Microcontrollers: Where the Real World Meets the Digital

Roundedcube Roundedcube
March 16, 2011
Web Development

Hello everyone. I am one of the developers here at Roundedcube and, during my non-working hours, happen to be the resident Mad Scientist, sans white lab coat. I hope this blog post will help explain about the exciting use of electronics (transistors, resistors and capacitors) and how they can relate to the digital world of the Internet and computers in general.

Over the past few years, the ability, usability, availability, and lower cost of electronics have increased tremendously. Specifically, the use of what is called “Microcontrollers” (MCU) has allowed amazing things to happen. These are also referred to as Programmable Logic Controllers, and Embedded Processors. I like to compare the use of MCU’s today with such initiatives as the “mobile” web. Both of these technologies have been around for a while now and are not only coming of age, but their future is beyond being merely “promising.” The cost of these MCU devices can be extremely affordable and their uses seem limitless.

Micro What?

microcontrollerSo, what is a Microcontroller? Well, basically, it is the simplest form of a personal computer CPU. In contrast to the enormously powerful Pentium™ processors inside personal computers, an MCU is a bare minimum computer chip. Instead of calculating 32 or 64 “bits” of data at a time, I’m talking about a whopping 8 bit processor operating at 16 MEGA Hertz speed and have 32 KILO Bytes of RAM! These MCUs are specialized in making the low-level transition from the real, physical, world into the digital “Ones and Zeros” familiar to everyone. And they can do this extremely quickly, reliably and usually with very low power consumption. This is accomplished using both Digital-to-Analog and Analog-to-Digital conversion features that all MCU’s have built-in. Meaning an analog input from the real world (e.g. the current temperature) gets translated to digital information. And, the opposite happens where digital information from computers can be directly translated into something happening in the real world -- blinking lights! 

microcontrollerNow, you may be thinking “What can a mere 8 bits of data processing do for me?” I will give many examples, but, suffice to say now that if there is something in the real world that you would like to interact with, control, record, or simply make better, a microcontroller is very likely capable of helping.

What Does This Mean To Me?

Well, it could mean a lot. There are an almost unlimited number of circumstances where this technology can be applied. To put things in perspective, you most certainly interact with microcontrollers on a daily basis.

Consumer Products

Most of us dismiss the following interactions as being with some more powerful computer (relative to other technology today), but in fact, things listed below are all MCU applications:

  • The thermostat in your house along with the HVAC system itself
  • Your kitchen stove
  • The “computer” in your car
  • Traffic lights
  • Garage door opener
  • Sprinkler system for your lawn
  • The infamous, and ubiquitous, infrared remote control
  • Medical testing devices
  • Power tools
  • Many toys we all love to play with

All of these devices can be, and most likely are, operated by a simple MCU.

Industrial Applications

microcontrollerIndustries have been using MCUs for many decades. Some of the larger companies that manufacture MCUs include Siemens, Honeywell and Rockwell. Not only have their controllers become even smarter and more robust, but it can be difficult in certain circumstances to distinguish the difference between these commercial applications and ones that you or I can use. Commercial applications include:

  • Assembly line automation
  • Processing equipment such as mixers, vessels, heaters, etc.
  • Condition-monitoring equipment and systems
  • Advanced process control, simulation and optimization
  • Analytical equipment, including process electrochemical, all types of IR technology, gas chromatographs for industrial manufacturing and related products  

Here are some examples of what an interface to the real world can be:

  • Push buttons, switches and levers
  • Sensors of all kinds including temperature, light, motion, pressure and sound
  • Speakers or microphones
  • Touch screens or simple graphic/text displays
  • Electrical motors and pumps

Along with these items listed, how about things most of us could use but wouldn’t think of? These can include, but are absolutely not limited to:

  • 35mm SLR camera control (high speed or time-lapse)
  • Lighted display sign
  • Most awesome Christmas light display on the block
  • Lawn sprinkler control that uses live weather data from National Weather Service
  • Universal infrared remote transmitter and receiver
  • Outdoor weather station
  • Weather balloon data logger and radio locator
  • Rocket guidance and recovery
  • Manually controlled, or, autonomous drone airplane/helicopter
  • Security alarm system or RFID entry system
  • Automatic deep fryer (mmmm, chips!)
  • Game console control
  • Telescope aiming and tracking system
  • Send real-world data to any location on the Internet
  • Tiny (battery operated) web server or client
  • MIDI controlled Glockenspiel – amplified!
  • Snow plowing robot that plays Beethoven
  • Computer controlled knitting machine
  • A desktop-sized Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine
  • Sound activated LASER show (sharks optional)

Also remember, when you look at the above list, it is not limited to just a single one of these ideas at a time. Any number of them can be combined and interact together. Just imagine tweeting when your laundry is finished……automatically!

Roundedcube and the MCU

Regarding what all this means to us here at Roundedcube; we have taken this concept of real-world interaction and incorporated it into an instance of a Sitecore™ CMS website! Yup, as of right now, we have a working prototype where not only information from Sitecore™ is sent to the physical world, but the physical world responds in kind with information of its own. This prototype has affectionately been named (for now) PHUDD – “Phil’s Uber Dissemination Device.” To quell the obvious question, NO, I did not come up with the name and will be happy to defer all comments to those responsible. We have released a few detailed photos of the project up to now (with more to follow) and plan on full disclosure during this year’s Sitecore Dreamcore conference on the 19th of April.

I hope this post has helped everyone learn a little about this exciting and limitless technology and to become more aware of possible applications in your own business or personal life. I look forward to seeing everyone at Dreamcore and stay tuned for more information!


Author: Phil Leara

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