Tag Archives: Mobile Electronics

Medical tech surging with the Internet of Things

Medical devices are proliferating at a bewildering pace. My pal Frank Fowler sent this YouTube video of how you can use your smartphone to take an EKG or monitor your vitals. Of course, we engineers know that the phone is just a passive display, the real action is in the sensors, signal conditioning and wireless tech used to get the signals to the cloud. It’s an embedded world and consumers are going to be blown away by all the useful products that we engineers will be bringing them. In addition to the pillars of microcontrollers and wireless, Atmel is committed to bringing security chips to market too. For medical applications like this, security is more than a nice feature; it may be a regulatory requirement to insure your data remains private.

The video demonstrates a little misunderstanding that the iPhone is in any way central to this. All it is doing is displaying data. It is the sensors and signal conditioning that are the real revolution. The late Jim Williams designed a scale so accurate it can measure your heartbeat (Fig 11). So a buddy of his quit Apple and did a startup where you put a pad under your mattress and it measures your heart-rate while you sleep. Once the embedded system gets the data, you can send it wirelessly to your TV or your phone or to the cloud cloud cloud. To think the iPhone is central to this is like thinking the box on your wall is the central part of making a TV program.

What is fascinating to me is how things just seem to work out. We will need storage for all this, and how convenient that Hitachi Data Systems, where my buddy Fowler used to work, makes boxes full of spinners that will hold all this information. In fact, when considering the cloud cloud cloud, it occurred to me that the suitable analogy is electricity production. Data is good. Electricity is good. We used to have a little generator in the basement. We used to have a little server in the basement. That was a pain, so we moved all the generators and servers to one central location. All that the cloud cloud cloud is doing is combining all the little generators into one big one, something the electricity people did 100 years ago. Soon the data people will go back to the mainframe, since why do all this dynamic load balancing across 5000 machines when you can do it across 50? And this is the great brilliant progress of our modern age. Indeed the cloud cloud cloud is almost irrelevant to the user. I don’t care if Dreamhost has one machine or a million, as long as they send out the pages quickly. The cloud cloud cloud helps that to a point, but it also lessens reliability and adds overhead. We live in wondrous times.

While stuffing blades into a web server and dynamically balancing them is neat, of far more interest to me is the embedded world. Here there is a delightful design challenge, getting low power to balance with high performance. My programmer pal John Haggis was showing off his Omron blood pressure monitor the other day;


This Omron blood pressure monitor can take your vitals in less than a minute.

The next task will be to connect the monitor to you phone via Bluetooth or Wi-fi. Now your phone can send the data up to the internet where it can be stored, analyzed, and shared with your doctor. You can envision the network effects taking hold, where your blood pressure results will dynamically modify the shopping list at your grocery store. If your blood pressure is low enough, maybe you can have some salty snacks this week. Keep it low and you might get a rebate on your health or life insurance. If your blood pressure shoots up the IoT can correlate it to that restaurant where you had a meal that caused it.


Time-lapse photography trigger on an Arduino Shield

A Shield is a plug-in mezzanine board that fits into Arduinos. I was looking for a remote trigger for my great Panasonic GH3 camera I use for some shots in my Atmel Edge web show. So I was delighted to run across this little time lapse trigger Arduino Shield that visual effects artist Dan Thompson is working on.


This is the circuit board layout for Dan Thompson’s time-lapse Arduino Shield.

That lucky happenstance led me to other Arduino-based time-lapse controllers like this one from “hacker3455”.


This is another Arduino-based time-lapse shutter controller.


And here is a yet another time-lapse Arduino on Hack-a-Day.



And if you want to get that “Bullet time” look like in the Matrix
movies, there is even an Arduino-based time-lapse dolly controller.



There are several controllers, like this one you can to pans and tilts with. Here is a little test video of the prototype:

Of course, the path software is critical and the community does not disappoint, with code like this, developed by Airic Lenz, the fellow that did the above video.

This is the kind of tech that South Dakota farmer Randy Halverson stunned the world with back in 2013. Here is a vid with the man himself:

Here is a video of an Arduino-based dolly in action:

And here is one more time-lapse controller from the wonderful folks at Practical Arduino.

DesignCon 2014, even the badges are cool

So I got to pop into DesignCon 2014, the signal integrity, test, and high-speed schematic and PCB design show here in Silicon Valley. In addition to seeing some great panels and vendor displays, I got to see industry favorites like Dave Bursky, Martin Rowe, and Patrick Mannion. Sure EDN has lots of nice coverage, here, here, here, and here. Most of my analog pals love DesignCon. It’s not just a show with hundreds of exhibitors; it is a conference with keynotes, classes, and panel discussions.

