MCUs Serve Up Solutions for Car Infotainment

Dashboard Dazzle

As automotive dashboard displays get more sophisticated, information and entertainment are merging into so-called infotainment systems. The new systems are driving a need for powerful MCU solutions that support the connectivity, computing and interfacing requirements particular to these designs.

(Caption for lead image Figure 1: The Cypress Wi-Fi and Bluetooth combo solution uses Real Simultaneous Dual Band (RSDB) technology so that Apple CarPlay (shown) and Android Auto can operate concurrently without degradation caused by switching back and forth between bands.).

By Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief

Microcontroller (MCU) vendors have a rich legacy of providing key technologies for nearly every aspect of an automobile’s electronics—everything from the powertrain to the braking system to dashboard displays. In recent years, they’ve taken on a new set of challenges as demands rise for ever more sophisticated “infotainment” systems. Advanced touchscreen, processing, networking, voice recognition and more are parts of these subsystems tasked with providing drivers with information and entertainment suited to today’s demands—demands that must rival or exceed what’s possible in a modern smartphone or tablet. And, as driverless cars inch toward mainstream reality, that hunger for rich infotainment functionality will only increase.

In order to meet those system design needs, MCU vendors are keeping pace with highly integrated chip-level solutions and embedded software tailored specifically to address various aspects of the automotive infotainment challenge. Over the past 12 months, MCU companies have announced products aimed at everything from advanced dashboard graphics to connectivity solutions to security technologies. At the same time, many have announced milestone design wins that illustrate their engagement with this dynamic sub-segment of automotive system development.

Smartphone Support

Exemplifying these trends, in July Cypress Semiconductor announced that Pioneer integrated Cypress’ Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Combo solution into its flagship in-dash navigation AV receiver. The solution enables passengers to display and use their smartphone’s apps on the receiver’s screen via Apple CarPlay (Figure 1–lead image above) or Android Auto, which provide the ability to use smartphone voice recognition to search for information or respond to text messages. The Cypress Wi-Fi and Bluetooth combo solution uses Real Simultaneous Dual Band (RSDB) technology so that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto can operate concurrently without degradation caused by switching back and forth between bands.

The Pioneer AVH-W8400NEX receiver uses Cypress’ CYW89359 combo solution, which includes an advanced coexistence engine that enables optimal performance for dual-band 2.4- and 5-GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi and dual-mode Bluetooth/Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) simultaneously for advanced multimedia experiences. The CYW89359’s RSDB architecture enables two unique data streams to run at full throughput simultaneously by integrating two complete Wi-Fi subsystems into a single chip. The CYW89359 is fully automotive qualified with AECQ-100 grade-3 validation and is being designed in by numerous top-tier car OEMs and automotive suppliers as a full in-vehicle connectivity solution, supporting infotainment and telematics applications such as smartphone screen-mirroring, content streaming and Bluetooth voice connectivity in car kits.

In October, Cypress announced another infotainment-related design win with Yazaki North America implementing Cypress’ instrument cluster solution to drive the advanced graphics in Yazaki’s instrument cluster for a leading American car manufacturer. According to Cypress, Yazaki selected the solution based on its unique offering of five chips that combine to drive dual displays and provide instant-on memory performance with automotive-grade, ASIL-B safety compliance. The Cypress solution is based on a Traveo MCU, along with two high-bandwidth HyperBus memories in a multi-chip package (MCP), an analog power management IC (PMIC) for safe electrical operation, and a PSoC MCU for system management support. The Traveo devices in the Yazaki instrument cluster were the industry’s first 3D-capable Arm Cortex-R5 cluster MCUs.

Virtualization Embraced

The complexity of automotive infotainment systems has pushed system developers to embrace advanced operating system approaches such as virtualization. Feeding those needs, last June Renesas Electronics rolled out its “R-Car virtualization support package” designed to enable easier development of hypervisors for the Renesas R-Car automotive system-on-chip (SoC). The R-Car virtualization support package includes, at no charge, both the R-Car hypervisor development guide document and sample software for use as reference in such development for software vendors who develop the embedded hypervisors that are required for integrated cockpits and connected car applications.

A hypervisor is a virtualization operating system (OS) that allows multiple guest OSs— such as Linux, Android and various real-time OSs (RTOS)—to run completely independently on a single chip. Renesas announced the R-Car hypervisor in April of 2017 and the new R-Car virtualization Support Package was developed to help software vendors accelerate their development of R-Car hypervisors.

