Lab: Serial Input to P5.js

Originally written on October 4, 2015 by Tom Igoe
Last modified on October 8, 2016 by Benedetta Piantella Simeonidis


Serial communication to a web page in a browser isn’t something you see every day. Web browsers don’t usually have access to a computer’s serial ports. In order to get your browser-based applications to communicate with a microcontroller serially, you need a program that can both serve up HTML/JavaScript pages, and communicate with the serial port. When you’re making projects with P5.js, you can achieve this by using the P5.serialport library and P5.serialserver and the P5.serialcontrol app by Shawn Van Every. When you use the p5.serialport library, it communicates with a the serialserver, a WebSocket server written in node.js to give you access to serial devices attached to your computer. This lab shows you how to do that. In this lab, you’ll generate an analog output value from a potentiometer, then send that value via asynchronous serial communication to P5.js. You’ll use that value in P5.js to draw a graph.

To get the most out of this tutorial, you should know what a microcontroller is and how to program them. You should also understand asynchronous serial communication between microcontrollers and personal computers. You should also understand the basics of P5.js.

Things You’ll Need

For this lab, you’ll need the hardware below, and you’ll need to download the P5.js complete library. You’ll also need to install node.js and the P5.serialserver (instructions below). You can use the P5.js web editor or your favorite text editor for this (the Atom text editor works well).

Arduino Potentiometer
Arduino microcontroller 10-kilohm potentiometer

Assemble the circuit

Assemble the following circuit. It’s the same circuit from the Analog Input lab.

Connect power and ground on the breadboard to power and ground from the microcontroller. On the Arduino module, use the 5V and any of the ground connections:

Made with Fritzing

Add a Potentiometer

Connect a potentiometer to analog in pin 0 of the module:

Related Video: Potentiometer schematic

Potentiometer and LED circuit
Arduino with Potentiometer circuit Same circuit on a breadboard

Program the Microcontroller

Program your Arduino to read the analog input as follows:

void setup() {
 Serial.begin(9600); // initialize serial communications

void loop() {
 int potentiometer = analogRead(A0);                  // read the input pin
 int mappedPot = map(potentiometer, 0, 1023, 0, 255); // remap the pot value to fit in 1 byte
 Serial.write(mappedPot);                             // print it out the serial port
 delay(1);                                            // slight delay to stabilize the ADC

The P5.js serialport library

To communicate with your microcontroller serially, you’re going to use the P5.js serialport library and the P5.serialserver (command line version) or p5.serialcontrol (GUI version). The P5.js serialport library can’t access your serial ports directly when a sketch is running in a browser because the browser doesn’t have direct access to the serial port. But it can communicate with a server program on your computer that can exchange data with the serialport.P5.serialserver (or p5.serialcontrol) is  the server that connects your sketch, running in a browser, with the serial ports on your computer as shown below:

Once you gain an understanding of serial communication, you can use any program that can connect with your computer’s serial ports to communicate with a microcontroller. Processing, Max/MSP, and OpenFrameworks are three other popular multimedia programming environments that can communicate via the serial ports.

Install the P5.serialcontrol App

Download the latest version of the P5.serialcontrol application and save it in your Applications folder. When you run it, it will check serial ports on your machine. Click “list ports” to refresh the list, and you should see the serial port of your Arduino board show up. You can now move onto using the P5.js editor making sure that the p5.serialport.js file is inside your project folder. You can skip the next section unless you want to run p5.serialserver from the command line instead from the p5.serialcontol app.

Program P5.js to list the available  serial ports

Now you’re ready to make a P5.js sketch. If you’re using the p5.js web editor, make a new sketch. Download this file: p5.serialport.js. Then add it to your sketch by clicking the file navigation arrow on the left of the screen, then click the down arrow to add files. Choose the downloaded p5.serialport.js file and upload it to your sketch.

p5_editor_file_nav_screenshot p5_editor_add_file_screenshot
p5 editor showing file navigation arrow p5 editor showing add file arrow

Whether you are running the P5.serialserver via command line or using the P5.serialcontrol app, you will need to add one line to the index.html file. After this line:

<script language="javascript" type="text/javascript" src="libraries/p5.js"></script>

Add this line:

 <script language="javascript" type="text/javascript" src="p5.serialport.js"></script>

Save index.html. Now you’re ready to edit the sketch.

To start off, your programming environment needs to know what serial ports are available in the operating system. Open the sketch.js file and change it to the following:

var serial; // variable to hold an instance of the serialport library

function setup() {
 serial = new p5.SerialPort(); // make a new instance of the serialport library
 serial.on('list', printList); // set a callback function for the serialport list event

 serial.list(); // list the serial ports

// get the list of ports:
function printList(portList) {
 // portList is an array of serial port names
 for (var i = 0; i < portList.length; i++) {
 // Display the list the console:
 println(i + " " + portList[i]);

When you run this P5 sketch in a browser, you’ll get a list of the available serial ports in the console. This list will look just like the list of serial ports you see in the Arduino Tools menu. Find the name of your port in the list. Later, you’ll assign that name to a global variable called portName.

