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Open Source Science Tricorder

Science in your hand. A pocket-sized instrument capable of visualizing and exploring the world around you.

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This project was created on 06/07/2014 and last updated 5 days ago.

It is my deep belief that knowledge brings about positive change.

We could live in a world where the same instrument that can show a child how much chlorophyll is in a leaf could also show how them much pollution is in the air around us, or given off by one's car. As an educator and a researcher, I feel that if people could easily discover things about their worlds that were also important social topics, that they would then make positive social choices, like reducing their emissions, or petitioning for cleaner industry in their communities.

By having access to general inexpensive sensing tools, people can learn about healthy leaves, clean air, clouds and the water cycle, energy efficient homes — and visualize abstract concepts like spectra or magnetism.

As a tool for exploration, we can discover things around us that we don't already know. And that's what it's about. Little discoveries, everywhere.

Concept Video

Hardware and System Design

The Arducorder Mini is an Arduino-compatible handheld sensing device, and the next iteration of my open source science tricorder-like device project that's designed to be easy to use, have a large array of sensors, and easy to share sensing discoveries.  The Arducorder Mini is designed to foster a community of open source users and development, and is ChipKit MAX32 compatible, which is a port of the Arduino platform to the much more powerful PIC32 family, and makes use of a PIC32MX795F512L with 128k of RAM, 512k of flash, a zippy 80Mhz processing speed, and a fantastic set of peripherals for interfacing to sensors.

The current prototype is designed to use a 1.5" OLED with 128x128 pixels and 16-bit colour, a touch interface, and connectors for 5 modular sensor boards that each contain several sensors.  The sensor boards are designed to be interchangeable and upgradable, so that a large number of configurations are possible with different sensing capabilities and price points.  

While the Arducorder Mini is being designed with a wide array of sensing capabilities off-the-shelf, it's also designed to be easy for folks to tinker with and upgrade. Accessibility is a central goal of the project -- If you're familiar with Eagle CAD and have ever made an Arduino shield, it should be easy to design your own sensor board. Using OSHPark and Digikey, the parts cost for a new sensor board (PCB and header, not including sensors) is about $5, which is even less than most protoboards!  

Sensing Capabilities

The current prototype has been designed to include the following sensing capabilities:

Atmospheric Sensors

  • Ambient Temperature and Humidity: Measurement Specialties HTU21D
  • Ambient Pressure: Bosch Sensortec BMP180
  • Multi-gas sensor: SGX-Sensortech MICS-6814

Electromagnetic Sensors

  • 3-Axis Magnetometer: Honeywell HMC5883L
  • Lightning sensor: AMS AS3935
  • X-ray and Gamma Ray Detector: Radiation Watch Type 5
  • Low-resolution thermal camera: Melexis MLX90620 16×4
  • Home-built linear polarimeter: 2x TAOS TSL2561
  • Colorimeter: TAOS TCS3472
  • UV: Silicon Labs Si1145
  • Open Mini Visible Spectrometer v1 using TAOS TSL1401CL 128-pixel detector, with NeoPixel light source

Spatial Sensors

  • Inertial Measurement Unit: Invensense MPU-9150 9-axis (3-axis accelerometer, gyro, and magnetometer)

Other Sensors

  • Microphone: Analog Devices ADMP401

Check out the project logs for the current build progress, and stay tuned!

GitHub Repository and Source Files

The source files are available on the Arducorder Mini GitHub Repository as the development progresses.  The hardware is licensed under Creative Commons By-Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International, and the firmware and libraries are available under various open licenses.  Please see the licenses file included with the source for more information.  

Project Log Navigation

The project logs help tell the story of the project's development, from concept through assembly and revisions: 

1: An Introduction and Background

2: Concept and Industrial Design

3: Board Layout Part 1

4: Board Layout Part 2: Motherboard

5: Board Layout Part 3: Lots of boards!

6: Beginning Motherboard Prototype Assembly

7: Assembling the First Sensor Boards

8: Sensor Board Mega-update

9: Capacitive Touch Wheel

10: Wifi Module Update

Project logs
  • Update: Now with 100% more WiFi!

    6 days ago • 1 comment

    A quick update, with some of the high-risk high-gain aspects of the project!

