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At North Oakland hackerspace, enthusiasts tinker with microcontrollers

on October 7, 2015

Taking on a hobby could be fun and a relaxing way to get away from the norm. Some people collect rare items, while others tend to stick to recreational activities.

But for the folks at Ace Monster Toys, or AMT, their idea of a hobby is trying to build something out of nothing.

The North Oakland-based hackerspace hosted its first-ever Arduino Night on Wednesday, as a handful of attendees had a chance to tinker with microcontrollers. Microcontrollers, which are small low power computers that don’t require a keyboard, mice or monitor to work, can be found in gadgets that control something as simple as a button that turns on a light or moves a toy robot.

“Our goal with this is to bring the knowledge of microcontrollers and specifically their capabilities to the community,” said AMT member and Arduino class instructor Shanel Pickard. “It’s really cool and people like to learn cool things.”

With the increasing digitization of just about everything, these small microcontrollers are found in everything from airbags in cars to dryers, stoves and digital cameras. High performance microprocessors are used in powerful computers, smaller 16 and 32-bit microcontrollers are installed in consumer products.

According to Grand View Research, a United States based market research and consulting company, the global microcontroller market was estimated at 17,393.6 million units in 2013, and is expected to reach 39,108.5 million units by 2020, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 12.3 percent from 2014 to 2020.

The average Joe or Jane can’t just simply pick up a microcontroller starter pack and begin to create the next hot tech item on the market. Pickard said it’s not easy for a person to get involved with controllers unless they’re exposed in the right way, which means having a background in coding and mechanical engineering.

But those who know what they’re doing, such as Berkeley native and University of Berkeley alumnus Van Shourt, can be a side interest and at times a challenge. Microcontrollers, he said, “are very approachable if you know programing. I’ve been programing since I was a kid.”

Shourt, who’s been an AMT member for a little more than a month, is currently working on upgrading a Nerf Blaster dart gun. He swapped the current motor with a sturdier one and hooked up a lithium polymer battery that makes the dart blaster “vastly” powerful, as Shourt put it.

The microcontroller, which he has yet to install, will be programed to control the rate of fire from single shot to burst mode with the push of a button, à la Call of Duty. Shourt said he wants to install and wire the microcontroller to an LED screen that will sit above the rear sight to display what mode the dart blaster is in and another key feature. “I’m also putting an ammo counter because, why not, right?” Shourt asked.

Shourt working on his Nerf Blaster is just one project typical of a night inside AMT, which opened in May 2010. But AMT isn’t all about computer hacking. The shop includes a 3D printer, a textiles area and wood shop for members to use any time of the day. And by any time, AMT means the shop is open 24 hours, seven days a week.

A regular membership is $80 per month, and students or low-income members pay $40. By comparison, a membership at The Tech Shop, a hackerspace  in San Francisco, runs $150 per month and $95 for students or active duty military members.

Rachel Sadd recently took over as new AMT president in August, while former president Rachel McConnell replaced David Donovan as treasurer. Drew Dibble is listed as secretary.

During Wednesday night’s class, a mix of AMT members and visitors were allowed to sit in during Pickard’s Ardunio lesson or mess around with whatever they brought in.

Pickard said she choose to teach Arduino—which started in 2005 as a project for students at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy—over other microcontroller platforms on the market because there is plenty of evidence proving it’s what’s hot right now. “The reason why it’s such a popular platform to get started in is because it’s very cheap and buying the little bits and pieces can be relatively inexpensive,” Pickard said.

Pickard added that the coding is user-friendly and there’s an extensive code library for functions such as using LED light bulbs, motors and sensors. Arduino is also open source, which means the software can be freely used, changed, and shared or modified by anyone.

There were no moving toy robot parts during Pickard’s first class session, but she was able to turn on tiny light bulbs with use of simple coding on a microcontroller. Pickard said people have come to her in the past with the idea of incorporating LED light bulbs into their art pieces—the only problem is they need an Arduino microcontroller in order to shoot out the correct information to display the image.

That’s where Pickard hopes the microcontrollers class will come in handy and lure artists into learning how to make their work come to life. “I can see how really cool being able to do these sophisticated exhibits would be,” Pickard said. “I noticed LED exhibits are just really popular and the microcontrollers are a really good way to set the patterns and the intensities. From an artist standpoint, that is what I see implemented a lot.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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