If you’re into electronics as a hobbyist, technician, or professional engineer, you know that you can spend many hours designing circuits, sourcing components, and breadboarding or soldering a project all together before you find out if your creation actually works. Wouldn’t it make life simpler if you could just start with a basic, multi-function controller and a few plug and play peripherals to get something – anything – up and running straight away and then which you could tweak and add to as you go? The makers of a new electronic design tool thought that this would be a good idea too and have created Cubit, a make anything platform that allows drag and drop software control over snap together hardware. Join Gizmag as we try a few builds to test out it out.
Like a lot of us who work or dabble in the electronic arts, two of the co-founders of Qfusion Labs (the makers of Cubit) grew up with electronics as a hobby which they later turned into a career. Brothers Jason and Marvin Gouw spent their formative years learning the intricacies of hardware and software design, later becoming professionals in electronics. All the while they thought that there must be a simpler and better way to quickly and easily bring a range of components together across an integrated platform. As a result of many years of tinkering and development their efforts came to fruition and, along with another Qfusion Labs co-founder and software developer, Tim Mowrer, developed the Cubit system.
"Cubit is a tool that allows you to make whatever you can imagine – and fast," Jason Gouw told Gizmag. "Today, innovations are highly complex, and usually involve some level of electronics or software. Making a project that uses both skills is even more challenging. We created Cubit to bridge the gap between electronics and software. We do this by giving makers drag-&-drop visual programming along with plug-&-play electronics to create projects without any code or soldering."
The team at Qfusion Labs supplied Gizmag with a basic Cubit kit for us to try out. We spent a few days putting it through its paces and analyzing what it could do.
A quick tour of Cubit
The Cubit system consists of three primary modules: the Cubit Controller, a collection of peripheral devices and components dubbed Cubit Smartwares, and a drag-and-drop app called Cubit Workshop. These modules all work together to provide an integrated design and development system.
Sporting a black plastic 40 x 40 mm (1.6 x 1.6 in) case, the main unit of the system is a Bluetooth-enabled, 32-bit Cubit controller. Containing a handful of surface mount components, including a PIC (Programmable Integrated Circuit), the controller has a number of universal smartports dotted around its perimeter, into which a range of Cubit Smartware modules may be plugged. Depending on the package purchased, these can include servos, LEDs, a smart LCD display, potentiometers, switches, sensors and more.
Cubit Smartwares are modules that attach directly to the smartports on the Cubit controller and are chosen dependent upon the type of circuit being built. For example, if you are building a temperature-controlled switch that operates a mechanical valve, you could plug in a temperature sensor module and a servo to operate the valve.
The smartports also provide a power input to the unit via a supplied USB cable. Simply plugging in the required devices and plugging the cable into a USB port on your computer immediately brings the system to life.
The Cubit Workshop software for Mac or PC rounds out the trio of modules. After installation on the computer being used, the workshop software immediately recognizes any of the Smartware components plugged into the Cubit controller and displays the appropriate icon on the computer screen in the Cubit Workshop program.
Putting it all together
The first way to see what the Cubit platform could do was to install the software, plug the hardware together, and play with it. Which is exactly what we did.
The software unpacked and installed easily and, when we plugged in the controller and began plugging in some of the smartware modules, it all started coming to life. The icons appeared on the uppermost part of the Workshop software display, and we were soon experimenting with connecting various components on screen. The interaction was simple and the action easy to manage: it was just a matter of dragging and dropping program blocks, selecting connecting wires with the cursor, and joining them to modules.
Once we became confident with the way the Cubit system worked, it was then simply a matter of ensuring that the Cubit module was paired via Bluetooth to the computer and pressing the start button.
The results of this experimentation soon filled in a lot of time, but it was quite satisfying to see how easily one could get a set of LEDs to flash or make a servo turn one way then another. Of course, playing with something will only get you so far, so we turned our attention to the instructions that accompanied the system and – taking our cues from the Cubit's makers adage to "start with an idea" – drew up a few diagrams.
This proved to be another satisfying exercise, because it follows the natural mental pattern of the inveterate tinkerer or experimenter: drawing your ideas, then reaching out for things to start turning them into reality. In this case, these ideas were made simpler and brought to fruition more easily by using the simple, plug-in, drag and drop method inherent in the Cubit's design ideology.
The only real limitation that came to light after a while was the number of Smartwares available restricted the complexity of the things we could create. After all, there's only so many projects that require flashing lights and turning servos, though we certainly came up with quite a few of them.
According to the creators, there are plans afoot to develop more Smartware modules to enhance the system, as well as a scheme to provide more experienced experimenters with a way to develop their own modules. It's all a part of the vision for Cubit that the creators see as a way to continuously improve and expand the system.
"I want to see people build innovations without being limited by the tools at hand," Jason Gouw told us. "At Qfusion Labs, we envision a future where electronics and programming becomes as ubiquitous as using smartphones. We want to see a community where everyone, not just engineers, can easily share project ideas and have access to a repository of creative projects using an organized platform."
All-in-all, the Cubit creative platform was easy to use and quick to set-up. The user interface of the software was intuitive, and the drag and drop functionality was logical and simple to understand. Connecting the hardware and making the Smartware modules perform various tasks was also not difficult and it would be easy to imagine that even an absolute novice in electronics would have little trouble figuring out how to use it.
If there were any downsides to the system, the limitations with the available modules was one obvious issue as there are only so many things that you can make with them. To be perfectly honest, it is unlikely that someone with absolutely no electronics knowledge or aptitude could really do much with the system without some grounding in a few electronics principles, if nothing else but to have them understand the relationships of components to each other and how they function.
Having said this, however, with the range of Smartware modules being expanded and the opportunity to possibly create bespoke ones in the future, along with the fact that the Cubit system would certainly help a novice at least begin to understand electronics, these are small quibbles about an overall clever and innovative platform.
Now that Cubit has been brought to fruition and developed to a point where it can interact and successfully control electronic devices reliably and easily, its creators have decided to launch on Kickstarter.
Early-bird deals start at US$89, and include a Cubit controller, Cubit Workshop software, four Smartwares, and a project booklet. Other, higher-spec, more expensive kits include more Smartwares and even more Cubit controllers for multi-purpose, multi-controller projects.
Should all go to plan, the first batches slated for delivery in January 2016.
The video below shows the Cubit team's Kickstarter pitch.
Source: Qfusion Labs
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