The company’s third-generation R-Car SoCs were designed assuming that they would be used with a hypervisor. The Arm CPU cores, graphics cores, video/audio IP and other functions include virtualization functions. Originally, for software vendors to make use of these functions, they would have had to understand both the R-Car hardware manuals and the R-Car virtualization functions and start by looking into how to implement a hypervisor. Now, by following development guides in the R-Car virtualization support package, not only can software vendors easily take advantage of these functions, they will be able to take full advantage of the advanced features of R-Car. Also, by providing sample software that can be used as a reference, this package supports rapid development.

Technology partnerships have been playing a key role in automotive infotainment trends. Along just those lines, in September Renesas and OpenSynergy, a supplier of automotive hypervisors, announced that the Renesas’ SoC R-Car H3 and OpenSynergy’s COQOS Hypervisor SDK were adopted on Parrot Faurecia’s automotive safe multi-display cockpit. The latest version of Android is the guest OS of the COQOS Hypervisor, which executes both the instrument cluster functionality, including safety-relevant display elements based on Linux, and the Android-based in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) on a single R-Car H3 SoC chip (Figure 2). The COQOS Hypervisor SDK shares the R-Car H3 GPU with Android and Linux allowing applications to be presented on multiple displays, realizing a powerful and flexible cockpit system.

Figure 2
With Android as the guest OS of the COQOS Hypervisor, it executes both the instrument cluster functionality, including safety-relevant display elements based on Linux, and the Android-based in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) on a single R-Car H3 SoC chip.

According to OpenSynergy’s CEO Stefaan Sonck Thiebaut, the COQOS Hypervisor SDK takes full advantage of the hardware and software virtualization extensions provided by Renesas. The OpenSynergy solution includes key features, such as shared display, which allows several virtual machines to use multiple displays flexibly and safely. The R-Car H3 GPU and video/audio IP incorporates virtualization functions, making virtualization by the hypervisor possible and allowing for multiple OSs to operate independently and safely. OpenSynergy’s COQOS Hypervisor SDK is built around a safe and efficient hypervisor that can run software from multipurpose OSs such as Linux or Android, RTOS and AUTOSAR-compliant software simultaneously on one SoC.

Large Touchscreen Support

As the content provided by automotive infotainment systems gets more sophisticated, so too must the displays and user interface technologies that interact with that content. With that in mind, MCU vendors are offering more advanced touchscreen control solutions. Dashboard screens have unique design challenges. Screens in automobiles need to meet stringent head impact and vibration tests. That means thicker cover lenses that potentially impact the touch interface performance. Meanwhile, as screens get larger, they are also more likely to interfere with other frequencies such as AM radio and car access systems. All of these factors become a major challenge in the design of modern automotive capacitive touch systems.

Along just those lines, Microchip in December announced its maXTouch family of single-chip touchscreen controllers designed to address these issues for screens up to 20 inches in size (Figure 3). The MXT2912TD-A, with nearly 3,000 touch sensing nodes, and MXT2113TD-A, supporting more than 2,000 nodes, bring consumers the touchscreen user experience they expect in vehicles. These new devices build upon Microchip’s existing maXTouch touchscreen technology that is widely adopted by manufacturers worldwide. Microchip’s latest solutions offer superior signal-to-noise capability to address the requirements of thick lenses, even supporting multiple finger touches through thick gloves and in the presence of moisture.

Figure 3
The maXTouch family of single-chip touchscreen controllers is designed for screens up to 20 inches in size, and supports up to 3,000 touch sensing nodes. The devices even support multiple finger touches through thick gloves and in the presence of moisture.

As automakers use screens to replace mechanical switches on the dash for sleeker interior designs, safe and reliable operation becomes even more critical. The MXT2912TD and MXT2113TD devices incorporate self- and sensor-diagnostic functions, which constantly monitor the integrity of the touch system. These smart diagnostic features support the Automotive Safety Integrity Level (ASIL) classification index as defined by the ISO 26262 Functional Safety Specification for Passenger Vehicles.

