BT Smart Comes Of Age

15/02/2015

For those wanting to develop peripherals with BT Smart (previously known as Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE), the options so far have been limited. Either, work directly with chip manufacturers like TI or use a module such as the excellent BLE112 (based on the TI chipset) from Bluegiga. Chipsets give the benefits of low component cost, but require high volumes to be used to make the development and approval costs worthwhile. Modules however, are normally pre-approved, but come with a higher price tag. Typical component costs for a solution in volume would be in the order of $4 or $15 respectively.

BT Smart of course, is the new ‘version’ of Bluetooth that actually has nothing in common with traditional Bluetooth, but allows for devices to run at very low power, able to run off of coin cells for years. They also require less overhead in an operating system, typically within iOS for example, being able to connect directly from an app, rather than having to go ‘techie’ to connect a remote device. More than one device can be connected at a time, too.

Bluegiga's BLE development Board

Bluegiga’s BLE development Board

Bluegiga’s great feature is the fact that an application can reside on the BT Smart device, allowing it to run autonomously, too. Basically access is given to the processor on the device, and Bluegiga have developed a neat scripting language to enable these apps to be implemented on their devices.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Bluegiga sold their business to SiLabs, we have yet to see what will happen as SiLabs absorb the Bluegiga business and IP, how much of Bluegiga’s innovation will continue, too.

But, almost at the same time, a new pretender to the throne has arrived. Anaren, with a Broadcom based module. Pre-certified too, this comes in at a much lower price tag. Developers working with the BLE112 will find it difficult to justify staying with that solution with Anaren’s similarly featured A20737 device coming in at around a THIRD of the price of the Bluegiga module.

Anaren's BT Smart development board

Anaren’s BT Smart development board

Demonstration apps are simple to develop, with their online ‘Atmosphere’ development environment meaning that it is platform independent, no development tools have to be installed. Bluegiga on the other hand only support the PC for their script compiler, a slight disadvantage now given that most silicon vendors support Mac and often Linux too, with their tools. It’s fast too, I got my first app running and communicating from iOS to BT Smart device in about thirty minutes flat. That’s impressive.

Anaren provide a visual development environment, allowing a developer to quickly prototype an application and demonstrate it, with connectivity to iOS and Android supported. What is unclear, and remains to be seen, is how simple this is to move to production. The programs that go onto the BT SMART module and the phone are not clearly delineated. GATT profiles are not clearly published from Atmosphere, with some rather vague explanation in their support Wiki pages (I’m sure this will be improved with time). Certainly, all of the communication between host and target goes through in one large GATT characteristic (called “Atmosphere Transport Protocol”, not really the best implementation or optimised for low-power applications.

So, Atmosphere does seem like a bit of a blind alley. Great for concept proving, but not really much use to move onto production. But, help is at hand. The module, being based on Broadcom’s BCM20737 device is supported by their ‘Wiced’ (pronounced ‘wicked’) development tools. An Eclipse IDE and the compilers are all free to download for PC or Mac, and allow development in ‘C’. Example frameworks are supplied, I haven’t developed anything just yet, but they look fairly straightforward to use, and you can see the commonality carried over into Atmosphere, so if you use that first, it should be easier to move onto the Broadcom tools. Time will tell how simple it is, but it’s certainly worth investing a little time, given the difference in price with the modules. It’s really not worth moving to a BT Smart chipset unless you are using really high volumes, probably in excess of 200K units or more, I would think.

It does look like Anaren have hit the mark with this device, and likely that Bluegiga have sold their business at just the right time!

I’ll post more as I learn more, I have an active BT Smart project right now that is running on Bluegiga already and is being ported to Anaren before production.

Prices of the development kits? Bluegiga’s is around $200, Anaren weigh in at about $50, software tools for both are free.


The Pebble Watch

29/12/2014
Pebble watches in different  colours

Pebble watches in different colours

I’d been looking at the Pebble Watch for a while after buying one as a gift for a friend. It had been available in the retail channel in the UK for a couple of months. After receiving mine for Christmas, I set about writing an App for it to function as a Rugby timer and scorekeeper.