But the thing I love about these UBM shows is that even the badges can teach you something. I noticed the printed part of my badge was paper.


This badge from DesignCon 2014 is printed on paper.

Thing is, when I looked on the backside of the paper there was a thin plastic disk covering up something with a small bump.


In the backside, you can see a small disk in the center. What caught my eye was the small bump at the bottom of the disk.

So what is an analog guy to do but peel back the disk?


Peeling back the plastic cover reveals a spiral antenna and an RFID chip.

The RFID chip spans the end of the loop antenna, while the other side of the circle has the underside connection with 9 vias to complete the loop.


The white cover disk is applied over a clear disk that has a spiral antenna and an RFID chip. The clear disk is printed on both sides so the spiral can form a loop with a back-side connection with 9 vias on each end.


Here you can see that the RFID system is itself printed on a clear disk.


Here is a close-up of the underside trace and the vias on each end. This is all made from conductive ink that is printed on fast and cheap.


A close-up of the chip. It’s made by a competitor to Atmel, so I have covered up the logo or cropped it out from the previous pics. It’s not just a competitor; it is where my boss worked previously.

The RFID chip may not have encryption like Atmel’s RFID chips, not sure if show badges are a secure application. But it still astounds me we can afford to print antennas and chips on paper badges meant to be thrown away after the event.


Here is a side-shot of the RFID chip. It is powered by an RF field you apply to the spiral, and then modulates the energy received to communicate with the transmitter. There is no battery in the badge.

So there you have it. A show so cool even the badges can teach you electronics. The next big UMB Tech show  here in the Valley is EE|Live! which is a super-show that has the Embedded Systems Conference along with some other major attractions. Atmel is a sponsor of the IoT (Internet of Things) track and we are submitting at least one paper. I will be sure to attend as will the hundreds of embedded engineering pals I know in the Valley. And my own Analog Aficionados party is Sunday, February 9th2014. Steve Taranovich is signed up, as is EDN VP/Brand Director Patrick Mannion.

A Tesla hacked into a Vanagon

My buddy Otmar Ebenhoech is hacking a wrecked Tesla chassis underneath a VW Vanagon van. And not just any Vanagon, he is doing it to a stretched Vanagon that has two side doors.


Otmar Ebenhoech stretched this Vanagon years ago. When the engine blew out he decided to hack a wrecked Tesla S into the undercarriage.

I met Otmar when he lived in Silicon Valley. I was converting a 1975 Honda Civic to all-electric, and he was the go-to guy for help and advice. He sold his house during the housing craze, and went up and bought a house and a shop up in Corvalis Oregon. If anyone has the can-do spirit to pull this off, it is Otmar. He is the designer of the Zilla dc motor controller used in the White Zombie electric drag car.

Here is a video from the project blog:

Hopefully Burning Man and all Otmar’s other projects won’t keep him from this great adventure. I saw he paid about $38k for the Tesla so its not something you want to just let sit. When I watched the video  above I wrote Otmar and asked if that hoist was his personal shop. He replied:

“Yes, that’s the Garage Mahal you see in the background. I spoiled myself by moving to Oregon where I can afford a shop, and seemingly to buy a wrecked model S though I’m still in a bit of shock over that!”

Cure RF squegging with a Neutrodyne circuit

Some headlines write themselves, huh? Squegging is when an RF amplifier or MHz-class switching regulator starts cycling on and off. In an audio amp it is called “motorboating” since that is the sound it makes. FET amplifiers are subject to this, like old tube amplifiers. Both have a high-impedance input, the tube grid or the FET gate. A FET gate is capacitive, so any charge that gets put on it will be stored by the gate, moving the bias point of the FET too high, and causing squegging. The Neutrodyne circuit comes from 1920 vacuum tube amplifiers. It is one of the ways you can tame squegging. High Frequency Electronics magazine has a nice article about squegging (pdf). The best way to show it is a figure in the article, who I hope the fine legal team at Summit Technical Media will let me show you.


Squegging is when the input of a FET or vacuum tube floats up momentarily and shuts down oscillations. This make the output cycle on and off, called motorboating (courtesy High Frequency Electronics).

Trust me; you really want to click over to the article since it has the schematics of a FET amplifier that will start to motor boat, as well as several ways to fix it. The whole magazine is pretty good. While you are at it, think of signing up for a print copy of the magazine. You need to be an engineer or tech worker, since the magazine is audited by BPA, so the advertisers know they are reaching tech people and not random idiots.

