Tag Archives: Pinoccio

25 dev boards to help you get started on your next IoT project

A closer look at some of today’s most popular development boards to help you get started on your next IoT design.

With billions of everyday objects expected to become Internet-enabled over the next couple of years, Makers are continually seeking new ways to add connectivity to their designs. As a result, hobbyists and engineers are turning to a wide range of IoT development boards and platforms to better accelerate and ease the process.

Being at the heart of the IoT and all, we’ve decided to compile a list of just some of today’s most popular, Atmel powered ones that will surely help as you embark on your next prototype or project. (Keep in mind, there are countless others, with new ones popping up on the daily!)

SAM R21 Xplained Pro


The Atmel | SMART SAM R21 Xplained Pro is a hardware platform to evaluate the ATSAMR21G18A microcontroller. Supported by the Atmel Studio integrated development platform, the kit provides easy access to the features of the Atmel ATSAMR21G18A and explains how to integrate the device in a custom design. The Xplained Pro MCU series evaluation kits include an on-board Embedded Debugger, and no external tools are necessary to program or debug the ATSAMR21G18A. A great option for those developing an 802.15.4/ZigBee design.

Arduino Uno


The Arduino Uno R3 is a microcontroller board based on the ATmega328. It has 14 digital input/output pins (of which six can be used as PWM outputs), six analog inputs, a 16 MHz crystal oscillator, a USB connection, a power jack, an ICSP header, and a reset button. Simply connect it to a computer via a USB cable or power it with a AC-to-DC adapter or battery to get started.

Arduino Yún


The Arduino Yún is a microcontroller board based on the ATmega32U4 and the Atheros AR9331. The board comes with built-in Ethernet and Wi-Fi support, along with a USB-A port, microSD card slot, 20 digital input/output pins (of which seven can be used as PWM outputs and 12 as analog inputs), a 16 MHz crystal oscillator, a micro USB connection, an ICSP header, and three reset buttons. What’s more, Facebook’s Parse recently unveiled a new line of SDKs for connected devices with the first Arduino SDK targeted for the Yún.

Arduino Pro Mini


Intended for semi-permanent installation in connected objects, the Arduino Pro Mini is based on the ATmega328. The board boasts 14 digital input/output pins (of which six can be used as PWM outputs), six analog inputs, an on-board resonator, a reset button, and holes for mounting pin headers. A six-pin header can be connected to an FTDI cable or Sparkfun breakout board to provide USB power and communications.

Arduino Nano


The Arduino Nano is a small, breadboard-friendly board based on the ATmega328. The microcontroller has more or less the same functionality of the Arduino Duemilanove, but in a different package. It lacks a DC power jack, and works with a Mini-B USB cable instead of a standard one.



With an Atmel ATmega256RFR2 at its core, Pinoccio is a wireless, web-ready MCU packed with Wi-Fi, LiPo battery and a built-in radio. Each unit can communicate with one another using a mesh network, making them 14 times more efficient than standard Wi-Fi devices.



The TinyCircuits TinyDuino is an Arduino-compatible, ATmega328P based board in an ultra-compact package that provides Makers with the full power of an Uno in a size that’s less than a quarter.



UDOO is a multi-development platform solution for Android, Linux, Arduino and Google ADK 2012. The board, which is built upon an ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and Atmel | SMART SAM3X8E ARM Cortex-M3 CPU, is designed to provide a flexible environment that lets Makers explore the new frontiers of the Internet of Things and switch between Linux and Android in a matter of seconds, simply by replacing the MicroSD card and rebooting the system.

Libelium Waspmote


Waspmote is an open-source, ATmega1281 based wireless sensor platform specially focused on the implementation of low consumption modes to enable the sensor nodes to be completely autonomous and battery powered, offering a variable lifetime between one and five years depending on the duty cycle and the radio used.

The AirBoard


The AirBoard is a thumb-sized, all-in-one MCU designed for ultra-fast prototyping on IoT projects. The open-source board is equipped with an ATmega328P and pre-loaded with the standard Arduino Fio bootloader. The wireless-friendly computer supports automatic over-the-air programming via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or XBee, and can be controlled by smartphone or the web.

Tessel 2


Tessel 2 is an affordable, accessible and robust development platform that lets Makers build connected hardware devices. The board packs built-in Wi-Fi, an Ethernet jack, a pair of USB ports, and a system that runs real Node.js/io.js. Meanwhile, it employs a processor/coprocessor architecture, combining an Atmel | SMART SAM D21 Cortex M0+ MCU to control I/O and a Mediatek MT7260n Wi-Fi router SoC to run user code, host USB devices and handle the network connections.



panStamps are small wireless modules programmable within the Arduino IDE. Each module contains an Atmega328P MCU and an RF interface, providing the necessary connectivity and processing power to create autonomous low-power wireless motes.



Flutter is a $36 wireless Arduino with a half-mile range that lets users develop mesh networking protocols and connected devices in an efficient yet inexpensive manner. It’s perfect for robotics, consumer electronics, wireless sensor networks, and educational platforms. Flutter is packed with a powerful Atmel | SMART SAM3S Cortex-M3 processor, while an ATSHA204 crypto engine keeps it protected from digital intruders.



SODAQ is a LEGO-like rapid prototyping board driven by an ATmega328P that gives Makers and engineers the ability to easily connect a wide variety of sensors and devices to the Internet efficiently. With its solar powered data acquisition technology, data can be collected virtually anywhere and seamlessly transferred to the web.



