Things have been crazy here in Tokyo for the past few days. After the Tohoku earthquake, there's been constant streaming of horrible visual images of the disaster on Japanese news. Along with that, there have been warnings of aftershocks up to a magnitude of 8.0, potential nuclear disasters, rolling blackouts, lack of transportation, and dwindling supplies in local supermarkets and grocery stores. It's a stressful situation in Tokyo which has over 25M people and life is anything but normal. It's a chore just to get to work and many feel powerless to do anything but watch the unfolding nuclear situation and hope that it can get contained before a disaster happens. In writing this post, it gives me an excuse to tear myself away from the fear mongering news streams which I'm constantly glued to.

In the hackerspace, we'll be holding our meeting tonight and will probably start hammering out plans to figure out how and where we can help. There are many things that are needed right now in the quake stricken area. There is no power, internet access is extremely limited, food and clean water are dwindling, and transportation to the area is limited. What we decide on will probably depend on what's needed and available at the time.

In any case, one immediate thing that can be done is to provide a source of light to people. With no electricity and limited supplies, flashlights and batteries are a luxury. In the hackerspace, we designed the Kimono Lantern as a solar rechargeable lantern to decorate gardens and patios with. However it has a much bigger use right now as the quake victims have no power and many are spending their nights in the dark. Also, parts of Tokyo will be suffering from blackouts until the power grid can get back to normal levels. With a major nuclear generating plant offline, this could take from weeks to months. 

Hi everyone. The FreakLabs store will be taking a two-and-a-half week break from Tuesday 2/22 to Sunday 3/13. I'll be going to the US to visit family and friends, take care of some on-site consulting, and more importantly get some much needed rest. The shopping cart will be disabled in that interval so purchases won't be allowed. I'll still be maintaining the news feed during that time, but I won't have access to my equipment and inventory so I won't be able to fill orders. I hope it doesn't inconvenience anyone and thanks for all the support :)

Hackaday is carrying the "Feeding the Shark" tutorial. It's nice getting a bit of pub every once in a while. Looks like I need to do more projects :)

 

I recently gave a talk on hackerspaces at the New Context Conference in Tokyo . The theme of the conference was social media marketing so you can pretty much assume I was outside of my normal circle of electronics geeks. We were actually invited to participate by a member of CrashSpace , a hackerspace in LA, so I figured I might as well talk about hackerspaces in the context of a physical social network. Needless to say, I deviated from the theme pretty quickly. 

I mostly talked about why hackerspaces exist, why they're needed, and what goes on inside Tokyo Hackerspace. Hackerspaces are really an interesting phenomenon that has kind of blown up in the past two years. This is a graph of the number of hackerspaces started over time from hackerspaces.org. 2010 isn’t finished yet, but it already looks like it will outpace the number of hackerspaces started in 2009:

 hackerspaces1

 Here’s a graph of the total number of hackerspaces:

I haven't updated the blog in awhile, but that doesn't mean things aren't busy here in the lab. I recently did a video project for Tokyo Hackerspace on a guide to Akihabara . Surprisingly enough, it made the rounds on HackaDay , Make , Slashdot , and Engadget . It was pretty crazy and I completely didn't expect that kind of response. It just shows that there isn't a lot of information on what really goes on in the back streets of Akihabara. Most of the shops are pretty hard to find and I get so many requests for a tour of Akihabara that we decided to do the video.

The Internet of Things is a buzzword that’s generating quite a bit of hype at the moment. I’m seeing it all over the place to describe all types of disparate things but mostly being used as a marketing term. I suspect that the majority of the people that use the term don’t fully understand its meaning or how it will be implemented/used. That’s why I was very pleasantly surprised when I picked up the book “Interconnecting Smart Objects with IP” by Adam Dunkels (author of the ContikiOS, uIP, lwIP, and general programming extraordinaire) and JP Vasseur (distinguished engineer at Cisco, co-chair of IETF’s ROLL working group, and one of the chairs for IPSO).

I don’t really know JP Vasseur, but I’ve been an admirer of Adam Dunkel’s work since I started in wireless sensor networks. In my mind, ContikiOS is one of the best operating systems/environments ever designed for wireless sensor networks, or what I like to call, "engineering hell". But that’s a different story.

Before I get into what I thought of the book, I think it might be appropriate to give a bit of background on why I’m writing this post. In my opinion, the internet is basically a set of standards that everyone agrees to abide by. That standardization is what allows manufacturers and users to adopt the technology with confidence, knowing that they won’t be the only ones or part of a minority of people using it. That also inspires confidence that time spent learning the technology and standards, how to use it, and developing applications for it won’t be wasted. I think this is the reason why the internet became so popular within the last however many years/decades.
So far, it’s been a pretty interesting and eventful year but extremely busy, so I decided to take a short summer break. I wanted to take some time off to do stuff I’ve been interested in but been putting off because of all the tasks I’m dealing with every day. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the Arduino platform. I bought my first Arduino a couple of weeks ago but never had a chance to play with it so this was the perfect chance to get my hands dirty with it.

