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5 Posts authored by: GardenState



element14:  Let’s start with you telling the element14 Community  audience a little bit about yourself: what you do, who you work for and what was your formal education?

Victor: Okay, good. My name is Victor. I live in the Netherlands. I've got two sons now (Editor’s note:  the most recent is a newborn, congratulations to Victor and his wife). My formal education is in Electrical Engineering at a school that translates best into something like “Polytechnic”:  Saxion University in the Netherlands.

element14:  Okay, who do you work for currently?

Victor: I'm currently working for the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands. Previously, I worked at an engineering firm designing hardware, and sometimes a small bit of software. I have been working at the University about 3 1/2 years now.

element14: Do you teach there? What do you do at the university?

Victor: No, my official title is Research Engineer. I have worked on a diverse set of projects-- from motor control to ultrasound. I'm designing test set ups and projects for faculty PhD's who will need to measure something. Sometimes I teach, but that is a very small part of my job.

element14: Can you give me an example of a project that you were involved in at the school, or something that you've recently done, which would give element14 Community members a better feel for your job at Twente?

Victor: Yes, what I'm doing now is designing electronics for a robotic exoskeleton.

element14: Would the exoskeleton be used for people with disabilities? Would it be used for a military application?

Victor: No. it’s for spinal cord injury, People with spinal cord injuries are the target audience.

element14: You became a member of element14 Community,- if I remember correctly, in 2010. How did you first hear about it, and why did you decide to become a member?

Victor: I was involved, professionally, ordering stuff (from Farnell Nederland ) then I saw element14 Community opened, and I looked at the website a few times, and at first didn't really get involved that much.  Then, I was working with a friend, and a member of a hacker space here called tkkrlab and someone started with a project involving a Lego train, he wanted to add wireless charging to that and at the same time there was an element14 Community  RoadTest Challenge where they asked for contributors to build something for wireless charging, and I thought, "Hey, this is a nice opportunity. Let' me try to get my hands on it first." Then, I got selected, and we made a Lego train and a Chihuahua-- I don't know if you've seen the project.  (Editor’s Note: Victor demonstrated the capabilities of Qi wireless charging by liberating his son´s toys from their cords. With the Qi-train and Qi-huahua, Victor proved he was able to charge anything, anywhere. He was cited in the challenge as “truly integrating the Qi-standard into our daily lives with great creativity and lots of entertainment.”)

element14: Tell me a little bit about your experience in participating in the challenge. How easy was it to sign up, to get the material, to write about it, etc.?

Victor: Well, in general, once you have been selected everything is run by Farnell. You get a contact person and you get the materials. The application is-- well, I got selected for the Wireless Power one and again for the Energy Harvesting Challenge, You write in the entry, "I'd like to do this, this, and this." I've also written applications that did not get selected. I think over the years the level of entries has gone up.

After you receive the materials you're pretty much on your own to make your journal entries and write about what you're doing. To me, a lot of the time it takes - which, due to the recent changes in my family life will mean that I won't be applying for a lot of projects in the coming year—it took me about one or two evenings a week to participate.

(check out Victor's winning entry to the Energy Harvesting Challenge)

element14:  Do you think the members should have more of a say in what products are being road tested?

Victor: There is a place where people can actually suggest things, but I think element14 Community is very heavily relying on what the manufactures provide. Something like the “Energy Harvesting Solution to Go” Road Test, for example, would never have come from the community members themselves.

element14: You do also participate in forums where you answer questions, and comment on other member’s blogs. Do you find that element14 Community  gives you as an engineer, a sense of community? Is that one reason why you participate?

Victor: Yes, I think it should-- It could-- be larger, because I see a lot of people asking one question and then just (seemingly) leave the community. My feeling is there could be much more community, there could be more involvement. I'm not quite sure how that could be shaped, but I think it could be larger. To me, one of the reasons for community is that I've learned a lot from colleague engineers, and I think when people come up with a good question or have interesting ideas it's a good thing to get some comments from colleagues.

element 14: I noticed for example, at one point you had a question that you raised to the FPGA group. I believe you were looking at a high speed analog digital converter, and you asked about an FPGA choice . Were you happy with the response that you got? Was it worthwhile asking the question?

