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Interview: John Nussey, author of Arduino For Dummies, about that intriguing affordable versatile platform

For those new to Arduino, can you summarise what it is and where it came from? Why is causing such excitement?

Arduino is a tiny, blue microcontroller board that makes it easier for people to build circuits and play with electronics. Microcontroller might not mean much to the majority people, but it's basically a very simple computer that can be programmed from a conventional computer, using code written in the Arduino software (or Integrated Development Environment).

Arduino first leapt into the world in 2005 in Ivera, Italy. Its aim was to provide an affordable and easy to use microcontroller board for Interaction Design Students to develop their projects. Arduino has since been adopted by a huge network of designers, artists, hackers and makers all over the world to produce all kinds of projects.

Can you give us some examples of the kind of projects that Arduino is being used for?

Perhaps the most difficult thing to figure out about Arduino is what to do for your project as the possibilities are endless! Maybe you're interested in building your own robot to explore the world or automating your home to turn the lights out when you're not there. You can also use Arduino for more professional pursuits; from prototyping products quickly and easily to building your own interactive art installation.

What have you used Arduino for? What projects have you built with it?

Well the project I'm most proud of would have to be the Pen Nib Dress (opens in new tab)that I built with Steven Tai. Steven designed a piece of womenswear with gold pen nib sequins and he came to me to ask how we could make them ripple or shimmer. After a lot of trial and error we found that tiny vibration motors (the kind that you find in your phone) fitted perfectly behind the pen nibs. I build a circuit to control 780 of these vibration motors allowing us to animate them in rows. To get a better idea of this, check out the project video. This is not the most practical of projects but is a great example of how versatile Arduino is.

On the other end of the spectrum I've used Arduino to build interactive exhibits in museums. In Arduino For Dummies, I featured The Compass Lounge (opens in new tab) at The National Maritime Museum. This is an interactive part of the museum designed by Kin (opens in new tab) and there are a huge number of Arduinos used to relay information from barcode scanners and to control LED message boards, amongst other tasks. In this case the Arduinos are being used for simple repetitive tasks and have performed them without incident since 2011.

What's the best way to get started with Arduino?

If you're keen to find out more, I'd recommend finding an Arduino workshop in your area. There are groups all over the UK that host beginners' workshops so get Googling to find one near you. It is also possible to learn on your own, but workshops allow you to meet people with all kinds of interests and skills that will give you new ideas of what's possible.

Are there particular tools that every Arduino user should have at their disposal?

There are, but tools can quickly get expensive so I wouldn't recommend going out to buy everything all at once. To start with you can buy a kit and build circuits without any tools other than your own two hands. In Chapter 5 of Arduino For Dummies (opens in new tab), I go through all the most useful tools for prototyping using a solder-less breadboard and then later in Chapter 10 I go into more detail about soldering and the tools needed for that. This allows the reader to buy things as they go, rather than having to invest too much early on.

If you had one piece of advice for new users (Arduin-ists) to help them get the most from their Arduino, what would it be?

If you've just bought an Arduino or you're curious about it I'd encourage you not to think about what the Arduino can do, but what you want to do with it. Try and decide what your goal is and find the simplest way to make it otherwise you'll be blinded by all the possibilities!

Also, don't be too precious or cautious about making your Arduino project, learn by doing instead. Get something built, no matter how ugly it may look and then if you like it you can refine it next time round or just take it apart and try something completely different!

John Nussey is a creative technologist based in London and author of Arduino For Dummies (opens in new tab). His work involves using technology in new and interesting ways and covers many areas, including physical computing, creative coding, interaction design and product prototyping.