It's Wuthering Bytes month here at oomlout, and with the opening weekend of the UK Maker Belt's biggest and best technology event nearly upon us it's time to talk circuit design - specifically, the design work of Boldport which has gone into the open-source Seahorse and Widdop kits that attendees of the Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG) portion of the event can pick up.
We've talked about Boldport and its amazing, iconic circuit designs before, of course: the company was recently hailed as a great example of circuits as art, and that's even before it brings is multi-coloured PCB experiments to fruition. The company's belief that circuits can be beautiful as well as functional, aided by its open-source PCBmodE tool, leads to iconic designs which are immediately recognisable, and that have been a great souvenir for attendees of Wuthering Bytes since the event's inauguration.
"Why should circuit boards look interesting? Honestly? I like it," explains Saar Drimer, the man behind Boldport's many designs. "I think that there's an aesthetic appeal to it. I think that I have a lot more of my personal creativity that can go into it, compared to just autorouted, green, square boards. I enjoy that process, and I think that the results are pleasing to others."
That process may seem odd to some, with Saar going nowhere near a computer or schematic until surprisingly late in the design cycle. "The process begins way before a pencil touches the notepad. It circulates in my head all the time, 'how could I do this' and 'what makes sense,' and when I engage with clients one of the first things I tell them is 'send me all the graphics, and all the words, and things that you think that you want to have on the board,' and all of that factors in. If I know that I need to put certain graphics on there, I need to design the board such that it has space for it, and if there is a battery holder I need to think that there is that big chunk and whether it makes sense to be on the top or bottom from the way it's being used and the way it's being looked at. Then all these kind of things ferment, and because it's a creative process it takes time.
"People don't really think about the process in that way. You can sit and cram circuit design by staying up all night and finishing it; you're just doing CAD work," Saar explains. "But with a creative process, you can't do that. You can't come up with a better visual concept by just sitting there and thinking about it. You have to think about it, let it rest, do a few sketches, let it rest and get used to the idea, create prototypes, and then if you're dealing with a client you need to show them and you need to get feedback. Instead of that just involving the packaging or the buttons, it involves the entire thing. So, it's stretched out more than just 'oh, I'll lay it out in two hours.' During that time I'll sit and I'll sketch some things, and it might be very detailed or it might be just the outline with a few guesstimates of the sizes of things. The actual laying out and going to the software and doing anything digital, that's when I have something that I'm quite happy with in my notebook."
This concept-driven approach has resulted in remarkable designs, not least of which is the Seahorse wearable microcontroller. Designed for embedded development specialist Embecosm and based on the Arduino-compatible Shrimp, the Seahorse forms the centre of Wuthering Bytes' wearable devices workshop this Sunday. Embecosm's Jeremy Bennett had clear goals in mind for the follow-up to the Cuttlefish board Boldport designed for last year's event: it had to be accessible, wearable, battery-powered, gender-neutral, interactive and - most importantly - fun so as to interest children and teenagers to pick up a soldering iron and get involved. "I think it's important to create something that is engaging and memorable rather than something that you buy in a baggie from Maplin where, functionally, you've still learned to solder, but would you remember it, would you want to display it? Probably not," Saar explains. "It'll just go into a drawer and you might forget it, whereas with the Seahorse you might be able to hang it somewhere, and then you look at it and you remember 'hey, there's this thing, this possibility in my life to continue doing these sort of circuits.'"
While Saar uses Boldport's PCBmodE software to lay-out his circuit designs, having found traditional tools like Eagle too restrictive, the designs themselves hearken back to an earlier era when circuits were laid out by hand using tape. "It's a nice tie-in to where we started before CAD tools came in. When they came in, they were limited in the resources that they had. You couldn't be as creative as you wanted to because the tools couldn't handle it," Saar explains. "If you were designing circuits in the 60s and 70s, there was a creative touch that you put in that was more than just a function. You had to lay down the tape in your own style, and that's what I put in: my circuits have my own style in them, styles that I've been doodling my whole life. You can't do that with Eagle, or any other tool, properly. Whenever you try to be creative visually the tool kinda slaps you on the hand and tells you 'hey, what are you doing? 45-degrees,'" Saar jokes, referring to the typically fixed angles of circuit traces enforced - or at least heavily encouraged - by most modern PCB design software.
It's this creativity that drives everything Boldport does - Saar's passion for sketching was the direct inspiration for PCBmodE, after all. "You can iterate a lot more when you're just sketching it out rather than already committing it to a footprint in your CAD tool. It becomes easier with every new board, but the hard part is getting the concept right, not the translating it into the physical form," Saar explains. "There are challenges there, but they are physical challenges, whereas with the concept it's conceptual challenges that really need to click, that need to work well and need to be aesthetic. That's hard. The translating it into the outline of the board, because I've written the tool that I'm using, that's not difficult. If you wanted to do the Seahorse outline in Eagle, you could, but it'll be fairly cumbersome. For me, I can just sketch it out in Inkscape or scan it and do a bitmap outline and just put it on the board, it's very easy."
Saar has published an in-depth look at the Seahorse design on the Boldport blog, while those who want to see it in-person should get along to the OSHCamp Workshop day at Wuthering Bytes this Sunday, where kits will be available to solder and program. More details about the event, plus the last few tickets before it sells out completely, are available as always from our dedicated microsite.