Using the Audio Jack to make an Oscilloscope in the PSLab Android App

The PSLab Android App allows users to access functionality provided by the PSLab hardware device, but in the interest of appealing to a larger audience that may not have immediate access to the device, we‚Äôre working on implementing some additional functionalities to perform experiments using only the hardware and sensors that are available in most android phones. The mentors suggested that the audio jack (Microphone input) of phones can be hacked to make it function as an Oscilloscope. Similarly, the audio output can also be used as a 2-channel arbitrary waveform generator. So I did a little research and found some articles which described how it can be done. In this post, I will dive a bit into the following aspects –

  • AudioJack specifications for android devices
  • Android APIs that provide access to audio hardware of device
  • Integrating both to achieve scope functionality

Audio Jack specification for android devices

In a general audio jack interface, the configuration CTIA(LRGM – Left, Right, Ground, Mic) is present as shown in the image below. Some interfaces also have OMTP(LRMG – Left, Right, Mic, Ground) configuration in which the common and mic inputs are interchanged. In the image, Common refers to ground.

Source: howtogeek

If we simply cut open the wire of a cheap pair of earphones (stolen from an airplane? ūüėČ ) , we ¬†will gain access to all terminals (Left, Right, Common, Mic Input) illustrated in the image below

Source: flickr

Android APIs that provide access to audio hardware of device

AudioRecord and AudioTrack are two classes in android that manage recording and playback respectively. We require only AudioRecord to implement scope functionality. We shall first create an object of the AudioRecord class, and use that object to read the audio buffer as and when required.

Creating an AudioRecord object: we need the following parameters to initialise an AudioRecord object.

SAMPLING_RATE: Almost all mobile devices support sampling rate of 44100 Hz. In this context, the definition is number of audio samples taken per second.

RECORDER_AUDIO_ENCODING: Audio encoding describes bit representation of audio data. Here we used PCM_16BIT encoding this means stream of bits generated from PCM are segregated in a set of 16 bits.

getMinimumBufferSize() returns minimum buffer size in byte units required to create an AudioRecord object successfully.

private static final int SAMPLING_RATE = 44100;
private static final int RECORDING_CHANNEL = AudioFormat.CHANNEL_IN_MONO;
private static final int RECORDER_AUDIO_ENCODING = AudioFormat.ENCODING_PCM_16BIT;
private AudioRecord audioRecord = null;
private int minRecorderBufferSize;
audioRecord = new AudioRecord(

audioRecord object can be used to read audio buffer from audio hardware using read() method.

minRecorderBuffer size is in byte units and 2 bytes constitute a short in JAVA. Thus size of short buffer needed is half the total number of bytes.

short[] audioBuffer = new short[minRecorderBufferSize / 2];, 0, audioBuffer.length);

Now audioBuffer has the audio data as a signed 16 bit values. We need to process the buffer data and plot the processed data points on chart to completely implement scope functionality. I am still looking for relation between the signed 16-bit value of audio buffer and actual mic bias voltage. According to android headset specs, Mic bias voltage is between 1.8-2.9V.

Using AudioRecord class to create a scope in PSLab Android

In PSLab Android App, there is already an Oscilloscope made to capture and plot the data received from PSLab device. To make a cheap oscilloscope, cut open the wire of a cheap headset and expose terminals as illustrated in the image above and provide input signal at microphone input terminal.

Note: Don‚Äôt provide a voltage more than 2V at mic input terminal, it can damage your android device. To be sure check peak voltage from external voltmeter of the signal that you want to apply on scope and if it’s greater than 2V, I suggest you to first make a voltage divider to lower the voltage and then you are good to go.

To integrate plotting of audio buffer, we simply need to create another thread that captures audio data and updates the UI with the processed buffer data.

public class captureAudioBuffer extends AsyncTask<Void, Void, Void> {

        private AudioJack audioJack;
        private short[] buffer; 
        public captureAudioBuffer(AudioJack audioJack) {
            this.audioJack = audioJack;

        protected Void doInBackground(Void... params) {
            buffer =;
            Log.v("AudioBuffer", Arrays.toString(buffer));
            return null;

        protected void onPostExecute(Void aVoid) {
            Log.v("Execution Done", "Completed");

For complete code of AudioJack class, please refer pslab-android-app.


