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Introducing a new corporate member: Parallax Inc.

Parallax Inc. recently joined ATEA as a corporate member. This privately owned company in Rocklin, California designs and manufactures microcontroller development tools, sensors, and robots for engineers, educational institutions, and hobbyists. At its heart, Parallax strives to foster innovation by making technology accessible to the common person. This home-grown company was founded in 1987 by a young inventor named Chip Gracey, and his friend Lance Walley.

Chip Gracey, Young Inventor

In 1980, Chip's father Chuck brought home an Apple II computer and a green text monitor from work for the weekend. Twelve-year-old Chip was fascinated, writing BASIC code to display graphics and removing the case to see the electronic components. The computer had to return to his father's office every Monday, leaving Chip time to plan the next weekend's project. At the time, Chip's fascination with the computer and its electronics seemed novel to his parents. They had no idea that it would lead to Parallax, Inc, now in its 21st year, and the invention of the BASIC Stamp microcontroller, a computer brain found in many electronic products, projects and inventions.

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The following year, Chip had his first formal introduction to programming and electronics with the Timex Sinclair computer. His junior high computer teacher Bob Wofford not only taught programming, but digital logic, as well, some of which Chip would apply to projects only years later. At home, Chip began dismantling video game object code and household electronics, trying to use these devices for new purposes. Hobby became vocation; by the time he was a freshman in high school, Chip was running a small business called Innovative Software Engineering from his bedroom.

After high school graduation, Chip and his fledgling business already had so much momentum that he and friend Lance Walley decided to start Parallax from their bedrooms within their parents' homes. Lance brought practical skills in writing, graphics and programming to the team. Lance was later responsible for arranging company infrastructure, creating some of his own technical products and writing documentation to make Chip's creations sellable.

Their first products included memory cards and sound digitizers for the Apple IIgs. Soon after, they started making development tools to help programmers utilize inexpensive single-chip computers. In 1990 Parallax released Microchip's first 3rd party PIC Programmer. This product grew quickly to include the Mathias emulator. While the first version of the PIC Programmer was sold to Microchip, the subsequent revision sold 12,000 units over the next six years.

Building on this experience, Chip designed the original BASIC Stamp microcontroller module, released in early 1993. This PIC-based single-board computer, the size of a postage stamp, was the easy-to-use rapid prototyping tool that they had always wanted in order to do their own hobby projects. It let ordinary people program a microcontroller in a simple language for the first time, and gave them amazingly useful I/O commands that made it easy to connect to other electronic components. It became a popular problem-solving tool in science and industry, with a learning curve right for students and hobbyists. Today there are eight BASIC Stamp models with expanded feature sets, six of which were actually designed by Chip's dad, using Basic Stamp II code as a starting point.

Developing an Education Program

Chip's brother Ken Gracey joined the company, and in 1998 launched the Stamps in Class program for teaching basic programming, electronics, and robotics, things the brothers would have loved when they were in school. The program's hardware base is a BASIC Stamp 2 module on the Board of Education PCB, which provides built-in prototyping, power and programming connections. This platform pairs with component kits and tutorials. Authors include Dr. Tracy Allen of EME Systems, and Martin Hebel and Will Devenport of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Parallax soon brought Andy Lindsay into the company as an in-house engineer/author. Typically, students begin with Andy's gateway texts "What's a Microcontroller?" and "Robotics with the Boe-Bot" then move up to other topics in robotics, analog and digital signals, sensor systems, or industrial process control.

To help teachers get off to a good start, Parallax staff travel around the country and abroad to hold hands-on BASIC Stamp Educator's courses. They found that educator's backgrounds varied widely. Early on, they would meet veteran solid-state electronics teachers with no programming experience, computer programming instructors who had never wired up a breadboard circuit, and instructors from shop and mathematics departments who were unexpectedly reassigned to technology. Seeing that many of their teacher-customers would be learning right alongside with their students, they revised their books to a step-by-step format that supports both classroom use and independent learners.

