In the 70s, after your had purchased your home computer and assembled it from a kit, the next thing to do was to build a video card for it. Using Don Lancaster’s book you could do this yourself, with a kit of parts costing around $20 at that time.
Lancaster’s book inspires me because it uses ingenuity to overcome financial restrictions. The book is still relevant today in terms of embracing a methodology of making that thrives on overcoming constraints.
How can I experiment with technology without spending lots of money?
My answer to this question: A cheap system of Autonomous Objects. OK, so there is this web site called Aliexpress, you know? You can order from a huge number asian vendors, many of whom manufacture or distribute electronic parts and associated products. You can purchase small numbers of items for a low cost-per-unit and have them delivered (in many cases) for free!
I’m constantly amazed at what is available, firing my imagination about building multiples of objects. If the cost is low, you can build 10, 20 or 100 of something, and that gets interesting. I like this for two reasons. Objects are transformed by scale. And with that scale the objects loose their preciousness – I feel better about letting them go.
If you have done any hacking or making with electronics you will be familiar with this situation. You have an idea, you gather the parts, you sit down to work, several hours pass. You stop and realise: This is not fun.
There’s complexity; freaky invisible signals stop everything from working. Your fabrication is not the best and some little solder bridge is mucking everything up. It’s hard to undo what you just did.
OK so how do you address this. Maybe you’re rich an can afford to buy a genuine arduino with shields that do everything under the sun. They just slot together and are pretty much guaranteed to work.
Maybe you go the way of the engineer and learn how to design boards using a circuit design program, get them fabricated even populated by magic.
But all this costs money and more importantly for me, time. I would rather spend time discovering, evolving and jamming with technology, than learning some strict process or buying some product that has a specifically defined outcome. And let me make a couple of comments about Arduino.
Arduino is great, it’s powerful and easy to use. But the original rectangular Arduino board suffers from a fundamental design flaw. It’s pins are not on the grid! That matters because it makes it difficult for you to make your own arduino shields for easily connecting to arduino. Also the Arduino uses female headers when most other electronic boards use male headers.
Above is an example of my attempt to make my own arduino shield. While it worked, you had to jam it on to make it fit (because of the grid), and I spent a long time on it; mainly soldering jumpers (grrr jumpers). It has a very basic audio amp and an SD card interface. I wouldn’t recommend trying to fabricate something like this yourself, it’s not that much fun, but I was very happy with the result.
I had a moment of clarity when I found these.
A Good Quility Arduino Nano clone! Basically just like an Ardunino Nano except it uses a different USB chip that needs a driver (called a CH341). Once the driver is installed it’s all good, same Arduino environment, everything is the same.
And now you have an inexpensive micro controller with pins on the grid! And these things are cheap as chips!
My requirements break down like this.
- I want lots of nice colours.
- I need to be able to undo what I just did.
- I want the connections I make to be reliable and not fall apart.
- I want to be able to use all the latest stuff.
- I want wifi communication.
- I want rechargeable battery power supplies.
- I want to make sounds and play samples.
- I want to make use of SD card storage.
- I want to be able to make use of recycled and junk parts.
- I don’t want to pay a huge amount of money for this.
Should be possible right? Click the images to find the online suppliers.
First two points are solved by female Dupont wire cable. It comes in rainbow colours in 20cm and 10cm lengths. The ends fit standard header pins that are on nearly everything or you can easily solder them on.
This is what the header pins look like. You can cut them into sections of however many you need.
Easy to connect, easy to disconnect, and the colours help you remember what goes where. Simple!
So now you can connect your Arduino to things. Like what? Lets start my making some sound.
Most of the beginner sound projects you see in Arduinoland use peizo speakers. While these are cheap and simple to connect they are very limited in the sounds they can produce and are generally annoying.
We want to be able to use one of those normal little speakers you have lying around or that you can pull out of an old computer or from some electronic junk . But for that will need an amplifier.
These little boards put out about 3 watts into two channels so you can use them as a stereo amplifier driving two speakers. They are powered by 5V DC so you can power them directly from an arduino (possible, but not recommended) or any other 5V power supply (very common). They sound great, don’t need a heatsink and can make quite a bit of noise depending on what speaker you connect to them.
These are Power Amplifiers, which means they don’t have a volume knob like your home stereo. You control their output volume by varying the input signal level. In practice, a combination of the speaker used and the input level gives you volume control.