A New Kind of Electronics Kit

Electronics kits have been popular among children and hobbyists as a means of learning about electronics and having fun. Typically, an electronics kit comes with some number of components of a few different types, and a PCB or a breadboard. You would then build the desired circuit(s) by connecting the components together on the breadboard, or by soldering the components to the PCB.

These kinds of traditional electronics kits however have a few shortcomings.

  • Limited variety and number of components. A kit often includes only a small subset of the analog/digital electronic component types. Of each included type (e.g. capacitor), there would be a limited number of them.
  • Components are prone to get damaged. Due to a variety of reasons such as wrong connections, static electricity, accidental contacts and short circuits, components can end up getting damaged. Also,  some component damage circumstances can be safety issues as well since there can be shocks and injuries.
  • Limited visual feedback regarding the behavior of the components and the circuit. This is very important from the point of view of learning. To get insights into the workings of the components and the circuit, it is very helpful to know the voltage and current values at various points, visually see their changes over time etc. For that, instruments such as voltmeters, ammeters, and oscilloscopes would be needed. But, those will normally not be included in the electronics kit. Instruments such as oscilloscopes can also be outside the budget limit of some users; so, buying them separately may not be an option. Without the ability to “peek inside”, one would see that the circuit works, but, the deeper understanding of how it is accomplishing its job can be missing.
  • Limited interactivity. Interacting with the circuit, changing the values, and observing the behavior is a great way to learn electronics. But, in the case of many electronics kits, the extent of interactivity tends to be limited.

Fortunately, there is a better way! We can have another kind of electronics kit that (a) is inexpensive, (b) avoids the shortcomings listed above, and (c) has some additional benefits on top of it.

This new kind of electronics kit has been made possible due to increases in the computational power and graphical capabilities of personal computers over the last decade or so. The idea is to implement the electronics kit in software instead of hardware. That is what ElectricVLab does.

As evidenced in the video games, today’s personal computers can render complex, realistic looking 3D scenes in real time. ElectricVLab employs the technology of video games to implement a virtual electronics kit. With the use of 3D graphics, the components are made to look like real components. You place the components on a virtual breadboard and connect them. The software simulates the behavior of the circuit and provides a visualization of its behavior.

The fact that ElectricVLab is an electronics kit implemented in software has made many benefits possible.

  • Unlimited number of a wide variety of components. ElectricVLab has more than 120 different types of components covering both analog and digital electronics. You can place as many of each type of component as you want. All that it takes to make a new component is just a mouse click!
Decimal counter circuit in ElectricVLab

Screenshot of ElectricVLab. The circuit is built on a virtual breadboard. The specific circuit displayed is a decimal counter using JK flipflops. The counter state drives the 7-segment display via a 7-segment decoder.

  • Visually rich feedback about the operation of the circuit. The wires animate indicating the current flow, bulbs glow, LEDs light up, and so on. Just by moving the mouse over a wire or a point, you can view the voltage or current value.
  • It has instruments like voltmeter, ammeter, oscilloscope, and spectrum analyzer.
  • Extensive interactivity.
  • Ability to view the operation in slow motion. Think of those sporting moments like a goal being shot in soccer, or reaching the finish line in a race. It is helpful to watch those moments in slow motion on TV to find out exactly what happened. Similarly, in the case of electronic circuits, it is educational to view the operation of the circuit in slow motion to understand what is happening. To facilitate this, ElectricVLab has different simulation speed settings you can select from. Practically speaking, the ability to view the operation in slow motion is invariably absent in the case of traditional hardware kits.
  • Just because it is software, it makes it possible to mix some imaginary stuff with the real. As a result, ElectricVLab also has some playful components like fireworks, fountains etc. Sure, some may want to stick to just the realistic electronic components. But, the playful ones are there for times when you feel like having some lighthearted fun and they do convey information about some aspects of circuit behavior in visually interesting ways. For example, take a look at the video below pertaining to the exploration of Ohm’s law in ElectricVLab.
  • Ease of customizing. Most components in ElectricVLab have parameters you can change. Also, there are many visual aspects you can customize. You don’t like that default breadboard color? You can change it. You want the wires to animate faster or slower? You can do it. You want a grand visual arrangement of bulbs of 100 different colors blinking at different times? No problem.
  • Lifelong value. Some hardware kits, like some childhood toys, tend to be of value only for a short duration. The child enjoys it for a while. After that, the child abandons it because of reasons like: (a) The components got damaged, (b) There is only so much that can be done with the components in the kit and the child has already explored them all. Not so with ElectricVLab. A person who is just beginning with electricity can easily spend weeks playing around with just resistors, batteries, bulbs and switches. After that, the person may want to play with basic logic gates since they are simple concepts to grasp. One may then continue the journey through AC power supplies, capacitors, inductors, transformers, diodes, transistors, flipflops, counters, timers and so on… The ordering of the pre-built sample circuits that come with ElectricVLab suggests one way the journey can proceed; but, one can pick whichever path he or she likes. There will continue to be additional things to explore and more complex circuits to build. ElectricVLab is intended to be of value for an electronics enthusiast starting from the budding young age to college and beyond. It is not a kit to be abandoned after a few days of use.