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December 19, 2013

RobotsConf 2013: More than just 3D printing


You probably know that desktop and web programming is much easier now than it was ten years ago. But you may not know that small, low-power electronic devices have also become much easier to develop for, not to mention more connected, more powerful and more affordable.

Earlier this month, a diverse group of 150 developers gathered on the beaches near Jacksonville, Florida for the first RobotsConf. Or more accurately, they gathered next to the beaches.


Dry and sunny winter weather wasn’t enough to lure them away from whiteboards, breadboards, soldering irons or even needle and thread.


If you’ve been to a Chris Williams production (producer of six years of JSConf), you know they are always more than just a random jumble of unrelated presentations, breaks and after-hours events.

The conference started with a quick but comprehensive half-day survey of electronics. From basic electronics and wearables to robotics and AI, both experts and novices were brought up to speed on the current state of microcontrollers and components.

13-year-old microcelebrity Sylvia Todd presented her CNC watercolor painting device. Chris Continanza told stories about the challenges of connecting devices to the Internet. Angelina Fabbro of Firefox discussed AI and robot morality. Sarah Chipps reviewed her experiments with wearable computing. We saw motorized skateboards, intelligent shopping carts and web-connected apple cannons. It was surprising to learn how many software companies have fully-equipped robotics fab labs on site: Zappos, Github, Firefox, Heroku.

Next, the doors were opened on the main workroom where tables were loaded with electronic components, motors and sensors, surrounded by laser cutters, 3D printers, and most importantly, subject matter experts available to help. The next 24 hours (including overnight until about 1:00 a.m.) were spent teaming up, brainstorming, assembling, fabricating and coding projects of all kinds. Not only was there a selection of popular components such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, but also pre-release devices from Tessel (programmable via JavaScript or Lua) and Spark (built-in Wi-Fi with a web-friendly REST API — oh, and a Pluralsight course on this topic is coming soon!).

Spark Core

Heroku brought an LED display they had built from scratch that shows the name of every application being deployed, in real time.

Heroku deployment board

3D printers used in-house at Github and Zappos were on site and available to print claws, enclosures, and even a fully articulated hand.

3D Printer

RobotsConf found the right balance between planned presentations and social serendipity. There’s a social dynamic around building physical devices that doesn’t happen as naturally when a group of people sit down to write software. Watching someone sew a circuit board into a shirt or build an articulated snake out of popsicle sticks gives any bystander an easy opportunity to ask “what’s that?” It resulted in many conversations and collaborations.

I left with many new friends, and many ideas. In fact, I spent the following weekend developing a continuous integration build notifier (it works!).

Ten years ago, mobile development required knowledge of low-level programming and access to exclusive development kits. Even when you had all these, the possibilities were limited. Now, any developer can write a native mobile app in a familiar language or a mobile web app with just HTML and JavaScript. And the wide availability of mobile devices has changed the daily lives of people who use them.

Electronics hardware has now approached that point as well. Devices are inexpensive ($20-40), can be connected with nothing more than a USB cable, and can be programmed in high-level languages with any text editor (or even a web IDE and no additional software to install). Devices are powerful and internet connectivity is standard. Imagine the possibilities when software can reach beyond your desktop or pocket and start interacting with the physical world!

Writing on a whiteboard

About the Author

is VP of Open Source at Pluralsight. He previously founded PeepCode and is an all around entrepreneur, developer, designer, teacher and athlete. Follow him on Twitter at @topfunky.