Billed as the smallest Arduino Leonardo compatible clone, the IMUduino includes an ATmega32U4 at its core, as well as USB keyboard/mouse emulation, on-board Bluetooth LE, real-time orientation and motion sensing IMU, as well as a 10V max voltage regulator.

SparkFun RedBoard


The SparkFun RedBoard combines the simplicity of the Arduino Uno’s Optiboot bootloader, the stability of the FTDI and the R3 shield compatibility of the latest Arduino Uno. The ATmega328 based board can be programmed over a USB Mini-B cable using the Arduino IDE.



The XinoRF is an Arduino-compatible electronics development board with an onboard 2-way Ciseco SRF data radio, which supports over-the-air programming, features built-in wireless capabilities and is powered by an ATmega328P.

The Rascal


The Rascal is a small, AT91SAM9G20 powered computer that Makers can use to monitor and control their connected world remotely. In addition, it features its own web-based editor on-board, is compatible with most Arduino shields, and can be programmed in Python.



Microduino is a quarter-sized Arduino-like board with an ATmega328P at its heart. With a unique UPin-27 pinout, Microduino’s plug-and-play modules can be easily stacked together to add functionalities.



Nanode is an open-source, Arduino-like board that is equipped with built-in Internet connectivity and based on an ATmega328P. The low-cost, upgradeable board is ideal for those looking to bring their IoT ideas to life.

OpenKontrol Gateway


The OpenKontrol Gateway is an ATmega328 driven kit that enables communication between many common mediums and protocols. It is totally compatable with the Arduino IDE and supports Wi-Fi, low-power RF, Ethernet and Bluetooth. Beyond that, it can be configured with on-board SRAM, an SD card, a real-time clock, and a coin-cell battery and sports an FTDI programming port.

Arietta G25


Arietta G25 is an uber-mini system-on-module powered by a SAM9G25 ARM9 processor. The 20mm x 50mm board, which was developed with the Maker community in mind, is ideal for low-power, embedded gadgets and other DIY IoT devices.



WIOT is an open-source, rechargeable development board for the Internet of Things built around the ATmega32U4. WIOT also boasts integrated Wi-Fi capabilities through an on-board ESP8266 module.



SmartEverything is a dev board equipped with sensor options, communication interfaces and connection to the cloud for IoT designs. An Atmel | SMART ARM Cortex-M0+ based CPU USB host orchestrator chip manages traffic between peripherals, while an Atmel CryptoAuthentication device (ATSHA204) enables the implementation of a full security SHA-256 hash algorithm with message authentication code. The board utilizes the SIGFOX global network cellular connectivity solution to enable access to the IoT.



Apio is an open-source IoT platform, which lets Makers and designers create their own smart systems and connected objects in a matter of minutes. It is comprised of two USB devices, the General and Dongle, both of which are based on an ATmega256RFR2 and ATmega16U2, along with a custom operating system and SDK.

LightBlue Bean


The LightBlue Bean is a Bluetooth Low Energy, Arduino-compatible microcontroller. Using Bluetooth 4.0, it is wirelessly programmed, runs on a coin cell battery and is perfect for smartphone-controlled projects. Powered by an ATmega328P, the board features a three-axis accelerometer, a temperature sensor, an RGB LED, and includes iOS, OS X and Windows 8 support.

This DIY monitor measures water usage throughout your house

While we may not be able to fix the drought, one Maker has set out to change how we use water at home.

As many of you are aware, California is currently facing one of the most severe droughts on record. While it may be a bit difficult to enact immediate change at the municipal level, we can drastically alter how we use our water at home. With this in mind, Maker Will Buchanan recently decided that it would be a good idea to focus his energies toward reshaping our consumption habits.


“It’s possible to dramatically change our behavior simply by making us aware, but we simply don’t know where our water goes. A bill at the end of the month doesn’t give you much useful information, and it gives you the information a month too late,” Buchanan writes.

Inspired by an earlier low-cost water flow sensor project, the Maker devised a plumbing-free, home automation system that can track water usage in real-time across in-home fixtures. This was done by employing a piezo buzzer and a Pinoccio mesh networking device.


For those unfamiliar with the IoT startup, a Pinoccio Scout is a pocket-sized board packed with wireless networking, a rechargeable LiPo battery, some sensors, and the ability to expand its capabilities through shields, much like an Arduino. It is equipped with an ATmega256RFR2 and a single-chip AVR 8-bit processor, along with a low power 2.4GHz transceiver for IEEE 802.15.4 communications.

In order to get a comprehensive idea of where the water goes, Buchanan thought it would be a good idea to monitor it at the outlet as well as the inlet. Through visual queues (such as light color, duration and intensity) at each fixture, the system can inform a user as to how much water they are using at any given moment.


Beyond that, he wanted the mechanism to relay the information to the cloud, where the data could be parsed and visualized in a “household usage” dashboard using Plotly’s streaming API. To accomplish this, the Maker created a source stream via Pinoccio and a destination stream with data.sparkfun.com, while Python was used to bridge the selected data. Buchanan then uploaded an Arduino code onto his respective wireless Field Scouts.

While this DIY system may not solve the impending crisis, it is surely a start. Not to mention, the monitor may make for a great Hackaday Prize submission. So if you’re ready to save the world one drop at a time, head over to the project’s detailed page here.

