Advances in computer technology have exploded at a rate that defies our ability to keep up to date. Nowhere has this been more so than with microcontrollers – a key component of smartphones and mobile computing.
Even Moore's Law failed to predict the growth in this new generation of devices; crammed with just about everything likely to be needed to build complete interactive systems. Multi-core CPUs with large-capacity memory, interfaces to external storage, networking, high-quality audio and video, and dozens of other technologies are packaged in single, low-power chips – perfect for mobile applications.
The challenge for designers and manufacturers has been to capitalise on the opportunities. This has spawned new ways to think about the use of computers in the real world, with new faculties of engineering and design courses leading the way. 'Physical Computing' courses are now offered to deal with some of these challenges.
Since 2009, Professor Antonio Rizzo and his team from the Department of Communication Sciences at the University of Siena, Italy have been breaking new ground.
"Our university has been working on physical computing projects that stretched our ability to produce interactive prototypes. To embed them in real-world environments with old technology, we had to combine a microcontroller with a minicomputer, a Web service, or a smartphone. Every option available to us was a compromise, so we started a project to build a truly powerful solution that everyone could afford, using available technologies." Rizzo explained.
"We are 'interaction designers', so for us it’s not enough that a prototype works well in the lab; it should work in its designed environment. This is essential as it contributes to shaping the user’s experience." Rizzo said.
Working with design consultancy, Aidilab, and electronics design and manufacturing firm, SECO, they have shown what innovation and passion for great design can achieve. Using crowdfunding to finance the project, the team created the UDOO – a single-board computer that is literally bristling with possibilities.
UDOO was the brainchild of Professor Rizzo, Daniele Conti from SECO and Maurizio Caporali from AIDILAB – ably supported by a team of academics, engineers and designers from European, Canadian and US universities.
The UDOO project – launched on Kickstarter in 2013 – was fully subscribed by the end of the 60-day launch period. Their goal of $27,000 was exceeded with more than 4000 backers pledging over $640,000. Interest continues to grow with engineers, software developers, user interface designers and students seizing the opportunity to be part of what its followers believe is a quantum leap for developers of mobile computing applications.
The UDOO is powered by two ARM CPUs. ARM architecture has been a great success story for mobile applications. With 37 billion units produced as of 2013, the low power consumption of these processors has made them the most widely used 32-bit architecture in mobile devices and embedded systems.
While there have been other microcontroller boards produced using ARM processors – the Raspberry Pi and Arduino being two examples – the UDOO is the most powerful and flexible in its class.
The initial offering of dual and quad core boards has been followed by a number of peripheral devices including touchscreen displays and a high-resolution video camera. Interest from software developers has started to see results with a wireless music system being the first open source project to be released.
On a board that can fit in the palm of your hand, there is a dual- or quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU delivering great performance on both Android and Linux. A second ARM processor for the GPIO is compatible with Arduino Due R3 interface modules (known as shields).
The UDOO includes integrated 2D and 3D acceleration with support for HDMI, LVDS and touchscreens. The quad-core version supports SATA drives. Communication with the outside world is via Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and four USB options including USB OTG. The eyes and ears of UDOO include high quality audio and video connections. For control applications there are 90 digital and analog I/O pins. The UDOO also comes with a micro SD port to load the operating systems.
Australia has been quick to adopt new mobile technologies but there are few examples of local development. Music systems, smart-grid control of mains power, gaming, robotics, security, and a host of mobile applications are creating new markets. The UDOO provides inexpensive, yet powerful tools to enter this market. Perhaps some enterprising Australian firms will take up this opportunity.
Rob Napier is a hardware and software engineer, business analyst and technical writer. A pioneer of networking and storage technologies, Rob was recruited to work on the BBC Microcomputer, progenitor of the UDOO's ARM processors. Until recently, he has been developing web and database applications. Rob is currently writing a reference book for the UDOO family of microcontrollers. You can reach him via email at rob at doitonce.net.au.