Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Maker Faire Rome 2014

Maker Faires have been around for a while now in the US but they're new to Europe, last weekend I decided to pop down to the second year of Maker Faire Rome. It was super - the scale was amazing (I wonder what the NY one must be like) and the level of enthusiasm from all the Makers was great, and from the big corporates too.

Everyone and his dog seemed to have a new 3D printer or something in some way connected to 3D printing - Wasp Italy (who I'd never heard of) had the most impressive setup, in this area, with a whole tent full of printers working away on everything from the standard small plastic items (the little red monster being created in the picture above) to large concrete constructions.

But BLE is my area of obsession at the moment. There are lots of short-run one off and no-name BLE boards (often with limited UART like features) - Redbear are about the only people who make boards that are really readily available from multiple suppliers and which support pretty much everything you'd want to do. I already have one of their BLE Mini boards but at the Faire I also picked up these two:
Just look at the size of them compared with a standard USB connector! The new BLE Nano, on the left, which is a Nordic nRF51822 SoC and the Blend Micro, on the right, which is an Arduino plus BLE. The Nano is similar to the older BLE Mini in that it has central support but unlike the Mini it looks like you really can program the SoC yourself without (with the Mini you have to talk to the SoC with something else unless you're willing to shell out for TI's industry priced development tools).

At the IoT Zurich stand I met Michael Kroll and Matthias Ringwald. Michael is one of those people whose name just keeps on popping up if you're looking into things BLE related (him and Jeff Rowberg) and he has joined up with Matthias to produce some new BLE shields where the Bluetooth stack runs on the host system, i.e. your Arduino or whatever, rather than being hidden away in proprietary firmware behind some UART or SPI based interface. The stack takes up a noticeable amount of memory (so you probably want something a bit bigger than an UNO) but you do get full control of the stack and can hack it as you want if required rather than having to treat it as a black box as you do with all other such products. It was good to talk briefly with Michael and Matthias and I hope I get to see them again at a future IoT Zurich meetup :)

Before I flew down to Rome I swore I wouldn't buy an Intel Edison. I think it's a cool piece of hardware but I already have way too many devices that I need to devote proper time to before I can justify buying yet another platform. But on seeing it in reality (and considering it's impossible to get online) I cracked and got one with a mini breakout:
I'm surprised at some of the flack the Edison has received since launch. It's an amazing little device. With BLE, wifi, 1GB of RAM and 4GB of eMMC flash, two Atom cores and a Quark core in one tiny package it does seem wildly overspec'd compared to most other IoT offerings. I certainly don't care that it's not quite SD card sized (Electric Imp went with this form factor initially but on the whole once people have got started with the Imp I think most people end up wanting more GPIO and go with something like the P3V3). At USD$50 you're probably not going to use the Edison in your slightly-smart lightbulb Kickstarter but it'll be amazing for prototyping, for demonstrating initial ideas in action, for one off items and for IoT devices that do require real power. Most hobbyist devices used to be 5V devices but 3.3V has become quite common and now the Edison is 1.8V so it's time to start buying yet more level shifters! As I understand it the Quark core isn't currently accessible to developers which is a bizarre (I presume one was meant to run Linux of the Atom cores and timing critical classical embedded stuff on the Quark core) but I guess this will change with a future update.

Intel found the right guy to be enthusiastic about Edison. Irishman David Hunt describes himself as maker, photographer, climber and coder on his card. He works for emutex in Limerick where they produce embedded systems drivers and software for various companies including Intel. David demonstrated his own projects, including the next generation of the CamIO project that he'd shown off last year in Rome, this time using the much smaller Edison in place of the Galileo board used previously.
Half the people at the Faire seemed to have completed a Kickstarter - it really made you realize how amazing Kickstarter has been in enabling a lot of the innovation seen today.

There were many crowd pulling items at the Faire, like life size androids, that have been covered by the press elsewhere (e.g. Forbes) and many cool, if sometimes slightly disturbing!, things like a 3D printed hexapod robot. The following are a few of the generally smaller, less immediately dramatic things that were interesting in one way or another for me.

Various people were printing circuits. The Fingies people at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar managed to bring together printed circuits and the IoT with sensor cards (that could be joined together electrically through magnets) hooked up to a non-printed wifi central component. Fujifilm were there with the Fingies people demonstrating their impressive Digimatix materials printer that was used to print the circuits.

