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Getting Started with LoRa

LoRa is a radio technology for long range, low bit rate communication among sensors (temperature, light, location etc...) and other IOT devices. The sensors send their data to a radio receiver known as a gateway. The leading protocol used by sensors and gateways to manage communications, frequency, data rate and security is known as LoRaWAN. The gateway transfers the sensor data to the cloud so that web applications and end users can utilize the data.
 
A complete system includes one or more sensors (or nodes), one or more gateways, and a server or cloud-based app for interacting with all of the sensor data. Finding a complete working system out of the box from one source is challenging in these somewhat early days of the technology. Two full-featured kits that stand out are the Link Labs Development Kit (which uses a LoRaWAN alternative called "Symphony Link") and the MultiConnect Conduit IoT Starter Kit. Both of these include nodes, development boards and a gateway, along with instructions for connecting to various back end software and infrastructure.
 
The only downside to these kits are the price which is in the $1,000 or more range. That can be a lot for a hobbyist or sole experimenter to spend for evaluating a new technology. A less expensive route is to build the components on your own. Nodes, sensors and gateways can be built with readily available microcontrollers, radio modules and open source software. The downside to this approach is the typically poor documentation, compatibility issues and varied skills required to make the system work from end to end. The upside is that you (usually) learn quite a bit about the technology when you have to figure it all out yourself. (If you get frustrated easily or lack persistence this may not be the best route.)
 
With that in mind, I decided to build a gateway using a $289 kit sold by Seeed Studio, based on the RHF0M301 LoRa radio module by RisingHF and a bridge for connecting it to a Raspberry Pi. (The Pi is not included) It is a pretty good trade off of price and features. The Seeed is an eight channel gateway, meaning that it can receive on eight channels at the same time, which makes it LoRaWAN compatible. You could build a single-channel gateway for less than $50, but it would be of very limited use. See my post for a detailed step by step guide for successfully setting up this gateway to work on the Loriot system. The manufacturer's documentation is fair at best and the seller has limited information on their website.
 
 
Any LoRaWAN compatible node using the same frequency (The unlicensed 900 MHz band in the US) should work with the RisingHF gateway. I chose the $35 Adafruit Feather M0 with RFM95 LoRa radio. It is a very compact Arduino-compatible microcontroller that includes a LoRa radio transciever. The full LoRaWAN stack is not included, so to provide complete compatibility with the RisingHF gateway one has to do a bit of software configuration. However, the M0 has plenty of capacity and I have successfully transmitted from this node to the gateway. I will walk through my step-by-step setup process in a future post.
 
There are a lot of players with a lot of big plans in the wireless IOT space (check out SigFox!) and many predict a future with billions of nodes and hundreds of thousands of gateways. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out, and if all of these systems can coexist with each other.
 
LoRa and LoRaWAN are trademarks owned by Semtech and LoRa Alliance respectively. MultiConnect Conduit is a trademark of Mulit-Tech Systems.

Displio Review

The Displio is described by its creators as a "WiFi display that tracks what's important to you." It caught my eye as a Kickstarter campaign back in January 2015 as a neat, compact device for displaying custom data on my desktop. The delivery date slipped a few times but my Displio finally arrived in April 2016, about a year late. Not a huge deal, considering the complexity of manufacturing such a device and the fact that it is a "nice to have" and not a mission critical item.

The Displio

The hardware is exactly what was promised: a small plastic case, about 2.25 inches wide 3 inches high and a depth of about 1 inch, with an e-ink display. The back of the case has a micro USB connector for power and charging. There are no buttons on the Displio; all interactions are via tapping, shaking or rotating the device.

Upon receiving the device, I immediately set up an account and selected to display the weather widget. All administration is accomplished through a web page, and the Displio currently depends on the manufacturer's servers, so if their cloud is down, the Displio performance will be degraded. Luckily, I have not noticed this as being an issue.

Since the display is monochrome e-ink, it uses very little power, so the expectation is that it will run a long time on its internal battery, untethered sitting on a desk or shelf. However, I was initially getting a few hours at best. I found that the default setting for my selected widget was to refresh "live." (In other words, constantly) The expected battery life is listed under the refresh setting and changes interactively, so changing it to five minutes gave me an expected 15 days of life on a full charge, which seems pretty accurate.

