Astronaut Or Astronot: Amazingly Engineered

The latest round of community voting in The Hackaday Prize asked a simple question: which project is most likely to save the planet? The results will be posted on Monday.

Now it’s time to see if we’re giving away a $1000 gift card to the Hackaday Store, or just some prizes to people who have voted. The rules here are simple: I’m randomly selecting one person on Hackaday.io. if and only if that person has voted in the latest round of community voting, they get a thousand dollar gift card to the Hackaday store. If the randomly selected person did not vote, I select three people who have voted in the latest round of community voting. For the last few weeks, we’ve been giving out t-shirts. To sweeten the deal, we’re giving away a SmartMatrix, A Simon Says kit, and an Analog Stepper gauge to three people, just because they’ve voted.

Here’s the video:

Drat, the Hacker number randomly selected for the $1000 gift card hadn’t voted! Oh what could have been. Don’t let this happen to you next week, VOTE!

To soften the bitterness of defeat we dole out a few awesome prizes to those who had. [xanatos333] gets the Simon Says kit, [sylph.ds] gets an Analog Stepper Gauge, and [dougmsbbs] gets a Smartmatrix. Thanks to those who voted, and be sure to vote in the next round:

NEW ROUND OF VOTING

We’ll have to do some math and run a few scripts to figure out which projects the Hackaday.io community deemed most likely to save the planet. Until we put that data together, it’s time to start a new round of voting. This week, we’re looking for projects that are Amazingly Engineered.

Next Friday we’ll select a random person on Hackaday.io, and if they have voted, they get a $1000 gift card! For the apathetic non-voters… nada.

Prize Alert: Submit by Monday for Chance at Hundreds

For the past two weeks we’ve been on the lookout for the best 2015 Hackaday Prize entries which are using parts manufactured by Atmel, Freescale, Microchip, and Texas Instruments. All four are sponsors of this years initiative to solve problems faced by a large number of people.

list-banners-in-project-sidebarThe three-week mini-contest will come to a close on Monday and the Hackaday crew will begin to assign 200 prizes to the entries; 50 for each of the curated lists. Prizes include Mooshimeters, DS Logic Analyzers, Stickvise, Bluefruit BLE Sniffers, Cordwood Puzzle kits, and TV-B-Gone kits.

There are two things you need to do in order to be considered for this contest: make sure your project has been submitted as an official 2015 Hackaday Prize entry, and that the project is listed on the list associated with the parts manufacturer you’ve used in your project design. The easiest way to get on the list is to leave a comment on the .Stack thread.

You can check to ensure you’ve met these two requirements by viewing your project page and looking in the left sidebar. The square thumbnail photo at the top will have a black flag with the astronaut logo at “2015”. Below that you will see banners for the lists on which your project is included. You should be on at least one of the following lists: 2015 THP: Atmel Parts2015 THP: Freescale Parts2015 THP: Microchip Parts2015 THP: Texas Instruments Parts.

Don’t miss out on this stage of the contest. You stand a really great chance of being selected as a winner! And for those already on the lists we can offer some advice for rising to the top. Polish up your documentation. Tell us how the parts are used in your design, where you are in the prototyping process, and list the tasks you have yet to accomplish. Share the whole story of what you’re working on. Good luck!

Those looking to discover and be inspired by the existing entries should give Astronaut or Not a try. The side-by-side comparisons are a great way to browse, and could also win you some prizes.


The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Talking Big Changes At SparkFun With Nathan Seidle

SparkFun, you know them, you love them. They list themselves as “an online retail store” but I remember them for well-designed breakout boards, free-day, videos about building electronics, and the Autonomous Vehicle Competition. This week SparkFun turned my head for a different reason with the announcement that [Nathan Siedle], founder and CEO will be stepping down. He’s not leaving, but returning to the Engineering department while someone else takes the reigns. I spoke with him yesterday about what this means for him, the company, and what SparkFun has planned for the future.

