Back to Basics: What’s the deal with Magnets?

I consider myself a fairly sharp guy. I’ve made a living off of being a scientist for over 20 years now, and I have at least a passing knowledge of most scientific fields outside my area. But I feel like I should be able to do something other than babble incoherently when asked about magnets. They baffle me – there, I said it. So what do I do about it? Write a Hackaday post, naturally – chances are I’m not the only one with cryptomagnetonescience, even if I just made that term up. Maybe if we walk through the basics together, it’ll do us both some good understanding this fundamental and mysterious force of nature.

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The Story of the 2015 Hackaday Prize

This week we’ve covered the Grand Prize and Best Product winners of the 2015 Hackaday prize: Eyedrivomatic and Vinduino. These are both amazing and worthy projects, but the real story of the Hackaday Prize isn’t about the prizes: it’s about nine months during which talented people worked toward a common good.

If you didn’t have a chance to attend the Hackaday SuperConference, here is the video of the ceremony. Take a look at the presentation which was made in front of a packed house of about 300 attendees. Then join us after the break for a look back on the last nine amazing months.

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Video Standards Are More Than Video Signals

The number of hours we spend staring at screens is probably best unknown, but how about the technology that makes up the video on the screen? We’ve all seen a reel-to-reel projector on TV or in a movie or maybe you’re old enough to have owned one, surely some of you still have one tucked away real nice. Whether you had the pleasure of operating a projector or just watched it happen in the movies the concept is pretty straight forward. A long piece of film which contains many individual frames pass in front of a high intensity lamp while the shutter hides the film movement from our eyes and our brain draws in the imaginary motion from frame to frame. Staring at a Blu-ray player won’t offer the same intuition, while we won’t get into what must the painful detail of decoding video from a Blu-ray Disc we will look into a few video standards, and how we hack them.

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Water-Saving Agricultural System Wins Best Product

The 2015 Hackaday Prize included something new: a prize for the Best Product. The winner took home $100k in funding, a six-month residency at the Supplyframe Design Lab in Pasadena, and help turning a budding product into a full-grown success. And the winner is…


vinduino-shot0007 Water is a crucial element for farming: the plants need enough, but not too much. Water is also an increasingly precious resource all over the world. In California, five times as much water is used in agriculture as is used by residential consumers. A 25% reduction in agricultural use, for instance, would entirely offset all urban water use. With this in mind, a number of California farmers are trying to voluntarily reduce their water consumption. But how?

One important development is targeted irrigation. Getting precisely the right amount of water to each plant can reduce the fraction lost to evaporation or runoff. It’s a small thing, but it’s a very big deal.

Cue Vinduino, a long-running project of “gentleman farmer” and hacker [Reinier van der Lee]. As a system, Vinduino aims to make it easy and relatively inexpensive to measure the amount of water in the soil at different depths, to log this information, and to eventually tailor the farm’s water usage to the plants and their environment. We were able to catch up with [Reinier] at the Hackaday SuperConference the day after results were announced. He shared his story of developing Vinduino and recounts how he felt when it was named Best Product:

The product that won Best Product is simple, but very well executed. It’s a hand-held soil moisture sensor reader that couples with a DIY soil probe design to create a versatile and inexpensive system. All of the 2015 Best Product Finalists were exceptional. Vinduino’s attention to detail, room for expansion, and the potential to help the world pushed this project over the top.

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TV Going the Distance: Propagation

It has to be hard to be a kid interested in radio these days. When I was a kid, there was a lot of interesting things on shortwave. There wasn’t any cable TV (at least, not where I lived) so it was easy to hack antennas and try to pull in weak TV and broadcast stations. The TV stations were especially interesting.

It was one thing for me to build a dish antenna to pick up Star Trek from a station just barely out of range. But sometimes you’d get some really distant TV station. The world’s record is the reception of a BBC TV station in Australia (a distance of 10,800 miles). That’s extreme, but even from my childhood home near New Orleans, I’ve personally picked up TV stations from as far away as New Mexico. Have you ever wondered how that’s possible?

Radio signals behave differently depending on their frequency. The TV frequencies used in the old analog signals were VHF signals (well, the channels between 2 and 13 in the United States, anyway). In general, those signals usually travel through the air, but don’t bounce off any part of the atmosphere. So if you aren’t in a line of sight with the transmitter, you can’t see the broadcast. The other problem is that local stations tend to drown out weak distant stations. A TV DXer (ham lingo for someone trying to hear distant signals) has to wait for local stations to go silent or listen on frequencies where there are no local stations.

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Suspension Bridges of Disbelief

Suspension bridges are far and away the target of choice in America’s action blockbusters. In just the past three years, the Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed by a Kaiju, Godzilla, a Skynet-initiated nuclear blast, and a tsunami. Americans don’t build real bridges anymore, or maintain the ones that we have, but we sure love to blow them up in movies.

There is logic here: A disaster scene involving a famous bridge serves both to root the film in the real world and to demonstrate the enormity and the immediacy of the threat. The unmaking of these huge structures shocks us because many bridges have gained an aura of permanence in our collective consciousness. Although we know when the Brooklyn Bridge was built and who built it, we feel like it has always been there and always will be. The destruction of our familiar human topography is even more disturbing than the deaths of the CGI victims, and I’m not just saying that as a misanthrope who loves bridges.

However, in all of the planning, storyboarding, rendering, and compositing of these special effects shots, nobody pauses to consider how suspension bridges actually behave. I can accept messianic alien orphan superheroes and skyscraper-sized battle robots, but I will not stand for inaccurate portrayals of structural mechanics. It’s fine to bend the laws of physics if the plot warrants it, but most suspension bridge mistakes are so needless and stupid that their only function seems to be irritating engineers.

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The Gaze-Controlled Wheelchair that Won the Hackaday Prize

The 2015 Hackaday Prize challenged people to build something that matters. Specifically, to solve a problem faced by a lot of people and to make the solution as open as possible. If the average hacker can build it, it puts the power to vastly improve someone’s life in their hands. This is a perfect example of how powerful Open Design can be.

Patrick Joyce, Steve Evans, and David Hopkinson, developed a way to control an electric wheelchair using eye movements. The project, called Eyedrivomatic, is a set of non-invasive hardware modules that connect the wheelchair joystick with existing Eyegaze technology.

You’re probably already familiar with Eyegaze, which allows people suffering from diseases like MND/ALS to speak through a computer using nothing but their eyes. Eyedrivomatic extends this gaze control to drive a wheelchair. The catch is that the wheelchair’s user may not actually own the chair, and so permanent modifications cannot be made.

Thus Eyedrivomatic connects a wheelchair to the existing Eyegaze hardware without permanently altering either. This has never been done before, and the high level to which the team executed this project netted them the Grand Prize of the 2015 Hackaday Prize. The team will receive their choice of a Trip into Space or $196,883.

Check out their acceptance video, then join us after the break to learn what went into this amazing undertaking.

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