Design West Update: Compilers Unveiled

IAR Systems announced Tuesday at Design West in San Jose, CA, that GainSpan selected IAR Embedded Workbench as its primary development tool chain for MCU drivers and next-generation chip. “By standardizing on IAR Systems’ embedded software development tool chain, GainSpan will more easily support a wide range of MCUs to communicate with their modules,” IAR publicized a in a release.

It’s an important aspect of a larger plan, IAR’s ARM Strategic Accounts Manager Mike Skrtic said. IAR has overall tool chain standardization goals aimed at giving designers’ more flexibility when choosing MCUs for product development.

Remember: IAR Systems is teamed with Renesas for the RL78 Green Energy Challenge, which is administered by Circuit Cellar and Elektor. Designers are challenged to transform how the world experiences energy efficiency by developing a unique, low-power application using the RL78 MCU and IAR toolchain.

In other compiler-related news, Microchip Technology announced Monday at Design West its new MPLAB XC C compiler line, which supports its approximately 900 microcontrollers. Microchip’s Joe Drzewiecki said the compilers reduce code size by about 35% and improve code execution speed by about 30%. But you can judge for yourself because Microchip offers 8-, 16-, and 32-bit free editions of MPLAB XC compilers. According to Microchip reps, they are” fully functional and have no license restrictions for commercial use.”

So, if you give MPLAB XC a try, let us know what you think!

Weekly Elektor Wrap Up: Thermometer with Giant Display, AVR Software-Defined Radio Webinar, & More!

It’s time to review what our Elektor colleagues in The Netherlands, France, and beyond worked on and covered this week! As usual, they’ve been quite busy working in the Elektor lab, organizing webcasts, prepping for Design West, and assembling upcoming issues of Elektor magazine. The following is a wrap-up of some of the many things Elektor staffers covered and worked on this week.

Below is a video of a thermometer with a giant display.

The electromechanical display was recovered from a ’60s-era pinball machine.

The thermometer with a giant display

Using the display and some innovative programming techniques, it’s possible to build a water-temperature indicator a swimming pool. After the temperature appears on the 4″ reels, the circuit’s consumption decreases to zero. But the temperature display remains perfectly visible. You needn’t worry about batteries (dry or rechargeable), adjustments, or maintenance. (Published in Elektor issue 424, April 2012

Board for Elektor's thermometer with a giant display

On the event front, Elektor Academy and element14 have teamed up to bring you a series of exclusive webinars covering blockbuster projects from recent editions of Elektor magazine. Participation in these webinars is completely free! All you need to do is register via The “AVR Software-Defined Radio” webinar takes place Thursday, March 9, 2012. Click here for more information.

Elektor also reported some interesting electronics news this week. The items that will most interest Circuit Cellar readers are an Uninterruptible Power Supply in a Chip and a Python-Based Tool for Diagnosing Dead-Core Boards. is part of the Elektor group.

Issue 261: Renesas RL78, Cap Touch, Synapse SNAP, & More!

Here’s a sneak peek at the projects and topics slated for the April issue of Circuit Cellar: Linux software development tools, DIY cap-touch, gain-controlled amplifier; color classification reader; start designing with the Renesas RL78 microcontroller; an introduction to sigma-delta modulators; RFI bypassing, with a focus on parallel capacitors; mesh networking simplified with SNAP technology; and more.


Clemens Valens introduces the Renesas Electronics RL78:

Click the image to link to the Renesas product page

Jeff Bachiochi takes a close look at Synapse Wireless SNAP technology:

Click the image to link to the Synapse-Wireless Kit webpage

Ed Nisley presents Part 2 of his article series “RFI Bypassing”:

The tracking generator output and spectrum analyzer input connect to adjacent PCB pads on the left of the SMD capacitor. Connecting the spectrum analyzer to the pad on the right side changes the measured self-resonant frequency.

The April issue will hit newsstands in late March.

Robot Design with Microsoft Kinect, RDS 4, & Parallax’s Eddie

Microsoft announced on March 8 the availability of Robotics Developer Studio 4 (RDS 4) software for robotics applications. RDS 4 was designed to work with the Kinect for Windows SDK. To demonstrate the capabilities of RDS 4, the Microsoft robotics team built the Follow Me Robot with a Parallax Eddie robot, laptop running Windows 7, and the Kinect.

