Report on visit to Sensors Expo

O’Reilly editor Jonathan Gennick just sent to our editors list a brief report on his visit to the Sensors Expo in Chicago. It’s not clear how to attack this market from a publishing point of view yet, other than in the pages of Make, but it’s clear that sensors are going to revolutionize our world, so it’s an area that is very much on our radar. Here are excerpts from Jonathan’s report:

I dropped down to Chicago yesterday to the Sensors Expo, to meet with
several people who are developing products around the new wireless
protocol known as ZigBee.
Below is a summary of some of what I
learned. I’ve tried to organize it somewhat.

Status of the technology: chip companies (Freescale, Ember, etc.) are
rolling out ZigBee chips and modules, and also developer kits. These
companies sell into OEMS, which are also rolling out products. The
emphasis at the Sensors Expo was on wireless sensing and control
(mostly on sensing). Some consumer products are out and will be out
soon. Control4 has a product suite targeted at home users. Eaton is
planning to roll out devices targeted at the residential market in
time for the Christmas buying season (my source for that is not Eaton
themselves, but I believe the developer I talked with knows what he’s
talking about)

Consumers will likely never see the word ZigBee. Control4 and Eaton
are pushing their own product lines. ZigBee just happens to be the
underlying wireless technology they are using. They don’t (currently)
promote that underlying technology to consumers, nor do they plan for
their respective products to interact. For example, do not plan on
buying Eaton’s basement-floor water-sensor and connecting it to
Control4’s home control software.

The “magic” in ZigBee is not so much in the wireless technology, but
rather in the sensors and control units. You have to know what sort of
sensors are available in order to do magic w/ZigBee, and, at that
point, you probably care more about what the sensor can do than about
what ZigBee can do.

One of the coolest demos, if not the coolest, involved a three-axis
accelerometer just introduced by Freestyle. The accelerometer is a
chip the size of your little fingernail. It’s small. They had it wired
(via serial port) into a computer and you could scroll up and down a
menu pick-list just by tilting the sensor up and down. My first
thought was that someone needs to write a mouse-driver for that, and
use ZigBee as the interface. Imagine a ring on your finger that lets
you navigate up/down/left/right on your screen just by pointing in
those directions. It seems completely feasible.

I can second Jonathan on that. The coolest thing that I saw at the D conference was Hillcrest Labs‘ demo of a TV remote control (and associated software for controlling interactive TV) that uses just such a sensor to create what is effectively a 3D-mouse. Imagine a TV remote with only two buttons, and a system that allows you to navigate through a zoomable surface to get at anything. Very cool.

Jonathan continued:

Freestyle also has a sensor that can detect objects (your finger
again) within a three dimensional electric field. Imagine being able
to point to the window *behind* the one you are viewing, in order to
select it and bring it to the front. No one had *that* as a demo, but
it’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?

…[One guy I met} has
got plans to install ZigBee based sensors on some canyon trails in
Arizona (where he lives) and have them connect to hilltop repeaters
that will send a one-watt signal across the 40 miles or so to his
house. He wants to monitor trail usage. Mostly, it’s a way for him to
do something hands-on with the technology.

…One app [another contact] told me about (that I
may have mentioned previously) is a border-crossing monitoring
solution. There’s actually a station somewhere in Arizona where “they”
(not sure who “they” is) research ways to monitor borders between
countries. ZigBee-based devices get dropped every few feet, with
stronger transmitters every mile or so, and all the data gets
collected and rolled up into some central database. Using a
combination of metal-sensors, vibration sensors, listening devices,
and I forget the fourth, he can detect the difference between a human,
a car, a deer, and so forth.

…[Another fellow I talked to] is involved with a military sensing operation that expects to log
one terabyte of data per hour(!) That’s a fair bit of incoming data.
And, sadly, that’s all he could tell me about it. It goes to show that people
are developing and deploying sensor networks that use many, many
devices to collect very large amounts of detailed data.

… A company called
Raymarine has ZigBee-based depth-finders for use on fishing vessels.
The main depth-finder uses ZigBee to communicate with little,
clip-on-your-belt display modules that you can cary about the ship
with you.

…One [sensor] that I saw used the change in capacitance to
measure the change in distance across an air-gap, to measure how much
I could sqeeze a curved, metal bar together. I forget how much I could
squeeze, but the sensor was measuring to the millionth of an inch.

Jonathan’s last words sum it up: “Cool stuff.”