Designing Wireless Data Gloves

Kevin Marinelli, IT manager for the Mathematics Department at the University of Connecticut, recently answered CC.Post’s newsletter invitation to readers to tell us about their wearable electronics projects. Kevin exhibited his project,  “Wireless Data Gloves,” at the World Maker Faire New York in September. He spoke with Circuit Cellar Managing Editor Mary Wilson about the gloves, which are based on an Adafruit ATmega32U4 breakout board, use XBee modules for wireless communication, and enable wearers to visually manipulate data and 3-D graphics.

MARY: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your educational and professional background.

KEVIN: I am originally from Sydney, Nova Scotia, in Canada. From an early age I have

Kevin Marinelli

Kevin Marinelli

always been interested in taking things apart and creating new things. My degrees are a Bachelor’s in Computer Science from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a Master’s in Computer Science from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I am currently working on my PhD in Computer Science at the University of Connecticut (UConn).

My first full-time employment was with ITS (the computer center) at Dalhousie University. After eight years, I moved on to an IT management position the Ocean Mapping Group at the University of New Brunswick. I am currently the IT manager for the Mathematics Department at  UConn.

I am also an active member of MakeHartford, which is a local group of makers in Hartford, Connecticut.

MARY: Describe the wireless data gloves you recently exhibited at the World Maker Faire in New York. What inspired the idea?

KEVIN: The idea was initially inspired 20 years ago when using a Polhemus 6 Degree-of-Freedom sensor for manipulating computer graphics when I was at the University of New Brunswick. The device used magnetic fields to locate a sensor in three-dimensional space and detect its orientation. The combined location and orientation data provides data with six degrees of freedom. I have been interested in creating six degrees of freedom input devices ever since. With the Arduino and current sensor technologies, that is now possible.

Wireless data gloves on display at World Maker Faire New York. (Photo: Rohit Mehta)

Wireless data gloves on display at World Maker Faire New York. (Photo: Rohit Mehta)

MARY: What do the gloves do? What applications are there? Can you provide an example of who might use them and for what purpose?

KEVIN: The data gloves allow me to use my hands to wirelessly transmit telemetry data to a base station computer, which collects the data and provides it to any application programs that need it.

There are a number of potential applications, such as manipulating 3-D computer graphics, measurement of data for medical applications, remote control of vehicles, remote control of animatronics and puppetry.

MARY: Can you tell me about the data gloves’s design and the components used?

KEVIN: The basic design guidelines were to make the gloves self-contained, lightweight, easy to program, wireless, and rechargeable. The main electronic components are an Adafruit ATmega32U4 breakout board  (Arduino Leonardo software compatible), a SparkFun 9d0f sensor board, an XBee Pro packet radio, a LiPo battery charger circuit, and a LiPo battery. These are all open hardware projects or, in the case of the battery, are ordinary consumer products.

The choice of the ATMega32U4 for the processor was made to provide a USB port without any external components such as an FTDI chip to convert between serial and USB communications. This frees up the serial port on the processor for communicating with the XBee radio.

For the sensors, the SparkFun 9dof board was perfect because of its miniscule size and

Top of glove

Top of glove

because it only requires four connections: two connections for power and two connections for I2C. The board has components with readily available data sheets, and there is access to working example code for the sensor board. This reduced the design work greatly by using an off-the-shelf product instead of designing one myself.

The choice of an 800-mAh LiPo battery provides an excellent lightweight rechargeable power supply in a small form factor. The relatively small battery powers the project for more than 24 h of continuous use.

Palm of glove

Palm of glove

A simple white cotton glove acts as the structure to mount the electronics. For user-controlled input, the glove has conductive fabric fingertips and palm. Touching a finger to the thumb, or the pad on the palm, closes an electrical pathway, which allows the microcontroller to detect the input.

For user-selectable input, each fingertip and the palm of the hand has a conductive fabric pad connected to the Adafruit microcontroller. The thumb and palm act as a voltage source, while the fingertips act as inputs to the microcontroller. This way, the microcontroller can detect which fingers are touching the thumb and the palm pads. Insulated wires of 30 gauge phosphor bronze are sewn into the glove to connect the pads to the microcontroller.

MARY: Are the gloves finished? What were some of the design challenges? Do you plan any changes to the design?

KEVIN: The initial glove design and second version of the prototype have been completed. The major design challenges were finding a microcontroller board with sufficient capabilities to fit on the back of a hand, and configuring the XBee radios. The data glove design will continue to evolve over the next year as newer and more compact components become available.

Initially I was designing and building my own microcontroller circuit based on the ATmega32U4, but Adafruit came out with a nice, usable, designed board for my needs. So I changed the design to use their board.

SparkFun has a well-designed micro USB-based LiPo battery charger circuit. This would have been ideal for my project except that it does not have an On/Off switch and only has some through-hole solder points for powering an external project. I used their CadSoft EAGLE files to redesign the circuit to make it slightly more compact, added in a power switch and a JST connector for the power output for projects.

The XBee radios were an interesting challenge on their own. My initial design used the standard XBee, but that caused communication complications when using multiple data gloves simultaneously. In reading Robert Faludi’s book Building Wireless Sensor Networks: With ZigBee, XBee, Arduino, and Processing, I learned that the XBee Pro was more suited to my needs because it could be configured on a private area network (PAN) with end-nodes for the data gloves and a coordinator for the base station.

One planned future change is to switch to the surface-mount version of the XBee Pro. This will reduce both the size and weight of the electronics for the project.

The current significant design challenge I am working on is how to prevent metal fatigue in the phosphor bronze wires as they bend when the hand and fingers flex. The fatigue problem occurs because I use a small diamond file to remove the Kapton insulation on the wires. This process introduces small nicks or makes the wires too thin, which then promotes the metal fatigue.

A third version is in the design stage. The new design will replace the SparkFun 9dof board with a smaller single-chip sensor, which I hope can be mounted directly on the Adafruit ATmega32U4 board.

MARY: What new skills or technologies did you learn from the project, if any?

KEVIN: Along the way to creating the gloves, I learned a great deal about modern electronics. My previous skills in electronics were learned in the ’70s with single-sided circuits with through-hole components and pre-made circuit boards. I can now design and create double-sided circuit boards with primarily surface-mounted components. For initial prototype designs, I use double-sided photosensitized circuit boards and etch them at home.

Learning to program Arduino boards and Arduino clones has been incredible. The fact that the boards can be programmed using C in a nice IDE with lots of support libraries for common programming tasks makes the platform an incredibly efficient tool. Having an enormous following makes it very easy to find technical support for solving problems with Arduino products and making Arduino clones.