Victor: Yes very much. This is the good part of such a community.  I could have asked the same question of FPGA vendors [like Xilinx or Altera] and I would have gotten a sales-oriented answer.  The community of people who are actually using the product are more likely to respond:  “Oh, you are thinking the wrong way" or "Don't forget this option" or "You have the wrong concept”.  FPGAs are new to me. I can easily get a concept the wrong way. It's good to have some feedback like that because I don't have a ton of colleagues working with FPGAs. Normally it would be something to discuss with colleagues, about their experience in this.

element14:  What you are saying is that a peer-to-peer discussion has more validity than - as you pointed out - simply going to a vendor who's going to have a particular point of view.

Victor: Yes, and also because that vendor might be put out by my lack of knowledge on the subject or might not understand the question I'm asking, because I'm not in that field or work, or whatever. I think you first ask a question to the community and they can point you in the right direction. Maybe later, I'll go and ask a vendor but by then I have the right vocabulary, and I’m able to ask for the concepts behind the technology.

element14: An engineer once told me that they like forums where engineers can ask other engineers questions, because in some cases they can do so almost anonymously, whereas at times the engineer might be concerned if he asked a question of a colleague or a supervisor that he might be thought of as not having the proper knowledge. Here, you can ask a question of another engineer without that fear. Is this a factor—having a place to anonymously ask a question without any fear of creating doubt about your abilities in the workplace?

Victor: For me, the places where I have I worked previously, and currently, welcome people who ask questions and say they don't know. It's better to say you don't know, than do something without knowledge of what you're doing. That might also be a cultural thing.

element14:  What other areas of element14 Community  do you follow? For example, do you follow what Ben Heck does? What other sections of the site do you find yourself looking at from time to time?

Victor: Mostly the forums and experts sections. Those are the areas where I find the most interesting questions. Of course, RoadTest. I follow Ben Heck because sometimes there are some interesting discussions there.

element14:  And as we’ve discussed you also participate in the design challenges that appear from time to time.

Victor: Yes. I took  part of the Road Test Challenge, and I participated in the Energy Harvesting challenge. One of the things that I really found a bit discouraging in those RoadTests was that there wasn’t enough involvement from the community. It's a bit weird to get only a response from one guy in a post on a challenge. I wanted to increase the involvement of people reading the blog. So what I did was not participate as a contestant but I wrote like a weekly summary of what had happened, that way you could inform all the participants. Also because in the Energy Harvesting thing there were-- I think-- eight people who originally get involved and only three came up with a working design in the end.  I think that was really a shame. I'm quite happy when there are a lot of participants and a lot the people finish.

element14: Thank you Victor. I appreciate your time and your answers to my questions.

Check out what vsluiter is up to on the element14 Community by checking out his profile here.

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element14: Hi Mark. Tell us a little about yourself and your technical experience.

Mark: Way back in 1977 I started with our local (New Zealand) telecommunications company which was part of the New Zealand Post Office. I trained as a radio technician there. We worked on radio electronics equipment, right through to microwave links for communications. I left there in 1988 and did a brief stint for a year as a photographer. Then, after that I joined with a partner and we were servicing gaming machines and also doing a lot of nightclub lighting work; mostly control and repair of electronic stuff used in the entertainment industry. In 1991 I joined an electronics company that was looking after the servicing of automated fuel dispensing systems for trucks. I don't think you have them over in America, but here we have an arrangement where the trucks can pull in, put a card into a machine, and immediately authorize that fuel can be delivered. The company also looked after the petrol pump equipment and the servicing and electronics associated with that. In 1998, I left and went to work for a company involved with the gaming industry but they also did a lot of technical research and development of lighting effects and the use of plastic fiber optics. Then, unfortunately, the company manager had a heart attack and they had to wind up the company, which was a shame. I then joined Airways Corporation New Zealand, which looks after all of the air traffic control systems for New Zealand.

Anyway, in Christchurch we basically monitor all of the equipment and provide the help desk function, if you like, for the entire country. We're the first line of support. We also repair and look after all of the equipment used within the center at Christchurch. That covers also a lot of networking equipment and computer systems.

element14: That's where you are presently?

Mark: That's correct, that's where I am presently.

element14: How did you first discover the element14 Community  site?

