Anything Next To Anything (Anywhere)

Now by adding telecommunication, any element in one person’s computer can be next any element on another person’s computer.  We talked about how the random access nature of electronic storage allows any element in memory to be instantly juxtaposed with any other element.  Rearranging data into different versions is cheap and fast, which makes looking at things new ways easier, as when you change categories on this blog.  Creating new versions is democratized as compared with movable type or film where new versions take much more effort and expense.  Now your ideas can be more easily be juxtaposed with the ideas on any one else’s computer on the planet into new versions.  This radically accelerates the possibilities for ideas being in the right place at the right time.

For now we will talk between the Arduino and your laptop.   But the principles will be the same later when we connect any two computers on the internet.


You are going to try to get some numbers or letters  from one of your sensors in Arduino out the USB cable into one of the variables controlling your display in Processing .  You might also try to go the other way get a variable in Processing out the USB cable to the Arduino to say move the servo motor.  Sending one number is not so bad.  Sending multiple readings will require you to make a protocol for sending the readings separated by delimiters and then on arrival splitting and storing them into arrays.  That is a nice challenge for you.


Communication is hard when you make up your own words.  Both sides have to agree on a protocol, that is a the conventions of the communication, ahead of time.  Because you will be controlling both sides of the communication, Arduino and Processing, you really only have to agree with yourself.  There is a whole stack of electrical agreements that you don’t have to worry about because they were set for you, for instance that there is one wire for transmit and one wire for receive in the USB cable and electrical pulses get sent one right after another (serially).  The conventions of your protocol will mostly be about formatting the message that you are sending.

Baud Rate

The only important agreement about the electrical signal that you control is the speed in which the pulses come along.  This is called the baud rate.  The most common baud rate is 9600 baud which will send a byte (a letter or a number between 0-255) every millisecond.  9600 is pretty common and you will probably never change this one so this is not very interesting.  Sorry.

Sending on the Arduino Side

You have already done the Arduino side of this when you were debugging by sending from your Arduino to your laptop using Serial.begin(9600) and then Serial.println(myVar).  Back on your laptop you had to click on the “Serial Monitor” and make sure it was agreeing with the 9600 baud.  Try that again.

Notice there is one small change compared to the analog debugging output example.  The “ln” is missing at the end of “println” We are sending out the new line character as println does by more explicitly with a plain print just for that character (more on this later).


The next step is really just replacing the Serial Monitor on your laptop with Processing on your laptop.  You might still test everything out with the Serial Monitor first to make sure the Arudino side is right before trying with Processing.  Make sure you close the Serial Monitor because it should not be open at the same time as Processing.

Listening on the Processing Side (Replacing Serial Monitor)

Listening in Processing is a little more involved.  You have to:

  1. Import the Serial Libary
  2. Make a Serial Object Variable
  3. Find the Right USB port in the Setup Function and use new to make a serial object.
  4. Make a Callback Function to Listen to Incoming Messages

Import the Serial Library

Because USB serial port is different on every different kind of computer (eg mac, pc),  is not part of the core of processing.  Instead you have to extend processing with the appropriate library for doing it on your particular hardware platform.  Luckily for you, the library for your machine downloaded with Processing when you installed it.  So all you have to do is let processing know by putting this line at the very top (there is even a menu option that does it for you).

 import processing.serial.*;  

Serial Object

Welcome to object oriented programming!  Until now we have been using variables to store number or letters.  Now we are going to use a variable to store an object.  An object not only has numbers and letters (data) but also functions for doing things (behavior).  So at the top you declare a variable of type “Serial” meaning you are going to store a Serial object in it.

Initializing Objects: We typically use the new command with some parameters, in this case which port (more on that in a minute) and it returns an object for you to store in your variable.  This is usually done in setup.

Using Objects:  Then later we will call functions inside that object using “dot notation.”  like myPort.ReadStringUntil().  We didn’t make a big deal about this but we already did it on the Arduino side with “Serial.prinln()”  Here are some of the functions we will call within the object:


Pick a Port in Setup

The Processing version of the “setup” is slightly more complicated than Arduino because there can be more than one USB cable plugged into your laptop.  Most of the time this code will just work because your Arduino will be the first (zeroth) USB serial port that Processing looks for.  Other times you will have to run your program once and then look in the output box at the list of ports that result from “println(Serial.list())”   The port names are not very friendly especially on the mac they look like “/dev/tty.usbmodem1421” and on the PC some like “COM1”   It is not easy to find the one that belongs to the Arduino but you can try unplugging the arudino and see which one disappears.  You already set this in the Arudino software so you can also look there under the “Tools>Port” menu.  You can either supply the string like “/dev/tty.usbmodem1421” or you can pull the name by number from the list of ports as happens in the sample code here.

