Ask Hackaday: Whatever Happened to LED Light Sensors?

If you’re a long-time Hackaday reader like we are, you’ll certainly remember a rash of projects from around ten years ago that all (mis-)used an LED as a light sensor. The idea wasn’t new, but somehow it made the rounds and insinuated itself into our collective minds. Around the same time, a cryptographic cipher with an exceptionally small memory footprint was also showing up in hacker projects: TEA (Tiny Encryption Algorithm).

This old project by [Marcin Bojanczyk], [Chris Danis], and [Brian Rogan] combines both the LED-as-light-sensor meme and TEA to make a door-entry keyfob that works over visible light. And they do so using almost nothing — a few LEDs and just over 2Kb of code. It’s pretty sweet.

Which brings us to the question: where are they (LED-sensors and TEA) now?

ledtouch_photoLED-as-light-sensor was just cool. We certainly loved the idea back in 2006. But [Forrest Mims] had been using the phenomenon for decades back then. It certainly makes sense when you’re trying to squeeze as much as possible out of as little as possible, or when budget is a main concern and you just can’t afford an extra photodiode.

But our own experience with LEDs as light sensors is that the results are extremely variable across different LEDs. Code that works with water-clear red LEDs might not work with the ones that come in red-tinted plastic, for instance. Is that why they went extinct?
4746123271_7888160588Similarly, the TEA family of ciphers showed up in a bunch of projects around this time, from the badge for the HOPE conference in 2010 to a widely used RFM12B radio library. There are a couple of attacks on XXTEA, but they only affect reduced-round versions of the cipher, and rely on a tremendous amount of intercepted data — more than we’d see in a home-automation network over years.

Over the last five years or so, there’s been a lot more Internet of Things, which means using standard Internet-style encryption methods (AES and so on) that are widespread on non-memory-constrained computers. Is that what happened to XXTEA?

Anyway, we got tipped off to a project that combined a few of our favorite (old) ideas in one, so we thought that we’d share. Thanks [Blue Smoke] for the walk down memory lane. Any of you out there keeping the flame(s) alive? Have you used sensing LEDs or XXTEA? Are those projects still going, or do you have any future projects planned with these tricks still up your sleeve? Let us know in the comments below.

The Almost Useful Machine

[Alex] is no stranger to making machines of negligible utility. A few years ago he made the Almost Useless Machine, a solar-powered system that cuts through a 20mm dowel rod while you wait (and wait, and wait). Enamored by the internet’s bevy of powered hacksaws, he sought to build a sturdier version that’s a little more useful. Approximately five months of free time later, he had the Almost Useful Machine.

It runs on a wiper motor and a recycled power supply from a notebook computer. [Alex] rolled his own board for controlling the motor with an ATtiny25. The circuit turns potentiometer movement into PWM, which controls the motor through a MOSFET. After the cut is finished, an endstop microswitch  immediately cuts the motor.

Every bit of the chassis is aluminum that [Alex] machined by hand. Don’t have that kind of setup? How about a powered hacksaw with a 3D-printed linkage? Make the jump to see it in action, and stick around for the two-part time-lapse build video.

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Rainbow Cats Announce Engagement

[ANTALIFE] is going to tie the knot sometime in 2017. Instead of sending out paper announcements or just updating his Facebook status, he wanted to give their family members something lasting and memorable, like a small trinket with a pair of light-up cats.

This project is pretty simple in theory. A pair of RGB LEDs cycle through the colors of the rainbow with the help of an ATtiny25 and resistors carefully chosen for each LED. But there are several challenges at play here. [ANTALIFE] wanted to design something quite small that would last at least a day on a single CR2032 coin cell. This project was his first foray into SMD/SMT design and construction. We think that this warrants its own congratulations, especially since it looks as though he made at least a dozen of these things.

[ANTALIFE] made things much easier for himself with the purchase of a cheap hot air rework station and used a chip clip to program the ‘tiny. The cats are a design from Thingiverse, which he modified to turn them into bride and groom. Watch a whole line of them glow after the break. We sincerely hope that a larger version of these cats end up on top of the wedding cake.

For anyone with an undying love blinkenlights and impending nuptials, don’t forget the light-up invitations, wedding attire, and centerpieces.