Mark: I had always been using element14 for parts (Editor’s note:  In New Zealand, Farnell is now called element14 New Zealand,  an operating division of Premier Farnell, a world-leading distributor of electronic components as well as and maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) products, hence parts can be purchased in New Zealand from element14). Then, I think I stumbled across the community more or less just before the Raspberry Pi was due to come out. I became involved with the community and it basically escalated from there.

element14: How would you describe your experience contributing to element14 Community? Have you found that you developed contacts you wouldn't have otherwise? Have you developed friends through it?

Mark: I'm in the Top Members' group, which is probably not everyone's cup of tea. But I have, yes, definitely picked up some very interesting contacts, entered into some discussions in areas that I probably would never have touched on before, and been involved with technologies that I probably would have liked to have been involved with, but never had my arm twisted enough to join in.

element14: Can you think of some examples of technologies, or things you weren't aware of, or people that you've then had further contact with?

Mark: It happens quite a lot. I'm chatting on wireless for a start. Some of the boards that element14 have produced or made available for RoadTests, and through some of the RoadTest reviews, I found uses for some of the stuff that has been quite interesting though I'm not sure I can pull a specific on some of them.

element14:  Since you mentioned RoadTest. What's your experience been with regard to that? Getting products, reviewing products, finding interesting products to request, can you give me your take on that?

Mark: The RoadTests are a very interesting experience. They do stretch your imagination in an application area, as to what you would use it for and they get you thinking about it. I think element14 Community has more to do with its RoadTests in that some of the, shall we say, recipients are probably not giving out the amount of information that element14 Community readers could use. That's my opinion anyway. I think some of the choices (of reviewers and reviews to publish) are less than what element14 Community could use.

element14: Since you're in New Zealand, have you run into any problems in terms of getting RoadTest product? I’m thinking about potential tariffs and things like that?

Mark: When you order parts from the New Zealand element14 website they are actually shipped from Australia overnight. It's extremely good. There is absolutely no fault with local shipping; from a customer's point of view, it's absolutely brilliant. The RoadTest product is completely separate. They are sent from America, which has its own interesting quirks.

element14: Such as?

Mark: Since they ship generally from America it means that you're given an American version of the power supplies. There are also delays due to the fact that shipping is not overnight. In my opinion a local source should be used if the parts are there.

element14: Is there anything else in particular that you could think of that could be done to improve RoadTest?

Mark: It’s hard for me to say since I don’t know how the RoadTests are normally chosen--whether they are chosen by the manufacturer or element14 Community. But I do know that some of the RoadTest reviews could be beefed up in terms of what is required. I also have seen some good ones. I think that there seems to be a lot of people that only join up for the RoadTests (but don’t contribute to the forum discussions). I don't think that helps the community overall. I think that some of the RoadTests possibly need to have their criteria tightened a little bit. In some of the tests the reviews are minimal at best.

element14: Have you participated in any of the design challenges that are placed on the site from time to time (such as the wireless power challenge), where a supplier gets together with the site and they provide a kit and the member has to describe the project he plans to work on?

Mark: I am involved in the wireless one. It's been challenging and some of my areas of expertise have been shown to be lacking [chuckle]. However, I am learning, so that's one good thing. Some of the other design challenges I have not been involved in, because they're way outside of my realm. I'm a hardware person, not a software person. I have enjoyed some of them (challenges). The energy harvesting challenge I think was extremely good, and I think you do need more of those.

element14: What would you say was the most interesting element14 Community - related project that you've been involved in?

Mark: I think the Pi Camera one was a very good one, the Raspberry Pi Catch Santa challenge was good. Unfortunately, the delivery was after Santa arrived. However, the idea of it and what they did and how it was done was quite useful to people.

element14: element14 Community members are very active with regard to Raspberry Pi and Arduino. Are these areas of the site that you look at regularly?

Mark: Arduino is right up my alley. I have been assisting a local magazine with Arduino. I'm quite familiar with Arduino and I'm quite capable, and can help members with Arduino. As for Raspberry Pi, I'm still learning more than most people probably know. So, I can't support that. However, electronics is electronics and in general developing good practices is the best thing you can teach someone.

element 14: Please talk about element14 Community and Arduino

Mark: element14 Community's process for Arduino is good but I don't know that they have as many projects as they do for other stuff. I can’t really say (comparatively speaking) whether they have a good range of accessories or if it’s at the right price.