Bringing Bitcoin-based micropayments to the Internet of Things

Cryptotronix recently announced a partnership with TilePay, a decentralized payment system based on the Bitcoin blockchain, to bring cryptocurrency payments to Internet of Things (IoT) devices. The collaboration is hoping to make secure payments for real-time access to IoT sensors using micropayments a reality.


Cryptotronix is building open-source authentication hardware and firmware to allow Pinocc.io devices to securely participate in TilePay. The solution is built around Atmel’s ATECC108 crypto engine which allows each TilePay-enabled sensor to have a unique ECDSA private key. (The same chip can be found on the CryptoCape, a dedicated security daughterboard for the BeagleBone created by SparkFun Electronics and Cryptotronix.) This lets users purchasing sensor data to verify the authenticity and origination of the data.

“Let’s consider an example. A company, organization, or a private citizen spends their own money to setup a temperature sensor network. The administrators can offer the temperature service for free (maybe they’re generous), they can charge a subscription fee to the service, or maybe they provide a free service that is subsidized with ads. With TilePay, there is a better option. TilePay will allow real-time access to the sensor and the users only pay for what they use using Bitcoin-based micropayments,” the team writes.

While the CryptoBackPack is currently only a prototype, Cryptotronix shares that it will be releasing the hardware design files and firmware soon.

Building the modern-day lava lamp with Atmel

Having spent countless hours sitting as his desk, Maker Frank Cohen had always found lava lamps to provide a calming effect that would help him wind down after a long day’s work. This was the inspiration behind his decision to devise a modern-day version of the once-popular decorative novelty item, which recently made its Kickstarter debut.


Dubbed Waves, Cohen has created a smart Bluetooth speaker that features rows of programmable LED lights, each of which illuminate customizable diffusion filters. Whether one wants to keep it on their desk as a conversation piece or furnish the shelves on their walls, the possibilities are endless.

In fact, it can play your favorite tunes while the LEDs flash in personalized patterns, serving as a standalone light show. Tired of receiving social notifications on your phone? When paired with a smart device, Waves can alert you in a much more soothing, less intrusive manner.


Embedded inside Waves lies a completely open and programmable environment, thanks in part to the onboard Atmel microcontroller (MCU).

Waves comes with at least 30 minutes of pre-programmed light patterns out of the box, and can interact with other nearby units to create more complex light and audio shows. Pre-cut diffusion filters can also be affixed to the unit, but for the do-it-yourselfers out there, simply cut blank filters into any shape for a much more unique show.

“The provisional patent pending technology that powers Waves is extraordinary. It enables deployment of home automation, entertainment on a Jumbotron level, and Waves tech is the missing ingredient for the Internet of Things. Waves will only grow more beautiful and more beneficial as it ages, just like the iPod grew up to be the iPhone,” Cohen writes.

According to its team, it has already developed an online community to develop and share shows, computer networks to transport content, and radio networks to coordinate animation between multiple units. Supported by the Pinoccio global movementWaves is a cloud-based connected open platform with a distributed operating system, storage and transformation, as well as audio and visual display technology.


“If you have a student, child, or colleague you want to introduce to the world of technology, Waves is an excellent decision. It is the coolest new Internet of Things tech.”

Those interested in helping the lava lamp ‘wave’ hello to the 21st century can head on over to its official crowdfunding page here. Pending all goes well, shipping could begin as early as December.

An interview with Sapphire Open Systems – a full IoT stack, open source, low power wireless platform from the hardware pin up to the web and beyond

By Tom Vu of Atmel & Jeremy Billheimer of Sapphire Open Systems

The tech industry is currently undergoing a paradigm shift, with startups launching from a series of digital islands such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Springboard, Startup Bootcamp, and Make – as well as on numerous hackerspaces and global socially networked enabled hubs.

Indeed, startups like Sapphire Open Systems and many others are expected to be a contributing force in shaping the next tech era known as the Internet of Things and Internet of Everything. Imagine a world in which devices spanning multiple industries  and common applications are all interconnected – all working together to improve inefficiencies and augment user experience. Clearly, start-ups bring new ideas in connecting all things (IoT).  This technology will allow them to bloom because the barrier to entry is very low.

To be sure, startups orbiting the IoT world are part of something bigger than themselves, bringing passion and devotion to making things happen together. What underlying energy is at the root of these Startup founders? Routinely pull long hours, knowing and wanting to be part of the team that was there when “it” happened.  It’s building towards solving the problems and innovate to thrive; their work is a reflection of who they are and what they do together.  Achieve and make things progressive, simpler, easier, agile, and most importantly make them innovative.  This is the bedrock of the startup DNA – creating disruptive products that later successfully transition into the marketplace.

The Internet of Things is a market capable of potentially shaping and fueling the demand for a diverse blend of new products. These IoT products  have the power to link multiple items – data and the cloud – creating a slew of connected products. Meanwhile, the network effect unfolds as the socialization of devices yields innovation. Ultimately, this transforms into new value chains, business and service models. As you may recall, the mobile ecosystem offered a wide range of specialized choices with a multitude of apps for smartphones and tablets, significantly changing how people used their mobile devices. We now find, shop, consume, entertain, and buy things on mobile devices as a direct result of apps and their easy accessibility.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has a similar future by linking all things, expanding unforeseen possibilities in business and transforming traditional models – even to the point of creating Internet of Things service models. Illustrating this likely future of IoT are the devices embedded with a variety of sensors, including temperature, proximity, light, chemical and motion – as well as magnetometers accelerometers and gyroscopes. Meanwhile, Twitter can be linked directly to smoke alarms, receipts, printers, engines,  and even industrial devices.

