Recently I discovered an interesting programming platform called Arduino, which is an complete open source hardware system. You only need the board and IDE. Combined with a USB cable one can start developing an electrical project programmed in C++.
The main system is based on a AVR microcontroller from Atmel (Wikipedia). The current model is called Arduino Uno. It has 14 digital pins for input or output and additional 6 analog input pins. The I/O pins are powered by 5V and 40 mA. If you are willing to wait two weeks for delivery, you can buy one from China at eBay. But to realy support the open source project you should get an original version which is labeled ''made in italy".
The main reason for the widespread of Arduino is that the developing interface is available for Window, Linux and Mac (Download), while the programming language is C++. With Ubuntu you can easily install the current available package through the ubuntu software manager, which is surely not the most up to date version, but it runs perfectly out of the box.
Quick Start Guide
- connect your Arduino via USB with your Computer
- run Arduino IDE
- check the correct setting at Tools->Board (Arduino Uno) and Tools->Serial Port (/dev/ttyACM0) - may differ on other operating system
- run a Example from File->Examples->1.Basic->Blink
- press verify button to compile the code (play symbol)
- press upload button (right arrow symbol)
After uploading (TX/RX blinking) you will see that the integrated red LED (pin 13) will continuously turn on and off for a second. This is the so called Blink Tutorial. For a more detailed step-by-step and well explained tutorial take a look at ladyada.net/learn/arduino. If you are interested you can watch "Arduino The Documentary (2010)" where you learn something more about the creation and history of Arduino.