Three Dumb Internet of Things Devices Using Smart PCB Designs
Terminator 2 is one of my favorite movies. No one can play a cool robot better than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even though I loved Terminator 2, I never wished it would become real. Unfortunately, with the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), I’m afraid that Skynet is on the horizon. Myriads of everyday items are being imbued with the gift of “intelligence.” The only comfort I have is that many IoT “smart” devices are so useless that there’s no way they could take over the world. Even superfluous IoT devices require advanced PCBs. There are three devices in particular that put Skynet class PCBs into items that should have stayed dumb. These include the HAPIfork, Sensoria’s smart socks, and the Juicero juicer.
The HAPIfork makes me sad instead of happy. It’s a fork that tries to help you lose weight by regulating your eating speed. “How does it do that?” you ask. Well, it uses an accelerometer (MEMS 3 axis), to check how fast you’re eating. If you’re eating too fast, the fork vibrates to make you slow down. It might be more useful to teach people weight loss through self-control instead of training them like dogs. What do I know, though, I’m an engineer, not a weight expert.
It’s clear from visiting their website that HAPIfork put a great deal of effort into developing their “smart” fork. HAPIfork was also the only one of the three products kind enough to provide a downloadable manual on their website. That’s how I know they used a MEMS 3 axis accelerometer for eating speed sensing. Here are the other components they name and their functions.
“Capacity Sensor.” I think they actually mean capacitive sensor, to tell when you're holding the fork.
MEMS 3 axis accelerometer to make sure you’re eating and not stabbing your hand with your fork. The actual text is “(and not accidently touching your fork with your other hand or knife).”
Vibration module to trigger Pavlovian response.
A Bluetooth chip that lets you “track your eating in real time.”
150 mAh Li-Ion battery which lasts two weeks on a one hour charge.
Onboard memory enough to store two weeks of data
ARM® Cortex®-M0 Processor, the smallest ARM microprocessor available.
While the idea of a “smart” fork leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I find its PCB palatable. Its battery lasts two weeks, during which it can store eating data in onboard memory, or send it to your phone via Bluetooth. All the chips to do this fit into the handle of a fork. A major misstep by HAPIfork is that the fork is not waterproof. It is only rated IPX4 which is defined as splashproof. In order to wash your HAPIfork, you must take out its removable electronic innards. If you drop your fork into a bowl of soup or cup of water, you’ll have to purchase a new HAPIfork for $99. You might be afraid to pull the trigger on a “smart” fork, but the next device won’t leave you with cold feet.
Just saying the name of this product should dissuade someone from making it. Socks are tubes of fabric that go on our feet, they’re not meant to be smart. That being said, I am quite impressed that Sensoria has actually been able to connect chips to a sock. The smart sock’s stated purpose is to reduce running injuries by collecting data during runs. They primarily collect data on your running cadence, how your foot falls, and the force of your footsteps. Maybe the NSA will convince them to put in a GPS chip so they can track where you’re running to. I’m not a runner, so I’ll be safe.
While I hate the idea, I am quite impressed by the ingenuity and dedication that have been poured into this sock. Sensoria’s sock has 3 proprietary fully flexible “textile” sensors on the bottom of each sock. They’re clearly pioneering the fully flexible designs necessary for the future of wearable electronics. The sensors transmit data to a connector on the ankle via “conductive fibers.” Their “conductive fibers” are proprietary, but I would guess they’re just copper braided with some kind of fabric. The PCB sits inside what is essentially an anklet, which receives data from the sensors through a magnetic port on the ankle. All you have to do is charge your anklet (6-hour battery life), snap it into place on your ankle, fold the top of your sock down over it (fashionista!), connect your phone via Bluetooth, and run.
Sensoria seems to be developing a general clothing chip for use in their “smart” clothing as well. Apparently, you can buy a dev kit for this module. It looks like Sensoria is in this for the long run with their proprietary sensors and chips.
You may have already read about the Juicero “juicer.” It is currently being torn apart as useless because it is. Juicero makes juice by squeezing proprietary bags that have pre-mashed fruits and vegetables inside. Hilariously, these bags can be squeezed by hand to produce juice. Since the Juicero doesn’t actually juice, I will hereby refer to it as a squeezer. This squeezer raised more than $100 million dollars in venture capital for its development. For all that money they got an incredibly complex, connected, motor driven press. They now sell this product for $399
The Juicero uses an electric motor and gear system to press its bags with 4 tons of force. The electric motor is powered by a custom power supply. The special power supply sits near a PCB, that sports a WiFi chip, optical sensor, LEDs, and more (all shown in this teardown). The Juicero’s brain is an ARM STM32F407 processor. This is a high-performance chip, with multiple peripheral channels, and onboard flash memory.
It appears that a stunning amount of time and design work went into the Juicero. The press requires a machined aluminum frame, and the plastic shells are all injection molded plastic. Juicero matched the thought and attention to detail of Apple in its quest to make the perfect juice press. Though I don’t think quite as many hipsters will be walking the streets with this in their bags. For me, the Juicero is certainly the king of dumb IoT devices with smart PCBs.
The Internet of Things is driving PCB engineers to step up their design game. From tiny PCBs that fit inside fork handles, to flexible sensors and chips on socks, we see the future of PCB design in the IoT. If the Terminator movies are an indicator of future tech, the liquid T-1000 terminator predicts that we’ll be seeing fluid PCB design - good luck with that! If only there were good products for all these great PCBs to power.
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