Apart from that we see a lot of people coming to element 14 that are from what I call the instant generation. Those are the people who were brought up with a tablet or a phone or an electronic toy in their hands from day one. Yet sometimes it seems as if they are unable to use Google to search for answers. They want them instantly. A lot of those people are coming to element 14 for help, but (otherwise) they're not really contributing to the community.

element14: So you are saying that you think there's a lot of people who come with a question but they're not really contributing beyond that?

Mark: Yes, that is correct, yes.

element14: What other areas of the site do you follow? Do you follow Ben Heck, for example, and his videos?

Mark: Unfortunately, I'm in New Zealand, and as much as we have technology video downloading is, shall we say, rather slow. And while the rest of the world seems to have extremely high speed unlimited broadband, we have what I consider to be third world, or a bit more than third world, video rates. So no, I don't generally follow much of the videos. It's mainly just a problem of the fact that it takes so long to download and then it takes so long to watch, et cetera.

element14: Thanks, Mark, for your contributions to element14 Community

Check out what mcb1 is up to on the element14 Community by clicking over to his profile here.

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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.

Doug: Yes

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.

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element14: Hi Shabaz.  Why don’t we start by discussing your background? From your e-mail address I see you work for Cisco.

Shabaz: Yes, that's right. I have been working for Cisco for quite a while actually. I was originally a software engineer and now I'm in technical marketing, which is basically talking to customers, trying to find out what their needs are and helping the company meet those needs.

element14: What about your educational background?

Shabaz: I studied in the UK. I did electrical engineering at Imperial College and I have got a Masters degree in that. When I started working I was doing military radio type stuff and then after that I started doing software programming for voice over IP and video applications. And then about four or five years ago, I became a technical marketing engineer because that's a natural progression if you want to stay technical but also have customer contact, meet the customer, talk with them regularly and so on.

element14 : The ability to communicate verbally and in writing is, I guess, helpful when you're participating in forums on element14 Community and things like that, as you do.

Shabaz: Yes, that's a good point, I hadn't thought of that. But you're right. I mean, yes, it is part of my job since I'm trying to communicate information and ideas to customer either in presentations or white papers. A lot of these products nowadays are quite complicated especially when you are talking about networking, user application experience and the like.  You try to find out what’s useful and relevant to the customer and then just explain how it works and you try to simplify things.

element14: How did you come upon the element14 Community site and why did you decide to become a member?

Shabaz: I was always into hardware. I mean when I was doing radio type stuff that was all hardware related. It was HF radio, communications and DSP stuff. I was already aware of Premier Farnell because that's where I used to purchase my bits from. So when the element14 Community site came along I joined it and thought it was just great. It's been fun making contacts with other members-- it's now really just an extension of who I am and what I do. I keep in touch regularly with some of the contacts I've made at element14 Community. And it's nice because if you want to talk technical then you can-- I mean yes you can also do that with your work colleagues--but sometimes you just want an opinion from people working elsewhere as well.  Just to get an idea on how things are used in the field. For example if I've got any problems in different areas, like Linux-related or something else  then the input is great, I know if I put a question out there on the forum I’ll get help.  And so that's been really helpful to me. Plus, I think engineers just naturally want to share what they are doing with other people. If there's someone doing anything with regard to engineering, other engineers love to give ideas and express opinions.  After all there's only a finite amount of time to get things done and we can't all work on everything we want to. So it's actually nice to see other people doing things that you yourself would like to find time for one day but if you don't it's still great just to see what they're doing.

element14: You anticipated a question I was going to ask. You just indicated that through element14 Community  you've made some contacts with other engineers and you keep in touch with them apart from the forums. Is that correct?

Shabaz: Yes. Yes. And it's great.

element14: When you keep in touch with them, is it just a professional, is it a friendship, is it both?

Shabaz: I'd say both. I mean friendship and professional. Yes it's absolutely been brilliant like that. Sometimes you may be interested in similar things. It's just great being able to keep in touch. In engineering, from a professional perspective it does help to have a network of friends or colleagues. It's just brilliant that we can now do so on a worldwide basis. And it doesn't have to be just in the area in which you're working.

element14: The site can be a great resource especially if you're doing projects on your own where you're challenging yourself but your level of expertise may not be what it is in other technical areas and so you have a resource of other people who perhaps are more experienced and who can help you out. Would you agree with that?

