RubyConf 2008: Ruby Arduino Development

Posted in Conferences, Development, Project Management on December 11, 2008

RubyConf 2008: Ruby Arduino Development

In the past few years, microcontrollers – the chips that control all the beeping, blinking, and buzzing devices in our world – underwent a revolution in price and accessibility that parallels the transformation of microcomputers in the early 70s. Where that first revolution brought the personal computer this new one brings physical computing: the ability to sense and control the physical world as easily and cheaply as today's PCs process and store information.

The most useful product of this revolution is the Arduino development board. The Arduino combines a hardware design that emphasizes easy experimentation with a set of intuitive software libraries that mask many of the ugly details of microcontroller work. Just as the early personal computers offered information processing tools to diverse new groups, Arduino opens physical computing to artists, social workers, scientists, and even simple web programmers who lack electrical engineering degrees.

The Ruby Arduino Development project attempts to extend these virtues by bringing the beauty and power of Ruby to the Arduino platform. RAD compiles Ruby scripts for execution on the Arduino. In addition to the syntactic elegance and simplicity gained by getting to program in Ruby instead of C++, RAD provides a set of declarative Rails-like conventions and helpers that reduce boilerplate and simplify often-byzantine hardware APIs. Further, RAD takes advantage of Ruby's dynamic nature to offer sophisticated tools unavailable in the default Arduino distribution such as a testing framework and a graphical simulation environment (built with _why's Shoes GUI toolkit).

In this talk I'll conduct a comprehensive tour of RAD. Starting with the obligatory physical computing 'hello world' of blinking a single LED, I'll progress through increasingly sophisticated demonstrations including serial communication, inline assembly, movement detection, temperature sensing, and motor control. Lights will blink, things will spin, music will play.

I'll proceed to describe some of the design challenges RAD faces in integrating a diverse set of technologies (including RubyToC, Shoes, Rake, Makefiles, and avr-gcc) as well as balancing the constraints of concise compilation output that fits the Arduino's minimal program memory with the virtues of higher-level abstractions and rich interfaces that make a friendly environment for newbie hardware hackers.

I'll end with a call of encouragement. As a newcomer to electronics myself, RAD lets me build on the basis of my existing Ruby chops to create playful and useful projects even with very limited knowledge of the intimidating world of data sheets, circuit diagrams, and long-forgotten physics lectures. If I can build cool physical computing projects, you certainly can too.

About Greg Borenstein
Greg Borenstein is the co-founder of, a startup working to make all the music on the web findable and useful. He is the author of a number of open source projects including RAD (, a framework for programming the Arduino open source physical computing platform in Ruby, and Couch Engine (, a CouchDB-resident web framework. In his spare time, Greg plays indie rock and organizes PDX Pop Now!, a free all-ages local music festival and non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon. Ruby was the first programming language he ever learned.

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Tags: Conferences, Ruby, RAD, GUI, Confreaks, Shoes, RubyConf 2008