Beyond Arduino and Raspberry Pi: Maker boards bring home the Internet of things

Big vendors are infiltrating the maker movement, tapping its creative minds to build the Internet of things -- with ridiculously low-cost prototyping kits, cloud services, and dev environments

We’re all familiar with Arduino and Raspberry Pi, single-board computers that are helping build the growing Internet of things. Built around ARM-based microcontrollers, they’re low-cost, high-volume items that are easy to craft into prototype hardware, and with their easily addressable IO ports and sensors and actuators that are easy to connect to.

But they’re not the only devices used by the growing Maker movement, where hobbyist hackers build hardware that scratches their itches, and where developers explore new scenarios and try out new ideas on the fly.

I spent last weekend at the 10th Maker Faire in San Mateo, wandering around a huge hall full of devices showcasing the latest maker boards and projects built using them. In a sign of the growing importance of this market, some of the largest exhibitors were silicon vendors and hardware IP companies. ARM, for example, showcased a range of projects built using its processor designs, from the M-series controllers to the more powerful A-series devices. ARM powers most of the maker boards, with Atmel, TI, Cypress, and many others using ARM cores in their processors.

It’s also fascinating to see how cheap this stuff is getting. Raspberry Pi is at the higher end, with a Linux-capable, single-board computer for $35, but at the lower end I was able to buy a Red Bear Labs Bluetooth Low Energy developer kit for $5 -- with everything I needed to design and build an ARM-based BLE (Bluetooth Low-Energy) beacon.

Devices based on the Arduino open source hardware are common and many others use its Wiring programming environment. TI’s Energia development environment for its ARM Launchpad system uses a real-time OS rather than the typical maker board firmware, allowing developers to build multithreaded applications, while still supporting Wiring code (and using a browser-based cloud IDE) reading multiple sensors and driving multiple outputs at the same time. You can use shared variables to pass information between threads or work with TI’s own multitasking libraries.

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