Category Archives: IoT

You Might Be Doing Too Much at Once, Microsoft

WARNING: This post is a commentary. If you’re looking for anything technically insightful, you might be disappointed.

Out of curiosity, I attended an Azure training event a few days ago with a group of colleagues at Microsoft’s Reactor in NYC. Though I’ve played with Azure a few times, I could definitely use more insight. (Since it’s been ages I’ve been to a training event, I also wondered if I was missing out on anything. I’ll admit that the food has gotten better.) Before I start, I commend Microsoft for having made leaps and strides in various respects, particularly with Linux and open source. Also, I should commend the staff who conducted the event. They were very helpful and considerate, and I can only imagine the difficulty in a situation where you are dealing with a room full of disgruntled developers. So, they performed well despite given constraints. Now, the actual event on other hand…that’s a different story. In many ways, it reminded me of my general impression of Microsoft these days: sometimes getting a little too ahead of themselves.

So, the general idea was a good one, introducing people to Azure using a hypothetically fun scenario. In this case, the scenario depicted was one where you help save astronauts on Mars, all through a series of printed-out “classified” tutorials on contemporary topics (IoT, serverless computing, etc.). Okay, decent concept. But the devil is in the details…First, the event space didn’t have enough bandwidth to accommodate the laptops of several dozen people. (As soon as I saw that there were no LAN jacks and that it was WiFi-only, I knew that we were in trouble. It’s common knowledge that between Windows updates and NuGet packages for project builds, you’re gonna need plenty of bandwidth.) Second, the presented materials were sometimes confusing (hyperlinks on printed paper, etc.) and were loosely tied to the general theme. For example, one exercise had us utilizing their face recognition API, which is separate from Azure for some reason. Exactly how this helps stranded astronauts and why we were using pictures of college students, I couldn’t tell you. Finally, the tutorials themselves were simple exercises of copying code and hitting menu options in order to showcase certain technological features.

However, there was no tutorial that gave a general idea of what Azure is really about: being a cloud platform. The basic framework was ignored (spinning up a VM instance, loading a new database, etc.) in order to tout its more niche features. Personally, though, I think that the goal of the marketing team should have been more practical and focused when planning this event. For example, use a theme of a skunkworks team within a larger organization. How could such a team leverage Azure to become innovative? In other words, provide inspiration and ammunition to your base of enterprise users that doesn’t currently use the cloud yet. Though I understand the marketing team’s goal: to appeal to both enterprise AND startup customers for Azure. Obviously, management has envisioned that as the strategy to overtake AWS.

Which, obviously, I think might be a mistake. For example, how many people with Arduinos and Raspberry Pis are looking to create IoT products with .NET Core? True, I’m not an expert, but after spending a few minutes with it, I still can’t see it winning too many hearts and minds. Instead of spreading their resources too thin, it might be beneficial to double-down on their bread and butter, especially since there’s already so much competition in other verticals. After all, there are plenty of enterprise customers to still win over. In fact, I can think of one or two opportunities in niche spaces that are hidden among enterprise users. I know that I don’t have the mile-high vantage point, so I’m not privy to certain details…but since I’m leery of wobbly ladders, I tend to prefer low-hanging fruit. 🙂

Quick Tangent: An Open Standard for Indoor Navigation

“Since when did this blog become solely about indoor navigation? I thought that this thing was supposed to be about metadata?” Well…I can’t argue with you. I need to get back into that at some point.

In any case, after sampling different platforms for indoor navigation, I’ve come to notice something: there is no open source standard for indoor navigation yet. Of course, there is much discussion about indoor navigation within the gaming industry, especially within the community for Google’s Project Tango…but there isn’t as much talk when it comes to API standards. Considering that open source standards seem to be falling from the sky in the last few years (for cloud computing, for automobiles, etc.), it seems fitting that one of the bigger players (like Indoor Atlas or Estimote) should take this opportunity to lead the way with an open standard. As IoT invades our lives, indoor navigation will probably become more prevalent, and more development standards would be beneficial to the industry. (Of course, these Northern Europeans are probably too busy slugging it out, since that’s part of the travails of being a startup company.) I suppose another unmentioned company could also take this lead, but I’ve found that many are not as developer-friendly as Indoor Atlas and Estimote; most require any interested parties to fill out an application before even allowing access to their documentation.

Now, it wouldn’t have to be an all-encompassing standard, but it should probably take into account each of the strengths in the current set of available platforms. In addition to the practice of emulating Apple’s Location Manager (which they all seem to do in their iOS SDKs), an open standard could include interface methods for functionality like:

  • The ability to overlay the indoor navigation map over an actual world map (which is offered by Indoor Atlas).
  • The ability to generate a map of the indoor space dynamically (which is offered by Estimote).
  • The ability to raise a signal (email, text, etc.) when someone enters the navigable area (which is offered by both Indoor Atlas and Estimote).
  • The ability to generate an account with the vendor’s services programmatically (which I could see as being helpful to developers who want to incorporate these services into their own products).