Wireless networking is a key component for the success of the project. I was lucky to have a course in wireless sensor network design at UConn, which taught me how to leverage wireless technology and avoid many of the pitfalls. That, combined with some excellent reference books I found, insured that the networking is stable. The network design provides for more network bandwidth than a single pair of data gloves require, so it is feasible to have multiple people collaborating manipulating the same on the same project.

Designing microcontroller circuits using EAGLE has been an interesting experience. While most of the new components I use regularly in designs are available in libraries from Adafruit and SparkFun, I occasionally have to design my own parts in EAGLE. Using EAGLE to its fullest potential will still take some time, but I have become reasonably proficient with it.

For soldering, I mostly still use a standard temperature controlled soldering iron with a standard tip. Amazingly, this allows me to solder 0402 resistors and capacitors and up to 100 pitch chips. When I have components that need to be soldered under the surface, I use solder paste and a modified electric skillet. This allows me to directly control the temperature of the soldering and gives me direct access to monitoring the process.

The battery charger circuit on my data glove is hand soldered and has a number of 0402-sized components, as  well as a micro USB connector, which also is a challenge to hand solder properly.

MARY: Are there similar “data gloves” out there? How are yours different?

There are a number of data glove projects, which can be found on the Internet. Some are commercial products, while others are academic projects.

My gloves are unique in that they are lightweight and self-contained on the cotton glove. All other projects that you can find on the Internet are either hard-wired to a computer or have components such as the microcontroller, batteries, or radio strapped to the arm or body.

Also, because the main structure is a self-contained cotton glove; the gloves do not interfere with other activities such as typing on a keyboard, using a mouse, writing with a pen, or even drinking from a glass. This was quite handy when developing the software for the glove because I could test the software and make programming corrections without having the inconvenience of putting the gloves on and taking them off repeatedly.

MARY: Are you working on any other projects you’d like to briefly tell us about?

KEVIN: At UConn, we are lucky to have one of the few academic programs in puppetry in the US. In the spring, I plan on taking a fine arts course at UConn in designing and making marionette puppets. This will allow me to expand the use of my data gloves into controlling and manipulating puppets for performance art.

I am collaborating on designing circuit boards with a number of people in Hartford. The more interesting collaborations are with artists, where they think differently about technology than I do. Balam Soto of Open Wire Labs is a new media artist and one of the creative artists I collaborate with regularly. He is also a member of MakeHartford and presents at Maker Faires.

MARY: What was the response to the wireless data gloves at World Maker Faire New York?

KEVIN: The response to the data gloves was overwhelmingly positive. People were making comparisons to the Nintendo Power Glove and to the movie “Minority Report.” Several musicians commented that the gloves should be excellent for performing and recording virtual musical instruments such as a guitar, trumpet and drums.

For the demonstration, I showed a custom application; which allowed both hands (or two people) to interactively manipulate points and lines on a drawing. Many people were encouraged to use the gloves for themselves, which enhanced the quality of the feedback I received.

The gloves are large-sized to fit my hands, which was quite a challenge for younger children to use because their hands were “lost” in the gloves. Even with the size challenge, it was fun watching younger children manipulating the objects on the computer screen.

I look forward to the Maker Faire next year, when I will have implemented the newer design for the data gloves and will have additional software to demonstrate. I plan on trying to put together a presentation on some form of performance art using the data gloves.

Small Plug-In Embedded Cellular Modem

Skywire plug-in modem

Skywire plug-in modem

The Skywire is a small plug-in embedded cellular modem. It uses a standard XBee form factor and 1xRTT CDMA operating mode to help developers minimize hardware and network costs. Its U.FL port ensures antenna flexibility.

The Skywire modem features a Telit CE910-DUAL wireless module and is available with bundled CDMA 1xRTT data plans from leading carriers, enabling developers to add fully compliant cellular connectivity without applying for certification. Future versions of the Skywire will support GSM and LTE. Skywire is smaller than many other embedded solutions and simple to deploy due to its bundled carrier service plans.

Skywire is available with a complete development kit that includes the cellular modem, a baseboard, an antenna, a power supply, debug cables, and a cellular service plan. The Skywire baseboard is an Arduino shield, which enables direct connection to an Arduino microcontroller.

Skywire modems cost $129 individually and $99 for 1,000-unit quantities. A complete development kit including the modem costs $262.

NimbeLink, LLC

Q&A: Jeremy Blum, Electrical Engineer, Entrepreneur, Author

Jeremy Blum

Jeremy Blum

Jeremy Blum, 23, has always been a self-proclaimed tinkerer. From Legos to 3-D printers, he has enjoyed learning about engineering both in and out of the classroom. A recent Cornell University College of Engineering graduate, Jeremy has written a book, started his own company, and traveled far to teach children about engineering and sustainable design. Jeremy, who lives in San Francisco, CA, is now working on Google’s Project Glass.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: When did you start working with electronics?

JEREMY: I’ve been tinkering, in some form or another, ever since I figured out how to use my opposable thumbs. Admittedly, it wasn’t electronics from the offset. As with most engineers, I started with Legos. I quickly progressed to woodworking and I constructed several pieces of furniture over the course of a few years. It was only around the start of my high school career that I realized the extent to which I could express my creativity with electronics and software. I thrust myself into the (expensive) hobby of computer building and even built an online community around it. I financed my hobby through my two companies, which offered computer repair services and video production services. After working exclusively with computer hardware for a few years, I began to dive deeper into analog circuits, robotics, microcontrollers, and more.

NAN: Tell us about some of your early, pre-college projects.

JEREMY: My most complex early project was the novel prosthetic hand I developed in high school. The project was a finalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. I also did a variety of robotics and custom-computer builds. The summer before starting college, my friends and I built a robot capable of playing “Guitar Hero” with nearly 100% accuracy. That was my first foray into circuit board design and parallel programming. My most ridiculous computer project was a mineral oil-cooled computer. We submerged an entire computer in a fish tank filled with mineral oil (it was actually a lot of baby oil, but they are basically the same thing).

DeepNote Guitar Hero Robot

DeepNote Guitar Hero Robot

Mineral Oil-Cooled Computer

Mineral Oil-Cooled Computer

NAN: You’re a recent Cornell University College of Engineering graduate. While you were there, you co-founded Cornell’s PopShop. Tell us about the workspace. Can you describe some PopShop projects?

