In the past, electronic hobbyists and experimenters used to focus on building projects with transistors, LEDs, 555 timers, and 741 op amp ICs. Today, the typical experimenter spends time with projects involving the programming of an embedded controller with sophisticated I/O. Robots are a good example. The software is usually C or some derivative and the processors are like Arduino or Raspberry Pi. Now thanks to National Instruments (NI), the maker crowd has access to professional software, namely LabVIEW.
Recently NI made a special version of its famous programming language LabVIEW, designed for the hobbyist. Called the LabVIEW Home Bundle, this is a fully operational version of the core NI product that can be used to speed up and simplify experimentation by making programming less of a problem. LabVIEW is a unique graphical programming environment that lets you develop systems using a block-diagram, signal-flow approach. You can also build graphical user interfaces for the project and interface with an external computer and I/O hardware. LabVIEW includes extensive support for a wide range of measurement hardware, I/O, and buses. It also has extensive signal processing, analysis, and math capability along with text-based math and control logic. The Home Bundle runs under Windows and is available for $49 from Digilent (an NI company).
To supplement the software, Digilent also offers some compatible hardware called the LabVIEW Physical Computing Kit. The Kit includes the Home Bundle along with chipKIT WF32, an experimental board based upon a 32-bit Microchip PIC32 microcontroller. Included are 512K flash, 128K SRAM, 43 I/O pins, four user LEDs, 12 analog inputs, and a full USB 2.0 port. The board also has a complete Wi-Fi module and full power supply. You can get the whole package for $89.
DIY supplier SparkFun also has a LabVIEW-compatible package called the SparkFun Inventor’s Kit (see figure). The hardware is based upon SparkFun’s RedBoard Arduino micro. The processor is an ATmega328 with 32K flash plus RAM, 14 I/O pins, six PWM outputs, six analog inputs, and a USB port. UART and SPI interfaces with interrupts are provided. The kit also includes all the sensors, actuators, and other components to set up 14 experiments tied to the Home bundle. The whole package sells for $149.95.
Finally, to spur on the use of the Home bundle, NI has set up the LabVIEW MakerHub, an online community to help encourage collaboration and creative networking among experimenters. MakerHub includes LabVIEW videos and tutorials to help you get started. NI hopes that with LabVIEW, makers can accelerate their productivity, innovation, and discovery.
If you are one of the estimated 40 million makers out there looking for the next big project or learning experience, the Home Bundle and one of the kits should provide everything you need.