (photoR >= DARK_THRESHOLD) {
      digitalWrite(2, HIGH);
      digitalWrite(4, HIGH);
      digitalWrite(6, HIGH);
    }
    else
      digitalWrite(2, LOW);
      digitalWrite(4, LOW);
      digitalWrite(6, LOW);
  } //If the resistance is above the threshold turn on the LEDs
  delay(60000); //Check reading every 60 seconds.
 }

Now the Photocell gets hooked up to the Pro Mini. The 4.7kΩ Resistor mentioned above gets hooked to the ground wiring as shown in the Hookup Guide here.

The LEDs and Photocell in Place in the Structure

As you can see, it's a tight fit in there, but everything fits fine (just not the most visually appealing

Once the code is loaded and ready to go on the Pro Mini and the Photocell and LEDs are hooked up, we can turn our attention to the Sunny Buddy. For this use, it's very plug and play. Before plugging things in, it's important to set the input current limit. Our Sunny Buddy Hookup Guide has a good section on how to do it and why. Once that's complete setup consists of plugging in the solar panel and powering the Pro Mini through the "Load" pins. For what I'm looking for out of the project, it is complete at this point. However, there's much more that can be done with a setup like this.

The Real World Test

Outlet Hood being held in place.

I should mention the filament color is because someone forgot to order more Chroma Strand Black ABS for the department (it was me, I forgot to order more).

Of course, I always think everything is going to be a breeze and go perfectly, so I never leave room for error. If it isn't clear yet, this is a section on my mistakes (lessons to take into account for you the reader). The finished product looks great. Well, 2/3rds of the finished product looks great. I had some issued with some warping on the print which is easily fixable, but I didn't have the time to do so. I'll update photos later with the final print. I also broke one of the crucial rules of electronics projects; test before you glue. For this reason, only 2/3rds of the LEDs function correctly. But to refer back to my choice to use connectors rather than soldering wires, this will prove to be a small issue in the long run.

In something I refuse to take the blame for, I was unable to actually mount the structure as well. What I thought was the screws holding the current precipitation blocker in place (see the first photo) only holds the acrylic to the woodblock underneath. There are two screws on the underside of the wood that holds it to the side of the house. This will take a bit of redesign in the CAD program, but again is not the end of the world. Still, the lesson here is make sure you fully understand how you're mounting a part you're designing before doing so.

Beyond that, everything else functions as expected. I will be adding weatherstripping to the side of the structure that touches the siding.

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Enginursday: DIY Videoconferencing Wall Project

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Earlier this month, I had the chance to attend the Google I/O extended event at the Boulder campus. My initial plan was to hear about the latest and greatest, and enjoy what I assume would be an amazing food selection (it was). What I didn't expect was how drawn in I was by the work being done with Google Home. Most of the functionality of these products is incredibly close to high-end home automation systems from five years ago, with incredible advances in AI allowing easier ways to interact with the systems (think of the voice recognition and interaction available through Google Assistant and the Home Hubs).

I'm a pretty big Apple fan, so the fact Google hardware was getting me excited was a pretty big deal. Thanks to the sale that day, I went home and ordered a Home Mini and Nest Hub from Google (technically Nest now). After playing around with them, getting comfortable with the always-listening mics, and playing around with some custom commands, I was ready to take this to my realm: by putting it on a Raspberry Pi. It never crossed my mind that Google didn't have a version of Home Hub that worked on the Pi. Chromium OS and browser works on the Pi, Duo works on the Pi, even their AIY and Vision Kits are based off the Raspberry Pi, so of course I figured I could get the Home Hub software onto a Pi. Sadly, I was wrong. Among the many great things Google has put on the Pi, Home Hub wasn't one of them.

This was a bit crushing. I had grand plans of using a Pico Projector and turning a whole wall of my bedroom into a display for a Nest Home Hub, using an old receiver and floor speakers for audio (yes, a bit overkill, but it was part of the theme of the project). In addition, it was a major setback on writing this piece (After six years of Enginursday, I'm running low on topics and projects).