Cornell University's PopShop

Cornell University’s PopShop

JEREMY: I recently received my Master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Cornell University, where I previously received my BS in the same field. During my time at Cornell, my peers and I took it upon ourselves to completely retool the entrepreneurial climate at Cornell. The PopShop, a co-working space that we formed a few steps off Cornell’s main campus, was our primary means of doing this. We wanted to create a collaborative space where students could come to explore their own ideas, learn what other entrepreneurial students were working on, and get involved themselves.

The PopShop is open to all Cornell students. I frequently hosted events there designed to get more students inspired about pursuing their own ideas. Common occurrences included peer office hours, hack-a-thons, speed networking sessions, 3-D printing workshops, and guest talks from seasoned venture capitalists.

Student startups that work (or have worked) out of the PopShop co-working space include clothing companies, financing companies, hardware startups, and more. Some specific companies include Rosie, SPLAT, LibeTech (mine), SUNN (also mine), Bora Wear, Yorango, Party Headphones, and CoVenture.

NAN: Give us a little background information about Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD). Why did you start the group? What types of CUSD projects were you involved with?

CUSD11JEREMY: When I first arrived at Cornell my freshman year, I knew right away that I wanted to join a research lab, and that I wanted to join a project team (knowing that I learn best in hands-on environments instead of in the classroom). I joined the Cornell Solar Decathlon Team, a very large group of mostly engineers and architects who were building a solar-powered home to enter in the biannual solar decathlon competition orchestrated by the Department of Energy.

By the end of my freshman year, I was the youngest team leader in the organization.  After competing in the 2009 decathlon, I took over as chief director of the team and worked with my peers to re-form the organization into Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD), with the goal of building a more interdisciplinary team, with far-reaching impacts.


Under my leadership, CUSD built a passive schoolhouse in South Africa (which has received numerous international awards), constructed a sustainable community in Nicaragua, has been the only student group tasked with consulting on sustainable design constraints for Cornell’s new Tech Campus in New York City, partnered with nonprofits to build affordable homes in upstate New York, has taught workshops in museums and school, contributed to the design of new sustainable buildings on Cornell’s Ithaca campus, and led a cross-country bus tour to teach engineering and sustainability concepts at K–12 schools across America. The group is now comprised of students from more than 25 different majors with dozens of advisors and several simultaneous projects. The new team leaders are making it better every day. My current startup, SUNN, spun out of an EPA grant that CUSD won.

CUSD7NAN: You spent two years working at MakerBot Industries, where you designed electronics for a 3-D printer and a 3-D scanner. Any highlights from working on those projects?

JEREMY: I had a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow while at MakerBot. When I joined, I was one of about two dozen total employees. Though I switched back and forth between consulting and full-time/part-time roles while class was in session, by the time I stopped working with MakerBot (in January 2013), the company had grown to more than 200 people. It was very exciting to be a part of that.

I designed all of the electronics for the original MakerBot Replicator. This constituted a complete redesign from the previous electronics that had been used on the second generation MakerBot 3-D printer. The knowledge I gained from doing this (e.g., PCB design, part sourcing, DFM, etc.) drastically outweighed much of what I had learned in school up to that point. I can’t say much about the 3-D scanner (the MakerBot Digitizer), as it has been announced, but not released (yet).

The last project I worked on before leaving MakerBot was designing the first working prototype of the Digitizer electronics and firmware. These components comprised the demo that was unveiled at SXSW this past April. This was a great opportunity to apply lessons learned from working on the Replicator electronics and find ways in which my personal design process and testing techniques could be improved. I frequently use my MakerBot printers to produce custom mechanical enclosures that complement the open-source electronics projects I’ve released.

NAN: Tell us about your company, Blum Idea Labs. What types of projects are you working on?

JEREMY: Blum Idea Labs is the entity I use to brand all my content and consulting services. I primarily use it as an outlet to facilitate working with educational organizations. For example, the St. Louis Hacker Scouts, the African TAHMO Sensor Workshop, and several other international organizations use a “Blum Idea Labs Arduino curriculum.” Most of my open-source projects, including my tutorials, are licensed via Blum Idea Labs. You can find all of them on my blog ( I occasionally offer private design consulting through Blum Idea Labs, though I obviously can’t discuss work I do for clients.

NAN: Tell us about the blog you write for element14.

JEREMY: I generally use my personal blog to write about projects that I’ve personally been working on.  However, when I want to talk about more general engineering topics (e.g., sustainability, engineering education, etc.), I post them on my element14 blog. I have a great working relationship with element14. It has sponsored the production of all my Arduino Tutorials and also provided complete parts kits for my book. We cross-promote each-other’s content in a mutually beneficial fashion that also ensures that the community gets better access to useful engineering content.

NAN: You recently wrote Exploring Arduino: Tools and Techniques for Engineering Wizardry. Do you consider this book introductory or is it written for the more experienced engineer?

JEREMY: As with all the video and written content that I produce on my website and on YouTube, I tried really hard to make this book useful and accessible to both engineering veterans and newbies. The book builds on itself and provides tons of optional excerpts that dive into greater technical detail for those who truly want to grasp the physics and programming concepts behind what I teach in the book. I’ve already had readers ranging from teenagers to senior citizens comment on the applicability of the book to their varying degrees of expertise. The Amazon reviews tell a similar story. I supplemented the book with a lot of free digital content including videos, part descriptions, and open-source code on the book website.

NAN: What can readers expect to learn from the book?

JEREMY: I wrote the book to serve as an engineering introduction and as an idea toolbox for those wanting to dive into concepts in electrical engineering, computer science, and human-computer interaction design. Though Exploring Arduino uses the Arduino as a platform to experiment with these concepts, readers can expect to come away from the book with new skills that can be applied to a variety of platforms, projects, and ideas. This is not a recipe book. The projects readers will undertake throughout the book are designed to teach important concepts in addition to traditional programming syntax and engineering theories.

NAN: I see you’ve spent some time introducing engineering concepts to children and teaching them about sustainable engineering and renewable energy. Tell us about those experiences. Any highlights?

JEREMY: The way I see it, there are two ways in which engineers can make the world a better place: they can design new products and technologies that solve global problems or they can teach others the skills they need to assist in the development of solutions to global problems. I try hard to do both, though the latter enables me to have a greater impact, because I am able to multiply my impact by the number of students I teach. I’ve taught workshops, written curriculums, produced videos, written books, and corresponded directly with thousands of students all around the world with the goal of transferring sufficient knowledge for these students to go out and make a difference.

Here are some highlights from my teaching work:


I taught BlueStamp Engineering, a summer program for high school students in NYC in the summer of 2012. I also guest-lectured at the program in 2011 and 2013.

