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Microsoft is still in the innovation business. If you don’t think so, you haven’t heard about Microsoft’s open source electronics prototyping platform called Gadgeteer. You read that right – Microsoft and Open Source in the same sentence. Wanted to build a little invention you had in mind? Maybe you’re already programming C# and would like to work with some different hardware. Are you a technology teacher looking for a platform with which to teach? From the student to the professional, Gadgeteer can help you make your ideas a reality.

For those of you not familiar with the growing field of electronics prototyping platforms, we have dozens of articles, and even guides, on the Arduino Getting Started With Arduino: A Beginner's Guide Getting Started With Arduino: A Beginner's Guide Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. Read More and Raspberry Pi platforms. Each of those platforms has their own strengths, such as Arduino’s massive flexibility through the use of shields, and the Pi’s complete computer convenience right out of the box. However, the Gadgeteer has the power of Microsoft behind it. No matter what you think of some of Microsoft’s products, they do have some of the best minds in technology working passionately for them. I think their sense of awe for technological advances still exists, and they want to infect you with it as well. Let’s take a look at what Gadgeteer can do for you. Maybe you want to take a run at doing some home automation Home Automation with Raspberry Pi and Arduino Home Automation with Raspberry Pi and Arduino The home automation market is flooded with expensive consumer systems, incompatible with one another and costly to install. If you have a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino, you can basically achieve the same thing at... Read More , like James Bruce did with the Arduino and Raspberry Pi?

The Hardware

You can get started for around $50 with just a basic .NET Gadgeteer mainboard such as the FEZ Cerebus ($30) and a USB module ($20) for connecting to and powering the main board.

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If you decide that you want to try several projects in this platform and get really familiar with it, you might look at one of the starter kits. The FEZ Hydrahacker kit ($299.95) comes with a deluxe mainboard, the USB module and several other modules that you can mix and match for various projects: 4.3″ display with touchscreen, USB Client DP Module, 2x Button Module, LED Strip Module, Potentiometer, Radio FM1 Module, Joystick Module, 10cm IDC cables, LightSense Module, Tunes Modules, Serial Camera L1, SD Card Module, 128 MB SD Card, and a Reusable Plastic Storage Box. If you do any work with these sort of things, you can begin to see the possibilities already.

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Already working with Arduino and want to give Gadgeteer a try? There is Gadgeteer hardware that will play nicely with your Arduino hardware. Take, for example, the FEZ Cerbuino Bee ($40). It’s a nice little hybrid of the FEZ Cerebus mainboard with Arduino compatible headers.

FEZ-cerbuino-gadgeteer

Right now there are several board manufactures making Gadgeteer components, such as Love Electronics (UK), Mountaineer (Switzerland), Sytech Designs (UK), and GHI Electronics (US). This is usually a good indicator that there will be hardware support for the foreseeable future.

If you’re looking at creating a custom enclosure, consider 3D printing. James Bruce shares 9 Apps To Easily Make 3D Printable Objects 9 Apps To Easily Make 3D Printable Objects 9 Apps To Easily Make 3D Printable Objects One of the problems with 3D printing is getting a hold of things to print. You can of course download pre-made objects from a variety of places like Thingiverse; but if you want something unique... Read More . From there, your projects could take on any form!

The Software

Microsoft makes getting into the programming end of the Gadgeteer as affordable as it can get – free. What you need to get started is Visual C# Studio 2012 Express. If you have the complete developer’s suite already, that’s good too. You may need to also install the .NET Micro Framework 4.3 Software Development Kit (SDK). Again… free. Saikat Basu shares a bit about the relatively new studio in The Official Launch Of Visual Studio 2012 Software Development Gets A Fillip With The Official Launch Of Visual Studio 2012 [Updates] Software Development Gets A Fillip With The Official Launch Of Visual Studio 2012 [Updates] Amidst all the hoopla over the launch of the iPhone 5, Microsoft’s launch of Visual Studio 2012 and .Net 4.5 was a much quieter event. For developers, the official launch last Wednesday is a significant... Read More .

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If you’ve used any of Microsoft’s programming studios, you know that they really are pretty user-friendly. The learning curve isn’t too steep for even those who have never typed a line of code. The fact that it is a Visual Studio, a fair bit of programming can be done in a drag-and-drop manner. Eventually, you’ll want to jump into the code to tweak things, but this gets you started. If you’d like some tutorials to get you started, Microsoft has compiled a couple for teachers to use with students. How about making a digital camera or a stopwatch? You can be your own teacher! You don’t get the summer off, though.

Once you have those applications installed, you can start looking at the software packages for each module with which you would like to work. There are hundreds of packages, snippets of code, and documented projects to learn and draw inspiration from. That’s just at the one link – search the web for even more. If you’re a bit intimidated by the thought of learning to code, don’t panic. Danny Stieben has an article, 5 Interesting Ways To Learn To Code 5 Interesting Ways To Learn To Code 5 Interesting Ways To Learn To Code Many people have realized the importance of learning how to code as a life skill. No matter where you go, and what job you have, it’s always seen as in a positive light if you... Read More , to help ease you into it. James Bruce also has a nice two-part article on The Basics Of Computer Programming The Basics Of Computer Programming 101 - Variables And DataTypes The Basics Of Computer Programming 101 - Variables And DataTypes Having introduced and talked a little about Object Oriented Programming before and where its namesake comes from, I thought it's time we go through the absolute basics of programming in a non-language specific way. This... Read More .

The Community

The difference between a successful platform and one that lingers in darkness is the vibrancy of the community that exists around it. You might have the best platform on Earth, but without an active community of developers, it sits on the dusty shelf. If you’re a programmer, I’m sure you can think of at least two examples like this.

The Gadgeteer community is actually quite large, very active and it represents the gamut of hobbyists, neophytes, and engineers. In fact, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE, read I-Triple-E), published an article in their Spectrum newsletter by Steve Hodges called, Easy Prototyping With Microsoft Gadgeteer. That lends all sorts of geek cred to the platform.

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Microsoft has also stated that they are committed to seeing the Gadgeteer platform grow. A direct quote from the Microsoft Codeplex site states, “It is not unheard of for corporations to open source technology while they walk away from it. This is not the case with .NET Gadgeteer.”

It is not unheard of for corporations to open source technology while they walk away from it. This is not the case with .NET Gadgeteer.

Seems pretty solid to me. What do you think?

The Takeaway

For electronics hobbyists, the Arduino and Raspberry Pi have been the kings of the hill for the last few years. It’s good to have a third option, especially if it is one that carries the support of a world-class team already. I’m not certain, but I suspect that as the hobbyist trend continues to grow, the Gadgeteer platform will become a strong second, or even first option – if people can get over their unmitigated disdain for Microsoft. I suspect that Gadgeteer will open many new ways for Windows-based systems to interact with our environment as well. Will that be a good thing? If it gets people involved in shaping the technology that shapes their world, then, yes, it is a very good thing.

What do you think? Looking to experiment with hardware hacking? Want to pick up a new programming skill? Already working with Arduino or Pi and want to try something else? Or maybe you’re an early adopter of Gadgeteer and would like to let us know about your experience. That’s what we have the comment section for – it’s where the real learning is done.

Image Credits: NashMicro Pong Build via NashMicro

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