Microsoft's Gadgeteer aims to make creating gadgets as simple as building with Lego

Microsoft's Gadgeteer aims to make creating gadgets as simple as building with Lego

Summary: Microsoft is hoping the 'Put tab A into slot B' simplicity of its Gadgeteer hardware platform will make it easier to build prototype gadgets.

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Ever had an idea for a gadget but not the faintest idea how to get started? The good news is it may be easier to build than you think.

Building a prototype electronic device has never been cheaper or simpler thanks to open source standardised hardware platforms like Arduino and, to a lesser extent, bare bones computers like the Raspberry Pi.

Microsoft is hoping its .NET Gadgeteer platform, which started as a way for its researchers to develop prototype devices, will be adopted by hobbyist electronics makers looking for an easy way to craft new gadgets.

The Gadgeteer is designed to lower the technical bar for people building their own prototype electronics, by allowing gadgets to be slotted together with Lego block simplicity.

gadgeteer
A Gadgeteer system designed to capture wildlife images automatically. The system has a Fez Spider main board and various modules including a camera, movement sensor, SD card and button module. Image: Nick Heath / ZDNet

What is Gadgeteer?

The base of the Gadgeteer is a main board — a board with an ARM-based processor, memory, flash storage for the software to control the gadget and sockets for plugging in hardware modules.

Creating a gadget requires plugging modules into the main board — for example, to create a makeshift digital camera a user could plug in a camera, button and screen module. Gadgeteer boards can be used to create a broad range of gadgets, as there are dozens of hardware modules – including sensors, lights, screens, batteries, and more. Boards are small, and range in size down to about that of a matchbox.

Gadgeteer reduces assembly to a process of 'Fit tab A into slot B'. Each module and each socket on the mainboard is tagged with letters. To plug a module into the mainboard users match the letters tag on the module with the tag on the socket, so a module labelled 'XY' would plug into socket 'XY'.

gadgeteer-screen
A screen module for Gadgeteer showing the weather status. Image: Nick Heath / ZDNet

"It's really hard to get anything wrong because you literally just match up the letters," said Kenji Takeda, solutions architect and technical manager for Microsoft Research.

No gadget is complete without software, and Gadgeteer tries to make the process of adding logic to gadgets easier by allowing the board and its modules to be programmed using the high-level language C# and using Microsoft's Visual Studio integrated development environment.

Creating code to control these modules is simplified by Visual Studio, which integrates with the Gadgeteer SDK to provide a drag and drop tool for connecting modules to sockets, while Visual Studio's IntelliSense feature provides information about available software interfaces for interacting with the modules, as well as options for autocompleting code.

Software interfaces to control modules are designed to be relatively intuitive, thanks to using class and method names that reflect what they are or the action they carry out.

"This is high-level stuff," Takeda said. "You don't have to do low-level 'bit four flip' type commands that some other hardware platforms make you work with."

Software can be transferred to boards' flash memory via an USB module, and programs can also be debugged while they are running on the device. Software runs on the Net Micro Framework (NETMF) platform, Microsoft's open source platform for running .NET languages on embedded platforms.

Gadgeteer is designed to allow people with an idea for a gadget to build it, even if they lack technical expertise or access to a hardware manufacturer to make the parts they need.

"The idea is to simplify making gadgets so you can concentrate on 'What gadget do I want to build?', 'What's the functionality?' and make it easy to do the software," Takeda said.

Projects created using Gadgeteer include Hive Sense, a project to gather data from bee hives to shed light on why bee populations are in decline. The project uses sensors attached to a Gadgeteer board to measure light, temperature, humidity and pressure inside the hive, as well as using an accelerometer to monitor disruption, such as the hive being opened up.

Other Gadgeteer-based projects include the usual hardware hobbyist projects of rigs for controlling robots and capturing video while attached to balloons at the edge of orbit.

How Gadgeteer stacks up with the competition?

gadgeteer-spiderboard
A close-up of the Fez Spider board. Image: Nick Heath / ZDNet

It is possible to get started with Gadgeteer by building a simple gadget for under £100. Mainboards vary in price according to the number of module sockets and hardware specs, for example the Fez Cerberus board costs $29.99 and comes with eight module sockets and an Arm Cortex-M4 processor, while the Fez Spider board costs $119 but comes with 14 sockets and a more powerful Arm Cortex-A7 processor.

Module price depends on the device, for example a low-resolution (320x240) camera module can be picked up for £26.99 and an Ethernet module for £27.

Microsoft doesn't design the hardware itself but rather has released specifications for main boards and modules so other companies can manufacture them. Main boards and modules are made by a variety of firms including GHI Electronics with its Fez series of boards, Sytech and Seed Studio and are available direct from the manufacturers, as well as through Amazon.

Of course .NET Gadgeteer is one of several low-cost hardware platform aimed at hobbyists who want to make electronics, the most famous of which is probably Arduino.

In a recent comparison between the these platforms Gadgeteer was praised for being simple to build with and code for, avoiding some of the low-level bit-shifting coding that can be necessary on Arduino, and for offering processors clocked at several times the speed of those on the vast majority of Arduino boards.

However the piece highlights the relative expense of Gadgeteer modules compared to modules for the similar Grove prototype system.

