ARM Innovations and the Maker Movement: An interview with Dominic Pajak, Embedded Strategist
I sat down with Dominic Pajak, ARM Embedded Strategist, shortly before Christmas after having watched him “wow” an audience on ARM’s support of the Maker Movement. A long-time ARM engineer and the original product manager for the company’s Cortex®-M0—he’s been in the thick of ARM’s success in low-power microcontrollers, sensors and radios. In his new strategist role, he’s involved with deployment of ARM’s IP into all kinds of cool gadgets and use cases. Oftentimes, he concedes, the journey starts with a Maker who cobbles something together and then drives the prototype to success. Edited excerpts follow.
—Chris “C2” Ciufo, editor
Chris Ciufo: Dominic, are you having fun?
Dominic Pajak: I’ve gone from engineering [ARM] products to working with semiconductor partners…all the way up to talking to people using the end devices. And there are some pretty cool projects being done. So I feel I have been on a journey that is pretty amazing.
I was the product manager for the Cortex-M0. I launched the product and then was very heavily involved in the Cortex-M processor family and later moved into our segment marketing group where we’re focused in vertical markets where the devices are deployed. As the journey goes, in the first part of my marketing career I was launching these microcontroller type cores and [saw them] getting a great deal of traction in low power microcontrollers, and sensors and radios. Now I am focusing more on where they are getting deployed, which is really really interesting.
C2: I watched your recent YouTube video and wonder—how do you define a Maker?
Pajak: From my point of view (and I don’t speak for everyone who considers themselves a Maker), this is really just a “catch all” label for anyone who has a passion or an interest to understand how things around them work and also to create things. They do this either for fun, or for business, or to solve problems in their homes or their communities. It is a really broad term. And it’s not exclusively reserved for a hobbyist. Makers are people who are creating enterprises and products out of [bits and parts] and whatever works.
C2: If that’s what a Maker is, how do you characterize the Maker Movement? Is it a fad?
Pajak: The way I would define it is this: “embedded” by its nature is a long tail type market, just like the emerging IoT market. [Editor’s note: long tail refers to the shift from a few product or market hits, to a huge number of possibly smaller hits stretching out over time. The long tail successes exceed the shorter hits.] There are some very high volume areas within this, such as wearables, smart cities, or building automation in the home, but there is also a long tail of stuff.
The thing about Makers and part of their philosophy is if you rely on other people to make your stuff, then economics of mass production will shape what you get. They often go for the highest volume product, and that is not always going to cover every person’s need. And so the way the Maker Movement would view this is that we now have tools to allow us to prototype and produce stuff in smaller batches to solve problems that are particular to me or to my community.
There are definitely businesses that are possible within this because they are addressing part of this long tail that hasn’t previously been addressed. Examples are 3D printing and rapid protoyping tools. Commercial Drone. Or the Pebble Watch. Of course sometimes these products do become high volume.
But the Maker Movement also includes STEM education along with hobbyists that are just interested in doing stuff for the fun of learning and maybe solving things around their own home. They’re not necessarily entrepreneurs but they would still be classified as Makers. The Maker Movement is very broad, but this is how I see it from my vantage point in ARM.
C2: Can you give me an example of a Maker product that was more than a hobbyist’s project?
Pajak: We have a Kickstarter page on the ARM Connected Community that was launched last week, and I had an interview with Pebble’s CEO and he talks about how in his dorm room he had this idea for a wearable, a connected watch. Then he prototyped it with an Arduino and he raised over $10 million through Kickstarter. This is an example of someone who has taken the accessible technology and platforms to prototype an idea and then has gotten the backing of a lot of people to go and make this thing a reality. It really gives a good picture of how the Maker Movement can be considered the sharp end of where [some] innovations are coming from.
The democratization of technology means these platforms are not just accessible to electronics engineers. People with other disciplines can also get access to them to prototype with, experiment with, and apply technology to new domains. This is where you are seeing crossovers into wearables—like Pebble—into fashion, or into medicine.
