Friday, September 29, 2006

Bootstrap Austin – An Entrepreneur Community

I recently met Bijoy Goswami who graduated from Stanford and came to Austin to work at Trilogy. He later left Trilogy and started his own company called Aviri which runs an entrepreneur community called Bootstrap. The group promotes the concept of bootstrapping startup businesses. In discussing with Bijoy we brainstormed the concept of taking NIs top five problems and presenting it to the bootstrap community to see if budding entrepreneurs could solve any of the problems.

I presented the top 5 issues to about 40 entrepreneurs. My primary goal was to find someone who could solve the Voice of the Customer problem. In looking on the market, there were few software tools that provided VOC analysis and those that did cost more than my budget. Some of the tools I found cost well into the six-figures. If you are interested in hearing the presentation, we captured it on MP3 and stored it as a podcast here.

After presenting to the group, I found four takers. Two of them had interesting tools but didn’t quite solve the VOC problem, while two were working more directly on the problem. It’ll be interesting to see what results come from this experiment.

If you know someone who has an easy to use Voice of the Customer tool, please send them my way.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Brian Evans – Improving Communication Systems Throughput

One of NI’s Lead Users is Brian Evans, professor at the University of Texas. He specializes in signal processing algorithms, in particular, embedded signal processing. In the past he worked on in-camera image processing methods to improve the composition of pictures taken by users.

Currently, he focuses on communications systems. He has two projects underway—one is wired and the other wireless. In the wired area he works on improving the data rate to ADSL end users so they get the most out of their line. He models the bit rate based on the standard so he can redesign the equalizer in the receiver and thus optimize the performance of a system through improved filter coefficients. The work includes multi-input multi-output (MIMO) discrete tone multi-tone modulation. Brian and his team created a LabVIEW-based toolkit for simulating a multicarrier wired communication system. The simulator follows the ADSL2 ITU-T G.992.3 standard, and can be downloaded here.

In the wireless area, Brian focuses on improving the data rate from the base station to the end user. By coordinating multiple users of a base station, he can increase the data rate. As the complexity of the system increases, software becomes the enabling technology. The WiMAX standard (802.16 family) and the 3G standard makes use of multiple base stations to maximize usage of the base station frequency.

I asked about trends in market and what he saw as important developments. In the embedded area he talked about the rise of digital signal processors (DSPs) in the 1990s but today only 1/3 of the revenue is in the DSP while the ASIC accounts for the rest. ASIC and FPGA-based designs are expanding away from the stand alone chip. There will be bigger growth in ASIC design technologies including processors, microcontroller boards, PIC boards, custom logic, etc. Brian sited a report from Forward Concepts about the direction of the market here.

I asked about new areas he would like to explore, and he mentioned software defined radio since the consumer side is picking up. You can see more information about his group’s work here.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, September 15, 2006

George Anwar of Integrated Motion uses Vision Tools for Electronic Nose Application

One of our lead users at NI is George Anwar who works at Integrated Motion. They perform consulting work requiring emerging technologies in motion, vision, and data acquisition applications.

One cool application is the Exoskeleton. I read about this a year ago but didn’t think NI tools would play much of a role. I was wrong. George applied data acquisition to the application. For those who are not familiar with the Exoskeleton it is a device that fits around a person’s body and allows the wearer to carry heavy loads with less effort. The “exoskeleton” shell holds most of the weight. For some high resolution photos from the Berkeley effort, please check out this web-site.

There are two versions of the exoskeleton, passive and fully powered. George worked on the fully powered one. He designed a data acquisition and network system to collect data from the sensors on the robot and move it to the computer strapped to the back of the user. If you wired all the sensors, you would end up with a wire harness of 120 cables on the wearer’s waist. So they implemented a high speed network that reduced the cabling to six wires. They used FireWire cable with a PC-104 computer. It was able to transmit at 100 MHz. They were going to design cRIO into it but the developers moved to a passive unit—which didn’t use power. It’s driven by prosthetics based on a passive knee. It changes the metabolic rate of how one walks. Students can carry 150 lb backpacks effortlessly. You get tired, but it’s a different type of fatigue. It uses small muscle motion rather than large muscle motion.

George is also working on a data mining project that’s still in the discovery stage. He is working with University California researcher, Arun Majumdar who is trying to create polymer-specific receptors that sense explosive materials. This work creates a pool of data that must be searched and analyzed. They used a MEMS-based device which has 64 cantilevers on it. The target material makes a deposit on a receptor of the cantilever when it reacts. The stress of the binding causes a trigger which a camera monitors. The combination of multiple signals indicates the chemical composition. You can read more about how they apply this research here. George Anwar uses NI Vision’s Cameralink tools to test it. The cantilever array looks like a series of camera pixels. He built a vision package that runs cases and stores images of the chemical reactions.

“You’re not looking for a specific peak compound, but rather you are looking for a series of peaks that may be more unique,” George said. The original work comes under the heading of Electronic Nose technology. I blogged about it last year. Electronic noses use a sensor array with pattern matching software.

“Analytically we don’t know what to look for,” he said. Vision is the closest NI product technology to solving this area because it works with an array of pixels which can represent an array of sensors. Also, the temperature must be controlled as it can alter the results.

Pattern matching is the key to making it work. George indicates that he can see some of the tools that can help such as NIs vision software. They are still seeking the key compounds. If you want to detect a particular array, and you have an array of 64 elements, you may want to position the array element in a diagonal pattern so if the chemical exists, you can look for that line. Or you can group the arrays such that if a chemical is detected, it turns on the receptors creating a circle of a particular size. These are some of the techniques, but it’s not optimal. Right now, they are getting some “hits” but it’s a painful task of working through the process of correlating the hits to the chemical.