Everyday devices are already converging and integrating with web applications, scripts, databases and cloud apps as the automation of Things is merged with Big Data. For example, think about a bridge or freeway app that actively tweets traffic conditions in real time, or a device capable of reporting your driving etiquette which automatically grant insurance premium discounts. Another example of IoT? A wearable device for elderly diabetics designed to detect and transmit medical details or events to doctors and EMTs.

Ultimately, the Internet of Things is about you or the customer in mind.

“Your things, your data. You should be in control. Of course, this is only possible with a completely open platform – hardware, software, protocols. Big ideas need powerful technology,”  says Jeremy Billheimer, founder of Sapphire Open Systems, an emerging startup.

“Hardware is a good start, but it isn’t enough. Connecting all things requires a complete system designed from the ground up to seamlessly inter-operate.”

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Gartner research director Jim Tully notes that by 2018, “50% of IoT solutions will be provided by startups which are less than 3 years old. We can estimate what IoT will be like now. But we know that most of the things that will exist in 2018 we can’t even conceive of because they haven’t been invented yet.”

However, the following interview with Jeremy Billheimer of Sapphire Open Systems can help provide a glimpse into the future of IoT.

Sapphire Open System Team
Jeremy Billheimer @jbillhei | Brian Anschutz @banschu | Chris Pond @ponddesign

Jeremy Billheimer

Brian Anschutz

 Chris Pond

Tom Vu: What is Sapphire Open System’s mission?

Jeremy Billheimer: Sapphire’s mission is to enable hobbyists, makers, and professionals to connect anything to everything and promote open source and inter-operability as a better way to make electronics.

Vu:  What is the significance of your project and why is the open source initiative so important in your roadmap?

Billheimer: We’re trying to be a bit disruptive. We think the Internet of Things is moving too slowly, and there is a current trend towards walled ecosystems. That’s missing the bigger picture, as the focus should be on getting everything connected and figuring out how to design large scale, intelligent, semi-autonomous systems with disparate devices. What happens when you have over 100 connected devices in a single home? What about thousands in a commercial installation? How does the user interact with and configure such a system? These are the kinds of questions we’re trying to answer. 

Open source is key to this. The only way to truly “Connect All the Things” is to have a completely open platform. The Internet is a perfect example. Completely open protocols and standards combined with open source software ensured its dominance as a universal communications network. Why should we expect the Internet of Things to be any different?

Vu: How does Sapphire Open Systems fit into the picture of both Makers and enterprise?

Billheimer: These are two very distinct groups of people and companies, but they can both learn from each other. Makers want tools that are easy, accessible and low cost. Enterprise wants these things too, but they also need to be able to easily manage large systems with more “mission critical” applications. We’re taking inspiration from both groups and are creating a complete system that has a broad appeal.

Vu: There are lots of wireless solutions and many cloud solutions to connect devices such as Xively (formerly Cosm), IFTTT, Thingworx, Digi, etc. What makes your hardware and solution different?

Billheimer: It’s definitely becoming a crowded space and that’s certainly positive motivation for trying something different. We’re taking a “cloud optional” approach. Sapphire operates as a system on the site level, so your wireless network communicates with a locally running server that you own. Any interactions between devices are scripted on the server, and those scripts can enable access to outside cloud services if needed or desired. Frankly, I think this is really important, because there are so many scenarios where this technology can be applied where you don’t have Internet access, or where you don’t want to be dependent on a cloud service you don’t control. We’ve run demonstration networks in outdoor, off the grid environments, and that just wouldn’t be possible if we needed to access the cloud.

In keeping with our systems approach, we wanted to have our own hardware platform so we could ensure the availability of open source hardware for our embedded operating system. While standardizing on a single hardware target can be a bit controversial, it does greatly simplify the scope of the operating system design and enables us to explore advanced features that may not be universally available. The ATMega128RFA1 has been ideal for our goals, balancing cost and capability while allowing us to push the limits of the technology. 

Vu: Explain Mesh? What is the power in this network protocol and ubiquity?

Billheimer: Mesh networking really expands the capabilities of a wireless network, particularly in environments where there is little infrastructure. Since the network can route data through multiple hops to reach its destination, you can easily expand the reach of your network by adding more low power radios. You get multiple benefits: low power operation, some level of redundancy in routing pathways, and a reduced regulatory burden. I think that last point is particularly important. The law limits maximum transmission power, but with a mesh network you can extend your coverage just by adding more radios.

Sapphire is designed from the board up for creating dynamic, scalable mesh networks

Vu: What are some of the technology challenges you face in following your roadmap?

Billheimer: Complex embedded systems are always a challenge, simply because we’re building a technology that enables low power consumption, network scalability, low cost, ease of use and high reliability. This is difficult in general, but running on a system with 16 kilobytes of RAM and where every clock cycle counts adds to the challenge. You can’t solve performance problems by just throwing more hardware at them. In some embedded markets, a few pennies per unit adds up to millions of dollars per year.

Wireless communications itself is a very difficult task. It’s an unpredictable medium, on a crowded part of the radio spectrum, with very low power transmitters. Each node has to dynamically adapt to changing conditions and no single node has a complete view of the entire network, so the system must operate as a whole with each node making independent decisions. It actually is starting to look more like a biological system than a computer network.

Beyond that, interoperability is still a challenge. The world is filled with multiple systems that use different protocols and communications interfaces. Standardization can help, but there will always be multiple methods of doing the same thing. We want to be able to integrate the wireless technology with as many other items as possible. That’s why we didn’t stop with hardware and wireless networking technology, as we also have a software framework and APIs to help interface with anything you can dream of.

