Archive for August, 2012


Meeting obstacles with resiliency

August 29, 2012

C and I have been re-watching Star Trek Voyager. In general, it is both better and worse than I remember. The good episodes are really good, the bad ones are comedic. In a recent episode, Seven of Nine (of course, my favorite character) told a formerly-borg teenager that he needed to meet obstacles with resiliency.

It was one of the best episodes. Or maybe I was just in a good place and the episode has some things I needed to hear. Though I’m not sure it was enough.

I coyly mentioned my fledgling product already. Well, I was working on the patent application. One step is to describe prior art (and competitive analysis is necessary for a business plan, something I’ll need to start soon-ish). Mostly that was easy and easy to explain why my gadget is better than any existing attempts at solving the problem of interest.

One solution had a kickstarter recently, where they pre-sold items. I’d looked at the idea as part of my exploratory searching to see if anyone already had my idea (partially so I could just buy the item instead of spending all this time thinking about it and working on it). Their gadget wasn’t that similar, the interface was actually kind of lame. My interface was neat. It was easy to add their inferior product to my patent application.

But somehow, weeks after seeing the page initially, I actually watched their kickstarter video. I was showing someone else how lame the interface was, kind of walking through my patent with a friend. The video did have some lovely enthusiasm. But, then, they had it.

Their product had part of my interface. They weren’t even playing it up because they must have felt about mine as I felt about theirs. Though, it was only part of my interface…

When writing a patent application, the hardest part is the one where I have to explain that the idea is non-obvious. I get to that step and think, “Of course, it was obvious, I thought of it.” I can’t tell you how many patent disclosure forms I’ve stopped at that point, just given up on.

And then to have an idea I’ve been living with and gleefully working on, to see someone else have something so close. It just isn’t helping. I went back to working on the prototype and left the patent application for a little while. But after several days of thinking about it, I just got kind of depressed about even working on the prototype.

So resiliency is the ability to rebound and adapt to adversity. I usually think of it as a property of plants and think of it as something even better than flexibility.

Resiliency is an important property of engineering. Giving up on the product at the first bug makes it impossible to finish anything.

And if I’m suitably resilient, I’ll take this similarity as a validation of my idea. I should build on my gadget until it works like I want. Then I will adapt it to be much better so that any similarity is unnoticeable in the pure awesomeness of my gadget.

I hope I’m that resilient. It is hard to have a full time contract and try to make a product. It requires a lot of passion and enthusiasm. I had it. Until I watched that kickstarter video and the wind was knocked out of my sails. I know I shouldn’t get discouraged so easily. And probably tomorrow, I won’t wake up cranky and so I’ll get a little further and will build excitement again. I hope.



Lullaby and good night

August 23, 2012

Someone in the house has insomnia. And it isn’t me. For a change.

Since I stopped trying to run the world more efficiently and focused on trying to make myself happy and productive, I tend not to have insomnia (except for the occasional that-wasn’t-decaf issue). However, C’s gotten into the vicious cycle of waking up a few times a night, getting annoyed/anxious, and then repeating the next night, now even more sleep deprived.

I have to admit, I’m getting a little tired too.

When I was little and had trouble going to sleep (always Sunday nights, even today it is Sunday nights that are the hardest), my mom tried to tell me that there was a spell for going to sleep, just like the spells we’d read about in Witch World and Xanth books. She said that I had to concentrate for the spell to work.

First, I had to find a comfortable position, so comfortable that I could take ten deep breaths without wiggling (in fact, if I wiggled at all, I had to start the whole spell over again).

Next, there was a song I had to recite in my head, taking the same breaths I’d take if I was singing it very slowly, like chanting it. The song:

Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are,
You’ll be sparkling through the night, I’ll be snuggled up so tight.
While you’re smiling at moonbeams, I will see you in my dreams.
Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.
When the light of day is near, you just seem to disappear.
Why do you hide and where do you go? There’s so much that I don’t know.
Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.

Ok, that isn’t the song. I forgot the song long ago. But that is the song from the Soother I worked on at LeapFrog and it is the song I mentally sing to myself now. Though there are a few other songs too. And poems.

Anyway, back to the spell: concentrating on a song, remembering it is a good way to fall asleep. It is hard to worry about all the things I worry about and think about breathing and remember a song.

But wait, there is more to the spell after the song. If you are still awake. I don’t remember what it was… maybe think of ten things… For example, think of ten red things or ten things that puppies play with. No wiggling. This is all mental.

Ten is a funny number. Most brains hold six items easily. Ten is harder, especially when you are sleepy. This definitely drives out all the other things to stay awake to think about.

Sometimes I change this up and multiply 2 x 2 x … 2 x 2 until I get to a new number, ideally not just through my arithmetic errors. Bonus points if I can simultaneously count how many twos this is (as in the N in 2^N).

Still awake? That isn’t so good. You can do this spell three times, switching out poems and mental exercises (or not). But if you are still awake after the third time, just get up. Sit quietly and accept that sleep isn’t going to happen. Maybe get a drink or a snack but don’t force it. Read a book, listen to music. Just don’t try to sleep for an hour.

Finally, not every spell works for everyone every time.

