14/10/2015

ARM doesn't quite open source M0 processor

ARM, the company that licenses it's CPU technology, is now offering the designs of it's Cortex-M0 for 'free'.

It isn't quite free, but the IP is available to designers to integrate into their own System-on-Chip (SoC) designs pre-commercialisation, along with supporting peripherals. There's then a fast track process to license the IP when the chip goes into production.

The designs will allow prototyping the the CPU and peripherals on a field programmable gate array (FPGA) before committing to actual silicon.

ARM is also supplying access to the ARM Keil MDK (software developer kits) for 90 days so developers can test their designs.

Once a commercial license has been obtained, ARM will provide use of the ARM Cortex-M0 processor IP, SDK, and Keil MDK development tools, along with ARM technical support.

This should allow start-ups who wish to develop specific SoC solutions to utilise the ARM M0 in their designs without having to pay traditional (large) licensing fees upfront.

13/10/2015

There's a new smartwatch on the BLOCKs

After a 2 year wait, the BLOCKS smartwatch is now live on Kickstarter. It has a round face and comes in 3 colours (Onyx Black, Marble White, Sunrise Red) with a 360 x 360 colour display with haptic feedback.

Inside it's got quite a lot of technology inside the core itself: -

  • Snapdragon 400 CPU
  • WiFi supporting 802.11b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 4.1 (Bluetooth Low Energy/Bluetooth SMART)
  • 512MB RAM
  • 4GB Flash (ePOP
  • 1.35" fully round display
  • Accelerometer / Gyroscope
  • Power button
  • Microphone
  • Vibration (motor)

It runs a (full) version of Android Lollipop (not Android Wear) which gives the core module much more functionality than standard Android based smartwatches. It doesn't stop there as the watch can be upgraded with modules (blocks) which can be thought of as strap links. A large wrist will support 4 blocks, while a more petite wrist should support 3.

Though designed to support extra modules, the watch core (i.e. the main round watch bit) will function by itself and the lowest cost option is just the core and a strap.

The BLOCKS smartwatch is fully compatible with both iOS (v8+) and Android.

The exciting bit is the additional modules, the following are available via the Kickstarter campaign: -

  • Extra battery (the main battery lasts about a day and a half, this extends the period by at least 20%)
  • Heart Rate module - uses and optical sensor
  • GPS module
  • NFC Module - may support contactless payment
  • Adventure module - it measures altitude, pressure and temperature

Next year the following modules are planned (Phase 2): -

  • GSM module - insert a SIM and leave your phone at home
  • Fingerprint module - authenticate things, maybe NFC payments
  • LED module - a torch?
  • Button module - use for emergency alerts or anything else you can think of using a button for

Then at a later date the following modules might come into being: -

  • Air Quality module
  • Camera module
  • Flash Memory module
  • Stress Levels module

The smartphone app allows further modules to be purchased (BLOCKstore), customise watch faces and buy watch apps (BLOCKSware?).

The basic BLOCKS core (and strap) starts at $195. The Super Early Bird (sold out) was at $250, the Early Bird (one left at time of publishing) was $260 and the Late Early Bird is $275 which goes up to $285 when all the early birds have gone. All of the later pricing includes for modules and further modules can be purchased for $30. There are also options to purchase multiple units.

BLOCKS has now been fully funded (the campaign launched at 5pm UK time) and has raised over $300,000 of a $250,000 target, that's $300,000 in under 2 hours!!!

11/10/2015

New NFC ring, better with twice the NFC

Last week seems to be the week of NFC (Moo launched it's Business Card+ NFC cards, see previous article) and John McLear has launched the second series of his NFC ring.

The original NFC ring was launched on Kickstarter and though the campaign was a success, rings took far longer to arrive than expected due to production difficulties. Now there's a second NFC ring (also launched on Kickstarter, the campaign is active), which is nicer and better than the first.

The new ring is made from ceramic and looks much smarter than the first series. It has TWO NFC inlays based on the NTAG216 NFC chip made by NCP semiconductors. This allows to the ring to be dual use and store both public and private information. Use one NFC chip to store something like a website address and use the other to store secret info which could be used to unlock a phone (and with the appropriate hardware even a house lock etc). The chips work in the 13.56MHz band and can store up to 888 bytes of information (and that info will be held for up to 10 years). The chips support 100,000 write cycles (unlikely people will change the info stored that often, but in a retail environment that could happen).

The ring is laser engraved with the NFC logo on the inside making it easy to differentiate which is the public and private side of the ring.

The NFC supports 3 modes: -

  • open, which allows the user to write the data into chip (and also anybody else who might have an NFC writer in the vicinity)
  • closed, whereby once set, the data in the chip can never be changed again
  • code lock, this allows setting a code and data on the chip can only be set once the code has been verified by the chip

Currently code lock is not implemented in the Android app that accompanies the ring, but it will be in the future.

The early bird price for the NFC ring was £18 (all gone), but it's still possible to pledge £23 and get one (it's possible to order multiples too). It's also possible to get 2 NFC inlays for £5 and 4 for £10 so users can build their own ring designs (the inlays are 20mm by 6mm by 0.2mm).

Unfortunately NFC is only really usable on Android/Windows and Blackberry users (there's lots of programs available to program the chips including ones by NXP themselves). Since Android 5.0 the smart lock application is included in the base operating system so a phone can be unlocked with an NFC tag.

MacOS X/iOS users are once again out of luck as there's no real native support in the operating systems themselves, though 3rd party NFC add ons are available.

In future it may even be possible to pay for goods with the NFC ring utilising contactless payment technology (though it will require addition security so the crew card tokens/keys can be securely stored in the rings).

The Kickstarter campaign ends on the 21st Oct 2015.