I've been using the weather widget for a few weeks to evaluate the performance of the Displio. Overall I'm pleased, but a few things are mildly annoying. The smaller text such as wind speed and humidity are fairly small and difficult to read, even up close. The humidity was stuck on 58% for a long time, and looked a lot like the word "SEX." (More than one co-worker asked me why it says sex at the bottom.) For the last few weeks, regardless of the current weather, the widget displays a rain icon, which seems to indicate something is broken.

The real draw for me with this device was the ability to create my own widgets connected to my own data. Unfortunately, that is where the device has fallen short so far. A beautiful widget maker with a sleek UI has been teased on the Displio website for months, however it is nowhere to be found. The "developer documentation" link is also a dead end. I submitted a bug report through the site but never heard back. I did eventually receive a reply to a support email. I was told that documentation would be forthcoming, in addition to IOS and Android mobile apps. That was two months ago.

As it stands with the existing widgets, the Displio is certainly useable but not particularly ground breaking. The killer app (killer widget?) for this platform has yet to be made, and probably won't until the fully functional developer tools are available. So I give the Displio a guarded thumbs up recommendation, hoping that the makers get the software finished and under control because the hardware is very good. (Note: As expected, the price has gone up since the "early bird" campaign on Kickstarter. It is a lot easier to recommend at $79 or $99. $140 seems a bit steep.)

Tile Review

The Tile is a small, matchbook-sized Bluetooth device that works in conjunction with a mobile app to provide its location. The main purpose of the Tile is to help you keep track of the items to which it is attached. It is small enough to place on your key chain or put on your pet's collar. (My dog has one.) The device is waterproof and permanently sealed, so replacing the battery is not possible. The manufacturer promises a one year battery life, and as my set of tiles is approaching the one year mark, this appears to be accurate. The company has a "reTile" program to replace and recycle tiles at a discount after 11 months.

Setup is easy - the IOS or Android app walks you through the process. Using the app, you can monitor the location of the tiles - with a few restrictions. Mainly, the Tile needs to be within about 100 feet of your phone, although mine seems to top off at about half that distance. You can instruct the Tile to play a tune to aid you in locating it, however the sound is not very loud. 

One interesting note is that the Tile can utilize a sort of "mesh" network to locate missing tiles. In this mode, any mobile device that is running the Tile app will report the location of your Tile if it gets within range, without telling the device's user about your Tile. The effectiveness of this feature of course depends on how many people in the vicinity of your lost Tile are running the app. Luckily, I've never had to test this. Another feature I like is the ability to share Tile locations with another user.

Tiles run about $15 - $25 each depending on the quantity ordered. They work well for finding an item misplaced in your home or within a defined area. If you are trying to locate a Tile lost a few towns away, your success will depend on whether someone running Tile app comes close enough to your Tile to detect it. In many places that may never happen. Visit TheTileApp.com

The Internet Button

 

While perusing the various channels on IFTTT recently, I came across one for something called "bt.tn." My curiosity led me to a Finnish site that sells a very interesting product: a large pushbutton that can control anything that is connected to the internet. The bt.tn comes in various colors and has both Wi-Fi and cellular models.

 

The operation from a user's perspective could not be simpler. You push the spring loaded button down and it pops back up. LEDs placed around the button let you know that the button press has been transmitted successfully.

 

It is what happens behind the scenes that makes the bt.tn so versatile. Your button press can trigger an API or for the less programming-inclined, generate a trigger on IFTTT that can activate any one of hundreds of existing IFTTT channels. The possibilities are almost endless.

 

For instance, I have one bt.tn that when pressed turns off all the Z-Wave controlled lights in my house. Another bt.tn I have programmed sends an e-mail to one of our vendors with a required attachment. You could also use a bt.tn to operate electronic door locks, summon a taxi, or take a temperature reading and save it to a database. It provides a simple physical input to the connected world.

 

As much as I like this product, I do have a few small criticisms. The price is a little steep, at about $70 each with $18 shipping from Finland, although there are other options for quantity purchases. For almost $100 I expected a more solid unit. My first button was too loose and felt too much like a toy. The second bt.tn I purchased was noticeably tighter. The device is attractive but could use a bit more heft to give it a more professional feel.

