Arduino for dummies – my first (inevitable) attempt
In the process of internal restructuring, I recently discovered the joys of being able to (or rather having to) get to grips with a category I’d known nothing about before. I was fortunate enough to get a jump start, making the dull learning process much more interesting. Did things go as planned? Read on to find out.
Sitting in front of me on the table was this Arduino thing. The YouTube video Quentin showed me a few days before sounded so promising, funny and simple. But when I saw the individual parts in the admittedly premium-looking box, my knees started to tremble all of a sudden.
"I’ll try it out in the next few weeks," I said as soon as I set foot in the product manager’s office. All I could think is, what have I got myself into now?
So how did this happen again? Internal adjustments meant that I got to enjoy working on a different category: Robotics + Electronics. Or rather, my superiors asked if I would take over this section. They thought I was the best person for the job.
"OK," said the little voice inside my head. "Why you of all people?" You know the drill when someone in authority asks you something. You nod diligently and smile good-naturedly. I couldn’t really say no. All of a sudden I had ended up responsible for a topic I knew nothing about. Sorry you had to find out this way, Anikó. I hope you won’t hold it against me. No, I’m sure you won’t.
In keeping with the motto «nothing ventured, nothing gained», I dived head first into the starter kit but with the handbrake firmly applied, seatbelt on and eyes closed.
The packaging, all the accessories (various cables, LEDs, switches and buttons, an LCD display, two motors and a wooden work surface) and the manual as detailed as the Old Testament seemed to be so valuable. That made it all the more intriguing, I must admit.
I opened the Bible and got started. It began with the usual rigmarole – thanks for buying this product, take the world by storm, save the whales, children are the future, etc. But then it got straight down to business. There was an extensive list of accessories, a few facts and figures, the Arduino software download and then the first project. You had to make an LED light up and flash. Meh, that can’t be too hard, I thought.
And it wasn’t that hard, thanks to the incredibly simple, idiot-proof (evidently made for me) manual, which was a godsend. I secretly wished textbooks had been as straight forward and yet compellingly written as the Arduino starter kit manual when I was at school #thumbsup. You’re not just guided through the programme and the building instructions, you also get educational information on volts, amps and all the other types of current.
Having said that, they do keep the level of detail and the flood of information in check so that you end up feeling more intelligent without getting bored. Once again, I take my hat off to the people behind the manual.
All I needed for my first «project» – I know, as a beginner I’m not really allowed to call it that – was an LED, a switch, a resistor and a few cables. Reading the instructions properly also helps. You won’t destroy everything if you don’t; it just means everything will take that bit longer.
A few bits of wiring and plugging in later and I had my first big moment. According to the manual, I had to press the switch and and the light would come on. At first, I held the button down, doubted myself for a few minutes and was close to tears. Then there was light. I was pretty chuffed.
Of course, all of you more advanced Arduino people out there, all of the experts and know-it-alls will be bewildered by or simply not understand my excitement. But I enjoyed it, and that’s the most important thing.
After that, I eagerly flicked through the manual, looking for the next project. I secretly hoped it had something to do with LEDs, as I’m fascinated by light. Had it been linked to fire, that would have been the next level of cool, but I’d have settled for little red lamps – strictly speaking, they blaze, too.
Once again, the starter kit didn’t disappoint. The next project was linked to LEDs. In fact, you had to use three of these charming, flashing little light sources. According to the Arduino Bible, the next project involved building a spaceship including a start button. I take back what I said. That sounded much better than the three LEDs to begin with. That was until I realised the spaceship was a foldable template that could be put over the breadboard. The disappointment didn’t last too long, but it was there nonetheless.
As an aside, I feel I should mention I omitted the sequential and parallel switches and options on the project mentioned above, as these were too similar and didn’t even challenge me as a newbie.
However, this next space shuttle project was anything but trivial and banal. The programming was all or nothing. Before explaining the different steps, the kit gave me a brief but detailed and easy to understand introduction to the programming language of Arduino software, just as in the first project.
I followed the instructions to the letter, added in row by row, read the notes and ran the final upload on the the Arduino board. "Now, push the button and the red lights start blinking." Yes, sir. I can do that. But then look what happened. There was no red light. Nothing…
I was quick to find the mistake – OK, that’s maybe a lie. I hooked up a few parts on the breadboard one row too low. If you do that, you can press on the blooming button as long as you like but nothing will happen. Damn, I’m such a beginner. My first thought was that I’d messed up part of the code. So I painstakingly went through row by row once more, and examined everything down to the last detail à la Sherlock Holmes. I double-checked every number, every semicolon and every space.
There was absolutely nothing out of place. Nothing where it shouldn’t be. Argh! Just when everything had been going so well. I already wanted to throw in the towel. Fortunately, I’d just put the washing machine on so had no towels lying around to throw anywhere. I went over it again in my head and concluded there must be something wrong with the wiring.
Using my acquired knowledge and numerous swear words, which the neighbour’s children would probably go on to repeat to their parents, I found the slip-up. Once I’d corrected it like a pro, I said a little prayer before doing the next test to be on the safe side.
Finally, as though at the touch of a button, the green light went out and the two red LEDs started to blink. Eureka! Ronaldo’s celebratory pose had nothing on what came next. My ear-splitting shriek of delight could be heard all the way into the centre of the village, and my subsequent victory dance will probably soon be doing the rounds on YouTube. Just look up «crazy arduino guy meltdown» or something like that.
That’s how simple things like cables, electricity and lamps bring so much pleasure (to me at least). I know, I’m easily pleased.
After all the ups and downs, the fraught failed attempts and emotion-packed senses of achievement, I needed a bit of a break. That’s why I decided to tackle all the other projects at a later date. After all, summer isn’t the time of year when you really want to spend hours in a cosy room. But on the other hand, what does it matter what’s going on outside if I’m inside building my Arduino?
Eventually, I decided to call it a day (editor’s note: extremely reluctantly). However, I feel it’s important to stress how much I enjoyed the whole process. I’m sure I’ll attempt these kinds of projects and report back on my experience in the future. Maybe one day I’ll even be advanced rather than a beginner. Or perhaps I’ll be able to do it all as a pro with my eyes closed.
The starter kit is available in German and French as well as English
Senior Editor, Zurich
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