Two satellites set for launch Sunday will soon be in the hands of ordinary people because they run on a tiny microchip that anyone can program.
The chip, known as Arduino, is cheap and easy to use. It is already popular among designers and artists, and it's increasingly gaining ground with everyday geeks seeking to insert a little technology into their lives. In addition to the satellites, Arduino processors now control homemade robots, desk lamps and air quality monitors. As part of an experiment, an NPR digital media staffer used it to track trips to the communal candy bowl.
"It's growing. It's growing fast," Alberto Gaitán, a Washington, D.C.-based artist, says of Arduino's popularity.
On a recent Tuesday evening, Gaitán led a course taught by HacDC, a local nonprofit that brings together artists and programmers. Sitting around tables are about a dozen people from all sorts of different backgrounds: lawyers, artists — even a trained philosopher. Each has his own reason for being here: Quoctrung Bui, a research analyst, is thinking about making a present for his sister. Artist Joyce Yu-Jean Lee wants to use Arduino in her next video art instillation.
"I've been wanting for a very long time — since graduate school — to work with sensors to make my videos interact with the viewers," she says.
To understand why Arduino is so popular, "open up an old cellphone or something," says Amanda Williams, a product designer based in Montreal. "No one ever intended you to see the circuit board on that. If it's labeled at all it's labeled for the person assembling it just to make sure they put the right things in the right places."
The Arduino, by contrast, is out in the open where anyone can play with it. It's about the size of a deck of cards and plugs into any computer's USB port. Every pin, every input and output, is labeled and documented online. It can be bought for as little as $30. And while it's not supereasy to program, it is much easier than other microchips.
Back in the mid-2000s, Williams had lots of ideas for using microprocessors to make everyday objects more interesting. But the microchips available back then were expensive and hard to use. Other artists had the same problem. A group of instructors at the now-defunct Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy noticed their students needed cheap, easy-to-program microchips for art installations and other projects. The teachers had a background in engineering, so they created Arduino in 2005.
Arduino quickly caught on with designers around the world, and like many, Williams discovered it through word of mouth. "I borrowed or possibly stole an Arduino board from a friend of mine and just started fiddling around with it."
In May, she launched her first product through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter: a lamp that looks like a jellyfish that's powered by Arduino. It can turn the lamp on when the lights go out or make it change color when you touch it. And the people who buy it can easily program it to do even more.
"So if you wanted to use your lamp to display air quality data or if you wanted it to play a lullaby when you turn off the lights, those are all things that our customers can do," Williams says.
Putting customers in control is exactly why the Arduino has ended up in satellites. The satellites about to be launched have been built by Nanosatisfi, a San Francisco-based startup that wants to put space at the fingertips of everyday people. For a few hundred bucks, artists, students or anyone can rent one of the company's satellites for a few days and program it to take pictures or broadcast a message — whatever they want.
Given the populist goals of the project, Arduino technology was the way to go: "I've really wanted to use something that everyone across the world can use, that has wide appeal to everyday people," says Peter Platzer, the CEO of Nanosatisfi. "There really was no alternative."
The basics of Arduino seem to come easily to the students back at the HacDC workshop. Artist Lee claps with delight as a simple program causes a little yellow light to blink on her board. It's small step toward her eventual goal of using Arduino in her video projection exhibits.
"I'll have a solo show in the fall," says Lee, who doesn't have any programming experience. "I think I can get it down by then."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This coming weekend, a rocket is scheduled to launch into space. It's headed for the International Space Station. And among its cargo are two small satellites to be put into orbit. These satellites aren't controlled by big fancy computers. They run off microchips you could buy at your local electronics store.
NPR's Geoff Brumfiel explains what makes these microchips special.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: To understand why anyone would use a $30 microchip to control something as expensive as a satellite, look no further than this classroom above a church in Washington, D.C. Sitting around tables are about a dozen people from all sorts of different backgrounds.
ANN VROOM: My name's Ann Vroom.
BRUMFIEL: She's a lawyer.
