Tag: iPhone

It only took 4 years, but I finally found enough time to build a new mobile app and update an existing one. Things have been busy to the point where my weeknights are taken up with other things, and any software development has to be done during the day. Sometime last year I had another idea for a mobile app utility and decided to build it properly to learn about Android store processes and online advertising. Here’s what I built and how the process worked.

Log – flexible data tracking

Like the name says, this is the app idea I came up with last year to solve a problem I couldn’t find an existing app for. It’s a data journal that provides the ability to create custom streams of data and track those over time. The streams can contain multiple inputs like numbers, text or dates, and get added to the list. For example, track driving trip distance or count the number of times you go to the gym. It’s all manual and offline.

Learn a lot more about it at thelogapp.com.



Equation Library

This was an app I wrote back in 2014 and it received a surprising number of downloads. I ended up not having enough time to commit to its maintenance and let it sit for too long. Recently I reviewed the tech needed for it to work and decided it was new enough that I could do that. So I spent a few evenings rebuilding it with the latest SDK and made some improvements.

The application itself works by including a number of math categories that have equations I’ve collected from my textbooks and online sources. Each equation can solve for the primary variable and most provide the ability to solve for additional variables. My hope is that as people use it and start to request categories I can slowly build a much larger database. Fortunately the new system is much easier to update and maintain than it was previously.

The hard part comes after

If you’re proficient at mobile development, building the apps themselves isn’t that difficult. I wanted to use the process of updating the apps to learn about online marketing and advertising, so it turns out that the hard part is just getting noticed. I think the market has shifted significantly since I started building small utilities in 2011 and I’m surprised at how much people don’t want to spend on apps now. So far targeting ads with Facebook and Google has not resulted in many sales, but I’m still learning so hopefully that starts going up as I do more.

Give the apps a try!

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Finished product
My apartment uses baseboard heaters and anyone who’s paid for hydro can tell you, they’re pretty inefficient. I wanted to collect some information about the inside conditions of my apartment so that I could better understand when and how to turn the heaters on. Normally a simple thermostat would do, or even a Nest, but my equipment is so basic, there is no read out available.

So I built my own. Here’s what I did.

In high level terms, I have an Arduino UNO using a WiFi shield and custom PCB connected to a DHT22 temperature and humidity sensor and photocell. This information is sent to data.sparkfun.com and is displayed in snapshot, table and graph form on my iPhone.

Setting up the Arduino

The components with the Arduino are all fairly well known, but I had not made anything with them together. Here are the parts and links to where to get them

I put them together on a breadboard and build the code. I can provide code if interested, but essentially I assembled individual modules in order to upload the data every 5 minutes. As far as the program goes, it’s laid out like this

  1. Include all libraries — this uses DHT, Timer, Wifi, SPI WifiClient, WifiServer and medianFilter
  2. Define base variables — Wifi shield configuration, website, pins, etc
  3. Create objects — Timer, client, server, filters
  4. run setup() — set pin modes, connect to Wifi and set the timers
  5. loop() only updates the timer
  6. Every 30 seconds all sensors are read and added to a filter
  7. Every 5 minutes the filtered data is sent to data.sparkfun.com

Creating a circuit

schematicA breadboard is fun for prototyping, but it wouldn’t look so good on a shelf, so I took the opportunity to test out a new PCB manufacturing website by building my own circuit. The pinouts of all components is fairly easily available online, or better yet, in EAGLE itself. The board doesn’t have many pieces, just some 0.1″ header holes, but the tricky bit is making sure that there are no pin conflicts with the Wifi shield.

Moving to a PCB

environmental_board
EAGLE provides a nice way to import a schematic to a board, and since I started with an Adafruit shield piece, there was a nice outline ready for me. At that point it was a matter of making sure that all traces have clean paths and there are 5V and GND planes.

1-IMG_7920
4-IMG_7930
3-IMG_7924
I tried a PCB service previously called OSHPark.com but was unhappy with the cost and lead time required. A friend pointed me towards dirtypcbs.com and that turned out to be a great choice. The name is basically entirely what you get: printed circuit boards at affordable prices, with a very reasonable 1 week lead time. I was also impressed with the shipping from China, as it was no more than an additional week with DHL. That’s 2 weeks for 10 custom boards.

Displaying it all on a phone

The data is sent to data.sparkfun.com, which provides a nice free way to store key-value data (eg. temperature=25,humidity=38, etc) and a way to retrieve it. During the day I work for a mobile software company, so building something to retrieve the data was fairly straightforward. I ended up with a way to view different properties in the latest data, table and graph form.
IMG_1565
This is the home page where the latest data point is displayed front and centre, along with the time it was retrieved. The time is relative, so a timer runs every second to indicate how old it is, but clicking the label shows the actual timestamp. Below that is some related information that might be useful: the 24 hour high value, 24 hour low value, and the current outside temperature according to forecast.io.
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Additionally the menu button at the top left presents a slide out “hamburger menu” that can switch between the different properties collected.
IMG_1570
The middle tab shows the last hour of data in table format and as you scroll downward, will load the next block from Core Data. In order to keep the actual internet request simple, the app retrieves the timestamp of the most recent datapoint and only requests points from Sparkfun that are after that. All points are stored in Core Data and loaded on demand.
IMG_1567
Finally the right most tab shows a graph of whatever property is displayed at the time, with options for last 4 hours, last day or last 4 days. At first I had last hour but I realized the data I was collecting wasn’t really changing in that time frame so it was largely useless.