Listening is Harder Than Talking

In Software, as in person, it is easy to know you have to pay attention when speaking.  Because you don’t know exactly when someone else is going to speak you have to always be ready to hear which is difficult. The technical term here is Asynchronous Communication.  You could use a “blocking function” which stop the whole program to watch for something coming in the port.  Computers have few tricks to save you from dedicating your whole program to waiting for the next thing to come in.

The first feature is called a buffer which is a little waiting room where the computer seats incoming bytes (in order) for you until your program has time to grab them an use them.  The serial buffer is made for you automatically in the setup.

There are two methods to pull the bytes out of the waiting room, polling or the more civilized callbacks.

POLLING METHOD: (don’t use this) : I prefer the callback method but I am showing you this in case you see it in examples on the Internet.  Later on the Arduino side we have to use polling to listen back from Processing.

CALL BACK METHOD: A better way is to have Processing call a function when there is some action on the USB cable.  By making the serial object in setup, behind the scenes you subscribed to a service that will call a function named “SerialEvent” whenever something comes into the buffer.  Your job is just to make a function by that name. You have already seen this concept of callbacks with MousePressed() and KeyPressed() for user input which is also asynchronous, meaning you never know exactly when it is going to happen.  There is a bug in some combination of  machines and versions of processing where the the port object is not ready the first time the callback happens so I inserted the line if (myPort == null) return;  which bails out of the function if the port is still empty.


Control Characters

Congratulations you just made a protocol.  You are saying there will be a ‘\n’ character between each reading. ‘\n’ is the new line character.  The serial monitor uses this character to put each reading on it’s own line.  This is the extra bit that “println” sends as opposed to “print.”  You will notice in this example I am using just print and sending the new line character more explicitly with print(‘\n’) instead of println().   The new line is what is called a control character.  You see the results of it but the actual character is invisible so to give it a manifestation we use the single quotes followed by a back slash and the letter n for new line.  ‘\t’ is the way your represent a tab, another invisible control character.  In general the back slash in text string is called a the escape character which tells the machine not to take the next character, in this case “n” or “t” at face value.  One other thing you will notice here is sometimes we use double quote and sometimes single quotes.  Because it is a single character we use a single quote in this case.  Hopefully you will get used to this stuff.


This  is a really great function that looks in the buffer to see if the whole message has arrived yet.   If the ‘\n’ character is not in the buffer it means your full message has not arrived yet and it puts null or empty into the variable.  If it the new line character is in there that means that the full message has arrive and this function call  pulls it out of the waiting buffer and puts it in your variable.


This cleans off the invisible control characters that will screw things up.


This converts the incoming message from a String to a number (much more on this below).

Bigger Numbers From a Group of 1’s and 0’s

As we have seen before these computers are really only capable of 1’s and 0’s.  Now we are really just sending a serial stream of pulses of yes and no over the wire.  To express bigger numbers we group a bunch of 1’s or 0’s (aka bits)  into groups of 8 bits (aka bytes).  We are always sending bytes back and forth.  Then each unique permutation of the 8 bits represents a number between 0 and 255 (there are 256 different permutations of eight 1’s and 0’s). The actual method for getting the decimal from a eight ones and zeros is something you may never need to know but I will tell you anyway.  Basically each place has a weight and you add up the weight of all the places where there was a one.

Position Weights: 1   2   8   16   32  64  128
Number: 1  0  0  1   0    0    0   = 17
Number: 0  1  1  0   0   1    0    =  74

Sending and Receiving Numbers

The simplest way to communicate would have been to use the .write() and .read() functions (same on both Arduino and Processing).  These send numbers as single bytes back and forth which would seem to make sense because often the message begins its life as a number (eg analogRead()) and completes its mission as a number (eg ellipse(xpos,10,10,10)).  But we probably won’t be doing this in sending from Arduino to Processing.

