A Beginner’s Guide to Microcontrollers

What do remote controllers, routers, and robots all have in common? Microcontrollers! These days, beginner-friendly microcontrollers are easy to build with and program using just a laptop, a USB cable, and some (free) open-source software. The catch? There are like, 4324302* different microcontrollers and it can be daunting to get started, especially if you’re just getting into electronics. Where the heck do you start?!

Right here, bbies, I got chu. Whether you are looking to build some cool electronic projects, learn programming/tech, or wanting to teach others about electronics, this tutorial will help you figure out what microcontroller is right for your needs, goals, and budgets. Yay! Let’s get started!

Read Time: ~ 20 min

*Ok, ok, maybe not *that* many, but definitely a few dozen!

 

Wait…What is a microcontroller??

Maybe you’ve seen this word and were like “uhhh..?” but didn’t feel comfy enough to ask*. Totally fine, here’s a quick rundown:

A microcontroller is a “simple computer” that runs one program in a loop. They are designed to perform a single, specific task.

In this guide, we’ll be focusing on microcontrollers that have breakout boards, or a board that makes it easier to connect to and program the microcontroller.

On a breakout board, the microcontroller pins are soldered to a printed circuit board (“PCB”), headers or other connectors are added to the PCB, and some basic firmware, or permanent software, is loaded to prep the microcontroller to receive signals.

*Questions are always good even if they are “dumb” or “n00by”, just find a safe space — like this site or Instructables!

What’s the Difference Between the Raspberry Pi and a Microcontroller?

The Raspberry Pi is not only small and adorable, it is also a full-fledged computer! 😀

Computers have microprocessors AND microcontrollers that work together to perform many tasks at once.

The microprocessor is what does the “heavy lifting” in a computer. It performs the instructions and calculations that make the computer work. Microprocessors are much faster than microcontrollers, but they need external resources like RAM, Input/Output ports, etc., whereas a microcontroller is typically self-contained.

Computers (which are microprocessors) can run multiple programs at a time — you can surf the Internet, reminisce with old photos, write a paper, and have like 1000 tabs open all at the same time! Microcontrollers… not so much. You can do one of those things, but not all.

To learn more about the Raspberry Pi, check out the last section of this tutorial!

Arduino (Uno)

A robust, open-source microcontroller and programming environment designed for beginners with some knowledge of circuits.

Recommended Ages: 12+ (or kids comfy with programming and algebra)

Difficulty: Intermediate

Average Cost: ~$35

There are lots of different types of Arduino boards. This is the Arduino Uno, the best fit for beginners! There are boards that are larger, smaller, wearable, and for specialty use cases like robotics.

Being familiar with Arduino boards and programming maps well to projects and careers in computer science, engineering, and design.

Hardware Features

  • The Arduino Uno has 14 Digital Input & Output (“I/O”) pins, 6 Analog I/O pins, 2 Power Out pins (3.3V and 5V), and 3 Ground (GND) pins.
  • Power input can be anywhere from 5 to 12 VDC
  • The ICSP header (right side in both photos) allows you to connect a ton of different add-on boards called “shields”.
    • For example, you can add a WiFi shield to connect your Arduino to the ‘net!

Example Project: 

Robot Mini Golf Obstacles

Motion-Reactive Shake the Maze Game!

Purchase/Learn More: Arduino Website (www.Arduino.cc)

Micro:Bit

A friendly lil’ microcontroller handy for kids and folks just getting started with coding and hardware.

Recommended Ages: 8+ (or kids comfy with circuits and simple tools)

Difficulty: Beginner

Average Cost: ~$15

The Micro:Bit is a great tool to start learning how to code, teaching others, particularly elementary school students, how to code, and making simple and quick electronic prototypes.

The Micro:Bit is a collaboration between Microsoft and the BBC to bring educational computers into classrooms around the world.

Hardware Features:

  • The Micro:Bit has 3 Digital and Analog I/O pins, 1 Power Out pin (3.3V), and 1 Ground (GND) pin
  • Power input should be 3 – 5 VDC via micro USB cable or battery pack connector.
  • It also has lots of onboard inputs, outputs, and sensors!
    • 5×5 (25) LED matrix
    • Two (2) Pushbuttons (A, B)
    • Radio Transmitter and Receiver
    • Accelerometer
    • Compass
    • Light and Temperature Sensors
  • For more I/O pins, grab a Micro:Bit breakout!

