If you’re experimenting with the Internet of Things, you now have a huge range of platforms to choose from. Many of these platforms are essentially bare boards and hooking up sensors often requires adding breadboards, breaking out the soldering iron, and down and dirty wiring. While there’s nothing actually wrong with any of this as a way to experiment and develop ideas, it’s less than ideal where getting quickly from a concept to a working device is the goal. So it was that Microduino’s mCookie system was designed to make IoT experimentation fast and easy as well as inexpensive.
mCookie is Microduino’s second generation of Arduino-based IoT devices designed as a series of plastic modules that stack and lock together using magnets. The magnets ensure the modules align correctly so the breakout pins (which are Pogo pins; snazzy, spring-loaded devices that ensure a reliable, positive contact ) are correctly oriented. Even better, mCookie modules are also physically compatible with Lego! This allows you to use every nerd’s favorite toy to build physical frameworks for mobility and physically support sensors.
The mCookie system includes:
- mCookie Core Modules, which use the ATMEGA microcontrollers and are Arduino-compatible
- mCookie Function Modules, which provide functions including audio output, amplification, real time clock, SD card, PIR motion detection, GPS, and battery power support
- mCookie Communication Modules, for Ethernet, RSB 485, USB host, Zigbee, Bluetooth LE, Wi-FI, GPRS, and NFC
- mCookie Extension Boards, to add an OLED display, an LED matrix, DC motor control, breakout hub, lithium battery power management, double width extension board, and a LEGO NXT interface
Using the breakout hub you can connect sensors and Microduino offers a pretty good selection:
- Hall effect (magnetic field)
- air quality
- sound (microphone)
- infrared (simple, receiver, PIR)
- line finder
Additional output devices not in module packaging for to be connected by a hub include:
- LEDs (color, single red, strip, dot matrix
- relay servo
So, for example, to build a sound sensor you’d connect a hub extension module to a core module (say, the CoreUSB), connect a microphone sensor, write your Arduino sketch, and upload it to the core. Voila! Want to drive a motor when a sound level is exceeded or flash a light? Just connect the required sensors and modules and it all just works (your coding not withstanding).
Programming for the mCookie system can be done using the standard Arduino IDE (Microduino offers a download with their board support pre-installed), MIT’s Scratch editor, or Mixly, an Arduino visual programming editor based on Google's Blockly).
I tested the mCookie system on an iMac and had a really difficult time getting the Arduino IDE to connect to the CoreUSB module. It turned out that, for no accountable reason, the Arduino IDE didn’t seem like the Satechi 7 Port USB 3.0 Premium Aluminum Hub but when connected directly to one of the iMac’s USB ports it worked fine … for a while.
I uploaded a few sketches to blink lights and measuring sound levels but when I tried to upload another sketch I got an error message saying that the USB port was no longer recognized. This may be an issue with OS X but I’ve not had any other USB devices with problems so I tend to blame the Arduino IDE which is not Microduino's problem as I understand it; perhaps Windows is a better platform for the IDE.
Leaving problems with USB and hosts aside, what of the mCookie system itself? Physically, the product is beautifully and rather sexily packaged and the simplicity and ease of adding and removing modules and sensors is about as painless as it gets. On the other hand, the documentation and web site are terrible.
Microduino have built their documentation as a great big, clumsy installation of MediaWiki, the same platform used by Wikipedia. But while Wikipedia have engineered their wiki to be polished and well organized, Microduino have created a Frankenwiki. Finding anything in this wiki is way too hard and the content that is there is poorly organized and poorly translated from Chinese. Indeed, in many places there are annotations and labels that are images in Chinese so even Google can’t automatically translate the content that Microduino hasn’t bothered to fix.
On the web site, the getting started instructions are adequate as long as you don’t run into any problems such as the USB issues I had. But once installed, there’s an almost complete lack of educational and technical material that's in any kind of easily accessible form. While this won’t be a problem for anyone with a reasonable amount of Arduino experience, in an educational situation this will be a problem. Sure, the information can be found in a combination of Microduino's site and other online resources but really, doesn’t Microduino want to make the user experience (and their own brand image) as slick as possible? I won’t belabor the rest of Microduino’s web site issues other than to note that the site’s Workshop section (registration required for no good reason) is remarkably awful.
On the plus side there are scores of projects for creating all sorts of devices, the majority apparently contributed by users. On the minus side, many of the projects I looked at are barely coherent and Microduino does its users a huge disservice by not polishing the contributions.
Currently Microduino only sells mCookie systems as complete kits so the modules are available on their own. The 101 Basic Kit ($99) which I tested has CoreUSB, Bluetooth 4.0, Hub, and Battery Management modules with a buzzer, microphone sensor, USB cable, sensor cables, two color LEDs, a crash sensor, a battery module, and Lego connectors. The 201 Advanced Kit ($199) adds amplifier, audio, audio shield, and real time clock modules as well as a combo humidity and temperature sensor, a passive infrared sensor, an OLED module, a joystick, a light sensor, an infrared emitter, an infrared receiver, and a speaker. Finally, the 301 Expert Kit ($299) adds even more modules including a second CoreUSB, a Motor, and Wi-Fi modules along with a DC motor, a servo, and a remote control.
Bottom line: Great hardware! A terrific concept at a good price and, in theory, a great way to start experimenting with IoT devices, but the lack of documentation really lets the products down and makes it hard to be as excited as I want to be. The Microduino mCookie system scrapes at a Gearhead rating of 3 out of 5. If they fix their documentation and web site and make the product what it could be, I’d happily revise their score.
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