Text from Numbers

Human prefer to communicate more with words than numbers so we often make one further conversion from numbers to letters using an ASCII table.  The first 32 characters are those invisible control characters we were just talking about. You can also refer to them by number, for instance, 10 for ‘\n’ (although sometimes it is 10  and 13).


Sending and Receiving Text

Usually I recommend that you go the extra step of turning your numbers into text using print() (intend of write()) and read them as text using readString() (instead of read()) as I have been doing in the  above  examples (except the polling example).  Here are the reasons it is better to send numbers as text:

  1. Debugging is easier with text.   Tools like the Serial Monitor can only really display text.  Numbers  get translated by the ASCII table by the Serial Monitor anyway and end up looking like all sorts of nonsense characters.
  2. It is easier to send arbitrarily long numbers with text because sending each number as a byte limits you to numbers between 0-255.  With text you can just keep adding a byte for every new digit as new letter in the string.
  3. It is is easier to send multiple numbers as text because you can use text things like comma’s and control characters as separators (delimiters) between the numbers.

I am Confused How Can a Letter Be A Number?

You will see in the ascii chart that character number 48-58 are “alphanumeric characters.”   When you send out a number using the Serial.print() the Arduino uses the ASCII table to look for the number of the alphanumeric character for each digit.  For instance to send “1008” it would send four bytes, 49,48,48,56.  If you were using println it would send a fifth character 49,48,48,56,10.  If you see a lot of numbers in this range coming by in your debug windows it probably means you are interpreting numbers sent as text using the print command when sending but then interpreting them as numbers using the read() command on receiving.  Being consistent about interpreting things as either numbers or text on both sides of the conversation is probably the most important protocol decision you will make.  When talking from Arduino to Processing I recommend you send and receive as text using the print and readString commands (not write() and read()).

Sending Multiple Things From Arduino to Processing

Suppose you wanted to make a game controller with a force sensitive resistor for controlling your movement and switch for firing.  You would want to send two numbers from Arduino to Processing,.  We were already using the ‘\n’ character to delimit between messages.  You need a new delimiter to separate the values from the two different sensors.  Luckily because you are only using characters 48-58 in the ASCII chart for alpha numeric characters, all of  the others are available for another delimiter.  The most common ones are commas or another control character, tab ‘\t’.  Now your protocol is getting a little more detailed.  Whatever you pick as a delimiter, it just can’t show up in the delimiter.  Later on you might look at HTML code where they use <> or json where they use {} and : for delimiters.

Here is the Arduino Code.  I added a comma a second sensor (a switch) and sent everything out separated by commas.

On the Processing side both sensors arrive in the order they were sent as one long string of text.  We break it into parts using the split() function.  We need something called an array variable that can hold multiple things in one variable.  Arrays have one name like the usual variables but then have multiple numbered slots for storage.  The tell tale sign of an array variable is the square brackets.  You will see this parts variable is declared as String[ ] instead of String.  This kind of parsing of text based on delimiters is the most common task in computer communication so get used to it.

Sending From Processing to Arduino

I am a little bit of a hypocrite.  For talking back from Processing to Arduino, I suggest you just send numbers instead of letters using the write()  from Processing and read() in Arduino  (not print() and readStringUntil()).


Sometimes you just want to send a character back to Arduino to say you are ready for a new message.  If your Arduino sent stuff faster than Processing can use it, data will get backed up in the buffer.  We are using the if statement to check if something is available, meaning processing sent something before we send something back.   In this case the content of the message is unimportant.

Now you have to make sure to send something to Arduino to feed the if available. It is easy to wind up in the situation where both sides are locked up waiting for something to be sent by the other side. You should send in serialEvent so Arduino is prodded to send a new value every time Processing gets a new one.  We call this call and response or handshaking.  But you should also send a character right in setup in Processing to prime the pump so you don’t get into a situation where both sides are waiting to hear from the other.

Sending Values from Processing to Arduino

Sometimes you actually want to send a real value from Processing to Arduino not just a nonsense byte for synchonization.  Here is an example where I am using the mouseX in Processing to move a servo motor in Arduino.  Here is the Processing sending side:


Here is the Arduino receiving side:

The Internet

Microcontrollers are moving away from being connected by USB towards being connected by WIFI.  Devices like the Arduino Yun, the Rasberry PI, the Beagle Bone all feel more like nodes on the internet.  Regardless of whether you use a wire or note,  the principles of sending bytes back and forth will be the same will be the same.

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