ST4I workshop

At the end of February I attended Seb Lee-Delisle’s latest workshop, all about the “Internet of Things”, or as Seb likes to put it: “Stuff that talks to the Interwebs” (ST4I).

Having had the pleasure of speaking at The Web Is with Seb last year, his talk clearly showcased some of the amazing things that can be done once you start combining the physical and digital worlds. I had heard on the grapevine that he was planning a workshop on the topic, and after speaking to Seb about it one evening and watching the promo video I was incredibly keen to attend. Sadly I was already contracted for the first date once this was announced, but I was thrilled to be able to grab a ticket for the second iteration, which was conveniently held right before I was due to go on holiday.

The course was spread over two full days, and was held at Clearleft’s wonderful little event space in their Brighton offices. Having stayed over at my favourite Brighton hotel, Castle Swain0, the night before, I turned up on the sunny Monday morning  (via Small Batch jasmine tea and croque monsieur) to meet the other attendees. There were 12 of us in all, and after Seb took the time to say hello to everyone individually we soon filed in to take our spaces around the four tables.

Day One

The day kicked off with an introduction to Seb and his work, which I imagine was familiar to many of us. Indeed, one of the nice things about the group was that many of the attendees had been on previous courses that Seb had run. After this, we went through an overview of the different hardware and software platform options available at the moment, including their relative pros and cons for different situations. It was great to get a bit of background before diving straight into the meat of the workshop, and sensibly the kits weren’t handed out until after we’d talked about the goals for the day.

ST4I introduction

ST4I kit

ST4I kit 2

Once we’d got the kits and had sifted through with all of the excitement of a nerd Christmas in February, Seb introduced us to the open source Arduino IDE and we got our first taste of the electronics and the code.

As someone who regularly dabbles with JavaScript, none of the programming aspects were too challenging, however instead I found myself surprised at just how many of the basic electronics concepts I’d forgotten since my Double Science GCSE. We would discuss each of the concepts introduced, and the symbol for components such as resistors were shown within the scope of basic circuit diagrams. I knew this was all stored deep in my brain, but it was somewhat frustrating knowing that you had once apparently understood all of this perfectly well, but for it to now be rather more alien. Thankfully Seb had created diagrams for each of the examples, so initially it was a case of matching our kit elements to those in the Fritzing images – something I’m much more practiced at due to the fact that I have kept up with my Lego skills in my adult life. Who needs knowledge of electronics when you’ve got an extensive Lego collection, eh?

Code-wise, each example of the technology had ready-made code examples available, and whilst some had exercises to complete (make an LED fade in rather than be on, make it flash three times on a button press etc), these seemed to be followed well by everyone in the group.

Throughout the day we worked our way through demos with a number of components, all of which are listed in the kit image above.

LED

The very first example. It’s aliiiiive!

7 segment display

Starting off with the basics of switches, potentiometers, buzzers and LEDs, we later got to the fun part – introducing the internets! We first learnt how to hook up our Arduino’s wifi shield to the 68 Middle Street wifi programmatically, grabbing the time, and displaying this on a 7-segment display. The next example took this a step further, using the great Open Notify ISS pass times API in order to sound a buzzer when the ISS was overhead (plus displaying the countdown). For me, despite being a simple concept, this was very cool because of the concept itself. It was a great example of the fact that there’s some extremely interesting data sources out there, and that we can do some really creative things with them.

Calling it a night, I headed off for an extremely windy walk on the beach and a quiet space to sit and think as I’d been longing to see the sea all day. It was made even more worthwhile with a gorgeous sunset. I then returned to town to meet my friend Paul and his wife for a beer and some excellent sushi before crashing out.

Brighton sunset

Day two

The second day started with an excellent recommendation from Brighton’s unofficial breakfast king, setting me nicely up for another day of internetting.

Breakfast

We picked up where we’d left off, starting to explore the concept of how ST4I can be used with socket-based connections. One of my favourite activities (because I’m a total child) was one that allowed us to connect to Seb’s node server, and annoy each other by selecting the person whose buzzer you’d like to activate. This was followed by the ability to send each other messages in addition to this – something which we were reliably informed produced much filthier correspondence than our ‘Hello’s during the Clearleft pilot workshop!

Buzzer

After this we moved on to elements that everyone seemed to love – the LCD display and LED strip. These two components formed the basis of most of the group’s afternoon, and it’s hard to explain just how bright and captivating the LED strip was. We again worked through getting familiar with a number of different elements, including an ultrasonic distance sensor that I found particularly cool.

:)

LEDs on low

Low brightness

LEDs on high

Full brightness!

Close up of LEDs

My first pointless invention from the second day, where the brightness and hue of the LED strip is being controlled by the ultrasonic distance sensor (with visible reading). I like to think that it’s a shinier version of a Ghostbusters P.K.E meter.

As you can probably imagine from the above, there was a fair bit of colour theory involved once we started to mess around with things that changed hue. This is an area that I have extremely limited knowledge in, so I like to think that I learnt a bit in that area as well during the days.

Finally, during our ‘free play’ section of the day, Seb came to each table to teach us how to solder properly. This was greatly appealing to me, and I left this section wanting to solder anything I could get my hands on.

Soldering

Wrap up

IoT (ST4I) has been a concept that has interested me for a long time, but which I think is poorly understood in terms of the mass market. It’s not all about one-off connected fridges and addicted toasters, but instead Seb has shown that with some interesting inputs, outputs, and interactions, it can be extremely creative. One of my incentives for going on the workshop was that I believe this is not a standalone area, and is something that we’ll all be forced to engage with sooner rather than later. Our phones (and now our watches) have become smart, and the impact that this had on our industry and the way that we view websites has been incredible. As more ‘stuff’ starts to talk to the internet, we also need to think about how we talk to the ‘stuff’, and actually, whether we can leverage this connectivity in ways that haven’t even been considered yet.

As I’m now working on a huge transformation project where the relationship between physical and digital is being explored for consumer experiences and organisational efficiency, this is an area that I’ll definitely be exploring more, both through my work and in my own time. In fact, one of my birthday presents was an Arduino book, so I guess I have no excuses to carry on and make the most of my kit!

I’d like to give huge thanks to Seb for his time putting together such a thorough, interesting and fun workshop. It was a great couple of days, and I highly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in this area, whether you’re coming at it from a technical or creative perspective. I look forward to seeing what all of the attendees go on to do next!