As I spoke to the team behind the Flick range of gesture sensing boards, a certain phrase kept coming up: "keyboard and mouse." These venerable input devices have been around longer than many of us have been alive, and it's hard to deny that they get the job done. But the Flick team are part of a larger movement that wants to expand how we control our computing devices, in their case through gestures. "We’re essentially adding another way that you can control your Raspberry Pi or single-board computer project," says John Whiting, their director of marketing. "For example, we’ve seen people using Flick to control the audio system in their house, so by pairing Flick with their audio boards they’re able to control the volume with gestures. By doing an air wheel with their fingers they can turn the volume up and down, they can swipe left and right to change tracks, and so on." Aaron Shaw, Flick's tech director, adds: "It has a library of gestures, I think about 20 or so, and it’s got a range of about 20cm where it can do 3D tracking and gesture sensing. So you can swipe up and down, left and right, taps and touches, a strange one where you bunch something up and throw it in the bin, among others."
And there are advantages to creating devices with this type of control, beyond just the value of a novel and potentially easier way of interacting with your various computing devices. Says Whiting: "One thing we’ve found is that with Flick, or projects like it that use gestures, kids and young people who are just starting to get into coding find these sorts of things very interesting, because you’re not just looking at a computer screen, you’re using your hands and seeing feedback from the code and design."
The Flick range is based around the Microchip MGC3130 electrical-field based 3D tracking and gesture controller. "That in itself is quite complex to achieve," explains Shaw, "and it’s a fairly new product from Microchip. It has gesture sensing built into the chip, so that isn’t done in software but rather in hardware, so effectively that chip will send the gestures to the Raspberry Pi ... and it’ll effectively change the register that corresponds to, say, a double tap gesture on the left electrode." And this relatively new offering has the advantage of doing much of its gesture sensing work in its hardware, lowering the software overhead, which Shaw mentions as an advantage in particular for developing low-power devices, as well as those meant to be smaller or lower cost.
The Flick range currently contains three boards, two geared particularly toward the which conform to the HAT and PHAT standards, as well as the , meant to be used with any microcontroller, also compatible with Arduino or BeagleBone boards. Says Shaw: "The actual electrode effectively is the circuit board, so even though the circuit board looks quite simple, and it is, it’s a 4 layer PCB, and it has quite specific parameters. So that’s actually one of the most expensive parts because the tolerances are quite tight in making sure that the electrodes are all functioning within their specs."
That variety of offerings is a strength of the product line, says Shaw. "What we think sets [us] apart is the range of our products. If you’ve got a Raspberry Pi Zero, and you’re trying to make a small project, you don’t want a massive board attached to that, [and that's] something they don’t have, those options for size ... and in comparing to other products we found that we consistently had a better range of sensing of gestures and 3D tracking, potentially adding perhaps 50% of range in comparison." One challenge for the Flick team, however, has been developing a product that could serve its wide variety of potential uses; to make it both versatile and an effective tool, how much range does the board need to cover in terms of the inputs it receives, and how sensitive should it be to those inputs? "If you’re designing an industrial application and you know what the end use case is," says Shaw, "whether that is an interactive art project in a gallery or something like that, you know your exact parameters for that specific situation. With our design we need to try to provide everything, but within a reasonable size and cost. It’s always a challenge to try to preempt how people surprise us with projects we never imagined they’d do, and what kinds of features they’d want for those projects."
Farnell element14 is an official distributor for Flick, and the collaboration has been going on for roughly a year and half, says Whiting. "We ended up meeting [element14] at a Raspberry Pi 3 launch event in February 2016, and from then on we got to talking and working with them on potential ideas we had, and we were really keen to partner with them because they’ve got a fantastic reach of resellers and distributors for products, and a fantastic community. We were very interested in getting the products to the element14 community to see what kinds of projects they could make with our boards, doing RoadTests with them, writing some documentation, and so on." Adds Hari Kalyanaraman of element14: "As the development distributor, element14 strongly supports start-ups and makers in all aspects of product development and distribution. Our collaboration on the Flick range of products demonstrates those capabilities, from maker to market.”
So what's in the pipeline for Flick, aside from the gesture control boards? "The next thing we’re really focusing on is our PiJuice, an uninterruptable power supply for the Pi," says Whiting. "This is kind of a long-awaited project that we launched on Kickstarter in 2015, that was probably one of the biggest challenges for our company in terms of getting a product to market due to various reasons." Shaw also makes note of a perpetual challenge for startups and other small tech companies: you might have a dozen good ideas, but what is it that you spend your time on, and how do you come to that decision?
To find out how Premier Farnell could support your start-up initiative, get in touch with us at: www.element14.com/startups