The Arduino Starter Pack from Adafruit is really pretty cool. It provides a really nice starting point for open source hardware hacking. In addition to the main Arduino Diecimila board, the starter pack includes a few components to play with (resistors, push buttons, LEDs, …) as well as a protoshield to start prototyping with the Arduino. Get your soldering iron out for you’ll need to solder the protoshield and its components before you can do any solder-less prototyping. If you’re lazy, you can buy the assembled one but that’s no fun !
Shields are ready made modules that sit (and sometimes stack) on top of the Arduino board to provide various functionality. Many are available at Adafruit and other places: GPS, Wireless Radio (Xbee), Protoshield, Ethernet, LCD, … and come with sample source code.
LadyAda’s companion web site and forums are a great resource to start reading about all that stuff, detailing the spec and tutorials on all of the Adafruit products.
Also, I bought a few electronics book as well as Making Things Talk: Practical Methods for Connecting Physical Objects from Tom Igoe to get me started. The book is in the a new format for O’Reilly that sits between their Make magazine and a class book. It feels simple, didactic and approachable.
Tom’s book features a dozen simple projects and their variants mostly based on the Arduino board; some of them are pretty cheap to make but others involve slightly more expensive components (the price of communication, I guess) with Bluetooth, Radio or Ethernet modules priced at $50+. Still a lot of fun to put together.
While the book spends a lot of time detailing (what is trivial for me) network concepts it sometimes takes shortcuts when it comes to electronics basics and the IDE. However it does illustrate well how ‘simple serial networking’ can be very easy to use though, for basic communications. It’s eerie to see how what we’re used to think as complex networking protocols (Ethernet, Bluetooth, Radio signals, USB) can be used as an easy and modern way to conduct a serial dialog. I wish it did spend a bit more time on some basic electronic concepts (voltage divider, pull up and pull down resistances, …) but I had to refer to other books for that.
I am nearing a point where I can now start designing my own circuits and will be hitting the electronic component store tonight (not RadioShak).
I also ordered a few shields to play with (GPS and Motor control) as well as a very small version of the Arduino (Boarduino).