Servo Magazine ( April 2017 )
Parallax Blocklyprop Starter Kit
Getting started with Parallax’s new graphic language.
Parallax has added Blockly to its list of tools for programming their popular Propeller microcontroller. Their version of Blockly is called Blocklyprop, and I have been pleasantly surprised to find out how much fun it is to use and how powerful it can be.
They have introduced a Blocklyprop Starter Kit to help you get going with Blocklyprop. After completing the projects, you will have a good understanding of Blocklyprop and the skills needed to make your own projects with the parts in the kit.
What’s In the Kit
The kit includes the Propeller Activity Board WX which is powerful enough to be used for many different projects.
Propeller Activity Board WX with battery pack.
A Parallax Propeller is a multicore microprocessor containing eight “cogs” which can be programmed to simultaneously process code for true multitasking. The board has a Mini TRRS audio/video (or audio/mic) jack, and a selectable wireless socket/USB for communication between a host computer and the Propeller.
There is a servo, motion sensor, joystick, accelerometer, color sensor, ultrasound, remote control, IR receiver, color OLED display, and many needed components to make a variety of designs.
Most of the projects for the Blocklyprop Starter Kit are very interactive which makes this a very interesting and engaging set of tutorials. Kids will not get bored by trying to type a lot of syntax while learning to code.
A statement from Parallax’s website says “Parallax’s BlocklyProp is the most complete visual programming environment available for physical computing in education. We started by creating a self-scaling infrastructure using Amazon Web Services (AWS). This allows hundreds of classes to use the same system concurrently. Next, we coded the blocks to support the most popular Parallax sensors and S3 robot (and even more blocks for new products and more robots are being tested now).”
Having spent over a week doing the projects made for the starter kit and programming several other robots with Blocklyprop, I can honestly say I truly enjoy using this language. It is intuitive and uses program logic without the hassle of trying to get the syntax right. It has the look and feel of C programming in a drag and drop format instead of hours of typing and typos!
The only real drawback is you must be online to use it. However, that is also a strength in that you always have the latest version and all the current updates.
This is really an exciting new development for the Parallax line of products and makes the many Propeller boards they offer far easier to use now.
Blocklyprop can also be used to program Parallax’s Scribbler 3 and Scribbler 2 robots. The library of available blocks for the S3 is quite extensive, making the S3 a very capable robot for using in education.
In the works are blocks for programming the Activity Bot, one of the types of Boe-Bots that Parallax carries. Blocklyprop is still in development and growing all the time. Parallax is adding blocks to it for using many different sensors all the time.
What I Did
I made every project that is part of the Blocklyprop Starter Kit plus some of my own. I couldn’t stop myself. I was having too much fun with the kit. It was easy to see how much kids will like this new way to program.
All the projects and lessons are on the Parallax Learn website at learn.parallax.com. There are also many other projects there to inspire you.
Blocklyprop web page.
One project uses a tilt sensor on the board to feed back its position information to the screen of the OLED.
OLED that comes with kit.
The OLED is also used to read the distance information sent to it by a PING))) ultrasound sensor.
Blocklyprop code for PING))) sensor.
Data from PING))) sensor on OLED screen.
Using some LEDS and a speaker, there is a project to make a parking assist unit which detects how close you are getting to an object. The different color LEDs and speaker tones let you know how close or how far you are from the object.
Blocklyprop code for parking assist unit.
Parking assist unit.
Another project shows you how to use the multiprocessor features of the Propeller chip by blinking three different LEDs at different rates at the same time. (Try that on an Arduino!)
Of course, to keep the tradition going, there is the Hello World program for both the OLED and an LCD.
Hello World on OLED.
Hello World on LCD.
The Scribbler 3 robot has a very extensive library of blocks in Blocklyprop. The Scribbler robots have been around for a long time now and just keep getting better. Parallax recently held a set of webinars on using the S3s in educational settings and will probably hold more in the future. Educators can contact Parallax at any time, and many resources are available on the Learn web site in the Educators section.
After getting my feet wet with the Blocklyprop Starter Kit, I decided to see what more I could do with the Propeller board and Blocklyprop.
I dusted off several of my walking robots and took the Arduinos off them to install Propeller boards.
Walking ant robot using PABWX.
Two-legged walker using PABWX.
One of the best things I found by doing this is I could program the walking gait visually which made it a lot easier to do. It was also much easier to adjust the movements as needed.
There is a lot of documentation and tutorials on the Learn website with many new ones being added all the time. One of Parallax’s best features is its forum. Don’t forget to go there with questions and when you’re looking for information. It is one of the best run forums on the Internet.
This article is just the tip of an iceberg. Blocklyprop is a new and growing programming environment, and the more I use it and learn about it the more enthusiastic I am about it. Other graphic languages I have used did not seem to have the capabilities and extensiveness of Blocklyprop.
It is a new and growing phenomenon that I believe will have a great future. As mentioned, it makes using the Propeller chip a lot simpler, and I can easily see myself using it more often in my own projects. I really believe the future of programming will be graphical environments so that everybody can be a programmer.
Years ago, we did not imagine having computers at home. Now we can envision people programming their own applications as they need them.
Go to parallax.com and check out both Blocklyprop and the Blocklyprop Starter Kit. This a great way to start programming and is ideally made for educators both in public schools and home schools.
As always you can email me with questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. SV
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