Camera Investigation

I have made sig­nif­i­cant progress on the cam­era front.

The first cam­era, the Seek Ther­mal is avail­able com­mer­cial­ly, but only ship­ping to the US. So I have ordered a sam­ple cam­era using a reship­per, I got noti­fi­ca­tion left the reship­per on Fri­day so look­ing at a deliv­ery ear­ly next week.

The sec­ond cam­era I am inter­est­ed in is the Pana­son­ic Grid-Eye 8x8. I was hop­ing to buy a USB eval­u­a­tion board, which while being not quite the sen­sor I was after would have been close enough to decide on the prod­uct. Unfor­tu­nate­ly Digikey won’t ship that prod­uct to Aus either, ITAR con­cerns I assume.

With Digikey unwill­ing to sup­ply the chips inter­na­tion­al­ly using a reship­per for the sup­ply wasn’t real­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry so I con­tact­ed Pana­son­ic about get­ting anoth­er sup­pli­er. I had made some pri­or attempts to con­tact them with­out get­ting any­where so I went full court press with at least four simul­ta­ne­ous inquiry attempts. Call­ing the tele­phone num­ber of Pana­son­ic Indus­tri­al Devices Sales Asia (PIDS) in Sin­ga­pore actu­al­ly worked. I was passed to Ivan Khor who has been incred­i­bly help­ful, he reserved ten chips out of their next pro­duc­tion run and passed me on to Braemac to han­dle the local dis­tri­b­u­tion.

So the Pana­son­ic chips are a bit more fid­dly and will take more time but the sol­id link into Pana­son­ic will prob­a­bly make the effort well worth­while. I also learnt that the eval­u­a­tion board is actu­al­ly a Digikey prod­uct, so I will have to knock togeth­er my own I2C inter­face.

Screen Investigation

A key part of what I want to do is replace the stan­dard microwave inter­face with a touch screen, essen­tial­ly mount a phone as the con­trol inter­face. The big gain here is avoid­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of a four char­ac­ter dis­play, I think this is why so many of the advanced func­tions are so dif­fi­cult.

Basi­cal­ly I want the fol­low­ing fea­tures:

  • ARM proces­sor capa­ble of run­ning Android
  • 3.5″-5″ touch screen
  • 1x USB host-mode
  • 1x USB slave-mode
  • Some GPIOs or addi­tion­al USB

I think I could design a board to do this myself, it is essen­tial­ly a stan­dard ARM appli­ca­tion note. How­ev­er that is work, pro­to­typ­ing it is work, test­ing it is work and it being ful­ly cus­tom would be expen­sive. So the lazy me sched­uled in the grand plan a week of try­ing to buy some­thing else that some­one else had done, then doing the design if that didn’t work.

My ini­tial thoughts were to get the guts of a cheap tablet and maybe tweak the BOM slight­ly. I had heard that the Shen­zhen pat­tern was that most com­pa­nies were very spe­cialised, dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies made the screen, the PCB, the chas­sis, the card­board box, etc. So I went hunt­ing on Aliba­ba for the PCB ele­ment of that chain. Unfor­tu­nate­ly I mis­un­der­stood the way it came togeth­er. As far as I can tell the a com­pa­ny that builds the prod­uct does the design of the prod­uct selects the parts such as the screens, chas­sis etc. that they buy. There is also a range of stan­dard pick and place man­u­fac­tur­ers that assem­ble PCBs accord­ing to the design they are giv­en. The first isn’t inter­est­ed in just sell­ing PCBs, the sec­ond doesn’t retain designs they build to order.

For­tu­nate­ly I think I have stum­bled on a solu­tion though. The Banana Pi. Essen­tial­ly a prod­uct which was inspired by the Rasp­ber­ry Pi but uses a dif­fer­ent, more pow­er­ful, ARM chip with a bet­ter fea­ture match to what I am after, such as built in flash. It is also, like the Rasp­ber­ry, open hard­ware and offered by a range of Aliba­ba man­u­fac­tur­ers.

I will get quotes to mod­i­fy the Banana Pi boards, just change the BOM to remove a few expen­sive parts I don’t need. I expect though that it will cheap­er to buy the quan­ti­ties I am after unad­just­ed as a frac­tion of a larg­er stan­dard build.

Other news

Anoth­er inter­est­ing thing which hap­pened this week is that Mark Rober came out with a mar­ket­ing video propos­ing to do some­thing sim­i­lar to what I am look­ing at though focus­ing pri­mar­i­ly on the ther­mal rather than usabil­i­ty angle.

It is actu­al­ly reas­sur­ing to see that oth­er peo­ple think this is a good idea and his web­site count­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who are vague­ly inter­est­ed is also use­ful mar­ket research.

I’m not par­tic­u­lar­ly wor­ried about the com­pe­ti­tion. From the looks of his pro­to­type and videos he is well away from a real­is­tic design, let along prod­uct. Far more con­cern­ing to me is what the major man­u­fac­tur­ers are doing in pri­vate and the risk that this may kick those research projects up into a high­er gear.

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