Example Project: 

Text Messenger Puppet!

Purchase/Learn MoreMicro:Bit Website

Circuit Playground Express

A versatile microcontroller great for kids and folks just getting started with coding and hardware.

Note: There is also the Circuit Playground Classic — the hardware is nearly identical, but this board is programmed in the Arduino IDE.

Recommended Ages: 8+ (or kids comfy with circuits and simple tools)

Difficulty: Beginner

Average Cost: ~$25

The Circuit Playground Express, or CPX, is a helpful tool to learn how to code, teach others how to code, and make quick prototypes for beginners to experts alike.

The Circuit Playground Express is a powerful and versatile microcontroller created by Adafruit Industries.

Hardware Features

  • The CPX has 7 Digital/Analog Input & Output (“I/O”) rings that are also capacitive touch!
    • 1 “true” Analog I/O ring
    • 2 Power out ring (3.3V)
    • 3 Ground (GND) pins
  • Power input should be 3 – 5 VDC via micro USB cable or battery pack connector.
  • There are also tons of onboard inputs, outputs, and sensors!
    • 10 Mini Neopixels (can be all colors)
    • 2 Pushbuttons (A, B)
    • 1 Slide Switch
    • Infrared Transmitter and Receiver
      • Can receive/transmit remote control codes, send message between CPXs, and act as a distance sensor
    • Accelerometer
    • Sound sensor and mini speaker
    • Light and Temperature Sensors

Example Project:

 Minecraft Gesture Controller!

Purchase/Learn More: Adafruit Industries

Makey Makey

An interactive introductory microcontroller great for young kids and folks new to electronics and coding, especially for those who want to play with technology without having to build circuits and code.

Recommended Ages: 5+ (or kids comfy with simple tools)

Difficulty: Beginner

Average Cost: ~$50

The Makey Makey is a great first step into electronics and technology — no programming required! Connect alligator clips to the pads and then connect any somewhat conductive material, like hands, fruit, or metal objects, to trigger certain keyboard and mouse keys.

The Makey Makey is an Arduino-compatible board, meaning that you can also reprogram it using the Arduino Integrated Development Environment (“IDE”).

Hardware Features

  • The Makey Makey has six (6) capacitive touch pads on the front of the board:
    • Four control the keyboard arrow keys,
    • One controls the spacebar, and
    • One controls the left mouse click.
  • On the back of the board are header pins for more controls (also capacitive touch):
    • Six (6) pins that map to letters,
    • Four (4) pins that map to arrows,
    • Two (2) pins that map to mouse keys, and
    • One (1) pin that maps to the spacebar key.
    • There are also three (3) general I/O pins, a 5V power pin, and a ground pin.

Example Projects

Beginner: Floor Piano

Intermediate: Interactive Survey Game!

Purchase/Learn More: Makey Makey website

Other Common Boards

There are waaaay too many microcontrollers to cover in one tutorial. If you have a super specific specialty need, there is probably a microcontroller for that (just like apps!). To get a feel for some of the other boards not mentioned in this tutorial, peruse the inventories of SparkFun Electronics and Adafruit Industries and/or ask folks in the field!

Here are a few of my favs:

Particle Photon

Similar to the Arduino Nano, the Photon is a WiFi connected microcontroller that can be programmed wirelessly. The easiest setup uses a (free) smartphone app, but if can also be programmed directly via USB in almost the same language as Arduino*.

Recommended Ages: 12+ (or kids comfy w/ circuits and coding)

Difficulty: Intermediate

Cost: ~$20

For more info and to get the Photon setup, visit the Particle online store here.

Example Project

IoT Industrial Scale

*Wiring is the code framework, so most Arduino code will work without modifications. Can also write in C/C++ or ARM assembly

Adafruit HUZZAH ESP8266 Breakout

A super small, super cheap (and currently very popular in the IoT* community) WiFi microcontroller. You’ll need an FTDI or console cable. You can use the Arduino IDE to program this board or NodeMCU’s Lua Interpreter.