VROOM: Yeah, a lawyer.
BRUMFIEL: Other people here are analysts, artists, there's a trained philosopher. They're students in a course being put on by HacDC, a local collective that brings together artists and programmers. They're learning how to use something called Arduino. It's a microchip on a blue circuit board about the size of a deck of cards. Vroom has one plugged into her computer's USB port and is trying to figure out how to make it do stuff.
VROOM: Right now, I want to make my buzzer buzz.
BRUMFIEL: See if you can do that, actually.
VROOM: I am trying to...
BRUMFIEL: Because that'd be good for radio, you know, a buzzing buzzer...
VROOM: I have to find out what pin number the buzzer is. That's the key to success here.
BRUMFIEL: Microchips are normally hidden deep inside smartphones or washing machines. But the Arduino is out in the open for anyone to play with. Every pin, every input and output is labeled and documented. And while it's not super easy to program, it's much easier than other microchips.
Amanda Williams is a product designer in Montreal, Canada, and an early Arduino adopter. She says to understand what life was like before Arduino...
AMANDA WILLIAMS: Open up an old cellphone or something. No one ever intended you to see the circuit board on that. If it's labeled at all, it's labeled for the person assembling it, just to make sure they put the right things in the right places.
BRUMFIEL: Back in the mid-2000s, she had a lot of ideas for using microprocessors to make everyday objects more interactive.
WILLIAMS: Judgmental bookends. So imagine if you had bookends that could, like, read the barcode symbol on your book. So every time you pulled a piece of crappy sci-fi off the shelf, they would like quirk an eyebrow at you and judge you for reading trash.
BRUMFIEL: But the microchips available back then were expensive and hard to use. Other artists had the same problem. A group of instructors at a design institute in Italy noticed their students needed cheap, easy-to-program microchips for art installations and other projects. The teachers had a background in engineering, so they created Arduino.
Like a lot of other designers in those early days, Williams discovered the Arduino through word of mouth.
WILLIAMS: I borrowed or possibly stole an Arduino board from a friend of mine and just started fiddling around with it.
BRUMFIEL: The judgmental bookends never quite worked out. But now, there's Clyde.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Meet Clyde. He's a bright desk lamp and a multicolored light.
BRUMFIEL: Clyde looks unusual, less like a lamp and more like a jellyfish. Inside, there's Arduino. It can turn Clyde on when the lights go out or make him change color when you touch him. And the people who buy him can easily program him to do even more.
WILLIAMS: So if you wanted to use your lamp to display air quality data or if you wanted to make it play a lullaby when you turn off the lights, those are all things that our customers can do.
BRUMFIEL: Williams has lots of customers. This May, she and her partner took Clyde public, raising money to produce the lamp through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. People loved it. Williams ended up raising three times the money she asked for, nearly $150,000 in all.
WILLIAMS: It was amazing. I couldn't believe how popular we got.
BRUMFIEL: Which brings us back to the satellite launching into space this weekend - two satellites actually, each with around 15 Arduino processors. Peter Platzer is CEO of Nanosatisfi, the company that built the satellites. He chose Arduino because of its simplicity.
PETER PLATZER: I've really wanted to use something that everyone across the world can use, that has wide appeal to everyday people. And there really was no other alternative.
BRUMFIEL: For a few hundred bucks, artists, students, or anyone can rent a satellite for a few days and program it to do whatever they want.
PLATZER: Take a picture of your home or your home city, or your lake, or your holiday home. Or there is an artist in Hong Kong which has composed music for the Seven Wonders of the World. And he's using our satellite to play that music and take pictures of the Seven Wonders of the World.
BRUMFIEL: And thanks to workshops like the one at HackDC, more and more people are able to use Arduinos.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZING)
VROOM: Oh, yay. We can buzz.
BRUMFIEL: Ann Vroom, the lawyer, has finally got her buzzer buzzing.
I have to say it's actually kind of annoying.
I mean, I know it's cool for you.
VROOM: Wait till we get two going. It'll be really annoying.
BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.