Making Custom Change Listeners in PSLab Android

In this post we are going to learn how to make custom change listeners. There are many use cases for custom change listeners like if you want to initiate some action when some variable‚Äôs value is changed. In PSLab android app, this was required during initialisation of PSLab hardware device, it takes about 3-4 seconds to initialise the device which includes reading calibration data from device and process it. So before starting the initialisation process, app notifies user with the message, ‚ÄúInitialising Wait ‚Ķ‚ÄĚ and after initialisation is done, user is notified with the message ‚ÄúInitialisation Completed‚ÄĚ.

There might be other ways to accomplish this but I found making a custom change listener for boolean and trigger notifying user action on change of boolean value to be most organised way to do it.

Another way I can think of is to pass the fragment reference to the class  constructor for which the object is to be made. And Views need to be made public for access from that object to change status after some work is done.

Let’s look at an example, we would change status in a fragment after some task in object instantiation is completed.


Class with variable on which custom change listener is required:
Create a class and declare a variable for which you want to listen the value change to trigger some action. In this example we have created a InitializationVariable class and defined a boolean variable named initialised.

Define an interface inside the class and that’s where the trick lies. When you set/change the value of the variable through a function setVariable(boolean value) in this case, note that we are triggering the interface method too.

public class InitializationVariable {

   public boolean initialised = false;
   private onValueChangeListener valueChangeListener;

   public boolean isInitialised() {
       return initialised;

   public void setVariable(boolean value) {
       initialised = value;
       if (valueChangeListener != null) valueChangeListener.onChange();

   public onValueChangeListener getValueChangeListener() {
       return valueChangeListener;

   public void setValueChangeListener(onValueChangeListener valueChangeListener) {
       this.valueChangeListener = valueChangeListener;

   public interface onValueChangeListener {
       void onChange();


Create an object of above class in activity/fragment:
Create an object to the class we just made and attach onValueChangeListener to it. This example shows how it’s used in PSLab Android, you can use it anywhere but remember to access view elements from a valid context.

public static InitializationVariable booleanVariable;
public class HomeFragment extends Fragment {

   TextView tvInitializationStatus;

   public static InitializationVariable booleanVariable;// object whose value change is noted

   public static HomeFragment newInstance() {
       HomeFragment homeFragment = new HomeFragment();
       return homeFragment;

   public View onCreateView(LayoutInflater inflater, @Nullable ViewGroup container, @Nullable Bundle savedInstanceState) {
       View view = inflater.inflate(R.layout.home_fragment, container, false);
       unbinder = ButterKnife.bind(this, view);
       return view;

   public void onViewCreated(View view, @Nullable Bundle savedInstanceState) {
       super.onViewCreated(view, savedInstanceState);

       booleanVariable.setValueChangeListener(new InitializationVariable.onValueChangeListener() {
           public void onChange() {
               if (booleanVariable.isInitialised())
                   tvInitializationStatus.setText("Initialsation Completed");
                   tvInitializationStatus.setText("Initialising Wait ...");

Now whenever booleanVariable.setVariable(value) is called, it triggers the onValueChangeListener where you can manage the action you wanted to do on value change.
This is similar to how other listeners are implemented .You implement an interface and call those interface methods on some value change and classes which implement those interface have overridden methods which handle the action after change.

Hopefully this post gives you an insight about how change listeners are implemented.

Note: This post was specific to PSLab Android App, you can create custom change listener on any variable in any class and perform action on value of the variable getting changed.


Opening Local HTML Files in PSLab Android App

The PSLab Android App allows users to perform experiments using the PSLab device. The experience to perform an experiment should resemble the generic way to perform the experiment. So we associated an Experiment Doc file which the user can refer to while performing experiment. Just like a regular lab manual, the experiment doc contains the AIM, THEORY & FORMULAS, SCHEMATIC, OUTPUT, etc. In the PSLab Desktop App, since there was already a provision for using HTML docs and so I  avoided reinventing the wheel and used those html files as it is.


The problem we faced was how to open a bunch of HTML files with their corresponding CSS, JS files in Android’s webView.

There are two ways it can be done:

  • Host the experiment docs on a server and make a request from the android app for the specific experiment doc like Diode I-V, Zener I-V, etc.
  • Put the folder containing all html, CSS, js files in assets folder and request for the HTML doc files locally.

The PSLab developer team went with the second option as the availability of  Internet  is necessary for the performing experiment if we follow the first option and so to avoid this dependence on the Internet, we went with the second option and stored HTML docs locally in assets folder.


  • Put the folder containing all the HTML, CSS, JS files in the assets folder in your android project. In this case the folder is DOC_HTML.

