Sphero Wasn’t Actually Behind the BB-8

Despite quite a few articles stating Sphero was behind the technology that made the real movie BB-8 droid, like this Tech Crunch article:

Sphero, makers of the eponymous spherical robots that you control with your smartphone — as well as the new BB-8 droid in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

and this excerpt from Fortune Magazine:

The same underlying technology (made by Sphero), which was licensed to create the version of BB-8 that graced the stage at the Star Wars Celebration…

Heck, even we drank the jungle juice with our original coverage! But now it seems the truth is finally coming out. As it turns out, it was actually built in Pinewood by the Creature Animatronics (CFX) team which includes [Matt Denton] — He’s the guy who built the Mantis Robot. A hacker / engineer — not a big toy company.

Two articles released this week on StarWars.com and EmpireOnline.com name various people from the CFX team at Pinewood as having built the movie puppets and the real BB-8. No mention of Sphero at all of course. They also state that they had to come up with the technology from scratch and that nothing like it already existed.

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Embed with Elliot: Practical State Machines

Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens. They’re ok, but state machines are absolutely on our short list of favorite things.

There are probably as many ways to implement a state machine as there are programmers. These range from the terribly complex, one-size-fits-all frameworks down to simply writing a single switch...case block. The frameworks end up being a little bit of a black box, especially if you’re just starting out, while the switch...case versions are very easy to grok, but they don’t really help you write clear, structured code.

In this extra-long edition of Embed with Elliot, we’ll try to bridge the middle ground, demonstrating a couple of state machines with an emphasis on practical coding. We’ll work through a couple of examples of the different ways that they can be implemented in code. Along the way, we’ll Goldilocks solution for a particular application I had, controlling a popcorn popper that had been hacked into a coffee roaster. Hope you enjoy.

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Tint your Epoxy Resin with Toner Powder

Epoxy resin is useful stuff. Whether for gluing stuff together or potting components, epoxy is a cheap and versatile polymer that finds its way into many hackish projects. But let’s face it – the stock color of most commercially available epoxies lacks a certain pizzazz. Luckily, [Rupert Hirst] at Tallman Labs shows us that epoxy is easily tinted with toner powder from a laser printer or copier.

Looking for a way to make his epoxy blend into a glue-up, [Rupert] also demonstrates that colored epoxy makes a professional looking potting compound. There’s just something about the silky, liquid look of a blob of cured black epoxy. [Rupert] harvested his toner powder from a depleted printer cartridge; only a smidgen is needed, so you should be able to recover plenty before recycling the cartridge. We’ve got to admit that seeing toner handled without gloves gives us the willies, though. And don’t forget that you can find cyan, magenta and yellow cartridges too if basic black isn’t your thing.

Sometimes it’s better to leave your epoxy somewhat clear, like when you’re potting an LED matrix for a pendant. But this neat trick might just spiff up your next project a bit.

[Thanks, Jake]

Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: A Mobile Node

The future is the Internet of Things, or so we’re told, and with that comes the requirement for sensors attached to the Internet that also relay GPS and location data. [Camilo]’s MobileNodes do just that. He’s designed a single device that will listen to any sensor, upload that data to the Internet over GSM or GPRS, and push all that data to the cloud.

The MobileNode is a small circular (7cm) PCB with a standard ATMega32u4 microcontroller. Attached to this PCB are GSM/GPRS and GPS/GLONASS modules to receive GPS signals and relay all that data to the cloud. To this, just about any sensor can be added, including light sensors, PIR sensors, gas and temperature sensors, and just about anything else that can be measured electronically.

Of course the biggest problem with a bunch of sensors on an Internet of Things device is pulling the data from the Internet. For that, [Camilo] designed a web interface that shows sensor data directly on a Google Map. You can check out the project video below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Sending Serial Data from… Excel?

When you think about serial communications, Microsoft Excel isn’t typically the first program that springs to mind. But this spreadsheet has a rather powerful scripting language hidden away inside it, which can, with a little coding, be used to send and receive data over your serial port. The scripting language is called Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), and it has been a part of Microsoft’s Office suite since 1993. Since then, it has evolved into a powerful (if sometimes frustrating) language that offers a subset of the features from Visual Basic.

It can be a useful tool. Imagine, for instance, that you are logging data from an instrument that has a serial port (or even an emulated one over USB). With a bit of VBA, you could create a spreadsheet that talks to the instrument directly, grabbing the data and processing it as required straight into the spreadsheet. It’s a handy trick that I have used myself several times, and [Maurizio] does a nice job of explaining how the code works, and how to integrate this code into Excel.

If you’re looking for other ways to leverage this Excel feature, consider watching movies at work or building a virtual machine inside of your sheets.

The Kraakdoos — Musical Abuser of an Ancient OpAmp

A friend from the newly founded Yeovil Hackerspace introduced me to a device known as “The Kraakdoos” or cracklebox.

The cracklebox is an early electronic instrument produced by STEIM in the 1970s. The instrument consists of a single PCB with a number of copper pads exposed on one side. The player touches the pads and the instrument emits… sounds which can perhaps best be described as squeeze and squeals.

While the cracklebox was original sold as a complete instrument, the device has been reverse engineered, and the schematic documented. What lies inside is quite fascinating.

The heart of the cracklebox is an ancient opamp, the LM709. The LM709 is the predecessor to the famous LM741. Unlike the 741 was 709 had no internal frequency compensation. Frequency compensation is used to intentionally limit the bandwidth of an opamp. As input frequency increases, the phase shift of the opamp also increases. This can result in undesirable oscillation, as the feedback network forms an unintentional phase-shift oscillator.

Most modern opamps have internal frequency compensation, but the 709 doesn’t. Let’s see how this is used in the cracklebox:

krackdoos_schRather than using the frequency compensation pins as intended the cracklebox just routes them out to pads. In fact the cracklebox routes almost all the pins on the opamp out to pads, including the inverting and non-inverting inputs. A single 1MOhm feedback resistor is used in a non-inverting configuration. However reports suggest the instrument can work without a feedback resistor at all!

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