I co-organized a cross-country bus tour where we taught sustainability concepts to school children across the country.

indiaI was invited to speak at Techkriti 2013 in Kanpur, India. I had the opportunity to meet many students from IIT Kanpur who already followed my videos and used my tutorials to build their own projects.

Blum Idea Labs partnered with the St. Louis Hacker Scouts to construct a curriculum for teaching electronics to the students. Though I wasn’t there in person, I did welcome them all to the program with a personalized video.

brooklyn_childrens_zoneThrough CUSD, I organized multiple visits to the Brooklyn Children’s Zone, where my team and I taught students about sustainable architecture and engineering.

Again with CUSD, we visited the Intrepid museum to teach sustainable energy concepts using potato batteries.


NAN: Speaking of promoting engineering to children, what types of technologies do you think will be important in the near future?

JEREMY: I think technologies that make invention more widely accessible are going to be extremely important in the coming years. Cheaper tools, prototyping platforms such as the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi, 3-D printers, laser cutters, and open developer platforms (e.g., Android) are making it easier than ever for any person to become an inventor or an engineer.  Every year, I see younger and younger students learning to use these technologies, which makes me very optimistic about the things we’ll be able to do as a society.

Processing, Wiring, and Arduino (EE Tip 101)

Processing is a language and an open-source programming environment for programming images, animations, and interactions. The project, an initiative from Ben Fry and Casey Reas, is based on ideas developed by the Aesthetics and Computation Group of the MIT Media Lab. Processing was created in order to teach the fundamentals of programming in a visual context and to serve as a sketchbook or professional software production tool. Processing runs under GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. Several books have already been written on Processing.

Source: Clemens Valens, “Microcontrollers for Dummes,” 080931-I, Elektor, 2/2009.

Source: Clemens Valens, “Microcontrollers for Dummes,” 080931-I, Elektor, 2/2009.

Just like Arduino, Wiring is a programming environment with microcontroller board for exploring electronic arts, teaching programming, and quick prototyping. Wiring, programmed in Processing, is an initiative by Hernando Barragán and was designed at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII) in Italy.

Arduino is a fast, open-source electronic prototyping platform. Arduino is aimed at DIYers, electronics enthusiasts, and anyone interested in creating objects or interactive environments. Created by Massimo Banzi, Gianluca Martino, David Cuartielles, and David Mellis, Arduino uses a programming language based on Processing. Arduino may be regarded as a simplification of Wiring.

For more information, refer to Clemens Valens’s article, “Microcontrollers for Dummies,” 080931-I, Elektor, 2/2009.

CC278: Serial Displays Save Resources (BMP Files)

In Circuit Cellar’s September issue, columnist Jeff Bachiochi provides his final installment in a three-part series titled “Serial Displays Save Resources.” The third article focuses on bitmap (BMP) files, which store images.


A BMP file has image data storage beginning with the image’s last row. a—Displaying this data as stored will result in an upside-down image. b—Using the upsidedown=1 command will rotate the display 180°. c—The mirror=1 command flips the image horizontally. d—Finally, an origin change is necessary to shift the image to the desired location. These commands are all issued prior to transferring the pixels, to correct for the way the image data is stored.

LCDs are inexpensive and simple to use, so they are essential to many interesting projects, Jeff says. The handheld video game industry helped popularize the use of LCDs among DIYers.

Huge production runs in the industry “made graphic displays commonplace, helping to quickly reduce their costs,” Jeff says. “We can finally take advantage of lower-cost graphic displays, with one caveat: While built-in hardware controllers and drivers take charge of the pixels, you are now responsible for more than just sending a character to be printed to the screen. This makes the controllers and drivers not work well with the microcontroller project. That brings us to impetus for this article series.

“In Part 1 (‘Routines, Registers and Commands,’ Circuit Cellar 276, 2013), I began by discussing how to use a graphic display to print text, which, of course, includes character generation. In essence, I showed how to insert some intelligence between a project and the display. This intermediary would interpret some simple commands that enable you to easily make use of the display’s flexibility by altering position, screen orientation, color, magnification, and so forth.

“Part 2 (‘Button Commands,’ Circuit Cellar 277) revealed how touch-sensitive overlays are constructed and used to provide user input. The graphic display/touch overlay combination is a powerful combination that integrates I/O into a single module. Adding more commands to the interface makes it easier to create dynamic buttons on the graphic screen and reports back whenever a button is touched.

The prototype PCB I used for this project mounts to the reverse side of the thin-film transistor (TFT) LCD. The black connector holds the serial and power connections to your project. The populated header is for the Microchip Technology MPLAB ICD 3 debugger/programmer.

“Since I am using a graphic screen, it makes sense to investigate graphic files. This article (Part 3, ‘BMP Files,’ Circuit Cellar 277) examines the BMP file makeup and how this relates to the graphic screen.”

To learn more about the BMP graphical file format and Jeff’s approach to working with a graphic icon’s data, check out the September issue.


Q&A: Jack Ganssle, Electronics Entrepreneur

Jack Ganssle is a well-known engineer, author, lecturer, and consultant. After learning about oscilloscopes, transistors, and capacitors in his father’s engineering lab, Jack went on to write hundreds of articles and several books about embedded development-related topics. He also started and sold three electronics companies, worked on classified government projects, and founded The Ganssle Group, based in Reisterstown, MD. I recently spoke with Jack about some of his career highlights, his current work, and what’s next in the embedded design industry.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: You’ve been interested in electronics since the age of 9. Give us a little background information. What was your first project?

Jack Ganssle

Jack Ganssle

JACK: My first project was a crystal radio with the inductor wound on the quintessential Quaker oatmeal box! It was really exciting to get AM reception over that. Back then, pretty much no one had FM. AM was it.

Later I learned to repair TVs and made pocket money doing that. Those sets were all vacuum tubes. Usually there was just a bad tube or dried out capacitor. But from there, my friends and I learned to design amplifiers (the Beatles were very hot and everyone was starting a band). For graduation from eighth grade, my dad gave me an old oscilloscope he had built from a kit years earlier.

He was part of a startup when I was in my early teens. We kids were coerced into being the (unpaid) janitors for the place. That was annoying at first. But, we were allowed to keep anything we swept up. The engineering lab’s floor was always covered in resistors, capacitors, transistors, and the like, so my parts collection grew. (ICs existed then, but were rare.)

When I was 16 I got a ham license, built  various transmitters, and used WWII surplus receivers. One day an angry letter arrived from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They had picked me up on my second harmonic clear across the country. I was really proud of that contact.

