Marvell PlugComputer Plug-In

Marvell sponsored the first PlugComputer PlugIn on August 18 in Santa Clara.  This was an event to bring together PlugComputer software developers, hardware vendors and the curious to learn more about the PlugComputer and its roadmap.  There were three parallel tracks throughout the day.  Track1 was oriented toward software development in general, and Android in particular.  Track2 had a Java bent, and Track3 addressed the PlugComputer ecosystem and supply chain.

All PlugComputers are based on the ARM architecture. Last year, the first PlugComputer was released.  It was a basic computer with USB ports and Ethernet connectivity.  This year, models were shown that included built-in WiFi, BlueTooth, ZWave and Zigbee interfaces.  With this much connectivity, a PlugComputer device can be a hub for home automation control and video monitoring.  A basic PlugComputer block diagram is shown below.

Marvell is enabling the “PlugComputer Ecosystem.”  The PlugComputer represents a new device class: it is a standalone mini-server about the size of a power adaptor.  It runs Linux and uses very little power.  A PlugComputer draws about 5W and is suited to being an “always-on” computing device in the home.  By enabling multiple vendors prices can be very low allowing small software developers to deploy full internet appliances and applications.  A Plug can sell for below $100 making the possibility of an application-specific computer one that makes economic sense.  Plugs can be packaged in appealing packages too.

Most of the demo applications shown at the event were related to home automation and monitoring.  Monitoring applications fall into one of broad classes: security or energy efficiency.  For energy monitoring applications the PlugComputer offers a clear advantage in power savings over the use of a full PC: a 5W PlugComputer makes more sense for energy monitoring than a 150W PC.  For security applications, the appeal is having an always-on dedicated device.  Because the device can be managed by a service provider, a user need not be concerned about performing software installs and upgrades, the way one would need to do these things on a PC.

Software

The PlugComputer is a great device for interfacing to the physical world through its ports and radio interfaces.  With ZWave and Zigbee a PlugComputer could control the home or monitor environmental conditions including light level, temperature, air quality and humidity.

As a developer, a big concern for me is the level of software support for these various interfaces.  Because the PlugComputer runs Linux, things like Ethernet, WiFi and Bluetooth are pretty well supported with standard offerings.  Zwave and Zigbee are another matter, however.  I could not find good support for these interfaces yet.  With USB devices, support depends on the device you want to attach.  Demonstrations showed a number of USB cameras hooked up to the Plug and I was told these are fairly easy to access using packages like OpenCV.

Operating Systems

Most PlugComputers arrive with Debian pre-installed.  Other popular OS distributions are Ubuntu, Fedora and Gentoo.  A new utility, called the “Easy Plug Installer” has been released to aid developers in building a custom distribution and filesystem.  The utility lets a developer rapidly re-flash the device with any of a number of pre-configured releases.

Android

I was suprised to see the strong showing of Android support.  Android is Linux-based and can be built on the 2.6 kernel, so it makes sense it could run on the Plug.  Of course, the first question is WHY?  Android is most often run on a touch-screen handheld and the Plug has no screen and no touch or mouse input.  It did not seem a natural fit.

Large electronics manufactures want to invest in one software platform to use across all of their product offerings.  It may not seem obvious that something like a Photo Frame should run Android, but for manufacturers that make Photo Frames, BlueRay players and cellphones, they want to have one software platform across the entire product line.  The big vision for Android is that it runs on everything … including the PlugComputer.  The App distribution mechanism of Android could also help make personalizing the PlugComputer something that a consumer would actually do.

Conclusion

I thought the PlugIn was a big success.  As a software developer, I got a good sense of what is currently available for development on the Plug and what should be arriving in the next year or so.  The sessions on the Ecosystem and Supply Chain were perhaps the most interesting to me.  These demonstrated the commitment level of Marvell to the Plug and showed us the vendors investing in Plug manufacturing capabilities.  It’s an exciting platform.

Some Interesting Links

Ionics PlugComputer Site: http://www.ionicsplug.com/products.html

GlobalScale PlugComputer Site: http://www.globalscaletechnologies.com/p-22-sheevaplug-dev-kit-us.aspx

PlugComputer.org: http://plugcomputer.org

Catching Bad Guys

A few weeks ago there were a series of automobile break-ins in my neighborhood. The break-ins all occurred in the mid-morning. It appeared that only loose change or the stray GPS was taken.   The damage done to the cars cost more than any of the items stolen.

These types of crimes happen all the time in San Francisco. It only takes a few minutes to shatter a window and take a few items. Rarely is anyone around to see what happened. It’s even rarer that any evidence of the crime is collected.

As luck would have it, I’ve been running surveillance cameras looking out of my front window. One day, a break-in happened right next door. I checked the camera and hoped that I’d caught footage of the guy this time. As it turns out, I did!

In the first frame you see him walking toward the break-in location. (I’ve smudged his face to protect the innocent here.) In the second frame you can see him carrying a black bag that was later identified as one of the items stolen. (Note: The total amount of time elapsed is 4 minutes.)

We forwarded these photos to the police and the neighbors.  The police commented that it’s not often a clear picture of someone is captured. It’s also gotten the neighborhood fired up about paying attention to who is coming and going.

A couple of the neighbors have purchased DCS-920 cameras and have signed up for Sensr.  We are going to be building our own “Digital Neighborhood Watch” up here.  We’re all on the look out for this guy and will call the cops if he is spotted.  (He was spotted lurking around once, but still remains un-caught.)

Crookstube

I recently came across another site helping to catch Bad Guys.  It is called crookstube.com.  It’s a video-sharing site for survillance footage of crimes.  Using it, you can look at crimes in your area and see if you can help catch the Bad Guys.  Of course, sometimes it’s entertaining to watch especially stupid crooks just for the fun of it.

I think crookstube.com is a nice complement to SensrSensr helps you manage your cameras and capture video and perhaps keep it private. Crookstupe is a place for sharing the video clips you want to share with a “Crimestoppers” audience. These two sites might make a great match.

Sensr is not CSI

It’s been interesting to gauge the expectations of some of the people introduced to Sensr and IP-surveillance.  A lot of people have watched a lot of episodes of CSI and expect infinite resolution and image enhancement techniques that don’t really exist yet!  No matter, the basic technology is here today and useful.