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 Interview with Pinoccio Co Founder Eric Jennings

Pinoccio’s microcontroller board.

Eric Weddington, marketing manager for open source and communities at Atmel, posted an in-depth interview with Pinoccio’s Eric Jennings. Pinnoccio is a new open source hardware company. Their first product is a microcontroller board aimed at the internet of things (IoT) product space. Pinoccio calls their board an “Arduino Mega with wings.” It’s Raspberry Pi-friendly, too. Here’s the interview:

Pinoccio is a new Open Source Hardware business, building “a complete ecosystem for the Internet of Things”. They recently completed a successful crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to help them build their first product: A pocket-sized microcontroller board, with wireless networking, rechargeable LiPo battery, sensors, and the ability to expand its capabilities through shields, much like an Arduino board. It features an Atmel microchip from the ATmega microcontroller product family. This is the new AtmelATmega256RFR2, a single-chip AVR 8-bit processor, a low power microcontroller with 2.4GHz transceiver for IEEE 802.15.4 supporting WPAN (ZigBee, ISA100.11a, WirelessHART, IrDA, Wireless USB, Bluetooth, Z-wave, Body Area Network, and MiWi) communications. In January, Ingolf Leidert posted a preview of the Pinoccio here on Bits & Pieces.

Eric Jennings, co-founder of Pinoccio

Eric Jennings, co-founder of Pinoccio

Eric Jennings, along with his partner Sally Carson, co-founded Pinoccio. Eric Jennings and I met at the first Hardware Innovation Workshop before the Maker Faire Bay Area in 2012. We discussed microcontroller radios, RF, mesh networking, Open Source projects, and kept in touch while he was working on the design of the Pinoccio. We talked recently about their design and process, Open SourceOpen Hardware, and the future of Pinoccio…

Eric Weddington (EW): What inspired you, and your partner Sally, to create Pinoccio?

Eric Jennings (EJ): We’ve both been interested in hardware projects for quite a long time.  The first inspiration for Pinoccio was a book Sally and I both read by Bruce Sterling, called “Shaping Things.”  That book influenced us to what it would be like if a device like Pinoccio existed.  In that book, he describes an early concept of the Internet of Things–devices he called “Spimes.” Spimes, he writes, are objects that can be tracked through space and time throughout their lifetime. We extend that definition to include physical instantiations of data, that could exist all around us. The book was written about a decade ago, so it may sound quaint today, but it was visionary when it was written.

EW: Most Open Source projects usually start off by “scratching your own itch.” What need did you see in the Arduino community, that Pinoccio can fill?

EJ: I have been involved with Arduino since first picking up Tom Igoe’s book “Making Things Talk” back in 2008. I had dabbled in 68HC11 hardware hacking before then, and 8088 at the University before that, but it was always incredibly difficult to get started. Over the years I built several personal projects on the Arduino platform. I loved the platform, I loved how open it was, and how I could quickly learn the best ways people had found to solve all sorts of practical problems.

However, when it came to doing anything wireless or battery-powered, things kind of fell apart.  Price went up quickly with having to purchase additional shields, XBee modules, and lots of 9V batteries.  We wanted a tiny, pocketable Arduino-compatible microcontroller that was battery-powered, rechargeable, and had a built-in wireless radio.

So you could say that Bruce’s book gave us the insight of what things could become in the future, and the Arduino community gave us the hands-on experience to know what worked well today and what could be improved upon.

EW: What design principles did you and your partner follow, when designing Pinoccio? What were the “rules of thumb”?

EJ: Sally Carson, Pinoccio’s other co-founder, is an expert in the intersection between humans and technology.  What I mean by that is that she thinks very deeply and carefully about the psychology of humans interacting with computers.  Human-computer interaction, user experience, and usability all fall under her umbrella.  I consider her contribution a secret weapon in what we’re trying to achieve with Pinoccio.

So one of the major design principles Pinoccio follows is that of “how will this feel to a person?” We’ve defined UX personas, which are defined as fictional examples of people within the user base.

We’ve defined two main personas for Pinoccio today, and every decision we discuss–from what power management IC to use, all the way up to the feel of the device in your hands–is debated through the lenses of the personas.  We’ve even named the personas, so when we talk about features or capabilities, we’ll say things like “do you think Edwin will care about this as much as Theo will?”  This has helped us focus on what features are important now, and what features can wait until later.

