Analog Electronics Conferences Digital Electronics

Final Thoughts On The Embedded Community

This is part 3 of 4 in a series about ESC Chicago and the Sensors Expo and Conference. See previous posts about Day 1 and Day 2.

I imagine if a doctor was diagnosing the medical condition of the embedded community, he would walk into the tiny exam room, take one look at the embedded community sitting there in its socks and underwear on the crinkly disposable exam table cover and say:

“Yup, still fragmented.”

What do I mean by this? It means that even with my posturing about the need for community AND my lack of expertise in the topic, there are some undeniable rifts in the embedded community. And they will always be there. Why?

  1. Too many vendors with their own pieces of silicon
    • Guess what? Companies like making money! Amazing, right? I can name at least 5 monstrous companies that produce independent silicon chips, almost always with similar cores that rhyme with “schlARM”. They have their niche areas and peripherals that are used in that segment; examples areas that a vendor might try to target are motor control, display processing, low cost, low power or RF. But in the end, the very things that distinguish them from their competitors and therefore allow them make money, also drives the community apart.
  2. Too many closed doors
    • Another problem on the vendor side can be the amount of information provided to the people working on their chips. Without open access to the information, users are forced into the “camps” of the vendors in order to access features buried within the silicon. Less mobility between chips means more fragmentation.
  3. Too much software
    • Well what about abstraction? For those out there that are more on the analog side of things, abstraction is writing code that isn’t controlling something directly. Think about it like you’re a teacher. You care a lot about turning the lights off in your classroom and want to teach your kids about why it’s important in order to save energy. In a non-abstracted case, you would tell each of the kids to turn the lights off when it’s their turn. Perhaps Wednesday it’s Johnny and Thursday it’s Susie. So you tell them directly. Abstraction in the simplest sense would be assigning Bobby to remember whose turn it is each day of the week. That way, you only have to tell Bobby to have someone turn off the lights; it’s the same every time. Bringing it back to processors and the embedded community, if things were abstracted, you could always tell “Bobby” to do the same thing and he would have close to the same response each time. Well there is such a thing that even the layman such as me is familiar with: operating systems. But this isn’t like the PC world where the choices have been culled down to a select two or three. There are embedded versions of larger OSes (think Win CE or Embedded Linux) and RTOS (Real Time Operating Systems) which are an even lighter version of their half cousins named previously. Beyond that there are superloops and other small implementations. The point is, there are a lo00000t of choices for software for a looooot  of different processors. It’s fragmented. But why all the trouble? Why do we need so many choices?
  4. Too many market segments
    • It’s true. That’s why embedded has been growing steadily for the past 20 years and will likely continue to keep growing. There are a lot of  different needs! I guarantee you that engineers working on high-reliability industrial controls don’t care that much about Android. Sure, it could work, but it’s a new OS with lots of potential bugs and doesn’t really fit the needs. Similarly, handset makers don’t want to use reliable code from 10 years ago because all the reliability in the world doesn’t make a flashy new interface for mobile, web-enabled handsets. Chip vendors pick and choose to play to specific segments, as do the software vendors, creating hundreds of potential combinations; it’s much more likely that whatever current developers are working on though is a much smaller combinatorial subset. And so the fragmentation continues.

I know that analog is my niche and that there are some very compelling cases for using it in different areas of electronics. But I’m not stupid; there was a reason I took interest in the embedded space and why you should do the same. Everyone will continue to expect more from their devices, whether scientific, consumer or somewhere in between; if you’re on the internet reading this post, you’re likely used to the benefits of Moore’s Law and will continue to be.

What I’m trying to say is that there is value in learning about embedded systems; learning about some component of embedded computing is better than ignoring it. As software continues ascending into further levels of abstraction (think Python instead of C), there will be fewer people around that know how to reach down into silicon and flip a bit. Knowing how to do so not only will help you in your day to day tasks, but could make you a very employable engineer/programmer.