The new devices feature technology that enables adaptive touch utilizing self-capacitance and mutual-capacitance measurements, so all touches are recognized and false touch detections are avoided. They also feature Microchip’s proprietary new signal shaping technology that significantly lowers emissions to help large touchscreens using maXTouch controllers meet CISPR-25 Level 5 requirements for electromagnetic interference (EMI) in automobiles. The new touch controllers also meet automotive temperature grade 3 (-40°C to +85°C) and grade 2 (-40°C to +105°C) operating ranges and are AEC-Q100 qualified.

3D Gesture Control

Aside from the touchscreen display side of automotive infotainment, Microchip for its part has also put its efforts toward innovations in 3D human interface technology. With that in mind, in July the company announced a new 3D gesture recognition controller that offers the lowest system cost in the automotive industry, providing a durable single-chip solution for advanced automotive HMI designs, according to Microchip. The MGC3140 joins the company’s family of easy-to-use 3D gesture controllers as the first qualified for automotive use (Figure 4).

Figure 4
The MGC3140 3D gesture controller is Microchip’s first qualified for automotive use. It’s suited for a range for applications such as navigating infotainment systems, sun shade operation, interior lighting and more.

Suited for a range for applications that limit driver distraction and add convenience to vehicles, Microchip’s new capacitive technology-based air gesture controller is ideal for navigating infotainment systems, sun shade operation, interior lighting and other applications. The technology also supports the opening of foot-activated rear liftgates and any other features a manufacturer wishes to incorporate with a simple gesture action.

The MGC3140 is Automotive Electronics Council AEC-Q100 qualified with an operating temperature range of -40°C to +125°C, and it meets the strict EMI and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) requirements of automotive system designs. Each 3D gesture system consists of a sensor that can be constructed from any conductive material, as well as the Microchip gesture controller tuned for each individual application.

While existing solutions such as infrared and time-of-flight technologies can be costly and operate poorly in bright or direct sunlight, the MGC3140 offers reliable sensing in full sunlight and harsh environments. Other solutions on the market also come with physical constraints and require significant infrastructure and space to be integrated in a vehicle. The MGC3140 is compatible with ergonomic interior designs and enables HMI designers to innovate with fewer physical constraints, because the sensor can be any conductive material and hidden from view.

Vehicle Networking

While applicable to areas beyond infotainment, an automobile’s ability to network with the outside world has become ever more important. As critical vehicle powertrain, body, chassis, and infotainment features increasingly become defined by software, securely delivering updates such as fixes and option packs over the air (OTA) enhances cost efficiency and customer convenience. Serving those needs, in October STMicroelectronics released its latest Chorus automotive MCU that provides a gateway/domain-controller solution capable of handling major OTA updates securely.

With three high-performance processor cores, more than 1.2 MB RAM and powerful on-chip peripherals, ST’s new flagship SPC58 H Line joins the Chorus Series of automotive MCUs and can run multiple applications concurrently to allow more flexible and cost-effective vehicle-electronics architectures (Figure 5). Two independent Ethernet ports provide high-speed connectivity between multiple Chorus chips throughout the vehicle and enable responsive in-vehicle diagnostics. Also featuring 16 CAN-FD and 24 LINFlex interfaces, Chorus can act as a gateway for multiple ECUs (electronic control units) and support smart-gateway functionality via the two Ethernet interfaces on-chip.

Figure 5
The SPC58 H Line of MCUs can run multiple applications concurrently to allow more flexible and cost-effective vehicle-electronics architectures. Two independent Ethernet ports provide high-speed connectivity between multiple Chorus chips throughout the vehicle.

To protect connected-car functionalities and allow OTA updates to be applied safely, the new Chorus chip contains a Hardware Security Module (HSM) capable of asymmetric cryptography. Being EVITA Full compliant, it implements industry-leading attack prevention, detection and containment techniques.

Working with its large on-chip 10 MB flash, the SPC58NH92x’s context-swap mechanism allows current application code to run continuously even while an update is downloaded and made ready to be applied later at a safe time. The older software can be retained, giving the option to roll-back to the previous version in an emergency. Hyperbus and eMMC/SDIO high-speed interfaces to off-chip memory are also integrated, enabling further storage expansion if needed.

Single Cable Solution

Today’s automotive infotainment systems comprise mobile services, cross-domain communication and autonomous driving applications as part of in-vehicle networking. As a result, these systems require a more flexible solution for transporting packet, stream and control content. Existing implementations are either costly and cumbersome, or too limited in bandwidth and packet data capabilities to support system updates and internetworking requirements.

