Speaking at RubyConf

12 September, 2008

I found out this week that my talk was accepted for this year's RubyConf! I'm very excited as this will be the first time I've spoken to a group this size.

The conference will be held November 6-8, which is the weekend immediately after the presidential election so I'm sure the mood will be extreme one way or another. You can check out the RubyConf schedule to see what else will be going down — I'm excited about a lot of the other talks, especially Ben Bleything, Giles Blowkett, and Yosseff Mendelssohn's Two Turntables And A Git Repo, about using Ruby to generate music.

Here's the description of my talk. For more details, see its page on the RubyConf site and the RubyConf schedule. Hope to see some of you there!

Ruby Arduino Development: Physical Computing for Everyone

In the past few years, microcontrollers -- the chips that control all the beeping, blinking, and buzzing devices in our world -- underwent a revolution in price and accessibility that parallels the transformation of microcomputers in the early 70s. Where that first revolution brought the personal computer this new one brings physical computing: the ability to sense and control the physical world as easily and cheaply as today's PCs process and store information.

The most useful product of this revolution is the Arduino development board. The Arduino combines a hardware design that emphasizes easy experimentation with a set of intuitive software libraries that mask many of the ugly details of microcontroller work. Just as the early personal computers offered information processing tools to diverse new groups, Arduino opens physical computing to artists, social workers, scientists, and even simple web programmers who lack electrical engineering degrees.

The Ruby Arduino Development project attempts to extend these virtues by bringing the beauty and power of Ruby to the Arduino platform. RAD compiles Ruby scripts for execution on the Arduino. In addition to the syntactic elegance and simplicity gained by getting to program in Ruby instead of C++, RAD provides a set of declarative Rails-like conventions and helpers that reduce boilerplate and simplify often-byzantine hardware APIs. Further, RAD takes advantage of Ruby's dynamic nature to offer sophisticated tools unavailable in the default Arduino distribution such as a testing framework and a graphical simulation environment (built with _why's Shoes GUI toolkit).

In this talk I'll conduct a comprehensive tour of RAD. Starting with the obligatory physical computing 'hello world' of blinking a single LED, I'll progress through increasingly sophisticated demonstrations including serial communication, inline assembly, movement detection, temperature sensing, and motor control. Lights will blink, things will spin, music will play.

I'll proceed to describe some of the design challenges RAD faces in integrating a diverse set of technologies (including RubyToC, Shoes, Rake, Makefiles, and avr-gcc) as well as balancing the constraints of concise compilation output that fits the Arduino's minimal program memory with the virtues of higher-level abstractions and rich interfaces that make a friendly environment for newbie hardware hackers.

I'll end with a call of encouragement. As a newcomer to electronics myself, RAD lets me build on the basis of my existing Ruby chops to create playful and useful projects even with very limited knowledge of the intimidating world of data sheets, circuit diagrams, and long-forgotten physics lectures. If I can build cool physical computing projects, you certainly can too.

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