Alt.CES: Tablets are for Embedding

Computers & Mobile Home
Alt.CES: Tablets are for Embedding

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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8 thoughts on “Alt.CES: Tablets are for Embedding

  1. allan says:

    automotive projects and cheap tablets… i would be careful with that combination, there is a reason automotive electronics is higher spec’ed when it comes to temperature, humidity, power surges and things like that…

    1. asciimationSimon says:

      I’d go further and say tablets/touch screens have no place in cars at all! Ignoring the whole driver distractions and why you’d need such a device in car anyway an interface where you have to actually look at what you’re trying to interact with in an environment where you really need your eyes elsewhere (i.e. on the road) is a bad combination.

      A couple of nice (analogue) dials and a few, easy to find without looking switches should be enough.

      I should say though I am a car luddite and don’t even have a radio in my cars since I like to be able to hear the tappets!

  2. monopole (@monopole) says:

    Somebody finally (almost) gets it!
    Cheap tablets are ideal front ends for devices with no space for interfaces, not only lighting, but thermostats, set top boxes, PIDs, micro mp3 players, cameras etc…

    The other thing one has to “get” with regards to this is that tablets can be interchangeable interfaces for such devices. A tablet can be an interface for your thermostat, lights, printer, camera, rice cooker, and sous vide. Thus a $100 tablet can be amortised across a dozen or so devices, reducing the cost to less than $10 apiece.

    The $35 Akash tablets and the XO-3 have the potential to really do amazing things in this regard. Potentially, a full blown tablet will be only $10 more expensive than a 2×16 LCD display.

    Google definitely gets it with the ADK interface, but the capacity to run over wifi or bluetooth will seal the deal

  3. Justin Sparks says:

    Very small mechanical things are not new. Here are a couple of videos of pocket watch parts that are over 100 years old. I’ve placed them near a penny for scale.

    Very small chain:

    Very small gears:

    Or if you’re afraid of the links you can find them at:

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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