“physical computing” – microcontrollers for sensor interfaces

yes, it seems that it’s all the rage to be using microcontrollers for sensor interfaces and to a lesser extent, control of external devices from a computer (commonly a powerbook running max/msp, pd or processing).

This trend seems to beg the question that if everyone’s doing this stuff, what is actually worth doing with these tools? It has actually been possible to do this since before laptops.. I remember a book called “how to control the world from your pc” or something like that, which used parallel port interfaces for input and output, with much the same effect. Now it’s a commodity, so we can expect to see more and more half-baked new media art ideas using sensor interfaces and external device control from max. What is actually worth doing? Where are the really interesting concepts that will overcome the techno fetishism of the process?

Having got that little rant off my chest, it’s time to jump on the bandwagon (already totally overloaded), and get a microcontroller and some sensors to play with. To help the process, here are some links I have gathered in my exploration of the options.

  • One of the first places to look should be sensorwiki.org, started by Prof. Marcelo M. Wanderley from McGill university’s IDMI Laboratory, where there is a good range of links and info surveying currently available sensors and microcontroller boards (sensor interfaces).
  • Some of the cheapest options from sensorwiki are: DIY Atmel based USB interface, then the open source Atmel based projects: Arduino (around US$30 for USB board) and Wiring (about US$80), both available from Sparkfun (under Development Tools). Both these boards use the simple Wiring programming language, which has a c like syntax, and is currently at a pre-beta stage of development.
  • Finally, there are a growing number of user-level tools for Arduino and Wiring boards: Hans-Christoph Steiner has developed Pduino: An Arduino firmware and matching PD object, with some more info here. There is also an extensive page of Processing examples here, coming from Anders Gran, Jacob Holst, and Melvin Ochsmann for K3, Malmö University and licensed under creative commons. Another great page of examples (here) comes from Tom Igoe at ITP, NYU.
  • On a slightly different tangent, it seems that i2c bus (or the non-proprietary name : two wire interface TWI) is rather neglected as a highly scalable sensor bus for new media art projects (though maybe not for high-rate capture). Apparently the Brainstem board from Acroname can be used for i2c interfacing. Also, Guido Socher has a project page for interfacing ic2 with Atmel AtMega8 microcontrollers – the same ones used in Arduio.
  • Another interface is the Create USB Interface from Dan Overholt from UCSB.
  • Another place to look is the Open Sound Control application page.

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