The small, powerful heart inside a whole generation of innovative DIY devices.
The Arduino is a magical gem of a computing device. Nestled within so many of today’s next-generation prototypes and playful DIY projects, it’s ironic that its name was inspired by events that occurred more than a millennium ago. In 1004 AD, a little-known King of Italy named Arduin of Ivrea was dethroned by the now-renowned Henry II. Poor, unfortunate Arduin became little more than a footnote in history. But his name has resurfaced thanks to an ingenious team of interaction designers whose versatile little computer has given creative control to thousands of makers, artists, and innovators all over the globe.
At its most basic, an Arduino is a very small computer that reads an input and controls an output. Just like we use pencils to turn verbal information into visual information, the device is used to convert physical or digital input into code. Your average desktop computer performs this action when it reads the pressed button of a keyboard and outputs text displayed on a monitor. The Arduino may be much smaller, but it packs a punch. The device has spawned tens of thousands of projects ranging from a Laser Harp to Mechanical Mirrors to the world’s largest Internet-controlled claw game. It’s an incredibly handy tool, confined only by the limits of one’s imagination.
The device features a processor to run your program, input/output ports, a USB port, and a power jack. It can be programmed to capture information from a wide range of sensors including, but certainly not limited to: buttons, microphones, photo sensors, touch sensors, and even electricity-conducting paint. A programmer writes code that tells the Arduino how to turn this information into a meaningful output. This can be anything from a blinking light, to an image displayed on a monitor or smartphone, to the movement of a remote controlled car, or even location-guiding electrical signals sent to the tongue.
Arduino was created in 2005 as an affordable prototyping tool for students. Massimo Banzi, then an Associate Professor at Italy’s Interaction Design Institute of Ivrea (IDII), was frustrated with the prohibitive cost (about $100) of microcontroller kits available at the time. He worked with his students to create an affordable alternative—costing less than a third of the price of the commercial kit they’d been using. Banzi eventually added more talent to the Arduino team, including: David Cuartielles, Tom Igoe, Gianluca Martino, David Mellis and Nicholas Zambetti. When IDII announced its doors would be closing the next year due to budget difficulties, the group generously released their product under an open-source Creative Commons license so that anyone, anywhere could build their own version of the module.
It was in the spirit of IDII’s brief existence (the program lasted only four years), that Banzi named the microcontroller after Ivrea’s famously fleeting monarch. In spite of the Arduino’s bygone namesake, the ingenuity and accessibility of this little device means that it will rule for far longer than the minor monarch it celebrates.
There are an estimated 1 million Arduinos currently in circulation and countless thousands more made by amateurs under the Creative Commons license. It is the most popular microcontroller kit of its kind. The Arduino’s genius lies in the convergence of three factors: low cost, small size, and ease of use. But its enduring success is in part due to the open source ecosystem in which it exists, with knowledge and code freely exchanged between users.
As technology becomes cheaper to produce and more people develop the tools and inclination to make connected objects, the availability of accessible, affordable microcomputers means more crazy ideas coming to fruition. And therefore, more potential for disruption and innovation. Just as the affordability and availability of personal computers ushered in the advent of email, instant messaging, and instant information at our fingertips; the ability to cheaply bridge the digital/physical divide oneself, at home, will prove revolutionary.
Got you hooked? Here’s more:
How to Make a Phone-Controlled R/C Car
Use and Arduino to create a connected object of your very own
The World’s Largest Claw Machine
We made a claw game anyone, anywhere could play online
Saint Patrick’s Day shenanigans meets Simon Says
ARE YOU OBSESSED TOO? KEEP LEARNING:
Arduino The Documentary (2010)
History, interviews, inventors, and impact
The Making of Arduino
The small circuit board that’s taking the DIY world by storm
How Arduino Is Open-Sourcing Imagination
Arduino creator Massimo Banzi speaking at TEDGlobal 2012