June 6, 2012 09:40
Providing a Gateway to Experimentation and Innovation
Many of us can recall the days when as budding engineers we spent many a joyful hour constructing circuits from kits with names such as “100-in-1”, or from bags of components that provided everything required to make, say, an FM transmitter. Such kits are not only fun but fulfil a vital role in enabling a gentle and rewarding introduction to engineering. And at the 19th OSHUG meeting we heard from the creators of two comprehensive open source hardware-based kits, that are designed as gateways to experimentation and innovation.
First up at OSHUG was Natasha Carolan, a researcher at the HighWire Doctoral Training Centre, who was responsible for the design of an Arduino-based kit that was used by the Homesense project to enable research on the topic of smart homes.
In recognising that designing a smart home is not an easy task the project decided to take a novel approach, whereby a number of households were provided with a purposely designed kit and support that would together enable them to conduct prototyping themselves and in their own homes.
The project was guided by a number of key observations, which included:
The design of the house itself is typically not under control
The needs will vary from one household to the next
People have varied knowledge and abilities
Individual motivations are numerous
The Homesense kit was itself based upon the modular TinkerKit, and included a range of sensors and actuators that could be combined together with an Arduino and that are designed for ease of use and to encourage playfulness.
The kit succeeded in enabling the project to achieve its goal of allowing households to prototype solutions which addressed their particular needs, and its impact extended beyond this as some gained the confidence to continue experimenting with hardware after the conclusion of the project.
Next up was Romilly Cocking of Quick2Wire, a company that are developing a hardware and software-based experimenters kit for the Raspberry Pi. Romilly set the scene by providing us with an entertaining insight into a long career in computing — which stretches back as far as the Atlas computer — before explaining how he had been coaxed out of retirement upon reading about the Raspberry Pi around mid-2011. Concerned that schoolchildren would try out the computer, and then become disenfranchised when they realised that they couldn't create games on a par with those created by game studios with big budgets, he decided that something needed to be done to help ensure that it remains relevant and fun.
Romilly explained how Quick2Wire are developing software to support experimentation, which includes a project called gpio-admin that enables the Raspberry Pi GPIO port to be safely accessed by non-root users, along with libraries that will make it easier to access GPIO from within Python programs.
On the hardware side Romilly started by covering their MCP23008-based port expander, which will increase the number of GPIO pins available from 8 to 16. Going on to explain how up to 8 of these boards can be configured with a single Raspberry Pi by setting the I2C address of each via DIP switches. Other I2C boards that were briefly covered included:
8 servo controller
4 stepper motor controller
Romilly finished his talk with a simple demonstration, using a Python script to drive an LED bargraph display attached to prototype hardware.
Top image: the Homesense kit.
Freelance consultant and writer specialising in open source software and hardware. Founder of the Open Source Hardware User Group, and co-founder of SolderPad.