For the most part the graphs are consistent, with my heater keeping the temperature at about 19-20C through the day. The light graph is very interesting because it clearly shows when the light goes off and how sunlight filters through the curtains in the morning.

Next plans

There’s one thing I’d change about the PCB design, and that would be to replace the fixed photo cell resistor with a potentiometer to adjust the threshold. Right now I’m using a 16k ohm (I think, something about 10k) and that produces a nice range between full bright and darkness, but it would be good to adjust as required.

With the data collected, I’d like to now make use of it somehow. You might notice how the board has 4 pins showing “relay” on it, which is so that I can connect an AC relay and control my lights or humidifier. Ultimately I’d like to work in some geocoding to my app so that I never come home to a dark apartment and have my light be smarter so that it doesn’t turn off while I’m still at my desk.

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Screenshot 2014.01.30 20.57.11As part of my 2014 challenge to become proficient at robotics, I’m building a robot. I’ll be documenting whatever I can here to share what I learn, and to start I’m looking at control systems. Since my day job is developing iOS applications, it was natural to look at ways of using my iPhone to control and monitor the robot and to do that I developed a library for communicating between iOS and ROS.

Robot Operating System (ROS) is an open source software package that works above the core operating system to provide communication and processing for the different components a robot might have. It has a very large user community and is used by a variety of robots in many different industries. It was also mentioned in the job description I was targeting.

ROS uses “nodes”, which are independent software blocks that connect to the ROS subsystem and communicate with each other. Many different nodes have been contributed by users in the community, from PID controllers to GPS signal analyzers, and one of those is ROSBridge. ROSBridge, like the name suggests, creates an interface to ROS using an industry-standard JSON format inside a websocket. This provides a very easy way for a variety of platforms to create robot controllers.

My library, called RBManager (the RB is for ROSBridge), is a wrapper for the SocketRocket websocket library in iOS. I’ve followed the standard publisher/subscriber/service call architecture to send packets compatible with the ROSBridge Protocol and make it easy to send packets and control your robot. The GitHub page provides a general overview of the structure, but I wanted to take this point to provide a more detailed example project.

To follow along, you’ll need to have a reasonable grasp of ROS concepts and know your way around Xcode and the iOS SDK. We’ll be using the standard turtlesim node. Some things I’ll skip through so it’s probably a good idea if you’ve built an iOS app before.

Prerequisites

Download RBManager on GitHub

Installation

Open Xcode and create a new empty application, with a single view controller. We’ll keep it simple and contain everything into one view. Add the RBManager files to the project, along with the SocketRocket library and import RBManager.h to the header file of your view controller.

Set up header variables and methods

How the view is laid out is up to you, but below are some of the RBManager related objects and methods that should be added to the header file. UI objects are suggestions for outputting the subscriber data.

The labels are largely self explanatory — they will be updated with the current position/velocity of the turtle simulator. The RBSubscriber and RBServiceCall objects are provided by the library and provide access to make those calls to ROSBridge.

Introduction to Messages

Messages are the core object that ROS returns from subscribers and RBManager has an RBMessage type that you override to be able to send and receive data in an object-oriented way. There are lots of messages included in ROS but you can also create your own. To see how to do that in RBManager, take a look at the header file VectorMessage.h

VectorMessage, which has the form std_msgs/Vector3 in ROS, is a basic object with properties for the keys that ROS expects. By doing it this way, it’s very easy to use Key-Value-Coding to populate a message object inside each subscriber. Some of the standard messages are included already but creating your own type is as easy as specifying the property type and name. You can even use nested messages like TwistMessage, which is what turtlesim uses and is shown below.

By calling publish, you can get back the NSDictionary representation of the message object. This method is included in the top level RBMessage object and uses KVC to get the property list.

If your message object includes additional properties that are not in the ROS message type, you should override publish directly.

Connecting and Disconnecting

RBManager behaves as a singleton, by referencing [RBManager defaultManager]. This prevents multiple instances from being created. To connect to ROSBridge, it’s as easy as calling

where ws://robot.local:9090 is the IP of your robot. The default port of ROSBridge is 9090, but that can be changed. Disconnecting is just as simple, by calling

Adding Publishers and Subscribers

Handling the publishing process is RBPublisher. After this object is added to the manager, it is automatically advertised to ROS and you can push messages through. To create the object, in the case of turtlesim, use the following method

In this case, the topic is /turtle1/cmd_vel and the message type is geometry_msgs/Twist, which are both expected by ROS. The label property is just a handy way of differentiating multiple publishers, if you have more than one created. Put this declaration inside the view controller init method and they will be automatically advertised when you connect the socket. If you want to manually un/advertise the publisher afterwards, you would use these methods

Subscribers behave in a similar fashion. They are added to the manager and subscribed automatically when the socket is opened. The primary difference is that subscribers also take a callback to receive messages that ROS publishes. In the case of turtlesim, that would look like this

Here turtlePoseUpdate: is the method in the view controller that will receive the message update, and it only has one parameter. The ROS topic of /turtle1/pose is generated by turtlesim and it provides a message of type PoseMessage. By providing the class type, RBManager can create and populate the correct message. As seen by the ROSBridge specification, the throttleRate is the interval at which ROS will send a message, in milliseconds. This is to prevent overloading the receiver.

