When developing embedded code for devices with non-trivial user interfaces, it often pays off to build a prototype (virtual prototype) of the embedded system of a PC. The strategy is called “dual targeting”, because you develop software on one machine (e.g., Windows PC) and run it on a deeply embedded target. Dual targeting is the main strategy for avoiding the “target system bottleneck” in the agile embedded software development, popularized in the book “Test-Driven Development for Embedded C” by James Grenning.
Avoiding Target Hardware Bottleneck with Dual Targeting
Please note that dual targeting does not mean that the embedded device has anything to do with the PC. Neither it means that the simulation must be cycle-exact with the embedded target CPU.
Dual targeting simply means that from day one, your embedded code (typically in C) is designed to run on at least two platforms: the final target hardware and your PC. All you really need for this is two C compilers: one for the PC and another for the embedded device.
However, the dual targeting strategy does require a specific way of designing the embedded software such that any target hardware dependencies are handled through a well-defined interface often called the Board Support Package (BSP). This interface has at least two implementations: one for the actual target and one for the PC, for example running Windows. With such interface in place, the bulk of the embedded code can remain completely unaware which BSP implementation it is linked to and so it can be developed quickly on the PC, but can also run on the target hardware without any changes.
While some embedded programmers can view dual targeting as a self-inflicted burden, the more experienced developers generally agree that paying attention to the boundaries between software and hardware is actually beneficial, because it results in more modular, more portable, and more maintainable software with much longer useful lifetime. The investment in dual targeting has also an immediate payback in the vastly accelerated compile-run-debug cycle, which is much faster and more productive on the powerful PC compared to much slower, recourse-constrained deeply embedded target with limited visibility into the running code.
Agile Rapid Prototyping of Embedded Software with Dual Targeting
Dual targeting can have many different objectives. For example, in the test-driven development (TDD) of embedded software, the objective is to build relatively concise unit tests and execute them on the desktop as console-type applications. The main challenge is management of the inter-module dependencies and flexibility of tests, but the overall architecture of the final product is of lesser concerns, as the unit tests are executed in isolation using special test harnesses.
However, dual targeting can also be used for (rapid) prototyping and simulating the whole embedded devices on the PC, not just executing unit tests. In this case, the objective is to build a possibly complete prototype of the embedded device as a GUI-type application. This approach is particularly interesting for embedded systems with non-trivial user interfaces, such as: home appliances, office equipment, thermostats, medical devices, industrial controllers, etc. As it turns out, significant percentage of the code embedded in all those devices is devoted to the user interface and can be, or even should be, developed on the desktop.
Front Panel Win32 GUI Toolkit
When developing embedded code for devices with non-trivial user interfaces, one often runs into the problem of representing the embedded front panels as GUI elements on the PC. The problem is so common, that I’m really surprised that my internet search couldn’t uncover any simple C-only interface to the basic elements, such as LCDs, buttons, and LEDs. I’ve posted questions on StackOverflow, and other such forums, but again, I got recommendations for .NET, C#, VisualBasic, and many expensive proprietary tools, none of which provided an easy, direct binding to C. My objective is not really that complicated, yet it seems that every embedded developer has to re-invent this wheel over and over again.
So, to help embedded developers interested in prototyping embedded devices on Windows, I have created a “Front Panel Win32 GUI Toolkit” and have posted it online under the GPL open source license. This toolkit relies only on the raw Win32 API in C and currently provides the following elements:
- Dot-matrix display for an efficient, pixel-addressable displays such as graphical LCDs, OLEDs, etc. with up to 24-bit color.
- Segment display for segmented display such as segment LCDs, and segment LEDs with generic, custom bitmaps for the segments.
- Owner-drawn buttons with custom “depressed” and “released” bitmaps and capable of generating separate events when depressed and when released.
Regarding the size and complexity of the “Front Panel Win32 GUI Toolkit“, the implementation of the aforementioned GUI elements takes only about 250 lines of C. The example with all sources of input and a lot of comments amounts to some 300 lines of C. The toolkit has been tested with the free Visual C++ Express 2010 and 2012 (with the Express Edition Platform SDK) and the free ResEdit resource editor.