I am NOT an electrical engineer. I had a breadboard and a pile of capacitors and resistors to play with when I was an undergraduate, and that’s about it. I have to do a lot of soldering and splicing when equipment breaks, but that’s just repair–no development.
That all changed today. I was at Radio Shack (and yes, I was offered a cell phone plan twice) getting spare parts, and saw the Arduino display. If you’ve never seen one, it’s a little open-source prototyping platform. You connect various components to it, develop your code and download it to the chip. It’s tiny, and cheap:
I got this badboy, and a ‘compass’ chip, which is actually just a three-component magnetometer. In under half an hour, I had a working prototype:
which was actually dumping data via USB:
It’s not the most precise mag ever made, but it cost well under $100. GPS chips, Bluetooth, wireless, 3-component accelerometers, solar panels, and so much more is available.
There are a variety of boards like this for $5 to as much as you care to spend. TI makes a remarkably cheap board for controller development and such, while the Beagleboard is about $200 if I remember correctly and can run Linux.
Think of all the cool stuff that we’re going to see when anyone can prototype their own electronics. My plan for these (if I can find a way to digitize quickly enough) is to build a phased-array radio telescope in my backyard. What a fascinating and modern age in which we live.