In the following short video, Microsoft software developer Harsha Kikkeri demonstrates Follow Me Robot.

Circuit Cellar readers are already experimenting Kinect and developing embedded system to work with it n interesting ways. In an upcoming article about a Kinect-based project, designer Miguel Sanchez describes a interesting Kinect-based 3-D imaging system.

Sanchez writes:

My project started as a simple enterprise that later became a bit more challenging. The idea of capturing the silhouette of an individual standing in front of the Kinect was based on isolating those points that are between two distance thresholds from the camera. As depth image already provides the distance measurement, all the pixels of the subject will be between a range of distances, while other objects in the scene will be outside of this small range. But I wanted to have just the contour line of a person and not all the pixels that belong to that person’s body. OpenCV is a powerful computer vision library. I used it for my project because of function blobs. This function extracts the contour of the different isolated objects of a scene. As my image would only contain one object—the person standing in front of the camera—function blobs would return the exact list of coordinates of the contour of the person, which was what I needed. Please note that this function is a heavy image processing made easy for the user. It provides not just one, but a list of all the different objects that have been detected in the image. It can also specify is holes inside a blob are permitted. It can also specify the minimum and maximum areas of detected blobs. But for my project, I am only interested in detecting the biggest blob returned, which will be the one with index zero, as they are stored in decreasing order of blob area in the array returned by the blobs function.

Though it is not a fault of blobs function, I quickly realized that I was getting more detail than I needed and that there was a bit of noise in the edges of the contour. Filtering out on a bit map can be easily accomplished with a blur function, but smoothing out a contour did not sound so obvious to me.

A contour line can be simplified by removing certain points. A clever algorithm can do this by removing those points that are close enough to the overall contour line. One of these algorithms is the Douglas-Peucker recursive contour simplification algorithm. The algorithm starts with the two endpoints and it accepts one point in between whose orthogonal distance from the line connecting the two first points is larger than a given threshold. Only the point with the largest distance is selected (or none if the threshold is not met). The process is repeated recursively, as new points are added, to create the list of accepted points (those that are contributing the most to the general contour given a user-provided threshold). The larger the threshold, the rougher the resulting contour will be.

By simplifying a contour, now human silhouettes look better and noise is gone, but they look a bit synthetic. The last step I did was to perform a cubic-spline interpolation so contour becomes a set of curves between the different original points of the simplified contour. It seems a bit twisted to simplify first to later add back more points because of the spline interpolation, but this way it creates a more visually pleasant and curvy result, which was my goal.


(Source: Miguel Sanchez)
(Source: Miguel Sanchez)

The nearby images show aspects of the process Sanchez describes in his article, where an offset between the human figure and the drawn silhouette is apparent.

The entire article is slated to appear in the June or July edition of Circuit Cellar.

Issue 260: Embedded Control Languages

Choosing a programming language is an essential part of any serious embedded design project. But the task can be daunting. When should you use a processor-specific language? Why not just use C?

In the March issue of Circuit Cellar, Steve Ciarcia reviews a handful of programming languages and types of and processors—and projects—for which they are intended.

Here’s Steve’s take:

Let’s talk about languages—specifically, embedded control languages. Everyone has their favorite, typically whatever they learned first, but when you get right down to it, all languages offer the same basic features.

First of all, you need to be able to specify a sequence of steps and then select between two (or more) alternative sequences—the if-then-else construct. You also need to be able to repeat a sequence, or loop, and exit that loop when a condition is met. Finally, you want to be able to invoke a sequence from multiple places within other sequences—a call function.

Assembly language is the lowest-level language you can use on most machines. Its statements bear a one-to-one relationship with the instructions the hardware executes. If-then-else and loop-exit constructs are implemented using conditional and unconditional branch instructions, and there’s usually a hardware stack that facilitates subroutine call and return. This is both a blessing and a curse—it enables you to become familiar with the hardware and use it most effectively, but it also forces you to deal with the hardware at all times.

Very early on in the development of computers, the concept of a high-level language (HLL) was developed to reduce this hardware focus. By creating a set of abstract computer operations that aren’t necessarily tied to a particular processor, the HLL frees the programmer from a specific hardware architecture and enables him to focus on the actual algorithm development. The compiler and library writers took these abstractions and efficiently mapped them onto the hardware. HLL opened up programming to “non-hardware” people whose first interest was the application problem and its solution.

