Spray-on computers

Spray-on computers

Summary: The Speckled Computing consortium in the U.K. is building the Specknet, a network of small computers (5 x 5 x 5 mm), which also contain sensors and can communicate wirelessly with the other specks. But it will probably take ten years before such dynamic sensors can be used in real applications.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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Back in August 2003, I told you that spray-on nanocomputers were coming. Last week, the Discovery Channel gave us an update on this project of the Speckled Computing consortium, a collaboration between researchers from several universities in the U.K. They are building the Specknet, a network of small computers (5 x 5 x 5 mm), which also contain sensors and can communicate wirelessly with the other specks. But it will probably take ten years before such dynamic sensors can be used in real applications, like detecting structural failures in aircraft wings or helping victims from strokes.

Here are the opening paragraphs from the Discovery News article.

Grain-sized semiconductors could one day be sprayed onto surfaces like paint onto walls to give computers access to places previously out of reach.
The so-called Specknet combines sensing, computer processing and wireless communication to link the physical and digital world in a kind of computational aura.

The Specknet is currently under simulation at the Speckled Computing consortium. Its director, D.K. Arvind, who also works at the Institute for Computing Systems Architecture at the University of Edinburgh, tells us more about the tiny computers which compose this network.

"Because they are so small, you can extend computing and sensing to areas that couldn't be reached before."

And he also gives us the reason why these sensors have some processing capabilities.

"The rule of thumb is that it is ten times more expensive to process a byte of data remotely than process it locally."
[So] in a Specknet, each sensor has its own processor, about two kilobytes of memory, and a program that gives it the ability to extract information from the environment, collaborate with other local specks, and act on the data gathered.

Below is a picture of a mockup of one of these Specknet sensors, called the 5CubeOTS, a 5 x 5 x 5 mm sensor node which will be built from off-the-shelf components (Credit: Speckled Computing consortium).

A mockup of a Specknet sensor

And below is another Specknet element, dubbed ProSpeckz for "Programmable Specks over Zigbee radio". This is a prototype which was built in 2004 to enable both the rapid development of Speckz and provide academia and industry with a platform to develop new applications for this emerging technology. The prototype is displayed along with a British two pence coin. (Credit: U-M).

A ProSpeckz prototype

This picture of a ProSpeckz prototype has been extracted from a very interesting technical paper published in the Proceedings of the IEEE International Symposium on Consumer Electronics (ISCE'04, UK, September 2004). Here is a link to this paper called "Speckled Computing: Disruptive Technology for Networked Information Appliances" (PDF format, 5 pages, 803 KB).

And for more information, the Speckled Computing consortium is regularly holding workshops about the advancement of the project. Here is a link to the program of the 4th Workshop in Speckled Computing. And below are links to selected papers which were presented at this workshop.

Sources: Tracy Staedter, Discovery News, November 16, 2005; and various web sites

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Topic: Hardware

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  • Maybe useful in the land of...

    micropeople. I need a human size keyboard, thankyou very much. >;-]
    nix_os_fan