Gadgeteer's reliance on standard 10-pin sockets for every module is also overkill for simple modules, such as an LED light, which can lead to circuitry going unused, according to the article. The NETMF platform used by Gadgeteer is also not designed for carrying out tasks in real time.

Why Microsoft released Gadgeteer?

.NET Gadgeteer started out at Microsoft Research, Cambridge Research as a platform for the Sensors and Devices Group to rapidly iterate on ideas before Microsoft hit on the idea of releasing it, so other people could do the same

"It was developed in-house as a prototyping platform for devices and we've made it available to the wider world," Takeda said.

"With Gadgeteer I can build a bespoke gadget and tomorrow I can rip it apart and put it back together as a different device."

Further reading about hobbyist harwdare

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Open Source

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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20 comments
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  • Very Cool

    I love it when industry removes roadblocks to innovation!
    Neverhood
  • Taking the hard work out of hardware: Microsoft's Gadgeteer helps makers tu

    That is cool. Many uses for this device.
    Loverock-Davidson
  • will fail!

    proprietary crap always fails!
    LlNUX Geek
    • Not Proprietary

      It's not proprietary. Everything for the Gadgeteer platform is released under the Apache Open Source license.
      Darkninja962
    • LlNUX Geek: "proprietary crap always fails!"

      FYI. Microsoft's Net Micro Framework (NETMF) platform is licensed under the Apache 2.0 open-source license. And while Microsoft's Visual Studio IDE is indeed proprietary, I wonder if one could use the open-source SharpDevelop IDE for this task ... apparently, not:

      "SharpDevelop and .NET Micro Framework
      http://community.sharpdevelop.net/forums/p/10627/29266.aspx

      Perhaps, the MonoDevelop IDE? Apparently, Microsoft's Net Micro Framework (NETMF) platform is compatible with Mono (as .NET is proprietary):

      http://stackoverflow.com/questions/4234329/how-to-develop-for-net-micro-framework-on-linux

      And an alpha port of the .NET Micro Framework SDK to Mono was completed in 2010:

      http://forums.netduino.com/index.php?/topic/21-preview-of-mono-support/

      Was this ever finished?
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • Sero venientibus -- ossa

    A proprietary raspberry pi?
    One of many advantages R. Pi and friends have is their ease of hackability. I am curious to know what would be interesting in a closed proprietary system? The other thing is that .NET cannot compare to GNU/Linux distribution. The latter has a several development platforms by itself. Sorry Microsoft, it's almost impossible to compete here without your usual weapons, such as NDAs, propaganda campaigns, bribing government and school officials.
    eulampius
    • So this worries you a lot, it would appear.

      I expected as much, eulampius
      William.Farrel
      • I am sorry,

        if it breaks your soft and micro heart, Willy ;-)
        eulampius
        • He's not sorry for you,

          Nobody is sorry for you, you are a cancer.
          xuniL_z
    • agree!

      I see no GPLed software, just proprietary stuff.
      LlNUX Geek
    • Meanwhile Google uses the same licensing.....

      but you and your troll friends are totally behind the largest piece of malware on the planet, Android. Yeah, all the sheeple grazing on what amounts to full blown spyware, which ironically all ABMer trolls like you used to hate but now you think it's cool to have their data sucked up like a hoover, because the OS is partly Linux. But with it's Apache license Google holds the "gold code" and controls all OEMs and what technology they can use and the licensing forces them to not fork or change Android, like closed source. That's because Android is partially closed source, the part Google uses to control it and make all Android users pay the Google Tax. And to add insult to injury, on top of the $croogle tax, you have to agree to let Google archive every bit of data that comes from your phone or device, including documents, spreadsheets, anything.
      You trolls are hilarious, you would spend days having vein popping tantrums about MS for having Windows Update because it could check your PC for code versions, but it's fine that Google has full access to your device and it's data.
      A new circus is in town, and the Google Shills are the clowns.
      xuniL_z
    • Geez

      Show us on the doll where Microsoft touched you.

      It amazes me people think that MS is any more/less evil than any other huge corporation.
      JLogan3o13
  • Will you please change your company name

    to MicroSoftAndHard once and for all? But no thanks, I've used arduino and rasp PI and am all set.
    drwong
    • MicroSoftAndHard is too long

      I suggest shortcutting it to MicroSHards ;-)
      eulampius
      • Google is too long

        I suggest shortcutting it to just Goo. ;)
        xuniL_z
        • does Google participate

          in this gadgeteering project?
          Not sure why would you bring this up? Or in your logic module of the brain it soldered: "!Microsoft=Google"?
          eulampius
          • It's safe to assume, yes.

            Google has copied every bit of MS technology that is can, woefully inadequately so of course, hence why Office 365 is blowing Goo Apps out of the water for one example, and for another why Azure is in the top 2 cloud platforms and Goo doesn't register.
            But they will copy this, so why not include Goo?
            Also, in the part of your brain that hates MSFT, is it soldered to say Microsoft Article = me must read and me make juvenile comment, me do.
            xuniL_z
    • LOL!

      You've used none of them, which is my guess.

      You can tell when an MS product hits the mark, the trolls come out asap.

      Why so fearful of a little competition?
      William.Farrel
      • "trolls come out asap."

        Did you notice yourself come out and now are sharing this with us?
        eulampius
        • Thanks for proving....

          you have the wit of a 4 year old, cancer.
          xuniL_z