To address this need, Microchip Technology in November announced an automotive infotainment networking solution that supports all data types—including audio, video control and Ethernet—over a single cable. Intelligent Network Interface Controller networking (INICnet) technology is a synchronous, scalable solution that significantly simplifies building audio and infotainment systems, offering seamless implementation in vehicles that have Ethernet-oriented system architectures (Figure 6).

Figure 6
INICnet technology is a synchronous, scalable solution that significantly simplifies building audio and infotainment systems, offering seamless implementation in vehicles that have Ethernet-oriented system architectures.

Audio is a key infotainment feature in vehicles, and INICnet technology provides full flexibility through supporting a variety of digital audio formats with multiple sources and sinks. INICnet technology also provides high-speed packet-data communications with support for file transfers, OTA software updates and system diagnostics via standard Ethernet frames. In this way, INICnet technology supports seamless integration of Internet Protocol (IP)-based system management and data communications, along with very efficient transport of stream data. INICnet technology does not require the development and licensing of additional protocols or software stacks, reducing development costs, effort and time.

INICnet technology provides a standardized solution that works with both Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) at 50 Mbps and coaxial cable at 150 Mbps. With low and deterministic latency, INICnet technology supports deployment of complex audio and acoustics applications. Integrated network management supports networks ranging from two to 50 nodes, as well as processor-less or slim modules where the node is remotely configured and managed. The solution’s Power over Data Line (PoDL) capability saves costs on power management for microphones and other slim modules. Nodes can be arranged in any order with the same result, and any node in the system can directly communicate with any other node in the system.

Security for Connected Cars

As cars become more network-connected, the issue of security takes on new dimensions. In October, Infineon Technologies announced a key effort in cybersecurity for the connected car by introducing a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) specifically for automotive applications—the first on the market, according to the company. The new OPTIGA TPM 2.0 protects communication between the car manufacturer and the car, which increasingly turns into a computer on wheels. A number of car manufacturers already designed in Infineon’s OPTIGA TPM.

The TPM is a hardware-based security solution that has proven its worth in IT security. By using it, car manufacturers can incorporate sensitive security keys for assigning access rights, authentication and data encryption in the car in a protected way. The TPM can also be updated so that the level of security can be kept up to date throughout the vehicle’s service life.

Cars send real-time traffic information to the cloud or receive updates from the manufacturer “over the air,” for example to update software quickly and in a cost-effective manner. The senders and recipients of that data—whether car makers or individual components in the car—require cryptographic security keys to authenticate themselves. These critical keys are particularly protected against logical and physical attacks in the OPTIGA TPM as if they were in a safe.

Early Phase Critical

Incorporating the first or initial key into the vehicle is a particularly sensitive moment for car makers. When the TPM is used, this step can be carried out in Infineon’s certified production environment. After that, the keys are protected against unauthorized access; there is no need for further special security precautions. The TPM likewise generates, stores and administers further security keys for communication within the vehicle. And it is also used to detect faulty or manipulated software and components in the vehicle and initiate troubleshooting by the manufacturer in such a case.

Figure 7
The SLI 9670 consists of an attack-resistant security chip (shown) and high-performance firmware developed in accordance with the latest security standard. The firmware enables immediate use of security features, such as encryption, decryption, signing and verification.

The SLI 9670 consists of an attack-resistant security chip and high-performance firmware developed in accordance with the latest security standard (Figure 7). The firmware enables immediate use of security features, such as encryption, decryption, signing and verification. The TPM can be integrated quickly and easily in the system thanks to the open source software stack (TSS stack) for the host processor, which is also provided by Infineon. It has an SPI interface, an extended temperature range from -40°C to 105°C and the advanced encryption algorithms RSA-2048, ECC-256 and SHA-256. The new TPM complies with the internationally acknowledged Trusted Computing Group TPM 2.0 standard, is certified for security according to Common Criteria and is qualified in accordance with the automotive standard AEC-Q100.

Side by side with driverless vehicle innovations, there’s no doubt that infotainment systems represent one of the most dynamic subsets of today’s automotive systems design. MCU vendors offer a variety of chip and software solutions addressing all the different pieces of car infotainment requirements from display interfacing to connectivity to security. Circuit Cellar will continue to follow these developments. And later this year, we’ll take a look specifically at MCU solutions aimed at enabling driverless vehicles and assisted driving technologies.

