MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This coming weekend, a rocket is scheduled to launch into space. It's headed for the International Space Station. And among its cargo are two small satellites to be put into orbit. These satellites aren't controlled by big fancy computers. They run off microchips you could buy at your local electronics store.
NPR's Geoff Brumfiel explains what makes these microchips special.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: To understand why anyone would use a $30 microchip to control something as expensive as a satellite, look no further than this classroom above a church in Washington, D.C. Sitting around tables are about a dozen people from all sorts of different backgrounds.
ANN VROOM: My name's Ann Vroom.
BRUMFIEL: She's a lawyer.
VROOM: Yeah, a lawyer.
BRUMFIEL: Other people here are analysts, artists, there's a trained philosopher. They're students in a course being put on by HacDC, a local collective that brings together artists and programmers. They're learning how to use something called Arduino. It's a microchip on a blue circuit board about the size of a deck of cards. Vroom has one plugged into her computer's USB port and is trying to figure out how to make it do stuff.
VROOM: Right now, I want to make my buzzer buzz.
BRUMFIEL: See if you can do that, actually.
VROOM: I am trying to...
BRUMFIEL: Because that'd be good for radio, you know, a buzzing buzzer...
VROOM: I have to find out what pin number the buzzer is. That's the key to success here.
BRUMFIEL: Microchips are normally hidden deep inside smartphones or washing machines. But the Arduino is out in the open for anyone to play with. Every pin, every input and output is labeled and documented. And while it's not super easy to program, it's much easier than other microchips.
Amanda Williams is a product designer in Montreal, Canada, and an early Arduino adopter. She says to understand what life was like before Arduino...
AMANDA WILLIAMS: Open up an old cellphone or something. No one ever intended you to see the circuit board on that. If it's labeled at all, it's labeled for the person assembling it, just to make sure they put the right things in the right places.
BRUMFIEL: Back in the mid-2000s, she had a lot of ideas for using microprocessors to make everyday objects more interactive.
WILLIAMS: Judgmental bookends. So imagine if you had bookends that could, like, read the barcode symbol on your book. So every time you pulled a piece of crappy sci-fi off the shelf, they would like quirk an eyebrow at you and judge you for reading trash.
BRUMFIEL: But the microchips available back then were expensive and hard to use. Other artists had the same problem. A group of instructors at a design institute in Italy noticed their students needed cheap, easy-to-program microchips for art installations and other projects. The teachers had a background in engineering, so they created Arduino.
Like a lot of other designers in those early days, Williams discovered the Arduino through word of mouth.
WILLIAMS: I borrowed or possibly stole an Arduino board from a friend of mine and just started fiddling around with it.
BRUMFIEL: The judgmental bookends never quite worked out. But now, there's Clyde.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Meet Clyde. He's a bright desk lamp and a multicolored light.
BRUMFIEL: Clyde looks unusual, less like a lamp and more like a jellyfish. Inside, there's Arduino. It can turn Clyde on when the lights go out or make him change color when you touch him. And the people who buy him can easily program him to do even more.
WILLIAMS: So if you wanted to use your lamp to display air quality data or if you wanted to make it play a lullaby when you turn off the lights, those are all things that our customers can do.
BRUMFIEL: Williams has lots of customers. This May, she and her partner took Clyde public, raising money to produce the lamp through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. People loved it. Williams ended up raising three times the money she asked for, nearly $150,000 in all.
WILLIAMS: It was amazing. I couldn't believe how popular we got.
BRUMFIEL: Which brings us back to the satellite launching into space this weekend - two satellites actually, each with around 15 Arduino processors. Peter Platzer is CEO of Nanosatisfi, the company that built the satellites. He chose Arduino because of its simplicity.
PETER PLATZER: I've really wanted to use something that everyone across the world can use, that has wide appeal to everyday people. And there really was no other alternative.
BRUMFIEL: For a few hundred bucks, artists, students, or anyone can rent a satellite for a few days and program it to do whatever they want.
PLATZER: Take a picture of your home or your home city, or your lake, or your holiday home. Or there is an artist in Hong Kong which has composed music for the Seven Wonders of the World. And he's using our satellite to play that music and take pictures of the Seven Wonders of the World.
BRUMFIEL: And thanks to workshops like the one at HackDC, more and more people are able to use Arduinos.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZING)
VROOM: Oh, yay. We can buzz.
BRUMFIEL: Ann Vroom, the lawyer, has finally got her buzzer buzzing.
I have to say it's actually kind of annoying.
I mean, I know it's cool for you.
VROOM: Wait till we get two going. It'll be really annoying.
BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.