Projects like the Onion Omega are amazing and making it easier and easier for anyone, regardless of skill or past experience, to create their own awesome devices to improve their lives or with which to just have a little fun.
A long, long time ago in a land far away I went to college and decided to minor in Embedded Systems Development. If you have no idea what that means, don’t feel bad. I don’t know either until I was introduced to it. You see, the 101 level classes for it were pre-requisites for my Computer Science degree, so I was going to have to at least start learning it whether I wanted to or not. Luckily for me, I found the subject extremely fun and fascinating. Embedded Systems are fundamentally computer chips, so we were programming the raw logic onto the chips so they would do whatever we wanted them to do. Want a single computer chip to mine Bitcoins or play a game on a screen with a controller or just automate your coffee maker? That’s what you could do with these skills.
Fast forward to today. I didn’t minor in Embedded Systems Development, but I still work with them (mobile phones are embedded devices), just at a MUCH higher level. Every now and then I get an idea for a gadget I’d love to make. The best part is that every year, it seems the barrier to creating these devices gets lower because the technology that they are based on is getting smarter, faster and easier to use. At the same time, a lot of the best platforms for tinkering also have a huge open source community that makes the tools easier and the learning curves less severe. Enter one of the latest newcomers, the Onion Omega, which is currently running as a Kickstarter campaign.
This little board looks simple enough with just a few chips, but the power for creation is inspiring. Built into this little board is a complete computer system – including wireless internet connection – all in less than 2 square inches. Stop there and this device would still be impressive, but it’s only the start.
Omega is also creating pre-made extension boards to stack onto it. Currently these include: Ethernet Expansion (adds a wired internet connection), Relay Expansion (lets your Omega turn on and off electricity to something) and an OLED Expansion (for adding a built-in display for your creation). They also have kits that walk you through making a smart camera or printer. Lastly, they also offer two docks and a third, pending additional funding: Dock (standard dock that allows for use of the expansions), Arduino Dock (allows for use of any Arduino shield) and Mini Dock (standard dock, but without expansion slot). While these are all great, Omega will be designing and creating more, and anyone will be able to make their own as well.
Honestly, while the hardware of the Omega is cool, it’s not the coolest part. In fact, the only reason I even mention all of that is so that you can start thinking about how you’ll use it with the software side of the project. The whole device runs on my operating system of choice, Linux, so just about any library and apps you may want to use on your device are only a command away. To give you one of the examples they use for this, you can install OpenCV to add image recognition to your drone you built with the Omega at its core.
To add to that, Onion has created what they call the Onion Cloud that lets you connect your Omega up to their online console and app store. These all together let you instantly install a pre-made app on your Omega for whatever gadget you are making, say that automated coffee maker or lawn sprinkler system you’ve been thinking about. It’s all connected to the Onion Cloud so you can control it from your smartphone.
All of these tools mean that whether you’ve never coded, are a web developer or are a hardcore embedded systems guru, you’ll be able to use the Omega and create whatever you want with it.
While the Onion Omega is certainly not the first embedded system for tinkerers, it is bringing an awesome new spin to the genre in both its hardware and its tools. Not only that, but the fact that the entire project is open source means that a community can more easily form around it and empower it that much more. I see great things coming in the future and I would not be surprised at all if quite a few of them started by tinkering with an Onion Omega. So get out there and make something!