    CC3000 WiFi Module and ChipKit Library Port

    It's great to get out of your comfort zone and learn new skills or expand your familiarity with different aspects of design.  For me, in addition to the capacitive touch wheel, I decided to include the popular CC3000 WiFi module from Texas Instruments.  I think connectivity fits a lot of the use cases for a science tricorder-like device, from kids using social media to share their sensing and measurements to engage themselves and their friends, to nerdy scientists that spend their entire days in the lab (like me) who would like to push all their raw data to somewhere like for sharing, advanced visualization, or later analysis.  Personally, a neat visualization experiment I'd like to try is to sit the Arducorder Mini on my desk for an afternoon when we're expecting a storm, and visualize the storm coming in through data -- the decreasing temperature and pressure, increasing humidity, reducing distance-to-lighting, and it'd be neat to see if any x-rays from close lightning strikes are detectable and coincide with the lightning detection.  

    This is my first use of a WiFi module in a project, and so my concerns in terms of hardware were routing the antenna traces correctly, and being able to successfully interface with the module using an open library.  There are a number of open reference designs for the CC3000 antenna circuit, and space being at a premium I ended up using the same layout as the folks who designed the open Spark Core (thanks Spark team!).  In terms of open ilbraries, Adafruit released their CC3000 Library, which was recently ported to the Due, which would give me a trail of github commits to look through when porting to the ChipKit MAX32-based system that the Arducorder Mini is based upon.  It all looked good, so I incorporated the CC3000 module into the Arducorder Mini motherboard.

    To make a bit of a long story short, I ran into a problem similar to the issue with the capacitive touch sensor requiring the ChipKit I2C library to be updated from the Arduino 0023 libraries to the new Arduino 1.x (post-Due) libraries, to make use of the additional features that have been added in the last few years.  With the capacitive touch sensor, it was fairly easy to add the repeated stop condition support from the newer Arduino 1.x I2C/Two-Wire libraries, but the Adafruit CC3000 library is based on the much larger Arduino 1.x ethernet library, so there was a good deal of effort involved -- porting the Adafruit CC3000 library from the AVR/Due to the PIC32 from the top, while simultaneously updating the ChipKit Arduino peripheral libraries from the bottom.

    Fully updating the ChipKit libraries to Arduino 1.x would be a full-time task for someone familiar with their inner workings for a good week or two, so it's well beyond the scope of this project -- but after a solid weekend of work I was able to successfully port enough of the Arduino 1.x ethernet library (and its dependencies) to then port the Adafruit CC3000 library to the ChipKit!  The picture above shows success, and the Arducorder Mini successfully fetching its first webpage and displaying it over the serial console.  Great stuff!

    In the end, this means that in order to compile the Arducorer Mini firmware, I'll also have to maintain an updated version of the MPIDE on the github repository.  A side effect of this will be that Chipkit folks should be able to enjoy the benefit of some (partial) Arduino 1.x compatibility.  

    Open Mini Spectrometer 

    In addition to the WiFi module, the other high-risk high-gain aspect of the Arducorder Mini is creating a new version of the open mini spectrometer suitable for one of the low-profile modular sensor boards.  I really needed to build (and not code) last weekend, and have been boring...

    Read more »

  • Quick Update: Capacitive Touch Wheel!

    21 days ago • 3 comments

    A quick update -- the capacitive touch wheel is working great!

    I've been working through verifying the hardware (since there's a lot of it), and ensuring all the critical hardware bits are working before shifting focus to the software and user interface.  This is largely to make my mistakes cheaply -- it takes two weeks for new sets of boards to arrive, so it's important to figure out any issues sooner rather than later so that they can be sent out for another turn.

