Past kits have been based on concepts that are fairly easy to explain (although, I may still take 2-3 pages to write up explanations that no one reads), such as the optics of the pin hole camera, or the acoustics of a guitar. I kind of ignored describing the 4-bit microcomputer, but that’s because it was already fully assembled and the experimentation part concerned writing programs, not designing circuits. The 8-bit micro-controller then marks a bit of a departure for both me and Gakken.
A processor is the part of a computer that does calculations and makes decisions based on the results; i.e. – add two numbers and jump to some address if the total is 4 or greater. There are 4-bit, 8-bit, 16-bit processors and on up. The more bits you have, the bigger the numbers you can work with and the larger number of instructions you can have within the larger programs. A “micro” processor is just a processor that’s physically smaller compared to old generation mainframe circuits. But, a micro-processor by itself is useless. You need to add support electronics like memory, a video card (for output), a keyboard (for input) and a hard drive (for long-term storage) to have even just the most basic micro-computer. (Throw in a printer, scanner, optical drive, USB ports and a LAN/modem card and you’ll have something a little more useful.)
So, what’s a micro-controller? Well, take that processor that we started out with, and connect it to some other circuit that you want to run. Instead of designing customized circuits specifically for your new project, you can take an off-the-shelf controller and use that instead. You still need a way to talk to the controller to program it, but at its heart, a controller is just a stripped down computer – the processor plus a small amount of support circuitry. It’s a programmable circuit used to control other circuits. Which brings us to Gakken.
Otona no Kagaku kit #27, the 8-bit micro-controller. 3360 yen ($38 USD), released 5/14/2010. AKA, the Japanino, this kit is actually based on the venerable Arduino circuit. So, if you’ve used the Arduino before, you know what you’re getting into here. The Japanino includes a USB port for program download from a MAC or PC, connector strips along the edges for plugging in “shields” (secondary circuit cards for additional motor control or prototyping) and an external 5V power pack (uses 3 AAA batteries). For those of you that haven’t used the Arduino before, you write programs for the controller on your PC or MAC in a simplified version of C++, then transfer the program to the controller using the USB port. Programs are called “sketches”, and there are a wide variety of sketches available from the Arduino site. If you have no idea what I’m talking about at this point, you’ll really want to check out the Arduino programming basics pages first before buying this kit. “Shields” are the secondary circuits that the controller controls. There’s an ad on the back page of the mook for Switch Science, a commercial Japanese provider of shields.
#27 also comes with the P.O.V., a small hand-cranked LED stick. Suggested assembly time for the P.O.V. is 30 minutes, and that’s about how long it took me. Actually, it took 5 minutes just to remove all the pieces from the packaging. Expect another minute to screw on the legs for the Japanino board. The mook suggests checking the P.O.V. circuit first by putting batteries (3 AAAs) into the power pack, connecting the LED strip and switch to the Japanino and turning on power. The LEDs should flash back and forth, and the speaker should sound when you close the switch. Turn off power and disconnect the cables again. Note that the gray switch wire goes to the A0 connector, and the black switch wire goes to one of the Gnd connectors on the Japanino. Doesn’t matter which Gnd you use. Then, as you assemble the P.O.V. case, make sure to allow a little slack for the LED cable to let the arm swing freely (doesn’t need much, though). And also make sure that the switch is tightened down to be as close to the pusher disk as you can get, otherwise it won’t close properly.
The P.O.V. is really nothing more than an animated sign. As you turn the knob, the arm moves to one side then springs back to the other side under it’s own pressure. This can make the knob hard to turn fast, and it’s really noisy. Also, the switch doesn’t close long, so you may never hear the speaker beeping over the clacking of the knob. You can program new patterns into the Japanino if you like. The P.O.V. isn’t the greatest add-on for the Japanino, but it is a good starting point if you want one. Fortunately, the P.O.V. is pretty sturdy. (The Japanino itself is just the circuit board plus the connectors, so as long as you don’t pull on the cables, the Japanino will last a long time.)
The mook is a treasure trove of DIY ideas. First, it starts out with a description of the Arduino, the history behind it, and a tour of the factory in Italy where they’re made. Next, we get examples of shield circuits made by the featured designers, such as a wagging tail, a beheaded Chatty Cathy synthesizer, a talking flounder, a variable fan that you play like a piano, and a touch sensitive tablet for playing the SX-150 synthesizer kit. There’s also kits for using the Japanino as a light-sensitive theremin and for playing the Tower of Hanoi on an LED matrix panel. One article covers a program that lets you design pictures to be displayed on the P.O.V., and there’s a description for how to write a “sketch” for the P.O.V. by hand. Additional circuits let you control the Gakken wind-up doll (kit #16), add a temperature sensor to the Gakken wind generator, add glowing eyes to stuffed animals, and fancy up your purse or gloves with blinking lights.
Other articles cover the history of electronic circuits from the 1940’s to the 70’s (remote control cars, programmable robots and model train sets). And, there’s a manga on how parents pass their genes on to their babies. The last 10 pages or so are on the purposes of the Japanino circuit connectors and how to download and use the Windows and Mac software for writing Japanino sketches.
Summary: The P.O.V. portion of the kit is of limited entertainment value since it’s noisy and not all that easy to turn quickly. (Plus it’s redundant if you already have the GMC-4 microcomputer kit.) But, the Japanino card is almost infinitely customizable and you can immediately use all of the Arduino shields already on the market. Further, it looks like Gakken plans to allow future kits to interface with the Japanino; a case in point is that #28 will have a leaf switch to connect to the Japanino. (As a side note, the P.O.V. is nothing more than the LED stick, the piezoelectric speaker and a switch. You can program the LEDs to turn on and off regardless of the switch setting.)
Note: The PDF for building and programming the kit is now available in English. If your computer can handle Japanese, you can get the PC or Mac programming environment and some sketches for the P.O.V. from here. Otherwise, you should be able to get the environment from the Arduino site.
If you do have Japanese windows, then you can go to the Gakken Japanino site and download the IDE (the programming environment). If you have Windows 7, then (with the power pack turned off) plug the Japanino into your USB port. With luck, Windows will automatically install the USB driver for it. If not, then go to the Gakken site and also download the Silicon Labs software. Unzip the IDE into the directory of your choice. Go into that directory and run the Arduino application. This will bring up the program interface window. Copy one of the sketches from the Gakken Japanino page into the IDE and click the second icon from the right. This will first compile the program and then try to send it to the Japanino. If you get red text it means that there’s an error. First, go to Tools, and for the microcontroller board, make sure that Gakken is selected. Then select Tools Ports, and click on COM3. Try clicking on the second from the right icon again and see if the red text goes away. If everything goes correctly, the program should compile and transmit to the Japanino in about 1-3 seconds (less than 5 seconds, anyway). If the red text remains, you need to make sure that the Silicon Labs driver was installed, and that you have the correct board and port selected. If you’re using English windows, go to the Arduino website and follow the instructions there.
About plugging the kit into the USB port – It’s quite possible that the kit will plug directly into your computer without needing an accessory cable. If not, then just go to any place that has computer accessories and get a USB extension cable from there.
The Japanino Page on the Otona no Kagaku site has a lot of links to articles and code related to the construction articles in the mook. But most of the link names are in Japanese, so I’m including them here in case you want them.