 Serial events

JavaScript, the language on which P5.js is based, relies heavily on events and callback functions. An event is generated by the operating system when something significant happens, like a serial port opening, or new data arriving in the port. In your sketch, you write a callback function to respond to that event. The serialport library uses events and callback functions as well. It can listen for the following serialport events:

  • list – the program asks for a list of ports.
  • connected – when the sketch connects to a webSocket-to-serial server
  • open – a serial port is opened
  • close – a serial port is closed
  • data – new data arrives in a serial port
  • error – something goes wrong.

You’re already using a callback for the ‘list’ event in the code above. You set a callback for the ‘list’ event, then you called it with serial.list(). Generally, you should set your callbacks before you use them like this.

To use the rest of the serialport library’s events, you need to set callback functions for them as well. Add a new global variable called portName and initialize it with the name of your serial port. Then change your setup() function to include callbacks for open, close, and error like so:

var serial;          // variable to hold an instance of the serialport library
var portName = '/dev/cu.usbmodem1421';  // fill in your serial port name here

function setup() {
  serial = new p5.SerialPort();       // make a new instance of the serialport library
  serial.on('list', printList);  // set a callback function for the serialport list event
  serial.on('connected', serverConnected); // callback for connecting to the server
  serial.on('open', portOpen);        // callback for the port opening
  serial.on('data', serialEvent);     // callback for when new data arrives
  serial.on('error', serialError);    // callback for errors
  serial.on('close', portClose);      // callback for the port closing

  serial.list();                      // list the serial ports;              // open a serial port

Notice the final line of the setup(). It’s going to generate an ‘open’ event, which will be handled by a function called portOpen().

Now add new functions to respond to the callbacks you just declared. These come after your setup() function:

function serverConnected() {
  println('connected to server.');

function portOpen() {
  println('the serial port opened.')

function serialEvent() {


function serialError(err) {
  println('Something went wrong with the serial port. ' + err);

function portClose() {
  println('The serial port closed.');

Most of these functions just provide notification. The error function is a bit more useful because it tells you what went wrong if something went wrong. If you didn’t change the portName variable to the name of your microcontroller’s serial port, for example, you probably got this error in the command line window where P5.serialserver is running:

Something went wrong with the serial port. Couldn't open port: /dev/cu.usbmodem1421

The function that matters the most, though, is serialEvent(), the one that responds to new data. Each time a new byte arrives in the serial port, this function is called. Now it’s time to make serialEvent() do some work. Add a new global variable at the top of your sketch called inData like so:

var serial;          // variable to hold an instance of the serialport library
var portName = '/dev/cu.usbmodem1421';  // fill in your serial port name here
var inData;                             // for incoming serial data

Then modify the serialEvent() function like so:

function serialEvent() {
  inData = Number(;

Although you’re reading the incoming data, you’re not displaying it anywhere yet. Add a draw() function and print the sensor value to the screen. Start by adding a createCanvas() to the top of your setup() like so:

function setup() {
  createCanvas(400, 300);

Then here’s your draw() function:

function draw() {
  text("sensor value: " + inData, 30, 30);

When you run your sketch now, you should get something like this:


The sensor value onscreen should change as you turn your potentiometer. Congratulations! You’ve got P5.js talking to your microcontroller.

What’s Happening Here

Every time your microcontroller sends a byte serially using Serial.write(), the computer receives it and generates a ‘data’ event. Then your serialEvent() function is called. It reads the byte as a number, and stores it in the global variable inByte. The draw() method just uses the latest value of inByte in the text string it displays on the screen.

You may be wondering why you’re mapping the sensor value or dividing it by 4 in the Arduino sketch above. That’s because in order to send the sensor value as a single byte, it must be between 0 and 255, or no more than 28 bits.

Draw a Graph With the Sensor Values

It would be useful to see a graph of the sensor values over time. You can do that by modifying the draw() method to draw the graph. To do this, add a new global variable at the top of your position called xPos. You’ll use this to keep track of the x position of the latest graph line:

var serial;          // variable to hold an instance of the serialport library
var portName = '/dev/cu.usbmodem1421';  // fill in your serial port name here
var inData;                             // for incoming serial data
var xPos = 0;                           // x position of the graph

Because of the way the graphing function below works, you can’t reset the background every time through the draw() loop. So take the background() command and put it in the setup() function instead of the draw(), as shown below. That way it runs once, then not again. As long as you’re at it, switch from black & white to a nice blue color:

function setup() {
  createCanvas(400, 300);
  background(0x08, 0x16, 0x40);

