Author: Mark Frauenfelder
Publisher: Make, 2011
Aimed at: DIY and electronics enthusiasts
Pros: A mix of projects and emphasis on robots
Cons: Ignores software aspects and nothing ambitious this issue
Reviewed by: Harry Fairhead
A special issue on robots. What could be of more interest to the programmer looking for some creative relaxation?
Make is however a magazine that caters for a wide range of tastes, levels and interests and some of the articles are surprising to say the least.
Before looking at what is in the wider magazine let's focus on the promised robots section. The first article is a little eccentric and describes how to build a robot drum machine - basically a tracked vehicle with a speaker on its roof. It uses a standard controller board and ultrasonic rangefinder plus off the shelf tracks etc. To be honest it's a bit dull and adding a loudspeaker to make drum beats - well, I for one would quickly tire of that challenge.
The second article is more promising - modify a Roomba as a recon robot. This is an interesting idea as a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner is designed to roam the house so adding a camera and some communications gives you a viable recon platform in no time. The only problem is that the cheapest Roomba I could find was $200 which doesn't make it very low cost. Then you have an off-the-shelf video camera and a WiFi router to add to the list of parts. The most interesting part of the article is the description of how to take control of the Roomba using an off-the-shelf Java library. Unfortunately as Make doesn't seem to think that programming is part of the "maker world" it doesn't really get enough attention. For me and for many programmers, the idea that you can take control of a Roomba is the key piece of information and more on this would have made the article much more valuable. Anyway I now know that I need to find out more from the web about controlling a Roomba.
The third article is about creating a toy - a dancebot. This is an interesting exercise in using linear actuators, i.e. solenoids, to move the head of a "doll" to the beat of the music under control of an Arduino. I admit that this isn't my sort of thing but I can see it might have an appeal. Again the software side of the robot is more or less thrown away. You get some Arduino code that you can download and control the movement by typing command letters via the serial link. Then on the last page is a short idea that you might like to use Max/MSP to control the robot. This is a music/ multimedia language and its only problem is that it is commercial - but there is a trial available. There is an open source alternative called PD but the article really fails to give any real information on these exciting ideas. Begin able to construct signal processing programs that make the robot dance is where the whole project takes off as being both fun and educational but the article just basically tells you its available and lets you get on with it. What a wasted opportunity! Again the software hardly gets a look in.
The next project is 100% hardware - build your own gripper claw using a plastic clamp. This is an exercise in using a servo with some simple electronics to allow an IR controller to set the servo's angle. Interesting but the most interesting part of the project, i.e. decoding the IR signals etc. is just a download with no discussion of how it might work.
Then we have an article on converting toys into robots. This is a good idea and the article is more inspiring than a provider of details. The basic idea is that toys provide a well engineered framework that you can add servos and other devices to and are much cheaper than starting from scratch. The next article is a collection of project descriptions - quadrotors, drink making, controllable ball, off-road snake, robotic band, sensors and lots of others.
At the end of the robots section I felt a bit short changed. Most of the projects were too simple and ignored or marginalized the software side. Given the number of exciting robot platforms that are available from places like Willow Garage and Aldebaran plus the software such as ROS and Microsoft's Robotics Studio not to mention all the robot languages and kits. It seems that Make's interpretation is robots as remote controlled vehicles or toys. There is a lot of fun in this interpretation but let's hope that they return to the subject and look at the more challenging end of robotics soon.
As to the rest of the issue - well it has to be said it is very varied. What about build your own jellyfish tank - not something that had ever occurred to me, a self contained message board and a real lime light spotlight? The think pieces in this issue are also a bit weak - using pneumatics for robots, an account of the PC revolution based on Paul Allen's book and an analysis of 3D printing and its social effects. There is an interesting article on making CGI movies and something about Chinese village inventors.
For me the best article in the entire issue was Visualizing with ImageJ - and not just because it is software-oriented but because it was less than obvious and made you want to download and try things out. ImageJ lets you combine images in various ways using different image processing techniques - stacking, color time coding and so on.
The issue ends with a collection of short, mostly craft- based mini-projects. Notable is the one on converting a running machine into a desk and building your own touch desk similar to Microsoft Surface.
Overall this issue of Make, for me, misses the mark on robotics but having said that the world would be a worse place without it. It is clear that to reach a wide market the magazine has to keep a range of topics on the go and this is no bad thing but ... the world is software- based and yet Make plays safe and deals mostly with hardware even if it means missing out on making good and creative use of that hardware. It also misses the opportunity to do something more advanced or ambitious - surely in the mix of articles there should be room for at least one more ambitious article?
Even so in a world with few practical magazines - just buy a copy.