So with my mind still on projecting video on walls, I turned my attention to one of my favorite projects I've never been able to accomplish: the wall phones from the movie Spaceballs. If you're unfamiliar with the movie, it's a comedic play on the original Star Wars movies. The bad guys have a large spaceship that features video walls you can call people on. The best part about the walls (and a great bit in the movie) is that there isn't a mechanism to answer the call, so the call automatically goes through, leading to great lines like, "I told you to never call me on this wall!"

Spaceballs! The Thermostat

The decor in Spaceball I is "on brand."

Those familiar with the SparkFun building will know that our conference rooms are named after fictitious spacecraft, one of which being the spaceship from Spaceballs, Spaceball I. Ever since the room was named, I've wanted to recreate one of the video-call walls. But there have been two large snags: video conferencing on the Pi and auto-answer. Seeing as a conference room isn't the greatest spot for a device that can tune-in whenever, auto-answer wouldn't be something I'd need to overcome, but the video conferencing options up until recently had been a bit scant.

As of the last few years, there has been a surge in projects that have made video calls or conferencing more feasible. A lot of work has gone into the likes of UV4L and Jitsi Meet, and should definitely be looked into should you want to do video calls on the Pi. But for this project, Google Hangouts seemed to be the best fit. It would allow the users who could call the wall to be limited within our organization, and would allow for a more permanent, linkable solution.

The Project

The project itself is fairly simple and about as plug-and-play as it gets. In the past, set up of the Pi would have required some command line work, and this project still will a little bit, but the Rasbian image has come so incredibly far that most of these tasks either happen automatically or can be set from the desktop or browser.

I used the following parts for this project:

Once the Rasbian Image is on the MicroSD card, the majority of the setup is getting the Pi hooked up and booted. As a good rule of thumb when working with the Pi, everything should be connected when powering on so the peripherals are recognized by the system. In the past, you would want to update the Pi in the command line with sudo apt-get update and sudo apt-get dist-upgrade, but this seems to happen on boot now. In addition, a prompt comes up to change the password for the device; it's important for most uses of the Pi and this is no exception.

Once the Pi is up and running, Hangouts needs to be set up within the Chromium browser. Obviously a Google account is needed for this, but it's pretty straightforward on Chromium, like other browsers. I used my own Google account for this, but you could also create one for the wall specifically, so it's actually the wall you're calling. Once Hangouts is all set to go, you may have to change the mic and speaker sources if they're not your default. You can do this in the settings in the video call the first time, which should then default to these settings in subsequent calls. Finally once everything is set, you can make the browser window full screen by hitting F11. There's a command to make this happen with Chromium on startup as well. There's even a way to put it into kiosk mode. However, since I'm not the equipment administrator for said conference room, I'm going to make it as easy as possible to disable for now.

Video calling my dog from the conference room.

Imagine the projector being much more pico..."

Obviously this wasn't the project I wanted to showcase, and it kind of amounted to just a Hangout machine, but I felt it was a good start in the direction of video conferencing, which has a ton more useful applications than replicating movie gags. I do hope to get this project into a much more finished form as a staple of the Spaceball I conference room, but I think auto answer will be forever off the table. If you do want to replicate this with auto answer, I was going to take the direction this gentleman took with his video doorbell project using Python commands (PyUserInput) to replicate mouse movements and clicks.

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The magic of MQTT

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IoT and connected devices hold the solutions to problems on all ends of the spectrum, from areas such as agriculture and industrial automation, to letting you know when your food is about to go bad. For me, the greatest potential for IoT (yes, I realize there's so much more) is the potential to eliminate life's maintenance activities, leaving more time for the stuff I enjoy doing. If I can minimize the amount of time I spend cleaning my house, figuring out what I need on my shopping list, or even just turning on the lights I turn on when I get home at night, I'll deem IoT a success.

alt text

For those looking to make my dreams come true, a good first step is learning MQTT. MQ Telemetry Transport (MQTT) is a machine-to-machine messaging protocol aimed at IoT. It's designed with a lightweight messaging service that's perfect for remote nodes or sensors. One of our engineers, Alex, put together a great tutorial on getting started with MQTT with the very popular Raspberry Pi platform. I highly recommend it as a quick taste of what MQTT and IoT have to offer.

