Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Widgets for Website Navigation

I applaud some of the business units in TI for trying to make navigating their portfolio easier.
One of the ones that I particularly like is what they have on the TI Home Page-- Web Bench.
I think the most effective marketing is marketing that serves to educate first and then pull through products second... this tool does this perfectly.

Playing around with the tool you can play with optimizing for size, cost, heat... and a variety of design considerations. What's nice is that you don't have to dig around in a data sheet to get the equations required to calculate to model the different considerations.

I wish I had thought to do these exercises real time to give the screenshots... on my to do list for a revision of this blog post.

Things that I noticed/ see opportunity in:
1. ) you can choose a "optimization" this is kinda like a paradigm that all of the selection of parts fall into. I would love to see the groupings that drive this, what characteristics and what parameters make it fall into these buckets. I'd like to make available to other tool/software companies to make better and more intergrated tools.

2.) If the above is too much... I wish that they would let me "turn off" these optimziations... or at least output a "The reason why we selected this was because you choose ..."  That way I'm aware of why the part was in there.

Way I can use this right now...
The LED Design tool is going to be helpful while we are working on the LED power curtain project I have my interns working on :-)

 (Also, no wonder why so many of the students I talked to LOVE this tool... they probably are turning this information out as lab reports).

In conclusion-- I need/want to see more of these types of tools out there. Tools that help solve a problem first... and by doing so add value... THEN sell something.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Dark Ages are Coming for Engineering Education...

Aside from that, this is a bit of rant... and this is what set me off:

Around Christmastime I was given one of these by my mother's boyfriend. Unfortunately somehow I had lost it during the move and with my mother and her boyfriend coming to visit soon-- I decided to go and buy one to replace the lost one. 

Meet my Apple "Magic" Trackpad.

It's nice.
I like it and enjoy using it.  After all, its a very well designed multi-touch capacitive touch bluetooth mousepad. It's exactly like the trackpad on my macbook, except I can sit on my couch and use it instead of having to have the machine on my lap. No problems here.

But, it's not the product that I object to...

It's the Marketing of the product.

Marketing a consumer electronics product as "magic" really does not do me any favors. Labeling electronics as "magic" gives the people the illusion that those who design/work with electronics are some class of "wizards and warlocks".

Just because you cannot see electrons moving with the naked eye, doesn't mean that it's magic.

Consider, several hundred years ago we couldn't see germs... and doctors in the middle ages were seen as a cross between a religious man and a wizard. There was no understanding on what made people sick, where disease came from-- and people lived in fear and superstition about life and death. The common man was vulnerable for those who wished to take advantage of these fears and superstitions. The practicing early health care professional struggled to overcome the emotion and misconception in order to advance their profession.
A Mid-Evil Alchemy/Health Chart

It wasn't until the breakthrough of understanding germs and micro-organisms did the medical profession begin to make significant advances. Furthermore, it wasn't until the layman understood these impacts did we see the benefits of these advances. No longer was being a doctor a charter handed down from God, but rather it was a learned skill to contribute to the common good. 

Look at modern day. Except the issue at hand isn't the germ, but rather how electronics work. In a day that more and more consumer applications are having higher levels of electronic content, it's odd how little the common person understands the mechanics how those devices work. As the dependency on these items increases so should the amount of people who understand them. But it's not the case. 

In America, it's harder and harder to recruit students to want to become electrical and computer engineers working with electronics. Engineering is difficult to begin with, but Electrical and Computer Engineers are seen as a subclass within these groups. 

I remember when I was in school seeing a shirt that said, "You can't spell "Geek" without EE". More recently I saw a similar one that said, "You can't get spell "Creep" without EE." 

The overall issue? It's difficult to get students to relate to and understand what a EE or CE major does. 
Mostly because there is a sort of misconception that what they do is on par to communing with the "dark arts" and only those with very special powers should/could/would want to do that. 
After all, "magic" can only be preformed by a select few.

