Evolving our Ideas to Build Something That Matters

When Jeffrey Brian “JB” Straubel built his first electric car in 2000, a modified 1984 Porsche 944, powered by two beefy DC motors, he did it mostly for fun and out of his own curiosity for power electronics. At that time, “EV” was already a hype among tinkerers and makers, but Straubel certainly pushed the concept to the limit. He designed his own charger, motor controller, and cooling system, capable of an estimated 288 kW (368 hp) peak power output. 20 lead-acid batteries were connected in series to power the 240 V drive train. With a 30-40 mile range the build was not only road capable but also set a world record for EV drag racing.

The “Electric Porsche 944” – by JB Straubel

The project was never meant to change the world, but with Tesla Motors, which Straubel co-founded only a few years later, the old Porsche 944 may have mattered way more than originally intended. The explosive growth between 2000 and 2010 in the laptop computer market has brought forth performance and affordable energy storage technology and made it available to other applications, such as traction batteries. However, why did energy storage have to take the detour through a bazillion laptop computers until it arrived at electro mobility?


You certainly won’t find that grail of engineering by just trying hard. Rather than feverishly hunting down the next big thing or that fix for the world’s big problems, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that even a small improvement, a new approach or just a fun build may be just the right ‘next step’. We may eventually build all the things and solve all the problems, but looking at the past, we tend to not do so by force. We are much better at evolving our ideas continuously over time. And each step on the way still matters. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this concept and see where it takes us.

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The Immersive, VR, Internet of Things Unicycle

Want something that you’ll try for fifteen minutes before realizing it’s extremely stupid and has limited utility before throwing it in the back of a closet to eventually sell at a yard sale? No, it’s not the Internet of Things, but good guess. I’m speaking, of course, about unicycles.

[retro.moe] is a unicycle and Commodore 64 enthusiast, and being the enterprising hacker he is, decided to combine his two interests. This led to the creation of the Uni-Joysti-Cle, the world’s first unicycle controller for the Commodore 64, and the first video game to use this truly immersive, better-than-an-Oculus unicycle controller.

The build began with the creation of Uni Games, the unicycle-enabled video game for the Commodore 64. This game was coded purely in 6502 assembly and features realistic physics, cutting edge graphics, and two game modes. It’s available on [retro.moe]’s site for the C64 and C128 jin PAL and NTSC formats.

Every game needs a controller, and for this [retro.moe] turned to his smartphone. A simple Android app with a few buttons to send up, down, left, and right commands to an ESP8266 chip attached to the C64’s joystick connector.

While a smartphone transmitting controller commands may seem like a vastly over-engineered joystick, there’s at least one thing a smartphone can do that a joystick cannot: poll an accelerometer. When the joystick senses movement, it transmits movement commands to the video game. Strap this phone to the pedal of a unicycle, and it’s the world’s first unicycle controller for a video game. Brilliant, and [retro.moe] can ride that thing pretty well, too.

Thanks [nfk] for sending this one in.

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Autonomous Electro-musical Devices

Circuit-bending is tons of fun. The basic idea is that you take parts of any old electronic device, say a cheap toy keyboard, and probe all around with wires and resistors, disturbing its normal functioning and hoping to get something cool. And then you make art or music or whatever out of it. But that’s a lot of work. What you really need is a circuit-bending robot!

Or at least that’s what [Gijs Gieskes] needed, when he took apart a horrible Casio SA-5 and grafted on enough automatic glitching circuitry to turn it into a self-playing musical sculpture. It’s random, but somehow it’s musical. It’s great stuff. Check out the video below to see what we mean.

We also love the way the autonomous glitching circuit is just laid over the top of the original circuitboard. It looks like some parasite out of Aliens. But with blinking LEDs.

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A Raspberry Pi In An FPGA

Somehow or another, the Raspberry Pi has become a standardized form factor for single board computers. There are now Raspberry Pi-shaped objects that can do anything, and between the Odroid and bizarre Intel Atom-powered boards, everything you could ever want is now packaged into something that looks like a Raspberry Pi.

Except for one thing, of course, and that’s where [antti.lukats]’s entry for the 2016 Hackaday Prize comes in. He’s creating a version of the Raspberry Pi based on a chip that combines a fast ARM processor and an FPGA in one small package. It’s called the ZynqBerry and will, assuredly, become one of the best platforms to learn FPGA trickery on.