One of the notable Kickstarters you will see is a device called the qPCR DNA diagnosis machine. This project is funded to create low-cost DNA diagnosis machines. Some versions of the machine are based on an ARM Cortex-A8 on a BeagleBone Black. This is an accessible platform that people in biomedical sciences have taken to create something which is very disruptive but has really positive transformative potential to do good for society. This isn’t just about pure commercial drivers; there is also a huge human factor.
C2: What is it about ARM and your ecosystem that allows somebody who may not be an engineer, but who may even be an artist, actually create something and achieve such success?
Pajak: We are working to abstract the technology and make it easier, through tools such as mbed™IoT Device Platform. There are several really good reasons for our successes and I’d like to explain. One is about choice and simply the diversity of the different parts the ARM partnership brings to bear. With the Internet of Things (IoT), for example, it isn’t a one size fits all thing: we’re spanning from swallowable medical devices, wearables and implantables, to pet trackers and connected cars, in all sorts of different shapes and sizes.
C2: How has ARM’s low-power reputation aided the Maker Movement?
Pajak: If you take a look at the teardown of any of these leading-edge wearable devices, you will see an ARM-based device inside. People developing these products are pushing back the boundaries of where technology is being applied, and if it is a wearable or a remote IoT device it can be battery powered. That’s an essential metric when they are creating these devices and [trying to] really squeeze down the form factor to something that fits seamlessly and unobtrusively into people’s lives. The battery is really a key concern, and so ARM’s energy-efficient background is well positioned to address pushing the boundaries where this technology has been or is going to be applied.
You see this low-power capability at its most powerful with people from cross disciplines, not just EEs, but also now industrial designers, fashion designers, or product designers. People across many disciplines apply this technology to their domains of expertise and to the problems they see. The diversity that ARM has and the fact that we can offer this low-power capability means they can squeeze [it] into smaller form factors and address the problems very efficiently.
C2: What’s on your list of the top 5 benefits that ARM brings to the Maker community?
Pajak: We just talked about one: diversity and choice.
We also discussed energy efficiency through ARM’s low-power reputation, and this is of huge importance. Crafting your design to the maximum functionality, longest battery life, and at an optimal price point. That comes back to diversity as well because you need the right choice of parts in order to craft your designs. Another one is accessibility. And so, making [all of this] accessible in terms of cost. There are extremely low-cost ARM development boards available today. One of our mbed boards—I believe from Freescale—is $12.00. But it doesn’t end there.
The Raspberry Pi, which is based on ARM11™ Broadcom parts, I hear can be purchased for as low as $25.00 for the Model A+. Raspberry Pi is a fantastic vehicle, and has a very respectable mission in education by giving access to computing at a low cost. You have Arduino, which is extremely famous for bridging the world of electronics and design. And you’ll have seen this year they launched the Arduino Zero, which is based on ARM Cortex-M0+. They have the Arduino Due, which is an ARM Cortex-M3. And then the Tre, which is going to be ARM Cortex-A8. So ARM offers accessibility to Makers through lots of different easy-to-use vehicles; people can get hold of ARM technology and innovate around it.
C2: You’ve mentioned three benefits. Is ARM’s position in mobile a big factor?
Pajak: Absolutely. Another key benefit to Makers has to be our position in mobile. That’s a springboard to so many things we offer to embedded Makers. ARM is the global leader in these low-power connected devices. We have an extremely well established position in mobile and embedded. Last year alone, the ARM partners shipped 10 billion ARM-based chips. Which is a lot of chips. 3 billion were Cortex-M actually, so we shipped more than that into the overall embedded markets because we span from low-powered Cortex-M and up to Cortex-A which is more suitable for these richer interactive kind of media nodes.
So this industry-proven technology invites some reuse, for certain. Chris Anderson, who is a former writer and Editor-in-Chief of Wired and now is the CEO of 3DR, makes a very interesting point about the economies of scale of mobile. The investment that ARM has made with its partners into efficient computing for mobile has a lot of reuse in the Internet of Things types of markets (such as wearables).
C2: So is there a 5th benefit? Would you maybe include your ecosystem of partners?
