Toolkits review

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Arduino (and Wiring)
Barebone - custom solutions
BasicStamps - BasicX - BasicAtom
Beagle Board
BUG
CUI (CREATE USB Interface)
Eobody2
Gainer
I-CubeX
LEGO Mindstorms
LittleBits
Make Controller
NADA Sketchtools
NerdKits
NETLab Toolkit
Phidgets
SeeedStudio Electronic Bricks
Snap Circuits
The Discover Electronics Kit
Vex Robotics
ZB1
 

Arduino (and Wiring) [top of page]

http://www.arduino.cc/
http://wiring.org.co/
Summary

“Arduino is an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple i/o board, and a development environment for writing Arduino software.” (from the Arduino website). The philosophy of this platform is to have products that are open source, easy to use and cheap to produce. Wiring is a similar platform but features a more sophisticated I/O board and development environment.

Programming language

Open-source environment for both modules, based on the Processing language. A Serial Proxy can forward data from a serial port to a network connection and vise-versa, therefore opening up connection to a large variety of external software (Flash, Max/MSP, etc.)

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> Serial port, USB

[devices] <=> Arduino: 11 I/O interface pins Wiring: 53 I/O interface pins

Comments

Shields (extension units) can be plugged in for additional capabilities (motors, bio sensors, prototyping board, etc) on the Arduino. Projects can be run in stand-alone or connected to a computer for software interaction. The Arduino board is relatively small and its price is very attractive. Processing + Arduino are relatively popular in design and art educational programs. The Wiring board is very elaborate and still affordable.

Price

~ 30 USD for the Arduino board.

~ 60 USD for Wiring.




Barebone - custom solutions [top of page]


Summary

Microcontrollers are also available in “barebone” configuration. It is up to the designer/programmer to build the supporting circuitry and necessary code. Some common configurations (dedicated to specific tasks) are available as ready to use modules by some vendors, i.e. LCD screens, LEDs circuits, light sensors, etc.

Programming language

Low-level like Assembler, C, Basic and such.

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> custom but usually serial, parallel, or USB

[devices] <=> custom

Comments

Reserved for advanced users, as they required a deep understanding of electronics and programming. These kits are historically targeted at and used by engineers. The learning curve can be relatively steep for designers and hobbyists. The advantage comes over time, as you get more and more comfortable with them. In many cases, customized solutions can be very cheap and effective. If you make a mistake and fry one, it is really cheap to replace. Small production (10-20 units) are also cost efficient. The custom solutions also provide the smallest size modules for a particular situation (you only use the components you need). A very large selection of models and configurations are available, all at very low prices. Common models are Atmel’s AVR, Microchip’s PIC, ARM.

Price

~ 1-15 USD each depending on the features, power and speed of the microcontroller.




BasicStamps - BasicX - BasicAtom [top of page]

http://www.parallax.com
http://www.basicx.com
http://www.basicmicro.com
Summary

Note: All three manufacturers produce similar chips and development modules. This review will focus on the BasicStamps from Parallax Inc. as they are the more popular.

Parallax modules started in 1992. Now they offer 8 different types of BASIC Stamp modules with varying capabilities (speed, memory, power consumption). The modules are actually a PIC microcontroller nicely packaged (supporting circuitry) for easy programming and interfacing.

Programming language

BASIC (or variant) + socket server for connecting to Flash, Director, Max/MSP, etc.

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> Serial port, USB

[devices] <=> 16 I/O interface pins (typical)

Comments

Small and versatile modules. Very popular with extensive documentation, tutorials, code samples available online. Some units are directly targeted for educational purposes with manuals and exercises. Can be run in standalone mode once the chip is programmed. Connections via breadboard or soldering, but development board has ready made connector servos and such. Javelin Stamps offer a Java based equivalent.

Price

~40 USD for a stamp module.

~130 USD for a development kit




Beagle Board [top of page]

http://beagleboard.org/
Summary

The USB-powered Beagle Board is a low-cost, fan-less single board computer that unleashes laptop-like performance and expandability without the bulk, expense, or noise of typical desktop machines.

Programming language

Like any netbook, laptop or desktop PC

Hardware interface

USB Port, DVI, S-Video, Stereo audio in and out

Comments

Truly a low-power single board computer with everything it entails.

Price

149 USD




BUG [top of page]

http://www.buglabs.net/

Summary

Each BUGbase is a fully programmable computer, with a CPU, RAM, rechargeable lithium-ion battery, USB, Ethernet, micro-SD and serial interfaces, and a small LCD with button controls. BUGbase also has four slots in which any combination of BUGmodules may be inserted.

