Rich Legrand founded Charmed Labs in 2002 to develop and sell innovative robotics-related designs, including the Xport Robot Kit, the Qwerk robot controller, the GigaPan robotic camera mount, and the Pixy vision sensor. He recently told us about his background, passion for robotics, and interest in open-source hardware.
RICH: Back in 1982 when I was 12, one of my older brother’s friends was what they called a “whiz kid.” I would show up uninvited at his place because he was always creating something new, and he didn’t treat me like a snotty-nosed kid (which I was). On one particular afternoon he had disassembled a Big Trak toy (remember those?) and connected it to his Atari 800, so the Atari could control its movements. He wrote a simple BASIC program to read the joystick movements and translate them to Big Trak movements. You could then hit the return key and the Atari would play back the motions you just made. There were relays clicking and LEDs flashing, and the Big Trak did exactly what you told it to do. I had never seen a computer do this before, and I was absolutely amazed. I wanted to learn as much as I could about electronics after that. And I’m still learning, of course.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: You studied electrical engineering at both Rice University and North Carolina State University. Why electrical engineering?
RICH: I think it goes back to when I was 12 and trying to learn more about robotics. With a limited budget, it was largely a question of what I get my hands on. Back then you could go into Radio Shack and buy a handful of 7400 series parts and create something simple, but pretty amazing. Forrest Mims’s books (also available at Radio Shack) were full of inspiring circuit designs. And Steve Ciarcia’s “Circuit Cellar” column in Byte magazine focused on seat-of-the-pants electronics projects you could build yourself. The only tools you needed were a soldering iron, a voltmeter, and a logic probe. I think young people today see a similar landscape where it’s easier to get involved in electrical engineering than say mechanical engineering (although 3-D printing might change this). The Internet is full of source material and the hardware (computers, microcontrollers, power supplies, etc.) is lower-cost and easier to find. The Arduino is a good example of this. It has its own ecosystem from which you can launch practically any project or idea.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Photography factors in a lot of your work and work history. Is photography a passion of yours?
RICH: I don’t think so, but I enjoy photography. Image processing, image understanding, machine vision—the idea that you can extract useful information from a digital image with a piece of software, an algorithm. It’s a cool idea to me because you can have multiple vision algorithms and effectively have several sensors in one package. Or in the case of Gigapan, being able to create a gigapixel imager from a fairly low-cost point-and-shoot camera, some motors, and customized photo stitching software. I’m a hardware guy at heart, but hardware tends to be expensive. Combining inexpensive hardware with software to create something that’s lower-cost—it sounds like a pretty niche idea, but these are the projects that I seem to fall for over and over again. Working on these projects is what I really enjoy.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Prior to your current gig at Charmed Labs, you were with Gigapan Systems, which you co-founded. Tell us about how you came to launch Gigapan.
RICH: Gigapan is robotic camera mount that allows practically anyone with a digital camera to make high-resolution panoramas. The basic idea is that you take a camera with high resolution but narrow field-of-view (high-zoom) to capture a mosaic of pictures that can be later stitched together with software to form a much larger, highly-detailed panorama of the subject, whether it’s the Grand Canyon or the cockpit of the Space Shuttle. This technique is used by the Mars rovers, so it’s not surprising that a NASA engineer (Randy Sargent) first conceived Gigapan. Charmed Labs got a chance to bid on the hardware, and we designed and manufactured the first Gigapan units as part of a public beta program. (The beta was funded by Carnegie Mellon University through donations from NASA and Google.) The beta garnered enough attention to get investors and start a company to focus on Gigapan, which we did. We were on CNN, we were mentioned on Jay Leno. It was a fun and exciting time!
CIRCUIT CELLAR: In a 2004 article, “Closed-Loop Motion Control for Mobile Robotics“ (Circuit Cellar 169), you introduced us to your first product, the Xport. How did you come to design the Xport?
