The Raspberry Pi changed everything when it was released in February 2012. Nobody would have known it would sell over 10 million units! The Raspberry Pi Foundation introduced HATs (Hardware Attached on Top) in 2014. A HAT is a bit like an Arduino shield but for the Pi. As the Pi can do so much straight out the box, HAT take-up has been somewhat slower than that of Arduino shields.
The Matrix Creator HAT is a Swiss Army Knife for your Pi, with 15 sensors, a suite of communications protocols, a ring of RGB LEDs, a microphone array, and more! The only question is, should you buy it?
What’s in The Box
Inside the box you get a sticker and a small manual, although there are no other accessories. It would be nice if it came with a getting started guide, although there is documentation on the website.
In addition to the HAT, you will need a Raspberry Pi. The Pi 1, Pi 2 and Pi 3 are all supported, and as the Pi 3 is the newest and fastest model, this is the better choice. You will need all the parts you normally need to setup a Pi (MicroSD, power supply, HDMI cable). Why not make your own Pi starter kit? You will not need any extra accessories to run this HAT; it just slots into the top of the Pi.
If you want to do any computer vision, you will need a Pi camera. These can be picked up for about $20. There is a square hole and mounting points in the middle of the HAT for securing the camera.
Files are provided (Github) to 3D-Print your own case, although it would be nice if one was included, as third-party ones cannot be purchased yet.
It’s simple enough to connect this hat. The FEMALE pins on the HAT push onto the MALE General Purpose Input Output (GPIO) pins on the Pi. This connection does flex a little bit, but in reality it’s quite strong. It’s unlikely to break with general use.
These pins not only communicate with the HAT, but send it power as well, meaning the only other cables needed are required for the Pi anyway.
The Creator comes with a plethora of sensors, connectors and components. It has:
- 17 Digital GPIOs
- ZigBee® (Cert. Pending)
- Z-Wave® (Cert. Pending)
In addition to this connectivity, it has the following sensors:
- 8 MEMS Microphone Array
- FPGA (Xilinx Spartan 6)
- Microcontroller (ARM Cortex M3)
- Temperature sensor
- Ultraviolet sensor
- Pressure sensor
- 3D Accelerometer
- 3D Gyroscope
- 3D Magnetometer
- Humidity sensor
All these features mean there is always something you can make or tinker with. This HAT almost turns the Pi into a tricked out Arduino, only with more processing power!
The 17 digital GPIOs (thats General Purpose Input Output) are a nice touch. As the hat connects to the existing GPIO on the Pi, these can be used to control any additional hardware you may be using.
The 8 MEMS microphone array is very cool. This can be seen cleverly positioned on the bottom of the board:
Using eight microphones distributed around the outside allows for directional voice detection. Your Pi can tell from which direction noise is coming from. These could be used to make your own DIY Amazon Echo, such as in this video:
The two onboard processors may seem excessive. The ARM Cortex M3 is a microcontroller like the Arduino, and it is used as a co-processor on the iPhone 6s! FPGA stands for Field-Programmable Gate Array. It’s another powerful processor in the form of the Xilinx Spartan 6.
These processors work together to serve several purposes. They primarily work to process sensor data, and to control all the components. As the FPGA is field-programmable, this would normally be used to store and run code (much like the Arduino processors). It’s unclear how exactly these are implemented, although their GitHub repository has more in-depth details.
There are 35 RGBW multicolor LEDS around the outside of the board. Each of these can be red, green, blue, or white, or a combination of the four. These can be programmed and controlled individually, and they do look very cool:
The various other sensors and components all add functionality, although these can be purchased quite cheaply (with the exception of NFC). Make sure you check out these 9 awesome things you can do with NFC.
The main way of configuring the Creator is through the command line. You will need to setup your Pi first — something that is easy enough with PiBakery. You may wish to setup your Pi for headless use with SSH before configuring the HAT
The Matrix CLI or Command Line Interface handles the communication aspect, and provides a way for you to manage multiple devices. You have to register your device, and then setup your unique codes and device ids on the Pi itself. You will have to manually configure all these details, although the website does describe every step in detail. You may wish to brush up on your Windows or Linux command line skills first.
The documentation gives the impression that there is an easy way to get up and running, maybe a GUI or a web interface. Unfortunately there is not. This is one area where the HAT comes unstuck. It is easy to install apps, as you will see below, but if you do not know how to code it can be a problem. It also assumes an understanding of the command line. Of course, it’s never too late to learn to code, but be prepared for a bit of effort.
One of the core concepts behind this device is the app store. The idea is that you can really simply install an app. It is easy to install apps. Here’s how you install and run the life app:
matrix install life matrix start life
This does work very well, however, there is only a limited selection of apps at the moment — there’s only six! This will continue to expand as more people use the HAT and publish their apps, but it is slightly disappointing at the moment.
What Can You Actually Make?
All sorts! The accelerometer would be ideal for a quadcopter, and the lights are great for a bit of fun. There are some tutorials available on the instructables page, but again, it would be good if there were more. There is a self balancing robot:
And a compass app – though there is no tutorial for this, which is a shame.
Should You Buy the Matrix Creator?
Maybe! There’s no doubt that this is a very nice HAT, which has some expensive components in at a good price. Many of the libraries (such as computer vision) are either written by somebody else, or alternatives with better support can be found, so those are not entirely unique to the Creator.
If you want to get the sensors and libraries to experiment with, maybe learn to code, or produce something and you don’t know what you need, then sure. If you know what you want or are going to mass-produce a product then you may be better off only buying the parts you need.
While there are some good apps and tutorials at the minute, it is slightly limited. Hopefully, these will continue to grow as more people develop using the board. It can be fiddly to configure, but should not be too much trouble if you have configured a Pi before.
With a vast number of sensors, the Creator is amazing value. However, the limited app selection can make it daunting to use.