Data Communication Between “Smart” Pendants

As head of the Computer Science and Software  Engineering department at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, Chris Coulston is busy.

But not too busy to surf the ‘Net for design inspiration.

And one of his latest projects may earn him the title of “social jewelry designer,” along with college professor and department chair.

In the June issue of Circuit Cellar, Coulston writes about his design and construction of an RGB LED pendant that “cycles through a color sequence, detects when another pendant is brought into its proximity, and communicates color sequence information to the other pendant through its LED.” The heart of the design is a Seoul Semiconductor SFT722 RGB LED.

Coulston was online a few years ago when he ran across the first half of his project inspiration—a Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories technical report titled “Very Low-Cost Sensing and Communication Using Bi-directional LEDs.” The report, Coulston says, “describes how an ordinary LED with no additional circuitry can act as a full-duplex communication channel.”

Pendant’s two boards

His remaining inspiration came from an article he recalled appearing in Circuit Cellar a decade ago.

The Mitsubishi labs technical report “got me thinking about Jeff Bachiochi’s article ‘Designing with RGB LEDs’ (Circuit Cellar 159, 2003), in which the challenges associated with designing a piece of LED jewelry are described,” Coulston says. “The fusion of these two ideas was the inspiration for my social jewelry design.”

Coulston’s design includes a pair of circuit boards, the upper containing the LED and analog circuitry and the lower containing the microcontroller.

“The prototype pendant is mainly controlled through a USB-to-USART bridge,” Couston says. “Its power is supplied by the same connection.”

He invites anyone who is  “curious how an LED can be used as a transceiver and how it’s used to build a piece of social jewelry” to read his article. You’ll find it in next month’s issue of Circuit Cellar.

Q&A: Raspberry Pi Innovation

Orlando, FL-based web app developer and blogger Shea Silverman recently received Kickstarter funding for the latest version of PiPlay, his Raspberry Pi-based OS. Shea and I discussed his ongoing projects, his Raspberry Pi book, and what’s next for PiPlay.—Nan Price, Associate Editor



Shea Silverman

NAN: What is your current occupation?

SHEA: Web applications developer with the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

NAN: Why and when did you decide to start your blog?

SHEA: I’ve been blogging on and off for years, but I could never keep to a schedule or really commit myself to writing. After I started working on side projects, I realized I needed a place to store tips and tricks I had figured out. I installed WordPress, posted some PhoneGap tips, and within a day got a comment from someone who had the same issue, and my tips helped them out. I have been blogging ever since. I make sure to post every Friday night.

NAN: Tell us about PiPlay, the Raspberry Pi OS. Why did you start the OS? What new developments, if any, are you working on?


Shea’s PiPlay Raspberry Pi OS recently reached 400% funding on Kickstarter.

SHEA: PiPlay is a gaming and emulation distribution for the Raspberry Pi single-board computer. It is built on top of the Raspbian OS, and tries to make it as easy as possible to play games on your Raspberry Pi. My blog got really popular after I started posting binaries and tutorials on how to compile different emulators to the Raspberry Pi, but I kept getting asked the same questions and saw users struggling with the same consistent issues.

I decided I would release a disk image with everything preconfigured and ready to be loaded onto an SD card. I’ve been adding new emulators, games, and tools to it ever since.

I just recently completed a Kickstarter that is funding the next release, which includes a much nicer front end, a web GUI, and a better controller configuration system.

NAN: You wrote Instant Raspberry Pi Gaming. Do you consider this book introductory or is it written for the more experienced engineer?

SHEA: Instant Raspberry Pi Gaming is written like a cookbook with recipes for doing various tasks. Some of them are very simple, and they build up to some more advanced recipes. One of the easier tasks is creating your user account on the Pi Store, while the more advanced recipes have you working with Python and using an API to interact with Minecraft.

Readers will learn how to setup a Raspberry Pi, install and use various emulators and games, a bit about the Minecraft API, and common troubleshooting tips.


The Pitroller is a joystick and buttons hooked up to the GPIO pins of a Raspberry Pi, which can act as a controller or keyboard for various emulators.