As comical as it is to imagine looking at the electronics industry almost like a Harry Potter book... as an Engineering Education professional, I'm more alarmed by the subtle cultural impact these attitudes have.

First, it perpetuates the "us" versus "them" mentality. That knowledge of electronics would not normally cross camps and should be concentrated to an elite few (which is probably why Apple also refers to their store helpers as "geniuses"). 

Second as a result of elitism around electronics understanding there comes a risk that there are too few players in a market that...

Thirdly, is growing and people are starting to shape their lives around and become dependent upon.

 (If you don't believe me on this dependency, go and put a little ball of paper between the ethernet jack on your router/modem and the ethernet cable... and watch how vehemently the occupants needing the internet act when they can't figure out what's wrong. Props for anyone who has someone in their house that will unplug it and look to see what is causing the issue, but I doubt they would go through the trouble). 

Fourth, this same population that is trusting that the technology they are using is there to enhance their lives will be first to cry out and call foul when a perceived offense occurs... and somehow the lack of their ability to make an informed decision is blamed on the few (pretty much analogous to the American Financial Systems where people were taking out home loans they didn't understand trusting that the Bank would tell them if something was amiss).

Lastly, other countries don't appear to have this same passive attitude for understanding electronics. And although we may be innovators today-- as the supply of engineers dries out, we will have to turn to other countries to fill those demands. Instead of driving innovation by having the best and most creative minds at work, we will just be maintaining the status quo.

If anyone were to make a significant impact to helping reverse this?... it could be Apple.
Apple with their incredible reach, cult following and ability to inspire people to appreciate technology is  amiss their responsibility here.
Instead they choose to perpetuate the gap between electronics know-how and the layman. Charging a premium for the "ease of use" and benefiting from the fact that many people can't bother to learn how the product works.
After all, why would you when a "genius" will answer your question about your "magic" product?

Type in the word "Magic" on the Apple Store and these are the results...

On that note...
I have to go to work.
And I will need to resist the urge to re-name all of my daily interactions at the semi-conductor company I work for with World of Warcraft references.

IF you are interested here's a link to the Trackpad teardown.
I do appreciate how well designed the trackpad is. I just don't want to diminish the amount of brilliant engineering to something as superfluous as "magic".

Monday, July 16, 2012

A look at processing of communication

Since the primary function of language is to facilitate communication I wanted to look at the fundamentals of communication.
These are a collection of my notes that serve as background for me on other ideas:

A look at the processing of communication:

Communication is defined as:  is the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behavior. 

As with any system there are some inputs, a process and an output.
What makes human communication so complex is the ability for many concurrent channels to be opened at once. (It's this simultaneous processing and transmission of information that happens real-time that always fascinates me how wonderfully efficient the human design is. )

For simplicity sake we are going to focus on the person and assume all of this person's communication is received perfectly by the "outside" world bubble (we all know that isn't the case, but for the purposes of this, I want to narrow our focus).

Within the person, a look at the process segment:

First, I'd like to look at Resources.
Very similar to a computer, resources in this case is memory. 
I assert that the the process of increasing resources permanently is called = learning. 

Very simplistically I am going to assert that Resources for communication depends on : it's how efficiently the person can access their memory and what contents are present. 
(This is a very complex process and there are countless of research papers on the mechanics, but this will not be covered here). 

Inside of the resources is a memory process. 
Taking some input externally (or internally) the thought moves through short term memory into long term memory.  It's the growing of long term memory that = increasing resources= the learning process. 
This is very simplistic way of looking at how memory is processed, but the relationship between long term and short term memory needs to be kept in mind when discussing learning. 
Not depicted on that chart is how the brain removes information or forgets. 
If any part of this memory recall, processing, learning and filtering is broken -- the person will be considered to have a disability. 

There is a great deal of research on the causes of different disabilities and what part of the brain's information shuttling is off- e.g. bypassing short term memory and into long term is found as a symptom of autism. A weak link between short term and long term memory (the consolidation and categorization process) is what causes ADD. 

