Sun Microsystems in May will offer a Java-based development kit for sensors that is intended to help researchers invent new uses for the devices.
The development kit for Project Sun Small Programmable Object Technology (Sun SPOT) could help pave the way for small sensors to be used in robotics, medical sensing, agriculture or package-delivery monitoring and other areas, senior director at Sun Labs, Roger Meike, said.
The company demonstrated Sun SPOT last year but wants to spread the technology to researchers now so they can exploit the potential of sensors.
Mieke compared sensors to the Internet before the invention of the Web browser. Senors can capture visual, movement, temperature and other information and communicate one-to-one or in networks.
"We have a lot more ideas for what to do with this than we can possibly follow up on," he said.
Sun SPOT was powered by a J2ME (Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition) virtual machine written almost entirely in Java, and it could be used for applications that run directly on the sensor's processor, without an underlying embedded operating system as is typically used in sensors today, Mieke said.
The development platform Sun will sell to researchers has the Java virtual machine (JVM) on a battery-powered processor board with an ARM central processing unit (CPU), RAM, Flash memory, a 2.4GHz radio and a USB interface.
Sun will offer a kit with two of the boards, plus a simpler one just for networking, for a list price of $US499. Sun also will supply Java libraries its labs have developed for sensor devices.
Java was easier to work with than are typical embedded OSes, and there were more programmers trained to use it, Meike said.
In addition, a JVM that controlled the CPU directly could do a better job of managing battery use as power needs change, which was critical for sensors that would be left unattended for a long time, he said. And when it comes time to develop a hardware module to plug into a sensor device, drivers don't have to be written for the embedded OS.
Using the kit, a Java programmer could relatively easily build a device to be attached to someone's arm that would sense arm movements and transmit them to a robot arm that would move the same way, Mieke said. They could use a simple command from a Java library that would tell the robot arm's motor to move to a certain position, hiding the complexity of programming a series of tiny pulses that would move the motor.
Hardware component makers will gradually develop better radios, sensors and batteries and miniaturise them, but Sun Labs wanted to provide a good software foundation, easy-to-use development tools and software security and scalability for sensors, Mieke said.
Some system manufacturers were interested in Sun SPOT, but Sun was specifically targeting universities and other labs with the development platform because there was so much research going on in this area now, he said.
"The platform is there to inspire." Mieke said.