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Hitting the road with an IBM Master Inventor

Posted: 16 Jan 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:david lammers? ee times? nizam ishmael? ibm corp.? ibm?

At the age of 30, Nizam Ishmael has enough patents under his belt to rank as one of the youngest engineers to attain IBM Corp.'s Master Inventor designation. Ishmael's ancestors emigrated from India to the South American nation of Guyana during the British colonial era. Ishmael spent part of his childhood in New York, before moving with his family to Texas. He has been a Texan ever since. Now based at IBM's Austin facility, he travels widely, having taught courses on IBM's software products in a dozen nations. What started out as a conversation about software engineering turned into a joyride around Austin in Ishmael's 1998 Corvette.

EE Times: How did you get interested in cars?
Nizam Ishmael: When I was a kid, we had a 1984 Caprice station wagon in puke-brown color. I just had to learn how the engine would run. A cousin and I were always talking about the newest Ferrari model coming out at the time. So when I got my job at IBM in 1999, I looked around for a sports car. I wanted something fast.

But I crashed my first Corvette. I wasn't used to a V8. I was going just fast enoughabout 85mphso that when I hit some debris in the road, I lost it and hit a wall. I made an offer on eBay for another Corvette. I wanted another coupe either in silver or pewter. I made a lowball offer to a guy in San Diego for $20,000 that I never thought he would accept. He called me and I drove it back from Los Angeles to Austin.

How did you begin upgrading your car?
I started racing the car at track events. At one point, my girlfriend thought I was crazy because I had 18 sets of tires in my garage. During that time, I learned the car's limits, which helps a whole lot. I do all the maintenance myselfI redid the suspension, put in new shocks, exhaust and sway bars. So I was going to all of these racing events and I wanted a way to record some of them. I thought it would be cool to get a camera into the car.

You control that with a screen?
That started when somebody bumped my car while it was at the airport for a few days. I wanted the camera to record while I wasn't in the car. And there were other things I wanted to bring into it. Vendors had MP3 players for cars, but they were really expensive at about $500 or $600. There was GPS for consumers back in 2002, but they were extraordinarily expensive$3,000 to $4,000. I thought, 'How can I do all that without spending all this money and buying all these different things?' The answer was to put a computer in my car, since I knew that cameras and lower-cost GPS could be connected to laptops.

Does the computer run on your car battery?
I had to do a lot of research on the type of computer to install. A lot of guys buy a regular inverter, plug it into a 12Vdc battery, then plug the computer into the AC. I didn't like that ideait wasn't efficient. You lose 20 percent of the energy going from DC to AC, and another 20 percent going back from AC to DC. I found one motherboard from Via Technologies that runs directly off of a 12Vdc battery. The motherboard pulls only 28W.

But you don't want to run the computer off the main battery, and I wanted the computer to run when the car wasn't running. Not many shops have experience putting two batteries in a Corvette. I found a battery isolatorit doesn't take a generic one. And it was a tight fit because I have a subwoofer in the trunk. The Via motherboard worked really well it fits in the glove box.

I just bought a new shutdown controller. The Via computer requires 11.5-12.5V. But when the battery in the back gets older, it can drop down to 11V. When the alternator is working, that's fine, but the alternator doesn't run all the time. The new shutdown controller has a voltage regulator that always has 12V coming out. The voltage regulator will play really well in the next projecta non-factory alarm with several sensors around the car. I can reprogram the alarm, control it from the computer interface and control the alarm remotely.

Everything connects to a motherboard in your glove box?
Everything is USB-based, so there are no riser boards. I had a good idea of where I wanted it to go and, back in 2002, I researched it all to make sure everything I wanted was available as USB devices. There is GPS, then a video capture card that includes TV and an FM tuner. The third USB is a wireless card, so I can reprogram the computer from the house when it is too hot to go out to the garage. The fourth is the touchscreen, the fifth is XM satellite radio, the sixth is just a keyboard.

You program it yourself?
I chose Windows because the GPS software for Linux didn't have all the functionality I was looking for. I wanted an open-source interface because I want to look at the code. If there is a problem, I can see where the error is. I use the Road Runner interface from a guy whose name is Guino, I believe, based in the United Kingdom. He writes all of the code for Road Runner. That's the interface, and all of the other softwarefor the GPS and XM radio and so onruns in the background. All the buttons on the touchscreen are on soft keys that I can reskin to make them look however I want. I can script it so that when the car turns on, the computer goes into satellite radio and starts up with, say, Channel 30. The video card runs on open-source code called Radiator. It supports Winamp and I use that to play the local FM stations off the Radiator.

What about the muffler? Has that been modified?
It is nice to have a big rumbly engine, but this is my only car and you can go nuts from the noise. I put in electric cutouts, which allow you to bypass the mufflers, though this is only legal to use when you are racing. I got an electric actuator, which is a motor with a round butterfly valvebasically, a round disk that swivels. I push this button and it opens or closes. I had to find someone who could weld really well; it was a four- or five-hour welding job.

What do you do at IBM these days?
I'm a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to IBM software, but there are certain areas I like to focus on. I have an interest in autonomic computinghow self-sustaining systems are going to work. I had to write part of a class on it. And the best way to learn is to get hands-on experience. So I figured out how to make an application talk to another application, which talks to the OS. I also took a lead position in business integration. After two companies have joined, they often want to know, 'How do we use their applications? How do we use our database with their database?' That's pretty cool to work on.

What are some of your inventions?
I came up with a lock that keeps your computer locked down with your Ethernet cord. It is not a particularly significant inventionit's just a good idea. I did some work on collaborative e-mail and already have several patents from that. When several people are collaborating, you add something, which is sent back to others in the group so they can see what you added. I developed the workings underneath so that it was more efficient. That was a significant idea.

Tell us about IBM's system for encouraging patentable inventions.
When I was an intern, I worked on technology that did searches on the Web and on your own computer system. It had to work on all systems, not just IBM's AIX OS. And it had to have national-language support. This was back in 1997 and 1998. My manager worked with me. We got an IBM lawyer, worked with a patent writer and filed it. I thought, 'I'm just an intern and I'm doing all this cool stuff.'

I have submitted 50 patent applications. One has been rejected and 12 accepted so far. It takes about four years to become an IBM Master Inventor, which means you have achieved several plateaus, based on gaining a certain number of patents. Of course, they want to know whether the ideas are worthwhile. Then the committee has to vote on whether the person worked with other inventors and gave enough presentations to groups on the patent process. Those are all part of the requirements to be a master inventor.

- David Lammers
EE Times

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