Another design principle we care a lot about is not letting price be our only deciding factor.  From early on, we realized that ease-of-use and reliability are just as important as price.  We certainly care about how much Pinoccios cost, as we want them as accessible as possible.  But we won’t respond to the trolls on forums that claim “What? I could build one of these in 30 minutes for $7.00.”  By all means Mr. troll, please do so.

Of course, if you’ve been in the hardware world for any length of time at all, you learn that things like manufacturing repeatability, volume purchasing, regulatory certification, and reseller relationships are essential to building a long-term, sustainable business.  Building one in your workshop is one thing.  Building 10,000 of them in an efficient, repeatable manner is something altogether different.

EW: How important is Open Source, both tools and the communities that support them, to Pinoccio?

EJ: Open Source has been a cornerstone of our company’s philosophy. I would estimate that if we were to list out all of the tools, frameworks, servers, databases, and other software Pinoccio uses on a day-to-day basis, more than half would be open source. Even things one may take for granted, like the lowly shell script, gives us an advantage we wouldn’t otherwise have.

Pinoccio itself is an open hardware company, meaning we not only publish our bootloader and firmware as open source, but our hardware schematics and board layout files as well.  Some people, after hearing this, think we’re crazy for doing so. Others nod their head quietly and believe, as we do, that this is actually an advantage to us as a company–not some form of naive altruism.

We’ve closely followed the trajectory of companies like SparkFunAdafruit, and 3D Robotics, and it’s clear to us that making your hardware open affords you such rapid feedback and design iteration, that you can quickly surpass larger, more traditional hardware companies, even with a tiny team.

There’s a story I like to tell that paints a picture of this.  There’s an individual who lives in Switzerland who reached out to us about 6 months ago.  He had heard of the Pinoccio project and was interested in learning more.  He started by sending me emails of simple suggestions he had after reviewing our schematics. As we got to know each other better, I learned he was a retired medical device technology design engineer.  He had recently retired and purchased a 700 year old house in the Swiss Alps, and now has sheep and chickens in what could be argued the most beautiful country in the world. Yet he said he loved electronics too much to leave it altogether. He wanted Pinoccios to help monitor and manage his small farm.

Through collaboration, his contributions have increased our battery life 10x, and have given us the ability to control power handling on Pinoccio boards in a very fine-grained, very flexible manner–much more advanced than I had even initially considered. He and I continue to bounce emails back and forth, haggling over how to get the quiescent current of Pinoccio boards even lower. He also designed an energy harvester shield for Pinoccio that can charge the Lipo battery with as little as 80mV, and we’ll be offering this shield for sale this summer.

Now imagine that for a moment. Here’s an individual who is an expert at low-power systems.  He wouldn’t have found out about the details of our design if we were not open source. And we would have never even known he existed. Even if we did know of him, we wouldn’t have been able to hire him, because he’s retired, and it’s assumed he is not motivated by career advancement anymore. This is extremely powerful, and our products evolve faster and better for everyone because of this openness.

EW: What sets Pinoccio apart from other products that offer similar functionality?

EJ: There are a lot of devices available today that offer subsets of functionality of what Pinoccios offer. I would even argue that some of them do their particular subset better than we do.

But what sets us apart from them all is that we’ve built everything needed to get physical hardware talking to the web, seamlessly, and in an open manner.  Some companies come close to this, but may perhaps stop at the “open” part. Others may have the openness down, but don’t get you all the way back to the hardware itself, with example firmware scripts.  We’re planning on each board having its own web URL where you can query or send commands to it. That’s powerful for the tens of thousands of software and web developers out there who understand REST endpoints and web sockets, but are new to hardware.

Going back to personas, one of the requirements we have is that once you receive a Pinoccio starter kit, you should be affecting hardware–such as making its LED turn on or off–from a web browser in less than 5 minutes. You should also be able to push data from the hardware to the web–such as temperature–in the same 5 minutes. Back when I was hacking on Arduinos, I would spend all weekend trying to get a network stack working with the WiFi shield I had bought, and it would still drop connection unexpectedly. And I’d have to spin up a Heroku virtual server instance to act as a web location for my project. So frustrating.

EW: What part of the design process with Pinoccio surprised you?

EJ: The most surprising part of the design process was how high-level we needed to start at in order to design this new product well. Had we jumped straight into designing the hardware around things that I was preferential to, or around price, we would have an inferior product today.  Focusing instead on “what is it this device should solve for our personas” has really helped in focusing on what’s important.

It was surprising to me just how important this aspect of the design process is. It sounds somewhat cliché, but products must be designed from the human back to the hardware, not the other way around. I’m sure there are industrial designers reading this, thinking “of course”, but to formalize it in a new hardware startup from such an early point was a surprising yet important move for us.

