What could be better than the simple joy of having a machine do your bidding! But computer programming is hard, right? Well, not if you make use of a tiny little computer called Arduino. A small circuit board around the size of a pack of cards, the Arduino is as flexible as it is compact and can be used as the basis for all manner of geeky projects that involve buttons, sensors, motors, LEDs and LCD displays etc.
The Arduino was designed with artists and hobbyists in mind, and is incredibly easy to use and probably responsible for a sharp decline in art students pestering geeks to help them with interactive art installations. Its secret lies in the fact that it is programmed via simple functions that instruct the computer to read inputs, such as from a temperature sensor, and to control outputs such as a buzzer.
One of the great things about Arduino is that there are projects documented on the Web for just about every imaginable use, and then for a good deal more that likely no sane person would have ever thought of ... For example, how about a DIY keytar, plants that tweet, a remote control lawnmower or a Geiger counter? Of course, many of these are at the more advanced end of the scale, but once you get started it's easy to build up over time to increasingly complicated projects.
The Arduino is programmed via software that is made available free of charge and which runs on Windows, Linux and Mac. There are plenty of beginners' guides available online and don't worry if the language reference or example code looks a little daunting at first: it will start to make sense as you're building your first few projects, where you do something as simple as blink an LED or use a sensor to measure light levels.
As well as programming the Arduino it is necessary to wire it up to devices that provide inputs and outputs. For example, say you wanted to build a thing that told you how many times your cat had left the house that day, you would need a sensor on the cat flap and some sort of display device. It's generally trivial to connect such devices to an Arduino, requiring just a few wires and perhaps the odd resistor or transistor. Many projects provide pictorial guides turn this task into essentially the electronics equivalent of painting by numbers, and most people tend to use these as the starting point for their own projects.
By far the best way to get started with Arduino is via a kit which provides everything that's required to build a selection of simple projects, such as the ARDX starter kit from Oomlout. And then once you have the basic parts such as the Arduino and a “breadboard” (a thing you stuff components and wires in to, that is much easier than soldering), you can then buy additional sensors and output devices as and when these are required by a particular project.
There are many excellent introductory texts available, such as Programming Arduino: Getting Started with Sketches, as well as plentiful online resources. And Glasgow is very fortunate to have it's own hackerspace, the Electron Club, where Arduino hackers new and experienced can be found who will be more than happy to provide help and advice.