But it wasn’t long before some resistor-transistor logic (RTL) digital ICs came my way. Projects included controls for tube transmitters, Estes model rocket telemetry, and even a crude TV camera that used a photomultiplier tube to scan a spiral set of holes in a spinning disk. A couple of us worked on a ham radio moon bounce, but I accidentally shorted out a resistor and my only hydrogen thyratron (sort of a tube version of an SCR) blew up. There was no money for a replacement, so that project died. The transmitter used a little lighthouse tube that had a maximum rating of a couple of watts, but it worked OK when pulsing it for a few microseconds at 1 kW.

Senior year of high school a friend and I hitchhiked from Maryland to Boston to go to a surplus store. I bought a core memory plane that was 13,000 bits in a 6 in2 cube. Long hair didn’t help. We were picked up on the New Jersey Turnpike and strip searched. The cops never believed my explanation that the thing was computer memory.

A few years later, I had a 6501 microprocessor in the glove compartment of my Volkswagen bus (which I lived in for a year while saving for a sailboat). Coming into a sleepy Maine town from Canada that event was repeated when the border cops searched the bus and found the chip. They didn’t believe in computers on a chip. But the PC was years away and computers were mostly seen in science fiction films.

Freshman year of college, I designed and built a 12-bit computer using hundreds of TTL chips soldered together using phone company wire on vectorboards. For I/O there was an old Model 15 teletype using 5-bit Baudot codes that my software drove via bit banging. The OS, such as it was, lived in a pair of 1702 EPROMs, which each held 256 bytes. The computer worked great! And then the 8008, the first 8-bit microcontroller, came out and the thing was obsolete. I junked it, and now I wish I had saved at least the schematics.

But by then I had been working part-time as an electronics technician for a few years and the company needed to update its analog products to digital. No one knew anything about computers, so they promoted me to engineer. Eventually I ran the digital group there. We designed one of the first floppy disk controllers, insanely high-resolution graphics controllers, and a lot of other products. We also integrated minicomputers (Data General Novas and DEC PDP-11s) into systems with microprocessors. We bought a 5-MB disk drive for a Nova. It cost $5,000 (back when that was a lot of money) and weighed 500 lb. How things have changed.

NAN: Tell us about The Ganssle Group ( When and why did you start the company? What types of services do you provide?

JACK:  I formed The Ganssle Group in 1997 after 15 years of running an in-circuit emulator company. Working 70 h a week was getting old and I wanted more time with my kids. So my objective was to reverse the usual model. Instead of fitting life around a job, I wanted to fit the job into life.

Goal 1: Four months of vacation a year. It turns out that is elusive, in no small part due to the cool stuff going on around here, but most years we do manage two to three months off. My wife, Marybeth, works with me. She takes care of all of the administrative/travel and the like.

Goal 2: No commute. So we work out of the house (for the first few years, we worked out of the houseboat where we raised two kids).

Now the kids are grown, so there’s a Goal 3: Have as much fun as possible with Marybeth, so when I travel to new or interesting places she often accompanies me. There’s a lot more to life than work. Some of my side projects are available at

I’m not really sure what I do. I write—a lot. Readers are incredibly smart and vocal. The dialogue with them is a highlight of my day. I also give one- and two-day seminars on pretty much every continent (except Antarctica—so far!) about ways to get better firmware done faster. Sometimes I do an expert witness gig. Those are always fascinating as one gets to dig deeply into products and learn about the law. On rare occasions, I’ll do a day or three of consulting if the problem is particularly interesting. And there’s always some experiment I’m working on, which sometimes gets written up as an article.

NAN: Speaking of articles, you’ve written hundreds—including nine for Circuit Cellar magazine—on topics ranging from the history of the embedded systems programming industry, to memory management, to using programmable logic devices (PLDs). You also write a column for Embedded ( and you are editor of the biweekly newsletter The Embedded Muse. Tell us about the types of projects you enjoy constructing and writing about.

The breadboard is discharging batteries. To the left, a battery is soldered to some coax. Using the waveform generator in the oscilloscope I’m measuring the battery's reactance (which, it turns out, is entirely capacitive). The IAR tool is profiling current consumption of an evaluation board.

The breadboard is discharging batteries. To the left, a battery is soldered to some coax. Using the waveform generator in the oscilloscope I’m measuring the battery’s reactance (which, it turns out, is entirely capacitive). The IAR tool is profiling current consumption of an evaluation board.

JACK: I have one experiment that’s running right now. For the last four months I’ve been discharging coin cells. It sounds dull, but some microcontroller vendors are making outrageous claims about battery life that are on the surface true but irrelevant in real circuits. This circuit runs a complex profile on the batteries, tossing different loads on for a few milliseconds, and an ARM microcontroller samples the batteries’ voltage (as well as the transistors, VCE drop) into a log file. That data goes into a spreadsheet for further analysis. I’m making a much bigger version of this now, which will handle far more batteries at a time. I recently gave some preliminary results at a talk in Asilomar, CA, which garnered a lot of interest. More results will be forthcoming soon…I promise!

Another aspect of this is leakage. Does handling a battery leave finger oils that can affect the decades-long life claimed by the vendors? To test this, I built a femtoammeter. A polypropylene capacitor is charged and feeds a super-low bias current op-amp. Another ARM board monitors the op-amp voltage to watch the capacitor discharge as various contaminants are electrically connected to the capacitor. With no contaminants connected, even after 48 h, the cap discharged less than 1 mV. The thing resolves to better than 10 fA. (One fA is a millionth of a nanoamp, or about 6,000 electrons/second).

In fact, the ADC’s transfer function is a proxy for temperature. We heat the house with wood and you could see a perfect correlation of op-amp output and temperature throughout the day. (It’s lowest in the morning as the fire burns out overnight.)

NAN: You wrote the two-part Circuit Cellar article series, “Writing a Real-Time Operating System” (Issue 7 and 8, 1989) about the Hitachi HD64180 Z80-based embedded microprocessor nearly 15 years ago. Circuit Cellar also featured another HD64180-based article, “Huge Arrays on the HD64180: Taking Advantage of Memory Management” (Issue 16, 1990). What was your fascination with the HD64180? Also, is either of these projects still current? Have you changed any of the design components?

JACK: Gee, I have no idea. I wrote those using Microsoft Works, but the file format has changed and Works can no longer open those articles. Alas, the HD64180 is quite obsolete. It was a grown-up version of the Z80 and very popular in its day.

