What to do when you have a project idea but don't know where to start
June 17, 2013
Everyone starts at the same place in the very beginning: You have a great idea but don't know how to do it. What to do?
The first thing you do is probably (should be!) a seach with Google/Bing/whatever. Chances are you will get a bunch of links that have a lot of info that isn't much good to you in the beginning (but later on you might find they were full of gold). This means you need to break down your project into smaller bits.
Note: The first thing you should not do is post your new idea in the message forum and ask how to do it in one or two sentences. For better or worse it looks lazy to a lot of people, like you don't want to do the legwork yourself, and you want someone to "finish your homework" for you. That is probably not true; you just don't know what to ask. Searching for answers is not necessarily instinctual, so I will attempt to help you through the first shaky steps of a project's development.
I recommend figuring out what kind of microcontroller you're going to use, if you're going to use one. It will help in gathering info from the web further down the road by filtering out the less-useful links. Not sure which one to use? Here's a couple links:
All I did was put "how to choose a microcontroller" into Google and searched. These links were number two and number three on the list. Number one was an Instructable which I recommend for light reading but not for getting to the heart of matters (sorry to all those hardcore instructable teachers because there are some good ones out there). Picking a microcontroller can be difficult. To help decide you can apply the methods I describe below to decypher the differences.
So once you've figured out (or somewhat decided on) the uC/MCU/microcontroller you're going to use then go back to Google. Put your idea into the seach box followed by the uC you're going with. Something like:
automatic fish feeder arduino
butler robot arduino avr
solar tracker picaxe
wood burning stove monitor beagleboard
robot hand micro magician
bipedal robot pic
etc etc etc...
This will get you results that are more refined to what you're doing compared to plugging just your idea into Google by itself. You will find information about what people have experienced when tackling similar projects using similar equipment.
If you find that they are talking about things you have no idea about then you have probably bitten off more than you can chew. But fear not! Learning these things happen in chunks. Let's say you are trying to make the automatic fish feeder used as an example above. You find a topic that is discussing the use of an RTC to set a feeding schedule. What do you look for?
This is the formula that has worked for me. Search for the topic with "tutorial" added to it, and perhaps the microcontroller you're using, i.e.;
rtc picaxe tutorial
In this case, the first result is:
USING I2C WITH PICAXE
RTC IC. - a slave IC that can maintain the date / time (real-time-clock). ADC IC ... this article a PICAXE-18X microcontroller will be used as the master device. The...
In the link summary you already learn that an RTC is a real-time clock. "But wait, what is 'I2C?'" you may ask? Google again to the rescue! Enter your topic (in this case, "i2c") and "tutorial" (and maybe even the uC) again, i.e.:
i2c tutorial picaxe
In this case you'll get the same link as above because it is such a useful .pdf :) It will talk about the need for pullup resistors on the SCL and SDA lines.
"What are pullup resistors?" Another search is in order!
pullup resistor tutorial
Although the members here are very willing to help there needs to be a certain level of understanding on your part to get specific advice from other people. Although the website is full of info we lack some basic walkthoughs that can help the burgeoning beginner get started and most people are not about to write one just for you. Luckily the web usually has many of them waiting for you somewhere, ready to be read, absorbed, and implemented.