Shabaz: Totally. And I think it's just that the whole community is extremely valuable. I mean I hope I try and help others as well and as much as people help me. But yes, I've learned so much over the last couple of years from element14 Community.

element14:  Apart from the forums, and you're been quite active in helping out and answering member questions, which of the areas of the site do you find yourself gravitating to? I mean is it RoadTest is it Ben Heck are there any particular communities that when you go on the site you say, "I want to check out what’s going on there?"

Shabaz: Yes mainly single board computers. I've done C++ programming in the past. Mainly on applications on large servers. And now technology has improved so much. Now. you've got performance, very good performance and full blown applications on smaller platforms like the Raspberry Pi or theBeagleBone. These boards I find really useful and interesting so I follow that a lot. And I really enjoy that. That's probably the main area that I like about element14 Community.

element14: Which projects that you worked on and may have blogged about or discussed an element14 Community did you find most interesting? I guess what I'm saying is do you have a favorite project that you've worked on?

Shabaz: Yes, I think probably there are two favorite projects I have worked on and talked about. One had to do with direct digital synthesis (DDS) connected to a BeagleBone Black. It just reminded me back in my past when I worked on radio type of stuff since the project’s many use-cases were radio related. We were actually trying to see what else we could do with the digital direct synthesis chip (Editor’s note: the Analog Devices AD9954) beyond the basic DDS functionality. The overall project was about building a frequency synthesizer for various uses such as for a home lab or as a module for a larger project. It turns out that it's possible to make the direct digital device actually output FM. Over the air. So that was a fun thing to do. It was also a challenge because I hadn't seen that done elsewhere, so it was kind of new stuff.

Another one had to do with motor control. Again using the BeagleBone Black. There I got to use some of the unique features on that board because it's got real-time capabilities and separate processors on it, which run in parallel to the main CPU, which is running Linux. So, you can actually hand off tasks to those real-time units. And, in this case, I was getting them to control normal brush motors but to control them with closed loop feedback. In theory that was all fine it had been done before but I just wanted to see how it accurately it could be done. That was a bit of a challenge.  And I wasn't very sure if it was going to be very accurate or not. I was amazed that it was in the end. I want to make use of this in some future project.

element 14: Both projects you mentioned involved BeagleBone Black. I see that you've also either commented or been involved in Raspberry Pi andArduino as well. Is the BeagleBone your favorite of those three? If so why?

Shabaz: Yes, it's the one I'm the most familiar with now, but for me, they've all got their uses. I find that (BBB) has been particularly useful; I think I can find uses for it in my day to day career as well. So for example if we want to do demonstrations, BeagleBone Black is really good for those.  There are some projects along the way that I'm planning to use that device for. Also because I like the real time control capabilities of it. That helps. I don't really use the video capabilities too much on any of these boards. So that's something that I’ve really got to explore.

element14: Just one last thing. Since you were an element14 Community  Member of the Year, I was wondering If you had a chance to improve what element14 Community  does and how they do it—and I know this is just off the top of your head and you haven't had a chance to think about it-- what would you like to see on element14 Community  that perhaps isn't there, or is there but could be done better, if you can think of anything?

Shabaz: Honestly I think I would be nit-picking if I could find anything. The core things are just done so well. The main thing is we should be able to share information. We've got lots of ways of doing that. Probably if you want to share projects, some things that you've been working on, or files or diagrams and everything, I can't think of a better platform to do that on. Even at work, we use similar types of platforms where you can paste a complete piece of information, have people comment on it, add to it, add information, et cetera. All of this stuff is just, I think really helpful. It’s just the collaboration and to be able to do that with people that are outside of your organization, which is what element14 Community  lets you do. I think it is absolutely fantastic. I can't think of another platform or another organization, which has got that capability for engineers.

element14: Thank you for your comments and for taking the time to talk with us.

Shabaz: No problem, it was fun talking to you.

Check out what Shabaz is up to on the element14 Community by clicking on his profile here.