  • Define the WebView in xml and take the webView‚Äôs reference in your activity/fragment
    In xml
   android:layout_height="match_parent" />

In activity/fragment

webView = (WebView) view.findViewById(;
  • Load the url in webView in the format as shown below
webView.loadUrl("file:///android_asset/DOC_HTML/apps/" + htmlFile);

‚Äúfile:///‚ÄĚ acts as resource identifier, so file:///android_asset/‚ÄĚ actually points to ‚Äúpslab-android/app/src/main/assets/‚ÄĚ.
From the assets directory, we can a provide route to any HTML file. Here I put all HTML files in apps folder and used the string variable ‚ÄúhtmlFile‚ÄĚ to point to the specific html file.

Similarly html files stored in the external storage can also be accessed but there are some cases you need to handle. For example,if external storage is mounted, you can’t request the html file from external storage.

To request html files from external storage, make sure that you have the following permission in your AndroidManifest.xml

<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.READ_EXTERNAL_STORAGE" />
String baseDir = Environment.getExternalStorageDirectory().getAbsolutePath();

Relative to baseDir you can specify the path from your html files, like

baseDir + ‚ÄúDOC_HTML/apps‚ÄĚ + htmlFile


Putting HTML files in the assets folder and requesting it by webView‚Äôs loadURL() method is the best but there are various drawbacks of using this method like the increase in size of the apk. In our case, the normal apk size was 3MB but after adding the html doc folder it increased to 7MB. It increased by almost an additional size of the html folder added in assets. As it’s written, in the android‚Äôs project overview guide, the assets folder contains files that should be compiled into an .apk file as-is.


Plotting Digital Logic Lines In PSLab Android App

The PSLab device offers the Logic Analyzer functionality. A Logic Analyzer is a laboratory instrument that can capture and display digital signals from a digital system or circuit. It is similar to what an oscilloscope is for analog signals and is used to study timing relationship between different logic lines. It plots the logic lines/timing diagram which tells us the information about the state of the Digital System at any instant of time. For example, in the image below we can study the states of digital signals from channels ID1, ID2, ID3 at different times and find parameters like the propagation delay. It’s also used to find errors in Integrated Circuits (ICs) and debug logic circuits.

How I plotted ideal logic lines using MPAndroid Chart library?

Conventional method of adding data points results in the plot as illustrated in the image below. By conventional method I mean basically adding Y-axis (logic state) values corresponding to X-axis values (timestamp).

Result with normal adding and plotting data-points

In the above plot, logic lines follow non-ideal behaviour i.e they take some time in changing their state from high to low. This non-ideal behaviour of these lines increases when the user zooms in graph to analyse timestamps.

Solution to how we can achieve ideal behaviour of logic lines:

A better solution is to make use of timestamps for generating logic lines i.e time instants at which logic made a transition from HIGH -> LOW or LOW -> HIGH. Lets try to figure out with an example:

Timestamps = { 1, 3, 5, 8, 12 } and initial state is HIGH ( i.e at t = 0, it’s HIGH ). This implies that at t = 1, transition from HIGH to LOW took place so at t = 0, it’s HIGH, t = 1 it’s both HIGH and LOW, ¬†at t = 2 it’s LOW.
Now at t = 0 & t = 2, you can simple put y = 1 and 0 respectively. But how do you add data-point for t = 1. Trick is to see how transition is taking place, if it’s HIGH to LOW then add first 1 for t = 1 and then 0 for t = 1.
So the set of points look something like this:

( Y, X ) ( LOGIC , TIME ) -> ( 1, 0 ) ( 1, 1 ) ( 0, 1) ( 0, 2 ) ( 0, 3 ) ( 1, 3 )  ( 1, 4 ) …

Code snippet for adding coordinates in this fashion:

int[] time = timeStamps.get(j);
for (int i = 0; i < time.length; i++) {
   if (initialState) {
       // Transition from HIGH -> LOW
       tempInput.add(new Entry(time[i], 1));
       tempInput.add(new Entry(time[i], 0));
   } else {
       // Transition from LOW -> HIGH
       tempInput.add(new Entry(time[i], 0));
       tempInput.add(new Entry(time[i], 1));

   // changing state variable
   initialState = !initialState;

After adding data-points in above mentioned way, we obtained ideal logic lines successfully as illustrated in the image given below


Expandable ListView In PSLab Android App

In the PSLab Android App, we show a list of experiments for the user to perform or refer to while performing an experiment, using PSLab hardware device. A long list of experiments need to be subdivided into topics like Electronics, Electrical, School Level, Physics, etc. In turn, each category like Electronics, Electrical, etc can have a sub-list of experiments like:

  • Electronics
    • Diode I-V characteristics
    • Zener I-V characteristics
    • Transistor related experiments
  • Electrical
    • Transients RLC
    • Bode Plots
    • Ohm’s Law

This list can continue in similar fashion for other categories as well. We had to  display  this experiment list to the users with a good UX, and ExpandableListView seemed the most appropriate option.