RICH: When the Gameboy Advance was announced back in 1999, I thought it was a perfect robot platform. It had a color LCD and a powerful 32-bit processor, it was optimized for battery power, and it was low-cost. The pitch went something like: “For $40 you can buy a cartridge for your Gameboy that allows you to play a game. For $99 you can buy a cartridge with motors and sensors that turns your Gameboy into a robot.” So the Gameboy becomes the “brains” of the robot if you will. I didn’t know what the robot would do exactly, other than be cool and robot-like, and I didn’t know how to land a consumer electronics product on the shelves of Toys “R” Us, so I tackled some of the bigger technical problems instead, like how to turn the Gameboy into an embedded system with the required I/O for robotics. I ordered a Gameboy from Japan through eBay prior to the US release and reverse-engineered the cartridge port. The first “Xport” prototype was working not long after the first Gameboys showed up in US stores, so that was pretty cool. It was a simple circuit board that plugged into the Gamboy’s cartridge port. It had flash for program storage and an FPGA for programmable I/O. The Xport seemed like an interesting product by itself, so I decided to sell it. I quit my job as a software engineer and started Charmed Labs.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Tell us about the Xport Botball Controller (XBC).
RICH: The Xport turned the Gameboy into an embedded system with lots of I/O, but my real goal was to make a robot. So I added more electronics around the Xport for motor control, sensor inputs, a simple vision system, even Bluetooth. I sold it online for a while before the folks at Botball expressed interest in using it for their robot competition, which is geared for middle school and high school students. Building a robot out of a Gameboy was a compelling idea, especially for kids, and tens of thousands of students used the XBC to learn about engineering—that was really great. I never got the Gameboy robot on the shelves of Toys “R” Us, but it was a really happy ending to the project.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Charmed Labs collaborated with the Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab on the Qwerk robot controller. How did you end up collaborating with CMU?
RICH: I met Illah Nourbakhsh who runs the CREATE lab at a robot competition back when he was a grad student. His lab’s Telepresence Robotics Kit (TeRK) was created in part to address the falling rate of computer science graduates in the US. The idea was to create a curriculum that featured robotics to help attract more students to the field. Qwerk was an embedded Linux system that allowed you make a telepresence robot easily. You could literally plug in some motors, a webcam, and a battery, and fire up a web browser and become “telepresent” through the robot. We designed and manufactured Qwerk for a couple years before we licensed it.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Pixy is a cool vision sensor for robotics that you can teach to track objects. What was the impetus for that design?
RICH: Pixy is actually the fifth version of the CMUcam. The first CMUcam was invented at Carnegie Mellon by Anthony Rowe back in 2000 when he was a graduate student. I got involved on a bit of a lark. NXP Semiconductors had just announced a processor that looked like an good fit for a low-cost vision sensor, so I sent Anthony a heads-up, that’s all. He was looking for someone to help with the next version of CMUcam, so it was a happy coincidence.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: You launched Pixy in 2013 on Kickstarter. Would you recommend Kickstarter to Circuit Cellar readers who are thinking of launching a hardware product?
RICH: Before crowdfunding was a thing, you either had to self-fund or convince a few investors to contribute a decent amount of cash based on the premise that you had a good idea. And the investors typically didn’t have your background or perspective, so it was usually a difficult sell. With crowdfunding, a couple hundred people with similar backgrounds and perspectives contribute $50 (or so) in exchange for becoming the very first customers. It’s an easier path I think, and it’s a great fit for products like Pixy that have a limited but enthusiastic audience. I think of crowdfunding as a cost-effective marketing strategy. Sites like Kickstarter get huge amounts of traffic, and getting your idea in front of such a large audience is usually expensive—cost-prohibitive in my case. It also answers two important questions for hardware makers: Are enough people interested in this thing to make it worthwhile? And if it is worthwhile, how many should I make?
But I really didn’t think many people would be interested in a vision sensor for hobbyist robotics, so when faced with the task of creating a Kickstarter for Pixy, I thought of lots of excuses not to move forward with it. Case in point—if your Kickstarter campaign fails, it’s public Internet knowledge. (Yikes!) But I’m always telling my boys that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes, so it seemed pretty lame that I was dragging my heals on the Kickstarter thing because I wanted to avoid potential embarrassment. I eventually got the campaign launched, and it was a success, and Pixy got a chance to see the light of day, so that was good. It was a lot of work, and it was psychologically exhausting, but it was really fun to see folks excited about your idea. I’d totally do it again though, and I’d like to crowdfund my next project.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Can you tell us about one or two of the more interesting projects you’ve seen featuring Pixy?
