Sep 10, 2015

The Internet of Lightbulbs

posted by Bryon Moyer

iStock_000016897113_Small.jpgBased on a solution just announced by CSR (now part of Qualcomm), you can outfit your new building with lights – and your network will be in place.

OK, they’re not positioning it to replace your Ethernet plant, perhaps, but it could become part of the network. They do this by making each LED lightbulb fixture also a Bluetooth mesh node. In case you missed the news early last year and are objecting that Bluetooth doesn’t have a meshing feature, you’re right – the standard doesn’t. CSR has overlaid the capability in a proprietary offering.

The lighting solution they’re announcing now provides both Bluetooth beacons – supported by the standard – and meshing. They set up and manage the beacons using the mesh; once up and running, the beacons operate independently of the mesh.

But this does raise some questions – especially as Greenpeak founder and CEO Cees Links questioned Bluetooth mesh latency in a conversation we had at Imec’s ITF in Brussels early this summer. The point being that, you might be able to create a mesh, but would it have characteristics that make it useful? Apparently folks tried to mesh WiFi at some point… and that has not become a thing. A reasonable question…

So I asked CSR for some more detail on their latency. And this resulted in a broader explanation of how they handle meshing.

They do what they call “flood meshing” instead of routed meshing. In other words, they start a message going and it follows all routes until a time-to-live flag expires, indicating that a particular trajectory has involved too many hops and should just stop. Presumably, at least one route will take the message to its intended receiver. Nodes keep track of messages they’ve received so that the flood doesn’t reverse.

This is actually more nuanced than it sounds. For power reduction purposes, each node in the mesh wakes up occasionally to see if there’s any message. This means that, at any given time, some number of the nodes in the mesh will be asleep and miss the message. So this flood doesn’t actually cover all nodes – just the ones that happen to be awake at the right time.

To increase the likelihood that nodes can pick up the message and run with it, each node advertises the message on 3 channels 6 times. You can ask for an acknowledgment, but it’s not required. The design of the mesh and the specific timing have to balance the likelihood of at least one node listening at any given time against the power required to listen. Obviously, the denser the network, the better your chances of your message propagating.

A network is protected by an overall network key, keeping networks from leaking information into each other (presumably). A network is also a virtual entity overlying the specific devices – meaning that an individual light bulb, in this case, could participate in more than one network.

And as to that original latency question, best-case single-hop latency is around 15 ms. From a quick check on my part, this doesn’t seem too different from Zigbee. They’re a bit hard to compare directly, since Zigbee uses routed meshing, and may need to request a route before sending a message – which adds to the latency for such instances (routing tables presumably make that necessary only for new destinations). But delivery in the range of 15-100 ms or so doesn’t seem unreasonable for either one.

You can read more about their lighting solution, done in conjunction with SK Telecom, in their announcement.

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Sep 08, 2015

Nanoimprint for Photonics

posted by Bryon Moyer

EVG_SmartNIL_Full_Area_UV_Nanoimprint_Lithography_Wafer_red.jpgWe’ve talked about photonics before and we’ve talked about nanoimprint lithography (NIL) before. Creating silicon photonics features requires masking, which requires lithography, and so it might not be a surprise to hear that all different kinds of lithography techniques – including NIL – were being explored for photonics.

Which is how I went into a discussion with EV Group at Semicon West. But that’s not what the story is at all. This is not about patterning resists to pattern silicon for silicon photonics – this is about building photonics structures directly out of… various other non-silicon materials, using imprint as a direct patterning approach.

I can’t help but think about NIL as if it were printing vinyl albums. Which are black. (Except a few novelty ones.) Even if printing resist, any resist I remember seeing way back in my fab days was distinctly not transparent. So picturing these materials as conduits for light is something my brain, well, resists.

But it’s apparently true: many of the materials available to be imprinted happen to be transparent (at suitable wavelengths). So you can build the conduits right on the surface of the wafer – no further etching required.

EVG notes that there are a number of high-volume apps for NIL these days:

  • Polarizers
  • Patterns for extracting more energy out of LEDs
  • Biotech (they can’t say specifically what)
  • And… one more big one coming that they also couldn’t talk specifically about.

Meanwhile, they’ve also teamed with Leti in a so-called INSPIRE program to further develop techniques and applications for NIL. You can find more about this in their announcement.


(Image courtesy EV Group)

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Sep 03, 2015

What’s in an IoT Name? And Who Goes First?

posted by Bryon Moyer

iStock_000051490138_Small.jpgAt Imec’s ITF a couple months ago, the Internet of Things (IoT) loomed large, as it has a tendency to do everywhere. Seems to be the great unifying force, the collective raison d’être for us all.

But they had a different spin: the “intuitive” internet of things. It seems that everyone is trying to carve out their own version of the IoT, which is easily done with a concept that vague.

Imec also discussed public projects like the environmental sampling prototype in place in Eindhoven. And it occurred to me that this might be a back door into the consumer IoT space.

Let’s take those in order.

How to define the IoT? We recently saw the internet of moving things (I wasn’t buying it). Then there’s Cisco’s “internet of everything.” I’ve also had a hard time with “everything” being better than simply “things” because, obviously, the IoT will never include everything, so it feels like taking all the IoT hype (of which there is plenty already) and then dialing it to 11.

So what is this “intuitive” IoT concept? Imec’s idea here is that the Things themselves melt into the background. In the end, what we experience isn’t a gadget, but rather a service enabled by a gadget or a combination of gadgets.

One example from Imec’s Harmke de Groot is a smart kitchen, where recipes are suggested based on available ingredients, an in-hood sniffer can make suggestions on work in progress, and perishables can be monitored for freshness. These would be enabled by a host of sensors in refrigerators, cabinets, and on and around the stove itself.

This reminds me of past presentations on context awareness (a phrase that seems to have faded out of the headlines lately), where interfaces fade away and machines anticipate our needs. Nice idea in principle, although fraught with complication. Then again, we’ve solved complicated problems before. It certainly seems that the focus on what IoT devices enable is the right focus. Just not sure it needs a new name (especially IIoT, which looks like the Industrial IoT).

The Eindhoven environmental sampling project was held out as another example: as far as residents are concerned, there’s a service that tells them the local air quality. The fact that this service is brought to you by a bunch of devices hidden away somewhere is secondary. But this particular application also got me thinking about my usual background question about where the Consumer IoT profits will come from.

The essence of that question is that there is a ton of investment going into IoT technology – and presumably someone is expecting a return on that investment (RoI). In the consumer space, where will that come from? Are there compelling services that will make consumers either spend more to save somewhere else or simply spend more? Because if they don’t spend more than they do without the IoT, then it’s hard to see where the RoI is.

But projects like the environmental monitoring one bridge between industrial-looking and consumer-looking IoT. It has the scale of an industrial installation, but the beneficiaries of the services are consumers. Let’s call it the Municipal IoT. Things like street parking, street lighting, air quality. Municipalities are, to some degree, being forced into those applications. Just as with the Industrial IoT, there are efficiencies to be gained. Growth can be managed better, costs can be reduced, and quality of service can be improved. Unlike the Industrial IoT, however, this will be very visible to consumers.

So it got me wondering: will we ease into the Consumer IoT via the Municipal IoT, where exigencies force implementation without consumers having to buy off? This might defray a chunk of the fundamental technology investment, reducing the residual RoI needed from consumers via their in-home gadgets. It also gets consumers used to engaging with the services that the IoT enables, potentially stimulating demand for further, more personalized in-home services.

Speculation on my part. I think that segmenting the IoT in such a manner can have value for focusing investment for best return. Renaming the IoT, on the other hand, seems less beneficial.

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