Tag Archives: France

How I explained the IoT to my parents

The industry has certainly gone through a lot of buzzwords, with some chronically overused or even distorted. However, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a buzzword with real impact, something that isn’t about to change. What exactly is the IoT? Members of the industry all know, and most are planning to either create or in some way help the IoT. Explaining the IoT to an engineer is simple enough, but explaining it to my parents was quite tricky.

Caen, France, one cold evening. A brief TV news article talks about a small company developing a new IoT project. Suddenly, I hear the question.

– James, what exactly is IoT?

I’m the residential geek of the family. I’ve blogged, I’ve written a book on embedded systems, and I’ve worked on dozens of embedded projects. I therefore am known as the PC repairer and iPad application installer, as well as the official family translator of “technical” to English or French. I clear my throat. IoT is short for the Internet of Things. Imagine lots of devices connected to the Internet, all of them together.

– What, like PCs?

No, not PCs. That’s classic, we’ve been there, we’ve done that. No, I’m talking about much smaller things. Things like, like… Well, take your thermostat over there! Imagine if it was connected to Internet. A roar of laughter. I wait patiently for them to figure out that I wasn’t laughing.

– Why would anybody want to have their thermostat connected to Internet?

Well, why wouldn’t they? I mean, look, the thermostat is set to 8, that’s pretty high. It is cold outside, and right now, France is experiencing some rather significant temperature variations, or at least for us. It was minus 3 Celsius a few days ago, now it is about 12. If your thermostat was connected to Internet, it would actually know if it was going to be hot or not. If it is a sunny day, there isn’t any point heating up that much. If, on the other hand, meterologists predict a cold spell, the thermostat might be able to adjust the heating, saving you energy.

– Well, that’s great, but why not just have a central heating computer?

Well, you could, and indeed some houses do have that, but why not put that intelligence directly into the thermostat, instead of having a separate computer? Why not let it make the decisions?

– But you can’t put a computer inside a thermostat! It would be huge!

I was expecting this. I had Atmel’s SAM D20 evaluation board with me, which is based on ARM’s Cortex-M0+. I show them the card, telling them that this card has all the power necessary to control a thermostat, and much, much more.

– That’s tiny!

Actually, it isn’t. This is pretty large. It is an evaluation board, designed to offer easy access to input and output pins, meaning that the board itself is larger than what you would find in a finished product. See that tiny little black thing in the middle? That’s Atmel’s SAM D20 microcontroller itself, about the size of a fingernail. This is what gives the board its intelligence. It is more powerful than your first computer and can run for years on a single battery.

– Well, I still don’t see why my thermostat should have access to Internet…

Put it this way. It can adjust the heating depending on the outside temperature, but the MCU is capable of much more. Imagine that you are on holiday, the device detects that you aren’t there, and it only keeps the house minimally heated. When it detects that you are coming back, it starts to heat again.

– How can it detect that we are coming back?

Well, it might look at your calendar, or detect that your car is coming back home.

– Well, how can it detect that the car is coming back home?

Because your car is connected to Internet too. Look, imagine, everything is connected. Everything. Your car. Your coffee machine. Your TV. Your alarm clock. Your morning meeting is delayed by 30 minutes, your alarm clock wakes you up 30 minutes later, the coffee machine knows to make your coffee later on, your car can start automatically to heat up at the right time. Everything becomes intelligent, and everything can talk to anything. I don’t know what will happen, I only know how. Just look at this board, the SAM D20 has it all! And when your thermostat suddenly needs to get some data from another sensor somewhere? It just updates itself! We are no longer limited by the technical side, these devices will be designed to be future-proof. We are only limited by our imagination, and we are getting very, very good at imagining the future.

– That is going to cost me a fortune in electricity!

No it isn’t, quite the opposite. By adding more electronics, you use less electricity, because your devices only consume precisely what they need.

– Wait a minute, is that actually possible?

Not only is it possible, but it has actually been done. We are only at the beginning of a digital revolution… Remember how Internet revolutionized the way you lived and worked? Well, you are about to live that all over again.

I leave them with that, and looking at their expression, I realize the short discussion is more than enough to get them thinking. I’ve barely scratched the surface. They might be thinking about the billions of devices creating data for the world to use, or possibly the sort of data their thermostat would solicit. Who would have thought a thermostat would want to talk to a car? That is only one example, and I can’t list them all, I can’t even think of them all. Who knows what the future will hold? IoT opens up an almost infinite amount of possibilities, and we will no longer create devices that only have one use, and can’t be changed. Rather, we will design devices capable of adapting to new inventions and a new way of living.

The Google-Arduino link (GDG Nantes)

Nantes, France. An engineering school, in the early evening. A few students are talking amongst themselves, but everyone is looking at the screen, waiting. Arduino Presentation. This meeting is organized by the Nantes GDG, the Google Developer Group. While this isn’t a Google product, it does catch people’s interest. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to do things with your Android smartphone!