Recommended Ages: 14+ (or kids comfy w/ hardware & software)

Difficulty: Intermediate++

Cost: ~$10

For more info, visit the HUZZAH Adafruit product page.

(SparkFun also has a similar board, the “ESP8266 Thing”, which you can find here for ~$15.)

*IoT stands for “Internet of Things”, which is the term that refers to connecting and controlling various hardware devices, like sensors and household electronics, to the Internet.

Adafruit Trinket M0

A teeny tiny yet powerful microcontroller that blurs the lines between computer and microcontroller (it has an ATSAMD21E18 32-bit Cortex M0 processor). It can be programmed with Circuit Python or in the Arudino IDE.

Recommended Ages: 14+ (or kids comfy w/ hardware & software)

Difficulty: Intermediate

Cost: ~$9

For more info, visit the Adafruit product page for the Trinket M0.

There are a TON of other M0 boards, similar in scope to the Arduino Zero connectable microcontrollers. If this doesn’t suit your needs or your fancy, search around on the Adafruit and SparkFun websites!

Wearable Microcontrollers

There are also a handful of microcontrollers designed for wearable projects!

What makes these special is that they can be washed, so you don’t have to rip them out of the awesome project you made (but do remove the battery!).

Wearable microcontrollers also have special I/O pins that make it easier to sew into clothing and stitch circuits with conductive thread. Here are a few of my favs:

Adafruit FLORA

A circular sewable microcontroller with 14 inputs and outputs. Can be washed (but def remove the battery).

Recommended Ages: 12+ (or kids comfy w/ circuits and coding)

Difficulty: Intermediate

Cost: $15

For more information, visit the Adafruit FLORA product page.

Arduino Gemma

A lil’ tiny sewable microcontroller with 3 inputs and outputs. Perfect for hiding, connecting to small objects, and creating jewelry.

Recommended Ages: 12+

Difficulty: Intermediate

Cost: ~$5

For more information, visit the Arduino Gemma product page.

Arduino Lilypad

A circular sewable microcontroller with 14 available inputs and outputs.

Recommended Ages: 12+

Difficulty: Intermediate

Cost: ~$25

For more information, visit the SparkFun product page for the Lilypad.

 

Raspberry Pi 3

The Raspberry Pi, or Pi for short, is a credit-card sized computer* that runs a special version of Linux and can be programmed to control hardware.

Recommended Ages: 12+
Or kids comfy with coding and algebra

Difficulty: Intermediate (easy as a computer)

Average Cost: ~$35

The Raspberry Pi computer, or Pi for short, can be used as a “standard” computer or as a controller for all sorts of hardware projects. It is a great first computer for kids to use and learn to code on, and is widely used by hardware experts to build all sorts of electronic projects, from robots to 3D printers to home automation systems!

The Raspberry Pi has changed the way we build electronics! There are a few different versions, the most recent is the Raspberry Pi 3 and the Pi Zero, a miniature version of the Pi 3 for just $10.

Hardware Overview

  • The recommended Operating System (“OS”) is a special version of Linux called Raspbian.
  • The Pi has 40 General Purpose Input and Output (“GPIO”) pins.
    • 26 Digital I/O pins (no Analog I/O)
    • 4 Power Out pins (two 3.3V and two 5V)
    • 8 Ground (GND) pins
    • 2 Specialty Pins (I2C ID EEPROM, advanced use only)
  • The Pi also has most standard computer features:
    • 4 USB Ports
    • 1 Ethernet port
    • 1 HDMI port
    • 1 Audio Jack
    • 1 Camera Module Port

Example Projects

Local Cloud Server

IoT Pet Monitor! (Raspberry Pi Zero)

Impact Force Monitor

Purchase/More InfoRaspberry Pi Foundation

*The Pi can be used similar to a standard microcontroller AND can also control microcontrollers! Basically, the Pi is super awesome and I *have* to include it even tho it is technically a computer 🙂

Final Thoughts

If you are just getting started and want to build all sorts of projects, I’d recommend the Circuit Playground Express. It’s super easy to get up and running and has a ton of onboard gadgets.

If you are super interested in computer networking, AI, or connecting things to the Internet (e.g. making a “Smart Home”), I’d suggest the Raspberry Pi.

If you want a sturdy, stable, and reliable board to build a wide variety of projects, go with an Arduino.

