Thursday, April 20, 2017

Arudino Challenge, Part 2: Switches, Buttons, Blinking LEDs

An Arduino Uno blinking happily after uploading a sketch

With a little extra time added to my Arduino Challenge, and a pile of electronics to play with, I decided to start the process of unpacking and setting up my maker environment.

Working In Public

When I start learning a new programming language like Python, "setting up your environment" refers to the process of downloading and installing any necessary tools, deciding on a text editor, setting up the console (ideally with pretty color-coded syntax), and doing whatever else is necessary to turn ideas into interpretable scripts or compilable code. I am certainly familiar with the idea of a workbench, whether in the context of a makerspace or the bedroom/basement archetypes -- but what about the in-between type of environment afforded by a mix of Arduino code typed into a laptop, an Uno attached via USB, and working with parts that can be rearranged on a breadboard and not necessarily soldered?

The idea of setting up a workbench in my apartment was very intimidating -- would my cat knock everything over?? How do I control fire risks? For my more limited tasks today, I decided, instead, to set up in the corner of a quieter neighborhood coffeeshop. I really enjoyed unpacking and fiddling with components I ordered via Adafruit Industries, and also being able to work with an Arduino with litle more than a laptop and a few components. This kind of lightweight environment feels very portable and low-key, and in that sense would definitely be a helpful affordance for community-based Arduino/making education.

There's also something fascinating about the performative element of tinkering with electronics in public. When I lived in Minneapolis, I was a regular at Hard Times Cafe, a punk diner in the diverse Cedar-Riverside neighborhood that supported a ragtag clientele of crusty kids, chess players and board gamers, and shy undergraduate students reading books. I remember one gray-haired fella who would come in with a portable lamp and a magnifier and whittle wood carvings -- he would sit there right at the table whittling away for hours. I remember feeling a mix of appreciation for his presence in the community - there's something really nice about coexisting in an environment where folks are making art - and also a mixed reaction to his making-to-be-seen, perhaps for some unknown goal of affirmation or experiencing himself as An Artist. While that sounds cynical to write out, I'm genuinely curious about the benefits to self-esteem or identity development that maker development might provide. I wonder how kids would experience fiddling around with an Arduino in a community space - a makerspace for sure, but even a more public environment like a school cafeteria or more visible public library space - and how those benefits in the context of classmates would differ from a kid toiling away in their bedroom as a private hobby, perhaps only shared with Internet friends.

(I definitely felt a positive sense of "this is neat, I like sitting here fiddling with this microcontroller that is making lights blink!" while also feeling slightly silly about the publicness of it, too.)

Tactile Interaction

Ideally, here's the part of the project where I would start to scaffold my tasks -- I would figure out how to connect the Arduino to a breadboard, then start connecting inputs and outputs to the breadboard and read a bunch of forum posts to determine how to make the Arduino interface with the hardware correctly, then try to write a brief sketch to trigger vibration via a press of the (really neat!) metal ball button, then write the palindrome pattern game script, and finally, at the very least ensure the game is functional with all components attached via the breadboard. I can see it all unfolding in front of me, and would love to get lost in these tasks.

Instead, I'm again running up against a time limit. So I'm simply left to fiddle with the components and notice their tactile qualities. The metal ball buttons are indeed fantastic -- they make a loud and satisfying click, but also seem strong and resilient. Excellent for the task at hand. Meanwhile, the vibration motor and shield are a little more esoteric for visual or tactile inspection - they really require writing some sketches with the Uno hooked up to my laptop & attached to a breadboard.

The final photo is of a radial ball bearing, which is actually not necessary for the particular haptic feedback game. However, these types of bearing are commonly used in spinning fiddle projects like this radial fidget spinner! I was curious what this type of bearing would feel like, and I found the motion immediately mesmerizing -- most tutorial ask the maker to take apart the bearing to clean and lubricate it, and I can definitely see how the current amount of resistance is a little annoying and worth remedying. I now see the type of motion and interaction afforded by a radial spinner could be really relaxing to use in a project, and am definitely thinking about exploring the 3-D printed fidget route in the future.


Even though the end of this making project is anticlimactic in terms of the output, it did feel genuinely great to get the Uno up and running, upload a little code, and also to go through the planning and research phases. I can empathize with others who over-plan and stall out in implementation phases, but I can also see how, once you've build a little momentum by actually working with things in the real world, you start to get some endorphins firing and curiosity piqued. 

For me, getting that working environment up and running in a coffee shop felt very balanced and encouraging. The goals I've set out really are within the scope of possibility. It's up to me to keep building on them. To be continued (perhaps not on this blog, but continued nonetheless!)

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