Parallax products are a standard tool on many hobbyist workbenches and in educational programs across the country. Their success started with a good core product (the BASIC Stamp microcontroller), but making it accessible to a wide customer base took thousands of hours of effort and some experimentation as we found in our interview with Ken Gracey and Andy Lindsay of Parallax.
Ken describes how Parallax developed the robotics business:
Nine years ago we noticed that the BASIC Stamp was being used by some innovative instructors in robotics as part of their electronics classes. Even though the BASIC Stamp was easy to program, our customers were really struggling at the time – we had no educational documentation, only through-hole solder boards, a DOS-only IDE, no Macintosh support and no training course to show them how to teach with microcontrollers. About the same time, Parallax was embarking on the Propeller chip design (which was finally released in April 2006!) and we envisioned that we could develop a future customer base for our own silicon. But getting there would require a solid current customer base, which would be education.
We started with the “Board of Education”, a breadboard-based platform for the BASIC Stamp where a student or hobbyist could assemble their circuits, program the BASIC Stamp, tear it apart and start all over again. A simple book titledWhat’s a Microcontroller (now on the 20th revision) was written by one of our customers, Matt Gilliland. This book demonstrated LED blinking, interfacing a sensor and potentiometer, and how to generate sounds on a speaker. We sent 100 kits to educators around the country and received mixed – but mostly enthusiastic – input and feedback. These educators quickly became part of our internal development team and directed our future.
What happened next was the creation of the Boe-Bot, nearly by accident. An educator from Northern Idaho, Chuck Schoeffler, sent us a Board of Education mounted on top of his PVC-based robot chassis with a note “you guys need to put your Board of Education on a robot chassis – this is where the action is at”. We designed the aluminum Boe-Bot chassis from Chuck’s concept, sent him a drawing and he programmed his school’s CNC machine to make a few samples for us. He sent back a few completed robots. Watching the Boe-Bot navigate our warehouse was really exciting and our staff viewed our products in an entirely different way.
The Robotics with the Boe-Bot tutorial was developed and we started a long-term collaboration with our educational customers, selling over 80,000 Boe-Bot kits to date. We set out to train high school and college instructors in the U.S., Asia and Europe in our “Educator’s Courses”. Andy Lindsay was hired as an intern early on to improve our books, and he quickly became the key author for the Parallax Stamps in Class series.
Many sensors, boards and educational tutorials (PDF downloads) have been developed since we started. Without a doubt, it’s our personal interest in our own products and customers that brought us to this point. When “work” and hobby combine the results can be amazing!
Looking forward, I envision Parallax demonstrating how the Propeller microcontroller could be used for more advanced robots capable of outdoor navigation. We’d also like to provide a larger robot base for more difficult terrain, in addition to some uses on the Boe-Bot chassis.
Andy describes his mission as an educational author for Parallax:
My education is as an electronics engineer from California State University, Sacramento. I came to Parallax as an intern in 1997 to develop the Basic Analog and Digital text. Parallax had little space back then, so I took a desk in the warehouse. I also took Ken’s bait to “wear a tie” the first day. I quickly realized the tie was just a joke, but I was definitely serious about what I was asked to do at Parallax.
I’m enthusiastic, but also motivated by other people’s interest to learn how to program microcontrollers. I’ll spend all the time somebody wants showing them how to use a BASIC Stamp on their robot. Writing our books and running our courses is an extension of my personal interest and motivation.
In the tutorials I’ve written for Parallax (which are all available for download), My goal is to get people started on track to building their own inventions. I show the reader how to build his project one piece at a time and program it along the way. I provide a series of challenges so they can expand on what they’ve learned, plus a set of questions and answers just for educators who use the tutorials in their classrooms.
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We maintain an active editorial department to keep the books accurate and under revision if errors are discovered. Additionally, developing the books requires a full-time drawing and graphics team to help convey the content in pictures. Actually finishing the books and making them available to customers is the most difficult part, because we need to stock parts, build kits, and ensure QA/QC all the way to the customer.
Today the Stamps in Class program has matured, but won’t be complete without our next upcoming book, Smart Sensors and Applications.. This book demonstrates the use of accelerometers, ultrasonic sensors, and digital compasses, all with an LCD display. All of these sensors are ideal for robotic applications, and there’s a chapter just for the Boe-Bot. I’m done writing and the book is in edit, so next I’m moving my attention to Propeller application notes. Visit Parallax at www.parallax.com.