capturing new users (one newbie's perspective)

From that "trouble with hobbyist-level robot hardware" thread, I surfed over to newmicros.com to see what one of the posters (apparently the
founder of New Micros) was talking about. I see that I'd been here before, but hadn't stuck around long. What follows is not a criticism of New Micros in particular; I just use them as a springboard for some general comments that may be helpful to robotics companies looking to expand their access to the casual-robotics market.
First, too much information can be as problematic as too little. A feature matrix comparing controller boards, for example, can be rather bewildering to a new user. What is a "JTAG interface," and do I need one? How will a "watchdog" help me -- I assume it's not something that barks when somebody tries to break into my shop? What is "CAN" and should I care? I'm sure this is great technical info for somebody who already knows all this stuff, but to a newbie, it just says, "Go away, this is too complex for you."
What would help here is a link -- preferably near the top of such a page -- to the effect of "New to robotics? See our beginner's guide!" which links to a page that avoids jargon, makes some reasonable assumptions about what a newbie needs to get started (see below), and presents a small number of options, explaining the differences between them in plain English, leaving out details that a newbie doesn't really need to know.
Another example of "too much information" -- say I like the looks of the TiniAVR board, because it's fairly cheap and because the short blurb says it is "the perfect board for robotic applications." So I click through to the description, which says it is intended to be plugged into a user-designed carrier board (i.e. go away kid, this is WAY too hard for you), and then launches into a general discussion about two-layer and multilayer boards, and how the latter remain prohibitively expensive. Seems like a gross digression -- but surely there's some reason that discussion is related to the TiniAVR. I just can't see it.
Next, even with all that information available, it's still not clear to me what I can actually do with the dang things. This site has about a dozen microcontroller boards, at least several of which claim to be perfect for robotics applications. I can imagine that any of them could, in principle, be used to make a simple robot. But where are the examples? I'm looking for actual projects that made good use of these devices, so I can see what's possible. It's much easier for me to look over half a dozen robots and say, "hey, that's similar to what I want," and read about how it was made, than to wade through dozens of pages of specs and try to figure out which is the one I should use. I guess this goes back to the "easy beginner's guide" idea.
Finally, for a real newbie, starting with individual boards is just too much of a hurdle. I know, if I had enough time, I could figure out what I need, buying a controller from here, a power supply from there, motors from someplace else, making or buying a chassis elsewhere still, and figuring out how to make it all work together. But I don't have that much time; I have kids to raise and a full-time job. So until I get more experience, I'm going to stick to kits that contain everything I need, including directions. Here are the kit characteristics that I think will hook a newbie:
- complete (this is a must) - well-written directions, with photos, ideally available for download - programmable (ideally, with any serial-capable computer) - obvious growth path (suggested ways to swap in a more powerful controller, or add additional sensors/servos/etc.) - low-cost (certainly no more than $100; under $50 would be better)
Note that it doesn't have to do very much -- I know you can't expect much for $50. But if it doesn't do much, it should be possible to either extend the kit itself, or take it apart and reuse the parts for other things. (This is the main problem with the OWI robot kits, for example; they can't be easily extended or reused in other projects.)
The "programmable" requirement could be relaxed in the base kit, provided there was a documented, fairly painless path to add in a programmable controller later. It's much easier for me to spend $60 now and $60 again a few months later, than it is for me to spend $100 all at once. But it's also important that when I spend in smaller chunks, I feel like I'm building up the capability to build more advanced bots, rather than just collecting a bunch of separate, useless toys.
I really think this is the key to the newbie market -- to have a suitably low entry barrier, in terms of both cost and required skills. Once they have a successful project under their belt, they'll come back for the more advanced stuff, and keep coming back provided they keep having success. But if that initial entry is too steep, there's just no way for them to get started with your product line.
HTH, - Joe
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