But this one worked pretty well for me.

Sweet dreams.



Where do ideas come from? And where do they go from here?

August 16, 2012

A friend emailed me about a design contest. I took a look and found it to be mildly interesting. She suggested we get together to brainstorm.

I let it percolate a bit and sent her email with a half dozen ideas. And then a day or two later, I sent her another half dozen on a different theme. And then… well, she emailed me back, reminded me she was out of the country on vacation, getting hundreds of emails to wade through. She wanted to brainstorm when she got back.

Well, one of those ideas haunted me. I kept thinking “I wish I had that” and “I bet it would make my life better” and “how hard could it really be?”. It even kept me up one night until I sketched the idea out. Well, possibly my cold kept me up and doodling was a way to keep me from whining too much.

So I wrote a somewhat comedic elevator pitch and sent it to my favorite electrical engineer (Phil) and to my husband (Christopher). Both were encouraging. I started to fantasy purchase the parts on SparkFun and determine the minimum processor requirements. I figured out some areas that I didn't know enough about.

A few days later, I told my hairdresser about the idea. She got it instantly and wanted to buy one. (My hairdresser is awesome and likes lots of my crazy ideas. And she understands my hair is wash-and-wear; the only person who ever blow dries it is her.) So, everyone was in agreement, and I was getting more excited. I was still wishing I could just buy one and start using it. (And somewhat afraid to do much searching online to find that I could buy it though I did finally bring myself to do it.)

A few days later, Phil came over (lured by homemade pizza and possibly games). We hashed out some of the gaps. I decided on a processor (from the extensive selection of my dev kits on my bookshelf, though Phil went home with one of the dev kits he found interesting). Then I actually forked over cash to SparkFun and Digikey to get parts. And I started keeping a bound lab notebook, signed and dated. I neatened and copied all my weekend notes into my notebook. I made lists of things to do.

I made an appointment with an expert in the area my product would be sold in. I made some more sketches, ones that didn't involve the technology and focused on the user experience. I bought her lunch and told her about my idea. I figured even if she didn't like it, I'd still continue on… not because I didn't trust what she'd tell me but because I was willing to try even so, I'd fallen into deep like with my idea. But my expert was so enthusiastic, I could easily have sold her a dozen. Or gone the pyramid route and her start selling them for me. And her excitement made me start thinking about Kickstarter and how she'd be perfect for a video presentation.

I got my parts in the mail (SparkFun boxes are the best!). I spent a few hours on Saturday trying to make it all work. Nothing worked… it was like each component worked but nothing would play together on the solderless bread board. On Sunday, stuff started working but it lacked robustness, probably because I didn't want to solder anything (I'm not the greatest at that and undoing my giant globs of solder is impossible; my plans for later connectorization had to wait until I had some proof that the components would work.)

Later that day, my husband and I went out to lunch and drew all over the paper-covered table, making plans for data collection and demo software and user interfaces. He'd already downloaded and tried out Valve's engine, thinking maybe the demo could be a cartoon (I wanted it to be made with the giant guy with all the bullets!) but it was overkill. And, to be fair, all my sketches so far involve stick figures and messy handwriting (I'm not *even* to powerpoint yet).

I'm fortunate that my friends are not only wonderful and generous, they also have mad skills. Yesterday, when I showed up at my favorite patent agent's place for lunch (bearing the customary summer lunch gift of popsicles), I asked if she minded if I told her about my idea (hey, she doesn't make me fix her printer, I'm not going to make assumptions though she'd been happy to talk shop in the past). She said yes, got the idea immediately, was very excited about it. She's planning to buy one for her husband for his birthday (I should find out when that is). She's going to do a patent search and if that is clean, I'll start on the provisional patent, which she'll help me file.

I had lunch with Phil today. Between miso soup and bento boxes, he took apart the competitive product (ok, there isn't a competitive product, it is just a distant cousin, the closest I could fine). His leatherman got a workout and the waitress gave us a few strange looks. Once he was done taking apart my toys, he looked at my components and approved my soldering plan.

There is so much to do still. The prototyping software was egregiously basic and does about 1/100 of what I want it to do. Plus, I need to get some real data in a reasonable format to feed to Christopher's demo and data collection software.

The proto boards need to be soldered and then attached, made to function and then made smaller and easier to build. And there is another electrical component that is far more complicated, it will need a very complex schematic and power will become an issue (such as dealing with a rechargeable battery).

Phil pointed out today that I was ignoring the enclosure. Yep. Planning to keep doing that for awhile. We'll put the microprocessor in tupperware or baggies or something for a little while. I want proper mechanical/industrial design and I'll skimp until I have the funding to do that.

I need to work on the provisional patent, write up the idea properly, and try to think of all the possible applications (and clauses). My patent agent friend will help but I will probably need to cough up some money for patent drawings, probably.

I know who I can pitch the idea to. They may even want to license or buy it. If not, I'll ask them to sign a paper saying I presented the idea to them on such and such a date. Hopefully, I'll have the provisional patent done by then. Even if they don't want it, they may have some advice for pitching and people to pitch to. We'll see. There is still that design contest (which ends in November). And this is a good candidate for Kickstarter if I can really figure out the costs associated with starting manufacturing. I know there is a lot of business side things to think about. After the first prototype is collecting data and functioning for me.