If you still have no idea where to start and are totally intimidated, start with the Micro:Bit — it’s only $15 and has plenty of snazzy things on it to play with. Plus, if you get one for your friend, you can send lil’ messages back and forth 🙂

The best advice I can give you is to find a project you are passionate about and build it! There are tons of tutorials online so search around for someone who has built the same or similar project. Build off of their findings and adjust as you please!

And of course, leave any related questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to help!

Happy hacking!

Make a Minecraft Gesture Controller!

Move your body to play Minecraft! What!! Yes. Check the video for a demo 🙂

This tutorial will show you how to make your very own gesture game controller for Minecraft (or your other fav. computer game). Move your hand(s) to walk/run/jump, look around, and attack* all the things!

Let’s get started! Grab yourself a Circuit Playground Expresssnag my program code, and get shakin’ to play Minecraft in (srsly) the most fun way ever! 😀

Read time: 20 min

Build Time: ~ 2 hours

Cost: ~$30

*It is a biiiiit tricky to attack moving things (like monsters), so be careful in survival mode! Or use this to challenge your skills 🙂

Materials

Tools

  • Sewing Needle
  • Scissors
  • and a lil’ patience.. 🙂

 

Build the Glove Controller!

You can make the gesture controller without the glove, but the glove controller makes it easier to play, keeps the CPX in the same orientation (very important), and means you can use your fingers as added controls!

1. Cut rectangles of conductive fabric for the finger pads (~ 0.5 in. x 1 in.).

2. Use regular thread to sew the conductive fabric pads onto each of the glove fingers.

Suggested to use a highlighter or other pen to avoid sewing the two sides of the glove together (learn from my mistakes bbies).

3. Attach CPX to the glove with velcro squares.

4. Use an alligator clip or insulated wire to connect the CPX ground (“GND”) to the thumb pad.

5. Stitch conductive thread from the CPX capacitive touch pads (A1, A2, A3 & A4) to each of the four fingers.

6. If you have a multimeter, check continuity between the CPX pins and the conductive thread pads.

Plan out your controller!

 

First! What do we need to do to control Minecraft (or another awesome game)?

This is a super helpful & fun lesson in Design Thinking, but you can skip this if you want to just use my controls. You can always come back here later if you want to make changes later 😀

1. Determine (crucial) game controls.

Note: Start simple! Figure out the most important controls for the game and start there. You can always add more later.

Here are the controls that I wanted to use while playing Minecraft.. in creative mode 🙂 (you can use the same ones or customize your own controller!):

Movement:

  • Walk forward: W key
  • Run: Ctrl + W
  • Jump: Space bar
  • Look Left & Right: Mouse rotate
  • Walk backward: S key

Actions:

  • Attack: Mouse Left Click
  • Place Block/Push/Open: Mouse Right Click
  • Inventory: E key
  • Escape: ESC key

2. Decide how you want to use gestures and/or the finger pads to trigger these controls. Recommended to sketch out your plan.

Here is my design thought process:

I’ve always wanted to feel like I was actually *in* a game, so I went the “cheap VR” route and used gestures to control basic movements. For walking, I went the “let’s move my arms like I’m walking” route, which easily transitioned into running and jumping by increasing the speed of motion.

To make it easy to place a block or exchange items, I decided to use an “awkward handshake” motion.

Turning was a bit of a challenge, but my goal was to be able to look around by moving my hands in the direction I wanted to look.

Attack became the pointer finger pad, inventory the middle finger pad (which I ended up removing), Escape the ring finger pad, and the pinky finger pad to let me to walk backwards.

Again, you can keep these same controls or design your own 😀

Let’s get programming: Set up the CPX!

1. If you’re using Windows, download the Adafruit Windows Drivers here.

2. Download & save the latest CPX Circuit Python UF2 file.

3. Plug in the CPX with a USB cable (make sure it has data transfer capabilities).

4. Double-click the reset button on the CPX.

The LEDs should turn green. If they are red, it means something is wrong with data transfer to the CPX — check the USB cable, try another USB port on your computer, or try the trusty “unplug and plug back in” method.