Vu:  Do you still believe in Moore’s Law or connectivity combined with ultra Low Power?


I definitely believe in Moore’s Law, though I would apply it differently in the embedded space. The drive is to push costs down, rather than performance up. A light switch only needs so much bandwidth, but it could always be cheaper. Reduced power consumption is always welcome, but with careful design we can already achieve some impressively low power requirements. I think the real challenge is achieving ubiquity – every device containing some form of wireless connectivity.

Vu: If embedded had a roadmap, what would it look like?

Billheimer: Well, this is a tough one. I don’t think I can speak for the whole industry, but what I’d like to see is a trend towards more connected devices with open APIs so they can be easily interfaced to anything. Ideally, every device would have some kind of connection to an Internet protocol-based network with a documented, open, application protocol. There may be some opportunities for standardization here, but at the very least there should be some way of making “thing A” talk to “thing B” without having to reverse engineer either of them. We have a long way to go here, most traditional embedded devices don’t have any kind of accessible communications interface. Have you ever seen a dishwasher with even an RS-232 port? I sure haven’t.

Vu: Describe the SapphireOS.

Billheimer: SapphireOS is a complete embedded operating system designed specifically for Atmel’s ATMega128RFA1 and the Sapphire platform. It does everything you’d expect from an OS: multitasking, file system management, system configuration, timing, power management, networking. It is designed to fit comfortably on the RFA1 with plenty of room to spare for application code. We have a lot of high level APIs the make the embedded programming as easy as possible, in fact, most of the time you get the benefits of wireless networking without actually having to be aware that the device is networked at all. A lot of traditionally difficult tasks like reducing power usage and time synchronization are automated. Designing an embedded system is hard enough as it is, Sapphire is about enabling embedded designers to have access to a powerful network without having to become experts on wireless technologies.

Vu:  What is the Key Value System used for?

Billheimer: The Key Value System is our high level API that is applied across the entire platform. The basic idea? You can declare named values in an embedded application running SapphireOS, and that data is automatically available to any machine on your local network. Every piece of data becomes accessible via a REST API and to Python scripts. All of the network communications are performed automatically, so changing a parameter on a key-value object automatically routes the update to whatever device the object originates from. The system is general purpose, so while it is designed to work seamlessly with SapphireOS and our hardware, you can use it connect just about anything. The only requirement is some machine on your local network capable of running Redis (an excellent open source data structure server) and some Python scripts. 

Here’s a infographic of what this setup looks like:

SapphireOS Network Connectivity Tools

 Can you describe the Network Connectivity Tools and your team’s philosophy and approach to these tools?

Billheimer: This is our box of tools that go along with the platform to help configure and administer the network. A lot of this is support software for the Key Value System, but there are some other useful components. There is a command line interface tool for administering devices running SapphireOS. One of its main features is the ability to select multiple devices and run a command or change configuration on the entire selection at once. It’s helpful when you load firmware to five devices, it’s necessary when you do it to 100. Most tools in Sapphire are designed to work together, for instance, the command line interface knows where your built firmware is located because it links to the build system.

The toolchain is an example of how we approach the Internet of Things as a system, rather than individual pieces. Information gathered by one tool should be available to any other tool. Tools should be designed with the assumption that the user has a large network to manage, and lot of different projects and applications running on that network. They should be open source so they can be easily improved and customized. On a final note, if anyone has a more creative name for our toolbox, we’re all ears 🙂

Vu: How does IoT balance security with pervasiveness?

Billheimer: This is a very tricky balance to achieve, and is made particularly difficult given the resource constraints of most embedded devices. Many traditional algorithms such as SSL are not practical on an embedded device, so there needs to be a different approach to security. The amount of security can also vary based on what is being protected. A residence requires a different level of security than a bank vault or a missile silo, and also has a very different budget.

There definitely needs to be some level of security on the wireless network itself. It should be difficult to park a car across the street and cause havoc with someone’s network, particularly given the nature of devices that will be controlled. It had better be hard to hack into a wireless door lock. However, the wireless network itself is at least limited in coverage area, and it is relatively easy to achieve good authentication and encryption since most modern RF hardware includes some level of AES acceleration.

On the other side of things, you have devices connected to the Internet, which makes mounting an attack from anywhere in the world possible. This is one of the areas where having a complete systems approach helps. Connecting a light switch directly over SSL requires a hefty amount of processing power, but if we run the data over a secure wireless connection to a local server instead, we can use the local server to handle the SSL connection. One commodity PC could enable secure connections for hundreds of extremely low cost devices, and the whole network can sit behind a firewall.

Vu:  Walks us through some of your project demonstrations? Why do they matter as exemplary creative product innovation for others?

Billheimer: We try to think of applications based on one major idea: assuming every single component can be networked wirelessly, how do you design your system? Some ideas may seem arbitrary, but when you think about it deeply enough, you can start to see the raw power of the Internet of Things as a concept. The smoke detector demo is one of our favorites. The alarm functionality remains unchanged, but with an embedded wireless transceiver you can monitor and receive notifications for battery and alarm status. Why stop there? Now you can activate room lighting, call the fire department, and possibly even indicate escape routes. Many commercial buildings have high end systems that can do a lot of this, but a typical residence doesn’t. 

