Wireless sensors the Lego way

A research institute in Ireland has created a platform that allows people to mix and match the components and capabilities of wireless sensors.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read

CORK, Ireland--Here's a combination you don't see every day: wireless networking and performance art.

Todd Winkler, a professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, and Mikael Fernstrom, a lecturer at the University of Limerick in Ireland, have choreographed performance pieces in which the dancers are rigged up with small wireless sensors that can alter the music and the images on screens. When the dancers move, changes occur in response. In other words, it's an arty version of the Wii. (Here is an academic paper (PDF) on the experiment.)

Here is a board for wireless mote from the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Ireland. Michael Kanellos/CNET Networks

It's one of the more novel applications for a Lego-like sensor platform developed by Brendan O'Flynn, who works in the Ambient Electronic Systems Integration group at the Tyndall National Institute here. The sensors are similar to wireless motes from companies like Dust Networks and Crossbow Technology. The difference lies in the ability to mix and match the components and capabilities of any given sensor, he says.

The boards for creating sensors are modular and can be stacked and combined in a variety of ways. Want a pressure sensor with Wi-Fi communication combined with a vibration sensor that communicates via Zigbee? Snap two boards together and you have it. Want another one with Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi? Easy.

The chips embedded in the boards don't change. But because you have a wide variety of boards that can be configured by hand into a module, manufactures can experiment with different combinations before committing to a particular technology. In a sense, O'Flynn has invented a prototyping tool that reduces some of the anxiety and cost for manufacturers that want to experiment with the concept first.

It's pretty easy to do, too. I snapped a few together without breaking anything.

The initial boards produced by the group measured 20mm on a side, but they now can make boards that measure only 10mm per side. The sensors used by the choreographers are actually cubes: six squares connected together like a cross are folded up into the familiar shape of a sugar cube. The shape and the position of the motion sensors on the board allow the cube to detect six directions of motion: up, down, left, right, forward, and back.

Like many researchers, O'Flynn asserts that wireless sensor networks will become a big business--once the components get cheaper and potential customers home in on the applications. It's already been a next-big-thing market for a few years. Tyndall, like Intel, has been deploying wireless sensors to monitor environmental data, such as river pollutants and animal migration. These sensors could also play a big role in elder care in the future. If your grandmother's motion sensor isn't relaying much new data, it could send a message that perhaps you need to call an ambulance.

The first commercial application of O'Flynn's sensors could be in parking garages, which want to examine how efficiently their parking spaces are being used. (O'Flynn thought they would want the sensors to tell customers where they could find open spaces, but apparently that's a secondary interest.)

The group also is experimenting with a sensor pill that patients could swallow and that would then relay information to a doctor. An Israeli company called Given Imaging already has a similar product on the market.