They kept many of their kits bread-board-based with common through-hole components so students become comfortable building prototyping circuits the way an engineer might, rather than making the kits entirely foolproof. Learning from mistakes as well as successes can be regarded as a necessary workplace skill, as is building circuits from schematics. Open platforms also allow students to continue where the tutorials leave off, building inventions of their own.

Stamps in Class has grown and the company has diversified to add sensors, displays, motor controllers, robots, and RF communication accessories. Today millions of BASIC Stamp modules can be found worldwide, in classrooms, scientific expeditions, manufacturing plants, consumer products, and countless hobbyist projects. If you would like to see how secondary and vocational schools, colleges, and universities have utilized Parallax products, visit the Education page at www.parallax.com/SIC and browse through the Winner's Circle, Testimonials, and Education Customer Applications links. For science, industry and hobby examples, try the Resources page's Customer Applications link.

Parallel Programs and the Propeller Chip

Over the last decade, students have become increasingly tech-savvy, blithely juggling their laptops, game systems, camera phones and MP3 players. But for our country to thrive in the changing global economy, we need students to be more than consumers--we need leaders in innovation. Parallax continues to create new technologies that foster innovation. While Ken was busy expanding the Stamps in Class program and diversifying the company's product offerings, Chip was developing an entirely unique microcontroller from scratch, the Propeller chip.

The Propeller chip is a multiprocessor with eight built-in parallel processors that can operate simultaneously, both cooperatively and independently. Each processor, called a cog, has its own memory and built-in counter and video driver modules. A central hub gives each cog exclusive access to shared memory in a round-robin fashion. The cogs all operate on the same system clock, allowing for deterministic timing of program execution. Programming is object based, with a community library available on the Propeller Object Exchange (www.obex.parallax.com).

One might think that dealing with eight processors on one chip would further complicate embedded system design. The opposite proves true; with the Propeller chip it is possible to break down an application into manageable components, and delegate each task or peripheral to a cog as needed. The top-level program object can then direct and coordinate the interaction among the components, making system integration ultimately less complicated than with conventional microprocessors. This capability can actually speed up development. We anticipate that the Propeller chip will prove uniquely useful to higher education as well as industry, allowing students to more quickly realize complex projects without having to master multiple devices, thus freeing up time for additional experimentation cycles.

Along these lines, Parallax is growing a new educational branch based on the Propeller chip. Andy Lindsay is writing a series of Propeller Education Labs that introduce the chip's unique architecture and parallel programming in a step-by-step fashion with a variety of common components. The labs are written for use with either of two breadboard-based Propeller Education kits. One uses a 40-pin Propeller chip; EEPROM, voltage regulators, timing crystal and programming connections are built separately. This option allows for inexpensive replacement of any component. The other uses a PropStick USB, a module similar to a BASIC Stamp in that the Propeller processor, EEPROM, voltage regulator and timing crystal are built onto a small PCB that fits into the breadboard. Since the core circuit is pre-built, time is saved up front in getting started.

Innovative educators are already adopting the Propeller chip as a platform to teach diverse subjects. Professor Martin Hebel will hold a workshop at the 45th ATEA National Conference utilizing the HYDRA game development system. The keyboard, mouse, joystick, game processing, and video display are all handled by the Propeller chip. This approach lets teachers introduce electronics, programming, and user interface systems while engaging students who are accustomed to (and might rather be playing) video games.

To support our educational customers, we provide all of our Parallax-authored development software and educational documentation as free downloads; no user or site license is required. Our copyright policy for our educational texts permits duplication for classroom use with Parallax hardware. We encourage educators to copy snapshots from the PDF files to quickly assembly PowerPoint presentations as lecture aids. In this same spirit, many educators have shared their classroom materials, which can be accessed via our private Parallax Educators forum. For more information or to join, please email education@ parallax.com.
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Publication:ATEA Journal
Article Type:Company overview
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Words:1518
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