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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.”

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Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 8:04 a.m.

Guess you never heard of HeathKit

Also, you said “but now homespun technology is accessible to you and me, and it’s beginning to spread, becoming (dare I say it) a revolution.”

Um, homespun technology was spreading in the 50’s and 60’s with Amateur radio (Ham) operators building their own stations and computer tinkerers like Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak building homemade computers in the 70’s.

Software is also technology an dmost of the first software was done in the homes of hobbyists beginning in the 70’s

Homespun technology is NOT beginning to spread, it’s been here since Marconi and Tesla


Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 8:31 a.m.

"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."

They had these in the 60's

"There’s a guy who starts his coffee pot by sending it a text message from his phone: at-home electronics development"

Really!? Ever heard of BSR X-10? Yep, been there, done that. Remote control technology even easier than using a cell phone; from the 70's


Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 9:06 a.m.

“Think about it: technology and its cost effectiveness “increase exponentially.”An example: We’ve all noticed, or heard, that 30 years ago computers were the size of living rooms, cost millions of dollars, were only available to a handful of nerds, and were nowhere near as capable as today’s $1000 laptop. That’s advancement.”

That’s also called “Moore’s Law.”

That’s why some people are wiring washing machines to send them a text message when their whites are done. Technology is now so cheap, we regular folk can afford to fool around with it.

There’s a technology for that now. It’s a communications protocol called Zigbee.

Soon many appliances will come with Zigbee technology that will allow people to monitor and control home appliances from anywhere in the world. They also may be controlled (shut off) by the local electric company on home that have Smart Meters.

In the future, people will pay less if they schedule their dishwashing and clothes cleaning tasks at low-peak-use times like midnight to 4 am.

“I hope this is more like the sputtering beginnings of the internet, instead of the underdeveloped fad of CB radios.”

Well actually the CB radio phenonmonen was going pretty strong until something nobody had any control over made CB virtually useless. The 11 Year Solar (Sun) Cycle. It came along and wreaked havoc on the CB frequencies making them little more than static boxes. Serious users left low-band and used VHF and UHF radios. But they were expensive. Many CB radios users became licensed Ham operators and used 2 meter radio. Then in the early 1980’s came cell phones.

Yes, I am a nerd too. :)~


Oxenfree March 15, 2011 @ 11:07 a.m.

Ponzi, excellent! Happy to meet an alpha nerd. You're right that tinkering with electronics is nothing new, but I was trying to draw a distinction between a few very smart people (sounds like yourself) making electronic gadgets to a simplified version for the masses. If this trend continues, and software to program the microcontrollers gets easier to code (etc) it could be that everyone can pick up a microcontroller and wire it almost anything they can think of. So, I still say it's beginning to spread.

Zigbee sounds cool. I'm assuming that'll be standard on new appliances. If you don't want to buy a new appliance and you'd like to control the appliances you already have, or receive feedback when they're working or have completed a task, microcontrollers and sms protocol can already work with your cell phone and, say, dishwasher.

Thanks for commenting, Ponzi. Nice to see there are other tinkerers around town. From what I could find, San Diego isn't a haven of hackers and makers that other cities are, like LA and San Francisco.


Oxenfree March 15, 2011 @ 11:27 a.m.

Ponzi, as somebody who seems pretty familiar with DIY tech, you probably witnessed its contraction of popularity. When I was a kid, my dad had Popular Science magazines, woodworking, metal working, amateur radio and tech magazines that had a lot of do-it-yourself articles. The past few Popular Science issues I've thumbed through have done away with how-to articles.

Also, a lot of the current craft magazines focus on interior design, fancy meals, and decorations for festivities: see Martha Stewart's franchise and other home craft magazines. In short, they're for bored women who throw parties and want a handmade pilgrim on the Thanksgiving table. (Hint: that ain't me.)

What was my point?

Oh, that there just isn't as much technology or "men's" handicraft material out there. I think that should change.


Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 12:57 p.m.