Introduction to MQTT

November 7, 2018

An introduction to MQTT, one of the main communication protocols used with the Internet of Things (IoT).

The tutorial can be found here, and more information can be found on most project websites (it's a very popular thing these days).

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Enginursday: The Maker Community IRL

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Don't get me wrong, the internet community is awesome. Put aside most of the arguing and egos brought on by the feeling of anonymity, and it's still really cool to find and talk with people on the other side of the globe with the same interests as you. There are always the big conferences and events: Maker Faire, Hackaday Superconference, etc. But while it may seem like you live in an area void of other makers, or even those interested in technology, it's probably not the case. If it is, maybe you can be the catalyst to start such a scene.

I hope most of this is nothing new, but it's something I wish I had read years ago and learned about the local resources and community available to me. I'm lucky that Boulder and the surrounding areas have an incredible tech community, but there are plenty of areas where it might not be as apparent (I grew up in Central, PA, and the only tech company/presence I can name from there was MapQuest). If you're in an area not necessarily booming with tech, here are some places to look for like-minded individuals.

Canoe at Makerspace Exhibit Night

The Boulder Public Library recently had a showcase night for some of the projects coming out of their makerspace, BLDG 61

Hacker/Makerspaces

This is hopefully the first thing you search for. These days it's difficult to find an area that doesn't have a makerspace – in fact, more libraries are starting to include them. In addition to being a great resource for tools and space to work, a fair amount of them hold public events such as classes, open-houses, talks or meetups (more on those later). Occasionally, some are not as well-staffed, or are less able to accommodate random public drop-ins, so an email ahead of time is usually good practice if there isn't an explicit invitation.

Meetups

Even if you're not looking to meet other makers in your area (sounds like a dating site tagline), I suggest checking out the site Meetup. Meetup helps people form groups and manage attendance for events. Through Meetup I have attended recurring group discussions, talks and panels with some pretty big names – even just morning coffee sessions where it was 3-4 of us discussing current technology events. For those looking to get into giving talks about their areas of expertise, a lot of the meetup groups start or end their events with a talk, and are frequently looking for new topics.

Startup Week/Events

These days it's difficult to find a town or city not trying their best to attract tech companies - for better or worse, everyone is vying to be the next tech hub. One hallmark of this is frequent events directed at fostering a startup community (mostly catering to tech startups). Some of the next generation of tech startups - IoT especially - will likely be drawn to (more affordable) areas with real-world problems best solved by connected devices: agriculture tools, home automation and manufacturing. It makes sense that a lot of these startup events frequently border on the maker community, a group prized for their ability to create working prototypes or finished products on hobbyist budgets (great job everyone!). These events are also a good place to look for jobs where your maker skills apply, a question I receive very frequently.

Education Institutions

A lot of these events also occur on college campuses or other education institutions. Unfortunately, most are limited to students and faculty, but there are usually some events open to the public as well. If it's not readily apparent, a quick email to one of the STEAM departments might yield results. You'll find mostly talks on technology or project demos, but they can hold a lot of value if the topics pique your interest.

If None of the Above are Happening

There is a chance that none of these events are happening in your area, in which case the internet is still a way to connect with other makers, but it could also be an opportunity for you to start something yourself. Meetups are some of the cheapest and easiest ways to get a regular discussion group going; I've been to events that took place at a table in the back of a restaurant in the beginning, and are now booked to capacity. If you're looking to create a local maker scene, think about these options above as first steps.

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Getting into Arduino as a Hobby

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Which of the many routes you take when diving into Arduino for the first time depends on a few different aspects, but today I’ll share a very open set of routes I’ve seen hobbyists and professionals take. I stopped at Arduino and did not include electronics as a whole, as I feel that adds levels of complexity to the topic. Arduino is just one way of getting into electronics.

I’m sure many of you have answered this question; I’m almost equally sure the answer is different from person to person. This could be based on how you learned or how you best learn – what works for some may frustrate others. There are also variables such as affordability and accessibility to consider. After talking with some people who learned Arduino outside of a traditional education setting, I came up with a few specific routes that should hopefully function as a starting point.

