Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Handheld Amateur Messaging Device

Recently there has been some interest in a small portable hand-held messaging device for Amateur radio communication.

There was a large talk about this on twitter between @kc8grq, @n4trqjedi, and myself, I am not sure who started it. But I pointed out that "we" don't need to re-invent the wheel packet radio is a good system, and doesn't require much to work. So I think everyone is on board for not reinventing something that is around, just updating it for the modern day.

So my real requirement (for me) what every device we came up with had to have a qwerty style keyboard on it!

A couple of days ago KC8GRQ directed us to a website where one other amateur had a very similar idea.
It can be found here: Stating that we missed out on text messaging - also pointing out that we really came up with the idea, but the radio are clunky (my word) when doing texting, and at almost every step at least the big three have missed the boat when it comes to messaging (ICOM, Kenwood, and Yaesu all three make radios that are capable of doing it, but don't make it easy to do from the radio, in ICOMs case you need a computer hooked up to the radio)

SO, We found @K0NR, one more for the group...what is it you only need for to make a club right? (LOL) During the 2nd round of talking about this on twitter, I think we picked up interst from a couple of other hams - @wx4cb & @nr4cb

I know from personal experience that having a keyboard for chat is much much easier to use then
the radios. Myself and N4TRQ held a keyboard to keyboard chat over APRS for almost 20 mins, it was quick and fast and we were able to hold a real conversation. Thou doing the "20 min" chat on the radio would have taken at least an hour to complete is it impossible no, it's just much more time consuming and while driving it is very dangerous.

Let's face it Amateur's are about helping others, this is really true in emergency situations
This is one area where "we" excel in. And in an emergency information in a timely manner is the key. Well it is faster to send a SMS message via the cell then it would be to send the same message via a radio (radio only) Sometimes in the field you just don't have time to setup the laptops, hookup everything you need. Sometimes all you have is yourself and a radio.

"We" have truly missed out on a real "device to device" "radio to radio" text message system.

During the 1st round of talks, KC8GRQ found a few "messaging" toy devices that were made for kids, This one kind of looks like a pager, and still needs a computer to work, it is wireless
but it is interesting I don't know much about it, it's purple/pink thou made by Girltech I think he also came across the Zipit device (I think this device runs linux, so there maybe some promise there, but as far as will it work ?)
I think he came across one more, thou I can't remember what that was.

While I was thinking about more commercially market projects that focus on adults - thing like the Peek Email device, (This is a cell phone, with out the phone, I think it's on the tmobile network) I was looking at the older device that peek doesn't support any more
or support is very limited for it. Peek is a controversial company, they have done quite a few things that have really ticked there customers off. but I didn't care about that I was just looking at the device as a messaging device. Even I will point out it would take a lot of work to make a peek work on an amateur packet system. and probably more work then it is really worth.

The next device I came across was the JVC Portable Email Device HC-E100 - this is an interesting device, I owned one of these years before the Internet was popular. What it is a dial up service that you could use from payphones, or home phone - used an acoustic type coupler & was pretty neat for the time. I didn't find alot of information out about it thou, if my memory is right it did have a 56k modem built in, and ran off 2 AA batteries. But as far as what is in it is a mystery. Again, a lot of work to make it work, but getting close because of the internal modem.
There is also a Sharp TM-20 ( which I think just on looks alone is the same as what the JVC HC-E100 is, it does have the acoustic coupler in for use with most phones and was made around the same time, but otherwise I don't have any information about what is in it.

I had also come across a Sony MyLo device, these sort of look like the PSP-GO (only I think they are a little smaller), They do have the slide up screen, and a keyboard under them. 3rd party software is limitedly avaiable for them. there were 2 models with the 2nd model being the better of the two just looking at the spec sheet. They work off of a WIFI (802.11b on the 1st model, and B/G on the 2nd) network. There is still plenty of information on the web about these devices, but hacking them maybe more then it's worth!

I had even considered that a Casio Cassiopeia A-10/A-11 maybe the best choice. These are really hard to find now, but are old (some of the original) PDAs, the nice thing about the A-10/A-11 they have a serial port, and a built in terminal program, ok the serial port takes a special cable, and if you think the device is hard to find, just try to find the cable!
But because of this, they can easily hook up to a TNC and radio. See my video here showing hooking the radio up, Using a TH-D7 The cassiopeia running off a couple of AA batteries and works most of the day. These devices are old, and the 2 of them I own both have internal battery issues, they will no longer hold the date/time or any settings. But they have been around since 1996 or so. :-) There is still quite a lot of information about them on the web.
The probably is once you have a radio, and all the cables hooked up, this "small PDAs" turn into a handful of wires and bulk. Need everything in one box!
But for a long time, I held the Cassiopeia was perhaps one of the better choices. I mean, really, TNCs have gotten small a signal chip, Alinco makes Credit card size radios. If you are in a good coverage area, even low powered stations should make it to a digipeater.
BUT even this isn't truly what is needed. it's a start, and maybe a good way to test out some ideas, and tweak some stuff. but it is probably not the best solution to the problem either.

So the idea sat around, and not much was said about it for a few weeks.

Then I opened one of the "toy" cabinets up here in the radio/computer room. And sitting right there in front of me was a CyBiko. I remember this thing, the kids wanted one to play around with, so we got a couple of them, and played some of the games, and what not. We got them used, and after the company had already gone out of business, so they weren't much fun, and mine got put up. I am not sure what happen to the 2nd one we had. But I do remember these things were suppose to be programmable!, they have a serial port, and a built in 900mhz low power radio.

They also have a qwerty style keyboard (it's not a true qwerty, it's off set is a bit strange, but works for the most part as a qwerty)
I got excited by my find. And let the group know I found it! This is it, the device we need. Doing a google search revealed that indeed it was programmable as I remembered, and that Ham had already taken an interest in this device, this got me even more excited! So I searched more!

And came across this site: - It's been done, we have a working Amateur Radio text messaging device not using packet, but using APRS. Reading the website it looks very easy to setup you need a couple of devices, a tnc (KISS mode) and 2 meter on one, and the APRS software written by KR1ST on other side. He even has the ability to add a GPS to it.

Now I just need to find my 2nd figure out how to get the software on my devices, maybe bump the power up a bit, and see how well it work!

--LeRoy, KD8BXP

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