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The Arduino Inventor's Guide

Publisher: No Starch Press

Usually, I fully agree with the proverb, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Often, the cover is merely designed to catch the reader's attention, taking liberties with characters' appearances, environments... whatever is more likely to sell the book or capture the attention. The cover of The Arduino Inventor's Guide: Learning Electronics by Making 10 Awesome Projects, on the other hand, seems quite appropriate and representative, if metaphorical at times. The front cover features an interpretation of MC Escher's "Drawing Hands," where two hands are sketching each other. However, in this cover art, one sketched hand is plugging in a cable to the other hand, which is "thrown together" with what appears to be an Arduino, red cardboard, and tape. As I made my way through the book, it dawned on me that the image is so fitting. First, the examples of the projects are made out of the red cardboard boxes in which Sparkfun ships their products and tape (along with hot glue) is heavily used to put things together, as well. And, while building a robotic humanoid hand isn't one of the projects, there is a project in which you build a simple robot that can draw shapes. And, perhaps the inspiration for selecting "Drawing Hands" as inspiration to draw from for this cover in the first place? The code that Arduinos run are sorts of programs that are called... sketches.

Before I delve into the ups and downs of the book itself, however, we should probably address the elephant in the room. Right on the front cover (bottom left), the Sparkfun logo is plain to see. The authors, Brian Huang and Derek Runberg, both work for Sparkfun's Education Department. And, while the projects in this book can be performed with any Arduino compatible board and some extra components that can be acquired in a variety of places, they are specifically tailored to be used with Sparkfun's Inventor's Kit and an additional add-on. At the beginning of each project, the needed materials and parts are listed and the book indicates whether the individual parts are included in the Inventor's kit or the add-on and the part number is provided, should you want to order them from Sparkfun. However, you could also source the parts from anywhere else, as well. For that matter, you could also test out most of the projects without buying any of the materials... including the Arduino... by using a free-to-use online Arduino simulator, such as Tinkercad Circuits (see link below).

So, will you actually learn electronics via the included projects, and are they, in fact, "awesome" projects? Well, I am a computer programmer familiar with C-derivative languages similar to what's used in Arduino sketches and I've had some dealings with Arduinos before, so I can't necessarily speak to whether it can teach those with no previous training, but I was impressed with the balance they made between explaining the code so that it could be understood and used, and going into more depth than necessary. If you want to become a programmer, you need to learn a lot more than what's in this book, but there's enough here to give you a working knowledge of the basics needed to coax some functionality out of an Arduino and get it to do useful things.

As for the projects, themselves, I was impressed, both with the appeal of most of the projects and the additional possibilities of the components that are used. Further, each project has sections at the end that suggest modifications to try and additional, extended uses that could use what you've just learned. This could easily capture the imagination and inspire readers to delve deeper and invent their own fun uses of these components. As with any other approach to introducing the Arduino I've ever seen, it starts with blinking an LED. However, they try to make even this interesting by suggesting places that programmed blinking lights could be useful, such as modifying model cars and such. They then expand on the controlled LEDs with a traffic light project and a nine pixel animation machine, your own low-resolution display, of sorts. Starting in Project 4, with the Reaction Timer, you start working with interactive electronics, with the addition of the push button. Next, the color-mixing nightlight introduces the RGB LED and analog output. Things really get moving with the balance beam game, where you put a stepper motor to use. We continue to play with the stepper motor in the desktop greenhouse (to open the top and release heat), but also use a temperature sensor and a hobby motor. As mentioned in the first paragraph, there is also the Drawbot, similar to the Turtle (for anyone who knows what that is), which is a simple robot that uses two geared motors to control wheels on either side, allowing it to be programmed to roll forward, backward, and to turn, and features a pen holder, so it can draw on the floor as it drives around. Skipping over the Drag Race Timer, for a moment, the last project is a Tiny Electric Piano, which uses a single touch sensor to not only sense when it's being touched, but where, to determine which note to be played and plays tones over a piezo buzzer, which acts like a speaker, but creates squaretooth waveform notes.

The Drag Race Timer, while not the last project, is almost a culmination of the other things that have come before it, using the timing aspects learned in the reaction timer, a servo motor to release the car, a push button to start the process, a two-line LCD text display to report the time and prompt the user and a photocell, as found in the color-mixing nightlight, to detect the darkness cause by a toy car passing over it, to stop the timer.

Like I said at the outset, this book is geared toward Sparkfun products and they don't try to hide the fact. Personally, I'm a fan of Sparkfun, so that doesn't bother me. The Arduino Inventor's Guide seems to touch on all the important bits, from setting up the Arduino software in the beginning of the book, to several useful tips in the Appendix, such as how to solder, using a multimeter, and identifying different resistors.

If you're new to electronics and interested in the Arduino, The Arduino Inventor's Guide is written with you in mind. The explanations are well-written, the asides are interesting and educational, and the projects are fun and easy to build upon and play with. If you're looking to get into making things with an Arduino, I highly recommend The Arduino Inventor's Guide and pairing this book with the associated kits, while not necessary to enjoy the book, would make an excellent start kit gift.



-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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