Page last updated at 15:43 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 16:43 UK

Tech Know - Arduino for all

By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

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When is the pot half full? Ellie Gibson finds out at the Arduino developers' central London headquarters.

The Albion Bakery in Shoreditch, London, is becoming something of a maker shrine.

Not just because its scones, cupcakes and croissants are favourites of anyone with a hankering for tinkering but because of a device fixed to one of the walls in its kitchen.

Called BakerTweet, the device lets the Albion announce, via micro-blogging service Twitter, exactly when its freshly baked goods have just come out of the oven.

"BakerTweet was completely self-driven," said Andrew Zolty, senior interaction designer at design firm Poke London, which happens to have its office across the street from the Albion.

Mr Zolty said the staff at Poke wanted to get their baked goods hot and it made sense to turn to technology to let everyone know.

Inquiries

Three weeks' work turned a cardboard box prototype into the BakerTweet.

Beneath its simple exterior lies a maker's delight.

At its heart is an Arduino Duemilanove microcontroller that links to an onboard wi-fi adapter. The device can be used in-store by dialling the knob on the front to find the right pastry or bread and then pressing a button to send a Tweet. Alternatively it can be updated, and its followers told, via the web.

The idea has proved very successful and, said Mr Zolty, Poke has had 60-70 inquiries from other organisations about using a similar device themselves.

"It's for places where computers cannot really go," he said. "You could not really have Twitter in the kitchen."

Baker Tweet, Poke
When the buns and cakes are ready, BakerTweet lets folks know

Using an Arduino made it much easier for Mr Zolty to get a working prototype up and running.

"Without the Arduino, BakerTweet would not exist," he said. The microcontroller, and others like it, with their array of inputs and outputs, are fast finding favour with makers and hackers of all stripes.

The Arduino can be linked up to any number of sensors and links the information it gets from them to an action. Some have used it to work out when their plants are getting dry so the board switches on a watering system.

For Mr Zolty, using an Arduino cut down on the things he had to know.

"I have always been heavily into coding, design and the creative part but I personally wanted to get into physical devices," he said, "and that's exactly what it is for.

"It's for people that do not have the background in anything physical."

The Arduino lets coders express themselves but also gives them a link to physical stuff and for those happier with a soldering iron in their hand it simplifies the job of writing code to get their gadget running.

Bridging the gap

Thom Shannon, co-organiser of the Howduino festival in Liverpool that revolves around folk tinkering with an Arduino, says the gadget is at its best when helping bridge the gap between the web and the real world.

"All this data is becoming available online," he said. "The whole web 2.0 is about linking people together and now people are linking objects together.

"There are quite a few people working on projects with government data feeds as well as data from BBC and Guardian."

Arduino, Arduino
The Arduino board helps to link the web and the real world

For instance, said Mr Shannon, one maker is looking at ways to use an Arduino as an early warning system for cyclists. Public data sources exist of accident black spots and warnings about these could be fed when an on-board Arduino-based gadget notices the rider is fast approaching one.

These "low-tension" computing projects are cropping up all over the place, said Mr Shannon.

Another project is a clock that has a hand for each family member and, in place of numbers, has the names of locations set around the circumference of the dial. Each member automatically reports where they are so whoever is at home knows where everyone is at any time.

"It's that ubiquitous computing stuff that you are always subconsciously aware of and doesn't require firing up the PC to find out," he said. "It's just something in the room with you."

Arduino was dreamed up with the aim of helping people to get on with building what they have dreamed up, rather than simply dreaming, said Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, co-founder of the industrial design agency Tinker.it, which, among many other things, runs training courses teaching people how to use the Arduino.

"It's good for rapid prototyping," she said, "and that's more to do with how fast you get results and how quickly you can establish whether the result is good."

Too often, she said, designers and engineers did not talk because they had so little common ground. The Arduino helps both sides get on with the tinkering rather than just the talking. And, she said, that was true whether the two sides were professionals, interested amateurs or schoolchildren.

Hackers' choice

"You have something to talk about right there that everyone understands to the same degree," she said. "It makes multi-disciplinary work much easier."

She added that the Arduino, like many of the tools that hackers and makers are turning to, was about getting control back.

"It tries to get people thinking about technologies outside of those they are just given," she said.

"If you have bought something there's probably ways in which you can fix or use it to make it more relevant to you. It's about learning by doing."

Every maker can appreciate that.



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