Today, there are literally hundreds of computer languages (see Some of them are completely general-purpose, while others are very domain-specific. Two languages have been implemented on virtually every microprocessor ever invented: C and BASIC. (There’s no way I can mention them all, so I’ll just touch on some popular embedded ones.) Of the two, C is by far the more popular for embedded apps, since it runs more efficiently on most hardware. Many people would argue that C isn’t a “true” HLL; but even still, it’s a huge step up from Assembly language in terms of productivity.

There have been some niche languages intended for small systems. For example, there’s what you might call a family of reverse-Polish notation (RPN) languages: Forth, Postscript, and does anyone remember a tiny interpreted language called Mouse? These never caught on in any big way, except for Postscript, which is almost universally available these days on printers as a page-description language. But it’s a full programming language in its own right—just ask Don Lancaster!

Along the way, there have been a few processor-specific languages invented. For example, there’s JAL—just another language—which is optimized for 8-bit Microchip PIC processors, and Spin, which is designed to support the parallel-processing features of the Parallax Propeller chip.

Once you start getting into larger 16- and 32-bit chips, the set of available tools expands. Many of these processors have C/C++ toolchains based on the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC). However, this means you can really use any number of languages in the collection on these processors, including Fortran, Java, and Ada.

The designers of some embedded systems want to include the ability for the system to be programmed by their end users. To this end, the concept of an “extension language” was developed. Two notable examples are TCL and Lua. These provide a standard notation for control constructs (branching, looping and function calls) wrapped around application-specific primitive operations implemented by the system designer.

Once you start getting into systems that are large enough to require an operating system (real-time or otherwise), many of the available choices support the POSIX API. This means you can use any of the mainstream scripting languages—such as shell scripts, Perl, Python, Ruby, PHP, etc.—either internally or exposed to the end user.

And finally, there’s the web-based user interface. Even relatively simple embedded applications can have sophisticated GUIs by pushing much of the programming out to the browser itself by means of ECMAscript (JavaScript) or Java. The embedded app just needs to implement a basic HTTP server with storage for the different resources needed by the user interface running on the browser. There are all kinds of toolkits and frameworks out there that help you build such a system.

I’ll stop now. The point is, even in the world of embedded computer applications, there’s a wide variety of tools available, and picking the right set of tools for the job at hand is part of the system design process. Taking a higher-level view, this brief survey might give you an idea of what kinds of tools you would want to put some effort into learning, based on where your interests lie or the application dictates.


GPS-Based Vehicle Timing & Tracking Project

The KartTracker’s Renesas kit (Source: Steve Lubbers CC259)

You can design and construct your own vehicle timing system at your workbench. Steve Lubbers did just that, and he describes his project in Circuit Cellar 259 (February 2012). He calls his design the “Kart Tracker,” which he built around a Renesas Electronics Corp. RX62N RDK. In fact, Steve writes that the kit has most of what’s need to bring such a design to fruition:

Most of the pieces of my KartTracker are already built into the Renesas Electronics RX62N development board (see Figure 1). The liquid crystal display (LCD) on the development board operates as the user interface and shows the driver what is happening as he races. The integrated accelerometer can be used to record the G forces experienced while racing. A serial port provides connections to a GPS receiver and a wireless transmitter. Removable flash memory stores all the race data so you can brag to your friends. You now have all of the pieces of my KartTracker.

The following block diagram depicts the relationship between the CPU, base station, flash drive, and other key components:

KartTracker Diagram (Source: Steve Lubbers CC259)

The software for the system is fairly straightforward. Steve writes:

The KartTracker software was built around the UART software sample provided with the RX62N development kit. To provide file system support, the Renesas microSD/Tiny FAT software was added. Finally, my custom GPS KartTracker software was added to the Renesas samples. My software consists of GPS, navigation, waypoints, and display modules. Support software was added to interface to the UART serial port, the file system, and the user display and control on the RX62N circuit board.

Pseudocode for the main processing loop (Source: Steve Lubbers CC259)

Read Steve’s article in the February issue for more details.

If you want to build a similar system, you should get familiar with the Renesas RX62N RDK. In the following video, Dave Jones of EEVBlog provides a quick and useful introduction to the RX62N RDK and its specs (Source: Renesas).

Good luck with this project. Be sure to keep Circuit Cellar posted on your progress!

Click here to purchase Circuit Cellar 259.