In 1974, Intel introduced the 8080, which was the first really decent 8-bit microprocessor. But it needed two clocks and three power supplies. The folks at Zilog came out with the Z80 a year later. It could run 8080 code, but had one clock, a single 5-V supply, and it offered additional instructions that massively improved code density. Intel responded with the 8085, but it was really an 8080 in drag. The couple of new instructions added just couldn’t give the Z80 a run for its money. Eventually Zilog came out with the Z180, and Hitachi the 64180 clone, which included on-board peripherals and a memory management unit to address 1 MB using standard Z80 instructions. It was a great idea, but since there was no on-board memory, it couldn’t compete with microcontrollers such as the ancient, and still-going-strong, 8051.

NAN: In addition to writing, you lecture and teach at conferences and symposiums worldwide. Tell us about your one-day “Better Firmware Faster” seminar. How did it begin? What can attendees expect to gain from it?

JACK: I’m completely frustrated with the state of firmware. It’s inevitably late and buggy. While there’s no doubt that crafting firmware is extremely difficult—after all, software is the most complex engineered product ever invented—we can and must do better. It’s astonishing that so few groups keep even the simplest metrics, yet engineering is all about numbers.

The seminar is a fast-paced event that shows developers better ways to get their code to market. It covers process issues, as well as a lot of technology areas unique to embedded systems, such as managing memory and dealing with tough real-time problems.

What can attendees get from it? It varies from very little to a lot. Some groups refuse to change anything, so will always maintain the status quo. Others do better. Some report 40% improvements to the schedule and up to an order of magnitude of reduction in shipped bugs.

NAN: You started three high-tech companies prior to The Ganssle Group. Tell us about your work experience. Any highlights?

JACK: Well, there was one instrument that used infrared light to measure protein in cow poop. Though it was interesting technology, it’s hard to call that a highlight. The design I’m most proud of was my first emulator, which had only 17 ICs and used insanely complex code. Eventually we offered emulators that required hundreds of chips, but those cost $7,000, while the first one sold for $600.

Some of the government work I’ve done was very interesting and used extremely sophisticated electronics. But I can’t talk about those projects. A buddy and I did the White House security system during the Reagan administration. It was fun to work in the basement there, but the bureaucracy was stifling. We lost our White House passes the same day Oliver North did, but he got more press.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the embedded design industry? Is there a particular technology that you’ve used or seen that will change the way engineers design in the coming months and years?

JACK: Everything is going to change for us over the next five to 10 years. We will have tools that automatically find lots of bugs. Everyone is familiar (and has a love/hate relationship) with lint. But static analyzers can today find lots of runtime bugs. These are currently expensive and frustrating, but they demonstrate that such products can, and will, exist. When the issues are resolved, I expect they’ll be as common as IDEs. Debugging manually is hugely expensive.

Another tool is slowly gaining acceptance: so-called virtualization products (e.g., from Wind River and others). These are not the hypervisors people think about when using the word “virtualization.” Rather, they are complete software models of a target system. You can run all—and I mean all—of your code on the model. The hardware is always late. These tools will permit debugging to start at the beginning of the project. The tools are also expensive and somewhat clumsy, but will get better over time.

A modern smartphone has more than 10 million lines of code. Automobiles often have more. One thing is certain: Firmware will continue to grow in size and complexity. The current techniques we use to develop code will change as well.


Two-Channel CW Laser Diode Driver with an MCU Interface

The iC-HT laser diode driver enables microcontroller-based activation of laser diodes in Continuous Wave mode. With this device, laser diodes can be driven by the optical output power (using APC), the laser diode current (using ACC), or a full controller-based power control unit.

The maximum laser diode current per channel is 750 mA. Both channels can be switched in parallel for high laser diode currents of up to 1.5 A. A current limit can also be configured for each channel.

Internal operating points and voltages can be output through ADCs. The integrated temperature sensor enables the system temperature to be monitored and can also be used to analyze control circuit feedback. Logarithmic DACs enable optimum power regulation across a large dynamic range. Therefore, a variety of laser diodes can be used.

The relevant configuration is stored in two equivalent memory areas. Internal current limits, a supply-voltage monitor, channel-specific interrupt-switching inputs, and a watchdog safeguard the laser diodes’ operation through iC-HT.

The device can be also operated by pin configuration in place of the SPI or I2C interface, where external resistors define the APC performance targets. An external supply voltage can be controlled through current output device configuration overlay (DCO) to reduce the system power dissipation (e.g., in battery-operated devices or systems).

The iC-HT operates on 2.8 to 8 V and can drive both blue and green laser diodes. The diode driver has a –40°C-to-125°C operating temperature range and is housed in a 5-mm × 5-mm, 28-pin QFN package.

The iC-HT costs $13.20 in 1,000-unit quantities.

iC-Haus GmbH

Low-Cost, High-Performance 32-bit Microcontrollers

The PIC32MX3/4 32-bit microcontrollers are available in 64/16-, 256/64-, and 512/128-KB flash/RAM configurations. The microcontrollers are coupled with Microchip Technology’s software and tools for designs in connectivity, graphics, digital audio, and general-purpose embedded control.

The microcontrollers offer high RAM memory options and high peripheral integration at a low cost. They feature 28 10-bit ADCs, five UARTS, 105-DMIPS performance, serial peripherals, a graphic display, capacitive touch, connectivity, and digital audio support.
The PIC32MX3/4 microcontrollers are supported with general software development tools, including Microchip Technology’s MPLAB X integrated development environment (IDE) and the MPLAB XC32 C/C++ compiler.

Application-specific tools include the Microchip Graphics Display Designer X and the Microchip Graphics Library, which provide a visual design tool that enables quick and easy creation of graphical user interface (GUI) screens for applications. The microcontrollers are also supported with a set of Microchip’s protocol stacks including TCP/IP, USB Device and Host, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. For digital audio applications, Microchip provides software for tasks such as sample rate conversion (SRC), audio codecs—including MP3 and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), and software to connect smartphones and other personal electronic devices.

The PIC32MX3/4 family is supported by Microchip’s PIC32 USB Starter Kit III, which costs $59.99 and the PIC32MX450 100-pin USB plug-in module, which costs $25 for the modular Explorer 16 development system. Pricing for the PIC32MX3/4 microcontrollers starts at $2.50 each in 10,000-unit quantities.

Microchip Technology, Inc.

Low-Power, High-Efficiency Boost Regulator

The TS3300 is an ultra-low-power, load-independent, high-efficiency boost regulator. It operates from supply voltages as low as 0.6 up to 4.5 V and can deliver at least 75 mA of continuous output current.