Tweet printer is more of a novelty, but illustrates how you can change the presentation of data if everything is networked. Maybe you don’t need to automatically print out tweets, but what else can you do with similar technology? How about configuring a lighting system to indicate the temperature forecast for the weekend? Or for something more practical, your connected sprinkler system can automatically disable watering if there is rain forecasted, or if there are water restrictions in effect. 

One of my thought experiments is for traditional HVAC controls. Instead of controlling the system from a central point, let’s assume every component is separate. The user interface is a web app that you can access from a phone or tablet. There are temperature sensors in every room. The actual machinery is also connected, but the control algorithm is a separate software component running on a server somewhere else on the network. You could upgrade the control software without changing any of the hardware. You could add another sensor, and the algorithm could automatically adapt to the additional information. Yes, we have more demos in the works (including HVAC and sprinklers!), so stay tuned for more!

Vu: Does Sapphire OS work with Pinoccio?

Billheimer: The operating system could probably be modified to work with Pinoccio, though in its present state it cannot. Currently we only have support for Atmel’s ATmega128RFA1, whereas Pinoccio is using the newer RFR2 parts. We also depend on an external flash memory chip to assist with wireless firmware loading. However, we’d love to start adding support for additional hardware, and the RFR2 is definitely on the roadmap. Then again, it should definitely be possible to interoperate on a systems level. They are planning on using MQTT for outside connectivity, and it will be easy to bridge that into our Key-Value System.

Vu: How do you feel about MQTT, is this enough for IoT?

Billheimer: MQTT is an interesting project. Publish-subscribe based messaging is very appropriate for IoT applications. However, the real challenge is getting things to interact with each other, and protocols by themselves don’t enable that. You need software to define what the interactions are going to be, and that software can be independent of the actual communications protocols.

Sapphire actually boasts its own protocol for moving key-value data around the network, but since the server level software is flexible, it wouldn’t be difficult to interface with another system running MQTT. The Internet is about connecting different kinds of networks, so I don’t see having a proliferation of different protocols as that much of a problem as long as there is a way to connect them together with software. Just use whatever transport protocol that works best for your system, and have some kind of open API at the application level so other things can interface with it.

Vu:  Is Sapphire Arduino compatible?

Billheimer: In a word, no. We realize this does present some difficulties in the Maker space, but the technical reality is that the Arduino API is not designed to run in context of an operating system. Plus, the IDE is not designed with wireless devices in mind. It’s a great way to get started with microcontrollers, but at the same time it is kind of limiting. Sapphire is easy enough to use for an experienced Arduino user, but it provides some really advanced functionality that was designed by and for professional engineers.

That’s not to say it is impossible, but rather that it’s not on our roadmap at the present time. Since Sapphire is open source, we’d certainly welcome outside efforts to enable some kind of Arduino compatibility. We are also working on some demos that link Arduinos to our Key-Value System, and through that you’d be able to interact with anything else attached to the system, including wireless devices running SapphireOS.

Vu:  What are some of the software issues you see in making this open source and widely available, upholding transparency?

Billheimer: Open source is the most logical way to create a project like this. It’s leading by example – we’re creating open systems and we’d like for others to join in and help. Most embedded software is still done in a completely closed fashion, which is unfortunate, since we’ve seen how entire industries can thrive when they are able to collaborate on open source technology. An improvement by a single user is magnified considerably when applied across an entire community, and everyone is able to benefit.

Electronics User Experience with Sally Carson, co-founder of Pinoccio

By Eric Weddington, Marketing Manager, Open Source & Community

Sally Carson, co-founder of Pinoccio

Sally Carson, co-founder of Pinoccio

Sally Carson, co-founder of Pinoccio

In February I did an interview with Eric Jennings, co-founder of Pinoccio. Pinoccio is a new Open Source Hardware business, building “a complete ecosystem for the Internet of Things”. The Pinoccio is a pocket-sized microcontroller board, with wireless networking, rechargeable LiPo battery, sensors, and the ability to expand its capabilities through shields, much like an Arduino board. It features the new Atmel ATmega256RFR2, a single-chip AVR 8-bit processor with low power 2.4GHz transceiver for IEEE 802.15.4 communications.

Pinoccio featuring new Atmel ATmega256RFR2

Pinoccio featuring new Atmel ATmega256RFR2

Eric Jennings, along with his partner Sally Carson, co-founded Pinoccio. In my interview with Eric Jennings he said:

Eric Jennings: Sally Carson, Pinoccio’s other co-founder, is an expert in the intersection between humans and technology.  What I mean by that is that she thinks very deeply and carefully about the psychology of humans interacting with computers.  Human-computer interaction, user experience, and usability all fall under her umbrella.  I consider her contribution a secret weapon in what we’re trying to achieve with Pinoccio.

A Secret Weapon?!… I had to find out more what Eric meant, and just what exactly is Pinoccio’s Secret Weapon. I contacted Sally Carson and asked her about the intersection of User Experience (UX) with electronics and the design of the Pinoccio. Along the way, I learned some good lessons on why Design is important, even to just a set of electronics.

Eric Weddington (EW): What intrigued you about the Pinoccio to co-found a hardware startup company?

Sally Carson (SC): Well, I was always a creative kid, always drawing or making something. And, I always loved fiddling around with gadgets and electronics. In high school, I became an audio/video nerd. I got into skateboarding and playing in bands with friends. But, a huge part of both of these hobbies was the A/V part. So, for example, I filmed tons of footage of my friends and I skating. I would make these skate videos, editing the footage down using two VCRs. I’d use a 4-track to mix in audio, or I’d splice in the audio from an old Nintendo, like from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Every time we ollied or did a trick, there would be the “bloop” sound of a turtle jumping. So, I wasn’t like, busting out the soldering iron, but I was trying to find all of the different ways I could combine the electronics that I had access to.