RESOURCES

Cypress Semiconductor | www.cypress.com
Infineon Technologies | www.infineon.com
Microchip | www.microchip.com
OpenSynergy | www.opensynergy.com
Renesas Electronics America | www.renesas.com
STMicroelectronics | www.st.com

Read the February 343 issue of Circuit Cellar

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Note: We’ve made the October 2017 issue of Circuit Cellar available as a free sample issue. In it, you’ll find a rich variety of the kinds of articles and information that exemplify a typical issue of the current magazine.

12.1-Inch Industrial Touch Panel PC is Customizable

Axiomtek has introduced its newest industrial-grade touch panel computer, the P1127E-500. This robust all-in-one computer comes in a 12.1-inch XGA TFT LCD display size, with a 5-wire resistive touchscreen and 500 nits of brightness. Its scalable CPU options, rich and customizable I/Os and optional, easy-to-integrate features were designed to deliver true value to customers. Its high flexibility will allow for faster project deployment for a wide range of industrial applications. The P1127E-500 is well-suited for use in multimedia kiosks or as a human machine interface (HMI) for industrial automation applications.

The P1127E-500’s high flexibility allows for use in challenging operating conditions, with its robust features such as its IP65-rated spill/dust-resistant front bezel, as well as its operating temperature range of 0°C to +50°C (0°F to +122°F). For scalability, the touch panel PC offers the choice between three Intel CPU categories: the high performance 7th/6th generation Intel Core i7/i5/i3 socket LGA1151; the mid-level Celeron; or the entry-level Pentium processor, all with the Intel H110 chipset. For greater customizability, the P1127E-500 offers a choice of either one PCIe x4 slot or one PCI slot for integration with a variety of add-on cards. Its rich I/Os include three RS-232 ports, one RS-232/422/485 port, four USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, one audio (Mic-in/Line-out), one VGA port, one HDMI port and one DisplayPort. It is also equipped with dual DDR4-2133 Long-DIMM sockets for up to 32GB of system memory and one 2.5” SATA HDD for storage.

The P1127E-500 features built-in speakers, an optional Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n module and a WLAN antenna. It can be mounted using a desktop stand, VESA arm or wall mounting. It supports a variety of operating systems including Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 7.

 

Some Key Features:

  • 1” XGA TFT LCD display with 5-wire resistive touchscreen and 500 nits of brightness
  • 7th/6th generation Intel Core i7/i5/i3 socket LGA1151, Celeron® or Pentium® processors with Intel H110 chipset
  • Two GbE LAN port, four COM ports, two USB 2.0 ports and four USB 3.0 ports
  • Choice of PCIe x4 slot or PCI slot
  • Dual DDR4-2133 Long-DIMM sockets for up to 32GB of system memory
  • Operating temperature range of 0°C to +50°C (0°F to +122°F)
  • Mounting options include panel mount, wall mount, VESA arm and desktop stand

Axiomtek | us.axiomtek.com

NVIDIA Graphics Tapped for Mercedes-Benz MBUX AI Cockpit

At the CES show last month, Mercedes-Benz its NVIDIA-powered MBUX infotainment system–a next-gen car cabin experience can learn and adapt to driver and passenger preferences, thanks to artificial intelligence.

According to NVIDIA, all the key MBUX systems are built together with NVIDIA, and they’re all powered by NVIDIA. The announcement comes a year after Huang joined Mercedes-Benz execs on stage at CES 2017 and said that their companies were collaborating on an AI car that would be ready in 2018.

Powered by NVIDIA graphics and deep learning technologies, the Mercedes-Benz User Experience, or MBUX, has been designed to deliver beautiful new 3D touch-screen displays. It can be controlled with a new voice-activated assistant that can be summoned with the phrase “Hey, Mercedes. It’s an intelligent learning system that adapts to the requirements of customers, remembering such details as the seat and steering wheel settings, lights and other comfort features.

The MBUX announcement highlights the importance of AI to next-generation infotainment systems inside the car, even as automakers are racing put AI to work to help vehicles navigate the world around them autonomously. The new infotainment system aims to use AI to adapt itself to drivers and passengers— automatically suggesting your favorite music for your drive home, or offering directions to a favorite restaurant at dinner time. It’s also one that will benefit from “over-the-air” updates delivering new features and capabilities.