 

Overall I’m impressed with the device and looking for more unique and interesting ways to put it to use. For more information, FAQ and to order, check out bt.tn.

 


My Visit to the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES)

I spent a few days last week at the CES in Las Vegas to learn about the latest trends in consumer electronics, with particular attention to items in the "connected home" category. This was my first time at the CES and everything one hears about the show is true: the exhibit floor is massive, it is impossible to see everything, and the products displayed range from innovative to ridiculous.

 

4K televisions were introduced by a number of companies including Sony, Samsung, and LG. These TVs have four times the resolution of HDTVs and look amazing. At this point, the prices for 4K televisions are very high ($20,000+) and there are few sources of programming in this ultra high resolution. Most cable systems don't even have the bandwidth to transmit much 4K programming, but fiber systems might. On the bright side, a number of "upconverters" were shown that extract near-ultra resolution from regular HDTV programming.

 

Above is a 20" Panasonic 4K tablet with an amazing 3840 x 2560 pixel ultra high resolution screen. This prototype runs Windows 8 and gives us a glimpse into the future when tablets might be better suited for high-end technical, multimedia, and business uses.

 

These dancers were part of an extravagant display at the dts booth. Dts is a group of technologies used for surround sound in cinemas and home theater systems. Many large companies constructed impressive display areas. Sony had a 25,000 sq ft area with an immersive, 360 degree video screen encircling the entire "booth." LG had a two story 3D video wall as the entrance to their section.

I did manage to visit a number of companies offering home automation products that included energy monitoring and smart appliances. I'll be writing about some of those in future posts. Mainly, I came away with a lot of ideas and concepts to research in 2013.

Windows Phone 8 Review

I've been using the new AT&T Nokia 920 phone for two weeks, so here are my thoughts:

PROs: Great display, fast processor, smooth web browsing, live tiles provide a great start page, camera images are sharp (although color balance is inconsistent, hopefully an update will fix this)

CONs: No notification center, (although I hear that is coming eventually) lack of some key apps, many unappealing existing apps, random reboots reported by some users. (although I have never experienced one)

My two biggest gripes however are the lack of WAV file playback (WAV is a Microsoft format! My BlackBerry played WAV files!) and the fact that the battery and signal level indicators disappear after a few seconds instead of remaining visible. I'm hopeful that since these items could be easily fixed with a software update that they will be addressed in the near future. I also miss the "profiles" feature of my BlackBerry that allowed different email accounts to have different audible notifications.

The bottom line for me is that Windows Phone 8 suits my needs and integrates well with the Windows desktop, MS Office and Skydrive. I'm not a huge apps user but so far almost all the apps I need are available: Skype, Evernote, Facebook and Twitter among others. The lack of Instagram has been a deal breaker for a number of people, but I find the panaroma, self timer, and cinemagraph features to be much more useful and appealing than permanent image distortions. (I know, Instagram is a social tool too...) I'm also looking forward to developing my own apps on this platform, leveraging my existing knowledge of C#. Physically, it's a large phone that I made even larger with a thick protective case, so now it is massive! This thing is like a lead monolith. I prefer the heft and feel of a solid phone, though. If you are in the market for a slim device, the 920 is probably not for you.

Here is an example of an image captured by the 920: (the resolution has been severely reduced to fit this page)

 

Verizon Program Guide Innacuracies

I've had Verizon FIOS service for a few months now and overall I'm quite pleased. The HD image quality is great and the internet speed is fast. At this point I will move into nitpicking and complain about the program guide. Overall I actually like the program guide. It displays more channel information on the screen and is more pleasing to my eye than others I have seen. My sole issue is with the display of a program's original air date. Granted, this is not a big deal, but for some reson I really like knowing what year a program I'm watching originally aired.

On cable, this information was always visible on the first line of the description. On FIOS, you need to hit at least two buttons to access the date. The bigger problem though is that the original air date shown is often grossly inaccurate. How do I know? Because it is often shown as being in the future. See the example below. The original air date of this episode was 5/17/1995, however the guide displays 9/19/2015. It looks like the guide particularly has problems with dates from the 1990s.

 

(Please don't hold the fact that this example is from an episode of 90210 against me. This screen shot is only used as an example) So how does one alert Verizon to this issue? I can see them telling me to "reset my set top box" to fix this or offer to send out a technician.