Friday, February 29, 2008

The ZZZPhone – An Open Mobile Phone Platform

As I posted in last week’s blog the mobile phone is the ideal platform for data acquisition and monitoring due to its ability to bring a wide range of sensors into one handheld. Through wireless capability, collected data can be streamed to a server for further analysis, storage, and display. This week, the ZZZphone takes us one step closer by opening up the mobile phone to individual applications. The New York Times recently posted an article about the ZZZphone touting the phone’s ability to replicate features of all the major phones on the market but giving the customer the ability to customize the phone.

In the early days of the PC, customers would buy a PC and then bring it to me and ask, what applications can I run with it? As the PC industry grew, it started offering choices to customers letting them choose the memory, hard drive space, display and more. Customers grew wise to the situation and started asking, “if I want to build this application, what features should I buy on my next PC purchase?” The same question now applies to the mobile phone. What features are needed to run my application on the mobile phone?”

The ZZZphone draws from Dell for its inspiration for mass customization. Customization features include:

Pre-installed software
Camera (multiple resolution choices)
TV receiver
Memory upgrade

In a few years imagine ordering a phone for a measurement and automation application. Options to choose from would include type of sensors such as: optical, thermal, accelerometer, etc. Maybe a rugged enclosure for an additional fee for harsh environments or even an extra processor for signal processing applications on the phone could be choices. What about a range of choices of wireless plans based on the volume of data and geographic coverage? As in most emerging technologies, a few of the pieces are available today, but not all of them. It’s an interesting space to watch.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Mobile Phone – The Ultimate Sensor of Choice

When I entered my undergraduate school, we had a punch card system. The next year we moved to Digital’s VAX system. Not a mainframe by any standards, but the punch cards were replaced by terminals, and a new age began. At that time, mainframes were “big iron” some like to say. The machine sat in an air-conditioned room on shock absorbing floors with a round the clock staff to tend to its every need.

Fast forward 23 years to today. I now type on a PC and I can’t help but think that the desktop computers of today are the new “big iron” machines. The envelope of technology is now a hand-held device called the mobile phone. Computational power, battery life, ruggedness, display visibility, handheld form factor all make it an ideal platform for virtual instrumentation applications.

One view of the mobile phone is as a sensor itself. Even standard phones come with sensors such as accelerometers and with a little tweaking could be retrofitted with optical, temperature, wireless, vision, and other sensors. Imagine walking up to the machine and placing the phone on the machine. After reading a few cycles, the phone gives a readout of pass/fail based on order analysis routines reading the vibrations from the machine.

Imagine taking temperature measurements in a park and then coupling the temperature reading with the GPS-position, and a date/time stamp. The result is then sent to a server pushing the results to a web-site so others can read it.

In addition to the wireless capability of sending the data back through Wi-Fi or a cellular system to a central database or server, the mobile phone also reduces the cost of collecting the data. Imagine using the SMS text messaging feature to send data back to a central server. As the cost of data collection drops, so the number of applications increases. There are many data collection applications that are never performed because the cost of collecting the data outstrips the budget or costs more than the benefit of having the data.

Even if the phone you have in your pocket right now is not ideal for a measurement or automation application think of the cost drivers behind it that would let you build a sensor collection device suitable to your application. Millions of phones sold each year drive down the cost of the components. The last time we saw this was the PC in the late 80s and early 90s, when the soaring number of PCs drove down the cost of memory, displays, storage, and more. Here’s an article that’s almost a year old placing the cost of the phone at around $25 for cost-sensitive regions. Compare that to the cost of a full-blow computer for measurement and automation and there’s a compelling proposition.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mobile Phone Innovations -- Cameras

Another area of mobile phone innovation is the camera. The quality and resolution is increasing so fast that digital camera makers are finding it difficult to compete. A general search indicates that the current standard is 5 megapixels and an autofocus capability. The mobile phone has the inherent advantage of being able to send the captured image to another phone or a server for storage. Consequently, the camera feature is often referred to as MMS for multimedia messaging service since the camera feature on a phone can also capture video and audio as well as still images. Nokia announced this month the N96 which can stream video to through its DVB-H digital TV receiver. This effectively turns your mobile phone into a mobile TV.