ExpandableListView is a two-level listView. In the Group view an individual item can be expanded to show it’s children. The Items associated with ExpandableListView come from ExpandableListAdapter.









Implementation of Experiments List Using ExpandableListView

First, the ExpandableListView was declared in the xml layout file inside some container like LinearLayout/RelativeLayout.

<LinearLayout xmlns:android=""
       android:dividerHeight="2dp" />

Then we populated the data onto the ExpandableListView, by making an adapter for ExpandableListView by extending BaseExpandableListAdapter and implementing its methods. We then passed a Context, List<String> and Map<String,List<String>> to the Adapter constructor.

Context: for inflating the layout

List<String>: contains titles of unexpanded list

Map<String,List<String>>: contains sub-list mapped with title string

public SavedExperimentAdapter(Context context,
                                 List<String> experimentGroupHeader,
                                 HashMap<String, List<String>> experimentList) {
       this.context = context;
       this.experimentHeader = experimentGroupHeader;
       this.experimentList = experimentList;

In getGroupView() method, we inflate, set title and return group view i.e the main list that we see on clicking and the  sub-list is expanded. You can define your own layout in xml and inflate it. For PSLab Android, we used the default one provided by Android

public View getGroupView(int groupPosition, boolean isExpanded, View convertView, ViewGroup parent) {
   String headerTitle = (String) getGroup(groupPosition);
   if (convertView == null) {
       LayoutInflater inflater = (LayoutInflater) this.context.getSystemService(Context.LAYOUT_INFLATER_SERVICE);
       convertView = inflater.inflate(android.R.layout.simple_expandable_list_item_2, null);
   TextView tvExperimentListHeader = (TextView) convertView.findViewById(;
   tvExperimentListHeader.setTypeface(null, Typeface.BOLD);
   TextView tvTemp = (TextView) convertView.findViewById(;
   return convertView;

Similarly, in getChildView() method, we inflate, set data and return child view. We wanted simple TextView as sub-list item thus inflated the layout containing only TextView and setText by taking reference of textView from the inflated view.

public View getChildView(int groupPosition, int childPosition, boolean isLastChild, View convertView, ViewGroup parent) {
   String experimentName = (String) getChild(groupPosition, childPosition);
   if (convertView == null) {
       LayoutInflater inflater = (LayoutInflater) this.context.getSystemService(Context.LAYOUT_INFLATER_SERVICE);
       convertView = inflater.inflate(R.layout.experiment_list_item, null);
   TextView tvExperimentTitle = (TextView) convertView.findViewById(;
   return convertView;

The complete code for the Adapter can be seen here.

After creating the adapter we proceeded similarly to the normal ListView. Take the reference for ExpandableListView by findViewById() or BindView if you are using ButterKnife and set the adapter as an instance of adapter created above.

ExpandableListView experimentExpandableList;
experimentAdapter = new SavedExperimentAdapter(context, headerList, map);
Source: PSLab Android


We are planning to divide the experiment sub-list into categories like

  • Electronics
    • Diode
      • Diode I-V
      • Zener I-V
      • Diode Clamping
      • Diode Clipping
    • BJT and FET
      • Transistor CB (Common Base)
      • Transistor CE (Common Emitter)
      • Transistor Amplifier
      • N-FET output characteristic
    • Op-Amps
      • ‚Ķ
  • Electrical
    • ‚Ķ

This is a bit more complex than it looks, I tried using an ExpandableListView as a child for a group item but ran into some errors. I will write a post as soon as this view hierarchy has been achieved.


The Pocket Science Lab: Who Needs it, and Why

Science and technology share a symbiotic relationship. The degree of success of experimentation is largely dependent on the accuracy and flexibility of instrumentation tools at the disposal of the scientist, and the subsequent findings in fundamental sciences drive innovation in technology itself. In addition to this, knowledge must be free as in freedom. That is, all information towards constructing such tools and using them must be freely accessible for the next generation of citizen scientists. A common platform towards sharing results can also be considered in the path to building a better open knowledge network.

