element14: Hi Doug. Tell me a little about your experience as an engineer?
Doug: I guess I fall into the jack-of-all-trades/independent electronic designer category. I started out as an EE designing all kinds of instrumentation for cars, trucks, trains, etc., as well as industrial robots. This including everything from control systems and sensors from analog to software, real-time firmware and data acquisition systems. I then moved on to a university doing work in scientific instrumentation, including high energy physics, spectroscopy, optical systems and pattern recognition. Then I had a stint in fiber optic telecom. Following that I was with a start-up for a few years averaging one new product per week including physiological sensors and autonomous robotics. Lately I have done some work for a counter-terrorism company interested in threat detection and situational awareness sensors and instrumentation that can survive and record what is going on in an IED explosions (at 8000G's crystals won't even oscillate).
I picked up 8 patents along the way in different fields like solid state searchlights, capacitance sensors, fingerprint recognition systems, fiber optic MEMS switches, and blast-induced TBI recorders. I love solving problems and doing design and would most like to be an inventor, but have never come across a company that has this as a job title, despite the importance of inventions in today's technology both for corporations and generally in society.
Currently I am between major engagements - working on three contracts: to develop the next generation of bomb suit and related instrumentation; developing instrumentation for a research project to monitor bird-feeding behavior; and developing physiological sensors used to monitor physiotherapy exercises
element14: That’s certainly a diverse list of projects. So one of your projects is with a a counter-terrorism company. That sounds interesting. Tell me a bit more
Doug: Okay, that company, their flagship product is something a bomb diffusion technician would use to try and handle bomb threats, and explosions from those devices. The next generation of that includes a lot of electronics to try to improve the situational awareness of the person using it. They're trying to figure out what the threats are, using electronic sensors, and where they are. They also need to report back their situation so everybody else knows what they're experiencing.
element14: Sounds like there's a lot of sensors and processing involved?
Doug: That's correct. It includes everything from heads-up displays and communication systems to very esoteric sensors that can detect explosives and hazardous materials at a stand -off distance.
element14: What prompted you to become an element14 member?
Doug: I came across element14 while looking for information on the PSoC4 Pioneer kit from Cypress Semiconductor - they posted a great series of example projects. That's when I noticed that they also had a competition, or a contest, associated with that product.
element14: You ended up winning that contest.
element14: Describe your project. What did you design that became the winning entry?
Doug: Well, the theme of the contest was the Smarter Life Challenge. I'd chosen to do a smart thermostat, because it fit that theme and it's something that I've wanted to do for quite a while. I was a little bit unimpressed by the methodology of programming thermostats and so on. I could never remember how to use the one that I have, so I wanted to make it a lot more user friendly. But, in trying to design something that would be successful in that contest, I had to make a system that would showcase the capabilities of the PSoC 4. I added a lot of sensors, and things that might not be on a normal thermostat, but they are pretty cool and they do highlight the capabilities of that chip. For example, the thing could actually be voice controlled - if it had a Bluetooth interface it could talk to a smart phone or a PC wirelessly. It has a GPS receiver, so that it could obtain time and date from satellite information, which means that you would never need to set the time, and even if the power went out, it could go get the time from the satellite. When you're doing scheduling that's kind of important. I could never get my thermostat to hang in there when it was changing the schedules for daylight savings time and what not.
element14: When you started this, did you have any experience with PSoC 4 or any of the PSoC parts?
Doug: No, I did not. I think when I first purchased the kit, I didn't know about the contest. I had received an email from Cypress directly. I'm on quite a few of these mailing lists. I was intrigued by the kit, because it was at a very attractive price for the amount of power you got in a little kit like that. And I had looked at their PSoC Creator software development environment before, and thought it to be extremely capable and comprehensive, and very easy to use. That was certainly the experience I had when I was using the system. I had never actually used the Creator before. I had just looked at it, and when the Pioneer kit came along I did try to get into it, and found it to be simpler than any of the other start-ups or things that I've gone with.
element14: As you were progressing in the project, did you keep readers up to date on where you were? Did you blog about your progress as you went?
Doug: Yes, I think I ended up with 13 or 14 videos. That was part of the rules of conduct, where you needed to keep members up to date on your progress. It wasn't hard to do, because my project had so many sensors and subsystems in it there was always something to talk about. That part was quite easy to do. I did not have any experience blogging, or doing online videos before. It ended up being another learning experience, but everything seemed pretty seamless in terms of getting the stuff published.
element14: Did you get comments from other members when you posted this? Were any of them helpful to you as you were developing the project?
Doug: There were lots of comments but, not a lot of suggestions. Remember that a lot of responses came from other contestants who were more interested in what I was doing than interested in helping me [he laughs]. That whole forum part of the element14 website is pretty interesting, there's lots of members, lots of activity, and I think it's the best electronics forum that I've come across as far as participation and the interesting activities that are going on there.
element 14: My understanding is that the award for the project was presented in Germany. That must have been interesting for you?
Doug: Yes, it was an extremely interesting trip. It was at a large embedded systems show. I think 900 exhibitors or something like that. It was the first time I've been to Germany and I was really surprised that I could get by speaking English. Everybody there seems to speak English. I have attended lots of trade shows, and some large ones. But this one was certainly different. I did have to make several presentations working at the booth a little bit, to explain my project which was prominently displayed in the booth-- in the Cypress booth.
(editors note: you can check out the rest of the competitors of the Smarter Life Design Challenge here)
element14: What are you working on now for element14?
Doug: My main project for element14 right now is a vehicle simulator that looks like a vehicle to any external application or device - enabling such applications to be largely developed without needing an actual car in the lab. It is a special kind of vehicle simulator to be used by developers who are developing instrumentation that uses the data from vehicles - there's a lot of data and a lot of computers in vehicles these days.
It’s progressing; we’ve finished the design, at least finished all the hardware design and we're just waiting for parts right now to build it, and get the software started. It's not just a simulator. It can actually just record a real vehicle trip, and all the data associated with those trips, so that when it's playing back essential information, it could be real data, not just simulated data.
element14: Would that include video, if that were being taken by a car system?
Doug: Yes, that's part of the plan to have it synchronize with video, and to record. Initially, of course, we would just use a commercial video recorder.
element14: Getting back to element14, and your experience with it: what areas of the site do you find yourself paying attention to, which do you follow?
Doug: I follow mainly the discussion groups and the blogs, just looking through them to see if there are people that need help, and I pretty strictly limit my participation to answering questions. I don't ask any questions, I just answer them. I think there are two different kinds of people on the forums - the kind that ask questions and the kind that answer them. I like answering them. I like the challenge of the problems that they're having, and trying to find solutions for them.
element14: And what do you like best about element14?
Doug: It is the best electronics forum I have found. It has lots of members and lots of activity. The Road Test opportunities are particularly intriguing to me since they are more based on merit than luck. I also like the mentoring aspect of the various forums.
element14: Very good. Well on that note, let me thank you for contributing to element14 and for taking the time to talk with us.
Doug: Okay, thanks. No problem.