Here is what a valid init and subscriber method would look like inside the view controller

Sending Messages

Using an iPhone with ROSBridge is advantageous because the iPhone has an abundance of sensors that are great for controlling robots. That means sending and receiving messages are a very important component. Doing that with RBManager is fairly straightforward. After connecting and advertising a publisher, create a new message object and submit it.

In this case, xAngle and zAngle are calculated from the accelerometer. If everything is connected after this, you’ll start to see the turtle move.

Using Service Calls

Service calls are important components for monitoring and updating robot configurations. In the case of turtlesim, this includes changing the background, changing the colour of the pen and killing and spawning turtles. You can think of service calls like publishing a message without content, although some calls do return data. RBManager handles both cases, but doesn’t require adding the object to the queue.

The calls are not sent immediately because this allows you to assign additional parameters, like the id. The first example shows sending a call without any parameters. The selector is the callback when the response is returned. When there is no data expected back, the most useful thing to get from the response is a success true/false.

Related to service calls is the process for assigning parameters. These are essentially wrapped service calls that call directly to the ROS API. In turtlesim, this is used to change the background colour

Although the actual service call uses arrays, it’s unfortunately not possible to include more than one parameter at a time so you have to make 3 separate calls.

That is a detailed, but still pretty open example about integrating RBManager into an iOS application. With the touchscreen and motion sensors, it’s pretty easy to now direct your robot to follow a path on the map or move in relation to the accelerometer position. Hopefully this library can make developing and building robots more efficient so please show me what you build with it! If you find an issue, create a ticket on GitHub or comment below and I’ll look into it. I’ll be continuing to develop it over time, particularly when my robot project actually makes use of it.

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Towards the end of school in April, I got in contact with a classmate who was connected to iPhone development, and in September I started working full time for them. It’s been really cool to see how apps actually progress from ideas to real products, because so many people use them, but only a small percentage actually understand the mechanics of how the apps get onto their phones.

I mostly did some feature additions to existing apps to get to know Objective-C and the iOS environment, but during a recent road trip, I created an app that has just entered the App store. A small utility, it serves a need that I could have used many times on the trip.

It’s called Here’s My Location and it gives you the ability to alert friends and family to your exact GPS location through email and SMS. There are similar applications out in the store already, but I think this one has the right combination of simplicity and utility that many people like.

To use the app, open it and wait for the GPS accuracy indicator to go green. This little badge changes based on the accuracy of the phone’s current location: red for inaccurate, yellow for moderate, and green for accurate to approximately 5-10m (the iPhone’s limit). You can send a message using the top two blue buttons, or copy the formatted Google Maps link to the pasteboard to use in another application.

It’s really a simple start, but I hope that through user feedback I can add other requested features in the future.

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The newest version of Apple’s iPhone operating system was released a few weeks ago, and since I made the upgrade to my first-gen iPod touch, I’ve been using the system off and on. It does an excellent job of polishing what was already a very good system. Since I haven’t been using it consistently yet, I’m going to hold off on a real “review” until I have a chance to go through it more.

Briefly, here are the main things that Apple has brought to this update (which are all available in detail on Apple’s website):

Cut, Copy and Paste
Copy and paste text, images and other items from one application to another. Should be a great benefit when browsing the internet, Twittering or sending email messages. Very basic implementation, which only requires you to hold your finger over the screen, slide the in and out points, and choose from the menu.

Landscape mode in more applications
A controversial move by Apple with the original iPhone was the onscreen keyboard and many users seemed to resist the device because of it. While the original iPhone did have the ability to use the full width of the screen for the keyboard, many primary applications did not include this feature, which made typing significantly easier and more accurate. Apple seems to have addressed this by enabling the landscape mode in more of the built in applications. Mail, Notes, Messages (on the iPhone) and Safari all get the landscape treatment, with better support for 3rd party applications as well.

Full Spotlight searching
This is a feature I have noticed in my brief time using the new software. Usually, when on a secondary home screen, a press of the Home button brings you back to the primary screen. Now, once you are on the primary screen, another press of the Home button brings up the Spotlight screen, which a basic search field. Start typing, and every match is added to the results below the text box. In fact, it operates almost identically to the Spotlight function on Mac OS X. Additionally, this search field is now present in more applications like Mail, Music and Videos.

Other features include MMS messaging, internet tethering, better automatic WiFi login and Voice and Video recording (when using the new iPhone 3G S).

With more time spent on the new iPhone software, I’m sure I’ll find out more about the hidden bonuses and add-ons. From what I’ve seen so far, it is a worthy update and is definitely recommended for nearly all users.

Happy birthday to me!

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