I love tinkering with gadgets and electronics. I remember as a child I would take different devices, like clocks, alarms, and cameras apart to try and figure out how they worked. If I’m honest, I always struggled because I had no idea what each individual part of the system did.
Now I’m a parent I’m keen to engender a similar desire for discovering how things work in my children so I was really interested when I came across SAM Labs.
SAM Labs is a system of interconnected blocks, each of which is either a sensor or an actor. The sensors may be things like a button or a tilt sensor while the actors are things like lights, motors or servos. What’s clever is that the modules are all Bluetooth-enabled, so there’s no need to wire them together to make a circuit; instead they all communicate wirelessly.
Programming them is as simple as drawing lines between them in the accompanying software, and setting a few conditions. The modules light up in the same colour as the connection on-screen so you know which modules are connected to which.
SAM Labs were good enough to loan me one of their Make sets to try out with my daughter. That was great fun; my daughter loved just playing around with the different modules to work out how they affected each other, but there’s also a sample project included in the box to get you off to a flying start!
Building the Cube Car
The included project in the Make box is a car. The instructions for this (and all the other sample projects, if you fancy a nosey) are included in the software which you download for free from the SAM Labs website. They’re nice and clear, so the only difficulties we had were more as a result of a lack of dexterity on our part than anything to do with the kit itself.
It wasn’t long before we had hooked up the controls (button for making it go and a slider for steering), stuck the actors in the cubes (a DC motor and servo) and we were off.
That initial project is a great way to get to understand the notion of how your inputs can affect the different modules and, after it had been built, my daughter was asking what else we could build. If my aim was to inspire a desire to play around with electronic systems, I’d say that’s goal achieved!
So what’s next? Well, we’ve been given a couple more weeks to experiment with the Make kit, so we’ll be trying out a few more ideas. One my daughter was keen to try out is some way to know if something has been moved in her room, probably using the tilt sensor and either an audible alarm or a light. We’ll get playing and let you know how it goes!
Sounds good. Is there anything you don’t like about it?
Not really. If there’s one complaint it’s that the modules have to remain connected to a computer to work; it looks like all the logic processing is done in the app rather than on the modules themselves. That’s fine, but if you want to use them as a stand-alone system you’ll need the Cloud Module. This is essentially a Raspberry Pi running a special version of the SAM app.
Using a computer is perfectly fine for learning and experimenting, though, and that’s where I think the major strength of these kits lies.
Coming back to my problem with not knowing what the various parts of a system did when I was a child, SAM Labs helps to eliminate that issue by having each block do one thing. That means when me and my daughter do build a system we don’t end up with some opaque circuit board at the centre of it doing who-knows-what. Instead, we know exactly what each block does and how they are linked together. That, to me, is the genius – if we can understand how those systems work, we can build up to understanding more complex systems over time.
Where can I get one?
SAM Labs kits are available from the SAM Labs website and range in price from £69 up to £549. There are kits for experimenting at home, right up to kits intended for use in school. The software requires either Windows or Mac OS X.