Where Are They Now: Terrible Kickstarters

Kickstarter started out as a platform for group buys, low-volume manufacturing, and a place to fund projects that would otherwise go unfinished. It would be naive of anyone to think this would last forever, and since these humble beginnings, we’re well into Peak Kickstarter. Now, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and every other crowdfunding platform is just another mouthpiece for product launches, and just another strategy for anyone who needs or wants money, but has never heard of a business loan.

Of course there will be some shady businesses trying to cash in on the Kickstarter craze, and over the last few years we’ve done our best to point out the bad ones. Finding every terrible Kickstarter is several full-time jobs, but we’ve done our best to weed out these shining examples of the worst. Following up on these failed projects is something we have been neglecting, but no longer.

Below are some of the most outrageous Kickstarters and crowdfunding campaigns we’ve run across, and the current status of these failed entrepreneurial endeavors.

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Becoming a State Machine Design Mastermind

Imagine a robot with an all-around bump sensor. The response to the bump sensor activating depends on the previous state of the robot. If it had been going forward, a bump will send it backwards and vice versa. This robot exhibits behavior that is easy to model as a state machine. That is, the outputs of the machine (motor drive) depend not only on the inputs (the bump sensor) but also on the current state of the machine (going forward or backward).

As state machines go, that’s not an especially complicated one. Many state machines have lots of states with complex conditions. For example, consider a phone switchboard. The reaction to a phone going off hook depends on the state of the line. If the state is ringing, picking up the phone makes a connection. If the state is idle, the phone gets a dial tone. The switchboard also has to have states for timeouts, connection failures, three way calling, and more.

If you master state machines your design and debug cycles will both move along faster. Part of this is understanding and part is knowing about the tools you can choose to use. I’ll cover both below.

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Raspberry Pi and Windows 10 IoT Core: A Huge Letdown

Last Spring, Microsoft unveiled their plan for Windows and the Internet of Things. It starts with the Raspberry Pi and Windows 10 IoT Core – a stripped down system with Windows API calls running on an ARM architecture. Yes, Microsoft is finally moving away from the desktop, building a platform for a billion Internet of Things things, or filling the gap left by tens of thousands of POS terminals and ATMs running XP being taken offline. Either one is accurate.

Earlier this week, Microsoft announced the first public release of Windows 10 IoT Core. This is the review, but here’s the takeaway: run. Run as fast as you can away from Windows IoT. It’s not worth your time unless you have a burning desire to write apps for Windows, and even then you could do a better job with less effort with any Linux distro.

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Hebocons And Why They Matter

Everyone remembers Battlebots, and those of us feeling the pains of nostalgia have tuned into the recent reboot on ABC. As with the golden age of Battlebots, all robot fighting competitions eventually become a war between machines perfectly designed for the task. In the original run of Battlebots, this meant a bracket full of wedge bots, with the very cool robots eliminated year after year.

You don’t watch NASCAR for the race, you watch it for the crashes, and professional robot fighting competitions will always devolve into a few hundred laps of left turns. Fire and sparks are great, but there is a better robot fighting competition, and this time anyone can get in the game without spending years working on a robot.

It’s called Hebocon, and it’s billed as, ‘a sumo wrestling tournament for those who don’t have the technical skills to actually make robots’. The best translation I’ve seen is, ‘shitty robot battles’, and it’s exactly what robot battles should be: technical mastery overcome by guile, and massive upsets through ingenious strategy. You won’t get fire and sparks, but one thing is certain: no robot will make it out of Hebocon fully functional, but that’s only because they weren’t fully functional to begin with.

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Getting Started with ARM Using mbed

Even though the Arduino was hardly the first 8 bit microcontroller board to support a bootloader and the C/C++ language, it quickly became the de facto standard for hobby-level microcontrollers as well as a common choice for one-off or prototype projects. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why this occurred, but in my mind there were three major reasons: price, availability of lots of library and sample code, and the existence of a simplified GUI IDE that you could install in a few minutes. The build process is simple, too, even though if you ever have to actually figure it out, it is quite ugly. For most people, it works, and that makes it not ugly.

I like the ATMega chips. In fact, I had boards based around the ATMega8 and a bootloader way before there was an Arduino. However, they are fairly small parts. It is true that the Arduino infrastructure has grown to support more ATMega chips, many with more memory and I/O and clock speeds. However, 32-bit processors are getting inexpensive enough that for all but the simplest or highest volume projects, you should be thinking about using 32-bit.

If you’ve tried to go that route before, you’ve probably been daunted by the price, especially the price of development tools. Your alternative is to roll your own tool chain which is very doable (and there are some nice scripts out there that will help you). You also need to worry about libraries and how to integrate them. Not to mention, many of the advanced processors require a lot of setup to get, say, an A/D converter turned on. Most processors keep things they aren’t using turned off, and each pin requires setup to select the 4 or 5 things shared on that pin.

All of this has been a barrier to entry. The vendors have all figured this out, though, and many have tried to build tools aimed at breaking up the Arduino market ranging from inexpensive development boards to code-generating wizards, to full blown IDEs. I want to tell you (and show you, in the video below) how you can make the jump from 8-bit to 32-bit much easier than you might think.

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All the Unofficial Electronic Badges of DEF CON

2015 was the year of the unofficial hardware badge at DEF CON 23. There were a ton of different hardware badges designed for the love of custom electronics and I tried to catch up with the designer of each different badge. Here is the collection of images, video demos, and build details for each one I saw this weekend.

Whiskey Pirates

[TrueControl] did a great job with his badge design this year for the Whiskey Pirate Crew. This is a great update from the badge he designed last year, keeping the skull and bones outline. It uses a PSOC4 chip to control a ton of LEDs. The eyes are RGB pixels which are each on their own PCB that is soldered onto the back of the badge, with openings for the LED to show through. Two AA batteries power the board which has a surface-mount LED matrix. The user controls are all capacitive touch. There is a spinner around one eye, and pads for select and back. The NRF24L01 radio operates at 2.4GHz. This badge is slave to commands from last year’s badge. When the two are in the same area the 2015 badges will scroll the nickname of the 2014 badge it “sees”. The piezo element also chirps many different sounds based on the interactions with different badges.

[True] makes design an art form. The matte black solder mask looks fantastic, and he took great care in use of font, size, alignment, and things like letting copper show through for a really stunning piece of hardware art.

Keep reading for ten more great badges seen over the weekend.

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Cory Doctorow Rails Against the Effect of DRM and the DMCA

If you weren’t at [Cory Doctorow’s] DEF CON talk on Friday you missed out. Fighting Back in the War on General Purpose Computing was inspiring, informed, and incomparable. At the very lowest level his point was that it isn’t the devices gathering data about us that is the big problem, it’s the legislation that makes it illegal for us to make them secure. The good news is that all of the DEF CON talks are recorded and published freely. While you wait for that to happen, read on for a recap and to learn how you can help the EFF fix this mess.

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