But before we get to scientists, we need to consider the talent pool in the student community that gave rise to successful scientists, and the potential talent pool that lost out on the opportunity to better contribute to society because of an inadequate support system. And this brings us to the Pocket Science Lab

How can PSLab help electronics engineers & students?

This device packs a variety of fundamental instruments into one handy package, with a Bill-of-materials that’s several orders of magnitude less than a distributed set of traditional instruments.

It does not claim to be as good as a Giga Samples Per second oscilloscope, or a 22-bit multimeter, but has the potential to offer a greater learning experience. Here’s how:

  • A fresh perspective to characterize the real world. The visualization tools that can be coded on an Android device/Desktop (3D surface plots, waterfall charts, thermal distributions etc ), are far more advanced than what one can expect from a reasonably priced oscilloscope. If the same needs to be achieved with an ordinary scope, a certain level of technical expertise is expected from the user who must interface the oscilloscope with a computer, and write their own acquisition & visualization app.
  • Reduce the entry barrier for advanced experiments.: All the tools are tightly integrated in a cost-effective package, and even the average undergrad student that has been instructed to walk on eggshells around a conventional scope, can now perform elaborate data acquisition tasks such as plotting the resonant frequency of a tuning fork as a function of the relative humidity/temperature. The companion app is being designed to offer varying levels of flexibility as demanded by the target audience.

  • Is there a doctor in the house? With the feature set available in the PSlab , most common electronic components can be easily studied , and will save hours while prototyping new designs. ¬†Components such as resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors, Op-amps, LEDs, buffers etc can be tested.

How can PSLab help science enthusiasts ?

Physicists, Chemists and biologists in the applied fields are mostly dependent on instrument vendors for their measurement gear. Lack of an electronic/technical background hinders their ability to improve the gear at their disposal, and this is why a gauss meter which is basically a magnetometer coupled with a crude display in an oversized box with an unnecessarily huge transformer can easily cost upwards of $150 . The PSLab does not ask the user to be an electronics/robotics expert , but helps them to get straight to the acquisition part. It takes care of the communication protocols, calibration requirements, and also handles visualization via attractive plots.

A physicist might not know what I2C is , but is more than qualified to interpret the data acquired from a physical sensor, and characterize its accuracy.

  • The magnetometer (HMC5883L) can be used to demonstrate the dependence of the axial magnetic field on distance from the center of a solenoid
  • The pressure,temperature sensor (BMP280) can be used to verify the gas laws, and verify thermodynamic phenomena against prevalent theories.

Similarly, a chemist can use an RGB sensor (TCS3200) to put the colour of a solution into numbers, and develop a colorimeter in the process. Colorimeters are quite handy for determining molality of coloured solutions., and commercial ones are rather expensive. What it also needs is a set of LEDs with known wavelengths, and most manufacturers offer proper characterisation information.

What does it mean for the hobbyist?

It is capable of greatly speeding up the troubleshooting process . It can also instantly characterize the expected data from various sensors so that the hobbyist can code accordingly. For example, ‚Äėbeyond what tilt threshold & velocity should my humanoid robot swing its arms forward in order to prevent a broken nose?‚Äô . That‚Äôs not a question that can be easily answered by said hobbyist who is currently in the process of developing his/her own acquisition system.

How can we involve the community?

The PSLab features an experiment designer that speeds acquisition by providing spreadsheets, analytical tools, and visualisation options all in one place. An option for users to upload their new experiments/utilities to the cloud, and subject those to a peer-review process has been planned. Following which , these new experiments can be pumped back into the ecosystem which will find more uses for it, improve it, and so on.

For example , a user can combine the waveform generator with an analog multiplier IC, and develop a spectrum analyzer.

The case for self-reliance

The average undergraduate laboratory currently employs dedicated instruments for each experiment as prescribed by the curriculum. These instruments often only include the measurement tools essential to the experiment, and students merely repeat the procedure verbatim. That’s not experimentation, it’s rather just verification. PSLab offers a wide array of additional instruments that can be employed by the student to enhance the experiment with their own inputs.

For example, a commonly used diode IV curve-tracer kit usually has a couple of power supplies, a voltmeter, and an ammeter. But, if a student wishes to study the impact of temperature on the band gap, he will hard pressed for the additional tools, and software to combine the acquisition process. With the PSLab, however , he/she can pick from a variety of temperature sensors (LM35, BMP180, Si7021 .. ) depending on the requirement, and explore beyond the book. They are thus better prepared to enter research labs .