EW: What part of the design process with Pinoccio challenged you, or was the most challenging, and how did you overcome that challenge?

EJ: Two major components have challenged us the most. The expected one is building out the RF section of Pinoccios. To non-RF engineers, RF is black magic. It works, but exhibits behavior that isn’t always intuitive, and sometimes downright mystifying. Add to this the general unavailability of knowledge and the expense of tools around how to tune RF front-ends, and it’s no wonder it still feels like black magic to most hardware engineers.

We tried to mitigate most of this challenge by following datasheet board layout recommendations to the letter, in addition to choosing RF front-end components designed specifically for the Atmel microcontroller radio we had chosen. We went through seven revisions of the board before we found an RF layout that worked well. However, this still wasn’t enough, as we had no idea if our antenna trace characteristic impedance was indeed correct.

I don’t like flying blind like that for production hardware, so we recently employed the help of an RF consultant in Portland, OR who is going to help us through final tuning and FCC certification. It’s important, we’ve learned, to ask for help when you need it. Nobody knows everything, and it benefits everyone when many people contribute their best knowledge to a problem domain.

The other component that challenged us the most was completely unexpected and very unsexy. It was the header sockets we chose. Pinoccios, like Arduinos, have the concept of a shield–a board with particular sensors or components that you can plug into header sockets on the main Pinoccio board–to extend its functionality. Due to Pinoccio’s small form factor, the header sockets we chose are 2mm, but it turns out that nobody makes header sockets with this pitch, but low-profile and long tails.

We contacted all of the major header manufacturers (and several lesser known ones) and nobody has these. So we’ve resorted to higher-profile header sockets for the time being. It bugs us from the “how does it feel when you hold it” aspect, because the shield headers are taller than they need to be, but it’s something we’ve had to accept for now. Once we get our first manufacturing run out, I wouldn’t rule out us biting the bullet and getting custom headers developed. It’s extremely expensive to do so, but it’s important from the human interface aspect.

But who knew header sockets would be a major design challenge?

EW: You have recently finished a successful crowd-funding campaign. Congratulations! What will you focus on next?

EJ: Thank you!  Yes, the campaign exceeded our expectations completely. We set a fairly high goal so that we would have plenty of room in case something went wrong with the FCC certification, or if we messed up costs or availability of various components. However, we were delighted to see the community not only help Pinoccio hit its goal, but pretty much blew it out of the water by 75%.

Now we’re singularly focused on converting the momentum we received during the campaign into a sustainable, viable company. First and foremost, this means getting the tools and equipment in place to deliver the first run of boards that the campaign pledges have reserved. But it also means building out our e-commerce site for ongoing sales, building the web API portion of our platform, and beginning to hire people to help us in this work.

It sounds strange. The campaign was extremely fun and exciting, but now the real work begins in getting Pinoccios into peoples’ hands.

EW: It looks like you have many extensions planned for Pinoccio. What are some of the ways in which Pinoccio can be extended?

EJ: We currently have around 8 shields under development.  Everything from 3-axis accelerometer/3-axis gyro, to GPS, to environmental sensing, to motion and noise sensing, to 16 channel PWM LED driving, to energy harvesting. We have a very activecommunity forum where lots of the detailed technical discussion happens around what shields to build next.

We have arranged manufacturing where it costs us very little to introduce new shields, so we’re quite open to new shield ideas.

But even without shields, Pinoccios can be extended very easily. The boards themselves break out almost all of the microcontroller pins to the header sockets.  So you have access to I2C, SPI, two UARTs, several GPIOs and 8 ADCs.  So anything you want to breadboard up, or build on a perfboard would work fine. We also offer proto boards that let you solder in whatever design you want, and have it in a nice shield format, for a more permanent custom build.

EW: Now that the crowd-funding campaign is over, how can people just discovering Pinoccio order one (or more) for themselves?

EJ: We are finishing up some details for the e-commerce portion of our site. There people can continue to pre-order Pinoccios even if they missed our crowdfunding campaign. We’ll also offer several shields for sale as well as accessories like spare Lipo batteries, jumper wires, and other things you may want for prototyping.

We’re also talking with several well-known Maker/DIY resellers who have reached out to us, interested in carrying Pinoccios on their sites. We can’t name names quite yet, but we expect you’ll be able to buy Pinoccios at many of your favorite online stores.

Stett Holbrook

Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.


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