How Analog Tide Predictors Changed Human History

If you’re completely landlocked like I am, you may dream of ocean waves lapping at the shore, but you probably don’t think much about the tides. The movement of the ocean tides is actually quite important to many groups of people, from fishermen to surfers to coastal zone engineers. The behavior of the tides over time is helpful data for those who study world climate change.

Early tide prediction was based on observed changes in relation to the phases of the Moon. These days, tide-predicting is done quickly and with digital computers. But the first purpose-built machines were slow yet accurate analog computation devices that, as they were developed, could account for increasing numbers of tidal constituents, which represent the changes in the positions of tide-generating astronomical bodies. One of these calculating marvels even saved the Allies’ invasion of Normandy—or D-Day— in World War II.

Continue reading “How Analog Tide Predictors Changed Human History”

Bootstrapping Motion Input with Cheap Components

Motion control is a Holy Grail of input technology. Who doesn’t want an interface that they can control with simple and natural movements? But making this feel intuitive to the user, and making it work robustly are huge hills to climb. Leap Motion has done an excellent job creating just such a sensor, but what about bootstrapping your own? It’s a fun hack, and it will give you much greater appreciation for the currently available hardware.

Let’s get one thing straight: This device isn’t going to perform like a Leap controller. Sure the idea is the same. Wave your hands and control your PC. However, the Leap is a pretty sophisticated device and we are going to use a SONAR (or is it really SODAR?) device that costs a couple of bucks. On the plus side, it is very customizable, requires absolutely no software on the computer side, and is a good example of using SONAR and sending keyboard commands from an Arduino Leonardo to a PC. Along the way, I had to deal with the low quality of the sensor data and figure out how to extend the Arduino to send keys it doesn’t know about by default.

The Plan

The plan is to take an inexpensive SONAR module (the HC-SR04) and an Arduino Leonardo and use it to perform some simple tasks by mimicking keyboard input from the user. The Leonardo is a key element because it is one of the Arduinos that can impersonate a USB keyboard (or mouse) easily. The Due, Zero, and Micro can also do the trick using the Arduino library.

I wanted to determine how many gestures I could really determine from the HC-SR04 and then do different things depending on the gesture. My first attempt was just to have the Arduino detect a few fingers or a hand over the sensor and adjust the volume based on moving your hand up or down. What I didn’t know is that the default Arduino library doesn’t send multimedia keys! More on that later.

Continue reading “Bootstrapping Motion Input with Cheap Components”

Conference Badges are the Newest Form of Hardware Art

About four decades ago, many European truck drivers started placing electronic LED badges in their windshields. Most of them were simple; nothing more than an animated heart pierced by an arrow. It became a common distraction in the highway night panorama of that time, at least until it became illegal. Most motorists became accustomed to seeing them, and the idea of the truck drivers making a statement with electronics always stuck with me. Now I have the chance to help people make a similar statement. Conference badges are not just a way to identify those who have registered, but a fashion statement and a mark of pride for conference organizers. They’ve become an art form, and engineers always want to stretch the limits of what is possible.

Every September, we have BalCCon, an international hacker’s conference at Novi Sad, Serbia. I was asked to design a badge for the 2016 event, and this is the first (well, the second) release. It is based on the PIC18LF24K50 and consists of a circle of LEDs which randomly displays pre-defined patterns. Every badge has its own infrared transceiver (LED-receiver pair), so the fun begins when two or more badges spot each other: they go from Adagio to full on Rondo, losing their default, dull visual pattern for a more dynamic, attention grabbing one, but most importantly – they synchronize. This means that, in a group of people, all badges will play the same pattern in unison. Every badge can spread the pattern code, so the whole group, however large, soon becomes synchronized. But if one of them “gets lost” somehow, it will try to learn it back from a neighbor or it might even launch into its own, randomly generated one. Sometimes it manages to spread it further and you get to witness a battle for light show domination.

This isn’t merely a story of designing badges, but of design choices that come in on budget while achieving a look that will delight those who end up wearing the hardware.

