Custom PC, Issue 147

Custom PC Issue 147This month’s Hobby Tech column kicks off with a two-page head-to-head review of rival starter kits for those interested in having a crack at e-textiles technology: the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit and the Kitronik Electro-Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Pack, both courtesy CPC.

The field of e-textiles, or soft circuits, is driven by one invention: conductive thread. There are various ways of making thread that can conduct electricity, and the two companies featured in my review have opted for different methods: Adafruit weaves thread directly out of stainless steel, which produces a thin yet strong thread; Kitronik takes traditional thread and coats it in a layer of silver before weaving it into a thicker denier which is softer and more flexible than Adafruit’s version. Either way, the result is the same: a thread you can sew, by hand or machine, and which conducts electricity to any electronic components your heart desires – up to a power draw of a handful of micro-amps, of course.

The two kits both look to introduce the user to e-textiles, and there’s a shared approach which concentrates on that most traditional of hardware Hello, World projects, making LEDs light up. The lower-cost Kitronik kit focuses on dumb switches, although some bundled full-size LEDs have built-in blinking circuitry for a modicum of intelligence; the more expensive Adafruit kit, meanwhile, includes the company’s Arduino-compatible Gemma wearable microcontroller, giving it considerably more flexibility. It also includes needles, a strange omission from the otherwise ready-to-go kit put together by Kitronik. As to which came out on top, you’ll just have to read the review to find out.

Another two pages of this month’s column are spent on my report from Manchester MakeFest, unrelated to the recent Liverpool MakeFest, and my personal highlights from the Museum of Science and Industry’s first home-brew maker-centric event. These included Bare Conductive Touch Board powered signing bowls used in the education of special needs pupils, a teletype clattering out ASCII art from a paper tape courtesy the¬†Manchester Vintage and Retro Computing Enthusiasts group, and the wonderful blend of analogue and digital that is the B0rkestra project. There’s plenty more I couldn’t fit into the wordcount, with more coverage of the event available on the oomlout blog for the curious.

Finally, I had the opportunity to talk to Ben Gray about his MeArm project. Reviewed in an early form back in Issue 133, the MeArm is a low-cost hobbyist robot arm built from a single piece of laser-cut acrylic and released under an open hardware licence. Since my original review, Ben has closed down his hobbyist supply company Phenoptix in order to concentrate on MeArm full time, and it shows – the new design is a considerable improvement, and now comes with optional joypad attachment and even a dedicated microcontroller option. Ben’s promised to send across a review sample of the new and improved MeArm as soon as he’s able, so expect to see it covered more fully in a future issue.

All this, plus other interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this from via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

The MagPi, Issue 38

The MagPi Issue 38In this month’s official Raspberry Pi magazine, The MagPi, you’ll find my review of the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit, as kindly supplied by CPC – a great follow-on to Issue 37’s review of the more basic Kitronik Electro-Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Starter Pack.

Like the Kitronik bundle, the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit is focused on teaching the user about the uses of conductive thread for wearable and soft-circuit projects. Like the Kitronik bundle, it’s heavily focused on making things light up. Unlike Kitronik’s creation, though, it offers more than just simple on-off circuit potential: the kit is based around a Gemma, a small Arduino-compatible microcontroller designed by Adafruit in partnership with Arduino.cc.

While basic compared to a full Arduino Uno or similar, having just three GPIO pins and no user-accessible serial port, the Gemma is nevertheless surprisingly flexible. It’s also accessible: there’s a USB port right on the board, while support is included in the Arduino IDE as standard. Although the 3.3V logic can be annoying for those coming from 5V Arduino projects, it’s nothing a level-shifter can’t fix – and for The MagPi’s audience of Raspberry Pi enthusiasts, 3.3V logic will be entirely familiar and compatible with their existing parts bucket.

The rest of the kit is well thought out, too. There’s a number of NeoPixel RGB LEDs, offering a wide range of lighting effects, and a generous amount of fine conductive thread pre-wound onto a machine-compatible bobbin. Better still, there’s a pack of needles – something the Kitronik bundle missed, making a trip to the shops necessary for anyone who hasn’t already got a sewing kit with a wide-gauge needle to hand. There’s even a set of leads with crocodile clips, making testing your circuit prior to sewing the components down a breeze.

It’s fair to say that I’m a fan of the Gemma kit, but to get my full opinion you’ll need to pick up a copy of The MagPi Issue 38. It’s available in print from Tesco and WH Smith, or as a free PDF download from the official website if you’d comfortable where you are.