And who knows, perhaps embedded design will be the next black magic, much like analog is considered today!

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ESC Chicago and Sensors Conference and Expo, Day 2


What a whirlwind day. I started at 7:30 am and I ended at 10:30 pm, my mind still reeling. I was talking Beagle Boards and Agile processes in the morning and discussing the media (with the media) and visiting hackerspaces in the evening. But the best part about it? I felt like there were a lot of people around me that cared about similar stuff to what I do.

I am lucky enough to work with some of these people as well. But the nerd population in Cleveland isn’t at the critical mass that occurs at conferences nor at hackerspaces. So yesterday was a great opportunity to converse on some of the topics I love with people who were interested to hear it (in person of course, I realize there are many great people who “listen” to me on this site…thanks!).

The theme I kept finding throughout the day (or perhaps was seeking), was figuring out where the communities are and why hardware engineers (or even embedded engineers) don’t seem to congregate in one place. This started in the morning talking to James Grenning, a consultant and coach on Agile methodologies; I got talking to him and found that many of the same issues I’ve seen in trying to find analog communities, he has also seen in the embedded community. “Where are they?” we ask. “Why doesn’t there seem to be as much involvement online from the electronics community?”. James specializes in bringing Agile to the embedded community; easy to find people to speak with about the Agile part, less so for the embedded folks.

Towards the end of the day, I had the opportunity to talk to the folks at Element 14, a new engineering community site. I had heard about them earlier in the day; they were on the conference floor giving away iPads and the usual conference swag.  How does a “community” site have the money to attend a conference though? I later found out that they are a subsidiary of Premier Farnell, one of the top 10 electronics components distributors and recent acquirers of the EAGLE CAD program. As of right now, I’m underwhelmed with the site itself (NI uses the same interface and it’s not all that friendly to the eye nor the user), but not necessarily the content. It seems to have some involvement right now, but not the levels that I really desire (I’m hard to please!); I do like that they have qualified “experts” on hand, but haven’t taken a good enough look at them yet to judge how “expert” they might be (assuming I could even tell something like that). I will keep an eye on Element 14 though, because of one of their innovative programs: linking manufacturers to customers. They offer beta services, as in finding and requesting feedback from users on a range of products. In terms of value a site can have for both the user and the sponsors, I believe this is a strong one.

Next I got to meet Karen Field, the head of the new EETimes community, EELife. While this site hasn’t been released yet, the article I saw on it looked like a fancy implementation of a location to share info with other engineers. In fact, it may have been a little too fancy–the release of the site was pushed out from its proposed date. Still, I’m hopeful that the site could actually bring people together. EETimes has a great following in print and online; if there’s one place that people might think to go to first, EETimes might have the name recognition to do it.

Here’s the thought that keeps irking me though: the corporate world isn’t great at “social”. It doesn’t help that engineers aren’t quite social creatures by nature. Sure, some companies use social media to their advantage, but a lot more are using it wrong.

I got a chance to talk to Jason Kridner about why this might be. Jason is one of the many passionate members behind the Beagle Board group, a high powered open-source hardware board based on the TI OMAP processor (though Jason explained that the Beagle Board is a separate entity in every way from TI). When I asked him why communities such as the Beagle Board developers come together, he stated it simply and succinctly: “They unite behind a common purpose”. In the case of the Beagle Board, it’s about having a high power processor on an open platform (possibly contrasted with a slightly simpler Arduino board using an AVR processor, also on an open platform). And the community shows; there are many open projects you can pull down from the GIT tree and start immediately on your Beagle Board. The ones that excite me most are the DIYdrone types of projects.

