Massimo Banzi dropped into RadioShack headquarters last week, and we couldn’t help but squeal like starstruck girls at a Bieber concert. This is the man responsible for Arduino, the open-source programmable microcontroller that essentially breathes life into electronics projects. It has allowed those with no prior engineering or programming experience to build amazing gadgets, like remote-control lawnmowers and robotic marimba players. It’s an amazing device that’s revolutionizing DIY electronics, but don’t take our word for it. We sat down for a little Q&A with Massimo, so we’ll let the man himself tell you how he went from just a kid who liked to tinker with things to the instigator of the open-source revolution.
The Shack Blog: How did you get your start?
Massimo Banzi: Well, I started as a kid. I had this thing where I liked to take apart anything I could get my hands on. I got to a point where I was completely out of control and people would bring things to my house for me to destroy. And then my father thought, “OK, maybe we should give him something to where he can build things instead of taking them apart.” So I got this kit, it was a German kit that was very popular when I was a kid. The components were housed in small cubes that would snap together with magnets, so you could really build little projects by copying the layout on the box. I made little radios and that kind of stuff. That’s the thing that got me really interested in actually making stuff.
TSB: You’ve accomplished many things, but what are you most proud of?
BANZI: I think that it’s hard to figure out because it’s always a moving target. When we started with Arduino, I asked Gianluca [Martino, a member of the Arduino project development team] to help me, and he made the first of the Arduinos that we were going to sell to people. For us to be able to sell those 200 felt like an incredible accomplishment. Then when we hit 10,000, it was like, now this is big. Make magazine did an article saying, “Arduino hits 10,000.” Then it became 100,000 and then there was an article about Arduino in Wired magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Last month there was an article in the Economist that made a bunch of people I know from my previous career at a venture capital firm take notice. So these accomplishments, in a way, are moving targets.
I don’t know, to me, the accomplishment, in a way, is to be where we’re able to take open source hardware, and make a tool that anyone can use. We’ve expanded the number of people who are interested in electronics and the number of people who are interested in making stuff with electronics. So I think, for me, the accomplishment is when you see people that don’t have a background in technology but they pick up this Arduino, they look online for things they can learn to build and then solve a problem in their life. And it’s happening through open source hardware so we have pushed other people to be open as well. So this, I think that shift from electronics belonging only to the engineers to being for everybody, is our greatest accomplishment.
TSB: How would you summarize what an Arduino is to someone who has no DIY experience or programming background?
BANZI: One of the things that’s on my to-do list is to sit down one day and make the official “what’s an Arduino” definition because it is kind of hard. To me the idea is that Arduino is an incredibly simple computer. It’s very cheap as well, like $30, and you can learn how to program it. If you hook it up with the right electronic parts, you can actually use it to build objects that essentially are able to interact with people and interact with what’s happening around them. So you’re able to build objects that are aware of where they are and interact with human beings and respond to what human beings do with them.
So in a way, essentially you are doing electronics and computer science but it’s one step forward where you build objects that are able to have a behavior and come alive. This is interesting because the classic computers that we use every day, if you touch a key incorrectly, nothing happens to the computer, so they’re very passive. With Arduino, you can build a new generation of computers, in a way, that are aware of people and interact with them. They actually seek interaction with human beings. They display emotions.
People can build lamps that are very sociable and they look for you and want to light up your desk. Or you can build lamps that are very annoying and whenever you show up, they just move around and go away. So you can embed behaviors into objects. So, using this small computer, the average person can do things that used to be complex and limited to engineers.
TSB: What are some of the coolest applications of Arduino you’ve seen?
BANZI: Every day there are funny projects done with Arduino. Yesterday I saw somebody who made a robot that plays Angry Birds on an iPhone. It has a camera that looks at the iPhone and a virtual finger to interact with the screen. The Arduino positions the virtual finger on the screen and launches the birds in the game. So that was a funny project. The guy who did it, did it to experiment with other things but he thought that was a good showcase.
There are also some projects that have more practical applications. There’s a whole selection of projects that use an Arduino and cheap hardware to build home-brew versions of machines that are very expensive on the commercial market. So they become, for example, very useful in developing countries. If you want to set up your own little biology lab, in a developing country the equipment costs $70,000, so you can see that’s not going to happen. But if you put together a few Arduinos and some parts with an old computer, then for $70 you can do a number of these sorts of tests and you can solve some problems in the real world.
TSB: What advice do you have for someone who is interested in Arduino but doesn’t know how to get started?
BANZI: Well, actually there are some interesting kits that you can get. For example, at RadioShack you can get this “Getting Started With Arduino” kit which contains this little book I wrote which is essentially all the notes that I wrote down when I started teaching Arduino to people. Then it grew into a book. And it has some parts and you can learn the very basics.
But my suggestion would be to look online for some projects that you find funny or that you find useful for your life and then, there’s a very good chance that project will be documented somewhere. People that share projects online regularly tend to actually tell you how it’s made.
You should try to build a project that’s close to your heart, because you’ll put more effort into what you’re doing. Even though Arduino tries to simplify life, even if there’s information online, even if the community in the Arduino forum is made of amazing people who love other human beings and can’t wait to help you, you’re still going to have a lot of setbacks. So, you need to work on something that you find funny or relevant to your life so that you can push through those setbacks.
TSB: One last, big question. Arduino represents a big leap for more DIY electronics going mainstream and being accessible to the average person, so what do you think the next big leap in the DIY world will look like?
BANZI: I think the next big leap is based on the idea that you still need to learn how to program in a classic way and a lot of people are more visually minded. There’s a lot of work to be done to build tools that make it easy for people to program the Arduino using visual systems. We’re also working on more powerful Arduinos that have more powerful processors so you can do things that you can’t do in the current Arduino. But I would say that tools are a big and important direction. Tools that make it simpler and connect you to people who are doing the same thing so you can learn together.
If you are looking for some Arduino inspiration, head over to The Great Create site and see what other makers have posted. Show us what great creation you can come up with using RadioShack products and an Arduino board.
Learn more about Massimo and Arduino on their website: www.arduino.cc