Stepping Down Without Saying Goodbye

[Nate] founded Sparkfun in 2003 while still working on his Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Colorado Boulder. He cites wanting to return to his engineering roots as the reason for his title shift, which won’t happen for at least 9 or 10 months. It’s the concept of leaving the CEO position without leaving the company that raises many questions in my mind.

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The Thrill of Shenzhen — Candyland for Electronics Geeks

Just getting to Shenzhen is an adventure for a different post, but the Hackaday crew made it and spent our first full day in the city last Thursday.

Unlike Wednesday’s experience in Hong Kong, most people you run into do not speak English and the signs generally don’t have English words on them. This makes getting around hard in that it’s difficult to figure out where it is you’re going. It’s equally tough to convey the destination to a taxi driver or translate it into public transportation. I was able to get to the Software Industrial Base via taxi because I had saved the Chinese character address on my phone and showed it to the cab driver. But when the trip ended I had trouble figuring out how much to pay… the meter reads 10 Yuan but there is an additional charge of a few Yuan which I only realized in retrospect. But my driver was very nice about this and helped me with change and a smile.

Visiting Seeed Studio

You might think finding the correct building would be simple. But the Shenzhen Industrial Software Base is a huge complex of similar buildings. A friendly security guard looked at my saved address and used the squares in the sidewalk as a map to non-verbally get me headed the right way. Seeed Studio, our hosts for SZMF, have a beautiful new office which is industrial-modern in its decor. There are glass-walled conference rooms but the majority of the space is open in design as it wraps around the exterior of half a floor in the six or seven story building.

Hitting the Markets

After doing some planning for the Hackaday workshop the next day, [Chris] from Seeed offered to take us to the electronics markets. How do you pass up that offer? We first stopped off at a Korean restaurant for lunch, then hopped a slightly-crowded cab to meet [Matt] and [Alek] who were already at the market.

The Huaqiangbei markets are multi-story buildings filled with booths. We first went into the wrong one, which turned out to be the used equipment building. Vendors specialize in refurbishing electronics. There were floors and floors of booths filled with equipment — often three tiers or more of laptop computers (open and running) wrapping each booth which were about the footprint of a king-sized bed.

IMG_20150619_184322523Back on track we made it to a brand new building which was seemingly built already completely packed with booths. The place has everything, generally divided up by floor. The top two floors are mostly LEDs of every kind, or drivers for them. We were on the hunt for addressable LEDs, but there didn’t seem to be any legendary bargains available. This may have been an issue of volume because I later heard from a friend that he acquired 25-meters of 12V WS2812 strips for a song.

Next it was the hunt for the “baby phone”. This is an Android phone built to look like a miniature iPhone. They’re cute. The blocks, and blocks, and blocks of walking, backtracking, running into acquaintances who joined the hunt, and finally ascending shady stairs and dingy aisles did pay off. Ta-da, [Sophi’s] new phone!

We hopped the subway to get back from the markets. I love trying out public transportation in different cities and this didn’t disappoint. The stations are so clean, and after 85 degrees F and 80 percent humidity all day the air conditioning is heavenly.

Awesome Subways

Shenzhen-Subway-Token-cropped
Image Source: WhereAmI.org (also an interesting Shenzhen read)

You purchase a token which is a green plastic disc about the size of two american quarters stacked on top of one another. Very light weight and very tech-oriented. Each is an RFID (or some other non-contact) tag. Tap it on your way in, drop it in the slot on your way out. Midway during our return trip we realized we were changing the location for Hackaday’s Saturday Shenzhen Meetup. We got off the train, rode the other way, switched lines, and popped out in a beautiful part of Shenzhen. Everything in this city seems to be new and under construction. NYPD Pizza is in the middle of a very partially completed complex but has the hip, trendy, divebar-neveau that made for an awesome meetup. Check back on that yarn which deserves it’s own post.

A bit exhausted, we made it back to the hotel for a bit of dinner and relaxation. But who could pass up the opportunity to head to an outdoor BBQ party marking the end of Hacker Camp? This creation, started by Hackaday Alumni and Dangerous Prototypes founder [Ian Lesnet], invites engineers and hardware creators to come tour Shenzhen and pick up as much manufacturing knowledge as possible in between epic evenings of socializing.

