Posted by Elecia White.
Two years ago, Jen Costillo, Star Simpson, and I put together a panel about how to start tinkering in your garage, specifically how to do engineering without company budgets. I recorded the session and made noises about starting a podcast on embedded software (this took place at the 2013 DesignWest embedded systems conference in San Jose, CA).
A few people followed, truly interested in a show about embedded software. Who would listen? Well, it turns out, many people would listen. And more than once.
Our last show was our 100th podcast episode. (Cue fanfare.) Star and Jen returned, recording properly this time; there was cake. I was hoping to discuss how home tinkering has changed in the last two years. We did, a little, but mostly discussed other things on the show.
(In the picture, that is Chris with his head in his hands, me reading the closing, and Star being amused. Jen is out of frame.)
Since we glossed over the topic on the show, I decided to write about it here. The problem with this plan is that while many things have changed, I think my life may have changed just as much. I already had a book and our consulting company. We were going to do six shows, just to see what podcasting was like. It was a hobby my husband and I could do together. That turned into a dozen, and then a hundred.
I put together a spreadsheet of all the shows, guests, and extra writings about them. Looking at the sheet made me feel like we’ve accomplished something nifty. It also made me realize where my weekends go.
The work has paid off in unexpected ways. I’ve met so many really interesting people. There was an NPR show where they talked about not easily making new friends after you turn 30. I believed it as it seemed true for me. Since the show, though, I’ve met people I really like, people I connected with. Sure there are lots of other benefits: I would not have gotten to be a Hackaday judge without the podcast, I occasionally get free dev kits, I find out about boards and chips more quickly than before, and people come over and explain their ideas to me one-on-one (well, with Chris and microphones but I get to ask my questions). However, the big thing for me has been the people I’ve gotten to know. I didn’t know what to expect from podcasting but it wouldn’t have been new friends.
Enough mushy stuff, back to the tech and how it has changed.
From my write up of the session at the time, many things are the same. I’d still recommend Adafruit and Sparkfun (with glee) to anyone starting out in hobby electronics. Though now there are so many more resources for hardware and information: EMSL has kits, MakerShed as well, and our hosts here at element14 can get you all setup with a Raspberry Pi (among many other things).
Two years ago, both Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black were difficult to obtain. Now they are stocked and the Raspberry Pi B+ is only $25 for a board that is pretty amazing. It is a computer, a whole computer for the price of an Arduino UNO. Sometimes it is hard for me to look at embedded device concepts and not say “why wouldn’t you just get a Pi to do that?” I sometimes fear that I’ll be out of a job when folks realize they can replace expensive engineering with overpowered computers in their devices.
On the other hand, small devices speaking Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Wifi are far more prevalent now. We’ve been hearing about this Internet of Things for a while. With $5 WiFi chips and truly low power BLE devices, I think IoT is really coming (almost here! really, this time!). I’m using a BLE processor for my own projects because I can, and I’m planning to expand the communications section later.
A similar cost reduction happened with inertial sensors over the last few years. I sometimes feel like an oldster saying “why, in my day, MEMS IMUs cost a thousand dollars and you waited weeks for yours to come.” Soon it will be cheaper to use an accelerometer than to have a button. That level of interactivity lets devices become more intuitive.
The stream of breakout and low-cost evaluation boards means I can continue to “design” hardware by putting together a system like LEGO blocks. Some of the boards are small and power efficient so I can try out wearables before true miniaturization. Even better, many component manufacturers have realized that building a demo board is a great way to show off their part. I now find it somewhat odd when I want to use a component and I can’t find a reference board.
As a software engineer, hardware is the most difficult part for me. I know how to draw a schematic with pencil and eraser. I can name the top schematic capture programs but I’ve never (successfully) used them. I’m less nervous about that blind spot than I was two years ago. I know there are courses available, I plan to learn it as soon as I get some free time (and/or need it for a project I can’t con an EE into helping me with). As Chris pointed out in his Make Anything post, the barrier to entry to actually getting the physical hardware is much lower than it has ever been.
It is easier to get boards and more schematic capture tools have a free version. Of course, 3D printing is amazing; I don’t need to shove my board into a heavy duty Ziploc bag anymore. There are even free CAD tools. Even FPGA design is possible without an expensive license only a company could afford (we talked to Jack Gassett, maker of the Papilio FPGA dev board in episode 66). I don’t know if the tools vendors understand that the tinkerer community is worth investing in or if there are other market forces at work. Either way, I like it.
Information is more widely available. There are more beginner tutorials and more people sharing the hardware, software, and mechanical drawings for their projects. There are online courses that describe how to put it all together. With so much to learn and so many ways to learn it, the problem is prioritizing and finding classes that work for you.
Of course, one way to learn a lot is to do a whole product from concept to design to engineering to manufacturing to marketing to sales (though not always in that order). Kickstarter is a reasonable way to get started but it isn’t the only way. I was pleased to talk to Emile Petrone about Tindie where people can sell their craft electronics and small run boards. Even better, sometimes when I’m stopped on a project because there is hardware I need to make, someone is already selling it on Tindie.
When we recorded the first show, I was drooling over oscilloscopes, wanting one but not able to afford the features I wanted most (20Msps and I2C/SPI/UART decoding). When Saleae came on the show to talk about their nifty, tiny logic analyzer (which met my specs but didn’t do analog), I wheedled for them to make an analog scope. They already had one in the works (though Mark carefully did not tell me anything about it). There are several good options for low-end scopes now. I haven’t borrowed one in years.
The last big change in tinkering deals with the compilers. Cross compilers are a pain. They tend to be expensive, OS-specific, and idiosyncratic. Arduino fixed that a bit, with their cross platform IDE. However, mbed and CodeBender now have web-based compilers. The mbed system downloads by copying a file to the board, as though it was a drive (USB mass storage class). When teaching a class or talking to groups of people, I find that online compilers have the advantage of not having to specify which OS users need.
There are so many more avenues of entry to tinkering. Want to work on a fashion project? Check out FLORA. Scrapbooking? Chibitronics. Easy WiFi or home automation? Electric Imp. Cheap WiFi? That ESP8266 chip. Talking to middle schoolers about electronics? I’d take Light Up. There are so many drone options I don’t know where to start. Blinking lights remain popular but now there are so many options, the limitation is not in the technology but in imagination and creativity (and free time).
I suspect this trend will continue: two years from now, there will be more virtual and augmented reality (with more interactive, haptic feedback) and more robotic projects. Wearables and connected devices will be more ubiquitous. And everything will get a bit cheaper so more people can try them out.
Those are great, I look forward to them. But right now, the barrier to entry is lower than it has ever been. Welcome to tinkering, we have light up shoes.