At the meet and greet later in the evening, I started talking with some conference attendees that also happened to be members of the local hackerspace. They invited me to attend one of their weekly meetings at their location. The Pumping Station 1 (PS1) hackerspace/makerspace has been around for about 2 years now and is one of the only in Chicago as of now (more are forming). It was great seeing this area of shared tools, DIY projects and a general atmosphere of collaboration, for no reason more than these people wanted to make stuff in their spare time. And one of the things I found most interesting is that many of the projects going on at the space were embedded projects! The desire to have things talk wireless almost demands that you start to delve into low level code and be able to get your device talking to another device. So while I came to learn about the broad range of sensors and embedded devices this week, I ended up finding the lower-end (in terms of system complexity) but used for unique and intricate implementations (they had built their own MakerBot to CNC parts right there in the lab…amazing!).

So what was the conclusion to my small quest for finding community among the different factions of the electronics industry? There isn’t one general location or place to gather. And possibly for good reason. It’s more like a democratic republic in that way, where members get to vote with their feet. Say a platform really starts to bog down and no one is developing on it anymore. People aren’t tied to it because the “community” is locked in; instead they just pick up and move platforms. “Don’t like the PIC anymore? Switch to an OMAP! OMAP too expensive? Switch to an AVR!” So perhaps the real need is instead an active listing of where to find all these different communities, in whatever form they take; message boards, blogs, video tutorials, anything and everything–as long as the list stays current, it will be valuable. In fact it would be much more valuable than trying to pull in every single person into one platform.

I didn’t come to these two conferences for this purpose. I could have looked for it at home while browsing the web (I’ve done that before too). But in the midst of walking among many smart people and many products made by other smart people I’ve collected hints. Where to look and who to talk to in order to find the most people interested in technology, in whatever form or level of complexity it may take.


ESC Chicago and Sensors Conference, Day 1

The first day of the sensors and ESC conference is meant to be a symposium…think college lecture, but for 8 hours. It was an interesting first view of not only the presenters, but also the audience; the ones who cared enough to pay and attend for all 3 days (going to see only the “expo” for the next two days is free). These same lucky people will get to attend breakout sessions for the remaining days.

Since I am lucky enough to be able to attend both the ESC and the sensors conference, I thought I would run down the list quickly of what was being offered. Until I arrived this morning, I didn’t know what to expect from the sessions; once I stepped into them I was able to get a better picture of what they were really about.


  • Cellular/Satellite — This one I sat outside for a while listening. The idea is to have remote sensors of a pressure/strain/anything else sensors can monitor and then passing that data back through the cellular and satellite networks. Obviously the quality of service can affect data collection so I believe this symposium covered issues that measurement engineers might encounter. The scale of infrastructure required made me decide to not stick around for most of this session. Wouldn’t it be cool to monitor something over satellite link though? Like a volcano?
  • Energy Harvesting — There is interest in the sensor community about energy harvesting because of the potential to never need a power source. Now a pressure transducer that may have once needed a yearly maintenance visit can theoretically run forever on vibrational, thermal or (bleh) RF energy harvesting.
  • MEMS — Micro ElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) seem to be the most advanced topic being discussed at the conference; looking around it, seemed like there may have been a few more PhDs in the crowd than average. The most interesting thing about MEMS is that of all topics talked about in most of the other (power, signal transmission, the actual sensing), the MEMS people have managed to do it all in one place on, one piece of silicon. Also keep an eye out for the next generation of devices: NEMS (replace “micro” with “nano”).
  • Data Aquisition — This crowd was a little harder to suss out. It seemed to be a basics class, both explaining the theory and going over commonly encountered issues. I was drawn in because of my familiarity of the topic. The speaker also had an affinity for Hall Effect sensors, something I have been looking to learn more about. It was a good overview but I found that I recognized a little too much of the info for it to hold my attention.


