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This site contains a collection of articles about my travels through the world of Electronics. I am entirely self taught, save for some basic school taught stuff. My main career path is in Computing and Programming, but I wanted to make the experience a lot more physical, given that traditional computing always takes place behind an LCD display. The world of Electronics allows me to take that computing knowledge forward into the physical with that most wonderful of inventions - the MicroController.

In these simple pages you will find a (hopefuly) comprehensive collection of my findings when working on specific projects related to those little electrons. I also keep a BLOG of electronics info, but due to the bloggy nature, its difficult to use to produce entire articles on certain projects. Thats why this website is born as I can put walkthroughs, design steps, build details in one long page and it'll look better.


Electronics and Computing Interests

A microcontroller (uC) is an entire computer systems in a single chip, and nowadays need nothing other than a power connection and a short piece of code to get running, and oddly enough, a uC can be programmed to behave as simple as a single digital switch, right the way up to a complex system, such as an alarm system, a GPS tracking or logging device, a brain for a robot, or just about anything within the limits of the uC specification.

I have so far stuck with the pretty low end of the uC market, down at the 8bit PIC chip range, as I have cobbled together a basic collection of tools to work with these very simple systems. It's difficult to imagine that these chips available today are actually as powerful as the old home computers of the 1980s, and run quicker too!

They might not seem as powerful as these old systems, because they don't output to a Television, but they can be made to do so, besides, those old systems like the Sinclair Spectrum, or Commodore 64 used to use extra hardware off of the CPU (in most cases a low clocked Z80 CPU) to generate the TV signals. They also had rudimentary operating systems, of which can also be done with a microcontroller.

I love uC's specifically because they help me use my knowledge of computing to write code that really affects the real world. Even something as simple as lighting an LED of your own choosing (not one built into the case of your PC) when you want it to light, completely independently of a full PC, without some custom USB device or custom built parallel port circuit. Quite a few years ago I built a circuit that allowed me to control a stepper motor with two simple switches, and doing that really brings computing into the physical world.

I am delighted to see the world of computing is actually entering the physical world more often nowadays - when I first started into Electronics full-on, computers available to the general public were pretty much only capable of interacting with the physical world by the print facility! That is save, perhaps, for some niche robotics products that cost an arm and a leg.

Nowadays, I think it was Nintendo who threw the first practical physical computing system into popular culture with the introduction of the Wii games console, although the physicality was in reverse (Sensory) - they introduced the Accelerometer into many many homes, along with a camera based IR point tracking system!

Apple Computers shortly followed suit in the sensory department again, with the accelerometers built into the iPhone and iPod Touch. Later they helped introduce Global Positioning with a GPS module, bringing the mobile devices into a digitally aware world positional space. With the next revision they introduced the compass module, this brought the device into the capabilities of Augmented Reality. And now Apple are pioneering once more (along with Nintendo), as the iPhone 4 now has a three axis gyroscope.

Think about the gyroscope as the perfect accompaniment to the Accelerometer - the Accelerometer measures horizontal, vertical and depth (X, Y and Z) physical movement, and therefore registers a +1 on the vertical accelerometer reading due to gravity (unless the device is in free fall!). The gyroscope measures rotation - around a circle laid on the ground, around a circle laid against a north wall, and around another circle laid against a west wall. These three 'axes' of rotation allow wonderful interactions allowing the brain of the computer (in our case a uC) to interact more and more with the physical world.

On the other end of things, on the physical motion aspects, robotics is key, this utilises many different types of drive motor, from a straightforward DC motor, through powerful AC motors, through to precise stepper and servo motors.

But there are a world of things that can be done with electronics other than the physical aspects provided you train yourself to look for solutions to real world 'problems' (problems as in simply seeing a shortcoming in a particular product that you might want to attempt to address) that are all around us.

A project I am working on right now uses only a very little physical interaction to perform a really useful function. I want to build an intervalometer (split the word in twain - interval and ...ometer). I am also into photography, and an intervalometer allows me to take time lapse photography. Once the shots are taken for something I can combine them to make an interesting movie using free software. See the relevant article page for more info, but to cut a long story very short, at this time I have fully envisaged an electronics project that would result in such a device. Fully envisaged means I have, in my mind, completed a design for the system. Given my previous knowledge of electronics I have laid out a design, and I already have all the tools, software and components I need to build one.

Due to a strong university level knowledge of computing and computing systems design, I am confident that my design will work, and when you reach this stage of electronics knowledge, and have solved all the various systems design problems and have laid yourself out a set of steps to complete to build the thing, it is an extremely rewarding proposition, and is fun to build.

 

June 2010