Maybe a small robot kit that can be controlled by the most minimal form of TiniPod, TiniAVR, etc.? Offer a cheap upgrade option --- maybe in the form a RAM with more elaborate software --- such that the same gear can be repurposed when the hobbyist decides to spring for the more expensive stuff? Maybe collaborate with Gordon and offer the electronics side for one of his great platforms? Budget Robotics + New Micros! Call it the "BR/NM RugBurner" ! Or the "NMBR One" ! ;-)
Ok ... deflating the soapbox now ... JCD
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
pogo wrote:

I think what Joe was talking about was even lower-level than this: explain what RAM is and why you need it, etc. Joe's comments are well-taken, though it is time-consuming (and therefore costly) to fully develop this level of user documentation. This is why vendors don't have it, not because they haven't thought of it, or don't want to give out the information. From experience, given the number of expected sales for such a product, it might not be worth the investment. And unfortunately, it does come down to raw dollars-and-cents calculations, even when you factor in the added sales you'd have by serving the raw beginner market.
Ideally, someone could offer for license a set of beginner's level texts on electronic and mechanical subjects that vendors could repurpose for their products. They'd have to shell out less, so the costs could be more readily justified. If only...
-- Gordon
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
On Sun, 20 Aug 2006 21:33:32 -0700, Gordon McComb

Well, after buying a BS2 on impulse, I started with the Robot Builder's Bonanza by someone or other, which gave a good overview of all the basic requirements for building robots. After that it was try, try again until something worked. Oh, there was also the Mindstorms kit I purchased, but not having been a LEGO kid I didn't really have the intuitive construction skills to excel with it.
Kits never really interested me that much. I wanted to build something with real power that could exterminate things. Thank goodness I did manual arts and electronics in high school because I was able to brush off those dormant skills when needed.
____________________________________________________ "I like to be organised. A place for everything. And everything all over the place."
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

It may be possible to find someone with some writing experience [1], and work out some sort of in-kind trade [2] to make this more affordable for the vendor.
Cheers, - Joe
[1] http://www.strout.net/info/personal [2] Will work for robotics gear.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
wrote:

Hey Joe. Cool site and great accomplishments.
Just a word of advice, this thread gets picked up and published on Google (at least) and I have learned the hardway that you better make your email address on your site Spam Resistant or you may eventually get flooded. I do that by posting an image of it instead of the mailto: link in text. I've even done that on my resume pages. I even went to the publisher of one site that freely snipped my comments and used them as content on his site, and asked him to just remove my email links and he refused - quoting all kinds of public domain BS to me.
Just a thought in case it hadn't occured to you. Cheers ! JCD
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

Bah. I've been on the internet since the spammers were in diapers, and with the same email address since 1990 or so. I refuse to hide or lie about my identity out of fear. There are better ways to deal with the spammers -- in fact, my day job is to solve the spam problem once and for all, which we'll do probably starting in January or so. But that's another thread. :)
But I do appreciate you trying to help!
Cheers, - Joe
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
wrote:

You make that happen and you will be mine and few million other people's hero ! Go get 'em!

You bet! I didn't really think it'd be news to you, but I felt like I should warn you just in case.
Later ! JCD
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Joe Strout wrote:

I used to have my e-mail openly printed on my Web pages, as well as on the newsgroups. The spam I can deal with, even the amount of spam. But then one day I got some spam from some outfit in Eastern Europe that wanted me to visit a Web site of theirs that had, shall we say, content of questionable legality in just about any country in the world. They even sent a couple samples. The idea that they'd send this junk from harvested e-mails really bothered me, and from that point on I realized I couldn't keep painting a target on my back. You know when you retrieve your mail this stuff gets downloaded, too. Viruses, trojans, and all that I can deal with, but these are a different matter. (Since then, I've added MailWasher to catch what SpamAssassin doesn't, and MailWasher deletes the crap before it gets to the PC.)
There are numerous techniques to prevent wholesale spamming, and to a human they're plain and visible. There's no hiding except to the harvesters. I've used both a simple gif of my address and e-mail, and there are numerous little JavaScripts that are 98%+ effective. They're free, which I also like! I'm getting tired of having to pay to keep my privacy.
-- Gordon
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