I get your point. You are right about the controllers coming into a hobbyist domain. The coalescence of micro-electronics, small servos, microcomputers and software into smaller packages is making a new revolution happen.

The loss of hobby electronics, in my opinion, is tied to the cost. When the Japanese began mass producing electronics; T.V.’s and other things, it became impractical to build a T.V. or radio at home. The cost ratios changed. At one time you could buy a TV kit for less than the cost of a TV and build your own. When the Hitachi, Toshiba and others came along, they made them for less money than a kit. So the kit building stopped.

But then people began building home computers beginning with the S-100 card bus. The Altai and Imsai computers featured in Popular Electronics began a computer hobbyist explosion in the late 70’s. Apple came along and with the help of an Intel executive, Mark Markula, had a spiffy plastic enclosure made and the Apple II was born.

As computers became mass produced, the hobbyist became fewer. They went from hardware to software. Most of the first personal computer software was written by hacks and hobbyists or ported (or modeled) from mainframe systems. Then “professional software” like C+ and other languages pushed out the software hobbyists. The thing that will make robotics and controllers take off is a leading consumer product. Then hobbyist will jump in and dominate the market for a while until commercial leaders emerge and establish large brands.

You could be one of those people who invent a sensational product!

Japan is a leader in robotics research and production. If you really want to have your mind blown, visit some research facilities and academic campuses in Japan. Maybe not this week though. :(

As far as the woodworking and other trades or DIY stuff, I think many schools just don’t have those programs. So people don’t learn to work with wood, metal or plastic. Nor do they learn electronics or auto shop.

I did. I took woodshop, electronics, metal and plastic. I am fortunate that I know how to work with tools. I can just about fix anything around the house and rarely call any company for help. I do the electrical, plumbing, phone and cable lines, install windows, doors, sheetrock, paint, pour cement, build fences, and everything else. I have even re-roofed my home and helped friends. Just this past week I built three 4’ x 8’ redwood planter boxes for my backyard garden. Not bragging, just saying how my early exposure to industrial arts has help me. Then I also can build or fix electronics, know how to solder and how to program a computer in Java and who knows how many other languages. I don’t do any of it for a living.


Ponzi March 15, 2011 @ 12:59 p.m.

So I think the removal of industrial arts from our public schools has been a major setback. Most people don’t know how to fix or do anything. The have to call a plumber, electrician, hire a carpenter, etc. I do sometimes, when I am too lazy to do-it-myself! The other thing is why would you buy all the shop equipment needed to build furniture when you can buy it at Ikea? Then again, many people can’t even figure out how to assemble Ikea stuff!

Things are also more complicated. Like cars. People used to fix their own. I did. I replaced brakes, clutches, alternators, flywheels, spark plugs, pumps, belts, hoses, and filters. I adjusted valves and had heads machined. Now engine are more plumbing and look like a jet engine. They are packed into the engine well. I don’t do much on my car anymore because they are so computerized.

Amateur radio is still popular. There is a lot of Slow-scan TV, computer and satellite hobbying going on. Some hams talk to the crew on International Space Station. Hams like to talk and tinker. Many are employed in high tech work, other do it for the community aide aspect in case of a disaster. There are hams in Japan talking with other hams sharing information and coordinating search and rescue and relief efforts.

I’m looking into ZigBee. Anything new like this is filled with opportunity if a good idea comes up. I think ZigBee will be used by SDG&E. For example, ZigBee appliances can be distinguished from other electrical devices. It is conceivable that SDG&E would give rebates to customers using a ZigBee equipped (or retrofitted) appliance when they operate them at off-peak hours. ZigBee could also diagnose its own problems and send an email for a repair appointment. LG, the Korean appliance maker, has a washing machine with ZigBee Model: F4754NCBZLook up Ember Corporation's EM250 ZigBee chip.

I thought of ZigBee when I saw the title of your story. Washing machines will be sending emails or texting soon. It’s a very good story and you covered a lot of interesting things, especially about the groups that meet and events.


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