The presentation starts. The room goes quiet as the speaker presents himself, and gives a very brief overview of the product; an Arduino-based system. Most of the audience has heard of Arduino, but very few have seen an Arduino board, and even few have had the time to try out their own program. The speaker gives a quick presentation on who he is, and why he uses Arduino. Simplicity, ease of use, uncomplicated… All synonyms for the simple fact that Arduinos are designed to be easy to use. The same words are repeated time and time again during the presentation.

Demo time. The Arduino is hooked to a breadboard, and three LEDs are connected through output lines. In just a few lines of code, the LEDs are programmed to slowly brighten to full strength, and then turn off, before repeating. The hardware layout is simple, and the software is just as simple. The second demonstration takes the same basic layout, but adds an ultrasonic transceiver. With just a few code changes, the Arduino is programed to turn on the LEDs depending on the distance from the sensor. Moving his hand 30 centimeters, the first LED lights up. Ten centimeters later, the second LED turns on. Finally, at ten centimeters from the sensor, the last LED turns on.

“And there you go! For any students here with an old car that doesn’t have parking sensors, you have just made one!” Complete silence. You can almost feel thirty people imagining what can be done.

The speaker has just nailed it. The questions begin. Just how easy is it to create a system like this? Very. This example was done in about 10 minutes, using an Arduino and a shield. OK, but does that mean that I have to have an Arduino board, and the shield? That takes up a lot of space. Is there any way of making this smaller? Yes, there is. The processor on the Arduino board is an Atmel ATmega, one of the most well known processors for electronics hobbyist and makers. Putting it onto a breadboard requires… well, nothing. There are no external components, no second chip, no external peripheral. Plug in the power, and you are good to go. An example schematic shows just how easy it is. The myth of complicate electronics has been busted, and the few who weren’t quite convinced are now thinking of projects.

Final demonstration. The speaker adds a Bluetooth shield, and a few lines of code. Just a few minutes later, the Arduino responds to an Android phone; turning LEDs on and off depending on the buttons the end user presses on his smart phone. People in the back row are practically standing up to get a closer look. Now the ideas are flooding in. Yes, you can use the ATmega to control a motor. Yes, with a bit of electronics, you can get the ATmega to turn on and off devices plugged into the mains. An alarm clock that turns on a coffee machine? Yes. The back rows are already talking about ideas; a web-cam that can be oriented by a computer. A home automation system that will turn out the lights when everyone leaves the flat.

There is a myth. Or, more precisely, there was. Small evaluation boards are sold with numerous electronic components soldered onto the board, and this has a tendency to frighten people, especially junior tinkerers. With Arduino, there is little need for any external component to make the processor work, and indeed, a processor can be placed onto a breadboard and hooked up to a power supply in seconds, requiring no extra components. Then the famous question: What happens if my program goes wrong? What happens if I can’t start the processor? Well, the ATmega has another trick up its sleeve. The ATmega chips sold for Arduino systems arrive with a special bootloader, meaning that if ever the processor can’t start a program, it patiently waits for a new one to be flashed. It takes a lot of effort to break one of these.

By using the power and simplicity of an Atmel ATmega MCU, the students behind me continue to think up new and interesting ideas, no longer worried about the electronics required to create a board, or even the possibility of rendering the processor unusable. With the ATmega, their only limitation is their imagination, and from what I can hear, that isn’t a limitation at all. In six months, there will be another presentation. Only this time, the speaker will be listening, and the students will present ideas and projects. That’s an event I don’t want to miss out on!

Written by James A. Langbridge

Video: The art of Radiant Soil

Philip Beesley, a prominent Canada-based architect, has debuted his latest exhibit at the EDF Foundation in Paris, France. Blurring the lines between nature and technology, Radiant Soil comprises tall, plant-like structures manufactured out of glass, polymers and metals – all suspended from the ceiling.

According to The Verge, the interlinked “clouds” include motion-tracking and touch sensors that trigger certain responses based on a viewer’s movements.

“Touching one of its plume-like branches, for instance, elicits a vibration that slowly contracts and expands the frond, as a soft air stream runs through its ‘pores,'” writes Amar Toor of The Verge. “Arrays of LED lights, meanwhile, flash and ripple with the movements of a viewer, and scent glands emit musky, ginger-like odors that, like a flower, lure people in as they draw near.”

An Atmel-powered Arduino board was chosen by to “tie everything together,” as it records and loops various actions. And why not? Beesley says Radiant Soil seeks to challenge Western, inorganic traditions of architecture.

“There’s a sense of moving toward a mortality, in which the presences that we build are unapologetically temporary. It can go through a set of transitions and fade and extinguish and arise again,” he explains. “That kind of participation in something which is almost a counter-form to the eternal, a kind of relishing of mortality, produces a festive, rather poignant role for architecture.”