Hacklet 105 – More Mind and Brain Hacks

A mind is a terrible thing to waste – but an awesome thing to hack. We last visited brain hacks back in July of 2015. Things happen fast on Hackaday.io. Miss a couple of days, and you’ll miss a bunch of great new projects, including some awesome new biotech hacks. This week, we’re checking out some of the best new mind and brain hacks on Hackaday.io

We start with [Daniel Felipe Valencia V] and Brainmotic. Brainmotic is [Daniel’s] entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize. Smart homes and the Internet of Things are huge buzzwords these days. [Daniel’s] project aims to meld this technology with electroencephalogram (EEG). Your mind will be able to control your home. This would be great for anyone, but it’s especially important for the handicapped. Brainmotic’s interface is using the open hardware OpenBCI as the brain interface. [Daniel’s] software and hardware will create a bridge between this interface and the user’s home.


biofeed1Next we have [Angeliki Beyko] with Serial / Wireless Brainwave Biofeedback. EEG used to be very expensive to implement. Things have gotten cheap enough that we now have brain controlled toys on the market. [Angeliki] is hacking these toys into useful biofeedback tools. These tools can be used to visualize, and even control the user’s state of mind. [Angeliki’s] weapon of choice is the MindFlex series of toys. With the help of a PunchThrouch LightBlue Bean she was able to get the EEG headsets talking on Bluetooth. A bit of fancy software on the PC side allows the brainwave signals relieved by the MindFlex to be interpreted as simple graphs. [Angeliki] even went on to create a Mind-Controlled Robotic Xylophone based on this project.

brainhelmetNext is [Stuart Longland] who hopes to protect brains with Improved Helmets. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is in the spotlight of medical technology these days. As bad as it may be, TBI is just one of several types of head and neck injuries one may sustain when in a bicycle or motorcycle accident. Technology exists to reduce injury, and is included with some new helmets. Many of these technologies, such as MIPS, are patented. [Stuart] is working to create a more accurate model of the head within the helmet, and the brain within the skull. From this data he intends to create a license free protection system which can be used with new helmets as well as retrofitted to existing hardware.

mindwaveFinally we have [Tom Meehan], whose entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize is Train Your Brain with Neurofeedback. [Tom] is hoping to improve quality of life for people suffering from Epilepsy, Autism, ADHD, and other conditions with the use of neurofeedback. Like [Angeliki ] up above, [Tom] is hacking hardware from NeuroSky. In this case it’s the MindWave headset. [Tom’s] current goal is to pull data from the TAGM1 board inside the MindWave. Once he obtains EEG data, a Java application running on the PC side will allow him to display users EEG information. This is a brand new project with updates coming quickly – so it’s definitely one to watch!

If you want more mind hacking goodness, check out our freshly updated brain hacking project list! Did I miss your project? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Saving Lives with Open-Source Electrocardiography

A few months ago, MobilECG wowed us with a formidable electrocardiograph (ECG, also EKG) machine in the format of a business card, complete with an OLED display. We’ve seen business card hacks before, but that was the coolest. But that’s peanuts compared with the serious project that it supports: making an open-source ECG machine that can actually save lives by being affordable enough to be where it’s needed, when it’s needed.

The project, MobilECG, is an open-source, wearable device that supports all of the major ECG modes. In their talk, [Péter Isza] and [Róbert Csordás] taught us a lot about what that exactly entails and how the heart works. We learned a lot, and we’ll share some of that with you after the break.

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Fail Of The Week: My 3D Printer Upgrade

After years of cutting my hands on the exposed threads of my Prusa Mendel i2, it was time for a long overdue upgrade. I didn’t want to just buy a new printer because it’s no fun. So, I decided to buy a new frame for my printer. I settled on the P3Steel, a laser cut steel version of the Prusa i3. It doesn’t suffer from the potential squaring problems of the vanilla i3 and the steel makes it less wobbly than the acrylic or wood framed printers of similar designs.

My trusty i2. Very sharp. It... uh.. grew organically.
My trusty i2. Very sharp. It… uh.. grew organically.

I expected a huge increase in reliability and print quality from my new frame. I wanted less time fiddling with it and more time printing. My biggest hope was that switching to the M5 threaded screw instead of the M8 the i2 used would boost my z-layer accuracy. I got my old printer working just long enough to print out the parts for my new one, and gleefully assembled my new printer.