Dripping wet BBQ Party

Again, figuring out where to go is really hard! We jumped on the subway and made it to the correct stop, but getting to the BBQ alley in what feels like a residential neighborhood required a aimless wandering, and bumping into two different people who had already been to the party.

The atmosphere was sticky and blazing hot. Everyone was dripping with sweat and drinking a very large beverage. Check out this hi-res album for the proof. There were a few restaurants, an open-air bar, and a bodega with bombers of Tsingtao for under a buck (USD). To me it seemed to be a dead end street, but every few minutes a honking motorbike was waddled through the shoulder-to-shoulder crush of sweaty bodies. Hardened ex-pats and locals drank beer from glasses, but the foreign visitors seemed to stick with bottles.

This definitely registered as one of the most exciting days of my life. I love the adventure. The city feels safe and friendly — but travel (especially at night) adds a thrill.

An Interview With The CEO Of MakerBot

A few days ago, we posed a question to the Hackaday community. If you could ask the CEO of MakerBot a question, what would it be?

It’s an interesting proposition; there is no company serving the maker community – and those of us who refuse to call ourselves part of the maker community – more hated than MakerBot. They’ve patented ideas uploaded to Thingiverse. They’ve turned their back on the open hardware community they grew out of, They’re undercutting their own resellers, and by all accounts, they don’t know how to make a working extruder. MakerBot was the company that would show the world Open Hardware could be successful, but turned into a company that seemed to reject Open Hardware and Open Source more than any other.

Needless to say, the readers of Hackaday responded. Not with actual questions for the MakerBot CEO, mind you, but oh how you responded. This effort by MakerBot was likened to the hail Mary thrown by Radio Shack  a few years ago. We know how that turned out.

Nevertheless, questions were collected, The MakerBot CEO was interviewed by Lady Ada, and a summary compiled. You can check that interview, originally posted on the Adafruit blog, below.

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Crowdfunding Follies: Proof That Ohm’s Law Is Arcane Knowledge

This is a cell phone case that can recharge a cellphone using energy captured from its own radio. It’s been featured on dozens of tech blogs, wowed judges at TechCrunch Disrupt, and it’s a Kickstarter Staff Pick. It’s also proof that nearly everyone in the media who claims any knowledge of technology has no idea behind the foundational properties of technology.

What it is

The Nikola Phone Case from Nikola Labs is a very special phone case for the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6. The claims behind this cell phone case state it will recharge your battery by capturing radio energy put out by the cell phone itself. This means capturing RF from the WiFi and cellular transmitters. This captured energy is then converted into something that can recharge the phone, is sent to the USB or Lightning port, and – theoretically – the cycle of electrons turning into photons begins again.

Why it’s crap

Astonishingly, this is not a perpetual motion machine, a device that is completely impractical, or an outright fraud. It’s deceptively correct when it comes to the physics of this device, and as always implementation is everything.

Inside each Nikola Phone Case is a small antenna, boost converter, and circuitry to capture the RF energy coming from the phone. This phone case will actually harvest RF energy, but it will never be able to extend the life of the phone’s battery. Nikola Labs claims their phone case will recover 30% of a battery’s life by harvesting RF energy and using that energy to recharge the phone. However, the energy for this RF energy harvesting scheme comes from the phone itself. The captured energy that would – ideally – end up at a cell phone tower or WiFi router will disappear into this cell phone case. This results in both a dramatic decrease in reception and most likely an increase in power draw due to the phone increasing its transmit power.

To Nikola Labs’ credit, the FAQ on their Kickstarter does address concerns that a phone’s transmitter and antenna may be affected:

The device may change the impedance and overall pattern slightly. We are performing detail characterization of these changes, if any.