NAN: You are a member of FamiLAB, an Orlando, FL-based community lab/hackerspace. What types of projects have you worked on at the lab?


Disney director Rich Moore poses with Shea’s miniature arcade machine. The machine was based on Fix It Felix Jr. from Disney’s Wreck It Ralph.

SHEA: I spend a lot of time at the lab using the laser cutter. Creating a 2-D vector in Inkscape, and then watching it be cut out on a piece of wood or acrylic is really inspiring. My favorite project was making a little arcade machine featuring Fix It Felix Jr. from Wreck It Ralph. A marketing person from Disney was able to get it into the hands of the director Rich Moore. He sent me a bunch of pictures of himself holding my little arcade machine next to the full size version.

NAN: Give us a little background information. How did you become interested in technology?

SHEA: My mom always likes to remind me that I’ve been using computers since I was 2. My parents were very interested in technology and encouraged my curiosity when it came to computers. I always liked to take something apart and see how it worked, and then try to put it back together. As the years went on, I’ve devoted more and more time to making technology a major part of my life.

NAN: Tell us about the first embedded system you designed.

SHEA: I have a lot of designs, but I don’t think I’ve ever finished one. I’ll be halfway into a project, learn about something new, then cannibalize what I was working on and repurpose it for my new idea. One of the first embedded projects I worked on was a paintball board made out of a PICAXE microcontroller. I never got it small enough to fit inside the paintball marker, but it was really cool to see everything in action. The best part was when I finally had that “ah-ha!” moment, and everything I was learning finally clicked.

NAN: What was the last electronics-design related product you purchased and what type of project did you use it with?

SHEA: At UCF, one of our teams utilizes a ticket system for dealing with requests. Our department does a hack day each semester, so my coworker and I decided to rig up a system that changes the color of the lights in the office depending on the urgency of requests in the box. We coded up an API and had a Raspberry Pi ping the API every few minutes for updates. We then hooked up two Arduinos to the Raspberry Pi and color-changing LED strips to the Arduinos. We set it up and it’s been working for the past year and a half, alerting the team with different colors when there is work to do.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any projects?

SHEA: My Kickstarter for PiPlay just finished at 400% funding. So right now I’m busy working on fulfilling the rewards, and writing the latest version of PiPlay.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the industry?

SHEA: Wearable computing. Google Glass, the Pebble smart watch, Galaxy Gear—I think these are all great indicators of where our technology is heading. We currently have very powerful computers in our pockets with all kinds of sensors and gadgets built in, but very limited ways to physically interact with them (via the screen, or a keypad). If we can make the input devices modular, be it your watch, a heads-up display, or something else, I think that is going to spark a new revolution in user experiences.

Battery Charger Design (EE Tip #130)

It’s easy to design a good, inexpensive charger. There is no justification for selling cheap, inadequate contraptions. Many companies (e.g., Linear Technology, Maxim, Semtech, and Texas Instruments) supply inexpensive battery management ICs. With a few external parts, you can build a perfect charger for just about any battery.

Texas Instruments’s UC2906 is an older (Unitrode) IC designed to build an excellent sealed lead-acid battery charger with a sophisticated charging profile. Figure 1 shows the recommended charger circuit.

Figure 1: This lead-acid battery charger uses Texas Instruments’s UC2906 IC.

Figure 1: This lead-acid battery charger uses Texas Instruments’s UC2906 IC.

In addition to the IC, only a handful of resistors and a PNP power transistor Q1 are needed to build it. Q1 must be rated for the maximum charging current and fitted with a heatsink.

An LED with its current-limiting resistor R can be connected to pin 7, which is an open-collector NPN transistor, to indicate the presence of power. Similarly, an LED with a series resistor could be connected to pin 9, which is also an open-collector NPN transistor to indicate overcharge (it is not used in Figure 1). The UC2906 datasheet and the Application Note provide tables and equations for selection of resistors Rs, Rt, RA, RB, RC, and RD and suggestions for adding various features.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an article written by George Novacek, “Battery Basics (Part 3): Battery Management ICs,” Circuit Cellar 280, 2013.

