Shop-built Inspection Camera Lends Optical Help on a Budget

As your builds get smaller and your eyes get older, you might appreciate a little optical assistance around the shop. Stereo microscopes and inspection cameras are great additions to your bench, but often command a steep price. So this DIY PCB inspection microscope might be just the thing if you’re looking to roll your own and save a few bucks.

It’s not fancy, and it’s not particularly complex, but [Saulius]’ build does the job, mainly because he thought the requirements through before starting the build. MDF is used for the stand because it’s dimensionally stable, easy to work, and heavy, which tends to stabilize motion and dampen vibration. The camera itself is an off-the-shelf USB unit with a CS mount that allows a wide range of lenses to be fitted. A $20 eBay macro slider allows for fine positioning, and a ring light stolen from a stereo microscope provides shadow-free lighting.

We’d say the most obvious area for improvement would be a linkage on the arm to keep the plane of the lens parallel to the bench, but even as it is this looks like a solid build with a lot of utility – especially for hackers looking to age in place at the bench.

Interactive Dynamic Video

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth millions. However, computers still aren’t very good at analyzing video. Machine vision software like OpenCV can do certain tasks like facial recognition quite well. But current software isn’t good at determining the physical nature of the objects being filmed. [Abe Davis, Justin G. Chen, and Fredo Durand] are members of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They’re working toward a method of determining the structure of an object based upon the object’s motion in a video.

The technique relies on vibrations which can be captured by a typical 30 or 60 Frames Per Second (fps) camera. Here’s how it works: A locked down camera is used to image an object. The object is moved due to wind, or someone banging on it, or  any other mechanical means. This movement is captured on video. The team’s software then analyzes the video to see exactly where the object moved, and how much it moved. Complex objects can have many vibration modes. The wire frame figure used in the video is a great example. The hands of the figure will vibrate more than the figure’s feet. The software uses this information to construct a rudimentary model of the object being filmed. It then allows the user to interact with the object by clicking and dragging with a mouse. Dragging the hands will produce more movement than dragging the feet.

The results aren’t perfect – they remind us of computer animated objects from just a few years ago. However, this is very promising. These aren’t textured wire frames created in 3D modeling software. The models and skeletons were created automatically using software analysis. The team’s research paper (PDF link) contains all the details of their research. Check it out, and check out the video after the break.

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Books You Should Read: The Soul of A New Machine

If there was one book that describes what it means to be in the trenches of a cutting edge design, that book is The Soul Of a New Machine. Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer prize-winning book has been an inspiration to thousands over the years.

Soul is the story of the creation of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, code-named Eagle. Eagle was Data General’s first 32-bit minicomputer. If you’re not a retrocomputing aficionado, minicomputers were a major industry back in the 70’s and 80’s. Starting in 1964 with the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8, minis provided a low-cost means for companies to get a computer. The only other option was a huge mainframe from companies like IBM. Minicomputers chugged along until the 1990s when microprocessor-based PCs and workstations passed them by. The market, and the industry evaporated.

Today, more than 30 years later, minicomputers are all but forgotten. Data General itself is long gone, purchased by EMC in 1999. DG’s mark on the landscape has all but been erased by the swiftly moving sands of technical progress. All except for the snapshot Kidder set down in Soul.

An MV/8000 installation (from DG literature)
An MV/8000 installation (from DG literature)

The technical side of designing a new computer is just one part of this book. The Soul of a New Machine is three stories: the story of the engineers, the story of the managers, and the story of the machine they built. For this reason, the book has found itself on the reading list of engineering schools and management institutes alike.

The thing that makes this book appeal to the masses is Kidder’s uncanny ability to explain incredibly complex topics in layman’s terms. He manages to explain the inner workings of a 32-bit CPU, all the way down to the level of microcode. He delves into Programmable Array Logic (PALs), forerunners of the CPLD and FPGA devices you read about on our pages today. PALs were a hot new technology back in the late 70’s. They allowed the Eagle team to make changes quickly — without pulling out their wire wrapping tools.

Kidder manages to explain these things in a way that doesn’t leave the average Joe scratching their head, yet doesn’t bore the technically savvy. If he ever decides to stop writing non-fiction, Tracy Kidder would have a career writing user manuals.

The Soul of a New Machine starts in a very unlikely place – on the deck of a sailing ship during a rough storm. The scene is our introduction to the star of the book – Tom West, a manager at Data General. West is multifaceted and enigmatic to say the least. A folk guitarist who was inspired to work on electronics by the Apollo program. He was a few years too late for NASA though. Eventually he found himself travelling the world building and adjusting incredibly accurate clocks at astronomical observatories for the Smithsonian. This meandering path eventually led him to DG, where he was hired as a computer engineer and quickly worked his way up the ranks.

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Intel Makes A Cool Robot Brain In Latest Attempt to Pry Hackers From Their Wallets

Hackerboards got a chance to sit down with Intel’s latest attempt to turn hackers into a willing and steady revenue stream, the, “Euclid.” The board is cool in concept, a full mini computer with stereo cameras, battery, Ubuntu, and ROS nicely packaged together.

