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New Industry Group Hopes Open Source Framework Can Propel the Internet of Things

AllSeen Alliance will develop common standards for seamlessly linking your electronic life

3 min read
New Industry Group Hopes Open Source Framework Can Propel the Internet of Things
Illustration: Kazuaki Inagaki/iStockPhoto

The days of sitting in your driveway to listen to the end of your favorite song or compelling news broadcast may be over soon. Ditto on worrying about where you put your house keys.

A newly formed industry consortium, the AllSeen Alliance, wants to advance the adoption of the “Internet of things” through an open source framework. The Internet of things is based on the idea that devices and objects can connect to each other for seamless sharing of information and coordinated operations.

In such a connected world, you could turn the car off, open your front door and have the same song or radio show playing in your home. Additionally, when you drive up to your house, the doors could unlock automatically.

The AllSeen Alliance involves leaders in home appliances and computing, including the Linux Foundation, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Sharp, Cisco, D-Link and others. The software framework comes from a project originally developed by Qualcomm called AllJoyn, which allows products to communicate over Wi-Fi, power line networks, or Ethernet. The alliance members plan to expand the standard and take input from the open source community.

The first applications will likely be in home security, entertainment, and connectivity. A smartphone’s geolocation could let a home security and lights system know when a homeowner is approaching the house and turn on lights and unlock doors. If someone tried to break into a home, it could trigger lights to flash and a camera to snap pictures of the intruder.

“We envision that users will be able to add the benefits of 'the Internet of Things near me' to the cloud-based services they already enjoy,” said Rob Chandhok, president of Qualcomm Connected Experiences, in a statement. If it is successful, eventually your household electronics could talk to each other no matter who the manufacturer is. 

The Internet of things, and particularly a connected home, has seemingly been just around around the corner since the time of the Jetsons, but has never quite materialized. But there are finally some signs (beyond the hype of the Consumer Electronics Show) of the idea actually entering the mainstream market. Some cable companies and security companies, such as Comcast's Xfinity Home and Alarm.com, are already offering basic versions of these services, with lights, security and heating and cooling functions that can be controlled from a smartphone.

The AllSeen Alliance is not the only group trying to move the market forward. The Internet of Things (IoT) Consortium also has an aim of “cooperation between hardware, software, and service providers.” But the AllSeen Alliance has a leg up on the consortium and other efforts in terms of the scope and pedigree of its members. The IoT has some household names, such as LogiTech, but not nearly as many as the AllSeen Alliance, which claims many popular brands such as LG, Panasonic, Cisco and Sharp. 

Even if one group can build a standard that most companies are eager to build to, all players will not necessarily be onboard, especially if individual companies build ecosystems before a standard emerges. Nest Labs, which has a popular thermostat recently launched its own developer program that will go live in 2014 for companies or individuals that want to build apps or connectivity with its network. 

But Jim Zemlin, executive director of Linux Foundation, told PCWorld that the code is already implemented in some products sold today and more announcements would be coming at Consumer Electronics Show in January. 

The open source framework could also be used for commercial applications, the alliance said in a statement. On factory floors, for instance, a self-aware network could learn the capabilities of new equipment and adjust the manufacturing process automatically.

The software will be able to run on various platforms such as Linux, Linux-based Android, iOS, Windows and various embedded variants. The initial codebase is available to developers at www.allseenalliance.org.

Illustration: Kazuaki Inagaki/iStockPhoto

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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