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Who is 'tinnovator' Matthew Poage?

Matthew Poage's Swiss AVR knife.
Matthew Poage's Swiss AVR knife.
Courtesy Matthew Poage

You might call Matthew Poage something of a Renaissance man. By trade, he straddles the ancient and modern worlds as a mathematics and computer science teacher. Like other Renaissance men before him, Poage also understands the importance of art as a counterbalance to science. This combination of seemingly unrelated areas is a great description of how Matthew Poage works. He sees the art and the science in all things and puts them together in his work.

As an artist, Poage is most interested in production pottery -- creating a piece and replicating it over and over until the artist's interest wanes and he or she creates a new piece. Poage says the medium fits his outlook perfectly. "Production pottery combines physical skill with design consideration and aesthetic judgments," he says. But the design choices the math teacher makes are appropriately subject to chaos theory: Making the same piece over and again may seem a bit boring at first, until you look more closely at the unpredictable and situational forces that make each piece distinct. The judgments and decisions "are tempered by the randomness of working with clay and glazes in a high fire environment," says Poage [source: Poage].

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Poage more overtly combines his love of art and science through his inventions. He was just entering the world of do-it-yourself electronics when he came across a project on the Internet created by Limor Fried that uses an old Altoids tin as the housing for a functional audio speaker. Fried named his project "the Minty Boost" after the Altoids mints.

Poage had already been advised to start by selecting an enclosure for his electronics project; this provides the parameters (and inspiration) for the rest of the project. "I had a small speaker from an old Macintosh, a 9-volt battery and an Altoids tin on my desk," Poage says. "The first two fit perfectly in the third and I knew that I had an interesting design/electronics project" [source: Poage].

After undertaking Fried's project, Matthew Poage became a tinnovator -- a person who finds new uses for old Altoids tins. More specifically, he became an electronics tinnovator. With the Minty Boost under his belt, Poage began thinking of new ideas of his own. His masterpiece thus far is the Altoids tin Swiss AVR knife.

Since it uses AVR technology, the Swiss AVR knife is open for programming to anyone who wants to add to the project.
Since it uses AVR technology, the Swiss AVR knife is open for programming to anyone who wants to add to the project.
Courtesy Matthew Poage

Back in 1997, computer chip manufacturer Atmel released the AVR, a reprogrammable microcontroller. The advent of the AVR introduced do-it-yourself electronics aficionados to the world of computer programming. The chips are cheap and easy to use. Since they use on-board flash memory for programming storage, they can be reprogrammed and reused. They're also tiny, which makes them a perfect fit for electronic Altoids tin creations.

The more Matthew Poage read about the ways that AVRs were being used to control simple electronics applications, the more he wanted to learn how to create and carry out his own projects. Rather than try one project and then another, Poage decided to combine several DIY electronics projects into one big one -- an undertaking that he calls the Swiss AVR knife.

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"I envision this as an interesting platform on which to learn AVR programming," he says. This tutorial project is advanced and something of a trial by fire. "It's fairly inexpensive to make, although quite difficult. The solder is tough," he adds [source: Poage].

Within the project, Poage included small audio speakers and LED lights. With just those two devices, Poage came up with seven programs; some are of his own design and he followed others from open-source programs available on the Internet. Once you're done, the Altoids tin Swiss AVR knife completes tasks like the "Running Lights" program, a cycle of lit LED bulbs, the "Noise Toy" program that plays a series of electronic sounds and the "Mini POV" (persistence of vision) program that causes LED lights to blink in a pattern that forms a word when it's waved across a person's field of vision [source: Lady Ada].

The Swiss AVR knife is built from scratch -- Poage calls it a "bare-bones platform" -- and the creator must assemble and program every aspect of the device's functions. What's more, the slender Altoids Peppermint Chewing Gum tin that houses it offers certain design challenges and constraints. While Poage found the Altoids tin serves as an "interesting, portable package, its size also provided a significant challenge in fitting all of the parts in the enclosure," says the inventor [source: Poage].

If you feel like you're up to the challenge of starting your own Altoids tin Swiss AVR knife project, Matthew Poage has generously posted a series of instructions on Instructables.com for free. It is, he says, a nod to all of the AVR programmers he learned from -- like Limor Fried -- who made their own findings available on the Internet.

You can find Poage's Altoids tin Swiss AVR knife instructions here.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Atmel AVR. "AVR© 8-bit RISC." Accessed July 16, 2009. http://www.atmel.com/products/AVR/
  • Lady Ada. "Mini POV." August 31, 2008. http://www.ladyada.net/make/minipov/index.html
  • Poage, Matthew. Personal correspondence.
  • Poage, Matthew. "Swiss AVR knife." Instructables.com. Accessed July 16, 2009. http://www.instructables.com/id/Swiss_AVR_Knife/

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