Ask Hackaday: Arduino in Consumer Products

Speak with those who consider themselves hardcore engineers and you might hear “Arduinos are for noobs” or some other similar nonsense. These naysayers see the platform as a simplified, overpriced, and over-hyped tool that lets you blink a few LEDs or maybe even read a sensor or two. They might say that Arduino is great for high school projects and EE wannabes tinkering in their garage, but REAL engineering is done with ARM, x86 or PICs. Guess what? There are Arduino compatible boards built around all three of those architectures. Below you can see but three examples in the DUE, Galileo, and Fubarino SD boards.

This attitude towards Arduino exists mainly out of ignorance. So let’s break down a few myths and preconceived biases that might still be lurking amongst some EEs and then talk about Arduino’s ability to move past the makers.

Arduino is NOT the Uno

When some hear “Arduino”, they think of that little blue board that you can plug a 9v battery into and start making stuff. While this is technically true, there’s a lot more to it than that.

  1. An Arduino Uno is just an AVR development board. AVRs are similar to PICs. When someones says “I used a PIC as the main processor”, does that mean they stuck the entire PIC development board into their project? Of course not. It’s the same with Arduino (in most cases), and design is done the same way as with any other microcontroller –
    • Use the development board to make, create and debug.
    • When ready, move the processor to your dedicated board.
  2. What makes an Arduino an “Arduino” and not just an AVR is the bootloader. Thus:
    • An Atmega328P is an AVR processor.
    • An Atmega328P with the Arduino bootloader is an Arduino.
  3. The bootloader allows you to program the AVR with the Arduino IDE. If you remove the bootloader from the AVR, you now have an AVR development board that can be programmed with AVR Studio using your preferred language.

There Is No Special Arduino Language

Arduino "blink" sketch should run on any Arduino compatible board.
Arduino “blink” sketch should run on any Arduino compatible board.

Yes, I know they call them sketches, which is silly. But the fact is it’s just c++. The same c++ you’d use to program your PIC. The bootloader allows the IDE to call functions, making it easy to code and giving Arduino its reputation of being easy to work with. But don’t let the “easy” fool you. They’re real c/c++ functions that get passed to a real c/c++ compiler. In fact, any c/c++ construct will work in the Arduino IDE. With that said – if there is any negative attribute to Arduino, it is the IDE. It’s simple and there is no debugger.

The strength comes in the standardization of the platform. You can adapt the Arduino standard to a board you have made and that adaptation should allow the myriad of libraries for Arduino to work with your new piece of hardware. This is a powerful benefit of the ecosystem. At the same time, this easy of getting things up and running has resulted in a lot of the negative associations discussed previously.

So there you have it. Arduino is no different from any other microcontroller, and is fully capable of being used in consumer products along side PICs, ARMs etc. To say otherwise is foolish.

What is the Virtue of Arduino in Consumer Products?

This is Ask Hackaday so you know there’s a question in the works. What is the virtue of Arduino in consumer products? Most electronics these days have a Device Firmware Upgrade (DFU) mode that allows the end user to upgrade the code, so Arduino doesn’t have a leg up there. One might argue that using Arduino means the code is Open Source and therefore ripe for community improvements but closed-source binaries can still be distributed for the platform. Yet there are many products out there that have managed to unlock the “community multiplier” that comes from releasing the code and inviting improvements.

What do you think the benefits of building consumer goods around Arduino are, what will the future look like, and how will we get there? Leave your thoughts below!

Arduinos (and other AVRs) Write To Own Flash

In this post on the Arduino.cc forums and this blog post, [Majek] announced that he had fooled the AVR microcontroller inside and Arduino into writing user data into its own flash memory during runtime. Wow!

[Majek] has pulled off a very neat hack here. Normally, an AVR microcontroller can’t write to its own flash memory except when it’s in bootloader mode, and you’re stuck using EEPROM when you want to save non-volatile data. But EEPROM is scarce, relative to flash.

Now, under normal circumstances, writing into the flash program memory can get you into trouble. Indeed, the AVR has protections to prevent code that’s not hosted in the bootloader memory block from writing to flash. But of course, the bootloader has to be able to program the chip, so there’s got to be a way in.

The trick is that [Majek] has carefully modified the Arduino’s Optiboot bootloader so that it exposes a flash-write (SPM) command at a known location, so that he can then use this function from outside the bootloader. The AVR doesn’t prevent the SPM from proceeding, because it’s being called from within the bootloader memory, and all is well.

The modified version of the Optiboot bootloader is available on [Majek]’s Github.  If you want to see how he did it, here are the diffs. A particularly nice touch is that this is all wrapped up in easy-to-write code with a working demo. So next time you’ve filled up the EEPROM, you can reach for this hack and log your data into flash program memory.

Thanks [Koepel] for the tip!