I’m pretty impressed with the watch overall. If you have a program like this that is useful to you, it’s going to be worth having for that alone. Other watches might be prettier and offer more functions, but (I’m pretty sure) that most are limited to working with one watch OS alone. Android watches need an Android phone, and so far, I think the Pebble is the only watch to work with iOS. It’s not sold in the Apple store of course, it’s a competitor to the forthcoming Apple Watch, but they will continue to hit different markets as the Apple Watch is likely to be at least twice the price of the Pebble.

The watch is unpretentious. It doesn’t claim to be the most powerful or best smart watch out there. It has a mono screen, not colour like most of the others, so it’s not flashy at all. What that gives the watch though, is an advantage in terms of battery life. They claim 5-7 days in normal use. You charge it using a magnetic cable that takes power from a USB port, so you can charge from your computer or a wall adapter, and it only takes a couple of hours for a full charge.

It’s an “e-ink” display, this is the sort that doesn’t really take any power if it doesn’t change. So, if your watch face changes every second as opposed to every minute, then it will drain the battery a bit faster.

Watch face with weather display

Watch face with weather display

My favourite watch face is a simple watch with the day and date as well as an outside temperature reading. This of course, comes from a data service that comes via the internet. Like all smart watches, access to the internet is via your phone – connected via Bluetooth – so, if your phone isn’t available these sources of data (there’s also some selectable watch faces with news and so on,) are not available either.

This watch face also shows your current location, there are others that even show a little map on the display.

Hardware wise, the watch has an accelerometer and compass, so can function as a basic fitness tracker, there are apps for that too. An impressive compass display is another. It has standard Bluetooth and Bluetooth SMART, so this probably helps the battery life somewhat. I’m not sure what data is transmitted via Bluetooth SMART, but it would make sense for things like the temperature data to go via Bluetooth SMART. It’s fully water-resistant too – that’ll be handy for those rainy Saturday afternoons on the touchline!

Built in is a music controller (AVRCP) so you can play/pause forward/reverse music on your phone.

Rugby timer & scorekeeper app

Rugby timer & scorekeeper app

Watch faces and apps are downloadable from the ‘Pebble Store’. At the moment, all of the apps are free, so you can download what you like, but a few developers use what are called ‘companion apps’ which the watch app will require to operate. They then charge for these apps via Google Play or Apple’s App Store, so they get paid that way. That said, most are free. Up to eight apps and faces can be stored in the watch, a ‘locker’ in your phone is used as an overflow for others, so they are quickly available to you. Watch faces range from digital displays with big numbers, words and analogue displays.

I got the basic watch, there are two models, the Pebble Watch (£99) and the Steel (£179). The Pebble Watch is a clunky looking, plastic affair available in different colours – most will opt for black like me, I would imagine. The Steel is a more robust looking and probably more conventional looking watch. The standard watch comes with a rubber strap, which I quickly replaced with a leather watch strap from my local jeweller. I got a decent quality Hirsch strap, but any 22mm strap or bracelet will work. The steel has a non-standard fitting, so you’ll need to buy a strap or bracelet designed for that watch.

For developers, the development tools are very straightforward. You don’t even need to install anything on your computer, you can develop and compile using ‘C’ via CloudPebble – an online development portal. Publishing a finished app is simple too, your app goes straight into the store. By comparison, iOS development is much more complex and the approval process to get into the store is much more long-winded. But then, Pebble is a simpler concept from the start. You can install a compiler onto your computer if you want to be able to develop off-line, OS X, Linux and Windows are all supported.

Pros and cons? Well, price, battery life, simplicity and iOS compatibility are things this watch have going for it. Lack of a colour display and possibly the clunky looks might be things that will put you off.

When the Apple Watch arrives, this might change things, but we will see. Apple have done some really clever things with the watch bracelets and straps, making them easily interchangeable without tools. In all the years the jewellery industry have been making watches, they haven’t done anything as clever as Apple have with their straps! Apple Watch might be a game changer, but I’ll still be using my Pebble as a rugby timer on Saturdays at least, I’m sure.