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One Dollar Board Targets Students

The Raspberry Pi was made to be inexpensive with an eye toward putting them into schools. But what about programs targeted at teaching embedded programming? There are plenty of fiscally-starved schools all over the world, and it isn’t uncommon for teachers to buy supplies out of their own pockets. What could you do with a board that cost just one dollar?

That’s the idea behind the team promoting the “One Dollar Board” (we don’t know why they didn’t call it a buck board). The idea is to produce a Creative Commons design for a simple microcontroller board that only costs a dollar. You can see a video about the project, below.

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Simple Fuel Pressure Alarm Averts Diesel Disaster

If you could spend a couple of bucks on a simple project that might prevent a $2000 repair bill on your vehicle, you’d probably build it, right? That’s the idea behind this simple low-pressure alarm for a diesel fuel system, and it’s so simple it makes you wonder why the OEM didn’t do it.

We normally see [Bob Johnson] coming up with nifty projects (like this claw or this camera slider) that more often than not combine woodworking and electronics. But no tree carcasses were harmed in the making of this project. [Bob]’s goal is just to sound a warning and flash a light if the output of a pressure switch goes to ground. That indicates the lift pump in his Dodge Ram’s fuel tank has failed, which could lead to the sudden failure of the downstream injector pump for lack of lubrication by the fuel itself. His simple ATtiny85 circuit lives on a small perfboard in a 3D printed case and taps into a $30 fuel pressure switch. The microcontroller code enables a short delay to prevent nuisance alarms, and if the pressure drops below 5 PSI, [Bob] gets a chance to shut down the engine and disappoint his mechanic to the tune of $2000.

Maybe it’s planned obsolescence on the OEM’s part, or maybe it’s not. But kudos to [Bob] for a simple hack that averts a potentially expensive problem.

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tinyDriver – ATtiny84 platform without Arduino

You don’t need an Arduino for everything! Or do you? This is an argument that plays out here quite often. Whatever the outcome, most folks agree that once you’ve dipped your feet in the shallow end of the pool, the real fun is when you dive into the deep end.

[Mahesh Venkitachalam] designed tinyDriver, an experimental Open Source breakout board for the Atmel ATtiny84 chip. His idea was to create a convenient platform which can be used to understand microcontrollers in-depth, by letting users dive under the hood and make use of the various features of the chip such as timers, PWM, interrupts, ADC, and digital I/O. The ATtiny84 is cheap and simple enough for starters. Add a low-cost AVR programmer, install the free and cross-platform avr-gcc and avrdude tool chain, read up the data sheet, learn some C programming and start experimenting. Rinse and repeat and you’ll be a pro at it soon. He’s got a few starter projects documented on his website to get you going.

The hardware is open source, and the Git repository contains the hardware source and example code. If you’re a hardware noob, he’s thoughtfully added a PTC resettable fuse and reverse polarity protection on the board to make sure you don’t release the magic blue smoke prematurely. All of the I/O’s are broken out on a header, and the motor driver and RGB LED can be disabled when not needed. The board isn’t hand-assembly friendly, but he plans to crowd fund it shortly. If you want to move beyond the Arduino platform, projects like the tinyDriver are the way to go.

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Tiny ATtiny85 Game Console

[Ilya Titov] has made a game console. Not just any game console, but an extremely small ATtiny85-based console suitable for putting on a key ring and assembled into a very professional product with PCB and 3D printed case. This is a project that has been on the go since 2014, but the most recent update is a new version designed for tighter and more easy assembly.

All construction is through-hole rather than SMD, and aside from the ATtiny85 the console uses an OLED screen, piezo buzzer, tactile switches and a handful of passive components. Power comes from a single CR2032 coin cell which sits under the screen. Best of all the PCB design is available as a PDF and the 3D printed case can be found on Thingiverse.

There are two games for the console, as well as the Breakout clone whose code is in the 2014 piece linked above he’s written UFO Escape, an obstacle-avoiding side-scroller. You’ll have to burn both game and 8MHz internal clock bootloader to the ATtiny85 yourself. There are no cartridges with this console, though if the processor sits in a DIP socket the game can be changed over simply by swapping processors programmed with the appropriate game.

He’s produced a full assembly video with some UFO Escape gameplay thrown in, shown here below the break.

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