Embed With Elliot: Shifting Gears With AVR Microcontrollers

Most modern computers are able to dynamically adjust their operating frequency in order to save power when they’re not heavily used and provide instantaneous-seeming response when load increases. You might be surprised to hear that the lowly 8-bit AVR microcontrollers can also switch CPU-speed gears on the fly. In this edition of Embed with Elliot, we’ll dig into the AVR’s underappreciated CPU clock prescaler.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Useful Code For Useful Things

The Hackaday Prize isn’t exclusively about building things that will help the planet; you can also build things that will enable others to build things to save the planet. [Eric] isn’t saving the world with his commonCode library, but it will make it vastly easier for other people to build the next great Thing.

The idea behind commonCode is the same as shared libraries you’ll find in any desktop application of reasonable size; it provides a common library for AVR microcontrollers to build just about anything. Bit manipulation, an interface for timers, math functions, graphics, I/O, and peripheral drivers are all available in the commonCode library. This makes it easy for the developmentally challenged among us to create whatever project they want.

The commonCode library wasn’t created just for The Hackaday Prize. [Eric] has been tinkering around with AVRs since well before the Arduino existed, and he has dozens of projects in permanent installations. It’s a great way to give back to the community, and the perfect way to allow people to develop their own things to solve whatever problem they have in mind.


The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Optimizing AVR LCD Libraries

A while ago, [Paul Stoffregen], the creator of the Teensy family of microcontrollers dug into the most popular Arduino library for driving TFT LCDs. The Teensy isn’t an Arduino – it’s much faster – but [Paul]’s library does everything more efficiently.

Even when using a standard Arduino, there are still speed and efficiency gains to be made when driving a TFT. [Xark] recently released his re-mix of the Adafruit GFX library and LCD drivers. It’s several times faster than the Adafruit library, so just in case you haven’t moved on the Teensy platform yet, this is the way to use one of these repurposed cell phone displays.

After reading about [Paul]’s experience with improving the TFT library for the Teensy, [Xark] grabbed an Arduino, an LCD, and an Open Workbench Logic Sniffer to see where the inefficiencies in the Adafruit library were. These displays are driven via SPI, where the clock signal goes low for every byte shifted out over the data line. With the Adafruit library, there was a lot of wasted time in between each clock signal, and with the right code the performance could be improved dramatically.

The writeup on how [Xark] improved the code for these displays is fantastic, and the results are impressive; he can fill a screen with pixels at about 13FPS, making games that don’t redraw too much of the screen at any one time a real possibility.

Mimimalist Arduino Gaming Platform

A pretty color LCD screen, an Arduino, a buzzer and a joystick is all you need for a minimalist gaming console for under $20. At least, that’s all [João Vilaça] needed to get this sweet version of Tetris up and running. He’s working on Breakout right now. His Breakout looks even better. See the postscript below for details.

It’s a testament to the current state of the hardware hacking scene that [João] could put this device together in an afternoon for so cheap, presumably after waiting a while for shipments from China. The 320×240 SPI color TFT LCD screen used to cost twice as much as this whole project did. And wiring it up is a simple matter of connecting this pin to that pin. Almost child’s play.

Equally impressive is the state of open source software. A TFT library from Seeed Studios makes the screen interface a piece of cake. [João] wrote his own sound and joystick code, and of course the Tetris gameplay itself, but it’d be much more than a few weeks’ work without standing on the shoulders of giants. Check out [João]’s Github for the project code and stick with us after the break for a demo video and some of our other favorite Arduino gaming hacks.

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Arduino IDE Becomes More Open, Less Snarky

Version 1.6.4 of the Arduino IDE has been out for a little while now, and it has a couple of notable changes. To our eyes, the most interesting change makes adding support for non-standard boards and their configurations within the Arduino IDE a lot simpler. We’ll get into details below.

unnamedBut before that, it’s time to bid farewell to the cheeky little popup window that would deliver a warning message when using a board bearing the USB IDs of their former-partner-turned-competitor. We absolutely agree with [Massimo] that the issues between Arduino SRL / Smart Projects and Arduino LLC are well-enough known in the community, and that it’s time for the popup to fade away.

Now on to the meat of this post. The new “Board Manager” functionality makes it significantly easier for other non-Arduino products to be programmed within the Arduino IDE. Adafruit has a tutorial on using the Board Manager functionality with their products, and it basically boils down to “enter the right URL, click on the boards you want, download, restart Arduino, bam!”

The list of unofficially supported third-party boards is still a bit short, but it includes some stellar entries. For instance, Adafruit has provided the files needed for the ESP8266, which recently received the Arduino treatment. This means that you can simply point your IDE at Adafruit’s URL, and it’ll set you up with everything needed to develop for the ESP8266 from within the comfy Arduino IDE.

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