Continue reading “Conference Badges are the Newest Form of Hardware Art”

Electronics for Aliens

We are surrounded by displays with “millions” of colors and hundreds of pixels per inch. With super “high fidelity” sound producing what we perceive to be realistic replicas of the real world.

Of course this is not the case, we rarely stop and think how our electronic systems have been crafted around the limitations of human perception. So to explore this issue, in this article we ask the question: “What might an alien think of human technology?”. We will assume a lifeform which senses the world around it much as we do. But has massively improved sensing abilities. In light of these abilities we will dub it the Oculako.

Let’s begin with the now mostly defunct CRT display and see what our hypothetical alien thinks of it. The video below shows a TV screen shot at 10,000 frames per second.

Continue reading “Electronics for Aliens”

Deuterium Powered Homes and the Return of Cold Fusion Hype

We’ve been sent this press release claiming a new kind of fusion reaction that works at small scales using an incredibly exotic fuel material: ultra-dense deuterium. We looked into it with an open mind, and if we’re being kind we’ll conclude that there’s a ten-year long research project being undertaken by [Leif Holmlid], a single scientist whose claims would win him one or two Nobel prizes if any of it were true.

If we drop the kindness and approach it rationally, this doesn’t smell right and can’t be believed until it has been reliably reproduced by someone not associated with the original research. Let’s delve into the claim of Deuterium powered reactions, and circle around on the cold-fusion hype we found so sadly entertaining back in the ’90s.

Continue reading “Deuterium Powered Homes and the Return of Cold Fusion Hype”

10 Finalist Projects Prove We Can Save the World

People should build something that matters. The ones who actually do so end up shaping the world. We are proud to announce the ten finalists for the 2015 Hackaday Prize.

The problems that these projects tackle come from many different angles. Some improve safety in extreme situations by giving emergency workers the ability to detect the presence of dangerous gases, or by helping to find unexploded munitions in war-torn areas. Others make improvements in transportation by working on transportation where infrastructure is poor, and looking toward the future of electric vehicle transportation. There are projects that tackle pollution through monitoring and also by scrubbing pollutants from indoor air. Improvements in wheelchair mobility and advancements in prosthetics can transform the lives of people living with loss of function. And feeding the world can start with more automated farming options, and becoming more efficient with farming methods. These are the problems the finalists have chosen to solve with their entries.

The Hackaday Prize challenges Hackers, Designers, and Engineers to solve a problem and to build their solution using Open Design. One of these ten will claim the Grand Prize of a trip into space, and four others will claim top prizes worth $5,000-$10,000 each. These distinctions, along with the $100,000 Best Product prize, will be awarded to one of these ten projects at the Hackaday SuperConference in San Francisco on November 14th and 15th.

Thank you to our expert judges who chose these finalists from a slate of 100 semifinalists. The judges will begin making final round decisions on October 26th so keep watching these finalists as they continue to develop their entires.

To all who submitted entries this year, great job! The nature of this contest means not everyone can move to the next round, but that doesn’t diminish the effort and potential for good your project represents. The full slate of entries can be found in this list and all Semifinalists are shown here. Please also check out the Best Product entries and finalists.

Sensor Net Makes Life Easier for Rice Farmers

Rice is cultivated all over the world in fields known as rice paddies and it is one of the most maintenance intensive crops to grow. The rice paddy itself requires a large part of that maintenance. It is flooded with water that must be kept at a constant level, just below the height that would keep rice seedlings from growing but high enough to drown any weeds that would compete with the rice stalks for nutrients. This technique is called continuous flooding and a big part of the job of a rice farmer is to inspect the rice paddy every day to make sure the water levels are normal and there are no cracks or holes that could lead to water leakage.

This process is labor intensive, and the technology in use hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Most of the rice farmers in my area are elders with the approximate age of 65-70 years. For these hard working people a little bit of technology can make a big difference in their lives. This is the idea behind TechRice.

Continue reading “Sensor Net Makes Life Easier for Rice Farmers”