RICH: Ben Heck used Pixy in a couple of his episodes of the Ben Heck Show (www.element14.com/community/community/experts/benheck). He used Pixy to create a camera that can automatically track what he’s filming. And Microsoft used Pixy for an Windows 10 demo that played air hockey IR-Lock (www.irlock.com) is a small company that launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that featured Pixy as a beacon detector for use in autonomous drones. All of these projects have a high fun-factor, which I really enjoy seeing.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: What’s next for Charmed Labs?
RICH: I’ll tell you about one of my crazier ideas. My wife gets on my case every holiday season to hang lights on the house. It wouldn’t be that bad, except our next-door neighbors go all-out. They hang lights on every available surface of their house—think Griswolds from the Christmas Vacation movie. So anything I do to our house looks pretty sad by comparison. I’m competitive. But I had the idea that if I created a computer-controlled light show that’s synchronized to music, it might be a good face-saving technology, a way to possibly one-up the neighbors, because that’s what it’s all about, right? (Ha!) So I’ve been working on an easy-to-set-up and low-cost way to make your own holiday light show. It’s way outside of my robotics wheelhouse. I’m learning about high-voltage electronics and UL requirements, and there’s a decent chance it won’t be cost-competitive, or even work, but my hope is to launch a crowdfunding campaign in the next year or so.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: What are your thoughts on the future of open-source hardware?
RICH: We can probably thank the Arduino folks because before they came along, very few were talking about open hardware. They showed that you can fully open-source a design (including the hardware) and still be successful. Pixy was my first open hardware project and I must admit that I was a little nervous moving forward with it, but open hardware principles have definitely helped us. More people are using Pixy because it’s fully open. If you’re interested in licensing your software or firmware, open hardware is an effective marketing strategy, so I don’t think it’s about “giving it all away” as some might assume. That is, you can still offer closed-source licenses to customers that want to use your software, but not open-source their customizations. I’ve always liked the idea of open vs. proprietary, and I’ve learned plenty from fellow engineers who choose to share instead of lock things down. It’s great for innovation.
On a different robot, a flapping winged ornithopter, we had this PC104 computer running matlab as the controller. It probably weighed about 2 pounds, which forced us to build a huge wingspan – almost 6 feet. We dreamed about adding some machine vision to the platform as well. Having just built a vision-based robot for MIT’s MASLAB competition using an FPGA paired with an Arduino – the PC104 solution started to look pretty stupid to me. That was what really got me interested embedded work. FPGAs and Microcontrollers gave you an insane amount of computing power at comparatively minuscule power and weight footprints. And so died the PC104 standard.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Tell us about your internship at Analog Devices. Can you provide a bit info about what you worked on?
ANDREW: I got the job at Analog after some folks there saw our MASLAB robot I mentioned earlier. I worked in the MEMS group that was responsible for the XL345. This was the accelerator used in the Nintendo Wii, so we all felt a bit like rockstars. iPhone had just come out, and so everyone was dreaming about using these types of devices in smartphones. Analog was where I really cut my teeth on the Cortex M3, which we used in our test hardware for the part.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: What was the most important thing you learned during your internship at Analog Devices?
ANDREW: Certainly the most surprising thing I learned was that in the land of digital logic and RTL, verification engineers outnumber design engineers by about 6 to 1. When going to fab costs you six or seven figures, you need to be *sure* that things are going to work. Despite the enormous amount of simulation, you still never get it on the first try though. I won’t mention how many tries it took on that part.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: What is Leaflabs? How did it start? Who comprises your team today? (Could you share a photo of the workspace, lab area?)
ANDREW: LeafLabs is an R&D firm specializing in embedded and distributed systems. Projects start as solving specific problems for a client, but the idea is to turn those relationships into product opportunities. To me, that’s what separates R&D from consulting.
I started LeafLabs with a handful of friends in 2009. It was an all MIT cast of engineers, and it took four or five years before I understood how much we were holding ourselves back by not embracing some marketing and sales talent. The original concept was to try and design ICs that were optimized for running certain machine learning algorithms at low power. The idea was that smartphones might want to do speech to text some day without sending the audio off to the cloud. This was way too ambitious for a group of 22 year olds with no money.