    The capacitive touch board was one of the first of the half-dozen modular Arducorder Mini boards that I assembled, and one that I've been excited to get working -- it's the first capacitive touch sensor that I've designed.  I mentioned that in an earlier post I'd had trouble contacting the MPR121 capacitive touch sensor on these boards, even after putting together several capacitive touch boards (with progressively less of the board populated, to try and isolate the issue):

    Making expensive (in terms of time) mistakes

    My normal debug process is to try and isolate the problem -- first to determine if it's a hardware or software issue, then narrow it down to figure out what's going on.  Eagle footprints -- check.  Schematic verified -- check.  Three boards, three different MPR121 Arduino libraries, and one touch board jumpered to an Arduino Due later, the MPR121 still didn't appear to be communicating (while the real time clock on the same board seemed to be communicating fine).  This is a really unusual problem, and I'd convinced myself that as unlikely as it was, it was possible that the MPR121 chips had simply arrived dead, or that they were particularly heat sensitive and not amenable to being reflowed in a toaster oven (although the one I hand soldered made this last alternative less likely). 

    To test this I ordered more touch boards (with slight revisions) from OSHPark, more MPR121 ICs from a different supplier, and an MPR121 breakout board from Sparkfun.  The boards arrived this past weekend, and I put one together with the new parts -- same issue, it didn't communicate.  I wired up the Sparkfun MPR121 breakout, and tried three MPR121 libraries (I2CDev, Sparkfun, and Adafruit, who just released one and a breakout to match) and two boards (Chipkit Max32 and Arduino Due) -- same issue.  It's extremely unlikely that parts from two different batches would be bad, and the Sparkfun breakout board should be tested during assembly -- What was going on?

    For debugging purposes, I decided to try the same code and wiring on an Arduino Uno, not because I had any reason to expect that it'd be different, but just to see -- being their flagship product, it was likely it'd work, and maybe there was something subtly different with the timings. And it did work!  On goes the logic analyzer to see what's going on!

    The MPR121 communicates over I2C, which is a two wire master/slave protocol with a bidirectional data line (SDA) and a clock line (SCL) that's clocked from the master.  Above we see the waveforms for the first communication to the MPR121 using the Adafruit library, with the Due on the top, and the Uno on the bottom.  The interesting thing is that the waveforms are nearly identical, and in both cases the MPR121 is acknowledging the communications by sending the ACK bit at the end of each transfer, but in the case of the Due (and Chipkit), the read commands are not returning data. 

    There is one notable difference in the waveforms for the Due and Uno -- during the command to read data from the MPR121, the Uno is correctly sending an I2C "Repeated Start" condition between telling the device it wants to read and actually performing the read, where as the Due is instead sending an I2C "End" followed by a "Start".  In most cases that I've encountered this doesn't appear to be an issue, but the MPR121 datasheet clearly appears to show a "Repeated Start" condition for this transaction, so it's likely...

    Read more »

  • Sensor Board Mega-Update!

    a month ago • 3 comments

    A big update with lots of pictures -- I've been building and testing many of the first revision sensor boards.

    Watching the PWM of your soldering station's power supply!

    One of the things I remember most from building the Open Source Science Tricorder Mark 1 is that the moment I had it built and programmed -- around 2am, late one weekend, doing laundry at my parents house in the finest grad student tradition -- I immediately looked around for things to sense.  The magnetometer visualization on the Mark 1 was always my favorite, and holding the Mark 1 up to a wall-mount power supply I was able to see the fields of the transformer bouncing back and forth, only moments after finishing the device.  Definitely very cool, and very memorable.  Years later we were hunting down some high magnetic fields in a mens washroom under an NMR lab at school, which is probably the second most memorable (and probably one of the most hilarious) moments of science I've had. 

    I decided that, with many of the Arducorder Mini sensor boards up and running, and a basic multi-series graph visualization plotting the x, y, z (RGB) and total (white) field strengths from the magnetometer, that it'd be interesting to place it near my heavy soldering station -- heavy from a big transformer in its base -- and see what we could see.

    The solder station works by pulsing the heater on the soldering iron to keep it at a set temperature.  When the internal temperature sensor reads the iron is too cold, it likely pours on the juice to keep it at a given temperature.  The neat thing is that this appears to happen in discrete chunks of time a second or two apart -- looking at these two pictures, we can see a roughly sinusoidal magnetic field strength (white line) from the transformer -- my first guess is that this is that this is the 60Hz line frequency aliased by whatever the sampling frequency is of the magnetometer here (about 20Hz).  But, in the first picture, something really interesting is visible -- the field strength suddenly shoots up for half a second, likely signifying that the soldering station has engaged the heater on the iron.  Very neat to watch!

