Designing ATOMS: How Do We Enable Young Makers, Without Hiding the Details of How Things Really Work?

The following was written by Michael Rosenblatt, founder and CEO of Seamless Toy Company, maker of ATOMS.

Hard Choices When Designing an Electronics Construction Set

Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a great team to design a new electronics construction set called ATOMS. The design goal for ATOMS was to create a plug-and-play construction set that required no experience in electronics or programming. We designed ATOMS to be simple enough for a 5-year-old, and powerful enough for a professional — which means that making table-top creations isn’t enough. You have to be able to build “real” things with it — like a cake with motorized elements, or a nightlight that you can switch remotely with a the shake of a “magic” wand. We designed ATOMS to enable more people to make great things, and particularly with kids, we hope ATOMS will seed a curiosity for how things work.

However, there is an inherent contradiction in these goals — tools that help users extend their capabilities almost always abstract away the true nature of how things work. ATOMS is no exception, and that leads to a number of design decisions we struggle with on a regular basis. We want ATOMS to both empower users, but also be transparent, and oftentimes those objectives are at odds.

Take, for example, the most basic project a user might build with ATOMS — a knob that controls the brightness of an LED. ATOMS uses a “signal flow” analogy throughout its architecture: signals flow from “arrows” to “boots.” and routed with a wire (in our system this is a 4-terminal cable that carries serial data, power, and ground). The arrows and boots blink when a signal is present, and blink faster when a signal is stronger. A stronger signal is generated by turning the knob up, and a stronger signal to the LED ATOM makes the light shine brighter.

Using ATOMS to control the LED’s brightness

ATOMS provides a great logical representation of what’s happening that is easy to understand, but is a significant abstraction of what is actually happening on an electrical level. Still, it’s a start. By thinking in terms of signal flow, we think that kids and non-electrically minded makers can get started faster, and build more powerful creations sooner.

What’s really happening to control the LED’s brightness

Take a more complicated example, such as a self-balancing robot (think Segway). This is typically a challenging project, even for an experienced maker. With ATOMS, by abstracting the complexity of signal processing and motion control into our modules (each has a microprocessor), this project can be built with just two connections from opposite sides of the Accelerometer ATOM. If I’m falling one way, run the motor clockwise, if I’m falling the other way, run the motor counter-clockwise. So you can see, ATOMS can be a powerful maker tool (which we want), but currently we are adding a lot of abstraction (which we probably don’t want).

Using ATOMS to build a self-balancing robot

Even so, I think ATOMS is off to a good start. We launched in November, and hit our kickstarter goal to fund production in a just over three weeks. We have introduced 13 modules, ranging from a Record-Playback ATOM, to a Bluetooth Smart ATOM, and we’ll be building out the library in 2013.

Our challenge, as we grow and expand the ATOMS system will be to enable our users to also grow and peel back the layers of abstraction as their comfort level with electronics and their curiosity increases. I think Little Bits may be onto something by making their modules open source – and that model might fit us too. We’re considering several design directions to enable our users to “get under the hood”, but for now, we are just happy to be helping more people play and make things.


Mark Frauenfelder is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Make: magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog.

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