Debuting in this month (February) in the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class, MBUX will power dramatic wide-screen displays that provide navigation, infotainment and other capabilities, touch-control buttons on the car’s steering wheel, as well as an intelligent assistant that can be summoned with a voice command. It’s an interface that can change its look to reflect the driver’s mood—whether they’re seeking serenity or excitement—and understand the way a user talks.

NVIDIA | www.nvidia.com

Client Profile: EarthLCD

Circuit Cellar prides itself on presenting readers with information about innovative companies, organizations, products, and services relating to embedded technologies. This space is where Circuit Cellar enables clients to present readers useful information, special deals, and more.

CLIENT

EarthLCD.com
www.earthlcd.com
3184 Airway Ave., Suite J, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

FEATURED PRODUCTS

The ezLCD-405 5.6” VGA Smart, Touchscreen can be used as an intelligent display or as a standalone device, easy-to-use, command driven programmable firmware environment, and easy-to-customize your firmware with our free tools. The ezLCD-405 is based on the STMicro STM32F429 ARM M4 microcontroller. Also an optional ucLinux BSP is available. The arLCD by EarthMake.com is a Smart Touchscreen LCD combining an 3.5” Touchscreen, ezLCD GPU and the Arduino Uno designed for the maker market.arLCD_Slider_med

WHY SHOULD CC READERS BE INTERESTED?

arLCD is a full smart ezLCD GPU with the Arduino Uno R3 on the same PCB in a thin, easy-to-integrate package. It can be used in many applications such as thermostat control, lighting controls, home security, audio control, water level gauge, robotics, and industrial automation. The arLCD combines the best of ezLCD-3xx and the Arduino UNO. The arLCD is not just an LCD and you should not confuse it with a snail’s pace 2.8 LCD shield that uses almost all your I/O pins!CircuitCellar-PromoCode

SPECIAL OFFER

Receive a 10% discount off your first EarthLCD product! Promo code: CIRCUITCELLAR

HMI Development on Intelligent Displays

4dsystems_HRES4D Systems and Future Technology Devices International Limited (FTDI) (aka, FTDI Chip) recently introduced the 4DLCD-FT843. The intelligent display solution incorporates FTDI Chip’s FT800 Embedded Video Engine (EVE) with the subsequent introduction of two additional products. This combined product gives design engineers a foundation on which to quickly and easily construct human-machine interfaces (HMIs).

The first of these products is the ADAM (Arduino Display Adaptor Module). This 47.5-mm × 53.4-mm Arduino-compatible shield permits communication between the Arduino via the SPI. The shield is suitable for use with Arduino Uno, Due, Duemilanove, Leonardo, Mega 1280/2560, and Pro 5V. The shield’s micro-SD card provides the Arduino-based display system with ample data storage. The 4DLCD-FT843 can use the micro-SD card to retrieve objects (e.g., images, sounds, fonts, etc.). Drawing power from the Arduino’s 5-V bus, the ADAM regulates the 4DLCD-FT843’s supply to 3.3 V. The FT800 EVE controller can handle many of the graphics functions that would otherwise need to be managed by the Arduino.

The ADAM is complemented by the 4DLCD-FT843-Breakout. With a 26.5-mm × 12-mm footprint, this simple breakout module enables the 4DLCD-FT843 to be attached to a general host or breadboard for prototyping purposes. It features a 10-way FPC connection for attachment with the 4DLCD-FT843 along with a 10-way, 2.54-mm pitch male pin header that enables it to directly connect to the host board. Both products support a –10°C-to-70°C operational temperature range.

The EVE-driven 4DLCD-FT843 has a 4.3” TFT QWVGA display with a four-wire resistive touchscreen. It features a 64-voice polyphonic sound synthesizer, a mono PWM audio output, a programmable interrupt controller, a PWM dimming controller for the display’s backlight, and a flexible ribbon connector.

Contact 4D Systems or FTDI Chip for pricing.

4D Systems
www.4dsystems.com.au

Future Technology Devices International Limited (FTDI) (aka, FTDI Chip)
www.ftdichip.com

A Personal Hackerspace in Lyon, France

Jean Noël Lefebvre, of Lyon, France, is the inventor of the Ootsidebox touchless technology, an innovative interface that enables adding touchless technology to an existing tablet. (Watch the Elektor.LABS video interview with Lefebvre to find out more about Ootside box and how it works).

