Zigurd Mednieks checks in from CES

In trying to find interesting products for makers, I came across some machine screws that are smaller than fleas, 0.2mm across the shaft. The Matsumoto Industries product was exhibited using a microscope. If you are making something very small, that’s your screw.

They were too small for me to get a clear handheld photograph in their booth, so here is a product shot:

While this screw was likely the smallest object exhibited at CES, there was one category that was pervasive: tablets. In addition to the familiar Motorola, Samsung, ASUS, and other leading brands, numerous manufacturers with names like Universal Microelectronics, Michley Electronics, Maylong Group, and dozens of others, were showing tablets, mostly running Android, built in their factories in southern China. The result is that the price of smaller tablets is falling like a stone.

Inexpensive tablets are a hackable commodity. Anyplace some switchgear and lights or an LCD display are needed, a tablet can provide a user interface with a responsive capacitive touch panel, a seven (or perhaps five) inch color LCD display, WiFi, Bluetooth, perhaps a camera, and an assortment of other sensors, all for about $100.

Universal Microelectronics MP202 Tablet

That may look like overkill, but the benefit of putting a color display and touch input on a device comes with such a low price that the unused pieces are of no consequence in weight or cost. That is, it’s cheaper to scavenge what you need from a finished product than to put it together yourself.

Inexpensive tablets are also appropriate for automotive projects, and for fixed kiosk-like applications in home automation, office information – e.g. meeting room availability – and other projects requiring a fixed display and input device, particularly since the price of wireless IP connectivity is so low.

This is going to affect the way you create a man-machine interface (MMI) in several ways: Color, animations, audible indicators and feedback, and other techniques that can make interfaces easier to comprehend and less error-prone become available to you. The switchgear on the front of my espresso machine is lovely to look at, but, after more than 10 years of using it, I still can get the order in which I set the switches wrong.

In addition to providing a platform for a better MMI, using a tablet gives you remote control possibilities for smartphones and general-purpose tablets: Your MMI is an app, and it can run in your device, in a fixed control panel, and in devices that can connect to your project, and running the same MMI interface, provide remote control.

If you need to hack Android and/or the underlying Linux to provide device drivers or other code not present in the Android that comes with the tablet, you can roll your own. Android is more hackable now that the PandaBoard is a build target for the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). The combination of a supported build target and widely available development board means that you can start your software development for a tablet deployment on a PandaBoard, and based on the chipmaker’s Linux kernel for Android, build for your device.

Zigurd Mednieks is an author and consultant specializing in mobile devices and telecommunications product development. He is the co-author of Programming Android and Android Application Development.

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