Maybe I’ll create a sample and upload it to Github in the near future, as a more verbose example.

On a side note to this new standard, we can leave out some of those confusing and misspelled messages that are generated by Apple’s Location Manager. Who comes up with these things?

The Game that Could Be

Oh, I had such lofty aspirations when I came up with the idea for a haunted house game. I had been so sure that there was an existing technology whose SDK would fit my plan…and, at this point, maybe there is!

So, having found an indoor navigation system that didn’t require the purchase of peripheral beacons, I decided to actually give it a try (though, due to past experience, I didn’t get my hopes up). So, I followed their tutorial’s advice, and I constructed a map image of my home. I created the map to scale, in order to achieve optimum results. After I uploaded the plan to my Indoor Atlas account, I then proceeded to follow the next step: using their tracker app, I did two walkthroughs of my house, hitting over a dozen waypoints with various permutations of edges. (After all, you’re creating a directed graph for them.) With some assistance from the helpful people at Indoor Atlas, I got my settings and floor plan to be exactly as I needed them to be. Thanks Elina!

Since they didn’t have an app that helped demonstrate the power of their SDK, I sought an open source project that helped to showcase their tech, and after poking around a bit, I eventually found one. I pulled the project, and after making a few corrections and downloading the right parts (updates from Apple, Homebrew packages, required Cocoapods, etc.), I was able to compile and deploy the project to my iPad. (I have to admit that I love how XCode offers to fix your code when certain methods have been deprecated or renamed. I wish that other IDEs offered the same service.)

When I ran the demo, it did load my map image, and I was able to navigate around my place with the demo project in hand. Finally…I had achieved some form of success! Now that I had a feasible technology stack as a solution, I could reflect on this platform as a possible choice:

Pros:

  • The indoor-navigation functionality works well, even though it’s sometimes inaccurate in more confined spaces and smaller rooms.
  • The SDK is fairly easy to understand and integrate into your project.

Cons:

  • In order to integrate their tech stack into your project, there is an investment required, especially for any potential user of your product (generating a scaled map image, walking through your place, etc).
  • Your potential product will require the user to create an account with Indoor Atlas.

In the end, I’m not exactly sure if this particular solution is a best fit…but any potential is good news to me. I’ll have to play with it a bit more in order to find out.

And the Search for (Inexpensive) Indoor Navigation Goes On

So, as for the waiting addressed in the last post (i.e., the latest about the Haunted House saga), it ended when the next package of beacons finally reached my house. Almost immediately upon arrival, I registered the beacons using my Estimote account, and now having a total accumulation of six beacons, I placed them around my home and started the Indoor Location app on my iPad. As excited as Ralpie Parker with his BB gun in A Christmas Story, I started the app and followed the tutorial. “Okay, now I just need to create a location with the ‘Add new location’ button…where is that button…” After a minute of being unable to find it, I looked online and found nothing to assist me, feeling a little like a newb for not being able to resolve my problem.

Defeated (and now feeling more like Ralphie when he shot his eye out), I sent an email to Estimote so that they could enlighten me. Now, they did respond quickly with an explanation…but it wasn’t exactly the one that I had wanted to hear. It seems that the iPad could only navigate an indoor location with their app; if you wanted to setup a location with their app, you needed to have an iPhone. “Say what?” Yes, you’ll want to navigate a location using an iPad’s wide display, but you’ll have to create the location with the phone. It is, for the most part, a two-device solution. (My only guess is that the Bluetooth capability of the phone is more powerful than the pad.) Of course, one can imagine how happy that answer made me, but in fairness to Estimote, they empathized with my plight by refunding the cost of the beacons to me. Still, I would recommend that they explain the hardware requirements in flashing red letters on their site for future customers, since that might be something of interest to them before making a purchase.

So, back on the hunt I went. I was definitely finished with looking for a hardware-specific solution, and after looking around a bit more, I found a compelling product that needed no peripheral hardware at all: Indoor Atlas (i.e., IA). Interestingly, their solution did not need beacons since instead of using Bluetooth or GPS, it relies mainly on the electromagnetic fields that exist within the confines of a building. Based on my limited time spent reading (i.e., scanning every other word) and as I understand it, it seems that each room has an unique signature in terms of its EM field, and if you walk around your appartment with scattered waypoints, it can create a traversal graph based on your walk, with the unique EM fields being nodes. (If some WiFi is available on the premises, that can be of some help as well.) And all you need is your phone and nothing else. Cool! Even though I’d been let down so many times before, I got excited once again, and I downloaded their Map Creator app in order to get crackin’.

