Pocobor.

Smart Sporting Goods

A smart soccer ball that allows exact position tracking during play.

There is a field here in San Francisco where I play soccer from time to time. Being in the city, the field is bordered by streets on all sides and worse, is on top of a hill such that if the ball goes over the fence in any direction, it is headed downhill and will roll for a long, long time. Combined with heavy traffic on some of the streets and a few other random factors, it all adds up to a lot of lost soccer balls.

As I was looking for yet another ball the other day (which I never did find), I started talking with a friend about how great it would be if our soccer balls had locator chips in them. Picture a time when you forgot where you parked your car. You’re wandering around the parking garage, pressing the car alarm button on your key fob and waiting until you hear you car alarm so you can find your vehicle. Imagine doing a similar thing trying to find a soccer ball. You could even have an indicator on the key fob that told you which direction to go. Turn left! Getting warmer… And actually a similar system has been around for a few years for finding lost golf balls.

Lost soccer balls may not be a very common problem, but when I got to work the next morning I kept thinking about smart products in sports. There are a number of examples besides the golf ball finder already – for instance, Adidas has been working to develop a smart soccer ball for a number of years that will take the human guesswork out of knowing whether the ball has crossed the line for a goal. The system may even be used in the 2010 World Cup.

Another area where smart products are making inroads into sports is as training aids. There are smart golf clubs on the market that have built-in hardware designed to measure the user’s swing and help improve their form. Training aids is a really exciting avenue of development because of the potential to provide objective feedback to the user without requiring them to hire an expert (and expensive) coach.

The ongoing shift towards ever more affordable sensor and other IC technology over the past few years has also really opened some new possibilities. For instance, in the past year we’ve worked on projects in and around the sporting goods space involving everything from accelerometers and gyroscopes to RFID, Bluetooth, and motion tracking. All in all, it’s pretty clear that the sporting goods market is going to be an interesting area for smart products as time goes by – it will be exciting to see what comes out next!

My Favorite Smart Product

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine (a non-engineer) about Pocobor and mechatronics (smart products). It was a meandering conversation about what mechatronics is, how you make something mechatronic, where mechatronics is going and such. (I wrote this post a few months ago which describes what mechatronics is in detail.) At one point she asked me what my favorite mechatronic product is. Without the slightest hesitation I answered “the automobile”. She was a bit surprised, thinking I would say something like a robot, or some other crazy gizmo. The truth is, cars have always been a driving (pun intended) force behind my desire to be an engineer. And a big reason I became a mechatronics engineer is because almost every car on the road today is a mechatronic product.

Cars weren’t always mechatronic. In fact for most of their history they were very much a mechanical system, with a bit of electronics (radio, lighting, etc.) here and there. However, what made a car a car (i.e. the engine, the carburetor, the suspension, and the transmission) were intricate pieces of mechanical hardware (with the exception, I guess, of the spark ignition system). It wasn’t until the end of the 70s and the beginning of 80s that cars started to become mechatronic in nature with the introduction of electronic fuel injection, and flow rate sensors such as the Bosch L-H Jetronic systems  to replace carburetors (read more about fuel injection here).

With the advent of cheaper and more powerful microcontrollers, as well as cheaper and more accurate sensors, came such breakthroughs as anti-lock braking systems, supplemental restraint systems (airbags), and electronic stability control. Today automobiles are the definition of mechatronics. They combine advanced software, with high-tech electronics, and elegant design to create amazing pieces of machinery. Everything from the transmission to the fuel injection to the valve timing to adaptive cruise control is controlled in some way by an embedded microcontroller, relying on accurate yet inexpensive sensors ranging from accelerometers to flow meters to position sensors.

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It is also no coincidence that automotive technology has advanced step for step with advances in mechatronics. The automobile, with its economy of scale and demand for precision sensors and microcontrollers to control the ever more advanced systems found inside, is a major, if not the biggest, driver of technological advances in mechatronics and the steep decrease in component prices.

