In the maker world, there are a handful of devices that have dramatically rocked the boat and given momentum to a culture of innovation with electronics and physical things.
One of the first major ones was the Arduino. Arduino is a simple, $30 electronics board that makes it easy for both amateur programmers and amateur engineers (like myself) to use software to interact with physical things.
The development of a hobby board like this made waves through maker culture. The barrier to entry for developing electronics prototypes was suddenly cut in half.
Then, on the other geeky side of the spectrum, coders and hackers were always looking for ways to make computing cheaper and to make building new systems more accesible. What if you could easily build a cheap multimedia server to play your music collection anywhere in the house? What about a cheap development terminal, or a small personal server for running your own productivity apps?
Enter the Raspberry Pi, a small Linux-powered computer with a price tag of only $35.
After its introduction, the Pi became an incredibly affordable way to play around with building new Internet-connected systems, and best of all, the Pi has two USB outputs and an HDMI output to connect it to a display and use it like any other desktop computer.
But here’s the problem. What if you want the computing power and Internet-connectedness of the Pi, but you want Arduino’s electronics and hardware-hacking interface?
At one point, to pull this off, you needed to rig the Arduino up with a complicated WiFi or Ethernet shield, hook the Pi up to a separate micro-controller, or work with the Pi’s very small number of electronics IO pins.
Then came BeagleBone.
The BeagleBone is a tiny, poweful Linux computer, but it’s also got all the electronics input/ouput functionality of the Arduino (with much more capacity). This little device bridged the gap between the Arduino and the Pi, making another huge step into the Internet of Things and becoming the brain behind projects like the Kickstarter startup success Ninja Blocks. The Bone has an $89 price tag, needs an extra USB WiFi adapter, and doesn’t have any kind of HDMI or display connectivity like the Pi.
The last few weeks, however, a couple new affordable devices have filled in some of the holes in the previous iterations with baked-in features and friendlier price points.
A couple days ago, Arduino announced the Arduino Yún, which still has no HDMI display port, but ramps up the previous Arduino boards with a full Linux operating system and baked-in WiFi connectivity. And, it will only put you out $69, which isn’t bad, considering you won’t need to buy any special WiFi adapter to get it wireless.
And, sneaking in a product release just a few weeks before the Yún, we have the next generation of the BeagleBone, the BeagleBone Black, which is the one that excites me most. The Black is incredibly competitive with a price tag of only $45.
The Black is a full Linux computer with a 3D graphics accelerator and more computing power than my several-hundred-dollar netbook I have sitting at home. Graphics accelerator also means: it does graphics. The Black has an HDMI output to connect it to a display, which its more costly predecessor did not have.
The Black also has over double the number of electronics I/O pins than the Arduino, meaning you can control much more stuff at once. For wireless connectivity, there’s nothing baked in, but with a $45 purchase, it’s not as big of a deal to buy a $12 USB WiFi adapter to get it connected.
The competition in this area is stunning, but it’s definitely working to the benefit of the maker community, and manufacturing and connectivity at large. Needless to say, the barrier to building your own physical things and Internet-connected devices is getting closer and closer to zero.