Next is a look at the input.
Inputs come from either internally actioned or externally. 
This is where our five senses come in. Our senses are the external input receptors we need to take data from the outside world. 
Once that data is received then the memory process can process it. 
The remarkable thing about the inputs is that unlike resource/memory problems, input problems can either be compensated through other senses or even replaced. 
It's very seldom that we only take in information through one sensor and often times it's the combination of all of the senses that delivers the most complete data transmission. The input can happen consciously or subconsciously. In the case of reading= conscious. In the case of sizing up a new person, most of the judgement occurs subconsciously with the result a "feeling" about that person. 
A little bit different is the internal inputs. 
I put emotions separately from memory. However these are inputs that happen either as feedback or pre-set conditions that go into the communications process. e.g. has a stomach ache and has a feeling of unease.

I wanted to cover the outputs before touching on the process.
The output are the results that are expected or happening during the communication. 
I view the outputs as the actions that happen as a result of receiving information. 
Either an action will be generated that can be viewed by the outside world or there actions that are generated internally that are not part of the outside world and may instead be an iteration of the process.

It's in the output that we see the differences between stylistic approaches.
Example: The difference amount of external versus internal communication is what makes the difference between introverts and extroverts. 

Now a look at the process. 

The chart is just an example of the decision that is being made for the particular input. 
The branched logic is something that our brains can process concurrently with multiple threads. 
Each step of the logic requires the information to be processed, matched against recalled information, compared, categorized then decision to either move to the next step or disregard. 

It's the combination of how many of these processes you have access to versus the ones you have to create from scratch that determines how quickly you communicate. 
It's the success of these processes that determines if you are likely to use the same method again.
Success= reinforcement = more likely to commit that particular process to memory. 

Once in memory, then the next factor is how quickly and accurately you can recall the information. 
(back to the resources section above). 

Many of these processes happen in our subconscious and only if we wish to defy the result we would need to modify the process.
The closer to the subconscious a process is, the faster the process happens = the less opportunity you have to modify the result. 

Since communication is the mechanism which information is received and transmitted-- then communication plays a large role in the learning process of an individual. 

The next step is to evaluate the communication mechanisms, in particular the use of language. 
Since communication is the process which information is acquired then the mechanism which communication occurs would be through language.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Meet Launchpad

TI MSP30 Launchpad
The Launchpad was created in the later half of 2010 to show case the MSP430G2xx ValueLine Microcontroller. The MSP430 -- a 16 bit, RISC architecture, 27 instruction set, integrated analog peripherals and ultra low power -- was looking at it's 25 year anniversary in the market. The processor, although considered mature in this Industry's time line (when products older than 2 years are considered  old news) was not only successfully thriving, but it's adoption was expanding. 

After all, when you look at the reason why it was created in the first place (to be a Mixed Signal Processor and do all of it's work using as little power as possible), the needs of it's initial creation are just as relevant if not more so today. After all, with the world we live in becoming more and more integrated with electronics-- there is a greater need to add processing (digital) to the real world (analog). Make the need for this to integrate as seamlessly with our lives as possible... and you get concerns as small size and portability. Size and Portability drive applications to have to run on batteries... and to run on them as long as possible, so the low power characteristic is in high demand. 
If I could pick a quote that really describes how the MSP430 team looks at the future it would be this one from Fred Wilcox.

Progress always involves risk; you can't steal second base and keep your foot on first."
— Frederick Wilcox

With ownership of the Ultra Low Power Market, a successful product line and a reasonably steady future demand... the MSP430 group had a choice. Either stay in status quo and do more of the same things that made the group successful in the past, or take a few risks and bets where the market would go. From that stance investments were made. Investments that would further the existing way they had been doing business, by winning with Ultra Low Power (FRAM was born) ... but then also looking at making investments to develop a new way of thinking about their  existing products... so the Value Line was created. 

