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Ask MAKE: Getting started with physical computing

Ask MAKE: Getting started with physical computing

Ask MAKE is a weekly column where we answer reader questions, like yours. Write them in to mattm@makezine.comor drop us a line on Twitter. We can’t wait to tackle your conundrums!


John writes in:

I am an artist in Santa Fe, NM. Much of my work is assemblage using old salvaged electronic equipment. I would like to start using interactive electronics. I have some electronics knowledge but am a newbie with microcontrollers, etc. I would like to know what is the best way to get started in this area of physical, interactive microcontrollers. Can some one point me in the right direction?

Sure thing! For your first time, I recommend getting a kit that is specifically designed to get you up and going with physical computing. We sell some nice Arduino-based kits in the Maker Shed — take a look at the Getting Started with Arduino Kit and Advanced Arduino Starter Kit. These bundles are useful because they include enough instructions and parts to give you a good feel for what you can accomplish. Another good way to go might be with a BASIC stamp — they seem to have been eclipsed in popularity by Arduino lately, but are still very capable systems.

If you would like to get some hands-on instruction, try looking for a local group that has microcontroller classes. We covered how to find them a while back.

Finally, if you want to read up a bit first, there are bunch of good books on the subject. Here are a few: Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers, Making Things Talk, and Getting Started with Arduino.

Got a great resource that I overlooked? Abhor Arduinos and have a better suggestion? Sound off in the comments!

22 thoughts on “Ask MAKE: Getting started with physical computing

  1. Scott Schwab says:

    Great question and answer, as I was wondering how to get started last weekend. I ordered the “Advanced Arduino Starter Kit”, last weekend, and I look forward to playing with it this weekend.

  2. Rick says:

    I suggest you look at programmed in basic (perhaps easier to learn than c) Available in USA at reasonable prices and has a great support Forum.

    1. Matt Mets says:

      Ah, excellent suggestion!

  3. PuzzledPerplexed says:

    Other than using a difference engine or a computer made from non-electronic parts?

    IF it has a microcontroller/microcomputer using standard electronics, then isn’t it just called “electronic computing”? or if it has large parts of mechanical and electronic parts, then “mechatronics”?

    Why invent new phrases to describe things that don’t fit with any naming convention at all? Just sounds wrong…

    1. oskay says:

      >Why invent new phrases to describe things

      The snarky answer would be, “We’re human. That’s what we do on our planet.”

      Snark aside, no one is inventing anything here– it’s already an established term with a specific meaning. Just because you haven’t heard of it doesn’t mean that it’s new.

  4. TomA says:

    …will I be able to use the Arduino with dc motors? (If you mention a shield my eyes will glaze over.)

    1. Matt Mets says:

      You certainly can, in whichever way you would hook a DC motor up to a different motor controller. If you don’t want to use one of the, er, custom expansion board for the system, there is a nice tutorial at NYU ( and on the Arduino site itself (

  5. Riaz says:

    Here’s a collection of electronic sketching resources I’ve collected geared towards people of the art and design mind.

  6. vincent says:

    I love Arduino but i think it’s quite expensive.. :) I prefer to use PIC microcontroller. I used EasyPIC5 development board for doing programming/compile/debug/test.

    After you have completed the programming then you can remove the chip and put it into your own PCB.

  7. Robbie says:

    I started out in microcontrollers with Picaxe. I moved on to using CCS PICC C compiler and Microchip’s Pickit 2 programmer.
    Make volume 4 page 158, volume 7 page 149, and volume 9 page 134 had pretty good articles about microcontrollers. Volume 9 isn’t the best article to learn beginner microcontrolling though, but is good enough to get you wondering.
    About me: I learned c++ programming for computers while I was programming Picaxe chips in Basic, but then I bought this book to explore microcontroller programming in c: Programming 8-bit PIC Microcontrollers in C with Interactive Hardware Simulation ISBN: 970-0-7506-8960-1

    If I can share a link to my personal blog, I’ve written a blog about what I think about some microcontroller platforms here: (The Arduino and Atmel are ones I’ve never used, and I only speak of Atmel from a web-search experience)

    I hope that this helps someone. If it didn’t help, please let me know. Revisions are what I live for.

  8. wy says:


    I recently got the same question – but then with regards to textile and electronics. A lot of tips are useful even if you’re not on the sewing electronics trip. I blogged about it here:

    There is also an Arduino project with DC motors, by the way ;-)


    Have fun!!

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