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Outside the box

Outside the box
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First Published: Tue, May 24 2011. 09 21 PM IST

DIY-ers: LittleBits are pre-assembled circuits.</
DIY-ers: LittleBits are pre-assembled circuits.</
Updated: Tue, May 24 2011. 09 21 PM IST
All through my son’s years in school—from kindergarten right up to high school—I would buy him boxes of Lego bricks on my trips abroad. From the basic starter box to the more intricate Star Wars set, we must have gone through nearly 20 boxes. The old bricks weren’t discarded when a new box arrived; they were used to make something more complex.
Neither he nor I treated Lego as an educational tool; it was more about making things, thinking outside the box and having fun. You could either follow the instructions to make something, or use your imagination and build your own. The high point was when Lego launched the Mindstorms set; unlike all previous Lego sets this one had an “intelligent brick” that had to be programmed by connecting it to a computer. I think it was called the Robotics Invention System—not an inexpensive toy, but a major upgrade from the previous Lego sets. Programming the brick was not difficult; even a child (it was meant for ages 12 upwards) could do it without a problem. You could program it to make all sorts of fascinating moving toys (I remember a forklift truck with which my son—and I—would tease our dog, and a remote-controlled camera). Lego Mindstorms was his favourite DIY kit, and his introduction to robotics.
DIY-ers: LittleBits are pre-assembled circuits.</
By the time Lego launched the next in the series, the more advanced Mindstorms NXT, my son was halfway through his college; and though he did talk about the amazing things people had made with it, including a Rubic’s cube solver, and toyed with the idea of buying one, he decided to get a Nintendo Wii instead.
The other day he called to say he had bought an Arduino kit.
Arduino (pronounced ar-dwee-no) is Mindstorms multiplied many times over. It has limitless possibilities. It’s a highly customizable piece of hardware that looks like the printed circuit inside your computer, is the size of your palm, and can be programmed to perform a range of functions. They call it a microcontroller—like the device inside your TV remote control, dish antenna box, washing machine, or fancy cars.
Arduinos have been around for a few years, and while I think they are more suited for tech hobbyists and tinkerers, these circuit boards have become a craze even with non-geeks. Look at YouTube videos of 13-year-old children who have made some amazing stuff with it, or visit Instructables, a website specializing in do-it-yourself projects. Arduino boards are affordable (their website has a list of online stores in India), and the best part is that they are expandable and open source. If you don’t want to buy it you can make one yourself, modify it, and the software is free. You program an Arduino by hooking it up to a computer and uploading software on to the board to create a digital clock, a guitar amplifier, or use it as a remote-control device to run just about anything you can think of—draw the curtains on your windows or run a lawn mower. DIY enthusiasts who make these things guide you with step-by-step instructions on the Net.
Alternatively, you can make your own stuff with it. An article in The New York Times newspaper says “this nondescript gadget has become the driving force behind most of the interactive exhibits seen in museums and galleries”, where you push a button to move an object.
For DIY-ers, there’s another interesting kit that I read about in NYT: It’s called LittleBits. Designed more like the Lego, it’s a set of pre-assembled circuit bricks that you snap together. And like Mindstorms, which was a result of Lego’s collaboration with MIT Media Lab, LittleBits is the creation of a Media Lab graduate.
It’s not yet out in the market (the company says you can pre-order the $99, or around Rs 4,500, starter kit), but going by the images and the write-up on the website, it seems LittleBits is easier to play around with and perhaps for a younger audience than the Arduino.
When I was growing up, the only constructive DIY kit available was the nuts-and-bolts Meccano set. Thanks to technology, today’s kits are far more versatile and can really unleash our inventive streak.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at thesmartlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, May 24 2011. 09 21 PM IST