Join the GUI Generation: QTCreator

More and more projects require a software component these days. With everything being networked, it is getting harder to avoid having to provide software for a desktop or phone environment as well as the code in your embedded device.

If you’ve done a lot of embedded systems work, you probably already know C and C++. If so, it is pretty easy to grab up a C compiler and write a command-line application that does what you want. The problem is that today’s users have varying degrees of fear about the command line ranging from discomfort to sheer terror. On a mobile device, they probably don’t even know how to get to a command line. I’ve been waiting for years for the WIMP (Windows/Icon/Mouse/Pointer) fad to fade away, but even I have to admit that it is probably here for the foreseeable future.

qtrigolSo what’s the alternative? There are actually quite a few. However, I wanted to talk about one that is free, has a wide range of deployment options, uses C++, and is easy to pick up: Qt. Specifically, creating programs with QtCreator (see right). Yes, there are other options, and you can develop Qt programs in a number of ways.

You might think Qt isn’t free. There was a time that it was free for open source projects, but not for commercial projects. However, recent licensing changes (as of version 4.5) have made it more like using gcc. You can elect to use the LGPL which means it is easy to use the Qt shared libraries with closed software. You might also think that a lot of strange constructs that “extend” C++ in unusual ways. The truth is, it does, but with QtCreator, you probably won’t need to know anything about that since the tool will set up most, if not all, of that for you.


If you ever used Visual Basic or something similar, you will feel right at home with QtCreator. You can place buttons and text edit boxes and other widgets on a form and then back them up with code. Buttons create signals when you push them. There are lots of signals like text changed or widgets (controls) being created or destroyed.

To handle a signal, an object provides a slot. There is a meta-compiler that preprocesses your C++ code to get all the signal and slot stuff converted into regular C++. Here’s the good news: you don’t really care. In QtCreator you can write code to handle a button push and exactly how that happens isn’t really much of a worry.

QtCreator has kits that can target different platforms and — in general — the code is reasonably portable between platforms. If you do want to do mobile development for Android or iOS, be sure that you understand the limitations before you start so you can avoid future pitfalls.

You Need Class

Like many similar frameworks, Qt uses an application class (QtApplication) that represents a do-nothing application. Your job is to customize a subclass and have it do what you want. You add widgets and you can even add more screens, if you like. You can connect signals to existing slots or new slots.

There are many classes available, and the online documentation is quite good. Depending on which version of Qt you are using, you’ll need to find the right page (or ask QtCreator to find it for you). However, just to whet your appetite, here’s the Qt5 reference page. From there you can find classes for GUI widgets, strings, network sockets, database queries, and even serial ports.

I could do an entire tutorial on using QtCreator, but it would be a duplication of effort. There’s already a great getting started one provided. You’ll find there is plenty of documentation.


How do you enumerate serial ports? It depends on the platform, right? In Qt, the platform-specific part is hidden from you. For example, here’s a bit of code that fills in a combo box with the available serial port:

MainWindow::MainWindow(QWidget *parent) :
 ui(new Ui::MainWindow)
// initialize list of serial ports
 ports = QSerialPortInfo::availablePorts();
// fill in combo box
 for (int i=0; i<ports.length(); i++) 
   ui->comport->addItem(ports[i].portName(), QVariant(i));

The QSerialPortInfo object provides an array of serial port objects. The ui->comport is a combo box and the addItem method lets me put a display string and a data item in for each selection. In this case, the display is the portName of the port and the extra data is just the index in the array (as a variant, which could be different types of data, not just a number). When you select a port, the index lets the program look up the port to, for example, open it.

When the combo box changes, a currentIndexChanged signal will occur. Here’s the slot handler for that:

void MainWindow::on_comport_currentIndexChanged(int index)
 QString out;
 // get selected index
 int sel=ui->comport->currentData().toInt();
// build up HTML info string in out
 out="<h1>Serial Port Info</h1>";
 out += ports[sel].portName() + " " + ports[sel].description() + "
 out += ports[sel].systemLocation() + "
 if (ports[sel].hasVendorIdentifier() && ports[sel].hasProductIdentifier())
 out += ports[sel].manufacturer() + " ("+ QString::number(ports[sel].vendorIdentifier(),16) + ":" + QString::number(ports[sel].productIdentifier(),16) + ")";
 // and put it on the screen

In this case, the result is information about the serial port. You can see the resulting output, below. The QString is Qt’s string class and, obviously, the text display widget understands some HTML.


