Happy new year!

It was an interesting year. Not that I wrote a lot about it. No moments of sudden enlightenment for me, so there was nothing I deemed worthy of a blog post. But behind the curtain, a lot has happened. Both at work and at home. Basically I moved a lot closer towards hardware and firmware development.

It all started with a small App for Android phones that allows users to control an industrial device via Bluetooth. After “my student” became an official colleague, we refined our understanding of the Bluetooth chip used, and while he tried to get it working with BT LE too, I made the App… do more than before. How interesting. But. We had thought, hey, BT 4.0 sounds like a better version of BT 2.0, so it should be no problem to get this working with… other phones… that don’t use Android and don’t support BT 2.0… so let’s try this. Well, BT 2.0 and 4.0 are more than completely different, so no cigar here. Damn. BT LE is a major PITA. So we scrapped that plan.

Until management wanted to try something different: What about a Wifi hotspot instead of Bluetooth? We could have a small web server running on our target device, and any smart phone with a browser could connect and control the device! (Which is exactly the idea we scrapped two years before, because Bluetooth is oh-so-much-cooler and whatnot.) So we were asked to cobble together a proof of concept. And this is where it gets interesting.

Having a few Arduinos lying around, we looked for Wifi chips that can create an AP with WPA2 encryption. We quickly settled on the “maker” scene’s (then) new darling, the ESP8266, and ordered a few of them. Connecting them to the Arduino was a snap, writing a small web server a side note. We had the thing up and running in no time.

Then we became aware that the ESP has a larger uC than the Arduino itself, and it can be programmed directly, so why add more stuff than necessary? Our little hacking lab had already grown in size and complexity, and now we were writing firmware for the ESP. To cut the long story a little shorter, there were “voices” inside the company regarding the ESP8266, about it not being “professional”, and the uncertainty of its long-term availability. Whatever, at that price point we might just as well buy a few hundreds of thousands of them and let them rot in storage in case we need them, right? Wrong. We need another solution, from a more “professional” source.

Hint: If someone says “That’s not professional”, and not much else, it means “I don’t like this, but I’ve run out of actual arguments”. But whatever.

So we set out to find a new chip again, our little zoo of prototypes and POCs having grown to an impressive size already, with a few LAN connected devices on the side. We’ve all but stopped using stock Arduinos and clones and moved to designing our own PCBs. At home, I built temperature and humidity sensors and whatnot based on the ESP, and wired the house with them — so many possibilities! Having discovered banggood and drooling over the digital scope we use at work, my private little tinkerer lab grew as well. Hell, for just 20 Euros you can buy a starter kit with an Arduino clone, breadboard, jumper wires, LEDs, and the usual “chicken feed” (resistors, capacitors etc.)! Introduce your wife and kids to the world of micro controllers for the price of a steak at a halfway passable restaurant — what a time to be alive!

At work, we experimented with a few chips and finally settled on one of them. In 2016 we will make this little dude simulate the Bluetooth chip we were using up to now, so we can just plug it into our devices without any changes to the firmware. By now our reputation in the company is that of “the guys that make stuff work, fast”. Nice. Even if our POCs and prototypes are nowhere ready to be sold, we can show management what is possible. Get fantasy flowing. Make new ideas happen.

A good year.

Let’s see what 2016 has in store for us.

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