Pebble Development – a first App

26/12/2014

So, for Christmas I received a Pebble Watch. I looked at the SDK for this and there’s a quite comprehensive development system with event driven functions as well as all the normal ‘C’ type functions.

Unknown-3

Pebble display when the App starts.

Shooting rugby most weekends, and writing reports, I often struggle to keep track of the score, elapsed time and cards, so an obvious app for me is one to do that for me. So, I set to developing just such an App for the Pebble watch.

When the App starts, it’s ready to go for kick-off. The clock is set at 40 minutes. The three buttons Up, Select and Down have different functions during the program use, indicated by the selected part of the display. Press the Select button to select the three different areas of the display (the very top always shows the current time of day).

The first section is the match time, with the display showing the elapsed time and the remaining time in the match half. Press the Up button for time off and on, indicated by X and o in the right-hand part of the display. The watch vibrates when the clock runs out. A long press on the Up button restarts the timer from 40 minutes – use this when the second half starts.

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Match underway, with one card in progress.

Press Select and you move to the Cards section. Press the Up button to add a card timer. Up to six cards can be added, with the watch vibrating each time a card expires. Hopefully six cards will be enough!

Press Select again, and you get to the scoring section. Press Up to increment the Home score, and Down to increment the Away score. Press and hold the relevant Up or Down button to decrement the scores in case a score was added by mistake.

Finally, press Select once more to return to the timer control mode.

My first attempt at a Pebble watch App. I guess it could look a but prettier, but it’s functional! You can see it here.

Update :

I’ve updated the program a little with some ‘hints’ on screen, and various other improvements.

December 2014, Simon Taylor


Canon vs. Nikon – who cares?

06/12/2014
Green or Blue?

Green or Blue?

It’s that age old argument. Back in the 80s it was Z80 vs. 6502, Sinclair vs. Amstrad. There’s also iPhone vs. Android, PC vs. Mac.

So often I have heard at our camera club, “Great picture, obviously because the photographer uses Nikon”, or “obviously a good photographer, he uses Canon”. Maybe in jest, but with some meaning behind the snipe.

Really, there isn’t such a thing as a really bad camera thee days. Even phones (Android OR iPhone!) take great images. I bought a cheap SLR (<£300) earlier this year, and honestly, are the images any sharper, clearer or better than my £1000 camera or my pro cameras? Answer: No.

It’s about the quality of the lenses and what you do with them, plain and simple.

When someone asks me what I use and they discount me because of the answer, I in turn discount them because of their childish opinion. They have not learned to respect the art and don’t understand that it’s the photographer, not the camera.

I chose my brand of camera years ago, switching because of a whim would not be very efficient. Not just the cash to swap but I would have new UIs to learn making my shooting slower and less reactive. That’s the only difference between the cheap SLR and the Pro cameras really. The controls are quicker to use to change settings and the build is more robust. OK, full-frame vs. a crop sensor makes a difference to images, but that’s it. Once the light gets through the lens, it hits a sensor. Sensors are very similar. Given ANY camera I could, once I have got used to the controls take just as good (or bad) pictures. In fact, I have said in jest that all my pro cameras allow me to do is take more high resolution, bad pictures quickly in worse conditions to fill up my storage systems.

Same thing with a choice of computer and phone. Some gadget fans say you are mad if you use a particular brand of computer. Again, it’s what you are used to and what it does for you. If you get through your tasks without having to worry about the computer tech. (unless you actually like that sort of thing), then it’s good for you. If you can do your work on Linux, why not?

If your phone syncs your contacts, calendars and so on, again, it’s good for you. Oh, and making phone calls is important, I suppose.

So, stop sniping because of what others shoot and use, and get on with your own thing. If it’s not working for you, then you probably just need more practice, not a different brand.


Photography Essentials

23/10/2014

photo_s4pro2_500I’m surprised how many so called “photographers” don’t calibrate their screens. Calibration ensures that your screen displays colours to a conformed set of ‘standards’. A hardware device (such as the Datacolor Spyder) measures colours from your screen and creates a profile which the display and operating system can use to correct colours and brightness. The screen is calibrated at regular intervals to keep the colours true.