Not Just for GUIs

You can develop console applications using Qt, but then many of the provided classes don’t make sense. There’s even a Qt for Embedded (essentially Linux with no GUI). You can find guides for Raspberry Pi and BeagleBoard.

On the mobile side, you can target Android, iOS, and even Blackberry, along with others. Like anything, it probably won’t just be “push a button” and a ported application will fall out. But it still should cut down on development time and cost compared to rewriting a mobile app from scratch.

And the Winner Is…

I’m sure if you want some alternatives, our comment section is about to fill up with recommendations. Some of them are probably good. But it strikes me that not everyone has the same needs and background. The best tool for you might not work as well for me. I find Qt useful and productive.

Even if Qt isn’t your tool of choice, it still can be handy to have in your tool bag. You never know when you will need a quick and dirty cross-platform application.

Data Logging; Everyone’s Doing It, Why Aren’t You?

Between Tesla Motors’ automobiles and SpaceX’s rockets, Elon Musk’s engineers just have to be getting something right. In part, SpaceX’s success in landing their first stage rockets is due to analysis of telemetry data. You can see some of the data from their launch vehicles on the live videos and there is surely a lot more not shown.

An article in MIT Technology Review provides similar insights in how Tesla came from behind in autonomous vehicle operation by analyzing telemetry from their cars. Since 2014 their Model S received an increasing number of sensors that all report their data over the vehicle’s always-on cellular channel. Sterling Anderson of Tesla reported they get a million miles of data every 10 hours.

Image Credit Tesla
Image Credit Tesla

The same approach can help us to improve our systems but many believe creating a log of key data is costly in time and resources. If your system is perfect (HA HA!) that would be a valid assessment. All too often such data becomes priceless if analysis explains why your drone or robot wanted to go left into a building instead of right into the open field.

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Talking Star Trek

Speech generation and recognition have come a long way. It wasn’t that long ago that we were in a breakfast place and endured 30 minutes of a teenaged girl screaming “CALL JUSTIN TAYLOR!” into her phone repeatedly, with no results. Now speech on phones is good enough you might never use the keyboard unless you want privacy. Every time we ask Google or Siri a question and get an answer it makes us feel like we are living in Star Trek.

[Smcameron] probably feels the same way. He’s been working on a Star Trek-inspired bridge simulator called “Space Nerds in Space” for some time. He decided to test out the current state of Linux speech support by adding speech commands and response to it. You can see the results in the video below.

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Digitize Your Graphs With WebPlotDigitizer

Have you ever had to write a bit of code to interpret a non-linear analog reading as picked up by an ADC? When all you have to work with for your transfer function is a graph in a semiconductor datasheet that was probably written thirty years ago and prints out the size of a postage stamp, that’s a rather annoying task. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had access to the numbers behind the graph!

You can’t knock on the office door of the engineer who created it back in the ’80s, he’s probably  in retirement and playing golf or growing prize petunias by now. But you can digitize the graph to get yourself a lot closer to the action, and to help you in your quest there’s a handy online tool.

2N3904 current gain

WebPlotDigitizer is not new, it’s been around for quite a few years now. But it’s still worth talking about, because it’s one of those tools to keep in reserve. If you’ve ever needed it, you’ll know what we mean.

So how does it work? Load an image with a graph in it, select some points on the X and Y axis, roughly trace the curve with a marker tool, and set it in motion. Let’s give it a go. We’re going to try digitizing the current gain plot from the 2N3904 datasheet (PDF) that we examined a few days ago.

Data points!

So, open the WebPlotDigitizer app, load the graph image captured from the sheet as a JPEG. It asks what type of graph you’ve loaded, in this case a 2D X-Y plot. It asks you to identify four known points on the axes and supply their values. You also tell it if the axes are logarithmic at this point. Select “Automatic mode” on the right hand side, then click “Pen” and mark the graph trace, then select the colour of the trace. Click the “Run” button, and your data points appear. Hit the “View data” button, and there you have it. A few rogue points to remove perhaps, but it does a pretty good job.

