Pips Help Everyone Around the House

Sometimes you start a project with every intention of using it in a specific way, or maybe your plan is to have a very well-defined set of features. Often, though, our projects go in a completely different direction than we might have intended. That seems to be the case with [Dave] and his Pips. These tiny devices were originally intended to be used by people with disabilities, but it turns out that they’re a perfect platform for this “Internet of Things” thing that we’ve been hearing so much about.

Built around the Bright Blue Bean microcontroller platform to take advantage of its low energy requirements, the Pips were originally intended to be placed around the house where they would light up to remind the user to perform some task. Once the button was pushed, the next Pip in the sequence would activate. While they are quite useful for people with cognitive or sensory impairments, they can also be used in a similar way to the Amazon Dash button or any other simple internet-enabled device. Especially when used in conjunction with a home automation setup, this device could be used in novel ways, such as automating your morning routine without having to add a weight sensor to your bed.

We are also pleased to see that all of the project files are available on GitHub for anyone looking to try this out. Its interesting when something that was originally intended to help out anyone with a disability finds a use somewhere else that it might not have originally been intended for. After all, though, the principle of using things in novel ways is kind of the entire basis of this community.

Microcontrollers now substitute for CPUs

Microcontrollers are getting faster and faster, as is most of the rest of the computing world. Just like you can play Nintendo console games on the newest Nintendo handhelds, it seems that modern microcontrollers can replace CPUs on personal computers from the 80s. At least, that’s what [Dave] has shown with his latest project: an Atmel microcontroller that directly attaches to the CPU slot on a Commodore PET.

Essentially, the project started out as a test rig of sorts for the Commodore. [Dave] wanted to see if some of the hardware on the Commodore was still functional and behaving properly. From there, it somewhat snowballed. The address bus was easy enough to investigate, but adding only a few more pins on the microcontroller he was already using would be enough to access the databus too. A character table was soon added, a test algorithm, and more useful insights. It’s a masterful manipulation of this older hardware with modern technology and is definitely worth a look.

There’s a lot more going on in the retrocomputing world than meets the eye. One might think these old computers were all in landfills by now, but there is a devoted fanbase that does everything from building new hard drives for old computers or investigating their true audio-visual potential.

Thanks to [Mike w] for the tip!

Hackaday Prize Entry: Modular, Low Cost Braille Display

A lot of work with binary arithmetic was pioneered in the mid-1800s. Boolean algebra was developed by George Boole, but a less obvious binary invention was created at this time: the Braille writing system. Using a system of raised dots (essentially 1s and 0s), visually impaired people have been able to read using their sense of touch. In the modern age of fast information, however, it’s a little more difficult. A number of people have been working on refreshable Braille displays, including [Madaeon] who has created a modular refreshable Braille display.

The idea is to recreate the Braille cell with a set of tiny solenoids. The cell is a set of dots, each of which can be raised or lowered in a particular arrangement to represent a letter or other symbol. With a set of solenoids, this can be accomplished rather rapidly. [Madaeon] has already prototyped these miniscule controllable dots using the latest 3D printing and laser cutting methods and is about ready to put together his first full Braille character.

While this isn’t quite ready for a full-scale display yet, the fundamentals look like a solid foundation for building one. This is all hot on the heels of perhaps the most civilized patent disagreement in history regarding a Braille display that’s similar. Hopefully all the discussion and hacking of Braille displays will bring the cost down enough that anyone who needs one will easily be able to obtain and use one.

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Modular Drum Machine Creates Random Rhythms

Don’t worry, the rhythms themselves aren’t random! That would hardly make for a useful drum machine. [kbob]’s creation does have the ability to randomly generate functional rhythms, though, and it’s all done on a breadboard.

The core of this tiny drum machine is two Teensy dev boards. One is an FM synth tuned to sound like drums, and the other is a random rhythm generator with several controls. The algorithms are from Mutable Instruments’ open source Eurorack modules. The entire thing fits on a breadboard with JIGMOD modules for the user interface. The machine runs on lithium batteries in the form of USB cell phone chargers. The battery holders were designed in Fusion 360 and 3D printed.