Our second overly ambitious idea was to try and solve the “FPGA problem.” I’m still really passionate about this, but it too was too much for four kids in a basement to take a big bite off. The problem is that FPGAs vendors like Xilinx and Altera have loads of expertise in silicon, but great software is just not in their DNA. Imagine if x86 never published their instruction set. What if Intel insisted on owning not just the processors, but the languages, compilers, libraries, IDEs, debuggers, operating systems, and the rest of it? Would we ever have gotten to Linux? What about Python? FPGAs have enormous potential to surpass even the GPU as a completely standard technology in computer systems. There should some gate fabric in my phone. The development tools just suck, suck, suck. If any FPGA executives are reading this: Please open up your bitstream formats, the FSF and the rest of the community will get the ball rolling on an open toolchain that will far exceed what you guys are doing internally. You will change the world.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: How did the Maple microcontroller board come about? How did it take to develop?
ANDREW: Arduino was really starting to come up at the time. I had just left Analog, where we had been using the 32-bit Cortex M3. We started asking “Chips like the STM32 are clearly the way of the future, why on earth is Arduino using a chip from the ‘90s” – Perry, another LeafLabs founder, was really passionate about this. ARM is taking over the world, the community deserves a product that is as easy to use as Arduino, but built on top of modern technology.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Can you define “minimalist data acquisition” for our readers? What is it and why does it interest you?
ANDREW: More and more fields, but particularly in Neuroscience, are having to deal with outrageously huge real time data sets. There are 100 Billion neurons in the human brain, if we want to listen to just 1000 of them we are already talking about ~1Gb/s. Ed Boyden, a professor at MIT, asked us if we could build some hardware to help handle the torrent. Could we scale to 1 Tb/s? Could we build something that researchers on a budget could actually afford? That mere mortals could use?
Willow is a hardware platform for capturing, storing, and processing neuroscience data at this scale. We had to be “minimalist” to keep costs down, and ensure our system is easy to use. Since we need to use an FPGA anyway to interface with a data source (like a bank of ADCs, or an array of image sensors), we thought, “Why not use the same chip for interfacing to storage?” With a single $150 FPGA and a couple of $200 SSD drives, we can record at 12Gbps, put guarantees on throughput, and record for a couple of hours!
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Tell us about the Willow minimalist data acquisition system. (Do you have a photo we can publish?) How did the project come about? Are you still beta testing?
ANDREW: If you have a need to capture, store, and process real time data at the scale of 10 Gbps, or 1000 Gpbs, and you want an open source tool that is not going to cost you six figures, we would love to talk with you about our beta program. We will probably be coming out of beta in early 2016.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: What are you goals for Leaflabs for the next 6 to 12 months?
ANDREW: Including our superb remote contractors, our team is pushing 20. A year from now, it could be double that. This is a really tricky transition – where company culture really starts to solidify, where project management becomes a first order problem, and where people’s careers are on the line. My first goal for LeafLabs is make sure we nail this transition and build off of a really solid foundation.
Besides that, we are always looking for compelling new problems to work on and new markets to play in. Getting into neuroscience has been an absolute blast.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Can you tell us about any new products you are working on?
ANDREW: We just started a new project in the consumer electronics space. I think we caught that bug from working on Ara and how exciting it is to work on something people immediately understand without being domain experts. Put an Ara phone in someone’s hands and they immediately say “Wow.” Unfortunately, we aren’t ready to talk about the new project yet.
CIRCUIT CELLAR: Think big picture. What is the “next big thing” in electrical engineering or game changer on the horizon? For instance, what excites you the most? The Internet of Things? Innovations in open-source technology? 3-D printing?
ANDREW: Chip to Chip networking with UniPro of course! I think that we have a real opportunity to make hardware more like software during this next decade. Look how Web companies operate. They are design focused, iterate swiftly, deploy continuously. We can do this in hardware too. With each new tool – be it Android or UniPro or whatever – we get a bit closer to the ideal where product development is more about users and less about plumbing. All of the cheap silicon coming down the pipe from the smartphone industry is truly a revolution for anyone in the hardware business. I can run Android now on a $5 part. In a few years, it will be less than $1. With all that horsepower, we can move embedded development out from assembly hacking and debugging TCP stacks and towards the much more interesting problem of how to make the billions of devices comprising the Internet of Things secure, flexible, and most importantly, useful!
This interview appears in Circuit Cellar 305 (December 2015).