Now make a new function called graphData(). It’ll take a number value as a parameter, and it will draw a line on the screen that’s mapped to the number value. Then it will increment xPos so that the next line is drawn further along. It will also check if the xPos is at the right edge of the screen, and reset the screen by calling background() again if it is:

function graphData(newData) {
  // map the range of the input to the window height:
  var yPos = map(newData, 0, 255, 0, height);
  // draw the line in a pretty color:
  stroke(0xA8, 0xD9, 0xA7);
  line(xPos, height, xPos, height - yPos);
  // at the edge of the screen, go back to the beginning:
  if (xPos >= width) {
    xPos = 0;
    // clear the screen by resetting the background:
    background(0x08, 0x16, 0x40);
  } else {
    // increment the horizontal position for the next reading:

Finally, take everything out of the draw() function and just call graphData() from there:

function draw() {

When you run the sketch now, you should get a graph, like so:


Try changing the Arduino sketch by adding delay(100); at the end of the loop. Note how it changes what happens in the graph.

Reading Serial Data as a String

This works well if you want to read your sensor values as a single byte, but what if you want a larger range of numbers?  What if you want the full 0 to 1023 that analogRead() can output instead of just 0 to 255?  To do this, you need to send the data as an ASCII-encoded numeric string from the microcontroller, and you need to read and interpret the incoming data in P5 as an ASCII-encoded numeric string as well.

Change your Arduino program to the following:

void setup() {
 Serial.begin(9600); // initialize serial communications

void loop() {
 int potentiometer = analogRead(A0);                  // read the input pin
 int mappedPot = map(potentiometer, 0, 1023, 0, 255); // remap the pot value to fit in 1 byte
 Serial.println(mappedPot);                           // print it out the serial port
 delay(1);                                            // slight delay to stabilize the ADC

Now it will print the potentiometer’s value as an ASCII-encoded numeric string, and it will add a carriage return byte and a newline byte at the end, because that’s what println() does.

Once you’ve uploaded this to your Arduino, run your P5 sketch again. Try adding println(inData); at the end of your serialEvent() function. When your P5 sketch reads the data from this Arduino program, you get very low values, and every so often you see the value 10 followed by the value 13. What’s going on?

When a computer ASCII-encodes a number, it converts that number to a string of bytes, each of which is the ASCII value for a numeral in the number. For example, the number 865 gets converted to three bytes, like so:


If there’s a carriage return byte and a newline byte after this, the string is five bytes, and the last two bytes’ values are 13 (carriage return, or \r in most programming languages) and 10 (newline or \n in most programming languages), respectively.

Your P5.js sketch is reading every byte’s value and graphing it. That’s why you get a graph of very low values, with a bunch of them being 13 and 10. The Arduino is ASCII-encoding the potentiometer values, but the P5 sketch is interpreting the bytes as if they’re not encoded that way.

Now change the serialEvent() function like so:

function serialEvent() {
  // read a byte from the serial port, convert it to a number:
  inData = serial.readLine();

Run it again. What’s changed? Now you’re getting a graph kind of like you were before. The serial.readLine(); command reads the incoming serial data as a string, and when that string happens to be all-numeric, it converts it to a number. So you’re getting the ASCII-encoded string as a number again. But now there are gaps. Why?

Remember, the ‘data’ event occurs every time a new byte comes in the serial port. Now that you’re sending an ASCII-encoded string, every potentiometer reading is several bytes long. So you only get a complete string every three to six bytes (three for “0\r\n” and six for “1023\r\n”). Sometimes, when the serialEvent() function calls serial.readLine(); it gets nothing. That’s when draw() draws the gaps. You need to change your function to check that the resulting string is actually a valid number before you put the string into inData. First, create a local variable to get the string, then check to see if the string’s length is greater than zero. If it is, then put it into inData so that the other functions in the sketch can use the new data. Here’s how you do that:

function serialEvent() {
  // read a string from the serial port:
  var inString = serial.readLine();
  // check to see that there's actually a string there:
  if (inString.length > 0 ) {
  // convert it to a number:
  inData = Number(inString);

Now you’re able to send in a number of any value to P5.js. You don’t have to limit your input to a 0-255 value range. See if you can modify the Arduino sketch and the P5.js sketch to exchange a potentiometer value that spans the whole range from 0 to 1023.

note: readLine() is the same as readStringUntil(‘\r\n’);

The full code for all the examples in this lab can be found in this gitHub repository.


In this lab, you saw how to connect an Arduino microcontroller to a P5.js sketch using a webSocket-to-serial server, P5.serialserver, and the P5.serialport library. You sent data from Arduino to the sketch as a raw binary value — that is, a single byte ranging from 0 to 255 — and you sent it as an ASCII-encoded numeric string with a carriage return and newline at the end. Understanding the difference between ASCII-encoded strings and raw binary data is central to all serial communications. For more examples of this in action, see the Serial Output from P5.js lab.