Using Arduino in Workshops

We chose to use Arduino in the Sensory Objects project as it is a relatively easy to use microcontroller platform which is easily reconfigurable and flexible enough to allow experimentation. We had hoped that our co-researchers would be able to plug in sensors to the Arduino and get a little practical experience of what different sensors are capable of doing and how they differed. But in practice, the Arduinos are quite fiddly to use – even plugging in a few wires could be a major challenge (even for the care workers). For people who do not have a great deal of manual dexterity, the task of putting a tiny plug into a tiny socket is huge, and for some, not possible. We need a much more robust and straightforward method of connection, but as we discussed in the last meeting, there are lots of parameters to consider first.

To try and relate some of the difficulties challenges that we faced, here is a list of the things that emerged when we used Arduino in our sensory workshops for people with learning disabilities:

  • Jumper leads and sockets are too small.
  • Jumper leads tend to ‘jump’ out of the sockets. This lead to many difficulties in practice, and having to constantly check that the leads were plugged in.
  • It is easy to plug the leads into the wrong socket. In addition, the writing (legends) on the sockets is very small and difficult to judge which legend belongs to which socket.
  • There are too many sockets. People became confused with the large number of sockets on this general purpose microcontroller.
  • The sockets are not colour coded in any way, and despite adding colours to the wires to help determine which sockets they were supposed to go into, this was of limited use.
  • Sensors were difficult to understand for almost everyone using them, and it often not clear how two sensors differed apart form some visual differences. For instance, the light sensor and distance (ultrasonic) sensors are easy to confuse, as each could be used to trigger an action by moving an object closer (or over) the sensor.
  • Sensor leads have to go into specific sockets on the board, and these are not meaningful to those people using them. Often, plugs are put into the wrong sockets and it can be difficult to notice as the sockets are so small.

In addition to the microcontroller itself, we also had issues with audio. Capturing audio was straightforward enough, but the audio clips then had to be uploaded to a computer, the format changed for the wave shields (the audio devices we added to the Arduinos) and then software created (and uploaded to each microcontroller) to produce the sounds that were requested. Co-researchers could not select and play their own choice of sounds using the Arduino and waveshield – the production of the sounds had to go via the project team. This is time consuming and inflexible.

Hence, we will be exploring alternatives that will provide more robust methods of experimenting with sensors so that co-researchers can attain a greater autonomy with the technology we provide, and try things out for themselves. The first step, as we discussed in the last meeting is to create a ‘sound box’ add-on to the Little Bits experimentation kit. The sound box will be capable of recording a single sound, and playing it back, and simple enough to be used by anyone. But it will also be capable of being connected to existing Simple Bits kit allowing experimentation with sensors.

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