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Off-The-Shelf Hacker: Parts and Creativity

Feb 7th, 2018 12:00pm by
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I’m up to page 174 in “Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Section One covered where you’ll find creativity, according to the author’s interviews and research. It also talks about what constitutes a creative personality, the work and flow of creativity and the effects of surroundings on the creative process. Later chapters promise to discuss how age influences creative behaviors and ways to explore and expand your “domains.”

We can think of a domain as a field of action, thought or influence. Mastery of your domain lets you see and maybe even try out the possibilities, rather than just being the anxious boy who gets to run the big machine. As a master, you ponder and work hard to understand the processes, connections, people and tools of your area of interest and influence.

And parts. Parts are important too. For off-the-shelf hackers, discovering parts and their characteristics provides opportunities to creatively apply them in our own little domains.

How’s that for a convoluted way to talk about some new parts? OK, then, let’s metaphorically light that 100-watt LED above our heads and get started.

Tinker Board

The ASUS Tinker Board is a quad-core ARM micro-controller board, much like a Raspberry Pi. It has 2GB of RAM, an SD 3.0 memory card interface, HDMI and the usual mix of general purpose input/output (GPIO) pins, bus architectures and connectivity options. The SD 3.0 standard is supposed to provide significantly faster throughput to/from the micro-SD card, thereby enhancing overall operating system performance. I noticed that their TinkerOS-Debian image is based on the latest “Stretch” version of Linux. My experience with ‘Stretch’ on a Pi 3 has been very positive and significantly faster than older software. With the larger memory and faster card access, this thing ought to give a very pleasant desktop experience.

Another notable feature of the Tinker Board is its onboard antenna connector for WiFi and Bluetooth. While a built-in patch antenna is convenient, being able to add an external antenna certainly gives increased range and signal strength in demanding environments.

My wearables and steampunk gadgets frequently have a desktop component, so good performance is important in my domain. Likewise with WiFi. A wearable, that frequently sends/receives MQTT or other networked messages needs reliable connectivity, particularly when moving around in a convention center or large building. External antennae help in that regard.

Amazon has the Tinker Board for about $60.


The Snickerdoodle is a crowd-funded, Internet of Things (IoT) board geared for robotics and projects with lots of GPIO connections.

The base version (the One model) has a duo-core Cortex-A9 ARM main processor, capable of running Linux, ROS and FreeRTOS. There’s also a field programmable gate array (FPGA) chip, much like the BeagleBone series. FPGAs give you the ability to design your own custom logic circuits. I haven’t tackled the programming yet, so that might be something to explore in the near future. On-board FPGAs are a growing trend in IoT boards.

Also included in the One are 802.11n WiFi (with an external antenna connector), 155 configurable GPIO pins and 512 MB of RAM. IoT boards typically don’t include display hardware and are not used in a “desktop” configuration.

There are actually three different levels of Snickerdoodle boards, supporting increasingly larger FPGAs and more GPIO pins. The upper levels have more sophisticated WiFi and Bluetooth radios, as well.

Prices range from about $95 to $195. They also sell a 3-Amp international wall wart for $30, which might also be a good investment for use with other projects.

Lastly, I wanted to mention a typical situation in microcontroller boards.

The Fuzzy Niche Of Pseudo-Prototype Dev Hardware

Crazy new devices frequently pop up in the off-the-shelf hacker world. Sometimes they really take off, like the Arduino or Raspberry Pi. Other times, the new tech offers tons of promise, but the market, community or usability never really get rolling. Examples include the Pixy vision sensor, Intel’s Edison and the Samsung Artik. Nobody seems interested in the first two anymore. There’s still some interest in the Artik, although it’s community footprint seems small.

Don’t view any of this in a negative light. Lukewarm receptions and fading interest are part of the new-device territory. A bunch of people thought these projects were worthwhile enough to push them out (and fund them) as low-volume production runs. That’s a great thing. Creative inventors and experts expanded their domains by experimenting and ACTUALLY building something you could buy off-the-shelf. They might just serve as stepping stones both for the vendor and the downstream integrators, like you and me. A few years ago the Pixy went for about $75. Making sophisticated hardware available at a reasonable price point certainly has influenced my creativity and interest. Affordability for the hacker masses was definitely a turning point in the industry.

I’ll leave you with one last new product. Will it take off? Who knows. Where might I use one in a steampunk gadget? Not sure. As an exercise, look into your crystal ball and see if you can predict the future.

Hackaday gives a glimpse of one possible future, with a discussion of SiFive’s upcoming HiFive Unleased RISC V Linux-capable multicore microcontroller.

This monster sports a RISC V Linux-ready chip with 4+1 multi-coherent configuration. It also has 4x U54 RV64GC Application Cores with Sv39 Virtual Memory Support. If you order the development board, you’ll get 8 GB of RAM, a gigabit Ethernet port and 32 GB of Flash memory. Take note of the price tag, because it’s an example of the old-school, commercial pricing model and is quite hefty. That’s how it used to be before the Arduino and Raspberry Pi boards became ubiquitous.

Those are all great features, I guess. I don’t know what some of that tech jargon means, yet. I included this product to show that our off-the-shelf hacker domain is constantly expanding and keeping up with new stuff is part of the fun. I have no idea where I’d use one of these things. Now, there’s a marker or placeholder, if you will, in my brain about a device that might be big someday and offer all kinds of cool options. Or, not.

Do your projects influence your chose of parts or do your parts spark your project ideas?

Our individually unique creativity is the key to answering that question.

Feature image via Pixabay.

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