Programming language

Mostly Java

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> USB 2.0, Wifi, Bluetooth, Ethernet

[devices] <=> 4 Bugmodules connectors (Wifi, UART Serial, SPI, Bluetooth, Ethernet, etc)

Comments

Looks powerful, with nice Insdustrial Design of the kit, but still requires advanced Java skills to use and customize.

Price

450 USD for BUGbase (base only)

750 USD for BUG bundle (base + 4 modules)

100-250 USD for individual modules




CUI (CREATE USB Interface) [top of page]

http://www.mat.ucsb.edu/~dano/CUI/

Summary

CUI is a PIC-based platform developed initially for Media Arst and Technology projects. It started in 2005 at U.C Santa Barbara and allows the creation on interfaces that bind the physical and the digital worlds.

The microcontroller is relatively fast and offers native USB support. It enables the board to be configured as regular keyboard, mouse, joystick or any other USB device, thus facilitating the connection with any applications or software.

Programming language

C, assembly

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> USB

[devices] <=> 13 A/D inputs and 18 general purpose I/O ports

Comments

developed by Dan Overholt at U.C. Santa Barbara (now at Aalborg, Denmark)

Price

50 euros per board (ready to use)




Eobody2 [top of page]

http://www.eowave.com


Gainer [top of page]

http://gainer.cc
Summary

Gainer is an open source Cypress chip-based (PSoC) development board (Gainer I/O module) combined with software Libraries that support Flash, Max/MSP, Processing.

A centralized Hub/Server (written in Java) manages the link between the hardware (Gainer or others) and the software part(s).

Project from Shigeru Kobayashi from IAMAS in Japan.

Programming language

8 firmware version offered. Everything is done via software on the host machine Flash, Max/MSP, Processing.

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> USB

[devices] <=> 16 I/O interface pins, can be mixed between analog/digital input or output (via firmware).

Price

35 USD for board




I-CubeX [top of page]

http://www.infusionsystems.com
Summary

This proprietary system is based on the MIDI communication protocol and offers modular components covering a large field of applications. The components (sensors, actuators, digitizing modules and such) are of very high quality and easy to connect ( almost configuration-free) but this come at a cost. A basic kit costs around 700 USD while typical modules range from 40 to 100 USD. This system is clearly intended for production or serious integration, with its high price and neat little black boxes. Nevertheless, the possibilities offered by this system are quite large. Thanks to the MIDI protocol, it is fairly straightforward to integrate the I-CubeX with other systems like musical instruments, stage equipment, light modules, video and audio units.

Programming language

Proprietary editor for programming the devices. Otherwise, any applications that can understand with MIDI signals.

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> MIDI port (via usb/serial/firewire converter), Bluetooth

[devices] <=> 32 inputs converted to MIDI signals

Comments

High-quality and polished system. Expensive but very appropriate

for performance and/or production uses. Can be use in host or stand-alone mode. Integration with other MIDI systems is a breeze, especially with audio-video software. Nice selection of body-related sensors and captors (gloves, bend sensors). A new thumb-size version with 8 inputs is now available (with a wireless/Bluetooth option).

Price

~ 700 USD for a Starter kit.

40-200 USD for components.




LEGO Mindstorms [top of page]

http://mindstorms.lego.com
Summary

Robot oriented computer-controlled kit by LEGO. The system offers various sensors and motors linked to a central programmable unit.

Programming language

Proprietary visual editor for programming the system. Developer tools are available to further program or communicate with the embedded AVR microcontroller.

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> USB, Bluetooth

[devices] <=> 4 inputs for sensors, 3 outputs for motors

Comments

Very friendly system to work with. The graphical software doesn’t require programming skills. Easy to use and the Bluetooth functionalities are very welcome for wireless interaction and development. A bit expensive considering the limited number of available inputs/outputs. Items are a bit bulky for embedding or hiding in models.

Price

~ 400 USD for the basic kit.

30-60 USD for individual sensors.




LittleBits [top of page]

http://www.littlebits.cc/

Summary

littleBits is an opensource library of discrete electronic components pre-assembled in tiny circuit boards. Just as Legos allow you to create complex structures with very little engineering knowledge, littleBits are simple, intuitive, space-sensitive blocks that make prototyping with sophisticated electronics a matter of snapping small magnets together. With a growing number of available modules, littleBits aims to move electronics from late stages of the design process to its earliest ones, and from the hands of experts, to those of artists, makers and designers.