    And here's a quick video I took while testing the magnetometer (and microphone -- the purple series). 

    Modular Sensor Boards

    I try to make my mistakes cheaply, so recently I've been building as many of the first-revision boards to verify their functionality, and note any issues or modifications for the next revision.  Pictured here (above) is the sensor board that contains the lightning, UV, and audio sensors (front), and the atmospheric sensor board that contains the atmospheric sensors like temperature, pressure, and humidity (right).  

    The same view, but here I've just waved a pair of piers that are slightly magnetic near the Arducorder Mini to show the simple multi-series graph widget.  There's still a great deal to do on this widget, but it's a good start for easily graphing a few related sets of data, and the autoscaling feature means it's entirely hands free. 

    To verify the functionality of the microphone, I wrote something that would pipe the data to a graph, and started singing to watch the waveforms.  (Actually, the first thing I did was to put on some music with a beat, put the Arducorder Mini up to the speaker, and see if I could watch both the audio waveform and the magnetic field from the speaker, but I think I'd have to look at the data a little closer or plot it overtop of each other to verify that the field strength changes were correlated with the audio amplitude).  Still, very cool for something that's just starting!

    The UV sensor also looks to be communicating okay, and the data changes when I place my hand over it, but it'll need a bit more work to verify the measurements.  I didn't happen to have a storm handy to test the lightning sensor, but the breakout board I have seems to be particularly good at detecting whenever the air conditioner turns on, so I'll have to work with that until a storm rolls in. :)

    Read more »

View all 10 project logs


justin.m.riddle wrote 10 days ago null point

This looks freaking incredible. When the first round is ready for purchase I'll be first in line. My dad is a superintendent of a golf course, and could use something like this to detect soil and water chemistry, weather conditions, and we could even build a sensor that interfaces with his irrigation system. So many possibilities! Good work, I'm very impressed. I'm guessing this is going to get you to space.

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peter jansen wrote 7 hours ago null point

Thanks for your kind note. I hope you and your dad will get to have all sorts of fun with one, I'd love to see how it works out for that environmental monitoring task!

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Jasmine wrote 18 days ago null point

Hello Peter,

there are a few small things you can do to your documentation give your project the best chance of going through to the next round of The Hackaday Prize.

By August 20th you must have the following:
- A video less than 2 minutes long describing your project. I see you have a couple of videos. Put a link to the one you want our judges to watch most in the external links section.
- At least 4 Project Logs. You have this covered.
- A system design document. Is it this image
- Links to code repositories, and remember to mention any licenses or permissions needed for your project. For example, if you are using software libraries you need to document that information. You can highlight these in the project details or external links section.

Thanks for entering. Good luck.

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peter jansen wrote 16 days ago null point

Thanks Jasmine, I think I've put everything up today, including the updated video, the system design diagram, and uploaded the current source snapshotto the GitHub repository!

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James wrote 19 days ago null point

maybe in a future version you could add a full-color lcd, and an infrared camera for monitoring heat, and plant chlorophyl levels.

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peter jansen wrote 19 days ago null point

Hi James, the OLED is a beautiful full 16-bit colour (the graphical user interface is just unfinished), there will be a low-resolution thermal camera, and the spectrometer may be able to monitor chlorophyl levels. :)

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[this comment has been deleted]

peter jansen wrote a month ago 0 points

I mean, you're not wrong -- if you don't value science based on observation and measurement, science education, or being generally interested in learning more about the world around you, then yes, this device will be of little use to you.

If you've taken high school chemistry or physics, you should know about measurement error, and that every measurement from every device has some accuracy and repeatability associated with it -- for example, 25C +/- 0.1C. This is a fundamental property of all sensors (electrical engineering), or the nature of measurement (physics), and is true of a one dollar sensor or a million-dollar instrument. That being said, nearly all of the sensors have been chosen to be particularly accurate, especially for their price point. I think there was an example floating around where the atmospheric pressure sensors are so accurate that, under ideal conditions, you could nearly measure someones height just by measuring the atmospheric pressure at their feet and head, and subtracting the two altitudes you infer from those pressures.

