Monday, November 7, 2016

CS50x & a Raspberry Pi Art Project

Since my last blog post, I decided to finally try Harvard's Intro to Computer Science course (CS50) that is available to take for free through EdX. The course consists of 12 weeks of lectures, 9 problem sets and a final independent project.  Watching the lectures and working through the problem sets is a definite time commitment, especially as the coursework progresses it gets much more challenging.

During the past month I've been going through a very stressful period so I've found this course to be a great escape for me. I have thrown myself into the coursework and have been working intensely on getting through all 9 problem sets. I've learned C by solving problems using different sorting algorithms, different types of data structures, allocating memory, recovering 'lost' jpeg images from a data file, implementing a spellchecker and a web server ...all in C. I even wrote PHP for the first time to complete the last few assignments. It was nice to see that the things I'd learned as a Ruby on Rails dev were transferable when I was working in a unfamiliar language like PHP. To me, it made me feel like a real programmer. Though the language's syntax is different, the underlining principles and problem solving strategies are pretty universal. It's just really an adjustment to the syntax of the language. So I was able to jump into a PHP project, without any background in the language and get through the tasks relatively simply.

Last week, I finished all the problem sets, I just started on my final project. For this project, you have complete freedom to choose to write any kind of software that you want. I knew I wanted to do something artistic, interactive and with language(s) outside my comfort zone. I drew inspiration from a few places-- the current exhibit of Jean Tinguely's art at the Stedelijk Museum, an interest in learning about Raspberry Pis (and maker culture), and recent attendance at a React Native meetup.

My original idea was a Tinguely-inspired wall installation with EL wire, leds, motors that were connected to a raspberry pi that could be controlled/interacted remotely by a user with a mobile app. As I researched more about hardware and RPis, I soon felt overwhelmed by the hardware side of it - wiring, circuitry, power supply, soldering.

Since my focus is mainly on the software, I didn't want to get discouraged during my project by the hardware side of things. I want to setup myself for as much success as possible. So, I opted to go simpler for now and purchased a preassembled LED board with a square grid of 64 LEDS. This way, I can focus on the writing the software and getting my feet wet with hardware/RPi. Then, if it is a blast to work with, I can dive deeper into building my own hardware on future projects.

I will be using 2 pieces of hardware for this project, a Raspberry Pi 3 and UnicornHAT:
Raspberry Pi 3 w/ an AMAZING rainbow case
UnicornHAT 64-LED board

I still haven't received the hardware I ordered yet, but I've already started on the software infrastructure that is necessary to get the Raspberry Pi communicating with a remote native app or web browser. I've already gotten the RPi's software communicating with a server and receiving data from a React Native app using websockets. I am going to post much more frequently to detail how the build process is going and document what I'm up to.

This is one of the most intensive projects I've taken on by myself, since I will be writing code in multiple languages that I am not familiar with. It'll be the first time I'll work with hardware, write a native app, work with websockets, code in Python, etc etc. I can't wait to see how it all turns out.