But this! THIS! After searching and reading more about it, I felt like I had stumbled onto an underground movement. Looking for information on the Arduino microcontroller opened up an entire community of do-it-yourself enthusiasts. There are people making lawn-mowing robots, monitors that will tell you how much energy your home consumes, seismic detectors for studying earthquakes, and about a thousand different LED light devices that interact with users (like Al’s game) or light up in different colors according to different aspects of the music: for example, blue lights come on for bass and red ones spark when a treble note hits.
It might be hard to visualize some of these things, so let me explain. An Arduino is one of many microcontrollers available on the market. A microcontroller is a small computer board, like any component of computer guts you’ve ever seen, a thin wafer with chips and diodes; the whole thing’s about the size of your palm. This small computer board can be hooked electrically to any number of devices. Using wires, you could connect one part of the microcontroller to, say, a sound sensor. Another part of the microcontroller you could wire to a small LED light. Now, when the sound sensor sends electricity up the wire to the microcontroller (the tiny brain, the little computer board), it sends electricity to that LED and the LED lights up. That seems simple enough. But now imagine this: wiring the microcontroller on one end to a small Casio musical keyboard, while the other end of the device is wired to a whole bank of lights. Instant light show, a concert trick normally reserved for huge bands like the Rolling Stones. When the player romps on the keyboard to make music, the lights go off in a brilliant color spectacle. Zinging up the keyboard, down the keyboard: the lights dazzle and sparkle in time. And all of it’s controlled by a tiny hunk of computer available for purchase and simple enough for everyday folks to program. The most popular of these commercially available and easy-to-use microcontrollers is the Arduino.
But it’s not just for lights and music or for games like Al’s. There are people connecting these things to mirrors, robots, solar paneling, anything you can think of. There’s a guy who starts his coffee pot by sending it a text message from his phone: at-home electronics development. And you don’t have to be a socially awkward gentlemen who is going bald, wears too-big glasses, and carries a scientific calculator in his fanny pack. I just watched a video of a pretty young lady sewing a microcontroller and a few LEDs into a sweater.
After my chat with Al, I ripped into the scene like a sugar-addled child on Christmas. I purchased magazines and books that contained projects, tool lists, and carefully written instructions. I pored through articles on servos, sensors, and circuit boards.
I learned that microcontrollers aren’t the beginning and end of DIY tech but a node in the great expanse of non-consumer electronics. Another incredibly neat thing that I love and — once you hear about it — sounds like it’s come to us through a wormhole from an advanced species of future beings, is the 3-D printer. It’s exactly what you’re thinking it is, a printer that builds up layers of plastic until it has created an object in three dimensions. It prints not text or graphics onto paper but things you can hold in your hand.
At night, before falling asleep, I envisioned creating things, practical things that I, and maybe other people, might use to make our lives easier. I was no longer enraptured by the light saber wielded by Luke Skywalker but interested in the droids his uncle Owen used to manage a small moisture farm in the dessert. How were those droids made? How were they charged with electricity? What was their purpose once they were set to work on the farm?
That’s the cool thing about space...
Outside the Space Emporium in South Park, I check my hover-display for the time: I’m early. The San Diego Space Society is holding their monthly meeting inside, and I’m there to listen in and talk to some members while they’re on flights to Mars. I’m thinking of traveling off-world myself, for the new colony jobs. I pace in front of the Emporium and recheck the display: still early. I swipe the screen to the time-travel controls and dial in “five minutes in the future.” Now I’m on time.
Of course, that didn’t actually happen: this isn’t the sci-fi future yet. Time travel, hover-displays, and Mars colonies don’t exist. But I did pace outside the Space Emporium, waiting for the San Diego Space Society to wrap up their meeting.
Yes — in reality, the Space Emporium exists, a storefront on the corner of 30th and Grape. Inside, littered across tables and shelves are telescopes, model rockets, and magazines about space exploration titled Ad Astra. In the large front window stands a mannequin in a spacewalk suit and another dressed in NASA-blue coveralls. Along the front of the store, bins have been stacked with T-shirts with the San Diego Space Society’s logo; other shirts commemorate Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight. Above a large flat-screen television on the back wall is a plaque that reads “Mission Control Center.” The storage cabinets in the corners of the room are marked “Space Activities Lab Pod 1,” and “Space Activities Lab Pod 2.” Space-nerd-tastic!
After settling in and meeting a few of the San Diego Space Society members, I’m caught up in a lively conversation about future technology, technology we can build at home: robots, satellite imaging, rocketry, sci-fi, and elevators to space. (We’re still working on that one, haven’t quite figured it out.)
“That’s the cool thing about space,” says Scott Olson, Treasurer of the San Diego Space Society. “It encompasses anything you want it to. You’re interested in robotics, terraforming, rockets, anything…you can do all that stuff in space. And we can help you with it. That’s what we’re here for.”