DMC Attends TI's Technology Day

DMC Attends TI's Technology Day

Like many other students, I considered my TI-89 graphing calculator to be a lifeline during high school calculus and beyond. That device (which I still have and use today) was my first formal introduction to Texas Instruments, and since then I’ve used many of their silicon products. Since joining DMC, I’ve spent a lot of time working with their MSP430 microcontroller line. When I learned that TI would be hosting a Technology Day in Milwaukee, WI, I decided to take the short drive north to learn from their experts.

One of my personal goals for this conference was to become better acquainted with the various wireless technologies available on embedded platforms. As mobile devices (cell phones and tablet computers, in particular) become more equipped with wireless protocols (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC, etc.), more and more products with these same technologies are reaching the market. On top of that, hobbyists and open source developers have created some incredibly cool wireless-enabled widgets.

Near-Field Communication (NFC) is a fairly new wireless technology that is becoming more and more prevalent as mobile device manufacturers start to include the necessary hardware on their products. One of the Technology Day morning sessions focused specifically on this protocol as it relates to the embedded world.

In a nutshell, NFC is a short-range 13.56MHz wireless technology that supports peer-to-peer communication in addition to reading passive "tags." It is very much an extension of the familiar RFID technology that has become a valuable asset in physical access control, contactless payment, logistics, and many other applications, and NFC's two-way capabilities add to the list of potential uses.

One of the coolest things I saw during the seminar was assisted Bluetooth pairing using NFC. Just about anyone who has tried to pair their mobile phone or computer to a Bluetooth-enabled device will tell you that the process is a huge pain. For example, I was recently on vacation with a few friends and driving in a rental car. The car had a Bluetooth-ready entertainment console that could be used as a wireless speaker. Between the four of us, it took 3 phones, two computers, and about 20 minutes before we got a successful connection! Thankfully, it only took about 6 minutes for our blood pressures to return to normal.

Last year, TI released this handy app note to complement a MSP430-based development kit they released that demonstrates, among many other functions, NFC-assisted Bluetooth pairing. The operation is super-simple; the presenter was able to connect his Android phone to the device over Bluetooth by simply waving the phone next to the NFC antenna on the board. Within seconds, he was manipulating LEDs on the board with the TI-developed Android app. To prove that the connection wasn't just NFC, he asked a volunteer to take the phone, move outside of NFC range (a few feet was enough in this case), and play around with the LEDs. As you can imagine, it worked like a charm. This is going to make me even more frustrated the next time I try to pair two Bluetooth devices without NFC...

The Internet of Things is a concept that has been rattling around in the brains of tech junkies and visionaries for quite some time now. The idea is simple: make everything accessible and controllable using the Web. Your refrigerator, for example, can automatically order new groceries when its stock is running low. Your car might send you automatic email notifications when it's getting close to oil change time. The possibilities are vast. So, however, are the technical challenges of getting such a network established.

A key component of this effort is deciding on a wireless technology. A huge number of households across the globe have access to some sort of Wi-Fi network, whether it be a router at home or free public access. This fact alone makes Wi-Fi a viable choice. TI, as well as several other silicon IC manufacturers, has released Wi-Fi-enabled products to contribute to this rising market. One of the sessions at this year's Technology Day covered one product in particular, the CC3000 module. The CC3000 handles a great deal of the Wi-Fi connection and communication tasks, which frees up the main processor to run the application software. Communication with the processor is over SPI, which makes it very portable to new or existing designs, regardless of the microprocessor manufacturer.

One example for a simple project that could use this Wi-Fi module is something I've had worked out in my head for a few months now. Like a handful of other DMC employees, I take public transit to work. As a result, I'm tethered to the Chicago bus schedule and a slave to the (oft unpredictable) Midwestern weather. What I'd like to do to stay prepared and on top of my schedule is create a web-enabled device that will grab the bus tracking data, the current weather, the date and time, and perhaps an inspirational quote, and display them on a scrolling LCD by my apartment door.

Prototyping a device like this would be simple with an Arduino or an SOC device like the Raspberry Pi. The problem is, those devices are either too expensive (the Arduino + Wi-Fi shield) or too souped-up (the Raspberry Pi) to justify using them for such a simple gizmo. That doubles if I ever make more than one. Thus, if I ever get serious about making something like this, a cheap microcontroller and an embedded Wi-Fi module (like the CC3000) might make a lot more sense.

Throughout the day, I was able to network with TI engineers and customers, which is, in my opinion, one of the strongest benefits of events like these. It's always great to see that other folks in the industry are as enthusiastic about the cutting edge of technology as we are at DMC! I have no doubt that we'll be back for future Texas Instruments Technology Days.


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