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The author’s veins on display

Yes, those are my veins.

This series of images was generated by the Christie DLP VeinViewer [PDF]. This device projects infrared light onto your hand. A camera detects areas with blood vessels near the skin because blood doesn’t reflect the IR light, but the surrounding tissue does. The resulting image is projected onto my hand by a interesting Texas Instruments technology, the DLP digital imaging chip. DLP technology is essentially a super tiny array of movable mirrors. Each mirror, 1/5th the width of a human hair, is individually controlled to reflect a pixel of light in 1024 values of brightness. In advanced applications, a DLP projector can create up to 35 trillion colors.

I was treated to demos of DLP products and much more during a behind-the-scenes tour of Texas Instruments at a recent media day. Here are a number of cool things that TI showed us which may have an impact on your hardware projects in the future:


The LightCrafter Structured Light Projector For 3D Scanning

High Accuracy 3D Scanning Using DLP Projector

The Microsoft Kinect has brought the concept of 3D imaging with structured light into the mainstream. The TI LightCrafter uses the same physical principles and is designed to generate 3D images with sub-millimeter precision. Target applications include industrial inspection, but Texas Instruments has built a development module that can be put to use in a wider range of settings.

TI DLP Powers Precision 3D Inspection, Image Courtesy TI

The 3D Optical Metrology process is easy, and using DLP technology, delivers high quality results:

  • Patterns of light project onto a target
  • A camera or sensor captures the light distortions on the target
  • Data are then analyzed by a processor
  • The result is very detailed, 3D point cloud information (x,y,z) about the target

One of the more interesting possibilities is detecting cracks or flaws in things like carbon fiber bicycle parts with the LightCrafter and a good camera. The LightCrafter module is $600, which seems a reasonable price for a completely hackable projector. Better yet, TI provides a GUI tool to configure and control the LightCrafter, simplifying development and testing.

The DLP Dashboard

TI DLP Virtual Car Console in Audio Player Mode

I enjoyed seeing this demonstration of DLP technology that went beyond projecting home movies. This “virtual console” system projects an image on the rear of a translucent screen, shaped like the center console in a car. A camera also mounted behind the screen can see objects that touch the screen and is used to track the user’s fingers, which a computer interprets as input.

TI DLP Virtual Car Console in Navigation Mode

The entire curved screen was touch-sensitive. There were knobs mounted on the front of the screen that actually worked like real knobs, even though they had no electronics. They did have a pattern printed on the back, visible through the screen and captured by the camera, giving precise feedback for the knob position.

MSP430, A Low Power Leader

The $4.30 MSP430 Launchpad, Image Courtesy TI

TI continually strives to be the industry leader for ultra-low power processing. My first introduction to ultra-low power embedded processing was in the late 1990s with early versions of the MSP430 family of 16 bit micro controllers, one of the few products on the market featuring power consumption in the sub-milliwatt range. Today, TI faces strong competition with manufacturers like Microchip for ultimate lowest power, but the MSP430 features an ultrafast wakeup time, minimizing power draw for applications that require intermittent use, like measuring temperature. For projects that run off batteries or harvest power from the environment, this is really useful and important. The low power 16 bit architecture makes this an appropriate product for projects that involve remote communication, wireless sensing, health & fitness, small battery powered robots, and more. Be on the lookout for TI’s newest member of the MSP430 family, codenamed Wolverine. It claims to cut running power consumption in half and features energy-saving FRAM, which will definitely improve power consumption in sleep mode.

Digital Signal Processing

C2000 Peripheral Explorer Kit, Image Courtesy TI

What is a DSP and why do we care? In short, signals are all around us, from our own voices, to what we see around us, to the data wirelessly flying in every direction, to the measurements keeping car engines running smoothly. Without some way of quickly making sense of this information, modern day life would stop. Every day these important products, like cellphones and hearing aids powered by DSPs, get smaller. Part of the size reduction is due to smaller, smarter electronics, and part is due to smaller batteries powering more efficient electronics. TI showed me a well-rounded offering of new DSP chips that claimed improved power efficiency and improved speed for converting real world signals into useful information.

TI Signal Processing Innovation Through The Ages, Image Courtesy TI

These chips are incredibly complex though. Remember programming your TI calculator? Maybe not. If you did, it was probably pretty difficult the first time, and that first impression matters. Texas Instruments is aware of the challenge developers face with increasing DSP complexity. They were eager to talk about how they were delivering better out-of-the-box development tools with the new release of Code Composer Studio, their primary DSP dev tool. TI’s DSP product line covers the high bandwidth C6000 and C5000 family DSPs, but they also have some intriguing low cost parts in the C2000 [PDF] line. Although TI doesn’t really consider their C2000 family of parts to be true DSPs, they are useful for many low-end signal processing applications. TI mentioned future innovations for the C2000 low power processors, including power consumption as low as as 50mW while running at 200 MHz, and a growing library of easy to use software modules for applications like energy measurement and control. They envision the C2000 products being used in applications like mobile robotics and micro-grid products. Eagle libraries are also on the way, as are new development boards and Mac compatibility.

Motor Control

BLDC Motor Control Development Tool, Image Courtesy TI

There are over 10 billion electric motors manufactured every year around the world and Texas Instruments wants to control them all! The TI folks wanted to be sure that we knew 40% of a typical home electric bill is consumed by an motor, and that better motor control could cut power consumption by more than 1/3, saving all of us a lot of money and reducing wasted energy significantly. The technology exists, they said, but it has been too expensive and hard to use. Thus TI is developing better, cheaper, faster motor control algorithms that will be “software peripherals” pre-programmed into their DSP products. They showed a product called InstaSPIN, which claimed to solve problems like starting and reversing motors without requiring position sensors, and optimizing motor efficiency when not running at full load. TI also claimed that they had reduced the time it takes to figure out a motor control strategy from several weeks to several hours. I’ll have to see it to believe it!

BeagleBone

We recently covered this promising product, and will continue to do so. It is a powerful, inexpensive, and tiny board that can be set up to run Linux in seconds. There is also a great community of developers creating applications and tools for it. At $89, it is definitely recommended to get you started with embedding Linux in your next project.

Pandaboard

> PandaBoard Diagram, image from http://www.omappedia.com CC BY-SA 3.0

The Pandaboard is something I’m looking forward to getting my hands on. It is a powerful single-board computer featuring a multiprocessor architecture, graphics acceleration, HD video and dual display capability, and a very rich set of communication interfaces:

  • Onboard 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth® v2.1 + EDR
  • 1x USB 2.0 High-Speed On-the-go port
  • 2x USB 2.0 High-Speed host ports
  • General purpose expansion header (I2C, GPMC, USB, MMC, DSS, ETM)
  • Camera expansion header

This all comes on a tiny 4″x4″ board. The processing power is impressive, and it should be easy to connect this to lots of peripherals. Hopefully the tools are easy to use. If so, this could be a hit with exhibit designers at museums everywhere!

TI Explores the Unknown, Image Courtesy TI

There is a lot more interesting and innovative things going on at TI, including a host of analog technologies from motor drivers to analog conversion to power management. I hope to cover some of this in future posts, especially as I get my hands on some of the hardware and run it through its paces!

Kipp Bradford

Kipp Bradford is a technology consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for making things. He is the Senior Design Engineer and Lecturer in Engineering at Brown University, where he teaches several engineering design and entrepreneurship courses. Kipp is also on the Technical Advisory Board for Make Magazine.


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