My first run at the Arduino was quite an enjoyable experience. I can see how it’s become such a useful platform for hobbyists and enthusiasts because it’s a very quick and easy way to prototype designs without having to build or port your own libraries.

The main reason I’ve been looking into the Arduino is because I’m trying to find an easier way to teach embedded electronics and programming to people at the hackerspace. Microcontrollers are fine and dandy, but setting up the toolchain, building from the command line, and tweaking a bunch of registers can get fairly intimidating to people that don’t do it on a regular basis.

I’ve been spending the past week bringing up the ATXMega boards that I put together and porting Chibi over to them for testing the radio modules. While doing so, it also got me thinking about how I chose the parts and what the landscape for wireless sensor nodes is starting to look like.

The original idea of wireless sensor nodes was that they would be like dust. They’d be inconspicuous, ubiquitous, and you could essentially just sprinkle a couple all over the place to monitor some area that you’d like to keep tabs on. It was expected that wireless sensor nodes would be small, lean on memory resources, and extremely low power. Fast forward about seven years and we see that there are some real deployments going out with wireless sensor networks and the usage scenarios are much different than what was first envisioned.

It feels like wireless sensor nodes are going down two different paths. On the one hand, you still have extremely resource constrained nodes that are being used for specific applications. These would be like environmental monitoring or proprietary applications where the network and use cases are extremely well defined.

On the other hand, large scale deployments like the US smart grid (as well as the conversion over to smart meters in other countries) are showing that widespread adoption will put a limit on the minimum amount of resources required for a wireless node. One of the biggest resource consumers of a large scale deployment of wireless nodes is protocol standardization. 

One of the interesting things I've been seeing is that Macs are starting to become very common in the tech industry. Strangely enough, there is almost a majority of Mac users in Tokyo hackerspace which is heavily dominated by techies. I also see a lot of Macs in other hackerspaces and at events like the Make meeting in Japan. So it seems kind of strange that there is still very little support for embedded development on the Macs. In fact, I'd have to say that a lot of the info on how to set up embedded development environments on that OS is coming from the open source software and hardware communities. This is probably because they're widely used for Arduino development.

So I finally gave in and went out and bought a used Mac at a local second-hand computer equipment store. It was kind of sweet because it had an 2 GHz Intel Core2Duo CPU and quite a nice screen. It set me back about $400 which was really good considering how well Mac notebooks retain their value. The reason for the low price was that it had a US keyboard which is not very desirable in Japan, except for foreigners like me. 

After having used the Mac a bit, I can say that I understand why people like it. Apple obviously paid a lot of attention to usability and aesthetics. The GUI blows away the Windows XP GUI (I haven't tried Vista or Windows 7) and you can drop down to the command line and go straight into Unix. It's like the best of both worlds!

Anyways, enough gushing. The main reason I got the Mac was to figure out how to develop on the boards I'm making using that OS. It's becoming too important to ignore. Along the way, I can hopefully help others figure out how to set up their Mac environments for development on other boards and platforms. My first attempt at using a Mac for development was very basic. I wanted to access the bootloaders on the AVR USB microcontrollers to perform the fundamental operation of downloading code. It actually is very similar to Linux, however you need to do a couple of extra steps to get dfu-programmer to run on that OS. Once the setup is out of the way, downloading code is extremely easy.

And so, with no further ado, here's how to download code on AVR USB microcontrollers using a Mac. It's at the bottom of the original tutorial. Hope it's useful...

Tutorial Link

Well, I finally ran out of excuses to delay opening the store. There’s still a million things that I can do to tweak the store, boards, inventory or whatever but I’m sticking to my guns and enforcing my cutoff point. At least it will stop my wife from nagging me on when the shop will open. She's my toughest critic.

It’s been quite the journey just to reach this point and I’m definitely a better, or at least more knowledgeable, person for it. What started out as a “quick three month project” turned into a nine month odyssey where I learned that having good design skills is only a minor part of putting together a complete micro-manufacturing operation.

But First, Happy Birthday

A lot of things happened on the way as well. FreakLabs had its third birthday at the start of March. I was so busy taking care of tax issues at the time that I didn’t put up a post about it. I just wanted to say that I’m very happy with the site and how its evolving. Its taken on a life of its own and has become a valuable learning resource for me. This is mainly due to the people that frequent it and are kind enough to leave insightful comments and forum posts. The news feed also forces me to stay on top of things and helps me see how the WSN world is evolving.

I was originally going to open up the shop today, but wanted to write a last post before the grand opening. In my previous post, I talked about the mental side of putting together a one-person manufacturing operation. Actually, I’m going to refer to it as “micro-manufacturing” which is a bit buzzword-y but much easier to type than “one-person manufacturing operation”. Anyways, I think there are quite a few people that are curious about what it takes on the technical side to set up shop as well, so I wanted to talk about my experiences with it to date.

As I talked about before, the mental side was one of the biggest obstacles for me. However the technical side of setting up a micro-manufacturing operation is formidable too. As a designer, I thought that it would be easy to put together a couple of designs and sell them over the internet. It sounds like it’d be pretty standard, but there are many, many skills involved. I was surprised at the amount of things I had to learn.