Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Maker Faire 2014 Highlights: Electronics

robopeak showed off their $400 360-degree LIDAR unit with 6m range.  Not as polished as the $1150 Hokuyo, but about the same size and a whole lot cheaper.

They also had a 2.8” USB LCD touchscreen display for $35, which I couldn’t resist:

I almost bought an IFC6410 from inforce’s booth.  It’s basically an Android phone main board in a pico-ITX form factor.  With a Quad-core snapdragon 600, 2GB RAM, wifi, uHDMI, sata, gigabit ethernet and more, it was by far the fastest and most feature rich of the proto boards I saw.  They paired it with Ytai Ben-Tsvi’s IOIO board to drive some robots, but I think of these boards more as hackable Androids.

Unfortunately, they didn’t have any boards to sell on-site, and the price was $60 or $75 depending who I asked, but then ballooned to $100 with shipping, while the website price is listed at a “limited time promotion price” of $150 (but $75 with a promo code they mention in a blog post).   I was still game at $100, but after filling out my shipping address and email address, they handed me a 6-page license agreement to sign.  

At that point I gave up.  It’s a shame, because this board has cutting-edge hardware, and I’m excited to see makers with their hands on it, and not just big companies working on next-gen phones in secret.  

To me it’s a manifestation of the exploding maker and big-industry mobile spaces starting to intersect in earnest.  I’m excited for the big mobile players like Qualcomm to bring their cutting-edge hardware to the table, and I hope they can learn from the best of the makers by being transparent, consistent and plain-dealing.  Pick a price point, ditch the crazy EULA and multi-week lead time, and they’ll have a hot item on their hands.

One board I did manage to buy is this Mojo board from Embedded Micro, an Arduino-sized board with an Atmega 32U4 and a Spartan 6 FPGA.  That board plus a shield with 32MB of SDRAM came in under $100.

I’m excited to play with it, although this $200 MicroZed looks more impressive, with more respectable CPU, RAM and storage specs.

The Good and the Bad of the Internet of Things

The Good

Where I really got excited was Seeed’s booth.  They have a line of tiny Arduino-compatible boards and accessories called Xadow.  Instead of Arduino’s standardized header pins, Xadow uses flex cables to connect their boards, allowing a lot more mounting configurations.
I bought their CPU board and one of basically every accessory they had on hand for a grand total of right around $100.  I got a CPU board, battery, tiny OLED display, magnetometer, 9DOF IMU, vibrator, RTC and storage board.  Unfortunately, they were out of GPS and Bluetooth boards.

I’m really excited by these super tiny, feature-rich boards, especially as the wearables market heats up.

The other product is more well known: spark.io.  It’s a small arduino-compatible module with a wifi chipset, and a very clever technique for bootstrapping onto new wifi networks: an app on your smartphone sends out UDP datagrams with encrypted data that’s opaque to the Spark module (since the keys to join the network are precisely what it lacks), but whose size encodes the information the Spark module needs.  The person at the booth described it as a sort of morse code for wifi.

They didn’t have any modules to give out due to overwhelming demand, but they’re starting to ship now as fast as they can make them.

The Bad

As much as I like the product, the Electric Imp looks like it’s on the bad side.  Their device is sort of a programmable eye-fi: a controller and wifi chipset in an SD card form factor:

They have a clever approach to the problem of connecting these devices to a wifi network: load an app on your phone which flashes the screen to send the details to the imp via a photodiode embedded in the back side of the card.
Their director of sales, Peter Keyashian, explained their business model as a sort of turnkey Internet of Things: let them worry about the cloud service, microcontroller and wifi parts of a home appliance, and just keep building washing machines or dishwashers or whatever you’re good at.

Peter graciously gave me an Imp and dev board for free, and I was excited to try it out, until I showed it to a friend of mine.  He pointed out that the device is locked to their cloud service, and that they’re planning on charging for it down the line.

So that pretty much kills the excitement for me.  I had assumed the board would come ready to interoperate with their cloud service, but that if that wasn’t the right solution for me, I’d be able to reflash it to do, well, whatever else I needed it to.  But that isn’t how they’ve chosen to do it. Instead, they’re building a walled garden where the device is tied to their service, and they plan to charge for it down the line.

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