by Steven K. Roberts
Nomadic Research Labs
Santa Clara, California
March 4, 1996

Hello from the Microship lab! The recent increase in forward momentum has continued unabated, and the Development Team Meeting/Party Rev 1.0 this past Saturday was a remarkable swirl of energy and interesting conversation. If I don’t watch out, this project will take on a life of its own and proceed faster than I can keep track of it! (Yah, I know, wishful thinking… 😉

Anyway, about 30 people showed up at the lab and plunged immediately into an 8-foot table laden with edible goodies, a tub o’ brew, and various other delights. For the first hour, random conversations and show ‘n tells dominated the scene; then I took the floor, called for a round of self-introductions (this typically ho-hum activity turned out to be brisk, interactive, and humorous), then gave a brief overview of the project. We then returned to the informality of small groups, with new alliances forming, old ones rekindled, and many an interesting idea tossed about. Over and over, I was astounded by the range of experience and creativity present… despite all the traffic and noise of Silicon Valley, it’s home to a critical mass of hackers and techies unmatched anywhere. I can think of no better place to complete this insanely complex project.

Microship Dev Team Meeting – 1996 from Steven K Roberts.

While the party was going on, Gary and Michael Fariss decided to modify the talk-to-do ratio, and set to work running an AppleTalk and phone cable between office and lab with the help of Dave Wright. Another one off the list… thanks, guys!

The Virtual Cockpit Project

Meanwhile, other projects are proceeding offsite. In Issue #97, I mentioned John Labovitz in Seattle; he’s been joined by Ohad Aloni in New Jersey on the integration of the Microship data collection stream into a web-browseable database. Over the years, I’ve envisioned this as a way to compare related data channels as overlaid time-series plots for educational purposes; now that we have the Web and more interesting graphic tools, we are carrying the idea quite a bit further.

Basically, the goal here is to create a sort of virtual cockpit with live updates, reminiscent in style to the various flight simulator games on the market. A “windshield” will show the latest forward-looking video frame-grab; clicking on that will show the previous few (or best) archived images. A button somewhere nearby will allow cycling through the other 5 onboard cameras, each of which is routed through the video crossbar node and scheduled through an AppleScripted JPEG-generating background frame grabber on one of the Macs — with the compressed snaps sent via scripted Eudora over any available comm path to our web server. (Yes, update frequency will depend on accessible bandwidth at the moment and whether or not we have to pay for it! We’ll also have to figure out how to handle the fact that the cameras may capture any random moment in our lives in addition to surrounding scenery; I don’t want to feel the need to add a big “click here if you’re over 18 and agree to the following, blah, blah…” splash page to our server!)

Similarly, a second major window on the server will show basic position data, with a background chart segment (zoomable) overlaid with an icon indicating our current location. (See the MBARI site for an example of this.) Related tools will show recent ground track and other GPS-derived data. With scanned worldwide nautical charts available from DF Crane that can live on the server, this should require minimal network bandwidth — with PACTOR or similar over HF quite sufficient if the satellite services are unavailable or outside the current power/financial budgets.

The rest of the screen will appear as an array of live instruments, including the usual nautical data (speed, depth, compass, wind, etc), water quality (temp, salinity, pH, turbidity), meteorological data (pressure, temp, humidity, radiation, ozone, UV), and extensive internal data collection (battery and solar performance, rigging stresses, enclosure pressures and temps, security violations, tank levels, and so on). These will update as often as the link permits, with time-stamped data collected by the Hub handed off to the Mac, formatted, and emailed like the GPS strings over the appropriate physical network connection to a monster database running on our server (or one linked to it). Clicking any of the instruments will access a history plot (probably with a form, again somewhat like MBARI’s, that allows user-selection of the time range and other channels to overlay).

Our plan is to start bringing this online almost immediately, gradually adding live channels from the lab as they become available. It’s funny… on the bike trip, well over a decade ago <panic>, I remember fantasizing about this sort of thing, never genuinely believing that the tools would soon be in place and universally available!

Turret, Hypertalk, Solar, & Trailer

We have a few other bits of progress to report…

Ever since UCSD engineering students Robert Lipsett, Nathan Parker, and Alex Burmester collectively brought the video turret from concept to reality, I’ve been meaning to polish it up, finish the cabling, and bolt on the sealed acrylic cylinder. I finally got to it the other day, and it’s now quiet and smooth… finished but for an internal reflective coating to prevent going into solar-oven mode and a remote-zoomable outdoor color camera (we’ll move the Sharp to the main console). One other glitch… as a burn-in, I left it scanning at speed 7 during the party Saturday, and after a few hours the color camera quit. Not sure yet if it’s the camera or the power-control circuit… hopefully the latter.

Ted Kaehler, one of the early pioneers of HyperCard, came over a few nights ago and made quite a bit of progress on the serial handlers via the CommConnect XCMD. We’re still not sure this XCMD is the right tool for the job… sending is easy and reliable, but interactively communicating at 9600 baud with the Hub is not yet smooth. This is our first progress on this front since my first HyperCard-FORTH project a year ago, and Ted wrote some test handlers that will significantly aid development as we prepare to build the full set of front-end tools.

The highly critical solar array design is again on center stage, and the problem with having too many dangling connectors has convinced me that the right approach is a folding array of 8 panels, each consisting of two 30-watt modules in series, with a 16-pin Impulse waterproof connector carrying the 8 pairs to the peak power tracker and switch-mode charger for the 24V battery bank. (Lots of pins, yes, but it lets us reconfigure the array and also individually monitor panel performance.) I made a quarter-scale model yesterday with duct-tape hinges and wire routing mockup, and it looks reasonable… they can be retracted and strapped in place as a 20x48x8″ stack, or removed completely and stashed in a dedicated lockable hatch in the nearest ama. We have yet to figure out how to securely fasten them to the tramps when deployed, and how much structure and additional support will be required (the more we have, the thinner the foam-core panels can be). Matt Switzer, a composites wiz from NASA, has been giving us insights into vacuum bagging and material selection for this layup.

The latest update in the trailer department is interesting… all along, I’ve been planning to integrate haulout wheels to let us escape the water in emergencies, though the point loads involved in making this roadworthy would restrict it to walking speed. At the same time, we’ve been seeking a new “real” trailer for general hauling use. Faun had the idea last night of building the “real” trailer out of the lightest possible materials, and allowing it to be disassembled and stashed on-board ship. This would totally solve the mobility problem anywhere in the world, eliminate expensive flatbed rentals and lifts for emergency moves, and generally be, well, cool. But it also severely impacts the weight budget. I just spoke with David Berkstresser at length about this and he feels it’s possible with careful material choices and good design… so we may yet maximize our stone-to-bird ratio on land-mode handling tools!

Pointers To Other Technomads

Finally, this is a good time to mention that the number of technomads and adventurers out there is steadily growing. Our Web site carries more and more pointers to other folks building wondrous machines, from Karen Howarth with the Global Green Cat in the UK to a fellow I just heard from this morning, Perry Stone of Vancouver, who is preparing to pedal across the Pacific. Dan Buettner’s MayaQuest is in full swing, now in Palenque, Mexico, with interesting and well-written reports online via PowerBooks and InmarSat terminal. High-school student Ralph Forsythe in Colorado is computerizing a kayak, and, well, they’re suddenly everywhere! It seems I hear at least once a week from someone else networking from a bicycle, motorcycle, RV, boat, or backpack…

For more pointers to interesting characters on the move, check our web site and the one Faun manages for Expedition News. Physical location really is becoming less relevant…