Friday, 29 July 2011

Arduino and general geek-kits specialists sent a surprise - and very welcome - package to Nerd Towers this morning. It follows a discussion with Aaron at Oomlout (does it look weird with the first "o" capitalised?) which in turn came about after demonstrating a few project ideas from these very pages to Chris at HPC Laser (where we recently bought our spanky LS3020 machine)

Oomlout have been providing Arduino type starter kits for years and have excellent facilities up in Halifax. In fact, getting your stuff from them means you're dealing with likeminded nerds and geeks - these guys don't just put components into boxes and sell them on, they actually use and build stuff with them too!
A lot of the machinery at Oomlout has been designed and built by Aaron and the guys - cogs made from laser cut acrylic, arms moving on servos, all connected to homebrew control boards: if ever you need advice on what to get for your own projects, at least you know you're dealing with people who know exactly what you're going through!

Enough blather about what a cool bunch of guys these are, let's have a look at what we've got:

I'm personally no great lover of Arduino, but this starter kit has got me genuinely intrigued. As well as the main Arduino control board, there's everything you'd expect to find to get you started - breadboard, jumper wires, LEDs, resistors and so on - and some slightly more exotic components for the more adventurous, including a motor, pushbuttons, micro potentiometer (to make rotary dials), transistors, LDR (light dependent resistor), a shift register, a relay and a piezo sounder/buzzer.
All in all, some pretty interesting components - maybe not enough to make one big uber project with everything in it, but certainly enough to learn and understand about each one and what it could be used for.
As well as this little lot, we also got some micro servos (we're already familiar with what to do with these!) a big beefy continuous rotation servo - can be used as a high-torque motor for driving things around the place - and one of the most intriguing parts in the box, an ethernet shield.

Already we've plans for the ethernet shield, following our failed mBed HTTP client project. We'd love to find out how robust the Arduino-to-web communication is and whether that would be a more suitable for our SMS-to-web and switching unit projects.

However, the thing that is really impressive about the Oomlout starter kit is the documentation.

Each component in the starter set is introduced, with a description of what it is, what is does and how it can be used.

These are coupled with try-it-yourself type examples with real world images of what the project will look like on the board. Having run a number of workshops for BuildBrighton, I know how useful these can be. Working from simple schematics and photos off the internet is a very worthwhile exercise, but to new users, it can be confusing. Until you're comfortable with understanding how a circuit diagram translates into which wire goes where on the circuit board, a diagram showing what the end result will look like is an invaluable aid. These diagrams are also slightly "exploded" so you can see exactly what goes where - something which can be tricky if you're following a project from a website and it has only one or two photos of the finished project, taken from an obscured camera angle.

For me, the very best bit of the starter kit is the simplest of ideas.
Each project has a paper overlay which exactly matches the breadboard layout, and has the components used printed at actual size. The end result is a sheet which you can stick to your breadboard and simply poke the components through, ensuring that every leg and every wire goes into exactly the right place.

It's such a simple idea, I'm amazed it's not more popular.
I've never seen this approach before, and it's as brilliant as it is simple.

So even if you're an old hand, whether you're starting out, or just looking for something different to get out of a rut, check out the Oomlout website. If their level of attention to detail on the other products is as high as it is for the starter kit, you're sure of some great help and advice along the way - and that in itself is worth ten times the value of the components in the kit!