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March 2013

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How to Test Automated Lighting and Animatronic Advertising Displays

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The emergence of new automated lighting and animatronic display technologies is presenting the advertising industry with a matched pair of challenges. The first challenge is how to program impressive animated displays, and the second challenge is how to test those display systems once they've been created.

Our industry faced a similar problem 20 years ago, back when the Internet first took off. No one really knew how to program a large e-commerce Website, or how to test one either. These days, any decent technical placement agency can provide your company with all the e-commerce programmers, and e-commerce testers you'll ever need. Finding people for automated lighting and animatronic display systems is another matter. I asked a rep from a major placement agency if they represented anyone who knew how to test if a light actually came on when an automation program told it to, and the rep said he didn't know of anyone in Silicon Valley who could do that type of testing.

He probably should start looking for those kinds of people now. The Dutch lighting industry giant Philips has a campus in Silicon Valley and it recently started selling a $200 lighting system through Apple's App store that needs exactly that type of testing. The Hue system, as Philips calls it, consists of three special LED light bulbs and an iPad/iPhone application that lets the owner remotely turn the lights on and off, vary the brightness and change the color of each bulb individually or collectively. The app will allow the user to program constantly changing lighting effects, days ahead, as desired. With a little tweaking, and a few more bulbs, it could run a small light show of disco dimensions in a retail store window.

From a current QA perspective, this kind of product would be a problematic product to develop automated testing for. How do you automate verifying the presence, intensity and color of light? And what if it's a complex display with many lights doing different things at different times?

Given that our magazine will be reviewing these new lighting systems, we are also facing the issue of how to test them, and have some progress to report. Over the last six months I've developed a prototype test harness designed to test events, like lighting, happening in the real 3D world. The harness is based on the Java-based Arduino microcontroller system, and uses off the shelf consumer computer and electronic items readily available at any Radio shack.

My harness includes digital sensors for motion, distance, speed, temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, presence of assorted gasses and liquids, weight, sound, pressure, and many more, in addition to the presence, intensity, and color of light. My test harness can easily be integrated with any Java-based test automation system, and integration with other languages is possible.

It would be easy to build your own test harness. The cost will be determined by how many Arduinos and sensors, and of what various types, you'll be needing. For instance, let's say the theoretical goal is to test a 12 light automated display system similar to the Philips Hue system. The lighting display is designed to turn spotlights focused on products off and on as part of a long automated presentation. To keep things simple, the lights will all be white.

In this case, a harness could be built for under $100. All you'd need would be one Arduino, 12 photocells, and some wire and tape. The Arduino Mega256 goes for between $50 and $65 on eBay, and photocells go for around $1 each. Add a few bucks for two strand wire and some electricians tape and you're just about at $100. That's really all the hardware you'd need.

To build the harness, tape a photocell to each bulb in the display, and attach a two strand wire to each photocell, plug the other ends into two I/O ports on the Mega256 (using a total of 24 I/O ports). Attach the Arduino to a USB port on the control computer. Launch the application Processing on the control computer, use it to create an application to monitor the photocell, and assign it the I/O ports you plugged the photocells into.

Once completed, there are several ways to use the harness to automate testing. A very simple way would be base the test on time. For instance, if 50 seconds into the presentation a light that was supposed to be off should come on, you add a few lines of code to log the status of the light at 49 seconds into the test and again at 51 seconds into the test.

To test a lighting display that varied the color of the lights, you'd only need to use color sensors instead of photocells, at a cost of about $8.95 per sensor. More complicated displays would take more than one Arduino to run all of the varied sensors needed, but the cost would still be measured in hundreds of dollars, perhaps a couple of thousand dollars, at most. The major cost will be for programming the automated tests itself, and that cost would probably be about _ the cost of programming the light display itself.

Our goal over the next year will be to help grow the QA process for testing automated lighting & animatronic systems. Our first issue will be sensor housings. The sensors available for the Arduino rarely come with any kind of housing, and the idea of taping the photocells to lights is, well, primitive. To address this issue we are designing a set of housings for the most common sensors, and will be posting the CAD files on our site, and for free downloading and 3D printing. The housings will make it easier to aim the photocells, and easier to hook them up thanks to a built I/O jack. We estimate that the cost per housing will be under $3, and that's including the jack. We are also developing a set of Java objects for each of the most common sensors to make them easier to program. It would reduce the programming required for automated testing by 15% to 30%.

We will be making more announcements about our testing resources and services following the 2013 Maker Faire. Meanwhile, why not pick up an Arduino developer kit on eBay and start designing light shows? The Arduino microcontroller is already beginning to revolutionize advertising, it will pay to understand its simplicity, and power, in the years ahead.

Glen Emerson Morris was a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law.
He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2011 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved ' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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