Comments

Project lead is Ayah Bdeir.

Not yet commercially available (Summer 2009)




Make Controller [top of page]

http://www.makingthings.com/
http://www.makezine.com
Summary

A new generation of open source hardware platform, successor to the Teleo modular kits. This system is a collaboration with the MAKE magazine that specifically embrace the do it yourself (DIY) subculture. This kit is targeted at enthusiasts and hobbyists. It offers extensive features and interfaces.

Programming language

C/C++ , Python, .NET, Java, Flash/Actionscript, Processing, Max/MSP any other environment that supports OSC.

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> USB, Ethernet

[devices] <=> 8 inputs, 8 outputs, 4 servo outputs, CAN (for networking several boards together) and more.

Comments

First version in September 2006, limited documentation and user-contributed knowledge. Most of if comes from MakingThings, the company who developed it.

Development board is relatively large. A new and smaller version is now available (2009). Very flexible and powerful platform. Advanced features might overwhelm novice users. The board has built-in behaviors and can be used in stand-alone mode without any computer, and no programming

The extensive use of OSC makes this platform very easy to use once you have it setup. Configuring the Ethernet can be an issue depending on the local network you are using.

Price

~ 150 USD for the full kit.

~ 60 USD for the controller board (cental unit)




NADA Sketchtools [top of page]

http://www.sketchtools.com/


NerdKits [top of page]

http://www.nerdkits.com/kits/


NETLab Toolkit [top of page]

http://netlabtoolkit.org
Summary

The NETLab Toolkit is a free set of software tools that enable designers to easily "sketch in hardware". With no programming at all and working in the familiar environment of Flash, designers can hook up a physical sensor (e.g. a knob) and immediately get that knob to control a motor or a video projection. The toolkit works with a wide range of sensors, wireless sensors, input from the Wii Remote, controls motors and LEDs, communicates with MIDI devices, controls sound, graphics, and video in Flash, and communicates with DMX computer controlled lighting equipment, all with a simple drag-and-drop interface (of course, programming hooks are provided as well).

Price

free




Phidgets [top of page]

http://www.phidgets.com
Summary

Phidgets are easy to use building blocks for interfacing the physical and the virtual worlds. This system arose out of a research project at the University of Calgary in Canada. The philosophy behind it is “… just as widgets make GUIs easy to develop, so could phidgets make the new generation of physical user interfaces easy to develop.“ [http://grouplab.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/phidgets] Modules are plug and play and don’t require soldering of electronic components. The system has an extensive library of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and can be used with a large number of applications, even with other toolkits in some cases.

Programming language

C , COM, .NET, JAVA, Flash/Actionscript, Max/MSP, etc. PhidgetWebService offers a socket based server so clients/devices can connect locally or remotely.

Hardware interface

[computer] <=> USB

[devices] <=> specific to each module, specialized connectors.

Comments

Easy to use USB connections and sensor cables. No soldering needed. Great collection of different modules and sensors, ready to use. No standalone mode (must be connected to a computer at all time). A working setup can require a large number of wires. Difficult to fit in existing prototypes due to their size and connection requirements.

Price

~80 USD for a basic interface kit. Modules and sensors range from 10 to 60 USD each.




SeeedStudio Electronic Bricks [top of page]

http://www.seeedstudio.com/depot/electronic-brick-family-c-48.html

Summary

A basic setup of electronic bricks might include 5 parts: MCU boards, adapter shield, connectivity and functional modules.

Arduino is based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. These advantages make it became one of the best choices for the MCU part of Electronic bricks. Each functional module has buckled port with VCC, GND and Output, which has corresponding port on the adapter shields, with a plain 2.54mm dual-female cable you may start playing already. Buckled brick cables are like cement to make the connections easier, secure and more professional looking.




Snap Circuits [top of page]

http://www.snapcircuits.net/


The Discover Electronics Kit [top of page]

http://kits.sparklelabs.com/

Summary

An electronics toolkits with no microcontroller. It mostly consists of a breadboard, many components, and manual, all nicely packaged in a cardboard box with great graphics.

Comments

Launched Spring/Summer 2009.

Price

~ 50 USD for the kit containing 130 parts.




Vex Robotics [top of page]

http://www.vexrobotics.com/
Summary

Robot centric




ZB1 [top of page]

http://wiblocks.luciani.org/ZB1/index.html