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ESC Boston Collectible -- Wireless Mesh Networked "Hello There!" Badges

February 11, 2016

Max The Magnificent-February 11, 2016

I have to tell you that I'm currently bouncing off the walls with excitement because I've just received my prototype of the ESC 2016 Collectible Edition "Hello There!" badge. Before we go any further, take a quick peek at this video, which should help clarify the remainder of this column.

As you see, this was filmed with me standing in front of a neutral-colored wall because I didn’t want anything like overly-flamboyant wallpaper to detract from the topic in hand. So, now you've seen this little rascal in action, let's delve deeper into the world of "Hello There!" badges.

One of the questions I'm often asked is why embedded designers should attend events like the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) when so much information is available on the Internet. Well, one point is the technical portion of the conference. I know that I personally find it much easier to learn stuff when I have a live presenter in front of me, not the least that all sorts of wacky questions tend to pop into my mind and it's nice to have someone who has a clue available to answer them.

But the main reason to attend an event like ESC is the ability to network with one's peers. It can be really advantageous to meet up with other engineers who are working in the same fields as oneself, just to have someone to bounce ideas off. It can also be advantageous to meet folks who specialize in other domains. I cannot tell you how often I run into a problem that's outside my area of expertise, and then I think "Hang on, that guy Bob I met at ESC Boston last year was working on something like this -- now, where did I put his business card?"

One teeny-weeny problem here is that -- generally speaking, and I say this with love -- engineers' social and networking skills can best be described as "non-optimal." In fact, I'm reminded of the old engineering joke:

   Q: How can you tell if an engineer is an extrovert or an introvert?

   A: If he's an extrovert, he looks at your shoes when he's talking to you!

All of which explains why we came up with the idea of the "Hello There!" badge with its 8 x 8 matrix of LEDs that can be used to scroll text messages and play games. When you power-up these little beauties, they immediately link up with each other to form a low-power wireless mesh network. Using DIP switches, you inform your badge as to your area(s) of interest: ANALOG, DIGITAL, HARDWARE, SOFTWARE, STEM, and/or the IOT.

Later, as you are happily ambling around the conference, your badge will proudly proclaim your domain(s) of expertise for all to see. Even better, when you move into close proximity with another badge holder, your badges will communicate with each other and -- if you are both interested in the IoT, for example -- they will alert you to this nugget of knowledge, thereby prompting to you say "Well, hello there fellow IoT aficionado," or words to that effect.

Now let's take a slightly closer look at the badge as illustrated below. At this point I'd like to give a big shout out to my chums at Synapse Wireless (who designed the little rascal and who are providing the CPU/wireless module), Sunstone Circuits (for fabricating the boards), and Screaming Circuits (for assembling everything). Also, big thanks go to those who don the undergarments of authority and stroll the corridors of power at Embedded.com, EETimes.com, and EDN.com for funding the rest of the components.


(Source: Max Maxfield / Embedded.com)

At the top we see the 8 x 8 array of LEDs that can be used to scroll text messages or play games. On either side of this array we find two momentary push buttons; badge holders can use these buttons to select and play games and to do things like entering their names, which will then be displayed along with any other scrolling text.

The big silver package (middle-left) is the CPU/Wireless module from Synapse Wireless. To the right of this are the DIP switches we use to inform the badge as to our areas of interest (ANALOG, DIGITAL, etc.). As I mentioned earlier, if two or more badge-holders are in close proximity -- say they are approaching each other as they meander their way from one fun activity to another -- their badges will recognize any common areas of interest and alert their owners regarding this happy state of affairs.

We're also going to pre-load a bunch of games into the badges, including such classics as Breakout, Snake, and Rock-Paper-Scissors. If two or more badge-holders are standing close together and they give their badges a quick shake, for example, this will inform the badges (via their on-board accelerometers) that a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors is about to ensue. The badges all talk to each other to determine who is going to play, then they wait for their owners to make "one-two-three-show" gestures whilst holding their respective badges. The badges then each randomly choose and display Rock, Paper, or Scissors icons, compare notes, and decide who wins, loses, or survives to play another round. (I think you can expect to see a lot of this sort of thing going on at ESC Boston.)

As you will discover, in addition to being open source, these little scamps are incredibly hackable. For example, you can upload new programs via the USB port in the lower left-hand corner. Alternatively, you can upload new applications "over the air" as will be discussed at ESC (see the links to the relevant sessions below).

Also observe the four blue headers presented in an Arduino Uno footprint on the lower left- and right-hand sides. These can be used to interface with off-the-shelf 3.3V Arduino Shields. (Note that the blue lanyard and blue headers will be replaced with black counterparts on the production badges, because black is so much more slimming and I need all the help I can get.) For example, consider the image below:


(Source: Synapse Wireless)

On the left we see one of the prototype "Hello There!" badges on its own; on the right, we see a small robot that's also equipped with a badge, into which is plugged a standard Arduino motor-control shield. You can use the free-standing badge to control the robot. If you tilt the badge forward, for example, this action is detected by the on-badge accelerometer, a forward-pointing arrow appears on its 8 x 8 LED array, the badge in your hand wirelessly transmits the appropriate command to the badge on the robot, and the robot responds accordingly.

This really is very cool to see in real life. Speaking of which, we will be giving away one of these robots at the Introducing the ESC 2016 "Hello There!" Badge session. At this session, we will also be giving 75 badges to the lucky attendees who won them by being the first to Tweet a special message.

"What message and how do I join in the fun? I hear you cry. Well, I'm glad you asked. I'm still working on this, so you'll just have to keep checking my Destination ESC blogs on Embedded.com to discover this little secret. Furthermore, another 25 badges will be given away throughout the course of the conference (again, you'll have to keep checking my Destination ESC blogs for more details).

In the case of this first robot, all of the badges at the Introducing the ESC 2016 "Hello There!" Badge session will vote amongst themselves to decide which badge holder will be the lucky winner.

"Hmmm, what does he mean by 'First Robot'," I hear you mutter. Well, in fact, we are planning on giving away four of these little rascals. A second robot will be given away towards the end of the first day (details to be decided -- you know the drill -- keep checking my Destination ESC blogs for more info). It isn't necessary for you to already have a badge to win this second robot because it will be accompanied by a free-standing badge.

The third robot will be given away in the morning of the second day at the ESC 2016 "Hello There!" Badge Meet-Up session. Once again, you don’t have to already own a badge to win this third robot because it will be accompanied by a free-standing badge.

The fourth and final robot will make its appearance in the afternoon of the second day. In fact, it will be one of the prizes at the Tech Trivia Quiz and -- you guessed it -- you don’t have to already be in possession of a badge to win this fourth robot because it will be accompanied by a free-standing badge.

I tell you, you have to see these things to realize just how tasty they are. You can read their scrolling text messages from a pretty amazing distance. I wonder how long it will take people to realize that, as opposed to simply entering their names, they could actually display funny messages (shhh, let's keep this as our little secret).

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