IoT with Particle: Functions and Variables using the Build IDE

In yesterday’s post, I talked a bit about the setup process and initial configuration of a Particle Photon. To start quickly, we used the Tinker firmware and the Particle iOS app to light up a LED using digitalWrite to light it up with full brightness (full 3.3V) but also with analogWrite to vary the brightness depending on the value you write (between 0-255 using the PWM port D0).

Today, we’ll add a photoresistor and a LED with the LED positioned above the photoresistor. We’ll turn on the LED from the Particle Cloud using a Particle Function and we’ll read out the photoresistor value using a Particle Variable.

For the photoresistor, I only had a Grove Light Sensor lying around. If you don’t know the Grove system, it’s a a collection of sensors with simple four-wire connectors that typically work with an add-on board for these connectors. For the Photon, there is such a solution as well. To get started easily you could go for the starter kit: https://www.seeedstudio.com/Grove-Starter-Kit-for-Photon-p-2179.html. Since I do not have the Grove add-on board for the Photon, I connected the sensor using three male-to-female (two for power and ground and one for the signal) wires and connected the signal pin to port A0 on the Photon. Indeed, the photoresistor will output a value to read using analogRead. The value rises with increasing brightness.

So how do we turn on the LED from the Particle Cloud? That’s where Particle Functions come in. Particle Functions make it extremely easy to control your device from anywhere. In fact, it’s one of the easiest solutions I have found to date. But first, you have to know something about the integrated development environment called Build.

Particle’s web-based IDE: Build

You access the IDE from https://build.particle.io. The screenshot below shows the IDE with a new app ready to be coded:

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If you are used to Arduino, it all looks pretty similar here but beware there are many subtle differences. The cool thing is that you can code your app here and flash the device from the Web using the flash icon in the top left. Let’s write a simple app to flash a led at port D1:

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Okay, cool but not very interesting. Let’s put this LED under cloud control with a function.

Particle Functions

Let’s write a Particle Function that can turn the LED on or off remotely.

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With the simple code above you have registered a Particle Function, led, that you can call remotely (with proper credentials of course). When you call the led function and you pass a parameter (always a string) the function ledToggler is executed on the device. Great, but how do you call the led function? There are several options:

  • use the Particle CLI
  • send an HTTP POST to a Particle API endpoint

The CLI is easy. After installing it (see https://docs.particle.io/guide/tools-and-features/cli/photon/), just execute the following command to see your devices and their functions: particle list (note: use particle login first to login with your Particle account)

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Now call the function using particle call

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Above you see two calls to turn the LED on and off. After each call, you also see the return value of the function.

To use the HTTP POST method, there’s a myriad of tools and frameworks to do so. From the command line, you can use cURL but you could also use Postman. I use cURL on Windows, which is part of Git Bash. You can also try https://curl.haxx.se/download.html. With cURLyou need to supply your device ID + an access token you can get from the IDE:

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Above you see the same two calls to turn the LED on or off. The HTTP POST returns some JSON with the return_value from the function.

Particle Variables

Functions are great to trigger actions on your devices, but how do we read data from a sensor like the photoresistor in our case? That’s surprisingly easy again: just use a Particle Variable. Modify the code as follows:

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Above, the A0 pin (called PR) is setup for reading values. In the loop, we keep reading the brightness from the photoresistor using analogRead followed by a delay of 1 second. A Particle Variable is defined that you can read from the cloud using the CLI or HTTP GET. With the CLI:

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Without the LED above the photo resistor, inside the house, we get 1485 as a brightness value. With the LED turned on right above it, the value is 2303. Great!!! By the way, the LED is not too bright because I used a 1000 Ohm resistor.

Using cURL:

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Wrap Up

You have now seen how easy it is to trigger actions with Particle Functions and read sensor data using Particle Variables. This functionality automatically comes with your Particle device at no extra cost and is completely driven from code. There is no need to use other services to post sensor data which keeps things simple. And I like simple, don’t you?

In a subsequent post, we’ll take a look at publishing event data using Particle Publish! Stay tuned!

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