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RoomPing, Part One

Hey, everyone! This time around I’m going to talk about a project that I had a little more involvement in than E6. Meet RoomPing, a home monitoring device cooked up by one of our student workers, Nick Overacker, and developed jointly between him and yours truly.

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RoomPing is Beardon’s first experiment with hardware development. At our last location, the office bathroom was downstairs from the office itself, and was only built for one. This meant often going down a flight of stairs only to find the door locked and the room occupied. Nick had reached the point where frustration sparks creativity, and decided to create something the office dubbed R.O.SE.: The Restroom Occupancy SEnsor. It operated by sensing the current lighting of its environment using a photoresistor, and comparing that to values recorded for when the lights were on and off. It then reports the status of the room to a website that displays whether the restroom is currently vacant or occupied. These days, everyone tends to keep a small window in the corner of their monitors open just for it.

You can find the current (working!) version of ROSE here.

The original concept was built more as a useful, literally practical joke, with no intention to ever make more models. However, as the office started to tune into the website to check its status more frequently, the idea was raised to make it a real, marketable device. It would need improvements, of course, but it was a good start to something that people might like.

The initial steps towards turning ROSE into a device fit for a wider audience were rough. Nick had decided to take it in the direction of a tinkerer’s dream; create a modular sensing device akin to National Instruments’ LabVIEW. It would be a small box containing a wi-fi enabled Particle Core with four ports to plug into, and then separate modules such as a light sensor or an ultrasonic distance sensor could be plugged in. A phone or computer application could be used to determine what module was plugged into what port, and then configure the device to respond to certain triggers; if light was detected between certain hours of the day, send an email to the device user, etc.

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This is where I came in. Nick went away from Beardon for a while, so I stepped in to assume temporary command of the ROSE project. It was actually one of the first things I did as an employee here at Beardon! I read up on Nick’s notes, examined his code, and deciphered what direction it had been moving in.

With this idea in mind, I went to breadboarding the project on a large board. I simulated the modules on smaller, miniature breadboards, hooked up through ribbon cables to connectors on the larger board. The affair was a bit messy (with what felt like enough cables to wire a small house), but it allowed for easy swapping in and out of modules, which was the aim of the project at the time. Fortunately I dismantled most of that configuration a while back, but we still have one or two of the modules laying around, ready to plug in if they’re ever needed again.

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At that time, I developed two modules to accompany the two Nick had left me. I added my own noise sensor and motion sensor, and connected them alongside the already-built light and distance sensors. After some tweaking with parts and code, all four of them worked well and could be swapped around to different ports on the device without a problem.

As this development was going on, discussion circulated around the office. It had just been a joke project before, something to work on in off time, but it had become something that was sincerely marketable. We needed to identify a market that would really enjoy the device. While it was a fun idea to design for students and tinkerers, it would need to go more compact, neater, more intuitive if we ever wanted more people to see and enjoy it. All of the wires everywhere just wasn’t feasible.

The conclusion we reached was to move away from the modular approach and just include the features that a common user might want from the device while keeping it as functional as possible. We decided to remove customization features, only allowing one set of modules to be connected and building them into the hardware.

That was about where the new, re-imagined version of the device began development. It underwent a name change; obviously ‘Restroom Occupancy Sensor’ was no longer applicable! We went through a few options, all variations on pinging a room; after all, the device was meant to give a status update on the room often, a lot like pinging a server. Eventually we settled on RoomPing, and started working on what the device currently is.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the new direction the device took. Hopefully the ride through the early stages of development has been interesting! I know when I was just starting out I wished I could have seen how other people were going through the steps, and looked into lots of other tech start-ups to see how they progressed. It’s really odd, how a fun little idea can become an idea with merit. I encourage you to try making something, even something small. If you have some ideas that you’d like a pair of eyes, feel free to mention it in the comments below, or shoot us an e-mail! Just ask for me and I’d be happy to offer a bit of advice, if I can be of help.

Until next time, take care!

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