Thesis on Arduino users

Among the links passing around the internets lately is a thesis by Alicia Gibb, an art history & museum, library, and information science graduate student (hey, I know some people like that) on the Arduino microcontroller platform and the people who use it to create works of art. The thesis is called New Media Art, Design, and the Arduino Microcontroller: A Malleable Tool.

I think her thesis does a respectable job of covering the origins of the Arduino platform and why people find it an attractive starting point. I certainly agree with many of her points.

Gibb states that the Arduino was designed for a non-technical audience, people without deep knowledge of engineering or computer science. This design goal explains four factors that differentiate the Arduino platform from many others:

  1. It is inexpensive. An Arduino board costs around $30 (better than half the cost of most other similar microcontroller boards), so it is cheap to pick up and learn. It is also cheap to integrate into a project, leave there, and move on to the next project with a new Arduino board.
  2. It is packaged with an integrated development environment (IDE). The IDE is easy to install and get started with, even for non-technical users.
  3. It is programmed via USB, so additional programming hardware is unnecessary. While most microcontrollers communicate via traditional serial port, the Arduino’s USB port is more useful for communicating with a modern computer that is likely to have no serial port. (I would add the additional point that the USB port supplies power, so no additional power supply is necessary. Even when away from the computer, the USB port can be used for power, thanks to the ubiquity of spare USB wall-wart power supplies and cables.)
  4. It is supported by a community.

However, the Introduction page on the Arduino website adds and expands some other details that have also been important in its success:

  1. The IDE runs under Windows, as do nearly all other microcontroller platforms, but also under Mac OS and Linux, bringing a wider audience
  2. The software is open source and extensible, encouraging sharing, so people can easily add new features and borrow from the work of others
  3. The hardware is also open source and extensible. While there is official hardware that can be purchased, the design is documented and available for anyone to modify, improve, and extend.

Interactive embroidery project by Becky Stern

Gibb goes on to highlight some high-profile Arduino work done by artists and designers, as well as exhibitions that have featured them. She summarizes interviews that she conducted with members of the Arduino community, why they used the platform, and how it enhanced their creative work. There is a lot of artist-talk, and I found myself switching my brain to a more creative mode as I read along.

There are a lot more neat projects that need to be done, especially in workshops where young people can channel their enthusiasm and creativity. I am trying to hint that Emily should think about developing a program like this, though I know it is easy to volunteer someone else for more work. Reading Gibb’s thesis sparks the imagination, and I continue to look forward to seeing the next application that some tinkerer comes up with.

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