  • Android — This one I skipped. While Android is the hot new software, I don’t see myself utilizing it unless I finally breakdown and buy a smartphone (yes, I know there are other uses); even with a smartphone, I would probably only be a  consumer, not a developer. Either way, this was the only other symposium I passed on.
  • C++ Optimization —  I felt I should go into this symposium because I know my OOP (Object Oriented Programming) can use some work. However, I quickly learned that walking in 3/4 of the day through was not the best choice for someone who needs quite so much work. While I appreciate embedded systems and I’m really at the conference to learn, I’m not looking for a job coding; I quietly slipped out during a coffee break to hit up another session.
  • Embedding TCP/IP & USB — The morning session was run by one of the executive team of Micrium, Christian Legare. Having used the Micrium RTOS before, I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing him speak; once again found myself drifting in a sea of terms–UDP,TCP, SMTP and many other acronyms ending in “P”. I decided that even though I usually am against paying  thousands to a developer for USB and TCP/IP software stacks (to be included in embedded products), it might be worth it. Seriously, just troubleshooting the software would be difficult enough, who wants to write a stack?
  • Beagle Board — I posted something on twitter about the session that made the Jason (the guy running the session) think I disliked his presentation style; in reality, I thought he was pretty good. What I was commenting on was the fact that the Beagle Board doesn’t seem quite like “open source hardware“. I hope to write more on that topic later this week, hopefully after talking to Jason. Anyway, aside from the communication snafu, I thought this was one of the better presentations of the day; most people in there got a board to continue playing with after the conference and the step-by-step linux guide was pretty thorough. While the usefulness of the board will probably be tied to the willingness of the person using it to play around, it could end up being a powerful platform. And no, I didn’t get one.

One of the topics I discussed with some engineers I met was the downside to the range of experience. At an IEEE conference, most people are assumed to be at a certain educational level. Even those who really don’t understand feel the peer pressure to fake comprehension.  But at a session you understand where they are catering to a more beginner level and there are many new topics, it seems as though each topic only gets a scraping at surface. Sure, each session had its merits and I learned some new things today, even if it was just reinforcing things that I don’t care to work on. I’m sure with the more tailored breakout sessions tomorrow, the material will be short and targeted to very specific topics.

Another thing I’m looking forward to is the Expo opening; not just for the swag either! There are going to be some live product teardowns that will expose how manufacturers accomplished their specs at the price points. While this doesn’t have a lot of direct usefulness to me (it’s unlikely many people outside of Asia will play in the consumer market for a while), the idea is intriguing. Plus I’m looking forward to seeing some new products and how I might use them.
I’ll be picking and choosing my sessions tomorrow carefully. I want to make sure I have time to get on the floor to see everything, get to the sessions that sound interesting and still meet and interact with everyone from the different industries that are attending for the next two days. Any questions or suggestions on which sessions I should get  to, please let me know in the comments!

Analog Electronics Conferences Learning

Going A-Conferencing!

I recently found out that I’ll be attending the Embedded Systems Conference in Chicago early next week. I also will be attending some of the events at Sensors Expo & Conference, which is being held in the same conference center. I couldn’t be happier that I get to attend two conferences in one shot AND that I get to visit Chicago in the process.

So why embedded systems? “I thought this was a site about analog electronics,” you say. Well, it is. But good luck making an all-analog system these days. These days, analog is more about signal conditioning, power, control and accuracy. I mean, everything is analog in the end. Even digital signals will look analog if you clock them fast enough; but the point is, digital is an important topic to know as well. Embedded systems let you interface to the fun analog systems at a lower level (think running code in C instead of a full blown implementation of Windows) so you can run your systems even faster, cheaper and using less power.

The sensors expo will fit in nicely. Sensors are what analog is built on. They are how electronics interact with the real world! So I look forward to reporting on all the new interface products that are out there.

Finally, this will be my first real conference, at least the first I’ve traveled to outside of a 30 mile radius of where I live. I’ve encountered conferences before–and the culture that they have–but never on a scale like this. It will be interesting to see an electronics conference this large. I recently read “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. He has an entire chapter about the benefits of conferences, how to work them more effectively and most importantly, how to meet people. I hope to make some connections and add to the growing section on this site of interviews with people from industry.

What about you? Have you ever been to any large electronics conferences? Anyone happen to be going to these conferences? Any tips for this relatively new guy? Any new technologies I should be on the lookout for? Let me know in the comments!