Monday, 19 September 2011

Toys and frustrations

We live in such wondrous times when it comes to toys! I'm not only talking about prefabricated toys like touch sensitive cardboard electric guitars, affordable remote controllable helicopters that avoid walls and are meant for inside-the-house use or not-really-that-intelligent robots. I'm talking about web servers no larger than a deck of cards -- both wired and wireless (and the wireless one is more like the size of a credit card) -- stamp size microcontrollers that can speak with servos, LCD displays, lasers, motion sensors and RFID readers. These are the kind of toys that really drive me wild.

As these kind of wonderful microcontrollers with their peripherials have become both available and affordable, i've bought some of 'em to tinker with. My latest purchase is the Nanode, which is an Arduino clone with wired Ethernet built in. It's cheap, made by hackers (=enthusiasts, makers) and was delivered by mail as a bag of discrete components and a little slip of paper with an URL to the web page which has instructions on how to build the little bugger.

So i soldered. I bought magnifying glasses (yes, plus-glasses --- i'm now officially getting old) and that soldering station i've been drooling about for so long. And it was wonderful! I assume the first builders of the first Altair and Apple computers must have felt a little like this (though i freely admit that they were truly hard core, whereas i was trodding tested ground). And you can't believe my exhilaration when i managed to flash the Nanode with a DHCP test program and got the signs of life over serial that the device was really working and that it had received an IP address from my router. That, my friends, is confirmation of existence!

It hasn't been all roses of course. My current sorrow is that the Nanode i have doesn't want to co-operate with the FTDI breakout board i got from eBay.

And there are plenty of challenges in the past. I bought a Web server module from Dangerous Prototypes (love the name!). The first one had a bug in the hardware and i felt fairly stupid for quite a while since i really had no way of knowing if it was me being incapable -- a valid guess -- or the device being faulty. Ian, the very nice dude behind DP helped me get the device fixed and returned at no extra cost. I've bought a small wireless web server prototype from Sure electronics, but the only thing you can do with it is flash a LED and check its ambient temperature. They're not very explicit about it, but it seems like you should be able to reflash the hardware yourself, if i could only get the source code from somewhere. And i got the Texas Instruments wrist-mountable computer Chronos because it was on sale, but i haven't got around to coding it yet.

But hey, i'll get something working because boy, these toys are fun!