Welcome to my blog. This is where I’m going to share and reflect upon my experiences in learning about and dabbling with electronics. At times I will also feature and discuss other topics in technology.
The thing that spurred my dive into electronics and hardware was a Raspberry Pi Model 3 B starter kit. I got it about three weeks ago from a nearby listing on Facebook Marketplace. Back then I had only a vague notion of what a Raspberry Pi was but I figured I’d have fun giving it a whirl. In the days to follow, I found a great new way for me to indulge in my delight in dissecting, experimenting with, and building things using electronics. In this post I’ll be talking about my beginnings and what I’ve done so far.
I realised that the Raspberry Pi was actually a type of computer while I was setting mine up with Raspbian, the officially supported Linux-based OS. I was impressed with its highly compact form, for all of it fit on a single, small board. More interesting to me was, as I came to discover, the accessibility and configurability of the hardware’s behaviour – both programmatically and physically. Up until then, I was for the most part only familiar working with software, so the ability to mess with tangible bits and bobs in addition to writing code was a different and exciting prospect. How electronics really work has been a bit of a foreign mystery to me and I became fascinated because I felt like I had entered a portal to another (or perhaps ironically, my own?) world.
In my installation of Raspbian, I found an emulator for the Sense HAT which is a popular add-on board for the Raspberry Pi. The Sense HAT is capable of sensing a variety of environmental parameters: temperature, barometric pressure, and magnetism, just to name a few, as well as different types of movement, and, it even sports an LED matrix and joystick to boot. How does the Raspberry Pi interact with the Sense HAT? Among the various features of the Raspberry Pi is a set of GPIO (general purpose input/output) pins on its board, each of which serves as a programmable interface. Premade modules such as HATs (Hardware Attached on Top) and self-built electronic circuits can be connected to the Raspberry Pi via the GPIOs by being directly mounted on or wired to them, thereby introducing added functionality and/or interesting effects.
I fiddled with the Sense HAT emulator as well as a real one and all the while I grew increasingly curious about the sorts of RPi compatible gadgets out there and the possibilities that lay before me. The aforementioned Sense HAT only utilizes a select fraction of the GPIO pins, which leaves the others available for further tinkering. More than that, there was the rest of the board, and so much more to explore. I could make all sorts of things! I began to better understand and appreciate the versatility of not only the GPIOs but the Raspberry Pi as a whole and the DIY spirit that it invites.
Around then I also realised that powering off and on my Raspberry Pi simply by unplugging it and plugging it back in was inefficient and not good practice due to the risk of corrupting the SD card, and needed a better solution. So, I found online tutorials for adding a power button followed up with adding an LED power/status indicator. Cool.
Trouble was, I didn’t have the materials, and, even if I did, I didn’t know the first thing about soldering, let alone using a breadboard – at all. Not letting that stop me, I spent the next couple of days looking stuff up and giving myself a crash course in basic electronics while gathering tools and supplies. There are plenty of Raspberry Pi projects out there that are generally achieveable without necessarily having to get as involved with DIY electronics (e.g. setting up a local web server, PiHole, RetroPie). However, I wanted to take the opportunity to learn more about hardware and try things with the Raspberry Pi (and beyond!) that are unique as compared to what I could do on a computer with similar computing power.
Some of the things I’ve done since then:
- Learned basic vocabulary, how a basic circuit works, how to recognise some common electronic components and what their functions are.
- Lit an LED light bulb with my Raspberry Pi’s GPIO pins and learned how to turn it on and off programmatically.
Built very basic circuits such as with an LED light bulb, resistor, and push-button on a breadboard using a breadboard power supply module.
- Taken apart a New Bright RC (remote-controlled) toy car to see what the insides were like, and saw how its motors fit in and interacted with the surrounding parts.
- Taken apart a talking Lightning McQueen Cars II plushie embedded with a unit made up of a vibration sensor and mini speaker cone connected to a circuit board.
- Taken apart a My Music Maker toy keyboard and identified its components, and experimented with modifying the sounds it produces – hello, circuit bending! At one point I managed to adjust the pitch (?) in such a way that it sounded like the opening to Usher’s Yeah! song and found myself quite pleased.
- Toy shopping at thrift stores. I got the toys above at Goodwill and Salvation Army. No need to buy brand new toys when these are perfectly fine! I am particularly interested in toys that move, make sounds, or have unusual/distinct visual features. Eventually, I’d like to make my own.
- Read a lot about Furbies, and skinned one. Wait, what? Yup. I have twenty more on their way to me this week; thanks eBay!
- Browsed the local electronics and hardware stores. I’ve had a good balance of in-person and online shopping for the tools and parts I needed to get me going with this endeavour. It really helped to be able to visually sponge up all the different types of products in person as well as pull them off the shelf to look at them more closely. For the first time I was paying attention to areas of stores I glossed over in the past.
- Googled one thing after another. I had no idea what I was doing when I started. Now, I’m a little less clueless thanks to the many Youtube videos, online guides, and forum posts. I have also obtained a copy of Getting Started in Electronics by Forrest M. Mims III as suggested by Reed Ghazala and have started leafing through it.
I plan to go into more detail on some of these items in future posts. I paused the tinkering for a few days to let things percolate in my head. In the meantime I have had the chance to put this blog together and create this first entry. I’m happy to say that the essential setup for this website is done and I am ready to go back to my workbench.*
* At the time of writing this, I haven’t completed the push-button project as it requires soldering which I have not yet begun doing. I am currently still finalizing a more suitable setup for soldering in my apartment that ensures adequate lighting, ventilation, and is conducive to easy cleanup. It is my understanding that soldering fumes are bad and can cause eye and respiratory irritation, and as I expand my activities I will likely be working with potentially harmful chemicals even if in small amounts. So, I plan to take reasonable precautions to minimise unpleasant surprises.