“The Arduino has changed the way we can create and build exhibits,” said Hélène Alonso, director of interactive exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “In the past, we would have used 50 percent of our budget on computers that have now been replaced with the simplicity of the Arduino.”
A current exhibit at the museum called “Brain: The Inside Story,” uses an Arduino to calculate a person’s accuracy and brain power while tracing the shape of a star. Another exhibit at the museum lets people see the relationship of the weights of some dinosaurs in relation to those of humans.
For artists and designers, one of the biggest draws of the Arduino is the cost. A single Arduino, which can be used to control a number of aspects of a museum installation, costs just $30. Once an artist has a chip, inexpensive sensors can be added to make the device sentient.
Limor Fried, chief executive of a company called Adafruit, which sells Arduinos and other interactive components, said a number of artists buy motors and buzzers from her online store to try and make their artwork come alive.
“Artists want to create pieces that interact with the viewer, and the Arduino makes it so simple to do that,” Ms. Fried explained.
The do-it-yourself movement has been the driving force behind this new world of interactive art, she noted. “Hackers and geeks have been doing this for years, building all sorts of cool robots and interactive experiences, but now it’s become so simple and inexpensive that artists and designers have adopted it, too.”
Ms. Fried said artists often bought motors or sensors that detect light or sound. These can be used to create engaging interactive elements of a museum exhibit in which the viewer becomes a part of the art through movement or touch, she said.
A rich online community has developed around the Arduino. There are thousands of free tutorials, examples of programming code and forums to help people learn how to control and manipulate the device. This online community has helped to put the Arduino into designers’ hands and has made it a major part of museums around the world.
“The two most important introductions for art in the past 20 years have been the Arduino and Processing,” explained Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. Processing is a free design program that can be used on a traditional computer to interact with an Arduino.
Ms. Antonelli said a number of artworks that would appear in an exhibit called “Talk to Me” had been created using the Arduino and Processing.
Tom Igoe, one of the co-creators of the Arduino and the head of the physical computing group at the Interactive Telecommunications Program of New York University, said curators in museums could see additional uses for the Arduino, like one in which the “painting starts looking back at you.”
“Imagine when every piece in a museum has an Arduino built in that can see how people interact and look at the artwork,” he said. “You could see a scenario when the curator rearranges an exhibit because a specific painting is being passed over by museumgoers….”