The TS3300 can be powered from a variety of power sources including single- or multiple-cell alkaline or single Li-chemistry batteries. The boost regulator’s output voltage range can be user-specified from 1.8 to 5.25 V to simultaneously power a range of low-power analog circuits, microcontrollers, and low-energy Bluetooth radios. The TS3300 produces a 3-V output from a 1.2-V input source. Its efficiency performance is constant over a 100:1 span in output current. To power low-energy radios, the TS3300’s internal, low-dropout linear regulator can deliver up to 100 mA output current while reducing boost-converter-generated output voltage ripple.

Drawing only 3.5 µA no-load supply current, the TS3300 is ideal for “always on” and other battery-powered or portable applications where an extended battery run-time is required. The TS3300 operates from low power sources (e.g., photovoltaic cells to three alkaline cells) and is ideally suited for handheld/portable applications (e.g., wireless remote sensors, RFID tags, wireless microphones, solar cell post-regulator/chargers, post-regulators for energy harvesting, blood glucose meters, and personal health-monitoring devices).

The TS3300 is fully specified over the –40°C-to-85°C temperature range and is available in a low-profile, thermally-enhanced 16-pin 3mm × 3mm TQFN package with an exposed backside paddle. The TS3300 costs $0.85 in 1,000-unit quantities.

Touchstone Semiconductor

Member Profile: Steve Hendrix

Steve Hendrix

Location: Sagamore Hills, OH (located between Cleveland and Akron)

Education: BS, United States Air Force Academy, El Paso County, CO

Occupation: Steve began moonlighting as an engineering consultant in 1979. He has been a full-time consultant since 1992.

Member Status: He says he has been a subscriber since “forever.” He remembers reading the Circuit Cellar columns in Byte magazine.

Technical Interests: Steve enjoys embedded design, from picoamps to kiloamps, from nanovolts to kilovolts, from microhertz to gigahertz, and from nanowatts to kilowatts.
Current Projects: He is working on eight active professional projects. Most of his projects involve embedding Microchip Technology’s PIC18 microcontroller family.

Some of Steve’s projects include Texas Instruments Bluetooth processors and span all the previously mentioned ranges in the interfacing hardware. Steve says he is also working on a personal project involving solar photovoltaic power.

Thoughts on the Future of Embedded Technology: Steve thinks of embedded technology as “a delicate balancing act: time spent getting the technology set up vs. time we would spend to do the same job manually; convenience and connectivity vs. privacy, time, and power saved vs. energy consumed; time developing the technology vs. its payoffs; and connectedness with people far away vs. with those right around us.” Additionally, he says there are always the traditional three things to balance “good, fast, cheap—choose two!”

New Product: Parallax Debuts Three New Products

Parallax, which designs and manufactures microcontroller development tools and small single-board computers, recently introduced three new products, the Single Relay Board, the SCP1000 Pressure Sensor Module, and the Propeller Mini.

You can use the Single Relay Board to turn lights, fans, and other devices on or off while keeping them isolated from your microcontroller. The Single Relay Board’s on-board relay enables you to control high-power devices (up to 10 A). The relay’s control is provided via a 1 x 3 header that works well with servomotor cables and conveniently connects to many development boards.

The SCP1000 Pressure Sensor Module is an absolute pressure sensor capable of detecting atmospheric pressure from 30 to 120 kPa. The sensor also provides temperature data. A single multiplication operation using constants obtains pressure data in kilopascals or temperature in degrees Celsius. The pressure data is internally calibrated and temperature compensated. The SCP1000 features four measurement modes in addition to Standby and Power Down mode. A SPI bus handles the sensor’s communication and provides additional control lines (e.g., interrupt line and trigger input).

The Propeller Mini can embed a multi-core microcontroller system in small-sized projects where a full-sized development board is impractical. With its small size and component count, the Propeller enables you to have a complete prototyping system or project while maintaining a small footprint.

The Propeller features many options. For breadboarding, you can solder the included header onto the board. To keep your project’s control system small, you could solder your project’s wire leads directly to the board’s through holes. You can also solder sockets onto the Propeller Mini, enabling it to plug into a prototyping board containing your sensors and other components.

The Single Relay Board costs $9.99. The SCP1000 Pressure Sensor Module and the Propeller Mini cost $24.99.

Parallax, Inc.

Microcontroller-Based, Cube-Solving Robot

Cube Solver in ActionCanadian Nelson Epp has earned degrees in physics and electrical engineering. But as a child, he was stumped by the Rubik’s Cube puzzle. So, as an adult, he built a Rubik’s Cube-solving robot that uses a Parallax Propeller microcontroller and a 52-move algorithm to solve the 3-D puzzle.

Designing and completing the robot wasn’t easy. Epp says he originally used a “gripper”-type robot that was “a complete disaster.” Then he experimented with different algorithms–“human memorizable ones”—before settling on a solution method developed by mathematician Morwen Thistlethwaite. (The algorithm is based on the mathematical concepts of a group, a subgroup, and generator and coset representatives.)

Nelson also developed a version of his Rubik’s Cube solver that used neural networks to analyze the cube’s colors, but that worked only half the time.

So, considering the time he had to spend on project trial and error (and his obligations to work, family, and pets), it took about six years to complete the robot. He writes about the results in the September issue of Circuit Cellar magazine. 

Here, he describes some of the choices he made in hardware components.

“The cube solver hardware uses two external power supplies: 5 VDC for the servomotors and 12 VDC for the remaining circuits. The 12-VDC power supply feeds a Texas Instruments (TI) UA78M33 and a UA78M05 linear regulator. The UA78M05 regulator powers an Electronics123 C3088 camera board. The UA78M33 regulator powers a Maxim Integrated MAX3232 ECPE RS-232 transceiver, a Microchip Technology 24LC256 CMOS serial EEPROM, remote reset circuitry, the Propeller, a SD/MMC card, the camera board’s digital output circuitry, and an ECS ECS-300C-160 oscillator. The images at right show my cube solver and circuit board.
“The ECS-300C-160 is a self-contained dual-output oscillator that can produce clock signals that are binary fractions of the 16-MHz base signal. My application uses the 8- and 16-MHz clock taps. The Propeller is clocked with the 8-MHz signal and then internally multiplied up to 64 MHz. The 16-MHz signal is fed to the camera.

“I used a MAX3232 transceiver to communicate to the host’s RS-232 port. The Propeller’s serial input pin and serial output pin are only required at startup. After the Propeller starts up, these pins can be used to exchange commands with the host. The Propeller also has pins for serial communication to an EEPROM, which are used during power up when a host is not sending a program.

