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From Sun Labs: Remote Sensors, on The SPOT

Sun Microsystems is well-known for its Unix servers and Java software among its product lines. Less well-known, perhaps, is its research division. That may be changing.

Sun's Lab today will introduce Project Sun Small Programmable Object Technology (SPOT), a remote control gadget that creates sensor-oriented applications for wireless sensor networks and consumer electronics.

Wireless sensors are a hot issue today. They may be used to catch manufacturing defects by sensing out-of-range vibrations in industrial equipment, monitor patient movements in a hospital room, or ascertain the origins of a gunshot.

Used in conjunction with RFID tags and actuation mechanisms, sensors could control light, heat, and appliances in buildings.

The applications to trigger these actions have been scarce. Sun hopes to change that and plans to show off the new toy at its 2006 World Wide Education and Research Conference in New York this week.

Sun SPOT will let programmers write wireless sensor applications in Java that run on the CPU without any operating system. Developers can write a program, load it on a wireless sensor device, run it and debug it for quality control.

The device allows programmers to try an experimental platform for easier programming, said Roger Meike, senior director in Sun Labs. The benefit is that it saves users from the time and effort they might spend to deploy software from a PC or laptop.

"Instead of programming a keyboard, mouse and screen, a Java programmer can program something that fits in the palm of their hand," Meike said. "Instead of reading mouse clicks, the sensors are reading hand waves and light changes."

Meike said the gadget consists of a battery, a processor and a radio based on 802.15.4 wireless technology. 802.15.4 is a specification for low-powered networks for wireless monitoring and control of lights, security alarms, motion sensors, thermostats and smoke detectors. Programmers will use NetBeans to write code.

The device is fitted with a general purpose application module that can sense light, temperature and acceleration in three different dimensions. There are eight tri-color LEDs.

Meike said Sun is currently developing applications that will answer to Sun SPOT's wireless sensor triggers, including those for medical monitoring, package tracking and home automation.

The engineer said future research applications might include explorations of swarm intelligence, experimentation with mesh networks and the development of new types of gestural interfaces.

The Sun SPOT Developer Kit will ship in May for $499, with three SPOTs, NetBeans 5.0 and a USB cable.