I was eager to chat with Suz Hinton as we share a common passion — using JavaScript in the IoT and robotics. She is a frontend developer at Kickstarter, focused on JavaScript with a bit of Node.js and Ruby. In her spare time, she dabbles in open source Node.js projects and Nodebots. Her keynote at YOW! Connected was brilliant. Here’s her story and why you can get into the IoT and robotics using JavaScript too!

Suz Hinton, her anti-anxiety bracelet and cat themed connected shoes

Suz has a decidedly consistent theme in her creations.

Why JavaScript?

This is a question I get asked often, so it was actually great to be able to ask it to someone else for once! Suz points out that,

JavaScript is a very event-driven language, and this makes it ideal for reacting to new data from devices and triggering actions on the devices themselves. It’s fast becoming a universal programming language because it has broken out of the browser environment to run on almost anything these days.”

The vast expanse of devices that can work with JavaScript grows all the time, making it a great language that can be used in a variety of places.

“I find that a lot of web developers want to get into robotics, but still feel intimidated by the old school platforms. Learning C++, and figuring out how to use all of the toolchains in conjunction with their IDE of choice can also be really cumbersome.”

“JavaScript robotics is a fantastic, low barrier to entry method of getting started for web developers who are already familiar with the language and have done a bit of Node.js.” – Suz Hinton

An Arduino kittybot with rainbow coloured wheels

Suz’s Kittybot!

It isn’t just web developers — anyone from beginners to experts can get into this — and should! JavaScript is a great partner for the IoT too, so it not only has a low barrier to entry — it is a genuinely good solution for IoT development.

“JavaScript robotics has the potential for enormous reach, for beginner programmers and experts alike to learn. When you think about IoT being short for “Internet of Things”, and which particular language is great at interacting with the internet – JavaScript immediately comes to mind! I have also found from experience that designing custom interfaces for robotics using a browser UI is much more pleasurable for users to interact with.”

A look at Suz’ creations!

Meow Shoes

Suz is an imaginative JavaScript tinkerer! She has put together “Meow Shoes”, shoes with pressure sensors that let you arrange music sequences in the browser by stepping and dancing with your feet while wearing them. It is as cool as it sounds:

A pair of connected cat themed shoes

Suz’ Meow Shoes!

P.U.R.R. – Personal Ultimate Reassurance Response

She also put together an “anti-anxiety bracelet”. This bracelet senses heartbeat elevation to detect when you’re feeling anxious and texts your phone a picture of a kitten to help you feel better!

A black bracelet with two love hearts on it

Suz’ anti-anxiety bracelet

Avrgirl

Something a little different that might come in handy for developers out there which Suz is building is avrgirl. It’s a Node.js alternative to interacting with Arduinos and similar devices, letting you flash the devices and do all sorts of things using Node.js and simplifying the process for JavaScript tinkerers — it is a really really great idea!

A few others

The list doesn’t end there, here are a few others she has put together:

Where do you start?

A mailbot

Suz’ Mailbot prototype

Like every area in emerging tech, getting into the Internet of Things and robotics can be overwhelming for newcomers (exactly why I began Dev Diner!), so the most important thing I wanted to ask Suz is “where should people start who are new to it all?”. Here is her advice:

“I would recommend starting with the Nodebots community. We’re an incredibly friendly and knowledgeable bunch of folks who are excited to greet and help newcomers. Grabbing an Arduino Uno or a Tessel 2 would be an excellent first microcontroller, with some ‘starter kit’ sensors and outputs to really have fun with.”

“There are some excellent books, courses, and tutorials out there that show up when you Google search for ‘JavaScript Robotics’. If feeling uncertain, it’s good to think of IoT devices as just another computer that you’ll interact with. This computer is just a bit different to what you’re used to, but once you’ve learned the basics of communicating with it you’ll feel a lot more confident.”

Suz’ IoT/robotics hardware preferences

As someone who has used a whole range of microcontrollers and hardware, what are Suz’ hardware preferences after all of her tinkering? The winner? Arduino!

“My favourite is still a regular ol‘ Arduino. I tend to produce devices which are not online (I feel they’re more intimate that way) so prototyping with an Arduino before moving to a custom PCB is a really nice workflow for me. It also allows me to publish the project instructions and have the widest reach as the traditional Arduino is still a very popular platform with a lot of reach.”

A phonograph built on a Metrocard

Suz’ Metrocard phonograph mentioned earlier… super cool!

That’s not to say she uses that exclusively, Suz has love for a few other platforms too — two of my favourites:

“That being said, the developer experience of both the Particle and Tessel microcontrollers are unbeatable. I’ve been able to set up wireless IoT projects very quickly using these two platforms.”

When it comes to her favourite IoT device out there, it turns out… it’s now discontinued!

“My favourite IoT device has to be the now (sadly) defunct Berg Little Printer. It would print out a little morning summary of things for your day. I own one and at the time was subscribed to all sorts of cartoons and stories which I loved receiving on my bedside table every morning. It felt so much nicer and less anxiety ridden than reading through your email inbox before you’d even made it out of bed. I love new uses for old school technologies, like thermal printers which this device featured. It reminded me affectionately of passing notes around in high school, but better.”

Doing the IoT the right way

Being so heavily into the Internet of Things, Suz has some tips for how to build IoT devices the right way:

First impressions count — make it as easy as possible to start

“My first piece of advice is to design an amazing ‘out of the box’ experience.” – Suz Hinton

“No one likes opening a gift only to find it needs a run to the store to buy batteries. If your user can get up and running in 10 minutes or less, you’ll build a great first impression with them and they’ll be more likely to stick with it. Building a toolchain that abstracts away the finicky first setup tasks can do wonders for someone feeling that they were carefully thought about, and the confidence in their ability to use the device will be high.”

Treat your peers like users — don’t assume knowledge

“When writing software for other developers, set that bar a bit lower when assuming the skillsets and experience of your peers. Don’t assume they know anything about the IoT platform.” – Suz Hinton

“They might be feeling intimidated, and you can do a lot to smooth that over for them. A few examples include writing extensive docs, automatically finding the correct port for the IoT device, and outputting helpful errors that explain exactly what went wrong.”

We need to do better with privacy and security

Suz is really concerned about consumer privacy and security and believes we need to do better in these areas. This is a serious concern in the industry!

“A lot of devices simply don’t have the processing power to handle proper encryption, and other more powerful chips have outdated, vulnerable operating systems running on them. IoT devices are heavily used these days to conduct distributed DDOS attacks which is not a happy thought at all. We need to do better!” – Suz Hinton

Getting burnt

Finally, I just had to ask her — “How often your devices burnt you? Like literally.” I asked because the temperature sensor on my Arduino kits gets me every time. I think there are probably a few tiny points on my fingers that will never be the same thanks to those temperature sensors… Suz shares the pain!

“I have definitely created my fair share of burn inducing shorted circuits! When you plug in the power and think “what’s that smell?” then immediately start touching every component to see what’s running hot. NEVER a good idea and yet my inquisitive mind can’t resist. This has happened when I’ve clumsily breadboarded even a simple logic gate circuit. These days I at least know to keep my hand on the power switch just in case!”

So yeah… if something smells like it’s burning, disconnect it from power rather than exploring your components with your fingers.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Suz for taking the time to answer these questions and share her experiences with developers! If you’d like to follow along with what she’s up to, she’s on Twitter as @noopkat and has a blog over at Meow Machine. Check out her avrgirl tool too and get involved helping her test it out if you’ve got spare Arduinos around!

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