Stefan Van Dockum, or stefanvandockum on our projects page, has made a number of cool projects lately: a haptic metronome, a bulls-eye level using Neopixels and an accelerometer, Tessel adaptations for a Wii Nunchuck and an NES controller, and a couple of other promising works in progress. So I sent him a message to see if I could learn more about his background, inspirations, and impressions.
Stefan made time to speak with me late at night his time in The Netherlands . He’d just put his two young kids to bed, and so Skyped me quietly, white earbuds in. Quick to smile, he was full of ideas– both for projects he wanted to make and for directions he thought we as a company might want to look.
Kelsey: You’ve made a broad range of projects– what’s your background in engineering?
Stefan: I have a pretty standard background for here in Holland for engineering. I got a bachelor’s degree in higher informatics; embedded systems. Before that I was in electrical engineering.
I hadn’t done anything with engineering until now, since then; I went right into the internet business– that’s more .NET and PHP programming.
I had played with electronics since I was seven, since we got our first Nintendo 8-bit thing, and after that, we got our first XT8086 computer with less than 64 kilobytes of RAM. So I started programming then. But then after that, you get to puberty, so you go skating, guitar playing, drinking, that sort of stuff.
I’m more of a “knower” than a “doer”; if I see something for electronics, I know what it does, but I don’t know exactly how to make it from scratch. So copy and enhance is the standard tactic.
That’s why I love the Tessel right now. It has the electronics– what I went to school for– and it has the programming language that I’ve done the last couple of years, for the internet business. It’s the perfect combination for me right now.
When Tessel came out, I ordered the whole set, and I was very happy.
In the end, the programming language itself is not that interesting to me; it’s just what you can do with it. I have learned ten programming languages, I think: Delphi, PHP, .NET, Turbo Pascal and even Basic in the old days; I also did some Java stuff in school. I’ve seen almost every programming language there is. The only thing that’s hard is switching between the languages.
Kelsey: Did you have anything particular in mind when you bought a Tessel?
Stefan: Not really; I always had my eye on the Arduino, but the problem was that it was C, and I didn’t want to go back to C after programming with .NET and PHP for so long.
I wanted an Arduino for just making things. You always want to build a robot or something– standard stuff. Just dabbling in electronics is always a cool thing to do. I just wanted to have it as a new gadget.
Kelsey: You’ve been prolific so far; you’ve published, I think, five projects?
Stefan: Five or so. I’ve got some more in my mind.
I need to move to a new house, so I’m thinking about a home sensor network, with small temperature sensors, to monitor the whole house.
I have a checklist of all the modules that work with Tessel. When I got the Tessel first, I said, let’s try module 1. Okay, example code works. What to do with it? Thinking, thinking, don’t know yet, let’s try module 2. Let’s try that one. At first I tried all the example codes. Then you have a really nice idea of what you can do with them.
One thing on my checklist was the infrared module. Controlling your TV is so dull, it’s standard, so controlling the TV was not very cool. But I’m also a portrait photographer. I had my DSLR in front of me, and I was thinking, wait a second, I’ve got a remote for that, and that remote is infrared. I’ve done a couple of product photography assignments; now I can automate my product photography just by sending IR codes to the camera and using the servo to turn a table.
I’m still working on the woodwork part. I went to Ikea to buy some really cheap turntable thing; it’s like seven euros for a turntable, and I just have to put on the servo to move it. That’s a project that I’m still doing. Like I said, moving into a new house, but it will probably be done before the end of the month.
Editor’s note: here is Stefan’s product photography project writeup so far.
Kelsey: A lot of your projects involve a physical component– is that a fun piece of the project for you?
Stefan: It depends on what I want to achieve, the problem is that it takes some more thinking; programming is easier than making a piece of hardware. But it’s bringing back childhood memories, the electrical part. It was fifteen years ago that I created my own PCB boards. In the old days, I etched my own PCB boards, with the lighting and the different kinds of chemicals. When I was at school, the SMD technology was just arriving. I really had to do everything by hand then.
