This week I attended linux.conf.au (for the first time) in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s a week long conference covering Linux, open source software and hardware, privacy, security and much more. The theme this year was IoT. In line with the theme I built a digital conference badge to take to the conference. It used a tri-colour e-Paper display and was powered by a Rust program I built running on Raspbian Linux. This post describes how it was built, how it works, and how it fared at the conference. The source code is on GitHub.
After booking my tickets in October I decided I wanted to build a digital conference badge. I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to do this but it was a combination of seeing projects like the BADGEr in the past, the theme of linux.conf.au 2019 being IoT, and an excuse to write more Rust. Since it was ostensibly a Linux conference it also seemed appropriate for it to run Linux.
Over the next few weeks I collected the parts and adaptors to build the badge. The main components were:
- Raspberry Pi Zero W — AU$15.00
- Pimoroni Inky pHAT e-Paper display — AU$38.00
- 4800mAh/3.7V USB battery pack that I already owned
The Raspberry Pi Zero W is a single core 1Ghz ARM SoC with 512Mb RAM, Wi-FI, Bluetooth, microSD card slot, and mini HDMI. The Inky pHAT is a 212x104 pixel tri-colour (red, black, white) e-Paper display. It takes about 15 seconds to refresh the display but it draws very little power in between updates and the image persists even when power is removed.
The first part of the project involved building a Rust driver for the controller in the e-Paper display. That involved determining what controller the display used, as Pimoroni did not document it. Searching online for some of the comments in the Python driver suggested the display was possibly a HINK-E0213A07 from Holitech Co. Further searching based on the datasheet for that display suggested that the controller was a Solomon Systech SSD1675. Cross referencing the display datasheet, SSD1675 datasheet, and the Python source of Pimoroni’s Inky pHAT driver suggested I was on the right track.
I set about building the Rust driver for the SSD1675 using the embedded HAL traits. These traits allow embedded Rust drivers to be built against a de facto standard set of traits that allow the driver to be used in any environment that implements the traits. For example I make use of traits for SPI devices, and GPIO pins, which are implemented for Linux, as well as say, the STM32F30x family of microcontrollers. This allows the driver to be written once and used on many devices.
The result was the ssd1675 crate. It’s a so called no-std crate. That means it does not use the Rust standard library, instead sticking only to the core library. This allows the crate to be used on devices and microcontrollers without features like file systems, or heap allocators. The crate also makes use of the embedded-graphics crate, which makes it easy to draw text and basic shapes on the display in a memory efficient manner.
While testing the ssd1675 crate I also built another crate, profont, which provides 7 sizes of the ProFont font for embedded graphics. The profont crate was published 24 Nov 2018, and ssd1675 was published a month later on 26 Dec 2018.
The Badge Itself
Now that I had all the prerequisites in place I could start working on the badge proper. I had a few goals for the badge and its implementation:
- I wanted it to have some interactive component.
- I wanted there to be some sort of Internet aspect to tie in with the IoT theme of the conference.
- I wanted the badge to be entirely powered by a single, efficient Rust binary, that did not shell out to other commands or anything like that.
- Ideally it would be relatively power efficient.
I settled on having the badge program serve up a web page with some information about the project, myself, and some live stats of the Raspberry Pi (OS, kernel, uptime, free RAM). The plain text version of the page looked like this:
Hi I'm Wes! Welcome to my conference badge. It's powered by Linux and Rust running on a Raspberry Pi Zero W with a tri-colour Inky pHAT ePaper dispay. The source code is on GitHub: https://github.com/wezm/linux-conf-au-2019-epaper-badge Say Hello --------- 12 people have said hi. Say hello in person and on the badge. To increment the hello counter on the badge: curl -X POST http://10.0.0.18/hi About Me -------- I'm a software developer from Melbourne, Australia. I currently work at GreenSync building systems to help make better use of renewable energy. Find me on the Internet at: Email: email@example.com GitHub: https://github.com/wezm Mastodon: https://decentralised.social/wezm Twitter: https://twitter.com/wezm Website: http://www.wezm.net/ Host Information ---------------- (_\)(/_) OS: Raspbian GNU/Linux (_(__)_) KERNEL: Linux 4.14.79+ (_(_)(_)_) UPTIME: 3m (_(__)_) MEMORY: 430.3 MB free of 454.5 MB (__) .------------------------. | Powered by Rust! | '------------------------' / / _~^~^~_ \) / o o \ (/ '_ - _' / '-----' \
The interactive part came in the form of a virtual “hello” counter. Each HTTP
POST to the
/hi endpoint incremented the count, which was shown on the badge.
The badge displayed the URL of the page. The URL was just the badge’s IP
address on the conference Wi-Fi. To provide a little protection against abuse I
added code that only allowed a given IP to increment the count once per hour.