And in conclusion , this project has immense potential to help create the next generation of scientists, engineers and creators.



Handling graph plots using MPAndroid chart in PSLab Android App

In PSLab Android App, we expose the Oscilloscope and Logic Analyzer functionality of PSLab hardware device. After reading data-points to plot, we need to show plot data on graphs for better understanding and visualisation. Sometimes we need to save graphs to show output/findings of the experiment. Hence we will be using MPAndroidChart library to plot and save graphs as it provides a nice and clean methods to do so.

First add MPAndroid Chart as dependency in your app build.gradle to include the library

dependencies {
 compile 'com.github.PhilJay:MPAndroidChart:v3.0.2'

For chart view in your layout file, there are many available options like Line Chart, Bar Chart, Pie Chart, etc. For this post I am going to use Line Chart.

Add LineChart in your layout file

        android:layout_height="match_parent" />

Take a reference to LineChart of layout file in your Activity/Fragment

LineChart lineChart = (LineChart) findViewById(;// Activity
LineChart lineChart = (LineChart) view.findViewById(;// Fragment

Now we add dataset to LineChart of layout file, I am going to add data for two curves sine and cosine function to plot sine and cosine wave on LineChart. We create two different LineDataSet one for the sine curve entries and other for the cosine curve entries.

List <Entry> sinEntries = new ArrayList<>(); // List to store data-points of sine curve 
List <Entry> cosEntries = new ArrayList<>(); // List to store data-points of cosine curve

// Obtaining data points by using Math.sin and Math.cos functions
for( float i = 0; i < 7f; i += 0.02f ){
sinEntries.add(new Entry(i,(float)Math.sin(i)));
cosEntries.add(new Entry(i,(float)Math.cos(i)));

List<ILineDataSet> dataSets = new ArrayList<>(); // for adding multiple plots

LineDataSet sinSet = new LineDataSet(sinEntries,"sin curve");
LineDataSet cosSet = new LineDataSet(cosEntries,"cos curve");

// Adding colors to different plots 

// Adding each plot data to a List

// Setting datapoints and invalidating chart to update with data points
lineChart.setData(new LineData(dataSets));

After adding datasets to chart and invalidating it, chart is refreshed with the data points which were added in dataset.

After plotting graph output would look like the image below:

You can change the dataset and invalidate chart to update it with latest dataset.

To save graph plot, make sure you have permission to write to external storage, if not add it into your manifest file

<manifest ...>
    <uses-permission android:name="android.permission.WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE" />

To save the photo of chart into Gallery:


To save a some specific location:

lineChart.saveToPath("title", "Location on SD Card");

If you want to do some resizing in chart or save two three charts in a single image, you can do so by taking out the Bitmaps and processing them to meet your requirements:



Packing and Unpacking Data in PSLab Android App

In PSLab we communicate with PSLab Hardware device, to exchange data, i.e we give a command or instruction and it responses accordingly. So this giving and receiving is in terms of packed byte string. Thus, we need some solid knowledge to pack and unpack data. In python communication library, there is struct module available. In JAVA we can use NIO’s ByteBuffer or implement our own functions. In this blog post I discuss both methods.  

In Python we have struct module for packing data in byte strings. As different languages interpret data types differently like Java takes 4 bytes for int and C++ takes 2 bytes for int. To send and receive data properly, we pack data in a byte string and unpack on other side with it’s data type properties. In PSLab, we have to communicate with device for various applications like getting calibration data during power up time as raw data doesn‚Äôt make much sense until calibration is applied on it.

You also need to take care of order of sequence of bytes like there are generally two types of order in which a sequence of bytes are stored in memory location:

  • Big – Endian: In which MSB is stored first.

    Source: Wikipedia
  • Little – Endian: In which LSB is stored first.

    Source: Wikipedia

In Python

The standard sizes and format characters of particular data type can be seen in the image below.

Format C Type Python Type Standard
x Pad byte No value
c char string of length 1 1
b signed char integer 1
B unsigned char integer 1
? _Bool bool 1
h short integer 2
H unsigned short integer 2
i int integer 4
I unsigned int integer 4
l long integer 4
L unsigned long integer 4
q long long integer 8
Q unsigned long long integer 8
f float float 4
d double float 8
s char[] string
p char[] string
P void* integer

Source: Python Docs

For Packing data

import struct
struct.Struct(“B”).pack(254) ¬† # Output -> ¬†b’\xfe’
a = struct.Struct(“I”).pack(2544) ¬† # Output -> b’\xf0\t\x00\x00′

Now a is the byte string that has packed value as 2544, this can be send to some device byte by byte and reconstructed on receiving side by knowing how many bytes does the data type received contains.