But that is only a part of why I love the automobile, and why I consider it my favorite mechatronic example. The other part is because it has the ability to inspire, to make you stop whatever you are doing, and stare. True, not every car designed elicits such emotion, but when a car that is truly exceptional drives by, everyone looks in awe and desire, and you don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate it. That is the rare thing about automobiles compared to most other products out there. When done right it makes everyone, from the youngest school boy, to the oldest grandma appreciate excellence in design, the same way a Picasso or Monet might.

Data Driven

Personal Metrics and Analytics are Sexy!

Companies have always been data driven. In order to make educated business decisions, you analyze figures and utilize typical business metrics. These metrics help to assess the health and direct the future of your business. Technology, specifically related to smart products, is allowing the same methodology to be applied to our personal lives (although the metrics may be quite different).

I realized yesterday how data driven my personal life is, whether it is my physical health and fitness, energy usage at home, or my personal finances, and how it is similar to the way we manage Pocobor. I now have affordable (if not free) access to tools that gather and analyze information on every aspect of my life, which help advise appropriate and effective decisions. There are tons of these products available; below is a listing of a few of the products I use or am excited to try to help me manage my personal life:

Fitness/Health

  • Nike+:  I’ve exercised with music for years, but now for an affordable $30 add-on I can track my running performance and even receive motivation when I’m jockeying my desk for too many days in a row. I no longer need to remember to write down my runs in a clunky manual log and the computer is objective about when, how far, and fast I ran. The data and Nike’s analytics are now a training partner and a coach to improve my fitness and have made an exercise regimen part of my life. I recommend checking out this personal metrics article “The Nike Experiment: How the Shoe Giant Unleashed the Power of Personal Metrics in Wired that talks in detail about the the development and influence of Nike+.
  • BodyTrace: I haven’t used this one, but we definitely had this idea at Pocobor: a Wi-Fi enabled scale that records and tracks your scale readings by sending your periodic reading to the cloud and providing web-access with analytics. I’ve never tracked my weight over a long period of time, but I’m interested to see how my weight fluctuates as the seasons change, which affects my activity and eating habits.
  • Money/Finances

  • Mint.com: All our (my wife and my) accounts and assets are synthesized in one place, which is incredibly simple, but amazingly effective. We are able to quickly look at our spending in any category and easily compare to our budget to make important monetary decisions day to day, month to month, or year to year. Sure this idea isn’t new (Quicken has been around for years) but it’s never been this easy, seamless, free, and on my iPhone.
  • Energy Expenditure

  • Kill-a-Watt: How much power is my 90’s fridge consuming? Does that manufacturer’s rating have any bearing on performance 15 years down the road? Plugging the fridge through the Kill-a-Watt has allowed me to assess the fridge’s inefficiency. Now how can I get my landlord to replace it?
  • PG&E Smart Meter: I’m still waiting for PG&E (which is the local utility company here in San Francisco) to show up in my neighborhood. I want some more information about that large bill that keeps showing up every month. By looking at my day to day usage as it happens, I can effectively identify how my personal behavior is driving cost. How much extra does that porch light left on cost?
  • Smart Home/Home Automation: I’m renting now so my home is relatively unintelligent, but home automation in general is the future. Did I leave the hall light on when I left this morning? How much money will that cost me? Let me look online, look at energy usage, and remotely turn off any systems that are unjustly/unintentionally using power. I am ready for real time monitoring, control, and programming of all of the systems in my home so that I can make intelligent decisions about how my home functions. Microsoft is even getting on-board with Hohm, read more about it in this blog posting “Microsoft Dials Hohm to Cut Home Energy Use” on CNet News.
  • Toyota Prius: Driving hasn’t been the same since I traded in my gas-guzzling pickup for a Prius. My fuel economy is printed out right there on the screen so I really know what sort of energy I’m consuming. I’ve even seen how my driving habits effect my fuel economy on my commute. Should I slow down? How much money would that save me?
  • It’s exciting for Pocobor to be part of this revolution by developing smart products related to those listed above. Data and data analytics in our personal and professional lives is becoming more and more accessible. Consumers can now assess their personal lives and identify poignant changes to better their lives with simple and effective products available to them.