Friday, June 29, 2007

ZigBee Connects with the Mobile Phone

In working with lead users in the area of wireless sensor networks, the mobile phone comes up quite often as the tool of choice for controlling and monitoring the network. The ZigBee alliance recently came out with a press release on how mobile phones and some PDAs will be outfitted with ZigBee capability making the phone an ideal tool for controlling a wireless sensor network. The press release states

“ZigBee mobile devices include mobile telephones and personal digital assistants with embedded ZigBee technology or using a ZigBee subscriber identity module (SIM) card. These devices act as a mobile terminal and/or as a sensor control device anywhere there is a ZigBee network or ZigBee access point.”

Some key applications involve healthcare. A set of sensors monitoring a person’s physiological condition could be collected by that person’s mobile phone and then sent over the mobile phone network to his doctor. Another application could combine wireless sensor data with a location-based map (read last week’s post) to give a real-time view of a network.

There’s also enough security built in that it can handle payment data.

The upshot is that with a ZigBee to mobile phone connection, the user can combine both short distance (through ZigBee) and long distance (through mobile phones) to create more interesting applications.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Location-based Applications on the Mobile Phone--GetMobio and

Last week I took a vacation to Pennsylvania. My father grew up on the west side of the state and wanted to reconnect with family so I agreed to go with him and the family. The weather is quite comfortable there this time of the year compared to Austin. As we drove from Pittsburgh across the state to Philadelphia I noticed people starting to use map-based applications on their mobile phones. It’s been around for awhile now, but it appears to be picking up in usage.

Two applications seem to be in vogue. The first is Getmobio which makes mashups of location-based maps showing where to buy cheap gas, how to make reservations and find restaurants, and more. They call each mashup a “widget” of which they offer 50 of them free in a download. They launched the company at the January 2007 DEMO conference. This seems like a natural fit for a virtual instrumentation application. What about a location-based map showing where all the wireless sensors are placed and their current readings? There’s no need to run back to the central computer to see what’s happening. Many people no longer take their computer with them. They use their mobile phone to sync up.

Another application is called which also uses mashups of maps with applications such as weather reports, sports news, etc. Their site let’s you choose your phone type, enter your phone number and then it downloads the app straight to your phone. Then on the web you can drag and drop applets onto a picture of your phone which then downloads it over the air to your real phone. The user interface is quite slick and shows a nice interaction between the PC and the phone. The PC handles the setup and configuration while the mobile phone presents the content while you are away from the computer.

Based on these two examples, I could see virtual instrumentation leveraging the technologies to monitor a set of sensors or equipment with a map overlay showing the location of the device and its current reading. With a little more programming, one could add a range to each measurement and have the program initiate a phone call if a measurement goes out of range. The next step from there is to control the device or measurement network from your phone. One could setup a network so when the measurement goes out of range the user could use the mobile phone to turn the device off until a technician can go out and fix the problem.

I’m interested in your comments on what virtual instrumentation applications could be developed based on this technology.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Scratch – Another Education Tool from MIT

Just to give you an update on my efforts with the Crickets which I blogged about several months ago. My local elementary school agreed to teach it as part of their independent study program. I think it’s a great starting point for those who are too young for the Lego Mindstorms. I made arrangements to have enough kits available to teach a small group of students. We’ll kick it off this fall and see what happens.

In the meantime, I’ve come across another education tool from MIT called Scratch which is similar in programming style to Crickets, but doesn’t require any hardware. It’s for those who want to create animations on the screen and then program the motion, sound, and look of the animation. Just like Crickets, it uses a drag and drop interface which lets the user build up a list of steps (each in a block form) which can create an image (say a picture of a cat) and then put the animation into motion, change its costume, or play a sound. Just as Crickets is a nice precursor to Lego Mindstorms, so Scratch is a nice precursor to Crickets.

I tested Scratch on my seven year old daughter to see what she thought of it. Given her interest in playing video games I think she would appreciate the graphical programming approach of Scratch (she’s not ready for LabVIEW yet). I set up a computer on her desk and loaded up Scratch so it was easily accessible. During a pause in her daily activity I showed her how to drag and drop blocks on the scripting window and then how to run the script by double-clicking on the block. We built a small program that made the animated character – in this case a cat, start walking and then played a drum sound. We then rolled this into a loop which Scratch calls a “forever” block, and started it. It seemed like magic to her.

At that point, she took over the mouse and started to build on the script. She noticed an “effects” button on one of the blocks that gave a new look to the animated character. She turned it into a ”ghost” and then a “fisheye”. At this point she was completely in charge of the program and continued to play with it for another half hour on her own (something of a record for a seven year old I believe).

A few days later she showed the program to her friend who lives across the street. It was great to see her engage in the programming experience. At least until she found she could make twelve copies of the cat and have them all “meow” in unison which made for an ear-grating, whiny noise. I can’t wait for the Fall school season to start.

Best regards,
Hall T.