For Unpacking data

import struct
struct.unpack(“I”,a) ¬†# Output -> (2544,)


For Packing data

Suppose you have to pack an integer, in java int takes 32 bits (4 bytes)

Using JAVA’s NIO’s ByteBuffer

byte[] bytes = ByteBuffer.allocate(4).putInt(2544).array();

If you want hardcore method to see what exactly is happening, use

byte[] intToByteArray(int value){
 return new byte[]{
     (byte)value >>> 24,
     (byte)value >>> 16,
     (byte)value >>> 8,

“>>>”¬†is used for unsigned shifting, you can use according to your requirements.

After you have your byte array, you can easily create a string out of it and transmit.

For Unpacking data

Using JAVA’s NIO’s ByteBuffer

int fromByteArray(byte[] bytes){
int a = ByteBuffer.wrap(bytes).getInt();
return a;

It assumes that byte array is stored as Big Endian, if bytes in byte array is stored as Little Endian, add order() after wrap()

int fromByteArray(byte[] bytes){
int a = ByteBuffer.wrap(bytes).order(ByteOrder.LITTLE_ENDIAN).getInt();
return a;

Note: Make sure the bytes array that you provide has same number of bytes as that of the data type that you are trying to unpack. For example: if you want int, bytes array should have 4 bytes as int type in JAVA has 4 bytes. If you want short, bytes array should have 2 bytes as short type in JAVA has 2 bytes.

To visualise underlying implementation, see

int from byteArray(byte[] bytes){
return bytes[0] << 24 | bytes[1] << 16 | bytes[2] << 8 | bytes[3];

In all above implementation big-endian order was assumed, you can modify function if you are using little-endian or some other sequence.


Communication by pySerial python module in PSLab

In the PSLab Desktop App we use Python for communication between the PC and PSLab device. The PSLab device is connected to PC via USB cable. The power for the hardware device is provided by the host through USB which in this case is a PC. We need well structured methods to establish communication between PC and PSLab device and this is where pySerial module comes in. We will discuss how to communicate efficiently from PC to a device like PSLab itself using pySerial module.

How to read and write data back to PSLab device?

pySerial is a python module which is used to communicate serially with microcontroller devices like Arduino, RaspBerry Pi, PSLab (Pocket Science Lab), etc. Serial data transfer is easier using this module, you just need to open a port and obtain serial object, which provides useful and powerful functionality. Users can send string (which is an array of bytes) or any other data type all data types can be expressed as byte string using struct module in python, read a specific number of bytes or read till some specific character like ‚Äė\n‚Äô is encountered. We are using this module to create custom read and write functions.

How to Install pySerial and obtain serial object for communication?

You can install pySerial using pip by following command

pip install pyserial

Once it’s installed we can now import it in our python script for use.

Obtain Serial Object

In Linux

>>> import serial
>>> ser = serial.Serial(‘/dev/ttyUSB0’)

In Windows

>>> ser = serial.Serial()
>>> ser.baudrate = 19200
>>> ser.port = ‘COM1’


>>> ser = serial.Serial(‘COM1’, 19200)

You can specify other properties like timeout, stopbits, etc to Serial constructor.

Complete list of parameters is available here. Now this ‚Äúser‚ÄĚ is an object of Serial class that provides all the functionalities through its interface. In PSLab we obtain a serial object and implement custom methods to handle communication which isn‚Äôt directly provided by pySerial, for example if we need to implement a function to get the version of the PSLab device connected. Inside the version read function we need to send some bytes to the device in order to obtain the version string from device as a byte response.

What goes under the hood?

We send some sequence of bytes to PSLab device, every sequence of bytes corresponds to a unique function which is already written in device’s firmware. Device recognises the function and responses accordingly.