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element14: John, please tell us a little about yourself

John:  Basically, FPGA work is my main consulting activity. My primary customer - actually currently my only customer - is a former employer that I designed an FPGA for and they keep needing to add new features to it, or port it to a new version of their product, so I do that design.

I also do a certain amount of software work, and digital design to some extent, though I normally don’t do PC board design so much just because of a lot of resources are required to do that. The FPGA design work is great because all you need for that is a computer, although you do need to have some hefty equipment for testing out the prototypes to make sure that the FPGA works.

element 14: Also by having a main client that you're familiar with, you don't have to go through a lot of the aspects of being an independent consultant that engineers don't like - the selling part of it and the pursuing clients, for example,

John: That's true, that's very true. The luxury I have right now is the time I spend on an entrepreneurial project of my own that may or may not actually end up making me any money, ever - but that's what I like doing the best. The FPGA work helps pay the rent, so it's good for that. Plus, it's nice to go up and work on different problems every now and then. Just keeps your mind fresher than if you're only working on one thing.

element14: That is the lure of engineering, isn’t it? mano-a-mano, you against the problem. That's what makes it interesting.

John: One of my philosophies in engineering - on life, in general actually – is that I have to keep learning. If I'm in a job where I'm not learning anything, where I'm basically doing the same job year after year, that gets old for me very quickly. The consulting business is great because you have new problems to work on. Although sometimes, it's old problems [he laughs].

A recent one was where they needed me to take the same design that I had done twice before, and put it into a new context.  But usually there's something else, a new aspect of it that makes it interesting, and usually it doesn't take that long. Like I said, it pays for pizza.

element14: Yes, I understand completely. I also saw on your bio page on element14 Community that in terms of formal education, you list the University of Wisconsin and then Stanford. Is that correct?

John: That's right. I got a Bachelor's from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and a PhD from Stanford. The first one was in Electrical and Computer Engineering. The second one is strictly speaking Electrical Engineering, but the specialty is computer-aided design for digital--for electronics--not for mechanical design.

element14: I also noticed on your element14 Community bio page, that you had an interesting picture - obviously not of you, who is it?

John: That's Jules Verne.

element14: Tell me, why Jules Verne?

John: I really enjoyed reading Jules Verne when I was a kid. My father was an art historian - I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. He was a professor there, and he could get me into the main university library. They have the most outstanding collection of Jules Verne books, both in English and French. I read most of his books. I feel that he got me going and helped inspire me in engineering. If you read Jules Verne novels he's considered one of the fathers of science fiction-- his form of science fiction is very much engineering, telling you basically how to build these things. It's not completely fantastic like H. G. Wells. It's basically taking technology that was available at the time, and taking it to the next level in fiction.

He was just a big inspiration. I figured for the avatar, you put in someone who has inspired you.

element14: How did you become aware of element14 Community? What made you decide to be a member?

John: It's very amusing a story. I was very active on the Raspberry Pi site. It captured my imagination when it was first announced that they were working on this, which was in the middle of 2011.

It was very exciting going up to the actual release day, which was leap day - February 29th of 2012. The problem was what happened: while they knew there was going to be a flood of activity they had no idea just how big a tidal wave of activity they were going to have. They had to shut down their server, just put up a static page, and you couldn't get on the forums anymore. But there was still all sorts of interest in Raspberry Pi so I went to the wiki - the Raspberry Pi wiki, which is at and discovered that there was a link to the element14 site there, as another community site.

When I started checking it out, it became very clear that there were a lot of people wondering 'What the heck is going on with this thing (Raspberry Pi)?' and they couldn't get any information from the official site. I signed up, became a member because I knew a lot of their answers, and I thought it'd be fun to continue this conversation.

In many cases, people were saying, 'I don't know. What does it do? What about this?' I kept pointing them to the wiki; I said 'The wiki is still running fine because nobody is reading the manuals'."

element14: Everyone, including Premier Farnell, the parent company of element14 Community and involved with Raspberry Pi right from the outset, was surprised by the amount of activity that was involved with Raspberry Pi. They were happy, of course, because they were selling it.

John: It's a nice problem to have, but it was just a dreadful time before people could actually get the things. There were thousands of people who wanted these boards, right from day one. It was quite a difficulty for a few months there, but eventually they got out. I got mine in June of that year.

element14 Have you also dabbled in Arduino?

