As I pen these words, I'm in my hotel room, running around in ever-decreasing circles shouting “Don't Panic!” I'm poised to leave for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to be there for the kick-off of ESC Boston. I'm really looking forward to ESC for a number of reasons, including the fact that I'm presenting a couple of papers on Awesome Analog Meters and the effects of Radiation on Embedded Systems.
I'm also looking forward to meeting up with some old chums, like Alan Taylor from the UK, not the least that — as I recall — it's his turn to buy the beers.
And now I have one more reason to look forward to ESC, because someone there may hold the answer to a conundrum that's been teasing me for a couple of years now. What is this puzzling poser? Well, let me explain…
I typically tend to have a number of hobby projects on the go at any one time. Some of these little scamps can run for years, because I'm easily distracted (“Ooh, Shiny!”). Take my Caveman Diorama, for example, which I first discussed in this column way back in the mists of time we used to call 2011.
As you may recall from that article, I picked up an old, somewhat battered TV cabinet. I've since had this refinished and it now looks absolutely gorgeous as you can see below (the cardboard “Kilroy was here” character is just a placeholder, and the thing sitting on top of the cabinet is the prototype for my Inamorata Prognostication Engine, which is a completely different kettle of fish, as it were).
The idea is that I want to create a diorama inside this cabinet. This will reflect the inside of a cave circa 10,000BC, with cave paintings on the wall and period-correct artifacts scattered around. I originally conceived this as having a small group of cavemen and women huddled around a fire. More recently, I decided to include a figurine of a tall, dark, dashing man sporting a Hawaiian shirt, with an H.G. Wells-type time machine sitting off to one side of the cave.
One of the things that caused me to put this project on hold was working out how to create a realistic cave. I've been reading modelling books and magazines, and toying with the idea of a paper mache construction, but never quite got around to taking the plunge. Last week, however, something occurred to kick this project back into gear.
My wife, Gina the Gorgeous, is a realtor. A few weeks ago she met a couple looking for a house. It turns out that the guy (we'll call him Mike, because that's his name) builds model railways. Mike wants to add lights to his model buildings, and he wants to include effects like having the lights come on and off in sequence and so forth, but he has no experience with things like microcontrollers and tri-colored LEDs.
So Gina gave Mike my email address and he got in touch. We met up and chatted about the various possibilities, like using an Arduino to drive hundreds of tri-colored NeoPixels from Adafruit. But that's not what I wanted to tell you about…
The thing is that Mike is a hero when it comes to making dioramas. When I showed him my TV cabinet and described what I wanted to do, he said that he knows just how to make a realistic looking cave, so we're going to trade expertise — I'm going to teach Mike how to construct and control his lighting system, and he's going to show me how to make my cave, which leads us to my conundrum.
The TV screen will allow us to look into the back of the cave, which means the “entrance” to the cave will be located toward the back of the set.
I'm not going to replicate this particular scene, of course, but I do like the general idea. Note the mountains and sky and so forth that you can see through the entrance to the cave. In my case, I'm planning on having a flat-screen LCD mounted on the back of the TV set. This will allow me to display mountains in the distance augmented with a variety of different effects as required.
In fact, I'm planning on tying this to the real world via the Internet (this will be one of the stranger “things” on the Internet of Things). When it's winter here, the tops of mountains will be covered in snow. When it's summer here, the sides of the mountains will be lush and green. When it's daylight here, it will be daylight there, with crisp blue skies and wispy clouds and pterodactyls flying around (artistic license). When it's nighttime here, it will be nighttime there, but with a much bigger moon and more shooting stars. And when its stormy where I live, it's going to be mega-stormy in my diorama, with lightning like you wouldn't believe.
I'm thinking it will require a 3D software design and rendering program running on a reasonably powerful processor. I want to be able to trigger events like lightning strikes and rain and transitioning from daytime to nighttime and from summer to winter. The only downside to all of this is that I don't have a clue how to make it happen.
All of which leads us to the Embedded Systems Conference. If there's one place to go to talk to people who know about embedded systems and the Internet of Things, that place is ESC. I'm hoping to track someone down here at ESC Boston, but I know I've left it a tad late, so if I fail in my mission I'll regroup and pin my hopes on ESC Silicon Valley in July. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them.