Remember that these tips apply to high frequency switching converters. And regulators are getting up into RF ranges. I remember seeing an 8-MHz switching regulator from Micrel years ago when I worked at EDN magazine. You might be using one of these fast regulators for some extreme size problems. These high speeds do cause less efficiency, as the gate charge is getting shunted to ground, but the inductor you need with these fast converters is miniscule. That Micrel part still manages 90% max efficiency, but you can use a 0.47µH inductor. That is one tiny inductor.

So I assume the Micrel folks have solved any squegging problems in their part, but it is still a good principle to understand should you run across it. It’s like sub-harmonic oscillations in switchers with a duty cycle greater than 50% (pdf page 10, pdf page 5, pdf page 72. It might befuddle you if you have never heard of it and don’t know the steps you need to take to solve it.

Two Atmel chips in the new Microsoft Surface 2 tablet

Crack Atmel sales engineer Stuart Cording brought to my attention a teardown of the new Microsoft Surface 2 tablet. While it looks very much like the legacy Surface RT, it is a complete redesign. There is another nice teardown over from my pals at iFixit.


The Surface 2 internals are a complete redesign from the Surface RT (courtesy iFixit).

I was delighted to see that the Surface 2 contains two Atmel chips. There is one of our high-performance touch controller chips, the mXT1664S S-series, and our 32-bit AVR chip, the AT32UC3L0256. I have a soft-spot for the AVR 232-bit UC3 chip. It’s got all the cool peripherals and low power from the XMEGA family, but it is a 32 bit chip. I know everybody loves ARM chips and we make a whole bunch of ARM architecture chips, including the SAM D20, but UC3 is a pretty sweet little chip itself, as evidenced by Microsoft’s selection of it in this cost-sensitive consumer application.

The S-series touch chip is a capacitive touch controller chip that provides high performance. It is based on the 32-bit UC3 AVR part, so if you want to write assembly code, you only have to learn once instruction set to use both chips that Microsoft picked.  Look to see our T-series chips start to show up on tablets. It raised the performance bar even higher, with precise 0.2mm stylus accuracy, as well as hover and gloved-hand multi touch. We did a little video demo and I asked the engineer if it could do multi-touch with one glove and one stylus and he proved it could.

So keep an eye out for more Atmel touch hardware in tablets, phones, and car dashboards. We had one engineer tell us that while we did have superior hardware, our touch algorithms were also far superior. So you can image how good you can make your display with good hardware and firmware from Atmel.

Bend your mind with Atmel’s XSense contest

We all know that bendable, flexible touchscreens are the future, and here at Atmel, we consider ourselves to be riding the crest of that curve with XSense, our high-performance, ultra-flexible touch sensor which allows for some crazy shaped, touch-able devices.

Go to any tech website today, and you’ll see the same ol’, same ol’ curved touchscreen phones and tablets. Cool stuff, but we can’t help feeling there’s got to be something more creative out there.

That’s why we’re inviting you to push past previous touch boundaries and create curved, pliable surfaces for anything you could imagine.


Sure, we have some ideas about how WE would use curved, flexible touchscreens. We want to hear what YOU would build with touch unleashed.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to creativity on this one, folks, so go crazy!

The top 10 creative ideas get automatically entered to become finalists and eligible for a grand prize of $1500!

But, better yet, if you reckon you could actually build whatever it is you’ve just thought up, there’s extra prize money on the line.

While you don’t need technical expertise to win our creative contest, if your design is built firmly around our Atmel Design Contest Sensor Specifications, you could win our XSense technical design contest for an additional $1500.

Or, if you’re feeling lazy, you can just browse other people’s designs and vote for your favorite. Easy!

Atmel’s maXTouch powers Galaxy S4 Mini’s touchscreen

Samsung has selected Atmel’s maXTouch mXT336S controller to power the touchscreen of its recently launched Galaxy S4 Mini.

Powered by a 1.7GHz dual-core processor and running Google’s Android 4.2.2 operating system, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini also boasts a 4.3-inch high-definition super AMOLED display.

“The mXT336S controller delivers the ultimate human touch interface with its feature-rich solution by enabling thinner stylus and thicker glove support,” an Atmel spokesperson told Bits & Pieces. “It also facilitates more touch precision and fewer unintended touches, along with lower power consumption for longer battery life, brighter displays and faster response times.”