I didn’t wait until all the electronics were nicely mounted. No. It was time. I fired it up. I was expecting the squarest, quietest, and most accurate print with breathtakingly aligned z-layers. I did not get any of that. There was a definite and visible ripple all along my print. My first inclination was that I was over-extruding. Certainly my shiny new mechanics could not be at fault. Plus, I built this printer, and I am a good printer builder who knows what he’s doing. Over-extruding looks very much like a problem with the Z-axis. So, I tuned my extrusion until it was perfect.

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Up-Close and Personal with Laser Cuts

Plenty of materials take the heated edge of a laser beam quite well, but many others don’t. Some release toxic fumes; others catch fire easily. For all the materials that don’t cut well (PVC and FR4, we’re looking at you!) and for those that do (hello, acrylic and Delrin) they’re each reacting to the heat of the laser beam in different ways. Lucky for us, these ways are well-characterized. So let’s take a look at how a laser cutter actually cuts through materials.

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The Open Source Hacker’s Laptop

[Tsvetan Usunov] has been Mr. Olimex for about twenty five years now, and since then, he’s been through a lot of laptops. Remember when power connectors were soldered directly to the motherboard? [Tsvetan] does, and he’s fixed his share of laptops. Sometimes, fixing a laptop doesn’t make any sense; vendors usually make laptops that are hard to repair, and things just inexplicably break. Every year, a few of [Tsvetan]’s laptops die, and the batteries of the rest lose capacity among other wear and tear. Despite some amazing progress from the major manufacturers, laptops are still throwaway devices.

Since [Tsvetan] makes ARM boards, boards with the ~duino suffix, and other electronic paraphernalia, it’s only natural that he would think about building his own laptop. It’s something he’s been working on for a while, but [Tsvetan] shared his progress on an Open Source, hacker’s laptop at the Hackaday | Belgrade conference.

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Materials To Know: Baltic Birch

Long ago, when I wanted a plywood sheet, I would go to the local big box hardware store and buy whatever was at the center of the optimization curve for  cheapest and nicest looking. I would inevitably suffer with ultra-thin veneers on the top, ugly cores, unfinishable edges, warping, voids, and other maladies of the common plywood. One day I said enough is enough and bothered the salesman at my local lumber supply until he showed me one that wasn’t awful.

There are subtle clues that the Baltic Birch I've purchased is Russian.
There are subtle clues that the Baltic Birch I’ve purchased is Russian.

Baltic birch differs from other plywoods in a few ways. Regular plywood is usually made locally from the cheapest possible core wood in alternating grain layers laminated together with a hardwood veneer on the top. There are interior and exterior grades. The exterior grades are usually made with a different glue, but don’t necessarily denote a higher quality or stability. Some of the glues used can be toxic. Wear a respirator. In normal plywood, the ATSM or BB standards only apply to the face veneers used to finish the product. The core can be of whatever quality is convenient for the manufacturer.

True Baltic Birch is made in the Baltic Region with the biggest producers being Russia and Finland. Outside of the US it is sometimes called Finnish Birch or Russian Birch plywood for this reason. It is made from only top quality birch veneers laminated together with no filler wood. It is also unique in the care taken to make sure each layer of the wood is patched so there are no voids. All Baltic Birch is made with exterior grade glue, and when properly sealed will work for outdoor applications. There are grades of Baltic birch for marine applications and exceptionally void free aircraft grade plywood at a much higher cost.

The easiest way to spot Baltic Birch if you’re American is its form factor. Baltic birch comes in 1525 x 1525 mm squares, which approximates to 5 ft x 5 ft. Some people have said that manufacturers have started to produce 4 ft x 8 ft sheets specifically for the North American market, but this information comes with a caveat that these are usually lower grades made locally or in China parading under the name. The metric form factor extends to the thicknesses of the sheets. In America they will be sold as inch, but fit pretty closely to a metric form.

  • 3 mm ≈ 1/8″ (3 plies)
  • 6 mm ≈ 1/4″ (5 plies)
  • 9 mm ≈ 3/8″ (7 plies)
  • 12 mm ≈ 1/2″ (9 plies)
  • 18 mm ≈ 3/4″ (13 plies)
    – From [3] Ultimate guide to Baltic birch.
The core of regular hardware store plywood.
The core of regular hardware store plywood. Pretty bad in comparison.