There is so much to do. I should get to it. Wheeee!



I have an idea

August 13, 2012

About a decade ago, I had the idea to create a data logger, it would write data from a serial port to a USB thumb drive. I'd worked on a lot of devices that had serial output for their main interface or for debugging purposes. Normally, to get data, I'd have to hook a computer up to the gadget, hoping that the laptop batteries didn't die, that Windows didn't go to sleep, and that I didn't need to timestamp anything to greater than 4ms granularity (Window limitation). The ability to store days or weeks of data would be fabulous.

I chose the processor because it had the bare minimum I needed and a USB device. I got a wonderful and generous EE to help me choose the other components and make a schematic. I paid for it to get laid out, ordered all the parts, built kits, got boards fabbed, bought cases, worked with a model shop to get the cases cut for the boards. I learned a whole heck of a lot. The boards came in and came up ok but the vendor's USB library worked with only one or two thumb drives. I worked with the vendor to expand their library. Then I got a full time position and the frustrations of dealing with the vendor… well, I just finally got rid of the boards and cases recently (though not the completed one, there on the left of the pic). About two years ago, someone else built a data logger, one that I could just buy and it would do what I wanted.

About six years ago, I saw a product design contest and entered it with a neat new idea. I wanted microcontrolled Christmas lights, ones that I could put up and never take down because they'd change color to match the upcoming holiday. With a marketing VP friend, I wrote a complete business plan (summary: holiday decoration is a huge market). The software was easy to explain and the market was there but the hardware was difficult. The way the lights were to be controlled led them to have an unwieldy cable, making them expensive and essentially unmarketable.

Two years ago, GE came out with individually addressable LED strands (on the right in the pic). A hacker worked out the control protocol shortly thereafter. Anyone who wants to make my holiday lighting needs the $50-80 light strand, a $30 Arduino controller, and freely available program. Ok, so it is still expensive but it isn't impossible anymore. After I (and another wonderful EE) presented how to put this together at this spring's Embedded Systems Conference, I was accosted by an engineer for a lighting company asking if I had patented the idea (no, I just wanted someone to build it for me, I didn't want to block development). After a bit of searching, a generous patent agent friend found that Philips had patented “LED as applied to…” well, anything… including the “tidy bowl” application.

About three, maybe four, years ago, I got an idea for a video game called Shoe Shopping Adventure. The player would make life choices (i.e. career, friends vs. work) and that would translate into their need for different varieties of shoes, their available funds, and their time allotted for shopping. I learned a bit about iPhone programming, drawing shoes, and designing games. I tried to get Zappos involved because I was thinking that one way to avoid doing a lot of UI design is to use actual pictures of actual shoes. And as a revenue source, people who bought shoes in the game might want to see those same shoes for themselves later. Anyway, I only bugged one software friend and she mostly just had to listen to me babble one afternoon. Well, and my husband who has been supportive through all of these. So far, no one has made this game for me (yet) but I stopped development because it is a heck of a lot of work (and because I started writing Making Embedded Systems).

It isn't that I don't finish things. I do. I mean, I wrote a book (two, actually!). And I've shipped tens of products. But those have been for other people, for the companies that I've been employed by. The book was for myself but I had some external impetus there.

So it is with some trepidation that I say, once again, I have an idea. I wonder if I'm ready. And what I'll learn.




August 3, 2012

Dragging myself to the shower and standing there, bemoaning my aching head and extreme tiredness, I thought “I haven’t felt this bad since the end of getting over mono.” The thought made me feel a little better, I got from that stage to feeling pretty good in not too long. Clearly this stupid summer cold is not going to last much longer: I’m sure I’ll feel better before my head gives up containment and explodes.

Jarringly, it hit me that the thought wasn’t true. Between the time I had mono as a senior in high school and now, I have felt far (far^25) worse. “I haven’t felt this bad since three weeks after I got out of the hospital last time” doesn’t have the same ring of hope. Catastrophes ripple through the fabric of life, taking away the small quiet comforts as well as the large obvious ones.

I like the shape and feel of the mono metaphor but I don’t know how to reconstruct it into something that is true without glossing over the other things I have survived.

“I feel like I’m in week three of a four week course of mono” sounds like maybe I’ve had too much of the kissing disease (it was only the once!).

“I feel like a truck ran over my head” is a somewhat exaggerated. Plus, I’d feel the need to describe the size, weight, contents, and color of the truck for better verisimilitude. And, let’s face it, that seems like a lot of work given my brain is attempting a jailbreak of my skull, using a dull spoon to dig its way out.

“I have a headache and I’m going back to bed even though I spent all of yesterday sleeping, reading stupid sci-fi, and watching Olympic soccer” represents what I’m really trying to say. Well, I’m going to work for an hour or two first since yesterday was a total loss. Probably.

But I miss my comforting metaphor. The plan for the day brings me no joy, no comfort that tomorrow will be better (though today is better than yesterday).

I’m going to quit whining now. Really. Probably.