Portable imaging systems

In 1981, IBM introduced its first personal computer. In the space of about 30 years, the PC and the variations that followed can now be found in every office in the world.

Andy Wilson

In 1981, IBM introduced its first personal computer. In the space of about 30 years, the PC and the variations that followed can now be found in every office in the world. Since the first generation of PCs could not perform the tasks of today's multi-core, GHz-based machines, they were relegated to perform tasks such as word processing. Thus PCs took over the functions originally performed on typewriters, machines that had been invented over 100 years before.

Today, with the advent of GHz multi-core processors, PC-based systems are used in multiple applications performing CAD, finite element analysis, inventory management and, of course, machine vision and image processing tasks.

One of the reasons for the success of the PC was its open architecture. Using the PCI Express interface, for example, allows a systems integrator to add to I/O, graphics, memory and frame grabbers to PCs and reconfigure their machines to perform custom tasks. Better still, low-cost implementations of these interfaces implemented in PC-104 architectures allow developers to build vision systems at low-cost (see our article "Small-form-factor frame grabbers enable embedded applications" athttp://bit.ly/WMM2Bk).

Following the development of such products can provide an insight into the future directions ofVision Systems Design. Today, PCs and laptops are being replaced by smaller, portable smart phones and tablets targeted directly towards consumer applications. Game consoles such as the Xbox use multiple processors and operating systems, leveraging off-line servers to perform some processing functions. Peripherals such as Microsoft's Kinect are enabling users to control and interact with the Xbox 360 without the need of a game controller.

Leveraging the processing power and graphical user interfaces of these devices, researchers and hobbyists are building rudimentary imaging systems. Already, a number of projects are transforming iPhones into microscopes, otoscopes, bar-code readers, and IR imagers using the device's Bluetooth wireless interface. Use of the Kinect has also found numerous applications ranging from vision-guided robots, rehabilitation systems and gesture recognition systems for use in surgical theaters.

Unfortunately, those wishing to develop standards–based portable systems around Apple's iPhone are out of luck, since the company has opted to use a proprietary computer bus and connector called Lightning in its latest iPhone 5 smartphone. Pity then, the design engineer who would like to build an embedded vision system that uses the power of the iPhone, its user-friendly interface and processing power in their next design.

While the idea of offering such an interface may not be popular among companies such as Apple, other portable devices that incorporate the Android Linux-based operating system allow developers to attach USB peripherals to their devices. History may be repeating itself (again). Indeed, just as the growth of the PC business evolved from the use of open architectures, so too will the growth of portable imaging systems.

Andy WilsonAndy Wilson, Editor in Chief

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