The Future of Monolithically Integrated LED Arrays

LEDs are ubiquitous in our electronic lives. They are widely used in notification lighting, flash photography, and light bulbs, to name a few. For displays, LEDs have been commercialized as backlights in televisions and projectors. However, their use in image formation has been limited.

A prototype emissive LED display chip is shown. The chip includes an emissive compass pattern ready to embed into new applications.

A prototype emissive LED display chip is shown. The chip includes an emissive compass pattern ready to embed into new applications.

The developing arena of monolithically integrated LED arrays, which involves fabricating millions of LEDs with corresponding transistors on a single chip, provides many new applications not possible with current technologies, as the LEDs can simultaneously act as the backlight and the image source.

The common method of creating images is to first generate light (using LEDs) and then filter that light using a spatial light modulator. The filter could be an LCD, liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS), or a digital micromirror device (DMD) such as a Digital Light Processing (DLP) projector. The filtering processes cause significant loss of light in these systems, despite the brightness available from LEDs. For example, a typical LCD uses only 1% to 5% of the light generated.

Two pieces are essential to a display: a light source and a light controller. In most display technologies, the light source and light control functionalities are served by two separate components (e.g., an LED backlight and an LCD). However, in emissive displays, both functionalities are combined into a single component, enabling light to be directly controlled without the inherent inefficiencies and losses associated with filtering. Because each light-emitting pixel is individually controlled, light can be generated and emitted exactly where and when needed.

Emissive displays have been developed in all sizes. Very-large-format “Times Square” and stadium displays are powered by large arrays of individual conventional LEDs, while new organic LED (OLED) materials are found in televisions, mobile phones, and other micro-size applications. However, there is still a void. Emissive “Times Square” displays cannot be scaled to small sizes and emissive OLEDs do not have the brightness available for outdoor environments and newer envisioned applications. An emissive display with high brightness but in a micro format is required for applications such as embedded cell phone projectors or displays on see-through glasses.

We know that optimization by the entire LED industry has made LEDs the brightest controllable light source available. We also know that a display requires a light source and a method of controlling the light. So, why not make an array of LEDs and control individual LEDs with a matching array of transistors?

The marrying of LED materials (light source) to transistors (light control) has long been researched. There are three approaches to this problem: fabricate the LEDs and transistors separately, then bond them together; fabricate transistors first, then integrate LEDs on top; and fabricate LEDs first, then integrate transistors on top. The first method is not monolithic. Two fabricated chips are electrically and mechanically bonded, limiting integration density and thus final display resolutions. The second method, starting with transistors and then growing LEDs, offers some advantages in monolithic (single-wafer) processing, but growth of high-quality, high-efficiency LEDs on transistors has proven difficult.

My start-up company, Lumiode (, is developing the third method, starting with optimized LEDs and then fabricating silicon transistors on top. This leverages existing LED materials for efficient light output. It also requires careful fabrication of the integrated transistor layer as to not damage the underlying LED structures. The core technology uses a laser method to provide extremely local high temperatures to the silicon while preventing thermal damage to the LED. This overcomes typical process incompatibilities, which have previously held back development of monolithically integrated LED arrays. In the end, there is an array of LEDs (light source) and corresponding transistors to control each individual LED (light control), which can reach the brightness and density requirements of future microdisplays.

Regardless of the specific integration method employed, a monolithically integrated LED and transistor structure creates a new range of applications requiring higher efficiency and brightness. The brightness available from integrated LED arrays can enable projection on truly see-through glass, even in outdoor daylight environments. The efficiency of an emissive display enables extended battery lifetimes and device portability. Perhaps we can soon achieve the types of displays dreamed up in movies.

Traveling With a “Portable Workspace”

As a freelance engineer, Raul Alvarez spends a lot of time on the go. He says the last four or five years he has been traveling due to work and family reasons, therefore he never stays in one place long enough to set up a proper workspace. “Whenever I need to move again, I just pack whatever I can: boards, modules, components, cables, and so forth, and then I’m good to go,” he explains.

