Ever since I’ve been mucking about in the Internet of Things wires and size have been an issue, but in the last few months there’s suddenly been a burst of activity shrinking development boards and building-in wireless connections.
For some time the Arduino form-factor seemed to have become a default for boards. And while it’s not a huge size, it’s not tiny either. That fact hasn’t been lost on many people, with a plethora of Kickstarter campaigns creating Arduino compatible devices shrunk down to tiny proportions.
Now we’ve got devices like the Microview and the TinyDuino which shrink the form-factor down to a size not much bigger than a postage stamp. In fact it’s getting difficult to see how the devices can get smaller while they still need to allow for people to connect physical wires to them.
The other factor at play has been that to take your Arduino board and connect it to WiFi or Bluetooth required adding in a shield, which doubled the device’s size, and then doing some depressingly tricky work to get it connected. Now there are devices like Airboard and the Spark Core. These are not only small, but come with built-in WiFi. (It’s also worth noting that they are getting cheaper by the moment. The Core cost me $70 from a local supplier; its even more impressive sibling the Photon is due to be released in May and should cost half that).
Last week I got my hands on a Spark Core and spent a very pleasant few hours setting up a quick system than turns on a light whenever I receive a phone-call from a certain number.
Now I have to say that my initial impression of the Spark Core was not all good. Out of the box it comes with very simple instructions to get it connected to a WiFi network and linked into the required Spark Core cloud environment. It’s supposed to work like magic and so be accessible to even casual users. It didn’t work for me at all. That meant I had to fall back on the manual connection process which was somewhat fiddly and certainly beyond anything you could expect of a casual user. But once the connection was made everything started rolling along beautifully.
From a coding point of view it was refreshing not to have to install libraries and muck about with settings to get the WiFi running. And the Spark Core cloud environment meant I could get my test project up and running with minimal effort. I wired a LED into the Spark Core and then simply set up a recipe on IFTTT that pretty much came down to ‘if the phone rings with this number, set off a function on my Core’. The function simply told the Core to get the light flashing so it came down to about 5 lines of code. All up it took about 20 minutes and I had a fully-functional wireless call-alert mechanism. That’s pretty good Internet of Thinging.
The basic idea behind this was a device that could be attached to my wife’s handbag so she could see when I was calling her. And with one exception, the Core is small enough to make that practical. The exception is the power supply. For applications around the house where power is available, the Core and all the other similar devices would be brilliant: Tiny little controllers hidden away. But the minute you need to attach a lumping great battery pack, you’ve lost a significant chunk of your size and weight advantage. That has to be the next frontier for these devices – being able to harvest wireless energy and so become truly independent.
In the meantime, these new platforms are opening up a whole range of possibilities in the Internet of Things. My own immediate challenge, though, is a social engineering problem: How do I persuade my wife to let me attach my new device to her handbag?