I had an internship that shipped amplifiers to Hong Kong. I was soldering on my own, I made some mistakes, and I really hated that part. But now when I’m tinkering, I’m thinking, why that capacitor, why that resistor?
That’s really a fun part to think of: what kind of schematic do you need? But it’s still a hard part. I think most software programmers really hate that part, to get that electronic stuff up and running. You really don’t know what’s happening if you’ve never had any background. Why would I learn four years for it, if someone could do it in two weeks? So the pre-made modules are pretty cool, because you can just plug in and do your stuff.
Kelsey: How long does it take you to make a project?
Stefan: One evening, or two or three evenings, depending on how much I need to debug.
I’m always thinking about really short code blocks, trying to get those basic blocks first: turn a servo, send an IR command, that sort of stuff. Later on, I can always extend those basic building blocks.
Mostly it’s just one evening to get the prototype running. If I wanted to make it really complete, I think I would be doing two days or something. For the projects that I do right now, I get the idea in the morning, and then in the evening I program it, hook it up, and it’s ready to go.
Kelsey: What are you excited about making right now?
Stefan: The Neopixel stuff is really cool. You can get a nice ring with colorful LEDs. It’s just so easy to program, you can do basically anything with it.
I got a 3D printer, also. I’m trying to mix and match some ideas that I have with the Tessel. But the problem is, my 3D modeling capabilities are also from ten years ago, so I need to pick that up also.
I saw the Rapiro robot– that’s a pretty nice robot for 3D printing. So I want to make it with much more stuff on it– more lights, more talking back.
Robots are pretty standard. You always want to make a robot, but in the end it’s sometimes too hard, and everybody does it. But to make a really cool robot, that’s still on the bucket list.
Kelsey: Have you thought about turning any of your projects into products?
Stefan: I was thinking about how to do it. You need to do it in quantity.
For most people, the Tessel is expensive. It’s not a really expensive thing, but it’s still an expensive thing to buy for a product.
You could do something Bluetooth Low Energy and NFC. I was thinking about a teddy bear with NFC in it. My kids could put the telephone to its paw and an app would come to life and it would say how old the teddy bear is, its birthday, that sort of thing.
It’s in my mind to try selling some things. But the Tessel right now isn’t the right thing to do to sell. You really need to make your own microcontroller with its own chips. I could maybe make things for friends.
Kelsey: What would make it better for the applications you have in mind?
Stefan: The Arduino proto-mini is ten euros if I get it from Hong Kong. But I really hate Arduino’s programming language, and I really like Tessel. You should make a Tessel mini, or some ‘satellite’ sensor like boards which can directly talk to a tessel ‘hub’.
The sensors need wireless communication– I want to make a low-mesh network.
Tessel mini should be one of the products you should sell. Max of two modules, and half its price, you would sell a lot more I think. Especially for hackathons. At my company, there are some other front-end developers who are looking into Tessels, but don’t have the money yet.
Sell them by tens, you can really have a cool hackathon.
Kelsey: What do you think is a good direction for this sort of technology?
Connecting a physical thing to the internet is the way to go. The only thing you need to know is, what do you want to do with this connection? It’s an in between medium; you’ve got some actuators, you’ve got some sensors, and you can always reach and trigger them. You can move something through the internet. But in the end, I don’t really have a concrete idea yet. First get the basics up and running and expand from there…
The basic implementation would be the sensors: getting to know your environment, and adapt your environment to the situation.
So the the next best thing, what I think, in the next five years is really automating your house and making sure everything in it knows what it’s doing: close the windows, sun screens, temperature, air conditioning. Together with information (weather for example), shared algorithms as API etc.
The other thing I was thinking about is portable stuff. That’s a race against the phone, because your phone can do a lot of things, but they’re consumer things. You can’t add really other hardware things to it, other than the microUSB port. You have Bluetooth protocol. In ten years, maybe there will be a difference between a phone and a microcontroller, but maybe not. That’s a possibility.