The function of the drum machine is pretty interesting as well. There are a set of triggers tied to the buttons on the machine. When a button is pressed, the drum machine plays that sound at the appropriate time, ensuring there are no offbeat beats. The potentiometers are polled once every millisecond and the program updates the output as required. There’s also a “grid” of rhythms that are controlled with two other knobs (one to map the X coordinate and the other for the Y) and a “chaos” button which adds an element of randomness to this mapping.

The modular nature of this project would make this a great instrument to add to one’s musical repertoire.It’s easily customizable, and could fit in with any of a number of other synthesizer instruments.

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GPS And SDR Combine Forces

Software-defined radio (or SDR) is a relatively new (to average tinkerers, at least) way of sending and receiving radio signals. The interest in SDR exploded recently with the realization that cheap USB TV tuner cards could be used to start exploring the frequency spectrum at an extremely reduced cost. One of the reasons that this is so advantageous is because of all of the options that a general-purpose computer opens up that go beyond transmitting and receiving, as [Chris] shows with his project that ties SDR together with GPS.

The goal of the project was to automatically tune a radio to the local police department’s frequency, regardless of location. To do this, a GPS receiver on a computer reports information about the current location. A JavaScript program feeds the location data to the SDR, which automatically tunes to the local emergency services frequencies. Of course, this relies on good data for what those frequencies are, but this is public information in most cases (at least in the US).

There are a lot of opportunities here for anyone with SDR. Maybe an emergency alert system that can tune to weather broadcasts if there’s a weather alert, or any of a number of other captivating projects. As for this project, [Chris] plans to use Google’s voice recognition software to transcribe the broadcasts as well. The world of SDR is at your fingertips to do anything you can imagine! And, if you’re looking to get started in it, be sure to check out the original post covering those USB TV tuner dongles.

New Hard Drives for Old Computers

After a certain age, computers start to show signs that they might need to be replaced or upgraded. After even more time, it starts getting hard to find parts to replace the failing components. And, as the sands slip through the hourglass, the standards used to design and build the computer start going obsolete. That’s the situation that [Drygol] found himself in when he was asked to build a SD-card hard drive for an Atari.

The 8-bit Atari in question was a fixture of home computing in the 80s. In fact, if you weren’t on the Commodore train, it’s likely that your computer of choice was an Atari. For the nostalgic among us, a new hard drive for these pieces of history is a great way to relive some of the past. Working off of information from the SIO2SD Wiki page, [Drygol] used the toner transfer method to build a PCB, 3D printed a case, and got to work on his decades-old computer.

Resurrecting old hardware is a great way to get into retrocomputing. Old protocols and standards are worth investigating because they’re from a time where programmers had to make every bit count, and there are some gems of genius hidden everywhere. Whether you’re reworking SIO from an old Atari, or building a disk emulator for an Apple ][, there are lots of options.

Turn Down the Bed, Turn Down the Lights

Home automation seems to be working its way to a computer-controlled future in which humans will be little more than an afterthought. Eventually they will take over Skynet-style, but until then, we will enjoy the relative comfort that a good home automation project provides. The latest from [Clement] certainly goes a long way towards this goal by automating his bed (Google Translate from French).

With four load cells and a microcontroller, [Clement]’s bed can tell whether or not he is sleeping. After taking a weight reading, the bed can send commands to the rest of his home automation system and tell it to turn off his stereo and turn the lights off in the house (or change them to a different color). And it doesn’t stop with just going to bed, but when he wakes up as well. The system can begin turning on lights, starting the coffee machine, and opening the blinds without any interaction from him at all.

This project goes well beyond simple home automation. With a little configuration and extrapolation, [Clement] can tell where in the bed he slept at night, what stages of sleep he was in at specific times, and the overall quality of his sleep. This could go a long way for someone who has a hard time sleeping and needs a little more information on how to correct the problem.

While we’ve seen various takes on tying a bed into one’s home automation system, this one goes above and beyond with the amount of data collected. You could even go one step further and have it turn on some Barry White if the normal weight in the bed suddenly doubles, for whatever reason. Maybe that will be a feature in Version 2.