Recently, Lefebvre shared with Circuit Cellar photos of his workspace, which he prefers to call his “personal hackerspace”  where he conceives inventive ideas and builds them.

Deskweb

Lefebvre’s desk reflects his new project.

His desk has an old oscilloscope, with only two inputs. “I have to upgrade it as soon as possible,” he says.

He is working on a shield for the Arduino UNO board on his desk, which is also where he keeps a Weller soldering iron with specific tools for surface mount devices (SMDs).

“On the screen of the computer you can see the logo of my project Ootsidebox and also the logo of Noisebridge, the San Francisco hackerspace.”

A diverse library

A diverse library

Lefebvre says his library is filled with “a lot of good books (old and modern)” covering many different topics and skills, including electronics, software, signal processing, cryptography, physics, biology, mathematics, and inventors’ biographies.

What is he currently working on in his hackerspace?

“I’m working on my own invention: a touchless gesture user Interface based on electric-fields (E-fields) sensing,” he says. “It’s an open-source  and open-hardware project, compatible with the Arduino environment.”

You can learn more about how his project is being shared on the Elektor.LABS website.

Storage for some of Lefebvre's stock components

Storage for some of Lefebvre’s stock components

Although Lefebvre is currently working alone in his “personal hackerspace” at his family’s home, his dream is to go to San Francisco, CA, and work out of the well-equipped Noisebridge hackerspace.

A few years ago, he says, big ideas and innovations in technology started in garages.  “Today this will take place in hackerspaces, where creativity and technical skills are omnipresent,” he says. “By making stuff in such a place, you are fully connected with a worldwide network of creative people of different backgrounds, and this synergy highly accelerates the innovation process.”

You can view pictures and video Lefebvre posted from his last Noisebridge visit.  And you can follow Lefebvre and his work on Twitter.

A Love of Teaching, a Lifetime of Robotics: An Interview with John Blankenship

John Blankenship

John Blankenship

John Blankenship has spent decades teaching robotics—and written many books on the subject. His love of teaching inspired him to co-develop the RobotBASIC robot programming language. I recently caught up with John to discuss some highlights from his teaching career and what’s next for RobotBASIC—Nan Price, Associate Editor

 NAN: How did you become interested in robotics?

JOHN: As a child, I often saw robots on television but was fully aware that there were no computers capable of making such fictional creations a reality. In the 1970s, microprocessors such as Intel’s 8080 and MOS Technology’s 6502 gave me hope that real robots would eventually become part of our future.

I found I could motivate my students by linking lab projects to robotic topics. For example, instead of just graphing the output from an active filter, I had my students use op-amps to detect an ultrasonic wave so they could later build a ranging sensor. I firmly believe that if you want to motivate students, you must give them projects with a purpose.

 NAN: You spent more than 30 years teaching programming, electronics, and robotics. What did you gain from that experience?

 JOHN: I enjoyed teaching electronics, but I loved teaching programming. Nothing else even comes close to develop critical thinking skills in students. Watching those skills develop was the reason I taught.

After seeing how my hardware robotic projects motivated students, I knew I wanted something similar for my programming classes. Eventually I developed a library of C routines that simulated a simple on-screen robot. What made the simulated robot special is that it supported numerous sensors (an electronic compass, two levels of proximity sensors, a ranging sensor, line detection, beacon detection, color tracking, and more) that enabled students to solve relatively complex, real-world robotics problems without building any hardware.

This structure made programming fun because it gave programming assignments a purpose. Students no longer had to be convinced that it was important to learn the syntax for a loop or how “if” statements controlled flow to make decisions—they wanted to learn details so they could use them to solve the exciting problems being proposed for them. Which would you find more exciting: writing a program to count the number of words in a string or teaching a robot to follow a line? Better yet, imagine motivating students by having a contest to see whose robot could follow a line the fastest.

NAN: How and why did you develop the RobotBASIC programming language?

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

RobotBASIC can control real robots just as easily as the simulation.

 JOHN: When I retired from teaching I wanted a way for other teachers to utilize a simulated robot to motivate their students. I could have just published my C libraries, but that generally would have limited their use to college classes where C is usually taught. I felt strongly that much younger students needed to be introduced to programming so they could develop not just logical thought, but also an appreciation for math and engineering.