Additional key Galaxy S4 Mini features include:

  • 4G LTE in addition to 3G and 3G dual-SIM versions
  • 8-megapixel rear camera and recording
  • 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 1.7GHz dual-core processor
  • 1,900 mAh battery

It should be noted that Atmel technology can be found in a number of Samsung mobile devices, including the full-sized Galaxy S4. As previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, the Galaxy S4 is fitted with Atmel’s sensor hub management MCU (microcontroller unit) which collects and processes data from all connected sensors in real-time, optimizing multiple user experiences, such as gaming, navigation and virtual reality. In addition, the sensor hub MCU lowers the overall system power consumption via picoPower technology to prevent drain and enable longer battery life.

Optimizing charge cycles and battery life

Bits & Pieces has been on a roll this week with an automotive theme in honor of the latest additions to Atmel’s touch family: the mXT336S and mXT224S. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at how Atmel optimizes automotive charge cycles and battery life with its MCUs.

As automotive enthusiasts know, Li-ion technology is currently the first choice for modern high-performance batteries. To be sure, Li-ion batteries are up to 30 percent smaller and 50 percent lighter than conventional NiMH batteries – yet manage to store significantly more energy.

However, while the batteries do offer concrete advantages in terms of size, weight, recharge speed and resistance to memory effects, Li-ion has a higher cost compared to other battery types. Of course, this can definitely be improved by using a battery management system like Atmel’s which optimizes battery performance.

“Our Li-ion battery management solution offers high accuracy analog measurement functions in combination with efficient active cell balancing ensuring optimum usage of battery capacity,” an Atmel engineering rep told Bits & Pieces. “Specifically, the megaAVR, ATmega32HVE2 and ATmega64HVE2 microcontrollers (MCUs) can be used to improve the performance and longevity of 12V standard lead-acid batteries.”

As the engineering rep notes, the above-mentioned MCUs are designed for intelligent battery sensor applications – with the devices determining the state of charge and state of health for 12V standard lead-acid batteries by measuring the battery voltage, current and temperature.

“For cars with idle-stop-go function, this feature is mandatory to retain sufficient battery energy for a guaranteed engine start,” the engineering rep added. “Combined with the Atmel ATA6870 Li-ion battery monitor IC, it forms an ideal system solution for replacing 12V standard lead-acid batteries with Li-ion batteries.”

Additional key features of an Atmel-powered battery management system and components include:

  • Active balancing – The industry’s first to feature active cell balancing for high cell count Li-ion batteries to prevent energy loss.
  • Maximum safety – Highest accuracy due to simultaneous cell voltage measurement of the cells in the entire battery stack leading to precise state-of-charge and state-of health calculations.
  • Smart sensing – Allows engineers to measure the battery voltage, current and temperature with up to 18-bit accuracy.
  • Valuable development tools – PC-controlled development kits help devs easily build a battery management system and get the most of the battery management devices.

Interested in learning more? Detailed information about using Atmel’s powered system can be found here.

Atmel expands maXTouch auto lineup

Atmel has rolled out a new maXTouch family to facilitate single-layer shieldless designs in automotive center stacks, navigation systems, radio interfaces and rear seat entertainment platforms.


“The mXT336S is optimized for 7-inch touchscreens, while the mXT224S targets smaller touchscreens and tablets,” said Stephan Thaler, Atmel Marketing Director for Automotive Touch Products. “Both are AEC-Q100-compliant and fully automotive qualified.”

Dedicated firmware and a high signal-to-noise ratio makes these devices ideally suited for very noisy environments. Since only a high signal-to-noise ratio enables detection of touches with a “gloved” finger, the devices provide full support for gloved hand operation on automotive touchscreens.

As Thaler notes, conventional touch controllers are unable to handle LCD noise, so an additional shield layer is typically required to prevent noise coupling.

“However, thanks to the [optimized] noise handling and filtering capabilities of our new automotive- qualified maXTouch devices, shields are no longer required, and designers can use single-layer sensors instead of dual or triple layers, which are typical in many current applications,” he explained.

“By eliminating an additional layer, designers have a thinner stack which reduces the overall system complexity, lowering the overall cost and power consumption, which results in higher yields during production.”

Indeed, the mXT336S/mXT224S devices support touch detection, up to 10 simultaneous touches, touch size reporting, single- and dual-touch gesture calculation, communication of X/Y positions, gesture support and the ability to eliminate unintended touches. Users can also perform multi-touch gestures (pinch, stretch, etc.), while unintended touches are rejected, such as a resting hand on the screen. Simply put, the above-mentioned key features help bring the smartphone experience into contemporary cars.

Samples of the automotive-qualified mXT336S and mXT224S touch controllers are currently available in TQFP64 packages, while demo kits for both devices can also be ordered to support design-in and shorten time-to-market.