Iot and blockchain

5Y Ago
IoT, Blockchains, and the one thing they both need to thrive

As an electrical engineer, my interests have always been focused on hardware electronic devices and learning about new things, from microcontrollers, such as MSP430s and Arduinos, to quad-copters and IoT. Writing a piece of software that influences the physical world is a magical experience.

My first IoT experience came from working on a project in 2014 called SoundWorm when I was still a student at Rice University. It‘s a sculpture that plays sound from each of a series of networked microphones placed in varied locations around campus.

SoundWorm Sculpture

The goal was to create an experience that merges physical reality with the feeling of being connected with people through social media and other connected devices. The project originated from a group of architecture students, who did the heavy lifting of building the actual sculpture. Some of my engineering friends and I handled the electronics.

The technology behind the project is fairly simple: we connected microphones to microcomputers such as Raspberry Pis or BeagleBone Blacks and streamed audio to the sculpture where another set of microcomputers controlled the amplifiers. To give you some context, Raspberry Pis were still in their first generation, and BeagleBone Blacks had only been released for about a year. What fascinates me to this day is the System on a Chip technology, which allows you to put Linux on an embedded system. It blew my mind as I configured all the network streaming for the project.

Electronics for SoundWorm

One of the trickiest parts of the project was providing networking for all the devices since they require good Ethernet connections to stream and receive audio signals. We contacted the Rice IT department — which was actually quite helpful — and, after a long chain of emails, were able to set up static IPs for all of our devices. They even went through the trouble of getting us a landline Ethernet connection and an unused box to store all of our electronics at the receiver end.

When the installation was finally finished, I realized that this project could never have been completed without the architecture students designing and building the sculpture and the IT department providing their services for free. An amazing project requires cooperation, collaboration and sometimes persuasion in order to succeed.

The box were given to us for free thanks to Rice IT department. And yes, that’s me at the bottom of the picture.

It was not much later until learning this lesson began to pay dividends. After graduation, I worked on ParkIT, a computer vision system that detects open parking spots and displays them to the parking operators. We had a pilot at a site of the Texas Medical Center called TMCx where we were given a networked camera to play around with. The integration process took some time, part of which was spent visiting the site and eventually installing integration software on a TMCx computer.

The really annoying part of this process is that we were not given a VPN for the TMCx network so we had to visit the site every time we wanted to make a change to either the camera settings or the code itself. However, it is surprising how much liberty we were given while we were at the site. For example, I was able to use a scheduler, install AWS tools, upload snapshots of the camera to our S3 buckets, and even convince the TMC IT department that I needed the computer to be on all day, every day. During the installation process, I had to ask for the admin password over and over again from the manager to the point where I felt bad asking for password again. In the end, he probably was so annoyed that he just wrote the password on a piece of paper for me.

Yes, the corporate IT world kind of sucks, but this project could not have been done without the help from TMC. The moral of the story: corporate IT people don’t see a lot of interesting projects every day. If you are persistent enough and appeal to their reason and their interests, they will allow you to do pretty much anything. By combining our efforts to work with people as well as technology, we eventually made the pilot possible.

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