Raul_Alvarez_Workspace _Photo_1

Alvarez sits at his “current” workstation.

He continued by saying:

In my case, there’s not much of a workspace to show because my workspace is whichever desk I have at hand in a given location. My tools are all the tools that I can fit into my traveling backpack, along with my software tools that are installed in my laptop.

Because in my personal projects I mostly work with microcontroller boards, modular components, and firmware, until now I think it didn’t bother me not having more fancy (and useful) tools such as a bench oscilloscope, a logic analyzer, or a spectrum analyzer. I just try to work with whatever I have at hand because, well, I don’t have much choice.

Given my circumstances, probably the most useful tools I have for debugging embedded hardware and firmware are a good-old UART port, a multimeter, and a bunch of LEDs. For the UART interface I use a Future Technology Devices International FT232-based UART-to-USB interface board and Tera Term serial terminal software.

Currently, I’m working mostly with Microchip Technology PIC and ARM microcontrollers. So for my PIC projects my tiny Microchip Technology PICkit 3 Programmer/Debugger usually saves the day.

Regarding ARM, I generally use some of the new low-cost ARM development boards that include programming/debugging interfaces. I carry an LPC1769 LPCXpresso board, an mbed board, three STMicroelectronics Discovery boards (Cortex-M0, Cortex-M3, and Cortex-M4), my STMicroelectronics STM32 Primer2, three Texas Instruments LaunchPads (the MSP430, the Piccolo, and the Stellaris), and the following Linux boards: two BeagleBones (the gray one and a BeagleBone Black), a Cubieboard, an Odroid-X2, and a Raspberry Pi Model B.

Additionally, I always carry an Arduino UNO, a Digilent chipKIT Max 32 Arduino-compatible board (which I mostly use with MPLAB X IDE and “regular” C language), and a self-made Parallax Propeller microcontroller board. I also have a Wi-Fi 3G TP-LINK TL-WR703N mini router flashed   with OpenWRT that enables me to experiment with Wi-Fi and Ethernet and to tinker with their embedded Linux environment. It also provides me Internet access with the use of a 3G modem.

Raul_Alvarez_Workspace _Photo_2

Not a bad set up for someone on the go. Alvarez’s “portable workstation” includes ICs, resistors, and capacitors, among other things. He says his most useful tools are a UART port, a multimeter, and some LEDs.

In three or four small boxes I carry a lot of sensors, modules, ICs, resistors, capacitors, crystals, jumper cables, breadboard strips, and some DC-DC converter/regulator boards for supplying power to my circuits. I also carry a small video camera for shooting my video tutorials, which I publish from time to time at my website ( I have installed in my laptop TechSmith’s Camtasia for screen capture and Sony Vegas for editing the final video and audio.

Some IDEs that I have currently installed in my laptop are: LPCXpresso, Texas Instruments’s Code Composer Studio, IAR EW for Renesas RL78 and 8051, Ride7, Keil uVision for ARM, MPLAB X, and the Arduino IDE, among others. For PC coding I have installed Eclipse, MS Visual Studio, GNAT Programming Studio (I like to tinker with Ada from time to time), QT Creator, Python IDLE, MATLAB, and Octave. For schematics and PCB design I mostly use CadSoft’s EAGLE, ExpressPCB, DesignSpark PCB, and sometimes KiCad.

Traveling with my portable rig isn’t particularly pleasant for me. I always get delayed at security and customs checkpoints in airports. I get questioned a lot especially about my circuit boards and prototypes and I almost always have to buy a new set of screwdrivers after arriving at my destination. Luckily for me, my nomad lifestyle is about to come to an end soon and finally I will be able to settle down in my hometown in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The first two things I’m planning to do are to buy a really big workbench and a decent digital oscilloscope.

Alvarez’s article “The Home Energy Gateway: Remotely Control and Monitor Household Devices” appeared in Circuit Cellar’s February issue. For more information about Alvarez, visit his website or follow him on Twitter @RaulAlvarezT.