“The cube-solving algorithm uses the coset representative file stored on an SD card, which is read by the Propeller via a SparkFun Electronics Breakout Board for SD-MMC cards. The Propeller interface to the SD card consists of a chip select, data in, data out, data clock, and power. The chip select is fixed into the active state. The three lines associated with data are wired to the Propeller.

“The Propeller uses a camera to determine the cube’s starting permutation. The C3088 uses an Electronics123 OV6630 color sensor module. I chose the camera because its data format and clocking speed was within the range of the Propeller’s capabilities. The C3088 has jumpers for external or internal clocking.”

To read more about Epp’s design journey—and outcomes—check out Circuit Cellar’s September issue. And click here for a video of his robot at work.


NXP LPC800 Microcontroller Challenge

Attention microcontroller users around the world! Ready to enter NXP Semiconductor’s LPC800 Challenge? Getting started is straightforward.

Elektor and Circuit Cellar have partnered with NXP Semiconductors to promote the Challenge. Once you have your LPC800 mini-board and code, you simply register and start working. The rules and complete details are listed on the LPC800 Challenge webpage.

The entry deadline is August 30, 2013. Once all the entries are received, NXP will select the most unique, interesting and funny submissions to receive a LPC800 LPCXpresso development kit.

The LPC800 is an ARM Cortex-M0+-based, 32-bit microcontroller operating at CPU frequencies of up to 30 MHz. The LPC800 supports up to 16 KB of flash memory and 4 KB of SRAM. The peripheral complement of the LPC800 includes a CRC engine, one I2C-bus interface, three USARTs, two SPI interfaces, one multi-purpose, state-configurable timer, one comparator, function-configurable I/O ports through a switch matrix, and up to 18 general purpose I/O pins.

Need design ideas? Check out these microcontroller projects with NXP parts.

CC 276: MCU-Based Prosthetic Arm with Kinect

In its July issue, Circuit Cellar presents a project that combines the technology behind Microsoft’s Kinect gaming device with a prototype prosthetic arm.

The project team and  authors of the article include Jung Soo Kim, an undergraduate student in Biomedical Engineering at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, Nika Zolfaghari, a master’s student at Ryerson, and Dr. James Andrew Smith, who specializes in Biomedical Engineering at Ryerson.

“We designed an inexpensive, adaptable platform for prototype prosthetics and their testing systems,” the team says. “These systems use Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox, a motion sensing device, to track a healthy human arm’s instantaneous movement, replicate the exact movement, and test a prosthetic prototype’s response.”

“Kelvin James was one of the first to embed a microprocessor in a prosthetic limb in the mid-1980s…,” they add. “With the maker movement and advances in embedded electronics, mechanical T-slot systems, and consumer-grade sensor systems, these applications now have more intuitive designs. Integrating Xbox provides a platform to test prosthetic devices’ control algorithms. Xbox also enables prosthetic arm end users to naturally train their arms.”

They elaborate on their choices in building the four main hardware components of their design, which include actuators, electronics, sensors, and mechanical support:

“Robotis Dynamixel motors combine power-dense neodymium motors from Maxon Motors with local angle sensing and high gear ratio transmission, all in a compact case. Atmel’s on-board 8-bit ATmega8 microcontroller, which is similar to the standard Arduino, has high (17-to-50-ms) latency. Instead, we used a 16-bit Freescale Semiconductor MC9S12 microcontroller on an Arduino-form-factor board. It was bulkier, but it was ideal for prototyping. The Xbox system provided high-level sensing. Finally, we used Twintec’s MicroRAX 10-mm profile T-slot aluminum to speed the mechanical prototyping.”

The team’s goal was to design a  prosthetic arm that is markedly different from others currently available. “We began by building a working prototype of a smooth-moving prosthetic arm,” they say in their article.

“We developed four quadrant-capable H-bridge-driven motors and proportional-derivative (PD) controllers at the prosthetic’s joints to run on a MC9S12 microcontroller. Monitoring the prosthetic’s angular position provided us with an analytic comparison of the programmed and outputted results.”

A Technological Arts Esduino microcontroller board is at the heart of the prosthetic arm design.

The team concludes that its project illustrates how to combine off-the-shelf Arduino-compatible parts, aluminum T-slots, servomotors, and a Kinect into an adaptable prosthetic arm.

But more broadly, they say, it’s a project that supports the argument that  “more natural ways of training and tuning prostheses” can be achieved because the Kinect “enables potential end users to manipulate their prostheses without requiring complicated scripting or programming methods.”

For more on this interesting idea, check out the July issue of Circuit Cellar. And for a video from an earlier Circuit Cellar post about this project, click here.


A Real-Time Fuel Consumption Monitor

Jeff Bachiochi’s real-time fuel consumption monitor for his Jeep.

Circuit Cellar columnist Jeff Bachiochi has enjoyed driving his wife’s Prius, in part because of the real-time feedback it gives him on the miles per gallon he is getting. It made him aware of how he could save gas with simple and immediate adjustments to his driving style.

With that in mind, he thought it would be a good idea to build an effective and affordable monitoring device that would give him the same real-time mpg for his Jeep.  After all, he can’t always borrow his wife’s car.

In the June issue, he shares what he came up with for an onboard diagnostics display. He explains below how he tapped into his own experience, as well as that of another Circuit Cellar author, to build the device for Jeep

“In the summer of 2011, I presented a three-part series about the on-board diagnostic system (OBD-II) built into every automobile produced since 1996 (Circuit Cellar 251–253)….”

“In 2005, Bruce D. Lightner wrote an article about his winning entry in the 2004 Atmel AVR design contest (“AVR-Based Fuel Consumption Gauge,” Circuit Cellar 183, 2005). Lightner’s project altered an analog tachometer gauge as a display for miles per gallon. I wanted to show a little more information, so my project uses a Parallax Propeller microcontroller to interrogate the OBD interpreter and drive a composite LCD.

“You can get a composite color display from Parallax or an online source. While I had a small 2.5” display to work with, I was looking for something a bit bigger. For less than $50, I found a 7” LCD, which happened to be combined with a camera (for mounting on a vehicle’s rear license plate frame)…

“I dug out my Propeller Proto Board and blew off the dust…. The Propeller microcontroller design includes eight 32-bit parallel processors (i.e., cogs) and peripheral support, including access to the 32 I/O pins, two counters, and a video generator per cog.  It is the video generator support that makes this project possible with a minimal component count…. only three resistors are required to develop a composite video output.“

To read more about Bachiochi’s OBD device, check out his article in the June issue.