So, creating a map went fairly smoothly, with me walking from waypoint to waypoint in order to exhaust all permutations of possible navigation. In fact, as you create all possible edges between vertices in this messy graph, the app shows you its estimation of where you are, and with each new edge, it does seem to get smarter. Once I was done with my walkthroughs, I uploaded the data from the MapCreator app to my Indoor Atlas account, and I proceeded to generate a map of my place. The only question was: how can I use it? With Estimote, they had an app to showcase their tech, so that you could watch it in action before writing one line to call their API…but not so with IA, it appears. Basically, if you want to navigate your generated map, you’re going to need to get dirty: create your own app and access the map through the Indoor Atlas API. Since IA supports both Android and iOS, I was hoping for some sort of Xamarin solution…but, unlike Estimote again, no dice. It looks like I’ll be blowing the dust off my buddy’s aging MacBook in order to see what I can cook up on my own.

Initial Estimations of Estimote

So, in my last post about the Haunted House saga, I had finally found a product that offered me hope when it came to a technical foundation for creating and tracking objects in a very local space. (Just the thought of pouring over books about math and Bluetooth hardware gave me a headache.) So, with joy, I started to read about the services offered by Estimote. Basically, they supplied both IoT devices (i.e., beacons) and a SDK that enabled you to detect their beacons (which you would deploy yourself around a space). That was interesting by itself…but then I found the mother lode: their Indoor SDK package. Basically, with that SDK, they provided the software that created a 3-dimensional model in your app…and helped you track someone/something in it! And their platform was available for both iOS and Android…and Xamarin had even created components for both platforms! Oh Mommy!

Since their business office is here in New York, I got the opportunity to have coffee with one of their sales people, and he was kind enough to offer me a discount on my initial purchase. Excited, I bought a kit of 3 location beacons, and once they arrived, I set them up using their online tutorial and downloaded some of those Xamarin Android projects. (When you create your online account, you can change your beacons’ settings through your account, and then the Estimote app on your phone pushes those settings onto the beacons from the cloud.) First, though, I started by playing with the Estimote app (in order to confirm my beacons were working properly), and even though the app did notify me when I had approached one of my beacons, it seemed to have a hard time with estimating distance…and it seemed to think that I was moving when I wasn’t. Nonetheless, it was working, and I was building a prototype for a game, not a rocket! So, with some positive results as fuel, I dove into their Xamarin projects with more simple functionality, like notifications. I got mixed results, but again, I was prepared to get my hands dirty if needed. Indoor SDK, here I come! Oh, wait a minute…something is not right…I need 4 of these beacons that are sold in packs of 3? And the Indoor SDK is only available on iOS??? Grumble, grumble, grumble… Well, kids, take this lesson to heart: always read the fine print first before you get too excited.

Of course, when I thought about it, it made perfect sense: Android hardware is too varied in quality and specification to write accurate libraries for all of them. I get it..So, at this point, I asked myself the simple question: do I call it quits here? Uhhh…is my name Quitter McQuitFace? Exactly. So, I went ahead and ordered another pack of 3 beacons, bought a refurbished iPad, and arranged to get an old MacBook loaner from a friend. While waiting for my next beacon package to arrive, I’ve played with some of their more fundamental iOS code samples, since it would be a while before I would get to play with the samples for the Indoor SDK. Again, as I noticed when initially playing with the Estimote app, some of my results were anomolous. For example, when playing with a notifications sample deployed to the iPad, I seemed to receive inconsistent alerts when approaching or leaving a beacon’s domain; in fact, at times, it seemed to tell me that I was approaching a beacon when I had walked away from it! Hmmmm…I’m slightly concerned, but my curiosity and optimism is too high to be knocked down. Now, in order to get to the good stuff (i.e., the Indoor SDK), I just need those extra beacons. “Oh, and the waiting is the hardest part…”

Further Experiments with Bluetooth

So, while I’m still waiting for the Android port to Raspberry Pi, I did a little more homework, making some notes about calculations that would eventually be needed for my project. More importantly, I started to reconsider the whole idea of having a platform-dependent solution to the sensor for the Haunted House game. I mean, there has to be something out there, right? Something cross-platform like JavaScript…hey, wait, Google has the Bluetooth Chrome API! That’s perfect!

Excited yet again, I started to look over the documentation, and I started to play with the samples. So far, so good! Using the API, I could detect my smartphone when the Bluetooth was enabled…and I didn’t even need to pair it! Now I just needed to read the RSSI value on the Device class, and using the calculations, I could create a proper sensor capable of estimating the distance to nearby Bluetooth devices. “Wow, this is going to be so great!” But then I noticed that there was no value being populated for that property. Hmmm…oh well…maybe I wasn’t doing something right. So, I poked around on the Chromium site, and it revealed to me…oh no…

https://bugs.chromium.org/p/chromium/issues/detail?id=552268

So, the developers of the API are debating how to properly set the RSSI value for the signal, since there are nuances when it comes to the detection of the device. They haven’t come to a consensus yet…so, for now, the property remains unpopulated. Which brings me back to square one yet again.

I’m getting used to the disappointment…

…but the darkest hour is just before the dawn! And that was confirmed when I found Estimote while preparing to jump off a cliff. My manic ride is at an apex once again, and I’m looking forward to performing a few experiments in the future.