I love the C language (RobotBASIC is written in C), but in my opinion, it is far too cryptic to be used as a first language. I wanted to encase my routines in a BASIC-like language that would enable nearly anyone to program a simulated robot.

I began writing my own language and was reasonably pleased with the initial efforts. I demonstrated the program to a good friend of mine, Samuel Mishal, who is easily the greatest programmer I have ever known. After politely applauding my efforts, he showed me an interpreter he had been working on to help him with a DSP project. His language was very polished and far superior to my work. He integrated my simulator with his interpreter and we named it RobotBASIC.

Even though we planned from start to freely distribute RobotBASIC, we knew teachers could not devote time to learning a language that was just a robot simulator. We began adding new features and capabilities. The more we added, the more excited we became. We started testing the new language by developing robotic behaviors and writing simple video games. Every time we needed something special, we added it to the language.

Figure3

RobotBASIC has all the commands necessary to write simple video games.

RobotBASIC currently has nearly 900 commands and functions—far more than most languages. More importantly though, since there are built-in functions to handle many things programmers normally have to do themselves, the language is very fast for an interpreter.

We felt RobotBASIC was an ideal language for introducing high school students to programming, but we wanted more. We added hardware I/O capabilities and created a wireless protocol that enabled RobotBASIC to control real robots with the same programs that control the simulation. At that point, the language could easily handle college-level projects but we knew the BASIC stigma would be a problem. To help with this, we added the option to use a modified C-style syntax, making it easier for students to transition to C or even Java.

Figure4

This simulation shows the effects of friction on a spring’s movement.

We also decided to address some backward capability by adding legacy-style I/O commands, making it easy to teach basic programming skills to even fifth graders. This enables school systems to utilize RobotBASIC from lower grades through high school without having to teach a new environment when new capabilities are needed. And if the C-style syntax is introduced in the upper grades, students will be better prepared for college programming courses.

 NAN: What are some uses for RobotBASIC?

JOHN: Even though students’ needs were a driving force in our development process, RobotBASIC’s I/O capabilities make it a great language for hobbyists involved with robotics or other electronic-oriented projects. For example, it only takes a few lines of code to gather data from a remote temperature sensor using a wireless link and to transmit that information to another user over the Internet.

RobotBASIC also has many commands that facilitate flicker-free animation and simulation. This means teachers have the option of motivating students by teaching how to write simple video games.

As much as I love the robot simulator, I have to admit that many students get even more excited about animation than they do about robots. The point is that RobotBASIC provides many options.

Figure2

The simulated robot can be programmed to solve a maze.

 NAN: You offer several types of RobotBASIC seminars geared toward children, university students, and robot clubs. You also lead seminars introducing programming and robotics. What do you enjoy most about teaching? What do attendees gain from your seminars?

 JOHN: I love teaching and I especially love showing teachers new ways to motivate their students. I understand that every school and teacher is different and I make sure I satisfy their goals by customizing each and every presentation based on their individual needs. I am always amazed that schools can’t believe that RobotBASIC is totally free. There are no acquisition costs, no upgrade fees, and no licenses—ever! RobotBASIC is free for hobbyists too. Circuit Cellar readers can download a copy from RobotBASIC.org.

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

Figure6

The speed and flight path of these darts is controlled with finger movements on a tablet’s touchscreen.

JOHN: Many RobotBASIC users have been asking for a more advanced book on animation and video games. Unfortunately, my work on our new RobotBASIC Robot Operating System (On a Chip) has been monopolizing all my time for the last couple of years. Now that it is finally finished, I have started writing again.  I think the new book will be worth the wait because it also discusses how RobotBASIC can interact with the new Windows 8 sensors (e.g., cameras, compass, accelerometer, touchscreen, etc.) The chapter I am currently working on enables darts to be thrown using finger movements on a tablet’s touchscreen.

NAN: Do you have any advice for Circuit Cellar readers who are considering building their own autonomous robots?

 JOHN: I think the biggest mistake most robot hobbyists make is they spend far too much time constructing a robot before having a detailed understanding of its sensory needs and the algorithms necessary to accomplish their goals. If they would test their ideas first with our simulator, they would have the information necessary to build a platform that can actually meet their needs. Furthermore, they could control their real robot with the very same programs they developed on the simulator.