Whose round is it? Using Arduino to create the T-Bot

It’s hardly surprising, when we spend on average 37 hours there, that the workplace is microcosm of society. Occasionally this is an opportunity to bond over our common humanity. More often than not it’s a petri dish of society’s ills, including the free rider problem.

The distribution of labour in an office tea round is rarely even and if you’re a regular brew dispenser you’ll know that a radical solution is in order. A radical, Lego-encased, Arduino-powered solution. (It also seems like electronics is a handy skill to have for everything from prototyping to dreaming up exciting DMs for our clients.)

The ideal outcome sounded something like this: a big button that when pushed would cycle through the names of everyone in our tea round before landing on someone whose turn it was to make tea. We knew it needed to be a physical object as we already had the skills to make a digital version.

The first step was to get the Arduino code working and tested on just a few LEDs. Initially this proved harder than it seemed, the code worked in simulation but failed to light up the LEDs. After dismantling the circuit and putting it all back together we had a working prototype.

T-Bot Arduino Board

Going to the Lego store on your lunch break with a company card is one of the best occupational experiences you can have. Fitting more than 15 wires onto a tiny breadboard while ensuring everything’s in the right place is not. We managed it though and after a faulty wire was identified and replaced we had a working circuit with a full complement of LEDs.

The final step was to build the case. Building up the walls proved relatively straightforward but constructing a roof above the Arduino and its cable jungle was more difficult, without space for supporting columns we had to place plates gently onto each other and hope for the best when it came to using the thing.

T-Bot Lego & Wires

So, are we now working in a tea soaked utopia? Not really. It turns out that if someone doesn’t want to make tea then a plastic chamber and some flashing lights isn’t going to change their mind. We did learn a few things though:

Don’t try and create your colleagues out of Lego. there’s only a finite amount of pieces and yet still people are shocked when their hair is slightly too brown and they wouldn’t normally wear purple trousers.

Coding an Arduino is pretty close to coding JavaScript so we’ve been sitting on untapped skills for a while. This is probably true of other areas of the agency as well and we’ve probably outsourced things when we didn’t need to.

Working with electronics, and physical media in general, can produce surprisingly quick results so it pays to get on and make something than spending too long working it out.