George thought NIs vision tools could be applied to MEMs applications since a camera can be thought of as an array of sensors. This opens up the door for applying Vision tools to a whole new range of applications. These sensors are analog which is ideal for a vision camera to measure and the software to analyze. You can see more about George’s work at his web site.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Patrick Wyse of Primetest Points to Interoperability as the Key to Success

At NI Week 2006 this year, we hosted a Lead User reception. We began a Lead User program two years ago and wanted to thank those who had participated in a lead user project. One of the attendees was Patrick Wyse of Primetest. He has worked at Primetest since the telecom days of the nineties. I remember running into him at the Corning plant in New York. Since then Primetest diversified into other fields including automotive and manufacturing automation. Our discussion highlighted the importance of interoperability between various systems, PXI, RT(Real-time), FPGA(Field Programmable Gate Array), etc.

Patrick sees a trend in customer applications toward those with diverse requirements. The number of tests are increasing and the type of tests are diversifying. No longer do people want a few samples taken or channels measured. They now want to take triggered samples and perform protocol analysis on it with FPGA-based tools which requires PXI working with RT, working with FPGA, and so on.

He went on to comment that it’s wonderful that you can get LabVIEW on an FPGA in the first place, but it’s still early days. I know what he’s talking about. I started at NI almost twenty years ago. In fact, my first day at work was the day the first version of LabVIEW shipped. It was September 28, 1986. I was a new hire walking down the hallway at NI. An ecstatic man came up to me in the hallway and said, “Guess what? LabVIEW shipped today for the first time.” I said, “That’s great. What’s LabVIEW?” That man turned out to be Jeff Kodosky. A few days later, I took my first LabVIEW support call from a customer in Sugarland, Texas, who had bought LabVIEW and was now building a program. The customer said it took him twenty minutes to save a VI (Virtual Instrument). Thinking he must be doing something wrong, I talked with our developers who indicated that twenty minutes was about right. It was early days for the personal computer then and performance had a ways to go. Today, with FPGAs it’s the same story. It’s early days and performance has a ways to go.

Patrick talked about some of the applications he is working on now. He built a
Blueberry sorter with FPGA-based imaging recorders to test the colors at very high speeds (about two feet per second). They built a Microsoft Windows interface to handle the MMI portion of it. He wanted to use a touchscreen product, but encountered mouse driver problems.

Patrick thought the Lead User reception was a great message – take our products and beat it up before NI ships it. It’s not new features, but rather interoperability that counts.

Primetest now focuses on full manufacturing automation where it used to be more simple test and verification applications. Today, processes are much more complex. Even manufacturing and assembly applications can include RF, Sound, Vision, Motion, and more all in the same test. Once again, interoperability comes to the fore. Due to increased complexity of the product, more and more customers want to see every board tested rather than every 100th board tested. You need multi-discipline skills across domains to do it.

In manufacturing automation, Primetest complements or replaces PLCs in numerous applications because PLCs can’t take high-speed data or even record it for later use. Traditionally people added NI tools on to PLC systems, but now they are using NI products for the relatively slow I/O control as well in replacement of entire PLCs. He indicated he would continue to win as long as the units are reliable and don’t break in the field. He went on to say that NI tools once delivered and installed don’t see a breakdown. He said that he uses NI tools because it provides for faster development; however the RT chassis doesn’t boot the same way every time. I believe it loads drivers in a different order. So again, it’s early days in this transition to multi-disciplined manufacturing automation.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Dave Baker of G Systems on Wireless, FPGA, and FireWire

National Instruments Alliance partner, G Systems based in Plano, Texas, is always working on something interesting. I called Dave Baker, G Systems’ Vice President of Engineering, and the other day to get an update on their current projects. One trend evident in the discussion is the increased use of wireless in every day applications.

He described several applications including a WiMAX test system to test WiMAX base station modules. G Systems built a system to perform signal switching and parametric testing. rx The system includes a RIO (Reconfigurable I/O) board to simulate board interfaces. Dave talked about the challenges of combining PXI and Rack and Stack instruments. PXI replaced a lot of Rack and Stack boxes. What remains are some RF-specific devices including Signal Generator, Vector Signal Analyzers, and Power Supplies based on GPIB.

One of the challenges with emerging technologies is the shifting of protocol standards. A modular software architecture designed by G Systems enables quick adaptation to new standards testing.

Another application he described applies wireless capabilities to asset management using a GPS receiver coupled with a satellite phone transmitter to track an item’s location. G Systems’ customer combines the two technologies into one unit. It’s a compact device that can be mounted to an asset and runs with very low-power consumption (ten year battery life). In a typical configuration, the transmitter wakes up once per day and places a call by satellite phone to a network provider (you have to sign up for a service) to indicate the GPS location of the device. This type of tracking device helps locate assets scattered over wide areas – anywhere satellite phone service is available. G Systems uses virtual instrumentation for production tests of the GPS device including GPS simulation and RF parametric tests.

Another trend Dave mentioned is the increased use of FireWire 800 or IEEE-1394B as a high-speed communications bus, especially in the mil/aero market. In one application, G Systems used a Windows-based PC to perform vision processing and broadcast the image data out of 1394B interfaces. 1394B continues to replace the old Mil-Std 1553 as the next-generation bus.

For the future, Dave discussed using more of the power of FPGA technology to solve problems such as ASM protocol processing of FireWire data, image processing of serial digital video such as D-RGB/DVI, and time-critical communications such as RFID test systems.

If you have questions for Dave, you can reach him at G Systems through their web site.

Best regards,
Hall T.