The question was asked-- what new innovations and ideas could we enable if we gave the market a micro controller with power, performance and capability -- but we took away any excuse a customer would have to consider putting one in their system? What if we shook up the stereotypes that 8 bit processing and all of the hoops that you had to jump through to get an 8 bit processor to preform, plus gave the designers highly integrated analog components and made it run so low power... it was no additional tax on their system-- what could happen? Keep in mind, this was a risk on the MSP430 group's part... by putting out a "value line" of an existing product, they stood a chance at cannibalizing their own shipping business at the higher price points-- but the bet that the world could use more processing and the MSP430 was the right processor for it was compelling and overcame those concerns. 

TI makes semiconductors. We like to make them, we do it well... and it's my opinion that we do it the best (after all, how many of our competitors actually still own fabs, have a quarter of the product offering and run profitability like we do? ) Evaluation boards and Development boards... are a bit of a necessary evil. We need to have them for us to get our chips into the market. 

Providing evaluation/development boards is really an art form. It requires a special blend of knowing the chip's abilities, what is required to interact with it and who your potential users will be. Since the Value Line was being released as an experiment for- where can the market find use for adding mixed signal processing to their applications-- the last characteristic, arguably always the most difficult, was a bit nebulous. Despite that, the development board for the Value Line device-- was born and called the MSP430 Launchpad. 

The Launchpad was designed with five key factors in mind:
  • To remove any business objection from any engineer to try out MSP430. 
  • To have all of the necessary tools needed to evaluate the chip, in one place and make it as easy as possible to see the capabilities and understand the value proposition for MSP430.
  • To give a path to expansion into either larger capability chips or to more fully featured options.
  • To keep the chip and the platform "production ready" , that with any design-- there would as little as possible holding the design back from becoming a product. 
  • To open the door to the possibilities of using MSP430 and serve as inspiration for the designer to try out new ideas.

The primary audience? Existing Engineers. Engineers that knew how to already program, or were close to it. Engineers who had been using 8 bit micro controllers because of cost... Engineers that never had a compelling reason to try a microcontroller out.

In the box- the Launchpad had all the necessary hardware required to interact with it.
 Onboard power, debug and Emulation over USB-- All the required hardware needed.
An extra DIP Microcontroller (a package brought back to enable prototyping )
Header pins for expansion abilities
A free version of our shipping Industry IDE: Code Composer Studio
External crystals
an extra Microcontroller (in case you needed to change it out). 
Simple push button I/O
All the information to getting started printed in the box and in the "Getting Started". 
Two stickers  (borrowed idea , but to promote Branding). 
... and including shipping--- all for less money you would spend at Starbucks: $4.30

Prior to the Lauchpad, there was no other semiconductor manufacturer dared to go that low. To offer that type of performance and features was unheard of... and compelling. With so many of the standard objections removed-- there was almost no reason why an existing engineer shouldn't try out the MSP430 Launchpad. It's success was immediate.  Within the first 3 weeks of it's launch all of the channels had sold out... and the backlog carried TI well into the next few quarters. 

As the launchpad stayed in the market longer, the $4.30 price tag wasn't as exciting as it had been at release. It was hard to get engineers who didn't have a strong programming background to understand the value of such a tool. After all, a micro controller on it's own-- doesn't show off a great deal. It's when the micro controller is part of a larger system-- that the value is demonstrated. 

Approximately 1 year later, the Capacitive Touch Boosterpack was released. 

created to give the MSP430 a different more interactive way to show off it's abilities-- Boosterpacks were made to give add-on functionality. The original launchpad didn't have the header pins soldered down (Version 1.4), but with the popularity of the capacitive touch booster pack and the development of several other application booster packs-- the feedback was users didn't particularly want to solder header pins down and would prefer the launchpad to ship with the header pins already done. 

The CapTouch Boosterpack was the first booster pack and shipped with pre-flashed program of the demo so the user could get an out of the box experience immediately. No programming was required with the hope the tit would be enough to pique the user's curiosity to try programming the application themselves.  However, it wasn't until the evolution of the Boosterpack system in to the Boosterpack Eco-System that the MSP430 Launchpad stepped solidly into the hobbyist world.