We would be more excited if we knew how much it costs, but in principle the device is super cool. From a robotics research perspective it’s a sort of perfect package. ROS is a wonderful distributed and asynchronous robotic operating system, test, and development platform. The Intel developers designed this unit around the needs of ROS and it comes pre-installed on the camera.

For those who haven’t used ROS before, this is a really cool feature. ROS is natively distributed. It really doesn’t care where the computer supplying its data lives. So, for example, if you already had a robot and wanted to add stereo vision to it. You could offload all the vision processing components of your existing ROS codebase to the Euclid and continue as if nothing changed.

The other option is to use the board as the entire robot brain. It’s self contained with battery and camera. It’s a USB to serial connection away from supercharging any small robotics project.

Unfortunately the board is still a demo, and based on Intel’s history, likely to be too expensive to lure ordinary hackers away from the RasPis and import cameras they already know how to hack together into more or less the same thing. Universities will likely be weak at the knees for such a development though.

From Project To Kit: The Final Furlong

This article is the fifth in a series looking at the process of bringing an electronic kit to market from a personal project. We’ve looked at market research, we’ve discussed making a product from your project and writing the best instructions possible before stuffing your first kits ready for sale. In this article we’ll tackle the different means of putting your kits out there for sale.

Given a box of ready-to-sell kits, what next? You have to find some means of selling them, getting them in front of your customer, making the sale, sending them to the purchaser, and safely collecting their money. A few years ago this was an expensive and risky process involving adverts in print magazines and a lot of waiting, but we are fortunate. The Internet has delivered us all the tools we need to market and sell a product like an electronic kit, and in a way that needn’t cost a fortune. We’ll now run through a few of those options for selling your kits, before looking at shipping, marketing, and post-sales support in the final article in the series.

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Making A Thinkpad Great Again

The Thinkpad X220 is almost a perfect laptop. The X220 is small, light, was the last small Thinkpad to use 35W CPUs, has great Linux support, incredible battery life, and can be found used very inexpensively. For the Thinkpad Mafia, the X220 is a badge of honor, but it does have one glaring drawback: the LCDs in these laptops are capped at 1366×768 resolution.

A few wizards in Japan and China have taken up the X220 and developed an adapter to give this tiny laptop the display it deserves. Mentions of a FHD mod – the Lenovo-speak for a Thinkpad display upgrade – can be found on Taobao, but the anglosphere doesn’t get these cool toys. [Vectro] decided his X220 wasn’t up to snuff and decided to build his own Thinkpad mod to give his trusty companion a bigger and brighter display. He succeeded, and did it in a way that’s much better than any previous attempt.

Stock, the X220 uses an LVDS bus for internal video, and there aren’t enough lanes on this bus for a 1080 display. The usual way of modifying the X220 for a display with higher resolution is tapping into the eDP present on the Thinkpad dock connector. [Vectro]’s solution differs slightly from the usual way of doing things – instead of using an I2C EEPROM to report the resolution, DPI, and model of display, he’s using a microcontroller. This gives him the ability to control the power state and brightness level of the display. It’s a great solution, and is designed to be a relatively easy drop-in mod.

The new display works, and Thinkpadding at 1080 is awesome, but there’s still work to be done. The dock connector is incompatible with this mod, and hopefully scaling this up for small-scale production. Producing a few X220 FHD kits is going to be a problem, as each wire in the eDP cable is individually soldered to the connector. It doesn’t scale well, but there is certainly a demand to make the greatest Thinkpad even better.

Police Baffled? Send For The Radio Amateurs!

The police force in Evanston, Illinois had a problem on their hands. A mystery transmitter was blocking legal use of radio devices, car key fobs, cellphones, and other transmitters in an area of their city, and since it was also blocking 911 calls they decided to investigate it. Their first call for help went to the FCC who weren’t much use, telling them to talk to the manufacturers of the devices affected.

Eventually they approached the ARRL, the USA’s national amateur radio organisation, who sent along [Kermit Carlson, W9XA] to investigate. He fairly quickly identified the frequencies with the strongest interference and the likely spot from which it originated, and after some investigation it was traced to a recently replaced neon sign power supply. Surprisingly the supply was not replaced with a fault-free unit, its owner merely agreeing to turn it off should any further interference be reported.

The ARRL are highlighting this otherwise fairly unremarkable case to draw attention to the problem of devices appearing on the market with little or no pretence of electromagnetic compatibility compliance. In particular they are critical of the FCC’s lacklustre enforcement response in cases like this one. It’s a significant problem worldwide as huge numbers of very cheap switch-mode mains power supplies have replaced transformers in mains power applications, and in any center of population its effects can be readily seen with an HF radio in the form of a significantly raised RF noise floor. Though we have reported before on the FCC’s investigation of the noise floor problem we’d be inclined to agree with the ARRL that it is effective enforcement of EMC regulations that is key to the solution.

City of Evanston police vehicle picture, [Inventorchris] (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr.