The Spectacle of SparkFun
The era where microcontrollers became readily available began, arguably, at least for most people, with the Arduino. However even the Arduino still requires some fairly low level knowledge. Not everybody wants to program in languages like C, not everybody wants to learn to solder.
As the way we’re using computers changes, the way we build hardware is changing with it. The microcontroller board market is in transition. Manufacturers aren’t entirely sure how people are going to use their product any more, and because of that we’re starting to see some interesting departures from the old models of interaction. Enter the Spectacle from SparkFun.
SparkFun has deliberately gone out of their way to move away from the old model, where you write code in an editor and upload it to a board to in turn control actuators and sensors in a fairly low-level way. Instead the Spectacle has been designed to be entirely plug-and-play.
The main Spectacle Director Board controls the project. The boards — and your project — can be powered from a standard 5V USB wall wart, or interestingly, directly from rechargeable USB battery packs.
Connecting the director board to the other Spectacle boards is done using TRRS audio jack cables. This therefore makes wiring a circuit as simple as plugging in headphones.
More interestingly perhaps you can program — and reconfigure — your Spectacle project on the go from any device with a web browser and a headphone jack.
While this isn’t the first time I’ve seen serial over an audio jack —for instance the recently released Pinebook also provides UART terminal access the same way — but it’s rare enough to be interesting. Although I do wonder, with Apple moving away from the standard audio jack, whether now is a good time to launch a system that depends on them.
The idea that your board should do more for you isn’t new. The obvious example is the littleBits system. While initially marketed as a toy, in recent years the snap together bit system has grown up. A lot of design agencies now use it for early stage prototyping.
There’s also the Seeed Studio Wio Link board. Based around Seeed’s popular Grove system, you just plug Grove modules into the board, and open up Seeed’s smartphone application. From there you can connect to and configure the board, automatically generate firmware, and then upload it to the board over the air, directly from your phone. My current feeling is that Seeed Studio’s Wio Link—and the Grove system—is probably SparkFun’s main competition.
When I come across new hardware my first reaction is pretty much always, “what does this let me do today that I couldn’t do yesterday?” and I judge it on that basis. While a lot of people might well dismiss what SparkFun is trying to do here with the Spectacle, for many, it’ll allow them to do things today that they hadn’t been able to do before.
By releasing the Spectacle system in starter kits — there are currently Motion, Light, Sound, and Light & Sound kit — SparkFun has avoided the classic problem with releasing a new ecosystem like the Spectacle. People don’t buy enough of the add on boards for it to be useful, and the whole thing inevitably gathers dust at the back of a drawer. They do however run the risk of sticker shock, at upwards of $100 or more that’s a big buy in for the notoriously price sensitive maker market.
Those of us that started writing code for embedded hardware before the Arduino came along may scratch our heads, but this new platform will reduce the barrier for entry for those people that just want to get things done, rather than learn electronics. That’s no bad thing.