One of the big benefits is that if you use a calibrated print service (like ProAm or have your own printer calibrated), the prints you get have accurate colours. Hold the print next to the screen and the colours will be true. Get another print month later, and they’ll be the same. Try it if you’re currently uncalibrated.

Apart from all that, the calibrator seems to give monitors a new lease of life. Calibrate your screens and projectors and all of a sudden, they seem to come to life, obviously because colours are truer.

While we are on a small rant, lots of people don’t understand the meaning of “backup”. They think that putting files onto an external drive is a backup, when it’s still the only copy of those files. Simply ask yourself, “how would I feel if I lost my hard drive/computer etc.” If you would worry, you need a backup, which is a second copy. Preferably a third copy. One of my cats knocked one of my drives onto the floor recently, the drive was rendered useless. I had a backup, so thankfully, nothing was lost apart from a few pounds and a bit of annoyance at the cat…


A Luke Warm Terrorism Hotline

17/09/2014

Travelling down the M3 this morning, I noticed a white van driven by a man with a handkerchief covering his face. I’ve never seen this sort of thing before.

Thinking about it, I wondered “what if”, so I searched for the anti-terrorism hotline, remembering the adverts which said “It might be nothing but… Report it”.

Found the number, by then we had turned off of the M3 and were travelling north on the M25. So, at 0810hrs, I called the hotline. Answered by a young lady who said “How can I help?”

“I’m following a white Fiat Doblo van on the M25 travelling north having just left the M3″ I said. “Index number NX08 HFN” (all given in phonetics). “What’s strange is that the driver appears to be of middle eastern origin and has most of his face covered by a handkerchief. I’m travelling to the M4, so I can follow him until then.”

She replies “are you a Police Officer?”. “No” I say. She responds “So, just a member of the public then?”

I take slight offence to this so reply “yes, JUST a member of the public”. Why the word ‘just’ had to be used, I don’t know.

She continues : “Problem is, this is a metropolitan Police hotline, and that’s out of our area”.

Sorry, but I’m not entirely up to date with the Met’s boundaries these days, so I say “Well, I just called the anti-terrorism line, thought the information might be important.”

She says “I’ll pass it onto the local police”, sounding more and more disinterested, asked me for my details, that was the end of the call.

With the terrorism threat being heightened at this time, I would have expected a little more interest, and I hope it’s just someone who is self-conscious about their appearance, or something like that, and we don’t hear of this van in the news.

I wonder what we are supposed to report, what is suspicious?

The van turned off at junction 14, where to, I don’t know…


Scotland Out Of The UK

11/09/2014

Union JackThere are some strange ironies about the forthcoming Scottish Independence vote.

Firstly, those who call themselves “Scottish” and live outside Scotland don’t get a vote. Other people such as English who do live in Scotland do get a vote. Presumably, these people won’t have to relocate if Mr. Salmond gets his way, and the English in Scotland will get a new Scottish nationality.

What is more interesting to consider though, is what existing residents of Scotland will do after the result of the referendum is announced.

Presumably, if the result is ‘No’, then not much changes. Life goes on as before as part of the UK. Sure, some will be unhappy at the result, but it’s as it is now.

If the result is ‘Yes’, many residents will start to live in a ‘foreign’ country. We can debate the currency to be used, armed forces and the unlikely membership of the EU. New passports will be required. I would imagine that many ‘No’ supporters will be uncomfortable and will consider leaving an independent Scotland to return to their countries. Many English have retreated to Scotland for the isolation and peace and quiet, but will they be happy being considered ‘foreigners’ in a new state? Can you imagine being English, living in Scotland and living under new taxes, laws and using the new “Salmond” currency? You might as well move to Spain where the weather is kinder.

I’m not sure how many non-resident Scots will flood back to Scotland to live in an independent country, I assume that the outflow will be more than any return.

As others have noted, at least the UK’s average rainfall will be reduced if Scotland chooses to leave.


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