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Hands on with Gadgeteer April 13, 2011

Posted by reto wettach in gadgets, innovative interfaces, physical interaction design, prototyping tools.
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I am currently at the Microsoft Software Summit in Paris. This morning I attended a wonderful workshop hosted by Nic Villar and James Scott. They presented their new hardware prototyping platform called “.Net Gadgeteer“.

The concept behind Gadgeteer is “modular hardware” – as Nic and James called it.

So, you have lots of small PCBs with various features as button, camera, display or many different sensors. These PCB are connected to a “mainboard”:

(I am sorry, but I have no details about the technology of the mainboard, but it seem to be quite powerful!)

To connect the moduls, one uses 10-core flat cable – with connectors, which are really hard to remove – you have actually to tear off the connector by tearing the cable, which eventually might break the cable soon… Nik actually told me that the connectors have been chosen with purpose: they are very reliable. Once a group of kids play with gadgeteer – with the only goal to tear off as many cables as they could – and not a single connector broke. So far, the cables or connectors did not break. Actually, the manufacturer suggested cheaper connectors, but Nik and James insisted on the existing once to make sure that connecting and disconnecting works!


(original image from gadgeteer)

What was quite surprising to me is that there are different plugs on the mainboard for different modules. According to Nic they decided to not use a protocol, but to be more flexible on what the modules need and can do – and also keep costs down! Maybe the product design of the modules could communicate this concept a little better.

The whole system is programmed with C# (called “C sharp”), part of Microsoft’s .Net-Framework and VisualStudio. This is a problem with Gadgeteer: currently one has to use Microsoft environment to program it. There is a free version of the programming environment called C# express, but as said, only for Windows! This is too bad as Nic and James are targeting designers to use Gadgeteer for their prototyping.

The nice thing is, that every module has its representation in the software – including all the actions one can do with this module. I was quite impressed of what an button or an multicolored LED can do – including “blink repeatedly” or “button released”. This makes programming quite easy.

Even more impressive this concept is when using complex modules as cameras or displays: in the end it takes a few lines of code to make the camera take a picture when motion is detected and show the picture on the display. I managed to implement this within a couple of minutes… šŸ™‚

Another impressive idea behind the gadgeteer concept is the full integration in current state-of-the-art industrial design: when using Solidworks, you can use the gadgeteer add-in, which helps to quickly integrate the shapes of gadgeteer modules into your 3D-design and additionally generate mounting fixtures (those little pillars to screw the module to the product) and cutout fixtures (e.g. hole for a camera or display).

(sorry for the quality of the image, but i had to do it with my mobile…)

Gadgeteer will be sold soon for 150 – 250 US $. According to the two inventors, the system is very stable: some of the researchers at Microsoft are using gadgeteer to control their heating at home – non stop for weeks already!

I think it is an interesting product, especially for quickly producing small series or technically complex prototypes. Interesting is also the open-source approach they are going to take: so hopefully an active community will arise once this product is on the market.

I hope that I can get a testing kit soon to try out with my students – I will report on our experience!

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1. Report on Microsoft Research Summit 2011 in Paris « interaction design - May 10, 2011

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