Computers For The Masses, Not The Classes

Retro is new again, and everywhere you look you’ll find films, documentaries, and TV shows cashing in on the nostalgia of their target audience. There is one inaccuracy you’ll find with this these shows: Apple computers are everywhere. This isn’t a historical truth – Commodore was everywhere, the C64 was the computer the nerds actually used, and to this day, the Commodore 64 is still the best-selling computer in history.

Commodore is gone, replaced with a superfund site, but the people who made the best computers in history are still around. At the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference, Bil Herd gave a talk on the second act of Commodore’s three-act tragedy. Bil is a frequent contributor around these parts, and as always he illuminates the 1980s far better than Halt and Catch Fire ever could.

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Pioneer AVIC Infotainment Units Hacked to Load Custom ROMs

Pioneer’s flagship AVIC line of in-car multimedia systems is compatible with both Android Auto and Apple Car Play, and offers all manner of multimedia features to the driver of today. What’s more, these in-dash wonders have spawned their own community, dedicated to hacking the units. The ultimate infotainment hack is to develop custom ROMs for these devices.

What this means is that owners of Pioneer AVIC units will eventually be able to flash a custom ROM onto their in-car device, allowing it to operate more like any other generic Android tablet on the market. The potential is there for installing custom applications, extra hardware (such as OBD II readers), or pretty much anything else you can do with an Android device.

The hack involves a whole lot of delicate steps, beginning with using a USB stick with a special image to boot the device into a test mode. This allows the internal SD card to be backed up, then overwritten with a new image itself.

Mostly, the hack has been used to allow map files to be updated on the internal SD card — inability to update maps has been a long festering thorn in the side of in-dash navigation systems. Users have been customizing this to suit their requirements, also adding speed camera locations and other features. But overall this hack is a great example of hacking something to get full control over the things you own. At the least, this will allow drivers to ditch the phones suction-cupped to the windshield and run common apps like Waze, Uber, and Lyft directly on the infotainment screen (assuming you can rig up an Internet connection).

Check out another great Android ROM hack — using a cheap old smartphone as a low-cost ARM platform.

This Old Mouse Keeps Track of Filament Usage

Keeping track of your 3D-printer filament use can be both eye-opening and depressing. Knowing exactly how much material goes into a project can help you make build-versus-buy decisions, but it can also prove gut-wrenching when you see how much you just spent on that failed print. Stock filament counters aren’t always very accurate, but you can roll your own filament counter from an old mouse.

[Bin Sun]’s build is based around an old ball-type PS/2 mouse, the kind with the nice optical encoders. Mice of this vintage are getting harder to come by these days, but chances are you’ve got one lying around in a junk bin or can scrounge one up from a thrift store. Stripped down to its guts and held in place by a 3D-printed bracket, the roller that used to sense ball rotation bears on the filament on its way to the extruder. An Arduino keeps track of the pulses and totalizes the amount of filament used; the counter handily subtracts from the totals when the filament is retracted.

Simple, useful, and cheap — the very definition of a hack. And even if you don’t have a 3D-printer to keep track of, harvesting encoders from old mice is a nice trick to file away for a rainy day. Or you might prefer to just build your own encoders for your next project.

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The Joy of the ESP8266 and Blynk

I’ll admit it. I can be a little cheap. I also find it hard to pass up a bargain. So when I saw a robot kit at the local store that had been originally $125 marked down to $20, I had to bite. There was only one problem. After I got the thing home, I found they expected you to supply your own radio control transmitter and receiver.

Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem but lately… let’s just say a lot of my stuff is in storage and I didn’t have anything handy. I certainly didn’t want to go buy something that would double the cost of this robot that I really didn’t need to begin with.

However, I did have a few ESP8266 modules handy. Good ones, too, from Adafruit with selected 5 V I/O compatibility and an onboard regulator. I started thinking about writing something for the ESP8266 to pick up data from, say, a UDP packet and converting it into RC servo commands.

joymainSeemed like a fair amount of work and then I remembered that I wanted to try Blynk. If you haven’t heard of Blynk, it is a user interface for Android and Apple phones that can send commands to an embedded system over the Internet. You usually think of using Blynk with an Arduino, but you can also program the embedded part directly on an ESP8266. I quickly threw together a little prototype joystick.
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Raspberry Pi Radio Makes the Sweet Music of Bacteria

We’ve noticed a lot of musical groups are named after insects. Probably has something to do with the Beatles. (If you study that for a while you’ll spot the homophonic pun, and yes we know that the Crickets inspired the name.) There’s also Iron Butterfly, Adam Ant, and quite a few more. A recent art project by a Mexican team — Micro-ritmos — might inspire some musical groups to be named after bacteria.

The group used geobacter — a kind of bacteria found in soil — a Raspberry Pi, an Arduino, and a camera to build an interesting device. As it looks at the bacteria and uses SuperCollider to create music and lighting from the patterns. You can see a video of Micro-ritmos, below.

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Star Trek Phone Dock Might as Well Be From Picard’s Night Stand

Star Trek is often credited with helping spur the development of technologies we have today — the go-to example being cell phones. When a Star Trek April Fool’s product inspires a maker to build the real thing? Well, that seems par for the course. [MS3FGX] decided to make it so. The 3D printed Star Trek-themed phone dock acts as a Bluetooth speaker and white noise generator. The result is shown off in the video below and equals the special effects you expect to find on the silver screen.

Taking a few liberties from the product it’s based on — which was much larger and had embedded screens — makes [MS4FGX]’s version a little more practical. Two industrial toggle switches control a tech cube nightlight and the internal Bluetooth speaker. An NFC tag behind the phone dock launches the pre-installed LCARS UI app and turns on the phone’s Bluetooth. Despite being a challenge for [MS3FGX] to design, the end product seems to work exactly as intended.

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Down the Rabbit Hole and Back Out Again: Serial Over Headphone Jack

[ttsiodras] tells an epic tale of getting a custom Debian kernel installed on an Asus MemoPAD (ME103K) tablet. Skipping to the end of the saga, he discovers what looks like serial data coming out on the headphone jack when the system boots, but the signal was so distorted that he couldn’t simply interpret it. The solution turns out to be attaching a level-converter chip.


A level converter is a non-inverting amplifier, usually with a Schmitt trigger for immunity against noise. In this case, it acts like a “binarizer” — outputting a high voltage when the input rises above a threshold, and a low when it drops below. It’s the right part when you need to clean up a messy digital signal, and in this case works just fine because the capacitive distortion effects slow down both the leading and trailing edges of the signal, keeping the serial data’s timing intact.

That was the spoiler. If you want to read up on putting a custom Linux on an Android device, check out [ttsiodras]’s first post where he backs the machine up, and the second where he gets his custom kernel up and running. If you’re ever faced with an Android tablet that hasn’t been owned yet, or if you just have a DIY streak, this should help you get started.

Using the audio jack for serial is actually not uncommon, and discovering a serial terminal that listens at boot time is our favorite way to wedge a Linux OS into odd devices. So when you see a funny, distorted signal coming out at 115,200 baud, take a moment to clean its edges up and see what you’ve got.