From Lego robots to hammers and nails, Linux gets embedded

Garage shows where technology is headed

The computing industry is familiar with the low-cost lab known as the garage, a historic hot-bed for innovation, and this week LinuxWorld had its own "garage" to showcase embedded Linux.

The computing industry is familiar with the low-cost lab known as the garage, a historic hot-bed for innovation, and this week LinuxWorld had its own "garage" to showcase embedded Linux.

From a wirelessly controlled Lego robot to a device designed to aid information sharing in third-world countries, a number of small vendors and independent thinkers were on hand to showcase the possibilities inherent in embedded Linux.

The nonprofit organization Literacy Bridge  showed off its Talking Book Device, which uses a low-cost digital audio recorder that also includes playback for distributing the spoken word.

The device, which will cost under $10 and is slated for production in mid-2009, is targeted at developing countries where aid workers must pass on critical and often life-saving information to local people who have no way of taking notes. The Talking Book provides a library of easily retrievable recordings on such topics as helping mothers recognize the symptoms of TB or explaining how best to treat dehydration in their children.

The device features a built-in USB cable for uploading and downloading information either between devices or from external sources. A built-in microphone lets users record conversations or specific instructions. It is powered by batteries available in the regions where it gets used.

"It's a way to replace the Internet for document distribution," says Cliff Schmidt, executive director of Literacy Bridge. "But this is not just about distributing knowledge; it is a library of information."

The Talking Book uses a 16-bit Generalplus 96 MHz microprocessor, similar to those found in talking toys, along with embedded Linux.

The Literacy Bridge plans to develop an emulator version for testing, an authoring application, a kiosk application and a content Web portal where relief workers can download content.

"We are planning a pilot project in two months in Ghana, but we can always use help such as time or financing," says Schmidt.

In contrast, the Linuxstamp project, a general-purpose processor module that includes a standard Linux kernel, an SD card, Ethernet and a USB/serial converter. It can be used in initial product design so users don’t have to build an entire motherboard.

Linuxstamp developer Paul Thomas says the project is an example of "open source hardware" because he makes the instructions for building the hardware freely available. Pre-built modules are also available for $120.

At LinuxWorld, he demonstrated a small robot built with Lego and fitted with a USB wireless transmitter, and a PC application that acted as a remote control.

"We are on the cusp of seeing what Linux did for software repeated on the hardware side," says Thomas. "The difference is that the hardware itself is not free."

Thomas says the module has many practical purposes, including use in embedded controls such as remote temperature monitoring. It features an Atmel AT91RM9200 processor, 32MB of SDRAM  and 8MB of SPI Dataflash

Similar in concept to Linuxstamp, Tin Can Tools offers an embedded Linux on an Advanced Risc Machine (ARM) board for engineers, programmers and enthusiasts. Tin Can products have names that reflect their simplicity: Hammer, which is a CPU module; Nail, an ARM Linux system in a single piece of hardware; and Flyswatter, a debugging platform.

Tin Can President Rusty Herod says the platform is perfect for developing embedded applications including: Web-enabled appliances, robotics, process control and remote monitoring.

Also in the garage was Trango, which develops a hypervisor technology that creates multiple virtual processors that have their own execution sandbox. The hypervisor sits between the operating system and the silicon on any device.

The platform supports embedded Linux and Windows CE. Trango is targeting the technology at carriers in the mobile market, where Trango could be used for such tasks as improving security on various devices.

OpenMoko was showing its tri-band GSM Neo FreeRunner phone/GPS/PDA, which features a Debian Linux derivative with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support.

"We have free software from iron to eyeballs," says Steven Mosher, vice president of marketing. The Neo Freerunner, which has a touch-screen interface, comes in two models priced between $300 and $400.

The openness of the platform lets developers modify it for their own needs, such as developing software that would let it function as a handheld device for data entry in the field or as a remote control for robotics.

Also in attendance was Elphel, showing a high-performance camera built using free software and hardware. The camera is used by Google to capture images for its Streetview application and for its controversial book-scanning project. But the platform is open, and everything in it is covered by the GNU General Public License. While the camera is ready to operate out of the box, it can be modified for any use, says the company.

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