Upon opening any engineer's cupboard you could rightfully ask why they need another development board. While Arduino is now part of the lingua franca, many questioned whether it was needed when it was conceived. Actually, it was never really meant for engineers, as you will discover here.

This “Arduino thing”

One of the biggest challenges of working within an industry is seeing opportunities. You get so wrapped-up in your own way of working, of operating in that business, that you become complacent, perhaps even arrogant, and dismiss new ideas too quickly. Such was the case when someone told me about this “Arduino thing” towards the end of the 2000s.
Collection of development boards
Content representative of an engineer's drawer.
In my defense, at the time I was training engineers on how to develop embedded software for a wide variety of embedded applications. My world was surrounded by microcontroller development boards, from universal to application specific. “Why,” my thinking went, “would you want a board that was neither universal, nor application specific?” On top of this, the concept seemed to place barriers in the way of the programmer, rather than removing them, due to limiting the use of otherwise flexible pins, and hiding things like serial interface buffer sizes deep within the software.

Even simple can be too complicated

Like all things, the emergence of Arduino resulted from a specific problem. While professional engineers were being well served by the development boards and tools of the semiconductor industry, this was not the case for everyone. Several universities, including the one where Massimo Banzi (one of the Arduino founders) worked, were offering “physical computing” courses. Such courses examine how to build systems that can sense and respond to their environment and often result in artists building interactive art installations.

Even though every microcontroller manufacturer has some entry-level tools, their assumption is always that the user will want to program in C (or perhaps still assembler), has an electronics background, and would understand what to do with an integrated development environment (IDE). Although simple, for engineers, these were still not simple enough.

The challenge for such courses had always been sourcing programmable platforms that placed the power of a configurable, programmable microcontroller in the hands of those not studying electronics. Up until this point, the Parallax BASIC Stamp had been mainly used. However, the price of the platform was deemed too expensive for students, especially bearing in mind that it was only one component of the end result, and its performance was lacking for some applications.

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A stroke of genius

The approach taken by Banzi and team was, in hindsight, a genius stroke. By defining the functionality of the board’s connections, and hiding the complexity of use behind simply-named C++ function calls, the power of a programmable platform could now be used by anyone. Yes, there are still some restrictions in use that need to be considered, such as voltage limits on pins, that are of a technical nature; these are, however, limited and don’t distract from the simplicity of the platform’s use.

Part of the simplicity comes from the Arduino’s development environment, something which owes a lot to the Processing and Wiring projects. Processing is a development environment that supports cross-platform (i.e., Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux) software development and makes it easy to develop graphical output, or create graphical user interfaces and interaction. Unlike development tools such as Visual Studio or Qt, you don’t need to be a programming whizz, or be adept at the development of graphical interfaces; you can concentrate on being creative, knowing that the complex stuff is all there in the background for you.
Arduino board with LED, RFID, and servo
Complex technologies, such as servos and RFID readers, can be simply
attached and used with Arduino.
This same ethos is applied to Arduino. If you want to attach an I2C sensor to the board, or store data on an SPI flash, just attach them. There will be libraries in the Arduino environment that take care of the complexity of the interface for you. Not only that, there is probably an example project already available that you can adapt.

Arduino: When art meets electronics

Thanks to the power and low price of Arduino, and the power of the microcontrollers and technology behind it, some amazing art installations have come about. One artist who has benefited from its development is Münze in hut werfen
who is based in Southern California. As he states on his website, his “work is a reflection of ideas and questions I find perplexing. While some find machinery cold and impersonal, I find [it to be] a vehicle for exploration and introspection.”
'Gimme' - Project by Chris Eckert
The "Gimme" project by Chris Eckert is an art installation that examines
both sides of the "begging bowl." (Source: www.chriseckert.com)

One of his works that cuts deeply emotionally is “Gimee,” inspired by meeting homeless people on his regular run along the Guadalupe river. A rusting metal box, perhaps the result of years exposed to the elements, features a single eyeball that follows the movements of those who pass it. This tragic scene is accompanied by a small tin that occasionally shakes, indirectly appealing to passers-by to donate a small sum, perhaps just a single coin, to alleviate this poor artwork’s daily challenges. It is inspired by Chris’ efforts to fund-raise for an art organization that put him on the side of donation cup where the homeless he regularly sees normally sit. This thought-provoking piece of art is significantly enhanced by the automation that has been implemented using an Arduino.

Another fascinating piece is the installation “Sonic Body.” The intent is to share the “orchestra” that is the human body, allowing visitors to interact with organs to generate “music.” The audio generated is based upon real audio samples captured from humans. Arduino supports the installation’s sensing as visitors touch, squeeze, and move body parts, sending messages to the audio system to ensure that the correct sound is laid over a background track.

In both these cases, the electronics and Arduino play a hidden role in the background. Without them, these incredible artistic experiences may never have come to fruition.

Why “Arduino”?

Once the concept of the first prototype board had become established, it of course needed a name. Legend has it that the bar that Banzi and team regularly frequented, the Bar id Re Arduino, was the inspiration. It was named after the second-century Arduin of Ivrea who was King of Italy between 1002 and 1014. Just like Arduino, a project and business that has seen its fair share of ups and downs, King Arduin also faced a range of struggles in his attempts to keep the Kingdom of Italy independent of the powerful Holy Roman Empire.
Commodore 64
The Commodore 64 introduced many engineers to programmable electronics.
Thankfully, for developers, Arduino has now developed itself to be a constant, not only in the toolbox of the artist, but also of the engineer. The speed with which concepts can be created, and the simplicity of implementing otherwise complex technologies, such as Ethernet and Wi-Fi or even the control of a servo, simply cannot be ignored. We have even reached the point where industrialized versions of Arduino built as programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are available in the form of the “Controllino.”  

I, for one, have been humbled by the success of the Arduino family of boards, and the wealth of extension Shields it has spawned. Having grown up with the Commodore 64, something that sparked my passion for programmable electronics systems, I welcome with open arms any platform that encourages interest and enthuses excitement for the world of electronics, semiconductors, and programming. If you’d like to learn more about how to use Arduino, please check out Clemens Valens's excellent introduction.