Pajak: That is where I was going to go. So, obviously software is vital to these systems. It’s one thing to stitch the hardware together into your vision, but people still need an ecosystem of tools and OS providers to span all this stuff. Giving people choice in hardware is fantastic, but having software on a standard architecture makes it incredibly powerful.
If you were to look at the plans around mbed that were announced at TechCon, you will see there’s already a very strong ecosystem around this—spanning from sensor providers, communications providers giving Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellular, all the way right up to account service providers. And so, it’s important for this generation of IoT devices where we know that Makers want their end devices to integrate communications and sensors and they expect to compute very quickly. But we also know they want to connect [the bits] seamlessly, securely and efficiently for the Cloud. This is very much the focus of mbed, and you will see we’ve got some really fantastic announcements and products coming down the line.
By the way, security is front-and-center of the way they’re approaching this and actually [the mbed] approach brings the same class of security you would use for your banking on the Internet down to these constrained devices.
C2: Earlier, you said you were excited about ARM and your job. Why?
Pajak: Certainly the most exciting part to me is that while the typical person on the street doesn’t know what a microcontroller is, they may now know what Arduino is. And that is incredibly powerful because suddenly no matter what your discipline might be—artist or designer, for example—you can understand the power of the physical computing that might bring to your particular application area. The other exciting thing is helping educate people on the fact that computing is now so low cost, so small, so potentially “embeddable” in all these different products. This is an interesting point in history actually, where the technology is crossing over to all these disciplines. And ARM is right in the thick of it.
C2: Wearables is one of the first to have emerged from that.
There are other examples. Technology is bringing efficiencies to systems that were probably fixed in the past like garbage collection, making maintenance rounds or the trucks that are going around filling oil tanks. One example I heard was in Minnesota, where the oil delivery truck knows the customer’s tank status in advance [remotely] so the route can be optimized to make sure the people who need the oil most get their tanks serviced and are kept warm. With this technology-enabled optimization, it also burns less fuel in the delivery fleet. But there are countless examples of this kind of efficiency and how technology is democratizing the status quo.
C2: What are some of the technologies still needed to keep the Movement going?
Pajak: There’s a need for open standards for device communication, and interoperability is necessary to allow this trend to scale. Although not a technology per se, I think education is a big one. And the approaches that are going to be required of the future development of the Internet of Things and these kinds of interactive, interconnected devices is very different in some ways from traditional embedded engineering.
Now you need to be paying more attention to how [your design] is interacting with an Internet-connected system. You need to be thinking more about interaction design with the environment and with people, and it’s really the human element that is critical here. We have to think about the value it is bringing businesses and the experiences it’s bringing to people. I think more of a rounded perspective is needed, not just from the technical perspective.
It’s also essential to be aware of what data is being generated and how can it best be formatted, especially targeting big data analytics. Some other questions that we need to educate system designers and Makers on is: How can we optimize a bigger system? How can we integrate with the existing IT systems that enterprises have? There is a need for a much more broader view when you’re connecting these products.
C2: Any last thoughts?
Pajak: Two things. One that is fresh in my mind is last week we launched a curated page on Kickstarter.com, and to me this is amazing because there are 50 independent projects that are are basically start-ups, entrepreneurs. Some of them are small- to medium-size enterprises that have cool projects and they have just chosen to use ARM. They’ve just evaluated the technology, and the optimal solution is available from ARM partners, so they’ve based their products on it. Some of these products are absolutely amazing. One is FLUX, which is a 3D printer and scanner. So you put an object in there and it will scan it and then it will print it.
The other thing is how traditional product R&D is being supplemented and sometimes supplanted by a Maker approach. Just look at the amount of VC funding going into hardware startups, especially after Kickstarter campaigns. Crowdfunding has revolutionized the way the product design is happening. It can be far more nimble to have your idea and put it out to a consumer base and immediately get feedback, immediately get buy-in for that product to be funded. It strikes me that this methodology is not just for the startups and the hobbyist. This is something that major companies are looking at very seriously as a means to innovate more quickly.
This article was sponsored by ARM.