Hmmmm. I think I will check into MailWasher myself. Thanks for a good tip! JCD
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Gordon McComb wrote:

I can tell everyone just how hard it is to hit that low cost entry point. I've been trying to write a series of articles for over two years called Beginner's Robotics on $50 a month. I had the first two articles written, parts lists completed, programs written , hardware built and prototypes tested by newbies early this spring when disaster struck: my suppliers upped their shipping costs!
The project languished for a few months and then a random comment I made in an email to Eddy Wright at Wright Hobbies got him interested in providing kits for the series. This led to several months of reworking the hardware to make the design work with the things he could get at reasonable prices in moderate quantities and then rewriting the articles to account for the new hardware.
So now we are back to where I was a few months ago. I'm whittling down my to-do list of minor corrections to get the first two articles ready to submit for consideration. Only this time I got a guaranteed price including shipping in the US. I should run out of excuses not to submitt it to Servo next weekend.
Never under estimate the work that some one like Gordon goes through to get a book published. It is actually harder to do and talk about it then to just do. Also never trivialize (not that anyone in this thread has) the work that guys like Randy Dumse of Jim Frye go through to keep companies that rely mostly on hobbyist afloat. I've been on the opposite side in a lot of discussions with these guys, often about the cost of their wares. However, at the end of the day, they still got companies that stay afloat doing what they are interested in while I have to put in my 45 hrs at big yellow before I can play with my bots.
Catman
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

Yes, I can well imagine that it's not easy. I think the trick is probably to put together a kit which, by itself, doesn't do much of anything interesting at all -- but which can be extended to do more interesting things. For example, in place of a general controller maybe you could have a pre-programmed PIC that makes the bot turn when you zap it with a laser pointer, or some such. But put this PIC on a plug-in board that you can, for another $50 (some other month!), easily pull out, probably throw away, and replace with a Baby Orangutan or STAMP or whatever.
This way, you still have the low entry point, but you also have a clear upgrade path. That's a powerful combination.

Awesome. I look forward to those articles! If you ever need a fresh newbie to test your kits on, please let me know -- I'll be happy to help.

Absolutely. I have tremendous respect for folks like him; the hobby would be very much worse off without their contributions.
Best, - Joe
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Hey Guys try here:
http://www.smallrobot.com /
This guy is offering a package that's seems like a good platform for a beginner. It's based on the Texas Instruments Series Graphic Calculators. Even though a person would have to supply thier own Calc. It looks like it would make sense for a newbie to begin with this type of Hardware setup. Then expand as he/she learns more to a newer Servo Controler for more Servos/Sensors. The expand again as they gain more experience and replace the Calc with a better Comp like a PDA, older Laptop, or even a ATX Motherboard. Of course the Chassis would also have to evolve and upgrade as well. Meaning one would have to figure out how to replace servos with bigger gearmotors needing more power. It just looks like a good starting point. A Calc that is availiable over the counter at most stores or even Ebay. Plus it's more widely used at most Colleges and Universities for alot of different courses. I'd love to see this type of platform become part of a regular course (ie: daytime, afterhours or even online).
I'm sure the fellas at Newmicros could come up with something simplistic in stock that could allow for control of only =>Two Servos<= and still be compatable with this type of Calc interface. It would knock those overpriced BOE-BOTS right off the table.
It is said that "Simplicity is the hallmark of Genius", but most of us get stuck reading "Robot's for Dummies" guide books and end up purchasing alot of hardware that drives us crazy trying to figure out to make it all function.

Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
: bewildering to a new user. What is a "JTAG interface," and do I need : one? How will a "watchdog" help me -- I assume it's not something that : barks when somebody tries to break into my shop? What is "CAN" and : should I care? I'm sure this is great technical info for somebody who : already knows all this stuff, but to a newbie, it just says, "Go away, : this is too complex for you."
Don't take this the wrong way, but sometimes "This is too complex for you" is the right answer. You have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run, and run before you learn to play baseball. Not every discussion is going to be at an entry-level.
The thread you refer to was lamenting the lack of progress in robotics, so it's little wonder the responses are going to be listing the latest and greatest.
Someone with the questions you pose above (and I'm not sure if they are real or if you are playing devil's advocate) probably shouldn't be buying a New Micro's board, and I don't see how the marketing literature could possibly explain what a watchdog is. If you don't know what most of the features are, that should be a hint you need to get some more basic information first.
On the other hand, a nice Google search will define most of those for you. :-)
On the other other hand, the comp.robotics.misc FAQ appears to have been last updated in 1996, at least according to www.faqs.org, so maybe it's time that got updated too.
--
==========================================================
Chris Candreva -- snipped-for-privacy@westnet.com -- (914) 967-7816
  Click to see the full signature.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

But of course -- but this thread was about selling robotics products to newbies. So it's a given that the products in question are intended to be sold to newbies, i.e., are not supposed to be too complex.
It could be that the examples I was quoting were bad ones, in that they're not intended for newbies at all. But even if that's the case, I do think it happens that a product that's reasonably easy to use, doesn't sell to newbies mainly because of the way it's presented.
For a counter-example, check out Pololu -- their web site is clean, friendly, and contains just the right level of information, including technical specs if you want them, or tutorials if that's more what you need. Their hardware is not toy stuff, either; from what I've seen it's rather cutting-edge. It's their presentation that makes it (more) approachable to a beginner.

Well, it started that way, but at the point at which it spurred this side thread, it was lamenting the inability to attract new users (or so I understood it, anyway).

Well, true, but that's just giving up. :) Obviously one is not going to sell to new robotics hobbyists if the product isn't designed to be usable by them, or if you're unwilling to educate them to the point that it becomes usable.

That certainly wouldn't hurt. I'm also trying to do my part by writing up tutorials about things as I do them. I don't have much yet, but in the unlikely event that anyone here would find it useful:
<http://www.strout.net/info/robotics/tutorials/>
Best, - Joe
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Joe Strout wrote:

You're reading a parts catalog. New Micros doesn't make or sell robots. Or kits. Or robot parts. They make single-board computers. Compare, say, "http://www.winsystems.com ", which is in the same business. Their target market is electronic engineers who design systems. If you think this is bad, try DigiKey.
To answer your questions,
- A "JTAG port" is a port used for debugging and downloading at a very low level. "JTAG" stands for "Joint Test Action Group". Devices with built-in flash memory and a JTAG port can be reprogrammed by connecting to the JTAG port and downloading. This requires a host PC, special software, and cables, but it does not require any software in the chip being downloaded into or debugged. See
http://openwince.sourceforge.net/jtag /
and also "JTAG" in Wikipedia.
- A "watchdog" is a timer which will reboot the computer if something isn't done periodically to reset the watchdog. Many embedded computer systems have this. It's there so that if something goes wrong, the system resets itself. It's more useful in unattended production systems than in hobbyist robotics.
- Yes, the TiniAVR board is "designed to be plugged into a user-designed carrier board". The idea is that you design your own PC board and have it made. This is actually quite feasible for hobbyists; there's free software for board design, and having a small PC board made is a service you order on the Internet for about $50-$100 for small boards. (See "http://www.apcircuits.com "). But first, you'd usually buy the development kit ("TiniAVR_DKit") and work with that. It comes with a rather low-level set of software tools, but check out WinAVR (http://sourceforge.net/projects/winavr /), which offers full C/C++ support for the little thing. The AVR itself is a nice little machine, running about 20 MIPS, about 30x faster than a PIC. The AVR has 128K of program memory (flash) and 4K bytes of RAM.
- CAN stands for Control Area Network, a standard for talking to various industrial control devices. This is useful if you have such devices to talk to.
                John Nagle                 Animats
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

Polytechforum.com is a website by engineers for engineers. It is not affiliated with any of manufacturers or vendors discussed here. All logos and trade names are the property of their respective owners.