Ask Hackaday: What Are Invariant Representations?

book cover for on intelligence

Your job is to make a circuit that will illuminate a light bulb when it hears the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. So you breadboard a mic, op amp, your favorite microcontroller (and an ADC if needed) and get to work. You will sample the incoming data and compare it to a known template. When you get a match, you light the light. The first step is to make the template. But what to make the template of?

“Hey boss, what style of the song do you want to trigger the light? Is it children singing, piano, what?”

Your boss responds:

“I want the light to shine whenever any version of the song occurs. It could be singing, keyboard, guitar, any musical instrument or voice in any key. And I want it to work even if there’s a lot of ambient noise in the background.”

Uh oh. Your job just got a lot harder. Is it even possible? How do you make templates of every possible version of the song? Stumped, you talk to your friend about your dilemma over lunch, who just so happens to be [Jeff Hawkins] – a guy whose already put a great deal of thought into this very problem.

“Well, the brain solves your puzzle easily.” [Hawkins] says coolly. “Your brain can recall the memory of that song no matter if it’s vocal, instrumental in any key or pitch. And it can pick it out from a lot of noise.”

“Yea, but how does it do that though!” you ask. “The pattern’s of electrical signals entering the brain have to be completely different for different versions of the song, just like the patterns from my ADC. How does the brain store the countless number of templates required to ID the song?”

“Well…” [Hawkins] chuckles. “The brain does not store templates like that”. The brain only remembers the parts of the song that doesn’t change, or are invariant. The brain forms what we call invariant representations of real world data.”

Eureka! Your riddle has been solved. You need to construct an algorithm that stores only the parts of the song that doesn’t change. These parts will be the same in all versions – vocal or instrumental in any key. It will be these invariant, unchanging parts of the song that you will look for to trigger the light. But how do you implement this in silicon?

[Read more...]

Ask Hackaday: Who is Going to Build This Pneumatic Transmission Thing?


Disney research is doing what they do best, building really cool stuff for Disney and telling the rest of the world how cool they are. This time, it’s a very low friction fluid transmission device designed for animatronics.

From testing a few toy robotic arms, we can say without a doubt that servos and motors are not the way to go if you’re designing robots and animatronics that need lifelike motion. To fix this, a few researchers at Disney Pittsburgh have turned to pneumatics and hydraulics, where one joint is controlled by two sets of pistons. It’s extremely similar to the pneumatic LEGO, but more precise and much more lifelike.

The system uses a pair of cylinders on each joint of a robot. Disney is using a rolling diaphragm to seal the working fluid in its tubes and cylinders. This is an extremely low-friction device without any shakiness or jitters found with simple o-ring pneumatics and hydraulics.

The system is backdriveable, meaning one robotic arm can control another, and the other way around. Since we’re dealing with hydraulics, the cylinders (and robotic/animatronic devices) don’t need to be the same size; a small device could easily control a larger copy of itself, and vice versa.

The devices are fairly simple, with gears, toothed belts, and bits of plastic between them. The only unique part of these robots is the rolling diaphragm, and we have no idea where to source this. It looks like it would be great for some robotics or an Iron Man-esque mech suit, but being able to source the components will be a challenge.

You can check out the videos of these devices below, and if you have any idea on how to build your own, leave a note in the comments.

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Ask Hackaday: Help NASA With Their High Altitude Problem

image of hackaday logo on box at high altitude

Unless you’ve been living under a high voltage transformer, you’ve probably heard that NASA has grounded the Space Shuttle fleet. This makes getting stuff to and from the International Space Station slightly more difficult. With the growing need to get small experiments back to the surface quickly and safely, NASA is researching an idea they call Small Payload Quick Return, or SPQR (pdf warning). Basically, they toss the experiment out of the window, use drag to slow it down, and then use a High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) self guiding parafoil to steer the thing down to a predefined location on the surface.

Now, what we’re interested in is the self guided parafoil part, as it takes place in known hacker territory – around 100,000 feet. This is the altitude where most high altitude balloon experiments take place. NASA is throwing a bunch of money and brainpower to research this part of the system, but they’re having problems. Lots of problems.

Stick around after the break and see if you can help, and maybe pick up some ideas on how to steer your next High Altitude Balloon project back to the launch pad.

[Read more...]

Ask Hackaday: How Would You Build a Clock Clock?


Hotel art often elicits less than a glance from most patrons. But we have to admit if we came across a piece like this we’d be compelled to record a video for later reference. That’s actually where the video came from, this was spotted in a hotel called Ham Yard.

