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Status Update - 2009-08-11 | Print |
Written by Akiba   
Tuesday, 11 August 2009

It's been a while since I wrote a status update on the FreakZ stack. Actually, on the software side of things, there isn't much to report. However it seems that this summer is pretty busy for me.

I've been getting a fairly steady stream of visitors to Tokyo that I've been meeting with. It's actually quite interesting because I've gotten the chance to meet people from Hong Kong, Korea, US, France, Taiwan, and a couple of other locales. It's nice to meet people in the industry and also from different countries because it gives me the chance to see how things are in other parts of the world, especially in terms of wireless sensor networking. One thing that has really surprised me about open source is that discussions and exchanging information is so much easier. Back when I was a company employee, there was always an air of suspicion and distrust when talking to people outside the company. We were conditioned to protect company secrets, no matter how inane or useless they were. By removing that factor and being completely open, I'm surprised at how willing people are to discuss important topics or even teach me about things that I didn't know. 

I recently met with two guys, an RF engineer who designs front end transceivers for ICs and an embedded Linux developer interested in doing WSN applications on Linux. The RF engineer schooled me on a lot of the RF questions I had, especially for impedance matching and return loss measurement for balanced (differential) RF signals.  I was also having a pretty intense discussion about the possibility of using Linux for WSN apps. I think it will be important for gateways and coordinator/controller apps, but Contiki/TinyOS seems to be a better fit for WSNs in my opinion rather than a full featured OS. 

I've also been busy helping the Tokyo Hackerspace set up their webshop. I think a couple people are wondering why I'm spending so much time on Tokyo Hackerspace. The reason is pretty obvious to me. Being an isolated developer trying to tackle a field as wide as wireless sensor networking and Zigbee is pretty difficult. I'm also limited by being pretty narrowly focused on the communications and engineering side of the WSN industry. In plain terms, my domain is narrow so I feel like the scope of my thinking is similarly limited.

Corporations have more diversity and interaction so the range of things they can come up with is usually broader. Of course I've been at some companies where the opposite is true...heh heh. Academic institutions also have the benefit of having many smart people that are domain experts and freely interact with each other. An environment of free thinking and an open exchange of ideas and information are ideal for something like WSNs. When I heard about Tokyo Hackerspace starting up, I immediately recognized it as a chance for me to find a similar environment, where I could perhaps learn from others and expand my thinking. Well, that and the benefits of having a social life. That's basically the reason why I'm putting in a lot of effort to get the group up and running. It's rare to find a place where you can interact with security researchers, web programmers, GUI designers, artists, and chefs so I feel like I need to protect it. 

That leads to me to what I've been busy with recently. In helping Tokyo Hackerspace set up their webshop and seeing them struggle with finances, I also realized that I need to start paying more attention to my own finances. If I plan to be in the WSN industry for the long haul, I'm going to need to get the project self-sustaining. I think the best way to do that is through a webshop since the part-time consulting income isn't enough to fully cover the expenses. Also consulting takes time away from hardware and software development so increasing my consulting time isn't really a good option in terms of the project.

Basically, since I'm already setting up the Tokyo Hackerspace webshop, I decided to set my own up as well which is consuming a fair amount of time. I've realized that there's quite a breadth of knowledge required to set up an internet shop, compared to just setting up a website. There's an infinite amount of things to tweak like the regional address formats (ie: Japanese address format is different than US ones), language (the Tokyo Hackerspace shop needs to support Japanese), invoices, SSL support, etc. I've found that the most difficult are implementing functions to calculate the costs for the different shipping options and understanding the payment and transaction handling. Once I'm finished, I'll probably be teaching a workshop on on setting up an internet shop for others in the Hackerspace.  It's really much easier if someone that's been through the process can provide guidance since there are so many things to set up.

So along with all of that, I'm also testing out some different configurations for the radio module that I'll be using in the first development kit that I'll be releasing. My previous modules just had an SMA connector which is okay, but not exactly practical for many nodes. I developed a new radio board with an SMA connector and a chip antenna, where the user can just move a DC blocking capacitor to switch between the SMA and the antenna. The problem is that the DC blocking capacitor alters the impedance match and hence the return loss, so I have to re-tune the board. My big experience from all of this is that RF is quite a pain in the ass. 

In conclusion, I'll have to say that August is going to be a total loss as far as progress on the software goes. Since it's a slow month in Japan due to the weeklong summer holidays, I'm hoping to use the time to get the webshop beta running, the WSN dev kit hardware finalized and sent out to the fab, and find some interesting things in Akihabara to start populating the shop with. Hopefully, I can resume development in September.

Damn...I never realized that an open source project would be so complicated...
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written by K. Townsend, September 24, 2009
I'm pretty skeptical of the whole embedded linux thing for the most part. Do more than 1 or 2 percent of 'embedded' projects really need it (and all the processing overhead that comes with it along with the added problems of securing your code when you almost certainly have to use external ram and flash, etc.)? When I look at some of the newer ARM7 chips with 96-128KB SRAM and 512KB flash ... you can do some pretty hefty networking, processing, slicing and dicing with that using only a light-weight solution like Contiki, FreeRTOS, etc. (plus uIP, and whatever other stacks you need, of course) ... plus you keep it all in one easier to secure, cheaper, and probably less 'overworked' IC. Less components and smaller PCB means cheaper and less prone to failure as well.

It's a lot of work to port Linux (though many manufacturers have started providing ports to be fair), and I've got a few examples for some of the ARM7 and ARM9 dev boards I have laying around, but honestly ... I've just never imagined a situation where it was less effort (or more logical) to go the Linux route. I'm not making complex medical systems or heavy duty network appliances ... but I'm guessing I'm in the same boat at 98% of other people working with embedded devices. Even for some of the heavier duty Zigbee stuff, I just can't imagine that Contiki with a decent MCU and design couldn't more than adequately (and probably more efficiently) deal with it? But hey ... as they say: opinions are like axxholes, everybodies got one smilies/smiley.gif
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written by Akiba, September 24, 2009
opinions are like axxholes, everybodies got one

You can also say that everybody knows one smilies/smiley.gif
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