I'd love to have my own pick-and-place machine. The guys at BotFactory not only have a desktop pick-and-place, the machine also prints the PCB onto which the parts will be placed! BotFactory have recently got their Squink project Kickstarter funded. At USD$3,000 per device it's at the very high end in terms of price for a Kickstarter technology project, but when you see what it's doing the price is fairly understandable. Line up your individual SMD components as best you can on the feeder tray and their camera technology will work things out, picking up the items and rotating them properly to compensate for any clumsiness on your part (these items are tiny). It can only do so much at the moment - the PCBs are printed paper so no multilayer designs, the smallest resistors it can handle are 0603 (pretty small by most people's standards) and while it can handle SOIC it can't handle say QFN (see the Adafruit PCB ruler for a good guide to these sizes).
Lots of people seem to be coming to the conclusion that BLE and wifi make a good combination when it comes to IoT, e.g. the already mentioned Edison or the recent McThings Kickstarter. Berlin based Wunderbar does this as well and brings together a main module with wifi and BLE and six mini sensors (most with multiple functions, e.g. humidity plus temperature) in a really cool chocolate bar style packaging. And unlike McThings (and too many other people) they don't seem to gone with yet another makey-up scripting language but have proper normal APIs. Like most of these things it comes with its own cloud framework. I must admit initially I preferred the idea of devices that didn't require any additional infrastructure (what happens to your device if the manufacturer goes bust and the cloud service goes offline?) but I've flipped and now on the whole think the cloud can solve more problems than it creates for IoT devices. Note: Wunderbar uses the GainSpan GS1500 module - I'd be interested in how this compares to something like the TI CC3200 seen in a lot of other projects coming out now.

Among the many people there who'd completed a Kickstarter were the Munich based Mr. Beam team who were showing off their hobbyist laser cutter - they told me it was coming along great and would be waaay better than the apparently similar LazerBlade Kickstarter that got funded at almost exactly the same time. I'm sure there's just friendly competition and both teams do wish each other the best :)
Both TI and ST had enthusiastic and interesting representatives showing off their products suitable for hobbyists. ST had their super cheap mbed compatible Nucleo boards (USD$10 for 96KB RAM, 512KB flash ARM M4 SoC board!) along with various add-on boards (e.g. a BLE one). While mbed compatible their representative did feel you'd get more out of them using their own STM32Cube software (that includes FreeRTOS). TI were showing off their LaunchPad evaluation kits - including the CC3200 one. They were pretty up front that the CC3000 had in many ways been a rather sucky product and swore the CC3200 was a massive improvement. They also pointed me at Energia - a platform that brings the Arduino framework to LaunchPad and provides a more hobbyist friendly environment than the traditional TI tools (or the environments like IAR that they generally recommend).

Atmel unsurprisingly were a big sponsor. Thank you for the free ATmega328P Xplained Mini - they were giving this away to anyone who showed enough interest their stuff. The Xplained Mini is pretty cool - it's very like an Arduino but with proper debugger support without requiring a separate expensive JTAG debugger - just hook it up via USB to Atmel Studio. I haven't tried it out but they said you could build and upload Arduino sketches from Atmel Studio and set breakpoints etc. in the code that's running on the MCU on the Mini board. I really liked this feature in LPCXPresso - shame that, unlike LPCXPresso, Atmel Studio doesn't run on Mac or Linux, it's just available for Windows.

The ridges that you see on all hobbyist 3D prints detract a lot from the finished product. The 3DFinisher crowd think they've come up with a solution - you place your completed printed item in a sealed glass container where it is exposed to a hot vapor that removes the ridges by both slightly melting the item's surface and by applying a thin coating. The results do look nice - but I suspect it may result in over smoothing for certain applications.