When building the badge software these are some of the details and things I strived for:
- Handle Wi-Fi going away
- Handle IP address changing
- Prevent duplicate submissions
- Pluralisation of text on the badge and on the web page
- Automatically shift the text as the count requires more digits
- Serve plain text and HTML pages:
- If the web page is requested with an
Acceptheader that doesn’t include
curl) then the response is plain text and the method to, “say hello”, is a
- If the user agent indicates they accept HTML then the page is HTML and contains a form with a button to, “say hello”.
- If the web page is requested with an
- Avoid aborting on errors:
- I kind of ran out of time to handle all errors well, but most are handled gracefully and won’t abort the program. In some cases a default is used in the face of an error. In other cases I just resorted to logging a message and carrying on.
- Keep memory usage low:
- The web server efficiently discards any large POST requests sent to it, to avoid exhausting RAM.
- Typical RAM stats showed the Rust program using about 3Mb of RAM.
- Be relatively power efficient:
- Use Rust instead of a scripting language
- Only update the display when something it’s showing changes
- Only check for changes every 15 seconds (the rest of the time that thread just sleeps)
- Put the display into deep sleep after updating
I used hyper for the HTTP server built into the binary. To get a feel for the
limits of the device I did some rudimentary HTTP benchmarking with wrk and
concluded that 300 requests per second was was probably going to be fine.
Running 10s test @ http://10.0.0.18:8080/ 4 threads and 100 connections Thread Stats Avg Stdev Max +/- Stdev Latency 316.58ms 54.41ms 1.28s 92.04% Req/Sec 79.43 43.24 212.00 67.74% 3099 requests in 10.04s, 3.77MB read Requests/sec: 308.61 Transfer/sec: 384.56KB
When I started the project I imagined it would hang around my neck like a conference lanyard. By the time departure day arrived I still hadn’t worked out how this would work in practice (power delivery being a major concern). In the end I settled on attaching it to the strap on my backpack. My bag has lots of webbing so there were plenty of loops to hold it in place. I was also able to use the Velcro covered holes intended for water tubes to get the cable neatly into the bag.
At the Conference
I had everything pretty much working for the start of the conference. Although I did make some improvements and add a systemd unit to automatically start and restart the Rust binary. At this point there were still two unknowns: battery life and how the Raspberry Pi would handle coming in and out of Wi-Fi range. The Wi-Fi turned out fine: It automatically reconnected whenever it came into range of the Wi-Fi.
Day 1 was a success! I had several people talk to me about the badge and increment the counter. Battery life was good too. After 12 hours of uptime the battery was still showing it was half full. Later in the week I left the badge running overnight and hit 24 hours uptime. The battery level indicator was on the last light so I suspect there wasn’t much juice left.
On day 2 I had had several people suggest that I needed a QR code for the URL. Turns out entering an IP address on a phone keyboard is tedious. So that evening I added a QR code to the display. It’s dynamically generated and contains the same URL that is shown on the display. There were several good crates to choose from. Ultimately I picked one that didn’t have any image dependencies, which allowed me to convert the data into embedded-graphics pixels. The change was a success, most people scanned the QR code from this point on.
On day 2 I also ran into E. Dunham, and rambled briefly about my badge project and that it was built with Rust. To my absolute delight the project was featured in their talk the next day. The project was mentioned and linked on a slide and I was asked to raise my hand in case anyone wanted to chat afterwards.
By the end of the conference the badge showed a count of 12. It had worked flawlessly over the five days.
Small projects with a fairly hard deadline are a good way to ensure they’re seen through to completion. They’re also a great motivator to publish some open source code.
I think I greatly overestimated the number of people that would interact with the badge. Of those that did, I think most tapped the button to increase the counter and didn’t read much else on the page. For example no one commented on the system stats at the bottom. I had imagined the badge as a sort of digital business card but this did not really eventuate in practice.
Attaching the Pi and display to my bag worked out pretty well. I did have to be careful when putting my bag on as it was easy to catch on my clothes. Also one day it started raining on the walk back to the accommodation. I had not factored that in at all and given it wasn’t super easy to take on and off I ended up shielding it with my hand all the way back.
Would I Do It Again?
Maybe. If I were to do it again I might do something less interactive and perhaps more informational but updated more regularly. I might try to tie the project into a talk submission too. For example, I could have submitted a talk about using the embedded Rust ecosystem on a Raspberry Pi and made reference to the badge in the talk or used it for examples. I think this would give more info about the project to a bunch of people at once and also potentially teach them something at the same time.
All in all it was a fun project and excellent conference. If you’re interested, the Rust source for the badge is on GitHub.