The Internet of Things: A Simplified Approach from Raman Sharma of Silicon Labs

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It sure would be nice to know when the washing machine is done. It of course has a chime, though it is barely audible from the living room and certainly it can’t be heard from the deli counter at the grocery store. But what if the washing machine could send a message to your phone when the cycle is complete?

Furthermore, what if your refrigerator could keep stock of its contents, providing a list of those that need to be replenished? Long gone is the cumbersome task of creating a shopping list. How about lights that turn themselves on when you pull into the driveway? Not just simple motion-detecting or light-sensing exterior lights, but the light above the front door, the hallway lights, and the kitchen lights. The Internet of Things (IoT) is quickly solving these problems, connecting devices and enabling conveniences once relegated to the world of science fiction.

The promise of the Internet of Things has led to a technological gold rush of sorts, with companies from industries as diverse as apparel, to commercial appliances, to automotive entering the market. But for all the product knowledge these companies offer in their respective fields, they’re often lacking the engineering tools to bring their IoT visions to market. Sometimes these companies have the technical might to overcome the unique IoT engineering difficulties, but instead they’re faced with a plethora of disparate tools. Typically this means, at a minimum, one tool ecosystem for the microcontroller and another for the wireless communications chip.

It’s not just the large players in industry that have been attracted to the IoT gold rush however. There’s a rich involvement from the Maker community: the private individuals, designers, inventors, and entrepreneurs to name a few who see opportunity in the Internet of Things. There is a sort of implicit assumption made with the IoT, namely the “things” are typically small, unobtrusive devices embedded within familiar products and connected with other devices on the overall internet. Developing for this embedded and connected environment poses unique challenges not encountered when developing for the PC scale. Moreover, the context switching necessitated by differing tool ecosystems poses an even bigger challenge to individual Makers who often don’t have the luxury of specializing in just one tool.

Enter Raman Sharma of Silicon Labs and the Simplicity Studio development platform. Sharma understands the challenges Makers and companies alike face when designing for the Internet of Things. His background bridges low-level engineering concerns with high-level product sales and marketing. He started out as a chip designer and worked into application engineer and field application engineering roles, eventually leading into sales roles. “I was working day to day, hand in hand with customers,” Sharma recalls, “all the while learning about the various requirements in various market segments, bringing all of that together to define Simplicity Studio development ecosystem we designed to help move IoT designs from an idea to production in one easy-to-use environment.”

While working in sales for Energy Micro, a company Silicon Labs later acquired, Sharma noted customers’ difficulty switching between microcontroller designs. “The consistent feedback we got was ‘your microcontroller technology looks pretty cool, but while we love the technology and we would love to get started, the learning curve to switch from an entrenched microcontroller supplier is just too high,’” Sharma states. Undaunted, Sharma and his team used the customer feedback to drive development of a solution to lower the slope on that learning curve and to, as Sharma puts it, “help customers get up and running as fast as possible”.

What they arrived at became the Simplicity Studio platform. Sharma explains, “Simplicity Studio helps lead a customer from simple exploration, to evaluation, to demo, to design, to optimization, and ultimately to production.” When Silicon Labs acquired Energy Micro, Simplicity Studio grew to encompass many more products covering the entire IoT domain: from low-end 8-bit to 32-bit microcontrollers, wireless transmitters, transceivers, and wireless microcontrollers, and even sensors.

Sharma recounts the story of a developer who had extensive experience developing for banks and airports but had no embedded development experience, “he came to us and said ‘I’m a computer scientist, but when I try to apply my technical knowledge to create an IoT device or IoT sensor, I’m lost.’” As with the feedback from the large corporate customers, Sharma and his team took the individual developer’s feedback to heart. He notes, “We made changes to Simplicity Studio to address the needs of the Maker market and we created the Maker’s Guide on Silicon Labs’ website to help guide line by line, getting started and building up something significant.”

So what does the future hold for the Internet of Things? Sharma gives his vision: “At Silicon Labs, we’re creating hardware devices, tools, and components that abstract Makers as individuals and even at corporations away from the silicon, because reducing the learning curve for someone to ramp up on an integrated circuit reduces anxiety.” He adds, “We’re applying firmware to the hardware, and software around that package to create a solution. We’re giving you the hooks so you can take our solution and make a smart golf ball, or you can make a fitness tracker, or you can make an asset tag that fits on your keychain.” He sees the Simplicity Studio ecosystem evolving to include drag-and-drop components, which represent functionality blocks that connect to form a design. The tool would provide design guidelines and technical validation. Beyond this prototype phase, the tool could further provide optimizations targeting a specific battery or wireless protocol and carry the design through to production.

You could be forgiven for thinking the Internet of Things is a new phenomenon. The proliferation of wireless connectivity, the ubiquity of smartphones, even the increasing popularity of social networks have all played a part in driving excitement for the Internet of Things. But way back in 1990, the early days of the internet, John Romkey and Simon Hackett connected the world’s first commercial appliance to the internet: a Sunbeam toaster. Initially they only offered a single binary control for power. Through this control users could vary the darkness of the toast by applying the power for varying durations of time. They later added a sort of crane to the apparatus so the toaster could be loaded via the Internet as well. Although the world’s first Internet toaster is often dismissed as largely a joke, this first “thing” on the Internet deserves recognition as a major engineering accomplishment. One can’t help but wonder how much more could have been achieved with modern tools development ecosystems such as Simplicity Studio.

Today dreams of automating grocery errands are no longer the stuff of the Jetsons. Instead, it’s the near future reality and whoever brings it to market is going to change the way we live, work, and play.

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