The concept seemed familiar to us and a bit of Google-fu brings up our previous coverage of the concept back in 2010. The display is made up of circular analog clocks and we’d wager this is a version of “a million times” by Human Since 1982, the same artist who brought us the earlier concept.

Since we’re covering this once again we thought it would be fun to ask: how would you go about building your own? There are several challenges that come to mind. First, notice both hands of the analog clocks appear to be exactly the same (there is no short hour hand). Driving the coils of a cheap clock directly (a la Lord Vetinari clock hacking) seems an obvious approach. But look closely and you’ll see the hands sometimes move in opposite directions. There must be a simple way to implement the control, or are we chasing a pipe dream of a low cost version for our workshop clock?

[Thanks Munit]


Ask Hackaday: Who Wants An All DC House?

logo if acdc band

Sometimes when working on a righteous hack, we get goosebumps while watching our code execute faster than we could ever possibly comprehend. Seeing the pixels of the LCD come alive, hearing the chatter of relays and the hum of fans…it’s an amazing thing what electricity can do. And it is equally amazing when you realize that it all started one hundred and thirty five years ago, when [Thomas Edison] changed the world forever with the first practical electric light bulb.

That bulb was lit by a Direct Current – the same thing that runs the computer you’re reading this article on. The same thing that runs many of the hacks you read about here on Hack a Day, and almost all electronic devices in your house. But somewhere in the mix must exist a device that changes the Alternating Current from your wall outlet to the needed DC. Why? Why is it that we transport electricity as AC only to convert it to DC in our homes? You might answer:

“This argument was played out in the War of Currents back in the 1880’s.”

Indeed, it was. But that was a long time ago. Technology has changed. Changed so much to the point that the arguments in the War of Currents might no longer be valid. Join us after the break, where we rehash these arguments, and explore the feasibility of an all DC environment.

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Ask Hackaday: Can Paper USB Business Cards Exist?

swivel business card

The swivelCard Kickstarter campaign recently received a lot of press coverage and makes some impressive claims as their goal is the development of USB and NFC business cards at a $3 unit price. While most USB-enabled business cards we featured on Hackaday were made of standard FR4, this particular card is made of paper as the project description states the team patented

a system for turning regular paper into a USB drive.

As you can guess this piqued our interest, as all paper based technologies we had seen until now mostly consisted of either printed PCBs or paper batteries. ‘Printing a USB drive on regular paper’ (as the video says) would therefore involve printing functional USB and NFC controllers.

Luckily enough a quick Google search for the patents shown in one of the pictures (patent1, patent2) taught us that a storage circuitry is embedded under the printed USB pads, which may imply that the team had an Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) designed or that they simply found one they could use for their own purposes. From the video we learn that ‘each card has a unique ID and can individually be programmed’ (the card, not the UID) and that it can be setup to open any webpage URL. The latter can even be modified after the card has been handed out, hinting that the final recipient would go to a ‘” type of address. We therefore got confused by

Imagine giving your business card with pictures, videos, presentations, and websites for the recipient to interact with!

paragraph that the project description contains.

This leads us to one key question we have: what kind of USB drive can make a given user visit a particular website, given that he may have Linux, Windows, Mac or any other OS? They all have similar USB enumeration processes and different key strokes to launch a browser… our wild guess is that it may be detected as storage with a single html file in it. Unfortunately for us the USB detection process is not included in the video.

Our final question: Is it possible to embed both USB and NFC controllers in a thin piece of paper without worrying about broken ICs (see picture above)? NFC enabled passports have obviously been around for a long time but we couldn’t find the same for USB drives.

Possible or not, we would definitely love having one in our hands!

Edit: One of our kind readers pointed out that this campaign actually is a re-launch of a failed indiegogo one which provides more details about the technology and confirms our assumptions.

Ask Hackaday: Floating To Space

floating into space book cover

On a cool September morning just west of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, a group of MIT students launched a low-budget high altitude project that would go on to gain global attention. They revealed to the world that with a small weather balloon, a hacked camera, cheap GPS phone and a little luck, you could get pictures that rival those from the Space Shuttle. Their project set forth a torrent of hackers, students, kids and parents the world over trying to copy their success. Many succeeded. Others did not.

At 100,000 feet or about 20 miles up, it’s a brisk 60 degrees below zero. The atmosphere at this height is but a fraction of its density at sea level. Solar radiation rains down like a summer squall, and the view is just short of breathtaking. It seems so agonizingly close to space that you could just reach out and touch it. That one could almost float right on up into orbit.

Sound impossible? Think again. A little known volunteer based company operating out of California is trying to do just this.

[Read more...]


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