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Driving social change with Atmel and Arduino

Nominet Trust, one of the UK’s leading funders of social technology ventures, recently kicked off an initiative to find and recognize the most inspiring applications of digital technology for social good. Unsurprisingly, the Atmel-powered Arduino made the 100 item list, with Charles Leadbeater, a Nominet Trust board member and NT100 project lead, describing Arduino as “LEGO for electronics.”

“The core to an Arduino is a simple, ultra-low-cost circuit board, based on an open-source design, armed with an [Atmel] microprocessor which can be programmed with simple, open-source software tools by the user,” Leadbeater wrote in a recent Financial Times article. “The idea is that anyone should be able to turn an Arduino into a simple electronic device such as a light switch and sensor.”

As Leadbeater notes, Arduino was started by a group at the Interaction Design Institute at Ivrea in Italy as a way to get people making their own electronics hardware, just as simple software tools like Scratch, a project born at the MIT Media Lab and another entrant on the Nominet Trust 100 list, are helping children to learn to code.

“If the Arduino follows in Scratch’s tracks it will become ubiquitous: the Scratch website currently has more than two million registered users and four million shared projects,” said Leadbeater.

In addition to taking educational and Maker facilities by storm, Atmel-powered Arduino boards are now being deployed throughout the corporate world, with the hardware being used by designers, architects and engineers for prototyping purposes.

“It’s very easy to try out design by building a prototype so that they can see what solutions work and toss out those that don’t. This is much easier to do early in the design process before more money has been spent on bringing an idea to fruition; Arduino can play a key role here,” Brock Craft, author of “Arduino Projects for Dummies,” told ITPortalPro earlier this year. “Just a simple example – I know a lighting company that recently used Arduino to control dimmable lighting effects for architectural lighting products they were developing. Using an Arduino helped them try out their ideas in an afternoon, rather than waiting weeks.”

As we’ve previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, Atmel-powered Arduino boards illustrate the numerous advantages associated with an open source approach.

“From the out-of-the-box experience we want to know how long it takes to you to go from zero to something that works,” Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi wrote in a recent Makezine article. “This is very important because it creates a positive reinforcement that you are on the right path. The longer that time is, the more people you lose in the process.”

According to Massimo, “we are all on the edge” of a new step in the Maker Movement.

“Some of you are surely working on the next big thing. Please keep at it, but keep in mind the overall experience,” he continued. “[Yes], you can put a processor that is 100 Mhz more than another one, but the way you interact with it makes a huge difference to people because it’s more important to take care of the experience people have when they learn than to give them power they don’t know what to do with.”

Massimo reiterated the notion of “people over Megahertz” earlier this week during the New York Hardware Innovation Workshop (HIW) in September, which kicked off right before the 2013 World Maker Faire in NYC.

“Every time you design a system to do everything, you end up with a system designed to do nothing. The challenge is to build a platform that solves a simple problem for a specific group of people: beginners for example,” Massimo emphasized during a panel discussion about the evolution of microcontrollers (MCUs). “Our boards are not the most powerful, but they enable people to get ideas into products very fast. It’s people over Megahertz.”

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