You have to admire the folks at Sparkfun, because they always seem to be enjoying whatever it is they are up to at any particular moment in time...
You have to admire the guys and gals at Sparkfun, because they always seem to be enjoying whatever it is they are up to at any particular moment in time…
Based in Boulder, Colorado, SparkFun is an online retail store that sells the bits and pieces to make electronics projects possible. As they say:
Whether it’s a robot that can cook your breakfast or a GPS cat tracking device, our products and resources are designed to make the world of electronics more accessible to the average person.
In addition to products, SparkFun also offers classes at their facility (from soldering to Arduino programming) and a number of online tutorials designed to help educate individuals in the wonderful world of embedded electronics.
Anyway, I was chatting with Aaron Weiss, who is an engineer at SparkFun, and he was telling me about their latest product – the Electric Sheep
Yes, I know what you are thinking… I must admit that this gave me pause for thought… but it all makes sense when you know a little more…
So here’s the deal… let’s assume that you want to use your Android-based device to “talk to the outside world”
(by which I mean use it to control some sort of external system). In the early days of the Android operating system, the only way to do this was to connect to the audio port or to use Bluetooth.
SparkFun’s Electric Sheep board
More recently, it became possible to use the USB connector by means of something called the Android Debug Bridge (ADB)
. Now, I don’t know too much about this; I’m told that the ADB is a really robust protocol that gives you a lot of access, but my impression (and I may well be wrong here) is that it’s not as easy to use as one might hope.
More recently, in May 2011, Google released a new protocol called the Open Accessory Protocol. Along with this is something called the Android Open Accessory Development Kit (ADK), which provides an implementation of an Android USB accessory that is based on the Arduino open source electronics prototyping platform.
All of which brings us to SparkFun’s Electric Sheep board, which is a development tool (similar to the Arduino Mega ADK) for creating custom Android accessories. Based on the ATMEGA2560-16AU and carrying the same bootloader as the Arduino Mega 2560, this board communicates with your Android device over USB by taking advantage of Android's Open Accessory Protocol.
During our conversation, Aaron started to talk enthusiastically about the things you could do, for example, using your Android-based smartphone or tablet computer to open your window blinds in the morning. Personally I think it would be easier to get out of bed and do it myself, but I get the idea (grin).
Now, I’m not saying that any of this is easy. My understanding is that this is a multi-step process. For example, you have to create an application in Java that runs on your Android platform that can talk to your Electric Sheep (if you see what I mean) and also program the Arduino on the Electric Sheep to (a) communicate with the Android platform and (b) control whatever it is that you are trying to control. Having said this…
...it's important to remember that SparkFun’s mission in life is NOT to provide us with finished products and solutions – what they specialize in is giving hobbyists the tools they need to start creating wonderful things. To this end, the Electric Sheep comes with schematics, example code, tutorials on using the ADK, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Last but not least, just in case you were wondering why it’s called an Electric Sheep, Aaron explained that this started with the concept of “Android”, which led to the film Blade Runner
, which was of course based on the book Do Androids Dream or Electric Sheep?
By Philip K. Dick (Aaron was very impressed that I actually knew about the Blade Runner
/ Electric Sheep
Our conversation ended with Aaron muttering to himself “This is what happens when you allow engineers to name a product…”
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