If WebPlotDigitizer has engaged your interest, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s open-source, and you can find all its code on GitHub. There is also a handy video tutorial which you can see below the break. Continue reading “Digitize Your Graphs With WebPlotDigitizer”

OneSolver Does What Wolfram Can’t

Wolfram Alpha has been “helping” students get through higher math and science classes for years. It can do almost everything from solving Laplace transforms to various differential equations. It’s a little lacking when it comes to solving circuits, though, which is where [Grant] steps in. He’s come up with a tool called OneSolver which can help anyone work out a number of electrical circuits (and a few common physics problems, too).

[Grant] has been slowly building an online database of circuit designs that has gotten up to around a hundred unique solvers. The interesting thing is that the site implements a unique algorithm where all input fields of a circuits design can also become output fields. This is unique to most other online calculators because it lets you do things that circuit simulators and commercial math packages can’t. The framework defines one system of equations, and will solve all possible combinations, and lets one quickly home in on a desired design solution.

If you’re a student or someone who constantly builds regulators or other tiny circuits (probably most of us) then give this tool a shot. [Grant] is still adding to it, so it will only get better over time. This may be the first time we’ve seen something like this here, too, but there have been other more specific pieces of software to help out with your circuit design.


[glitch] had a cheap EPROM eraser with very few features. Actually, that might be giving it too much credit: it’s barely more than a UV light that turns on when it’s plugged in and turns off when it’s plugged out unplugged. Of course it would be nice to implement some safety features, so he decided he’d hook it up to a software-controlled power outlet.

Of course, controlling a relay that’s wired to mains is old hat around here, and in fact, we’ve covered [glitch]’s optoisolated mains switch already. He’s gone a little beyond the normal mains relay project with this one, though. Rather than use a microcontroller to run the relay, [glitch] wrote a simple Ruby script on his computer to turn the EPROM eraser on for the precise amount of time that is required to erase the memory.The Ruby script drives the relay control directly over a USB to serial adapter’s RTS handshake pin.

[glitch]’s hack reminds us that if you just need a quick couple bits of slow output, a USB-serial converter might be just the ticket. You could imagine driving everything from standard lamps to your 3D printer’s bed heater (provided you use similar hardware), but it’s especially helpful for [glitch] who claims to forget to turn off the eraser when it’s done its job, which leaves a potentially dangerous UV source just lying about. It’s always a good idea to add safety features to a dangerous piece of equipment!

Impressive StarCraft 2 AI More Fair to Fleshy Opponents

There was a discussion in the comments when the Alpha Go results were released. Some commentors were postulating that AI researchers are discounting more fluid games such as the RTS StarCraft.

The comments then devolved into a discussion of what would make the AI fair to consider against a human player. Many times, AI in RTS games win because they have direct access to the variables in the game. Rather than physically looking at the small area of the screen where a unit is located and then moving their eye to take in strategic information like exact location, health, unit level, etc, the AI just knows that it’s at 120x,2000y,76%,lvl5, etc instantly. The AI also has no click lag as it gets direct access to the game’s API, it simply changes the variables and action queue of a unit directly.

So we were interested to see [Matt]’s Star Craft AI that required the computer to actually look at the game board and click. [Matt]’s AI doesn’t see using OpenCV, which in its own way is forcing the computer to look in a way that’s unnatural to it. He instead wrote some code to intercept the behind the scenes calls to the DirectX library.

The computer is then able to make determinations about what it is looking at using the texture information and other pieces sent to the library. Unlike AI’s that get a direct look at the variables, it has to then translate this and keep its own mental picture of the map and the situation. If a building is destroyed, for example, it has to go over and look at that part of the map, test what it’s seeing against a control, and then remove the building from its list.

The AI’s one big advantage are its robot fingers. Even though this AI has to click on the interface, it doesn’t do it with a weak articulated fleshy nub like the rest of us. This allows the AI to get crazy Actions Per Minute (APM) in the range of 500 to 2000.

The AI has only been tested against StarCraft’s built in cheater bots. So far it can win most games against the hard level bots. If you want to see a video of what the AI is looking at, check after the break.

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