What links the glowing, warbling bird boxes at The Kazimier's summer garden with a flying stuffed cat, a plant that tweets when it needs watering and many of the interactive artworks and degree pieces that you'll have seen over the past few years?
They've all got one of these hidden inside somewhere (just try not to think too hard about where it is in the cat-copter...)
This is an Arduino. Back in 2005 Massimo Banzi and a few of his colleagues wanted a cheap and easy-to-use microcontroller board for their interaction design students to use, and the result was the first Arduino board. It turned out that it wasn't just their students who were looking for such a device, and it's been embraced by artists, geeks, coders and engineers from around the world.
But what is a microcontroller? It's a tiny computer - one that's quite limited in its computing power, but which is perfectly suited to connecting to all manner of bits of electronics: LED lights, motors, servos, buzzers, etc. to provide some output into the world; and sensors, switches, knobs, etc. as inputs to learn more about its environment.
Then you can write sets of instructions for the Arduino board to have it decide how to interpret the values of the sensors and how to respond - letting you give what you build its own behaviours and bring it to life.
It's easier to explain with a few more examples, so here are five interesting Arduino projects to get you inspired. If you want to learn more then sign up for the Arduino course that we're running at FACT on 9 October, and learn how to build things yourself.
A really simple to build, but surprisingly good sounding audio
Just needs five potentiometers, an Arduino and an audio jack; add in the freely-downloadable software and you'll be making crazy noises in no time.
Bubblino is a bubble-blowing Arduino-bot who watches twitter. Whenever he sees a new tweet mentioning the keyword he's programmed to look for (and most of the time that's @Bubblino or @DoESLiverpool, where he lives) then he'll blow bubbles.
Robobrrd is a delighful robot bird created with a few servos, sensors and some LEDs, then hooked up to a computer to provide a fun learning environment for kids.
Another local project, Tickets Please was a hi-tech boardgame that Mycroft Milverton made for an exhibtion at METAL in Edge Hill. It can play audio files to recount oral history snippets, react to playing cards through its RFID (the sort of tech used by Oystercard) reader, and includes a couple of electronic games too!
Polargraph Drawing Machine
And last, but not least, an Arduino-controlled drawing machine. The DRBO Polargraph uses a couple of stepper motors to control strings hooked over some pulleys and connected to a pen to move the pen around from place to place, drawing these interesting sketches as it goes
If you would like to learn the basics of Arduino, book your place on our upcoming Training Course led by Adrian McEwen on 9 October.