As to why I might be a trustworthy source on sensing and science education, Yes -- I do have a PhD, and have spent the last decade choosing to do academic research (for much less than one makes in industry), teaching, and donating my evenings to projects that help make it easier for folks to learn science -- because I love it, and think it does a world of good. But, as always, you should critically evaluate any source (including me) before you trust what they say.

All that being said, if (after taking time to sleep on it), you still don't understand why folks might find this project exciting, that's okay too. But now that you've (repeatedly) voiced your very strong opinion, I think there are lots of more productive things we can all do with our time.
Best wishes.

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[this comment has been deleted]

peter jansen wrote a month ago 0 points

I'm not sure what you mean -- the open source science tricorders I've been building for 7 years are clearly very real devices. In the case of this one, the Arducorder Mini, when complete it will have about a dozen different sensing modalities. It's basically a multitool for science, like a swiss army knife. So maybe your question becomes, where would you use a thermal camera? Where would you want to detect radiation? Where would you want to characterize the atmospheric conditions of an environment, or sense potentially harmful gasses? Where would you want to take the spectra of an object? And so on...

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Piotr S wrote a month ago null point

I fully support your Project.
Few things from my Point of View:
The Case Design should be more Handheld like an Remote
And when it comes to remotes. What about an IR Transmitter/Receiver Package?

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peter jansen wrote a month ago 1 point

Hi Piotr, the industrial design shows that the Arducorder Mini is handheld, like a phone or MP3 player?
Could you make a scientific use case for an IR transmitter/receiver? And what wavelength?

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Piotr S wrote a month ago null point

I was considering that IR waves are everywhere.
And you could use it to read signals from Remotes and other IR driven Devices.
With the Transmitter you could even copy those Signals.
Greetings and thanks for the Questions :)

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Fredwordsplat wrote a month ago null point

I Recommend A Voltage Detector With a Detachable Housing and Wireless InfraRed Communications. Like Doctor Bashir uses to Scan Humanoid lifeforms For Injurys.
Image of Scanner :

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Fredwordsplat wrote a month ago null point

I Love The Thought of a Tricorder. I am both a programmer and a Trekker (Star Trek Super Fan!!). I Support This To The Max!!! Epic :)

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matt venn wrote a month ago null point

super inspiring!

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Gasump wrote a month ago null point

I agree with jixijenga; a modular sensor system would be a good idea, that way people can adapt the tricorder to their personal needs. For example - people living near a manufacturing plant that 'smells bad'. They could test for various gases/chemicals that could be harmful to their health. While I don't fear opening up and swapping components, I also think the plug in 'accessory' sensor block is a good idea. There is not much commonality in gas/chemical sensors formats so it would be more difficult to accommodate a wider range of possibilities in the instrument dimensions you are working - which I think is spot on!

But there are new electrochemical sensors (much better for specificity than MOS) available that are about the size of a thumbnail and only 4-5mm thick.

You are doing excellent work, keep it up!

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peter jansen wrote a month ago null point

Thanks Gasump! If you have a look at the project description, video, or the project logs, you'll see that the design is ultra modular with 5 modular sensor boards, 4 of which share a common footprint so that they can be interchanged in position. It should also be relatively easy for someone who's designed an arduino shield to put together their own sensor boards. All of the sensor boards are on the outward surfaces of the device, so if you're willing to make your own case mods, it should be possible to accomodate larger sensors of different dimensions (like those giant gas sensors you mention).

One of the current sensor boards (the atmospheric board) contains sensors for atmospheric temperature, pressure, humidity, as well as three gasses using a tiny sensor similar to the ones you mention -- have a look in the project log Step 2: Concept and Industrial Design for more information.


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Boz wrote 2 months ago null point

Very similar, yet totally different to my project, I've upvoted it just for the awesomeness of what you're trying to achieve.

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Noman wrote 2 months ago null point

Anxiously waiting for the updates and checking project daily I found boards log. Breakout boards for sensors and compatibility of interfacing is cool. Another expansion option might be possible through a converter board that would enable any standard (if there are any standards for these) breakout sensor board from sparkfun or adafruit to plugin to device, or this may be expansion slot?
Capacitative touch wheel is another innovation added and it is impressive. You are not adding ultrasonic sensor due to size limitations but how about adding HB100 doppler motion sensor? Also will the mic would be able to listen to bats?
Sorry for too many questions but that's what strike my mind while reading through.