Nikola Labs has not performed due diligence on their design. There is a method that will report the RSSI of the cellular radio in an Android phone. Any competent engineer would, upon first seeing this device, figure out if signal strength is affected. This can be done in a few dozen lines of Java. It can be done in under an hour by someone who has never programmed an Android device. Nikola Labs does not provide a comparison of the signal strength of a phone both with and without their case. This is evidence of incompetence, if not malice.

Simply by definition, any device that captures RF energy will ‘shadow’ the transmission. Just like putting a solar panel in front of a flashlight, energy will be captured, but the overall light output of the flashlight and solar panel system will decrease. Nikola Labs has an answer to that:

The device harvests the RF energy around the phone, which is usually absorbed by the hand holding the phone.

It is true that the human body will absorb RF coming out of a phone. WiFi works on the same frequencies as a microwave oven, and defrosting a piece of chicken in a microwave isn’t that much different from grabbing an antenna on a router. Lower powers and different geometries aside, you are right now absorbing microwaves from a WiFi router.

The best way of understanding why simply holding a phone isn’t a very big deal is coming at it from the direction of designing a smart phone. One of the biggest drivers behind the design of a cell phone is how long it will last on a single charge. You can design a phone with a powerful CPU and a huge screen, but the battery won’t last long. Likewise, the engineers that design cell phones will put the antennas in an out of the way place, where they won’t be absorbed by the human body. The Nikola Labs case destroys the engineering decisions inside each cell phone. Think about it; if power was wasted inside a cell phone, wouldn’t engineers at Apple and Samsung work to reduce that waste?

Why everything else is crap, too

There is simply no excuse why hundreds of people would give tens of thousands of dollars to a company that makes outrageous claims with zero evidence. One could attribute this to the public’s severe lack of understanding when dealing with electricity or radio. This, in my opinion, is far too kind.

Nikola Labs’ Kickstarter would not exist without the help of Kickstarter itself and members of the tech media. We first heard of Nikola Labs at TechCrunch Disrupt, where four judges could not find anything wrong with this technology. The presentation at Disrupt went on to be covered by Engadget and a flurry of other tech blogs. Now, dozens of other tech blogs have reported on this Kickstarter, and Kickstarter itself has named it a Staff Pick.

Yes, there are stupid people out there. There are people who will throw money at anything. There are also people who will Barnum up the place sell snake oil to rubes. The fact that Kickstarter would endorse something without a technical assessment defies belief. The only conceivable reason this could be a Staff Pick on Kickstarter is because Kickstarter believes it will be funded, thus earning them a percentage of gross.

This is the end of capitalism, folks. No longer do you need to innovate and make a better mouse trap. All you need to do is convince enough people that you’ve made a better mouse trap.

Olimex Claims the World’s First $9 Computer Costs $39

The C.H.I.P. from Next Thing Co. bills itself as the world’s first nine dollar computer. That’s not a lie; their Kickstarter took in over two million dollars for a tiny single board computer with composite Video, WiFi, Bluetooth 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and a 1GHz CPU. That’s a complete computer, sans keyboard, mouse, and monitor. You won’t get that with the $35 Raspberry Pi – you’ll need to add a WiFi adapter and an SD card for the same functionality – and you won’t get that with any other single board computer.

Understandably, the C.H.I.P. is already extremely successful. The company behind it has about 50,000 pre-orders, and people lined up to wait until well into next year for this computer. Exactly how Next Thing Co. managed to build a single board computer and send it out the door for nine dollars is a question that has yet to be answered, and is leaving more than a few people puzzled.

The Olimex blog has given their opinion of the C.H.I.P, and if that’s to be believed, the news isn’t good. The guys at Olimex know their stuff when it comes to making cheap single board computers; they have more than a few for sale, and they know what the Flash and DRAM market is like. To them, it’s impossible to sell a computer like the C.H.I.P. at $9. A quote from Allwinner for a similar module is $16 at the quantity Next Thing Co. would be looking at. That’s just the module with RAM and Flash – no Wifi, no board, no connectors. How could it be possible to sell this computer for only $9?

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