The new generation of tinkerers are chips off the old block
WIRED:FOR A PLACE built on the silicon chip and printed circuit boards, the public side of Silicon Valley has spent a long time away from tiny black and green mazeworks. Chip factories, which used to squat across the valley, have long ago moved to China.As a concept and as a company, Facebook is about as far away from the smell of solder and printed circuit boards as you can get.
But among the technologists who toy with new ideas in their evenings and dream of some new start-up to take them away from their dull “coder-monkey” careers, microelectronics has made something of a comeback. Programmers are as likely to find themselves sitting with a breadboard and wiring diagram as spending another hour in front of a PC, building a prototype of a robot or bleeping musical instrument.
Just as hardware engineers ended up fiddling with computer software in their spare time in the 1970s, now software engineers are messing with physical objects.
There’s a number of influences in this shift. One, as described by a colleague who quit his job building websites to create a business card printing company, is the simple frustration of “never having anything real to show anyone”.
No matter how much of a toy one might wire together, it’s still something you can show your peers in six months’ time.
The other is that home electronics has come a long way from crystal sets and blinking LEDs. Hobbyists can now purchase, relatively cheaply, sophisticated equipment – from a fully functioning robot chassis to thermal imagers. The armoury of tools and simple components needed to work on projects is available through fast and inexpensive mail orderers. Even custom parts can be constructed by sending the designs to the manufacturer and having them returned in a matter of days.
And home electronics these days is far more like programming – easy to get started, flexible, and largely correctable if you make mistakes.
Microcontroller sets such as the Arduino and Parallax Propeller are available for under €50, plug into the USB sockets of a laptop or desktop computer and can be coded with complex instructions. They can then be removed, independently decked with sensors such as motion detectors or switches, and actuators such as wheels and relays, and set to work.
If it doesn’t work, most times, you can simply rewrite your program until it does work, rather than having to write off your entire experiment.
And if it does work? Then you may be able to turn it into a business. The gaps between creating a prototype project and going into commercial manufacture are also diminishing.