DIY Electronics is Changing the World


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arlcd2.jpgAll it is really is a microcontroller that's made by a Silicon Valley company called Atmel, but with a simplified programming environment that a novice can understand, and more importantly, a set of libraries that are like Lego building blocks to do different functions. Whether it's to do Ethernet or talk to a sensor or control a relay or control a motor to build these embedded things, as we call them. A lot of people have got caught on to this Internet of Things and yes, you can buy an Ethernet shield. There are over 400 shields you can plug into the back of an Arduino. Now, where my company is unique: About 10 years ago I started building smart LCDs because with 21 years distributing LCDs, I realized they were still difficult to hook up. If you weren't a big company with multiple engineers, designing a touchscreen into your product was still a very difficult task, and expensive. We took the concept, an LCD, a touchscreen and put a computer behind it with some software that's dedicated to just running the user interface portion of their project—to create buttons, widgets, be able to download bitmaps and fonts to create a user interface.

So back when I was first talking to Massimo Banzi, I had a product, the smart LCD product called ezLCD. And when I saw the Maker Faire and I met all the creative people and all their cool things they were doing with it, I said, "Massimo, I want to do a project combining Arduino with a smart LCD." That's what we did and the product's called the arLCD. It's $99 retail but understand, it includes technology that we sell for about 50% more to regular OEM customers. It's a full touchscreen. It has its own processor driving an LCD and creating graphable elements like buttons and sliders and meters. With that, you can basically create any kind of user interface.

You take that and you combine it with the Arduino and now you can take a touchscreen and control anything—motors, relays, make a thermostat, make a CNC machine—and even make a 3D printer with a touchscreen. The possibilities are endless and it's great because the Arduino is so easy to use. As I said before, it's like Legos. There’s basically a bunch of libraries which are just groups of software that do functions, read centers, drive motors and different devices, and then we add the touchscreen LCD. The cool thing about what we do is that there are touchscreen LCDs that they put in Arduino, but they take the 8-bit processor in the Arduino to draw it and the Arduino shield, the I/O boards, stack onto the back of Arduino like a pancake.

Well, if you put an LCD on, an LCD shield that has no smarts, it will take all those pins and make the stack an inch tall. By the time you put on the board to do the interface to the mode or whatever, now you're at an inch and a half, two inches. With our products—Arduinos combined with a smart LCD—it can draw graphics fast because there's a separate processor. It's really pretty sophisticated for a $99 product. In short, it's a great way for people to learn about building LCD interfaces to talk to things and to run one.

Matties: Part of what we're working on is around the STEM program and it seems to me that a product like this and what you're doing at the Maker Faire fits really well with inspiring young people. How do you see that in schools? Are they adopting this?

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