We work in the sweet spot for innovation, somewhere between strategy, design and technology. Of these areas, technology is certainly the one that evolves the fastest and most often. It’s one thing to keep up with technology by reading or talking about it, but yet another to truly grasp the possibilities and implications, especially on the user experience, of these emerging and often disrupting technologies. That is why we decided to spend a day each month to get some hands-on experience.

To start off our tinkering with technology sessions, we decided to explore the seemingly endless possibilities of Arduino.

Arduino provides endless prototyping possibilities.

What is Arduino?

Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. The arduino board is the core of this platform. It allows you to connect digital or analog inputs to almost any kind of conceivable output. By sending instructions to the microcontroller on the board, your board knows how to interpret the incoming signal, how to process it and what to tell the designated output to do.

Connecting all these components can be done by using breadboards and pin-cables. The amount of possible inputs and outputs is almost endless. For instance, you can get 37 input sensors that allow you to register touch, temperature, light, heartbeats, flames, shocks, laser, infrared and much more, and all this for under 50 euros!

With all this, you can for instance create a door lock that only unlocks with a secret knock, make your own obstacle-avoiding companion robot or build your own Mars Rover replica and probably anything else you can possibly think of.

It might seem overwhelming at first, especially if you think of yourself as a non-technical person. But we can tell you from first hand experience: it ain’t that hard.

It’s not rocket science.

Getting started with Arduino is pretty easy with the official Arduino starter kit. In this kit you can find a compact but comprehensive book containing the theory you need to get started with electronics and coding. Additionally, you can find instructions for 15 projects and all the necessary hardware to complete them.

By assembling the hardware according to the provided schemes we gathered insights in basic electronic components and sensors. The provided code was easy to understand and uploading the code to the Arduino’s controller was literally as simple as pushing a button. In no time all of us we’re making working spaceship interfaces, love-o-meters and motorized pinwheels. So we decided to up the ante and to set ourselves our first mission.

How to build the prototype of a gesture-based interface?

Inspired by our colleagues at IDEO, we decided we wanted to try and come up with a similar experiment to control our Spotify with gestures. In our case though, it had to be Arduino-based, cheap, and we needed to be able to complete the prototype in less than a day’s time.

The hardware

The first thing we had to do, was to find input sensors that’d allow us to capture hand gestures in a similar way the kinect would. By searching for sensors that’d do just this, it became clear quite quickly that we wouldn’t be able to match the accuracy of this specialised device. We did however find a blog post via the arduino website that set us in the right direction.

With just two ultrasonic sensors, costing 1 euro each, we would be able to register a limited amount of gestures by placing our hands in front of the sensors and moving them closer or further away.

The software

The same post guided us to an incredibly useful Python library named Pyautogui. This library allowed us to establish a connection between a computer and the Arduino board and converts the input received from the sensors to predefined keystrokes which would let us control the active application on the computer.

The code

With the hardware and software in place, we just had to map the input to the desired output. We configured our setup like this:

  • Raising our hands before both sensors would play or pause the music
  • Raising only our left or right hand would play the previous or next song
  • Moving our right hand closer or further away from the sensor would lower or raise the volume.

So what did we learn after one day of tinkering with Arduino?

Arduino is an incredibly powerful and extremely versatile platform. The range of available input sensors and outputs is huge and together with the seemingly endless amount of documented examples you should be able to create almost anything you can think of.

But what is even more impressive is the ease of use and speed. Building a circuit is child’s play and even coding for the Arduino is extremely accessible for even the least code-savvy among us. All this makes Arduino the perfect starting point for anyone’s journey into technology and the ideal rapid prototyping tool for any kind of electronics-based project.

If your still don’t believe us, just take a look at our first gesture-based prototype, built in less than a day:

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