The Arduino: Bringing Interactivity Out of the Computer

I was invited to sit in on a talk today in the School of Computer Sciences. Yes, I was the only woman there. We won’t dwell on that.

What I will dwell on is my introduction to this totally rad geek toy. I’m not a computer scientist, not even a computer expert on an amateur level. I’m more of a high-end user: I love finding out what I can do with my electronic devices, and playing with them, but I don’t (yet?) have in-depth knowledge like programming, building, hacking, anything like that.

I might just want to learn now, however.

The talk started by introducing something that it seems a lot of electronic geeks know and use already: the Arduino. The Arduino, and many devices like it, is a small electronic device, essentially a little computer, consisting of a tiny processor, a serial port, a power port, a USB port, and two sets of digital (one can also do analog) input/output switches.

You build a program on your computer, feed it into the Arduino, hook it up to something like LED lights or musical lasers, and you wind up with something like this:

or this:

These are music examples, but other examples include a cycling sweater that has built-in turn signals, scrolling LED lights, and hacking a Wii remote to drive an RC car.

Being computer guys, they demonstrated with blinking LED lights. Simple, yeah, but not very exciting unless you run a scoreboard at a baseball park.

But I got to thinking about it, helped along by one of the researchers in the SCS, and I can see a lot of applications for this in the Creative Industries.

One thing that immediately popped to mind was a labyrinth/sensory theater installation. Each station would only need a little battery pack and an Arduino, plus whatever hardware is necessary for each effect, and you could have fully digital experiences in a labyrinth. You can play a laser harp, or paint each other with conductive ink so that human movement creates a light pattern. Incredibly cool.

I could even see it extending beyond pure sensory experiences, and moving into real-world story and/or gaming experiences.

For my own work at the moment, it might be fun to try it in a similar way to Kate Pullinger’s The Breathing Wall. Bring physical interactivity into online digital stories somehow. It’s really cool to think about, and the device is simple enough (and people are developing simpler programming tools) that even my crappy level of expertise could catch up in a fairly short expanse of time.

Toys are rad.

(Photo courtesy of Matt Biddulph’s flickr stream under a Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike license.)

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