There are some really nice practical features of Baltic Birch. One of my favorites is the absolute uniformity of the layers. This means that two pieces of birch can be laminated together and the seam between the two becomes indistinguishable. I’ve used this to make cases by CNC routing out the inside of a sheet of Baltic birch, drilling some holes for alignment pins, and then laminating the whole assembly together. We’ve covered a few readers who have had similar ideas. Since the layers are uniform you can also do interesting things when combined with a CNC router. For example, carefully milling away the layers you can get a topographic map of the object.

Baltic Birch is also significantly flatter and more stable than other plywood options. It is commonly the material used for fences on expensive tables saws. It moves less during temperature swings and changes in ambient moisture. This is one of the reasons it’s popular with fine furniture builders. This also makes Baltic birch a good option for home CNC builds, certainly better than MDF . Due to the higher quality wood and better manufacturing it is quite strong as well. It is a great structural wood.

Explanation of the grading scale for Baltic Birch from [1] Dan’s hobbies.
Baltic birch holds stains very well on both its faces and its edges. It’s as easy to paint and glue as any wood. As far as surface finish goes it’s important to note that as mentioned previously, Baltic Birch is graded to a different scale than regular plywood. The grades will determine how the face veneers are treated. B/B is the highest grade with both sides being defect free. B/BB is much more common and is what you are likely to find. I have not found C or CP grades in the US. My guess is that we have plenty of low grade plywoods to compete with it. It is likely found nearer to the areas where it is produced.

This is on the non-finishing side of a Baltic Birch panel. You can see the care taken to fix knots and voids.
This is on the non-finishing side of a Baltic Birch panel. You can see the care taken to fix knots and voids. This will be done through the whole sheet. The face of the board will not have marks. This is a B/BB grade sheet. If it was B/B both sides would be without patches.

Baltic birch is more expensive than the regular grade stuff. So a sheet of ¾” thick Oak veneer plywood with a pine core, interior grade, from Lowes is about 35 US dollars where a similar sheet of 18mm Baltic Birch will run around 65 dollars.

I’ll still occasionally purchase a cheaper sheet of plywood when I have a non-critical application (like garage shelving), but when I am doing something precise or nice I’ll spend the extra on the birch plywood. While I love this material, I am by no means a wood worker. Have any of you had experience with this plywood? Is there an even better plywood out there?

I’ve left my sources below for further reading. [3] Ultimate Guide to Baltic Birch is very good.

[1] Dan’s Hobbies. (2016). A baltic birch plywood primer | Dan’s Hobbies. [online] Available at: http://www.dans-hobbies.com/2010/01/09/a-baltic-birch-plywood-primer/ [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].

[2]Wikipedia. (2016). Plywood. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plywood [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].

[3] Stephens, (2014). Ultimate Guide to Baltic Birch Plywood: Why It’s Better, When to Use It |. [online] Woodworkerssource.com. Available at: http://www.woodworkerssource.com/blog/tips-tricks/your-ultimate-guide-to-baltic-birch-plywood-why-its-better-when-to-use-it/ [Accessed 19 Apr. 2016].

Retrotechtacular: MONIAC

There is an argument to be made that whichever hue of political buffoons ends up in Number 10 Downing Street, the White House, the Élysée Palace, or wherever the President, Prime Minister or despot lives in your country, eventually they will send the economy down the drain.

Fortunately, there is a machine for that. MONIAC is an analogue computer with water as its medium, designed to simulate a national economy for students. Invented in 1949 by the New Zealand economist [WIlliam Phillips], it is a large wooden board with a series of tanks interconnected by pipes and valves. Different sections of the economy are represented by the water tanks, and the pipes and valves model the flow of money between them. Spending is downhill gravitational water flow, while taxation is represented by a pump which returns money to the treasury at the top. It was designed to represent the British economy in the late 1940s as [Philips] was a student at the London School of Economics when he created it. Using the machine allowed students and economists for the first time to simulate the effects of real economic decisions in government, in real time.

So if you have a MONIAC, you can learn all about spectacularly mismanaging the economy, and then in a real sense flush the economy down the drain afterwards. The video below shows Cambridge University’s restored MONIAC in operation, and should explain the device’s workings in detail.
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