Piezoelectric motors offer higher resolution and accuracy than electromagnetic motors improving the autofocus capability by 10x on some phone cameras.

By using semiconductor technology vendors are able to shrink the size of the camera and improve the image through signal processing techniques. ST Microelectronics is one company working on this front.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Mobile Phone Innovations – User Interfaces

Mobile phone innovations continue to emerge in several directions. Over the coming weeks, we’ll look at some of these innovations. First up is the user interface. Certainly, the iPhone was a game changer on this front with its multi-touch screen. The key innovation (aside from a decent size screen) is the fact that the screen can take multiple inputs from the user which is called multi-touch.

Other technologies emerging into the mainstream include electronic paper which is based on OLED technology.

Samsung just launched a mobile phone that uses gesture recognition, similar to the Wii. In the Samsung phone, the user can skip from one song to the next by shaking it back and forth. Microsoft is rumored to be working on a gesture recognition feature in its Mobile 7 software. Instead of using accelerometers or gyroscopes, it plans to use the camera to detect motion. The other approach is to use cameras to view the user’s body and detect motion which it translates into commands for the device. GestureTek is a leader in this field.

Another trend coming to mobile phones is the glanceable display which like a wrist watch provides a simple interface for conveying a piece of information. In this example, the software pushes a Google calendar to a display which changes color indicating an upcoming appointment, along with the current date and time. These displays would be useful in setting up a monitoring system using color to indicate the status of the network or unit under control.
By using built-in projectors on the mobile (see last week’s blog post) the mobile phone could project a glanceable display in the same way the military uses “heads-up” displays projected on the cockpit window. Microvision is one company pioneering in this direction.

Predictive texting reduces the number of keystrokes required to input a word on the mobile phone. Instead of pressing each key multiple times to select the correct letter of the word, the user presses the key only once for each letter and the software figures out what word the user is trying to enter. While it appears to be useful in some applications, there’s a great deal of pushback from users who have trouble mastering it. Check out this post for the contrarian view.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Mobile Phone – The Innovation Platform

I continue to see the mobile phone as the “innovation platform.” In other words, entrepreneurs and even larger companies apply their innovation dollars to the mobile phone. Chip makers seek to provide components that require less power to run for mobile phones. Software vendors seek to make widgets, Linux-based, and other software tools work on it. Computer vendors seek to make their computers work more seamlessly with it – Apple for one. Google seeks to make the next generation applications – calendar, maps, readers, and more work seamlessly between the web and the mobile phone.

The mobile phone even impacts the development of literature. In Japan, the latest wave of novels are written by those typing on the mobile phone. They are called cell phone novels. Five of the top 10 books on the bestseller list in Japan started as cell phone novels. Typically, the sentences are short and the vocabulary limited but the human voice comes through despite the limitations. Authors monetize their work by cutting deals to publish the novel in hard copy format. Publishers offer this to novelists who can generate a following with posting their novels in serial form to a blog or website.

Cell phone novels may seem a long way from the world of virtual instrumentation but then again virtual instrumentation always made use of commercially available technologies. One can envision the collection of data on the mobile phone only to be published to a web interface for archival and sharing. The cellphone novel helps mature those tools for the scientist and engineer.

Another innovation coming to the mobile phone is speech recognition. While speech recognition has been around for over 20 years or more, it’s now coming to a point that it works smoothly in the workflow of users. Vlingo is one example in which voice driven commands can overcome the limitations of the keyboard. Combining “context aware” techniques with voice driven commands makes a useful combination.

VoiceSignal is another example of using speech recognition to overcome keyboard limitations with its ability to take spoken commands and perform functions on the phone as well as convert spoken messages into text messages.

Mobile phones will soon come out with mini projectors built into them. Soon, your handheld can project the latest video download or even display a PowerPoint presentation for others around the conference table to review.

Best regards,
Hall T.