Building robots instead of sleeping...

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So here it is, April 2011.  I've had quite a few emails over the last couple of years enquiring as to what was going on with the AVRcam and what was on the horizon for JROBOT.  I started JROBOT back in 2004 to fill a gap in the hobbyist market where there weren't any open source, low cost vision systems that could be used by hobbyists (the CMUcam had come out a few months prior, but was lacking in some key technical aspects, and above all, wasn't open source).  Looking back, I spent almost all my free time back in those days developing the AVRcam so it would be ready in time for the Circuit Cellar design contest (where the AVRcam took Second Prize).  I was thumbing through my engineering notebook just the other day, remembering all the little breakthroughs and late nights to turn the idea into a reality.  It was, in my opinion, one of the most fun projects I've ever worked on.

And making the AVRcam available to the public was also a blast, and I learned quite a bit about what it takes to make something like this happen.  I had help with the website (thanks to my friends Jen Caputo and Brent Taylor), and also with the AVRcamVIEW PC application along the way (again, thanks Brent).  I ended up spending more time building kits to ship all over the world than actually building robots, but I still got a little time here and there.  And the extra income from selling the AVRcam kits was nice to splurge on the occasional geek purchase (Sparkfun still has waaay more of my money than I want to admit).

But then a few key things changed.  On a personal front, our first daughter was born in April 2006.  And as those of you with kids can probably attest, parenthood is an amazing thing, and also a pretty solid ass-kicker.  Don't get me wrong: I happily traded my late nights working on robots for rocking our daughter when she woke up, but I found myself with just barely enough time to get kits shipped to customers, let alone do any development work.  Of course, during all of this, I was working full time at Motorola, and most "spare" time I had typically ended up being filled by the duties of my job at the time.

The JROBOT website also had a few setbacks in the 2007-2008 time frame.  Seems like it repeatedly got hit by spammers trying to mess with the phpBB-based message boards (which ultimately resulted in me having to lock them down more than I wanted to...but this was better than the steady flow of viagra ads that seemed to keep showing up).  Zen Cart also continued to get mucked with by hackers.  Luckily, all of the credit card processing was handled by a third party, so nobody's personal/credit information was ever at risk.  But it was a major annoyance, to say the least.

And it was around this time that I started to get an itch to take a shot at starting my own company, leaving the world of corporate America behind.  It was also about the time that my wife and I found out that we were going to be having another child.  Benjamin John Orlando was born on June 26th, 2009, effectively resetting the bit of free time that was starting to appear.  But having two kids is such a joy in our life, and I am a very lucky man to be so blessed.

In October 2009, after much discussion with my wife, I resigned from Motorola to start Epiq Solutions ( with two co-workers of mine.  We had been building software-defined radio systems for the past several years at Mot, and saw that there was considerable opportunity in this space.  So what better time to take a chance than with a 3 year old and a 4 month old at home (my wife still rolls her eyes at me in a what-were-we-thinking sorta way when we reflect back on this period).  Thankfully, we've been relatively successful over the past 18 months, and the future looks even brighter.  But just about all of my would-be-robot-time gets poured into making Epiq Solutions successful, and thus instead of trying to keep some barely passable version of JROBOT up and running, I'm putting it on indefinite hiatus in its current form.  So AVRcams won't be for sale any longer, though I am leaving all the source code/schematics available for those who would be interested in tinkering.

As a side note, I actually did start work on the AVRcam2 about 8 months ago, with the goal of making a fully-assembled version of the AVRcam (based on the AVR mega328p though, and with support for both QVGA and VGA cameras) available for $99.  I even got the schematic and PCB completed, and the first 3 prototype PCBs in my hands.  And this is where they sat for the last four months, and I realize that there is little chance that I'll be able to get back to this in the near future.  So it goes.

I'm not done forever.  Not by a long shot.  You should have seen the grin on my face the first time our four year old (at the time) daughter asked me when we were going to build a robot together.  The next few hours spent with cardboard boxes, glue, markers, Lego wheels, and "big girl" scissors were magnificent, and I know there will be more to come in the future. 

I would like to thank the many folks who supported JROBOT and the AVRcam since its inception.  I sold close to 500 of these systems since it was released back in November 2004, and they can be found on almost every continent in the world (if there are any robot builders in Antarctica who would like an AVRcam, send me a note and I'll drop a freebie in the mail to you just to round out that list).  There are lots of exciting things happening in the world of low-cost vision systems these days (well done with the Kinect, Microsoft).  I'll be back again to dive in when the time is right.  But until then, good luck to all those who share my passion for building robots instead of sleeping.


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