Later on, I became a Web Designer and suddenly all of my creative output was virtual and done on a computer. I missed the physicality of using my hands to make things. Tim O’Reilly was a big influence on me, and I tried to keep up with whatever O’Reilly Media was putting out. I cut my teeth on the Web Design In a Nutshell book. I listened to podcasts of ETech and the Web 2.0 Conference.

Around 2004, I started to specialize in Interaction Design, and I was really interested in the Interaction Design Institute of Ivrea — where Massimo Banzi was teaching, and where Arduino was being developed. They were teaching Interaction Designers to prototype and test their product ideas by quickly building a physical prototype. This was fascinating to me — you could still be a Tech nerd but also build things with your hands. That blending of physical and virtual was super compelling; I always thought I had to choose one or the other.

Then, I got the first issue of Make when it came out, and I was totally enchanted. Make had found this incredible group of people who were tech geeks like me, but who knew how to build real things with their hands. I filled sketchbooks with ideas for DIY projects that I personally wanted to build. But, I still felt this barrier to entry and I hadn’t yet found a community of Makers who could help me. Every project I wanted to build needed to be wireless and Web-enabled, but that seemed totally out of reach for someone like me who wasn’t deeply technical.

I think there are a lot of people out there like me, who are somewhat geeky, but not super “deep geeks.” They want to build wireless, web-enabled projects but they don’t know how and they’re not sure it’s even possible. With Pinoccio, we’re providing all of that scaffolding for you. Your board is talking to the Web wirelessly within minutes of taking it out of the box. It already has a rechargeable battery that can last for weeks or months. From there, it’s up to you to start imagining possibilities for this platform. We want you to focus on the specifics of your project, instead of losing momentum trying to figure out all that other stuff.

So, with Pinoccio, I got really excited about enabling other people to build cool projects like the ones I had been dreaming about for years. There’s something really magical about creating a tool that enables other creative, talented folks — there’s this amazing multiplier effect.

EW: The Pinoccio could be looked at just the electronic guts of a larger system, as just a set of functions to be implemented. You and Eric Jennings see a need to approach the problem differently with Pinoccio. What led you to do this differently?

SC: The two most basic questions that I ask when I’m designing a product are: “Is it useful?” and “Is it desirable?” I want the answer to both questions to be yes.

If we had approached Pinoccio as “just a set of functions to be implemented,” we would have been building something useful, but not desirable. And that’s when you run the risk of commoditization. Your customers won’t have any particular loyalty to you, they’ll simply comparison shop between functionally similar products and choose whatever’s cheapest. Even if you’re first to market, this makes you vulnerable to cheaper knock-offs in the future.

So we want to be both useful *and* desirable. What does that look like? Let’s take Sugru as an example. Sugru is this magic, self-curing rubber that you can use to fix or modify practically anything — tools, electronics, everyday objects around the house. I had a sample packet laying around for a few months. I understood what it was, I understood the usefulness of it, but it wasn’t yet desirable in my mind.

Once Fall rolled around, I was commuting by bike at night, and I was frustrated with my new headlight. It had this recessed on/off button that was nearly impossible to press with thick gloves on. I used Sugru to fatten up the button and make it taller. The next day, once the Sugru had cured, I tried turning my light on and off with gloves and it was way, way better. I FELT SO SMART AND AWESOME! That was the moment that I fell in love with Sugru, because of how it made me feel about myself. I felt clever, capable, and industrious.

Now Sugru is both useful and desirable to me. I want to use it again, because I want to feel smart and awesome again. I want to show off what I “made” to my friends. It’s less about the Sugru, it’s more about how it made me feel. That “a-ha!” moment is what we’re shooting for with Pinoccio. We want to build a useful tool that makes people feel smart and awesome. We want to reduce those frustrating barriers to entry so you maintain your motivation to see a project through to completion. Then we want you to share what you built, show it off online, and collaborate with others who are working on similar projects.

EW: How is the process of designing the User Experience for the Pinoccio different than for other products?

SC: When I’m designing for the Web, I try to put together a functional prototype as quickly as possible, even if it’s just a clickable simulation comprised of sketches. Then I test it with real users. But, this is harder to do with hardware, it takes a lot longer to get to the functional prototype phase.

So, we used conferences like the Open Source Hardware Summit as an opportunity to interview potential customers and ask them about what they have actually done in the past. Have they tried to build a web-enabled project? How were they powering their projects? What tools did they use? What was frustrating? What worked well? This is a lot different than asking them if they think they would use Pinoccio, or asking them what features they’d like to see. We tried to identify existing pain points, based on the actual previous experiences of our target audience, then shape features around those insights.

EW: What part of the design process of the Pinoccio surprised you?

SC: I wouldn’t say I was surprised by this exactly, but I am constantly amazed by how awesome our community is. They’re brilliant, creative, and determined. They’re also incredibly generous and it’s super fun to see them sharing ideas and helping each other. I guess it surprised me how much idea exchange is already happening between members of the Community. It’s really rewarding to see that happening, and being an open source hardware company made it possible.

EW: What was the biggest challenge of the design process of the Pinoccio, and how did you overcome it?