5. On your computer, you will see a new disk drive called “CPLAYBOOT”.

6. Drag the CPX Circuit Python UF2 file onto the disk drive.

7. The “CPLAYBOOT” drive will disappear and be replaced with “CIRCUITPY”.

 

Add all the libraries!

Libraries let us access all sorts of special functions for the CPX without having to do a ton of programming.. hooray for open-source! This install will download most of the standard Circuit Python libraries* so peruse them at your leisure to learn about more cool things you can do!

1. Download and save the Adafruit Circuit Python Library Bundle Release from here.

2. Unzip the folder, open the first folder, and copy the “lib” folder onto the “CIRCUITPY” drive.

*It is unlikely that you’ll run out of space since the CPX comes with at least 2MB of Flash storage. But, if you do end up needing more space, you can revisit the libraries and remove the ones you don’t need. If you mess ’em up, just copy and paste the lib folder again.

 

Writing the Controller Code

The CPX has an on-board compiler, which means you can program it in (pretty much) any language you want! I opted for MicroPython, a version of Python for microcontrollers, ’cause Python is awesome.

Read this step if you want to understand how the program works (definitely suggested) or if you want to modify the code.

Here’s the GitHub repository that has the full code.Download it, drag it to your CPX, and rename the file “Code.py” (here’s the raw code if you want to just copy & paste).

1. To do the things I mentioned in the last step in MicroPython, we need the following libraries:

  • LIS3DH accelerometer

    • This allows us to use motion to trigger various things.
  • Human Interface Device (“HID”) keyboard

    • This library allows us to control the keyboard!
  • HID mouse

    • This library means we can control the mouse!
  • CPX capacitive touch
    • This library lets us use the capacitive touch feature on the CPX, hooray!
  • A couple of other libraries to make our lives easier: timebusio, and board.

2. Configure and initialize the libraries.

Assign variables for the keyboard, mouse, and accelerometer objects. Select a range for the accelerometer.

3. Write short functions for each of the controls.

The motion controls can be tricky. Do some initial testing with the accelerometer by printing the values in a serial monitor (in the source code, go to the __main__ function and uncomment the two debugging lines). This will help you to determine thresholds for walking, running and jumping, looking left and right, and placing objects.

The touch pad triggers are much easier as you are only looking for a capacitive trigger (True/False).

Remember to release all of the keyboard and mouse keys at the end of each function!

Debugging: Seeing what’s up the CPX program

If you’re familiar with Arduino, you’re probably familiar with the Serial Monitor. The CPX has the same feature with a slightly different access point depending on what program you are using.

If you are using Mu it’s super easy: the serial console is built in and will automatically detect your board, yay!.

If you are using Idle or another program, follow these steps:

1. Download PuTTY* here.

2. Go to Windows Device Manager and check the serial port number for the CPX (e.g. COM18) — see Photo below.

If there are multiple serial ports listed, unplug the CPX and plug it back in to see which one disappears then reappears.

3. Open PuTTY and select “Serial”.

4. Enter the serial port number (e.g. COM18) under “Serial line” and the baud rate of 115200 under “Speed”.

5. Click Connect! 

*PuTTY is a free and open-source SSH and telnet connection program.

 

Test & Improve

Load the program onto the CPX by dragging and dropping the python file onto the CIRCUITPY drive, then rename the file as “Code.py”

Like pretty much every project, this one will likely be a little wonky when you first get it running. If the touch pads are acting strange, reset the CPX (this recalibrates the capacitive input pins).

Test 1:

– Open up the serial monitor with PuTTY and run the program (CTRL + D)

– Test each of the movement controls (you’ll see the mouse moving on the screen and make sure the program doesn’t crash as well as the touch pads (which should display relevant text on the serial monitor).

Test 2:

Deploy in Minecraft creative mode! Test the movement and action controls to see if anything breaks or doesn’t work as expected (plz keep in mind that this is a prototype)

Update the program based on your testing. Remember, it’s OK if it’s not perfect, there’s always time to make it better!

 

Have all the fun!!

You’re ready to run through Minecraft!! Just be wary of monsters, it might be a bit tricky to protect yourself..

Supplementing your gesture controller with a keyboard is a good idea if you want play for reals 🙂

Please like and/or leave a comment if you enjoyed the tutorial! And of course, let me know if you have any comments or questions!
Happy Building!

<3, jenfoxbot