Why do you want to learn?

This is the first thing you’ll hear (okay, maybe a “cool” first) when you ask me about learning Arduino, as it’s one of the most important details when it comes to choosing which route might work best for you. We can group most of the reasons into two camps: “I want to build ____,” or “I want to learn Arduino as a skill,” There’s definitely some overlap in there that we can get into later as well, but most of what we will cover will talk about both.

Building something might be replicating something you saw online, coming up with something that will make your life easier, or putting together a prototype of a product idea you have. Learning Arduino as a skill could be just that, or finding out what all the hype is about, or even picking up a skill for future employment opportunities. Keeping your goal in mind (also having one) when choosing your route is the best way to stay motivated during the learning process.

What’s your budget?

To some, kits and such are not that big of an expenditure, but for others it definitely could be. From my point of view, with increased cost comes increased direction. You’re definitely able to get the same value elsewhere, thanks to the huge amount of documentation people have provided in their projects online, but if your budget permits, a kit with documentation provides very focused direction and can be a big time saver as well.

So with these things to consider, here are the routes you might take:

Classes

SparkFun Arduino class from a few years ago

One of SparkFun’s past Arduino classes (we’ve since moved to a “train the trainers” model).

Since you’re learning at a hobbyist level, I took traditional education out of the equation, but there are plenty of online classes (some free) and YouTube tutorials that provide guidance very close to that of a classroom setting. If you do your best learning when guided by an instructor, this might be the way to go. YouTube videos are a pretty good way of limiting your costs early – watching some might give you insight into what you would be getting into and whether it’s really for you. My biggest piece of advice with this route is to stick to classes and videos that list out the materials needed before hand. Having to buy as you go could definitely be a frustrating exercise, especially if your budget is limited.

It’s not accessible for everyone, but I’ve also seen classes pop up at local libraries, community centers and hackerspaces. It’s definitely worth a little research before you dive into learning on your own, as these can be great, one-day primers for getting started.

Kits

Picture of the Contents of the SIK V4 Kit

Of course I’m going to mention kits, they’re our best selling products.

One thing discussed here long ago that always stuck with me was “knowing what you don’t know” and “not knowing what you don’t know.” For some folks, getting into Arduino means getting into electronics. It took me a pretty long time to figure what a servo was and how it was different than a typical hobby motor. If you have the budget and you’re looking to learn for the purpose of adding a skill, getting started/inventor kits are the way to go. They give you a good sampling of the basic things you can do with an Arduino, which might include providing direction on future products that you can go back and reference.

As mentioned, the more expensive ones often come with directions and documentation, which can cut down on rabbit holes or spending hours trying to figure something out on your own. Another positive is that most projects utilize temporary connections (think breadboards and jumper wires), so there’s always the possibility of resale once you’re done with the kit, although most people make good use of kits’ contents in future projects.

Pursuing a project

This is one of the toughest ways to go about learning Arduino. That said, if your project motivates you enough, it can be the easiest to keep up with. If you have a solid knowledge of electronics to start with, this might be the way for you.

The method is simple: Come up with a project you want to make, and learn about interacting with the parts you need for it with Arduino as you go. It’s definitely one of the more cost-effective ways to go about learning Arduino, but it can be incredibly time consuming and is filled with the potential for getting derailed or hitting frustrating dead ends.

That being said, I’ve seen incredible projects made using Arduino by determined makers looking to accomplish their goal. Of the methods listed, this one definitely takes the most effort on your part. My biggest recommendation is to not go too cheap on components – use parts and components that you can easily find documentation on and come from a quality supplier.

Our newest creative tech, Rob, showing off his LED additions to his arm sling

Keep a positive attitude when learning through building a project. There will be dead ends and frustrating setbacks, but the payoff is worth it.

These are obviously not the only ways to get into Arduino, and there are plenty of variations on these methods, but they’re the ones I’ve seen the most success from. As for the experts, I’m really interested in how you got into Arduino and would love to hear the path you had taken. What did you like about it? What was frustrating? What you might recommend yourselves?

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