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peter jansen wrote 2 months ago null point

Hi Norman,
I'm hoping that after the device is completed, that instead of working on building these open source science tricorders, there can be more focus on building new sensing packages for them. I'd love a small distance sensor, but I'm not sure that there are any good options out there yet. The HB100 is interesting, but I think also much too large (I think it's nearly half the size of the Arducorder mini!). It also seems to only measure relative change in motion (like an accelerometer), rather than position.
There really are no standard pinouts for sensor boards from sparkfun or adafruit. But with such a low cost to spin your own sensor board, the barrier to creating your own sensor module is much smaller.

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Jixijenga wrote 2 months ago null point

Noman, Dr. Jansen,

Perhaps later iterations of the tricorder could have a modular sensor system? Like a plug and play type setup, you pop open the housing, unplug the board(s) and then plug in a different one. We've reached an understanding with technology now that upgrading one's computer isn't seen as a daunting and highly technical challenge anymore, it's largely switching out or adding components that conform to a standardized plug or socket. I think that any advancement in this tricorder could benefit greatly from having such a system, rather than defining the capabilities based on packages or defined variants. An end-user, no matter how uninformed they may be, could customize and configure their tricorder for use in their life. Perhaps people sharing a tricorder could have entirely different uses, and require constant switching of sensors.

Or maybe have a USB type getup, where the sensor packages or modules aren't just restricted to a tricorder and can be used in anything that accepts a USB device. I think that would be great, because while a handheld tricorder is cool, (very cool actually) giving basically anyone with a laptop the ability to emulate one would be even better. Especially for people who wouldn't be able to afford the purchase, or construction, of an entirely new device but would benefit from it's functionality. Perhaps the tricorder could have little "ports" where you plug in this small card-like sensor with a USB plug on the end. I'm sure such a modular and truly plug-and-play sensor would be very robust and durable, further enhancing the utility of the tricorder.

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Noman wrote 2 months ago null point

Dear Dr. Jansen, thanks for your kind and informative reply. Yes, BLE and IOS device attachment both have their drawbacks. TechBasic (Basic programming language) skips any need to know IOS programming, I found it easier to use than my aged Casio 880P. I suggested BBB as it is fully opensource and has a small footprint but larger as compared to your mini tricorder version, off-course. I can not wait to see Mini version come to life. I would like to contribute in kind for any component or anything holding it back to come to reality.

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peter jansen wrote 2 months ago null point

Hi Norman,
Thanks for your kind note, and those are good questions. There are a few main thing that limit making this into an open source sensing device that connects with your phone (I've thought about this a bunch of times, as a potentially simpler route to development). One of the main issues is the BLE bandwidth is very limited, only around 1k/second -- way too slow for some of the sensor data. There are also mechanical issues trying to make one device that could mount to different phones (and not obscure the camera), software issues (I'm not an iOS or android programmer), and cost issues (ideally I'd like to make these available for kids, and it'd be unfortunate if the kids also were required to have a $500 phone to pair the sensors with).

I've investigated using different platforms -- the gumstix, the new raspberry pi compute module, and the beagle bone black, just to name a few. The major issues are size and power draw. With this mini version with a motherboard designed from the bottom up for size, portability, modularity, and power efficiency, I've designed it to be small enough to comfortably fit in pocket, and ideally have a lengthy battery life (more than just the hour or so you're likely to get with any of the modules I listed above).

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Noman wrote 2 months ago null point

I am a tricorder enthusiast since childhood. Dr. Jansen, you has come a long way [4 Gen before this 5th Gen device creation! Cool] and doing a great job. Brilliant. To me it is more inspiring and motivating project than any of others.

I am just curious, how about using an "IOS device with TechBasic" as front end while MC+Sensors board connected through BLE doing sensing job? TechBasic is good at graphics and visualization of data. Also how about using BeagleBone Black as main board with LCD Cap?

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