Despite my interest in wifi for embedded system I've never really looked into Carambola, so it was good to get a chance to talk with the guys from 8 devices and see their new NUY shield which allows you to add Yún like capabilities to your existing Arduino board.
Who doesn't need their own CNC router? After recently doing a one-day course on using a full size CNC machine I was interested to see a number of table top hobbyist CNC routers - in particular one from Makesmith, a group of nice guys from SF. I'd love to have see their 3D (yes they said 3D, when I said 2.5D) model of SF but unfortunately someone had walked off with it an hour earlier :(

Autodesk seem to be trying all sorts of things at the moment - so you can't quite be sure what's just a fun idea and what will really still be around, properly supported and developed in future years. Having said that 123D Circuits looked interesting - construct your Arduino controlled circuit, in a very Fritzing like web app, but then go on to write the Ardunio code for it there too, simulate it and then lay it out and order it as a PCB - all in one app.

Need an 8x8 grid of buttons - each of which can be lit with whatever color you want and the whole thing looks beautiful? Try bhoreal - funded via the Spanish crowdfunding site Goteo. Kind of like the Adafruit UNTZtrument but with full color!

Like Wunderbar the Apio team bring together a central controller that talks to the world via wifi and with its slave devices via BLE. Unlike Wunderbar its not about sensor but about controlling things. Developers or even end users to hook things together with triggers and such like. The central node's relationship with other nodes is somewhat like the IoT equivalent of the Logitech Harmony remote controls that can interact with a whole load of AV devices etc. to complete a given task, e.g. "boot" your home cinema setup. The Apio team skipped the hassle of separate apps for iOS, Android etc. and went with a HTML5 web app (I know that didn't work out for Facebook a few years back but presumably things have gotten better since then).

A drone made out of cardboard? There was a guy there called Angelo Aussiana who was making pretty much anything out of cardboard including drones. He's trying to get a mass production run funded via Indiegogo but he seems to have all the work done and had kits at the show (you can see all the bits being popped out of a couple of pieces of card in the video on the Indiegogo project page).

There were various manufacturers there showing off their wares and their ability to turn maker ideas into mass produced products, but I'll choose just one to mention - Seeed. They were showing off tons of little items that they've helped bring to the Maker community. They're the people who've done the actual manufacturing for all kinds of third parties like Spark Core and Redbear Lab. If you're looking for something they probably make it. And if you want something made they'll make it for you - I'd love to try out their maker targeted PCB assembly service one day, not only will they print your PCB (up to 4 layers) in low volume (minimum quantity 2) they'll also place any of the standard components from their open parts library - so even if there are some specialist parts you're going to solder yourself you can get all the standard resistors etc. done for you (and using SMD components that you'd be hard put to solder yourself).
For cool artistic output I really liked the DoubleCLICK project from Officine Sistemiche - I wish I'd taken a photo. It reminded me of the technology behind lightpainting. It consisted of a a small cart that could be pushed around by hand over a piece of paper. The cart contained a pen and how hard the pen was pushed against the paper was motor controlled. This cart, with pen and motor, was connected by a long flexible cable to a main machine. Working from a gray scale photo an application there, knowing the location of the cart at all times, would adjust the pressure applied to the pen according to the gray scale value appropriate for the current location relative to the original image. The pen was never lifted entirely from the paper so you got a continuous line of varying thickness as you moved the cart. The original image was clearly visible if you pushed the cart around enough, and you could produce very nice effects by pushing the cart around in a structured manner, e.g. back and forward but not too close between lines. The DoubleCLICK project page describes a somewhat different system where the pen basically has just two modes - either on or off the paper and it's not just the the cart that moves the pen in the x-y plane but also the servos connected to the pen so the whole effect is achieved in quite a different way to just varying the line thickness drawn. I hope I wasn't hallucinating about the behavior I saw at the Faire :)

Andrea Bruno has a project to add NFC to phone's that only have Bluetooth (i.e. every iOS device until the 6s and even there the NFC APIs aren't exposed to developers for anything other than Apple Pay). Though actually Andrea's project currently just works with Android.
Roland has a lot of what they called 3D modelling machines. Unlike most of the 3D printers on display these were non-hobbyist machines that could produce really professional looking consumer ready end products out of all kinds of materials. I particularly enjoyed the chocolates that were being churned out.

Lastly Microsoft must win a prize for bizarre product naming with what they were calling Windows on Devices - but there are no windows as it's Microsoft's IoT offering and intended for headless devices!

I really enjoyed Maker Faire Rome 2014 - the amount of inventiveness and creativity was amazing. If this is anything to go by the future is going to be great! Hopefully I'll get to see the World Maker Faire in NY sometime soon and get to compare.


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