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Once upon a time, being a "gadget fanatic" usually meant you were an early adopter of new technologies, someone who'd own the latest multi-megapixel digital camera or high-powered handheld device. A rare few with engineering and embedded development programming skills might push this a bit further, creating something new from hardware components by soldering, wiring, and coding a new gizmo into existence. But such aspirations were out of reach for many hobbyists and potential inventors.
All that is about to change. Before long, gadget groupies will be able to reach the level of custom hardware configuration thanks to the .NET Micro Framework and the forthcoming .NET Gadgeteer rapid prototyping platform. Perhaps best described as building blocks for electronics, an aspiring gadget maker can connect various hardware components (no soldering required), develop functionality by using object-oriented Microsoft .NET programming, and even design a novel enclosure for a custom device. Functions can include sensing the environment, taking pictures, displaying images, playing sounds, and even communicating with other devices and the Internet.
In the coming year, .NET Micro Framework hardware modules—including displays, sensors, cameras, radios, MP3 players, and Ethernet ports—are expected to become available for purchase through third-party partners. The prototype hardware, available in kits to select researchers, was recently shared at the 2010 New York Maker Faire event for do-it-yourself technologists. The platform's inventor, Nicolas Villar, demonstrated the system with his Microsoft Research colleagues James Scott, Steve Hodges, and Kerry Hammil, together with the product unit manager for the .NET Micro Framework, Colin Miller. Attendees were impressed by the Gadgeteer demos, which included an MP3 player, a Simon-type matching game, and a remote sensing system that enabled users to control a camera. One attendee became so enthralled with the technology that he picked it up and started demoing it to others! The booth went on to win the Maker Faire "Editor's Choice Best-in-Show" and "Most Interactive Demo" awards.
Since Maker Faire, Microsoft Research has been developing the infrastructure needed to further develop Gadgeteer as a product and partnering with high school and university teachers to bring Gadgeteer to students. At an internal Microsoft "science fair" event, it beat out tough technological competitors to take the "President's Award" given by Terry Crowley, a technical fellow and the director of development for Microsoft Office.
If you're interested in seeing the .NET Gadgeteer in action, you can view the Channel 9 video demonstration and the Make Magazine video from Maker Faire. Additional opportunities to see Gadgeteer in person are planned for the TEI 2011 Conference in January 2011 and Microsoft Research Software Summit in April 2011. If you're an educator who is interested in Gadgeteer, visit the .NET Micro Framework Academic page to get involved.
—Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche and Stewart Tansley, Research Program Managers in the External Research division of Microsoft Research
P.S. Here's a festive example (semantic Christmas lights!) of what you can do with .NET Micro Framework, which should be even easier with Gadgeteer.