Introduction to Arduino!

Goals of This Chapter

  • Obtain a basic understanding of microcontrollers
  • Download the Arduino code editing software

What is a Microcontroller?

The MIT Illuminations display is made up of hundreds of lights that need to be turned on, turned off, and have their colors adjusted. We'll want to control these lights programmatically, which means we'll need a small computer, running some sort of software, to vary the amount of power we deliver to each light.

This is where a microcontroller comes in! A microcontroller is a small computer that has both input and output pins that can be controlled by software that you upload. So, for example, you can use code to analyze any information coming into the microcontroller or change the output power enough to, say, turn on and off a light.

For this project, we're going to use the Arduino Uno. This is an extremely popular microcontroller designed for beginners and experienced prototypers alike in the maker community. You can. You can learn more about it here!

Arduino also has a very extensive Getting Started guide, which explains a lot of the principles of using microcontrollers in detail. The guide is lengthy, but we recommend taking a quick look and then keeping it at hand if you have questions later on!

Following Along

There are a couple of components we recommend you obtain if you'd like to follow along with this guide and build your own blinky lights.

PartSourcing Link 1Sourcing Link 2
Arduino UNO Rev3 SMDArduino Website
USB A Cable*AdafruitAmazon
Male to Male Jumper CablesAdafruitAmazon
220Ω Resistors AdafruitAmazon
Individual LEDsAdafruitAmazon
Tactile Momentary ButtonAdafruitAmazon
WS2812B RGB 5050SMDAdafruitAmazon

*This is the standard A-B USB cable used to connect your computer to an Arduino. If your computer has a USB C port, we recommend getting something like this USB B to C cable so you can plug your Arduino into your computer directly without the use of an adapter.

The Arduino IDE

To write, edit, and upload software to our microcontroller, we'll be using an Arduino Integrated Development Environment, or IDE. An IDE is a program made for editing code files.

Although code files are text files and could be edited in a text-editing program, an IDE usually includes many features that help make programming easier. The Arduino IDE will specifically help us write and upload code to Arduino microcontrollers, like the Uno.

There are two versions of the Arduino IDE: a web-based version and a desktop version for Windows or Mac OS. We strongly recommend that you use the desktop version, since the board driver management is all contained within the desktop software. If you choose to use the web-based version, you will also need to use a separate plugin to manage the connection between the microcontroller and your computer. The plugin is sometimes a bit flaky.

Download the desktop version of the Arduino IDE here!

If you're looking for a bit more help downloading the IDE and getting started, you can take a look at this guide.