Xilinx’ Zynq comes with a dual-core ARM Cortex A9 running around 1GHZ, and from that fact alone should be about comparable to the original Raspberry Pi. Also inside the Zynq SoC is a very capable FPGA that [antti] is using to drive HDMI at 60hz, and can stream video from a Raspberry Pi camera to a display.

Last year for the Hackaday Prize, [antti] presented some very cool stuff, including a tiny FPGA development board no bigger than a DIP-8 chip. He’s hackaday.io’s resident FPGA wizard, and the ZynqBerry is the culmination of a lot of work over the past year or so. While it’s doubtful it will be as powerful as the latest Raspberry Pis and Pi clones, this is a phenomenal piece of work that puts an interesting twist on the usual FPGA development boards.

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The Minimin Aims To Be The Simplest Theremin

Hackaday.io user [eagleisinsight] is a high-school hacker whose dreams of becoming a Theremin virtuoso were thwarted by the high cost of a commercial instrument. His response is the Minimin, an affordable Theremin design using a 555 and an ATMega328.

The 555 is configured as an astable oscillator running at about 5MHz and with a loop antenna attached to its timing capacitor. The parasitic capacitance of the musician’s hand against the antenna varies the frequency of the oscillation, as you would expect. In a classic Theremin the signal from the 555 would be mixed with the output from a fixed 5MHz oscillator and the sound would be generated from the difference between the two oscillators, but in [eagleisinsight]’s design the 555 clocks the ATMega328’s timer. The processor can thus read the oscillator frequency and use that value to control a waveform generator.

There is something missing from this Theremin: a second antenna for volume. For now a potentiometer does that job, but [eagleisinsight] is working on a MkII device to correct this omission, along with plans to replace the ATMega with an XMega processor whose DAC can produce a sine wave output and whose USB port can be used to enable the Minimin as a MIDI controller.

As you might expect, we’ve covered numerous Theremins over the years here on Hackaday. You can browse them all, but we’d like to draw your attention to a typical breadboard instrument using a soda can antenna, people using Theremins as Guitar Hero controllers, and Léon Theremin’s terpistone, a full-body instrument.

Circuit Bender Artist bends Fresnel Lens for Art

Give some mundane, old gear to an artist with a liking for technology, and he can turn it into a mesmerizing piece of art. [dmitry] created “red, an optic-sound electronic object” which uses simple light sources and optical elements to create an audio-visual performance installation. The project was the result of his collaboration with the Prometheus Special Design Bureau in Kazan, Russia. The inspiration for this project was Crystall, a reconstruction of an earlier project dating back to 1966. The idea behind “red” was to recreate the ideas and concepts from the 60’s ~ 80’s using modern solutions and materials.

The main part of the art installation consists of a ruby red crystal glass and a large piece of flexible Fresnel lens, positioned in front of a bright LED light source. The light source, the crystal and the Fresnel lens all move linearly, constantly changing the optical properties of the system. A pair of servos flexes and distorts the Fresnel lens while another one flips the crystal glass. A lot of recycled materials were used for the actuators – CD-ROM drive, an old scanner mechanism and old electric motors. Its got a Raspberry-Pi running Pure Data and Python scripts, with an Arduino connected to the sensors and actuators. The sensors define the position of various mechanical elements in relation to the range of their movement. There’s a couple of big speakers, which means there’s a beefy amplifier thrown in too. The sounds are correlated to the movement of the various elements, the intensity of the light and probably the color. There’s two mechanical paddle levers hanging in there, if you folks want to hazard some guesses on what they do.

Check out some of [dmitry]’s earlier works which we featured. Here’s him Spinning a Pyrite Record for Art, and making Art from Brainwaves, Antifreeze, and Ferrofluid.

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8-bit Video Wall Made From 160 Gaming Keyboards

Well this is something we haven’t seen before. A video wall An 8-bit style video wall made from 160 RGB illuminated gaming keyboards.

On display at the PAX East gaming expo, the keys on 160 Logitech keyboards make up the “pixels” of a video wall showing a short film inspired from side-scroller video games. It’s the work of the production company iam8bit. Details on the system are scant, but we can learn a little from close observation of the video.

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