The World of Microcontrollers

A few months ago, I decided to buy an Arduino. For those who are unfamiliar, an Arduino is a small programmable computer typically used to power a specific application such as a smoke detector, medical device, watch, household appliance, or automobile engine. My reasons for buying an Arduino were twofold: I wanted to learn how small, embedded computers were being used to power our everyday lives, and I wanted to learn more about the Maker’s Movement. While this post focuses on the first reason, you can learn more about the Maker’s Movement through a variety of resources including Make Magazine and Wikipedia.

The Invisible, Omnipresent Computer

When you picture a computer, what comes to mind? A keyboard, a mouse, a screen, perhaps a black or metal case with some buttons and lights. If you’ve ever looked inside, you might imagine a circuit board with a collection of parts and components, with a spider’s web of wires and cables hanging over it. You might imagine a funny video that opened in your web browser after you clicked a link in an email that you opened in your email client. While all of this is accurate, it’s only a small part of the whole story.

Most of the electronics that we interact with are powered by microcontrollers. Microcontrollers are small computers that combine several components on an integrated circuit. Most of the electronic devices you use on a daily basis – your microwave, your alarm clock, your refrigerator, the key fob for your car, even your keyboard – are regulated by microcontrollers. Microcontrollers are usually specific to the job they’re designed to perform, whereas the desktop and laptop computers we’re familiar with perform a more general function. As a result, the application-specific realm of the microcontroller is known as an embedded system.

So, microcontrollers are small specialized computers found everywhere. What does that mean for the everyday person? The best way to truly gain an appreciation for the microcontroller is to get hands-on with one. That’s where the Arduino comes in.

Arduino

The Arduino is one of many projects attempting to take the microcontroller mainstream. What makes the Arduino stand out is its popularity, community support, and relative ease of use. The basic design of the Arduino involves a USB input, a power input, and a set of pins for sending or receiving electric signals.

The Arduino works through a combination of software and hardware: you upload code to the device, which the device continues to run as long as it’s powered. You control the voltage levels applied to each of the pins through code, allowing you to send electric signals to lights, motors, speakers, or practically any other electric component. Likewise, the Arduino can read an electric signal from a button, dial, light detector, microphone, or any number of gadgets. Simply by sending and reading electrical signals, you can create an embedded system capable of performing an infinite number of actions. The possibilities are limited only by your motivation to explore.

People have created all kinds of embedded appliances with the Arduino including signs, alarm systems, appliance monitors, automatic pet feeders, ODB-II interfaces for car diagnostic systems, robots that can detect obstacles, and even biking jackets with built-in turn signals. Microcontrollers have been around for decades, but Arduino and other microcontroller projects have made electrical engineering accessible to artists, craftsmen, and tinkerers. With just a basic understanding of electronics, you can create a shirt that changes color, a sensor that emails you when you leave the stove on, or a dish that automatically dispenses food for your pet. And while getting started with Arduino requires a little bit of programming know-how, anyone who understands basic logic can start creating Arduino projects in as little as five minutes. You can learn more about Arduino through the official Arduino website.

Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Pinguino, and Nanode make up a small part of the Maker’s Movement. As more and more people bring DIY into the 21st century, we can expect to see amazing new creations emerge from the garages of ordinary people.

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