Introduction

arduino-duemilanove.pngPhotograph provided by Anthony MattoxFigure 2-1 The Arduino Duemilanove, 2008

The Arduino microcontroller[1] is used in art and design as an open source programmable tool to create interactive works. It can drive motors, LEDs, sensors and other components. Microcontrollers are small computing systems used for low power and low memory purposes. A microcontroller consists of a microchip on a circuit board with read-write capabilities, memory, inputs and outputs. The Arduino microcontroller adheres to these capabilities and a close-up is pictured in Figure 2-1, the entire microcontroller can be viewed in Figure 3-2. While microcontrollers have had a presence in the arts for decades, the Arduino microcontroller is among the first microcontrollers specifically designed for artists and designers. The Arduino microcontroller allows artists and designers to execute electronic-incorporated works without knowing the internals of the hardware or software. Artists and designers have been influential in the evolution of the Arduino microcontroller since its birth. Thirty-seven Arduino experts and community members were interviewed. A list of interviewees is included in Section 4.2.

Three relationships surrounding the Arduino microcontroller were explored through the lens of new media art and design. One relationship studies the semantics, or how the Arduino was used and the associated experiences of the participant. The second relationship involved art and design as a catalyst for modifications to the Arduino platform. And third, the relationship of the Arduino microcontroller's ease of use which allowed artists and designers to devote their time and energy to the creative process. After examining the first relationship, how the Arduino microcontroller was being used in art and design, two discoveries were formulated. The discoveries confirmed the hypotheses of the second and third relationships. The most prominent discovery was that both the form and the function in art and design pieces were catalysts in modifying the Arduino microcontroller. A subsidiary discovery was that while the Arduino microcontroller assisted in creativity, the technology was not creating the art.

The design of the Arduino microcontroller caters to a non-technical audience[2] by focusing on usability[3] to achieve its intended goal as a platform for designers and artists. The Arduino microcontroller gives artists and designers the ability to use and modify computational hardware easily and inexpensively. Changes which affect the Arduino's evolution arise as a benefit of open source hardware and software. The advantage of the open source initiative is the ability to freely change attributes and configurations to discover how the program might be affected and learn from it. The Arduino microcontroller itself is based on other open source tools for artists. The most influential to the Arduino are the Processing[4] language and the Wiring[5] microcontroller. Processing is a Java based visual language for artists, and the Wiring microcontroller is an input/output[6] board for arts, media and education. Due to new tools such as these and the Arduino microcontroller, artists and designers are capable of completing tasks traditionally completed by electrical engineers. Beneath the relationship between the Arduino and art lies an alliance of engineers, artists and designers. Many cross- disciplinary team efforts revolve around the Arduino within learning environments, work spaces and online. Often a team consisting of an engineer and an artist or designer will create works together, drawing on one another's strengths. The skill sets of the teams expand by collaborating with people of diverse backgrounds on the common platform which the Arduino microcontroller provides. The Arduino community threads together borrowed code, inspires new ideas, provides examples and starting points for non- technical users. The Arduino microcontroller proves to be instituted the way it was intended by its developers. It is an easy-to-use, adaptable, open source, and used in art and design. Reviews of earlier artist tools, roles within the Arduino community, and effects of an open source approach for designing the Arduino microcontroller are included in Section 5.1.

Second, art and design pieces have been a driving force to modifying the Arduino microcontroller. Several different versions of the board have been created for art and design purposes. The Arduino microcontroller is transformed through modifying designs from the open schematics[7] available online, or the creation of shields.[8] Both the Arduino's physical shape, or footprint, and its operative abilities have been modified by artists and designers to best execute their work. In many situations studied, it was more important to keep the structure of the design or artwork intact, while the Arduino microcontroller was malleable in a number of ways. The Arduino does not always abide by "form follows function", as authored by Louis Sullivan.[9] The functionality of the Arduino often followed the structure of the object embodying it. However, at times the function was independent of the form. Both form follows function and the inverse, function follows form, will be discussed in Section 5.2. The LilyPad Arduino, discussed in Section 3.2, is an example of a microcontroller that was modified both for its form and function.

Finally, a byproduct of the Arduino is its effects on creativity. The creative process contains the notions and lineages from which creative thoughts emerge. Thanks to the Arduino's usable design, users spend less time figuring out the inner workings and more time experimenting and discovering how it can be used in different environments or scenarios. The Arduino community also helps inspire other Arduino users. The creative process as it relates to the Arduino will be further discussed in Section 5.3 of this article.

An understanding of the open source initiative is integral for the research presented. The open source initiative is defined as

"a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock- in."[10]

Open source licenses include the creative commons license discussed in Section 3.1.3. The above definition specifically describes the application to software, but many things apply, including hardware and the Arduino microcontroller.

The terms new media art and interactive art encompass the artworks of the interviewees best. However, neither new media art nor interactive art is well defined in the field of art history. Oxford Art Online[11] represents the most authoritative source for art and art historical definitions, but did not contain a definition for new media art or interactive art. In Art of the Digital Age[12], Bruce Wands includes Interactivity as "A dialogue between the viewer and the art". Gerfried Stocker in Code[13] speaks of digital media art as "a dynamic system as engendered by an interactive process [that] reacts autonomously to the participants and their environments..." Stocker later poses questions as other ways to define digital media art, exemplifying the ambiguity in identifying the field. Mark Tribe and Reena Jana in New Media Art[14] state, "New Media art and older categorical names like 'Digital art,' 'Computer art,' 'Multimedia art,' and 'Interactive art' are often used interchangeably". Tribe describes the discretion of the terminology points to time sensitive tags for the same type of art in different decades.[15] The artwork and designs at hand can typically be described as new media art, interactive art or interactive design.


  1. Arduino. http://arduino.cc
  2. However, this thesis is written for a technical audience with an interest in the history of art and design.
  3. According to usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, "Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use". http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20030825.html
  4. Processing. http://processing.org/
  5. Wiring. http://wiring.org.co/
  6. An input/output (I/O) board refers to a microcontroller that inputs and outputs data through pins.
  7. Board layout and board design refer to the printed circuit board (PCB) that the components sit on as a support. Schematics are the designs of a board which show the components and electrical traces revealing how the board works.
  8. Shields are custom extension boards.
  9. H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art. 5th ed Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004, 79
  10. "Open Source Initiative", http://www.opensource.org/ (accessed December 9, 2009).
  11. Grove Art Online, s.vv. 'Interactive Art,' "New Media Art" http://www.oxfordartonline.com (accessed September 27, 2009)
  12. Bruce Wands, Art of the Digital Age. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006, 11
  13. Gerfried Stocker and Romana Staufer eds., Ars Electronica: Code. Austria: Hatje Cantz, 2003, 11
  14. Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, New Media Art. Köln: Taschen, 2006, 6
  15. Ibid.