SC: Well, for Web-based products, we try to build a Minimal Viable Product, get something into the hands of users as quickly as possible, see how they respond, then iterate and evolve the product organically from there. That’s a lot easier to do with software, because it’s relatively fast and cheap to put together an MVP.

Hardware is slower, it’s more expensive, and it’s inherently a “Waterfall” process — meaning there are a series of linear dependencies and the project can’t advance until each phase is complete. For each iteration, you have to make design changes to the board, order components, order PCBs, get the boards assembled, test them, rinse and repeat. It’s a weeks-to-months iteration cycle, instead of the hours-to-days cycles that we enjoy in Web Development.

I think the way that we address this is to bring assembly in-house. That will really allow us to take advantage of these Agile methodologies that we’re used to — rapid iterations of testing and refining. It will let us tighten up those cycles of iteration.

EW: What are some common mistakes that you see in hardware product design, that don’t take into account User Experience?

SC: Well, I think for any tech product, be it hardware or software, it’s tempting to think about features first, and to create a list of technical requirements as a starting point.

What we try to do instead is to think deeply about who our customer is. We think about what Peter Merholz calls their “emotional requirements.” What are their needs, motivations, and goals? What excites them? What frustrates them? How does Pinoccio fit into their lives, and how does it fit into a typical day? We answer these questions via different methods of qualitative research, including ethnography and interviews. It’s not enough to ask your target audience if they think they would like a particular product or feature. People are famously bad about self-reporting, it’s better to observe what they actually do, as opposed to asking them what they think they might do or might like.

Let’s go back to my bicycle light again. I’m going to hypothesize around what happened. The designers knew they were designing a light. They decided on some features — it’s possible they even asked customers what features they’d like — and they decided the light should have three modes: blink (for visibility and longer battery life), steady/low beam, and steady/high beam. They explored the interface — how do you use a single button to turn it on/off and to cycle through the three modes? The single button may come from a cost constraint. The flat, rubber button may have been an attempt to waterproof the light for riding in the rain. But did they observe real customers actually using the product? Not just in a lab setting, but in the real-world, during a typical day? Here in the States, in the late Fall, daylight saving ends and suddenly we’re all biking home in the dark. This is the time of the year that I start using my bike light. And because of the colder weather, I’m usually wearing gloves. If they had observed customers like me, in everyday conditions, they would have seen how hard it is to press that button with gloves on. And they would have seen me cursing under my breath, vowing to never buy a light from them again.

I think the best products make their customers feel smart. When you’re building complex technology products, if you do a bad job with the User Experience, the customer will blame themselves, “I suck at computers.” But it’s not their fault, it’s yours. And no one wants to keep using a product that makes them feel dumb. Frustration, hacks, and work-arounds are all super valuable insights. These are signals that a need that’s not being met. When I used Sugru to make the button easier to push, this was a work-around that signaled a need was not being met.

The key is to learn who your customer is, and to build empathy for them. Let that shape your product.

EW: How do you extend User Experience to the Pinoccio shields that are being developed?

SC: We talk to customers, we try to identify pain points that they’ve experienced with existing tools out there. We also talk to them about what they’re planning on building with Pinoccio. So, we just sent out a survey to our IndieGogo campaign funders asking them what their first Pinoccio project would be. Their answers will inform which shields we produce first. Then, once we have some shields produced, we’ll conduct qualitative research — observe actual customers using them during a typical day, in a typical setting. For example, we might go to a Makerspace where we know someone is building a project with Pinoccio, and just be a fly on the wall while they’re working on their project. Where do they get stuck? Where do they feel frustrated, or need help? That will help us refine the experience for the next iteration.

EW: There are many different solutions in the Wireless field, and the networking of objects that communicate wirelessly. What are some of the challenges of the user experience in this area, and what is Pinoccio doing to help users in this area?

SC: I think to-date, most solutions out there are either (1) so technical that only deep geeks can make use of them, or (2) they’re user-friendly but they’re constrained to a very specific use case, like home automation.

Our challenge is to build an extensible enough system that can support a variety of use cases, a robust enough system that we don’t lose the interest of those deep geeks, and yet still offer something that is easy for less technical folks to understand and use. For that final piece, we’ll be building a series of web-based tools that will help get those less technical folks up and running quickly and easily.

EW: You and Eric Jennings are located in different parts of the country, yet you have a start-up company together. What are the tools that you use to work together?

SC: Yep, Eric’s in Reno, and I’m in Ann Arbor. Eric and I use a number of tools, and have found a set up that works really well for us. We usually have IM running in the background, and ping each other throughout the day. We also do a daily Google Hangout — basically our “Stand Up” meeting in the Scrum parlance. Because we’re a young company, we’re happy to let these calls go long, and meander from detailed product decisions, all the way to long-term roadmap stuff.

We use Git for collaborating on code. We also have an internal documentation site that we use for asynchronous communication. It’s just a WordPress install running the P2 theme — it’s well-suited for short updates that can grow organically into longer discussions. We can archive pages that have evergreen info, and can easily search for and reference them later:


EW: What are your future goals with Pinoccio?

SC: I want Pinoccio to become just another tool in the average person’s workshop, makerspace, or art studio, sitting there right next to the duct tape. When they have an idea, they’ll grab a couple of Pinoccios and quickly throw together a prototype. I want this to feel totally unremarkable. Pinoccio is just another tool at their disposal that expands their capabilities. The object — the board itself — is less important. What’s important is that it enables them to build what they want to build, and it makes them feel smart, industrious, and clever (which they are!).