Embedding Linux and the Human Psyche: MZ104 Contest Update

by Don Marti

Embedded Linux Journal and our sponsors announced the finalists in the ``Hack Embedded Linux for Fun and Prizes'' contest at LinuxWorld Expo 2001 in New York City. We received 221 entries, and judges from Embedded Linux Journal and the sponsoring companies have selected 100 to receive an embedded Linux development kit.

The proposals we received reveal, perhaps for the first time, people's true needs and desires. In response to the ``What need or desire will your project satisfy?'' question, people told us what they really want embedded Linux to do.

And, people want it to do a lot: monitor and control home appliances, high-altitude balloons, telescopes, factory machines, satellite dishes and the Baltimore subways; control RAID arrays; track military aircraft; power the ``emotions'' of a dragon costume; log tennis games; count votes; and run high-energy physics experiments.

Not surprisingly, one finalist will be building a robotic lawnmower and another, a ``GeekSweeper'' autonomous floor cleaner.

Also in the list of human needs is the need to understand and measure the environment and machines. Several finalists are planning to build test instruments for electronics engineering and repair, including ``a portable DSO, digital storage oscilloscope, based on an open design''.

Other needs and desires of inquisitive finalists include ``a `back-pack' portable, state-of-the-art proton precession gradiometer'' and ``a DC-Arc emission spectrometer''. And one project will develop a Linux-driven replacement for a NOAA radar system.

A lot of finalists have the need and desire to make embedded Linux explore the atmosphere and space. One finalist wants to take aerial photographs:

The plane will take off under the control of a pilot and then fly to a preprogrammed latitude and longitude. It will then begin flying in a grid pattern under the control of the computer, taking digital photographs of the ground that could later be assembled into a large mosaic.

One finalist needs to control sounding rockets. The ``GizmoCopter Project'' is a helicopter testbed for control technology for an amateur rocket. GizmoCopter builders will use it to ``experiment with and gain experience with hover flight, using inertial measurement sensors and `differential thrust' of the four motors to perform short flights''.

Another wants to send a Linux box to Mars, as part of the Mars 2000 Rover Project. That finalist is going to build ``a rover vehicle capable of traveling over the rugged terrain of Devon Island, Canada--a Martian analogue environment''. Mars, Canada, whatever.

Lots of people need medical devices too. We got a proposal from a paramedic for a wearable device to log a patient's treatment. ``It would be nice to be reminded that the next dose of epinephrine was due'', the proposal states.

And there are devices to monitor patients: a replacement for the inconvenient heart-monitoring machines currently in use and ``a portable, self-contained unit to assist in gait rehabilitation and enable advance biomechanical analysis''. And, for getting information into a common location from many different incompatible medical devices, a server to query each device in its own protocol and export it.

With embedded Linux, you'll be able to test, and maybe even reconfigure, your car without getting grease under your fingernails: ``Modern automobiles depend heavily on computer-based control systems. However, owners have little or no access to the information generated by these systems.'' Several other finalists want to monitor aircraft systems and build ``glass cockpits'' or heads-up displays to give general aviation some of the same technology as the military and the airlines. A solar race car and a racing motorbike will also get Linux-based monitoring systems.

And one other finalist wants to hack the human brain. ``There is a growing number of people interested in electronically controlling their brainwave patterns and taking advantage of different moods for greater efficiency.''

One project will help alert people to sounds. ``We are working toward a pager-sized device that can be carried by the hearing-impaired. The display will indicate what sounds are currently being detected on an LCD display (such as doorbell, dog bark, female speech, etc.).'' Now, for the first time, you'll know whether to respond, ``What is it, girl? Is Timmy in trouble?'' or ``Yes, dear.''

Music is big--not just the inevitable ``car MP3 player/map'' computers, but also a general-purpose DSP-based studio-effects box and a MIDI sequencer. Affordable DSPs and embedded Linux make it possible for one machine to replace a lot of expensive special-purpose studio gear.

Exploring the undersea environment is a need or desire of several winnners, including some autonomous robot submarines and a monitoring system for aquaria.

All reef aquarists should be naturalist due to the fragile nature of these ecosystems in the wild; taking proper care of these beautiful animals and their environment in our captive settings is critical, and indeed these tanks can be a way to educate young people and further promote conservation of our oceans.

Someone else will be doing something similar for plants in a greenhouse.

If rodents are more your idea of a pet, rather than fish or plants, you'll like the ``Hamster Training Center'' idea, which applies the technology used to train athletes for the ``Eight-Letter Games Beginning with O that You Can't Mention without Paying'' to hamsters. ``How far does the hamster travel each day? How fast is he on the wheel? How many hours per day is he active? What time of day is he most active? Which direction does he prefer?''

And, of course, lots of people want to make robots. Lots of people. Why? Because as one proposal put it ``Robots are neat.'' But with the exception of the person who is going to build ``a herd of small, mobile robots, each capable of doing color-vision processing and playing games with each other'', the educational robots and the firefighting robot, not many people seem to have heard of Isaac Asimov's First Law of Robotics. Maybe the First Law of Robotics should really be ``Kill, robot! Kill! Kill!''

One finalist will build an embedded system ``to track a target, to control the platform that the launcher and camera are attached to and to provide an interface to the outside world''. He's just using a Nerf gun, but this inventor might have a future with DARPA.

Finally, people have a human need to keep in touch, and there are plenty of communications-related projects. A relay unit to follow Pioneer 10 and relay its signals from outside the solar system back to Earth, a couple of PGP or GNUPG encrypted mail units (one with a self-destruct system in case of tampering), a webcam or two and a plan to make a convenient videoconference unit. ``Big Mouth Billy Bass'', the wall-mounted singing fish toy, ``will be transformed into an H.323-compliant video teleconferencing host''.

We've just skimmed over some of the needs and desires that people will be working on to satisfy using their embedded Linux development kits. We don't have space to say what language they're writing in, what other software they're using or any of that important stuff. For information on what technologies finalists are using and more, check out their project web sites. Every finalist's entry for phase two of the contest will be in the form of a web site with code, plans and more, and they'll be judged partly on how well their sites explain to others how to develop with embedded Linux. So, we'll link to them--check them out at http://www.embedded.linuxjournal.com/.

Don Marti is the technical editor for Embedded Linux Journal. He can be reached at dmarti@ssc.com.

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