John: Actually, no. I've never done Arduino myself. I sometimes respond to things on the Arduino page, because a lot of the questions are really generic and would apply to any microcontroller, so it's easy for me to answer questions never having touched an Arduino.

element14: What areas of the element14 Community site do you find yourself attracted to? Is it the RoadTest, is it the Challenges? Or is it just the forum element of the site, the discussion of problems with other engineers?

John: Mostly, it's the forums. To a large extent, it's various people, because a certain number of us like me and Problemchild for example, we're interested in a lot of the same kind of things. Discussions get going.

Raspberry Pi was the thing that really got me started on the site. And BeagleBone Black, I've also discussed that quite a bit. I have a BeagleBoard which is the predecessor of the BeagleBone. I have a BeagleBoard from 2008, I mean, that's been around a lot longer than the Raspberry Pi.

One area I would love to see more activity in is the FPGA community. The way you create activity is to produce interesting content, and I'm hoping to put some very interesting content there, sometime this summer.

element 14: Great. One would think in an area like FPGA's, where unlike micro controllers there's just a handful of major suppliers, you'd think that they would make an all-out effort to get content on to the FPGA area within element14?

John: Yes, I don't know.  I got interested in FPGAs, very early on, in the 1980's. Xilinx’s first chips came out around 1985. The frustration I've had always with FPGAs is that the internal bitstream format is hidden from you. You know what the architecture is, they publish it in terms of drawings and stuff, but since the bitstream format is hidden you cannot create your own tools, where you can produce your own bitstreams, download them to your parts and use them.

It's the same thing as if you buy a microprocessor, but you have to use the silicon vendor's tools in order to program that microprocessor. Nobody does that. People use other tools to write their C programs - although I understand that ARM has a terrific C compiler that costs a lot of money for the professional version. You can use other tools so you are not dependent on the silicon manufacturer.

Always it's been with FPGAs that you have to use the vendor's tools. This is very frustrating, because back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was doing university research, and I wanted to do FPGA research. I couldn't do proper FPGA research because I wouldn't be able to create tools that could actually program these FPGAs.

I could do these on-paper tools - tools that you can write papers about - but in terms of actually producing a useful tool that would perform a useful function for actual people , no, you couldn't do that unless you were actually working for one of these companies. It seems like a bad way to sell silicon.

element14: You would think with FPGAs trying to take sockets away from ASICS and things like that, that it would be in the interest of the few companies -- the Xilinxes and Alteras of the world-- to allow just that. One would think that they would benefit from it.

John: The excuse that they make is, they say that our customers say that they don't want people to be able to decode the bitstream and reverse engineer their products. You can say exactly the same thing about a microprocessor that has an external RAM that contains the program that the processor runs.

But people don't say, 'Oh gosh, you have to use a microprocessor with a closed instruction set so that people can't decrypt your code.' It's an argument that seems wrong to me, but I'm not an important customer for Xilinx. The stuff that I've designed, I typically try to design it so that it fits in the smallest, cheapest FPGA possible. The ones that cost $20 or less.

They don't make that much money from those. What they make money from are big arrays that cost thousands of dollars. It may be that the customers who use those are the ones who are adamant and the ones they don't want to offend.

The thing with FPGAs, one thing that was very interesting when I went to the EE Live conference a couple months ago--this year's version of the Embedded Systems Conference--there was a talk about the state of embedded computing; and one thing that was notable, was that FPGA use is falling. Planned FPGA use is falling.

Part of the problem is that system-on-chips (SoCs) now often provide resources that you used to have to put in an FPGA. The fact that you can get them on one chip already, you don't have to buy an FPGA. Another factor is just that it's hard to design these FPGAs; it's a very steep learning curve. People who do it all the time like I do, I've gotten used to the learning curve and I've learned the tricks that work. Somebody new starting out, they're going to have a dreadful time. It's literally drinking from a fire hose, or I should say figuratively like drinking from a fire hose, but it's very much the drinking from the fire hose problem - there's a whole lot of stuff you have to do.


element14: Thank you, John. I appreciate your comments and enjoyed chatting with you.

Check out what Johnbeetem is up to by clicking in his profile here.

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