Let’s look at code to understand it better.

ser.write(struct.Struct(‘B’).pack(11)) ¬†# ¬†Sends 11 as byte string
ser.write(struct.Struct(‘B’).pack(5)) ¬†¬†# ¬†Sends 5 as bytes string
x = ser.readline() ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†# ¬†Reads bytes until ‚Äė\n‚Äô is encountered ¬†¬†

To understand packing and unpacking using struct module, you can have a read at my other blog post Packing And Unpacking Data in JAVA in which I discussed packing and unpacking of data as byte strings and touched a bit on How it’s done in Python. ¬†

You can specify how many bytes you want to read like shown in code below, which is showing and example for 100 bytes :

x =

After your communication is complete you can simply close the port by:


Based on these basic interface methods more complex functions can be written to handle your specific needs. More details one how to implement custom methods is available at python-communication-library of PSLab which uses pySerial for communication between Client and PSLab device.

An example of custom read function is suppose I want to write a function to read an int from the device. int is of 2 bytes as firmware is written in C, so we read 2 bytes from device and unpack them in client side i.e on PC. For more such custom functions refer of PSLab python communication library.

def getInt(self):
      reads two bytes from the serial port and
      returns an integer after combining them
      ss =  # reading 2 bytes from serial object
          if len(ss) == 2:
              return CP.ShortInt.unpack(ss)[0]  # unpacking bytes to make int
      except Exception as ex:
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†self.raiseException(ex, “Communication Error , Function : get_Int”)


Environment Monitoring with PSLab

In this post, we shall explore the working principle and output signals of particulate matter sensors, and explore how the PSLab can be used as a data acquisition device for these.

Working Principle

A commonly used technique employed by particulate matter sensors is to study the diffraction of light by dust particles, and estimate the concentration based on a parameter termed the ‚Äėoccupancy factor‚Äô.¬†The following image illustrates how the most elementary particle sensors work using a photogate, and a small heating element to ensure continuous air flow by convection.

Occupancy Rate

Each time a dust particle of aerodynamic diameters 2.5um passes through the lit area, a phenomenon called Mie scattering which defines scattering of an electromagnetic plane wave by a homogenous sphere of diameter comparable to the wavelength of incident light, results in a photo-signal to be detected by the photosensor.  In more accurate dust sensors, a single wavelength source with a high quality factor such as a laser is used instead of LEDs which typically have broader spectra.

The signal output from the photosensor is in the form of intermittent digital pulses whenever a particle is detected. The occupancy ratio can be determined by measuring the sum total of time when a positive signal was output from the sensor to the total averaging time. The readings can be taken over a fairly long amount of time such as 30 seconds in order to get a more accurate representation of the occupancy ratio.

Using the Logic analyzer to capture and interpret signals

The PSLab has a built-in logic analyzer that can acquire data signals up to 67 seconds long at its highest sampling rate, and this period is more than sufficient to record and interpret a dataset from a dust sensor. An inexpensive dust sensor, DSM501A was chosen for the readings, and the following results were obtained

Dust sensor readings from an indoor, climate controlled environment. After the 100 second mark, the windows were opened to expose the sensor to the outdoor environment.

A short averaging time has resulted in large fluctuations in the readings, and therefore it is important to maintain longer averaging times for stable measurements.

Recording data with a python script instead of the app

The output of the dust sensor must be connected to ID1 of the PSLab, and both devices must share a common ground which is a prerequisite for exchange of DC signals. All that is required is to start the logic analyzer in single channel mode, wait for a specified averging time, and interpret the acquired data

from PSL import sciencelab   #import the required library
import time
import numpy as np
I = sciencelab.connect()           #Create the instance
I.start_one_channel_LA(channel='ID1',channel_mode=1,trigger_mode=0)  #record all level changes
time.sleep(30)   #Wait for 30 seconds while the PSLab gathers data from the dust sensor
a,_,_,_,e =I.get_LA_initial_states()      #read the status of the logic analyzer
raw_data =I.fetch_long_data_from_LA(a,1)  #fetch number of samples available in chan #1
stamps =I.dchans[0].timestamps    #Obtain a copy of the timestamps
if len(stamps)>2:   #If more than two timestamps are available (At least one dust particle was detected
		if not self.I.dchans[0].initial_state:   #Ensure the starting position of timestamps
			stamps = stamps[1:] - stamps[0]   # is in the LOW state
	diff = np.diff(stamps)   #create an array of individual time gaps between successive level changes

	lows = diff[::2]      #Array of time durations when a particle was not present
	highs = diff[1::2]    #Array of time durations when a particle was present
	low_occupancy = 100*sum(lows)/stamps[-1] #Occupancy ratio
print (low_occupancy) # datasheets of individual dust sensors also provide a mathematical
                      #equation to interpret the occupancy ratio as concentration of
				#particulate matter

Further Reading, and application notes:

[1] LED based  dust Sensor application note