Make a sensor interface for your computer for under a buck!
Update 6/9/08: After exploring several avenues I've concluded there is no practical manner of implementing this technique in Microsoft Windows. This is not petty OS bashing, I've really busted a nut trying! Sorry! Windows users needing I2C capabilities are best served by existing USB-based solutions.
Update 5/24/08: Linux support has been added, as well as sample code for the Nintendo Wii Nunchuk controller and the BlinkM "smart LED." See the README.txt file included with the source code for directions on compiling and setup on Linux.
I2C (short for Inter-Integrated Circuit) is a two-wire serial bus typically used in computers for low-level communication between internal components. I2C is also popular in robotics. All manner of sensors and actuators are available in an I2C-compatible form: ultrasonic rangefinders, sensors for acceleration, tilt, temperature and pressure, servo controllers, and bus expanders that provide additional general-purpose (GPIO) lines.
Most modern microcontrollers (Atmel, Microchip PIC, etc.) have support for I2C built right in. But the processing power available on microcontrollers is limited, and software development - with specialized cross-compilers and programming environments - can sometimes be a chore. With laptops and single-board computers becoming ever smaller and more affordable, it's increasingly common to see these systems used directly in robotics and electronics projects. This provides ample power for new capabilities such as vision processing and more sophisticated A.I., and it greatly expands the scope of available development tools and languages...but it also presents a new problem: interfacing these "regular" systems to peripherals is typically done through mainstream consumer-grade ports such as USB; there's no externally-available "I2C port" we can just tap into to make use of our sensors...or is there?
Step 1: Existing Options
One way of connecting I2C devices to an ordinary desktop or laptop computer is through a USB-to-I2C adapter. There are at least a dozen such options out there, ranging from do-it-yourself kits with open source software, to sophisticated commercial units with every bell and whistle.
One downside to the USB-to-I2C approach is cost. A full-featured commercial model can cost $250 or more. Even the "free" homebrew alternatives assume a collection of parts and a prior investment in a microcontroller programmer and the related knowledge to make use of it. Another downside is the relative scarcity of driver support outside the popular Windows fold. Few of these devices work natively on Macintosh or Linux computers.