Hack Your Own Analog Camera

We remember making pinhole cameras as kids out of cigar boxes. The Focal Camera website wants to enable you to make sophisticated cameras from a selection of building blocks. We’re talking cameras with film, not digital cameras (although we wondered if you could mount an image sensor… but that’s another hack).

The modules do require access to a laser cutter, and you’ll need to scrounge or otherwise acquire things like mirrors and lenses. The site has advice on how to hack things like first surface mirrors out of cheap items like acrylic mirrors.

The intent is to be able to build up your own cameras from the modules. They do have a pinhole camera, in case you are nostalgic, but you could also build SLRs, large format cameras, or even stereo cameras. Not all the modules are ready yet, but there are several example cameras and pictures taken with them on the site. Like most building blocks, the real treat will be when users begin to combine them in unexpected ways.

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Using a Capacitor as an Actuator?!

[Dan Berard] has been using capacitors as actuators.

We’ve featured Dan’s awesome self built STM (scanning tunneling microscope) before. These microscopes work by moving a tip with nanometer precision across a surface. While the images he acquired are great, one disadvantage of the actuator he used is its poor rigidity. This limits the system to faster scan speeds.

In his search for a better actuator [Dan] thought he’d try using MLCC capacitors! While not known for their electromechanical properties, you may have encountered capacitors that appear to “sing” (PDF), emitting an audible tone. This is due to the piezoelectric properties of BaTiO3. Effectively the capacitor acts as a weak piezo electric speaker.

Using a 100V drive voltage [Dan] was able to get 300nm of deflection using the capacitor. To extend the range of the actuator he decided to ‘pole the ceramic dielectric’ this involved heating the capacitor above its Curie temperature of 120C. For this he used a transistor to heat the part as an ad-hoc hotplate. This increased the range of the actuator to 800nm, ideal for many STM (and other SPM) systems.

[Dan] is still weighing up his options for his next build, but MLCC capacitors are certainly a cheap and interesting choice.

Adventures With Vacuum Deposition Power Supplies

[Jerry Biehler] called this a “fail of the week”, but of course failure is just another part of the hacker adventure. Fail and fail often!

[Jerry] has been slowly assembling a vacuum deposition system. These systems let you deposit thin films on a substrate. Vacuum deposition systems have all sorts of exciting applications, not only are they used in semiconductor manufacturing, but as [Ben Krasnow] has shown can create conductive transparent coatings. They’re even sometimes used for silvering mirrors.

A common feature of these systems is that they require high voltage, we’re not talking a few hundred volts or even a few thousand volts. But 10 to 20 kilovolts. You need such a high voltage in order to accelerate electrons and ions, which are used to eject atoms from a source and deposit them as a thin film on a substrate.

It was this HV supply [Jerry] was working on, cobbling the system together from parts found on eBay. Unfortunately [Jerry] could only reach 9kv unloaded, which we’d expect to drop considerably under load. So [Jerry] has now found a different solution. But this teardown and writeup still makes great reading.

We’re left to pondering on what projects the spare parts could be useful for: “I might be able to series the secondaries and get 30kv at 500ma! That would make one hell of a bug zapper! Actually these transformers scare the hell out of me….” me too Jerry! Me too!

You Can Have my TIPs When You Pry them from my Cold, Dead Hands

We’ve seen a growing number of posts and recommendations around the net regarding components, specifically transistors. “Don’t use old parts” they cry,  “Go with newer components.”  You can often find these recommendations on Arduino forums. This all came to a head with a page called “Do Not TIP,” which was linked in the Arduino subreddit.  This page belongs to [Tom Jennings], creator of Fidonet, and one of the early authors of what would become Phoenix BIOS. [Tom] and a few others have been calling for everyone to send their old parts to the landfill – not use them, nor gift them to new experimenters. Get them out of the food chain. No offense to [Tom], but we have to disagree. These parts are still perfectly usable for experienced designers, and have a lot to offer new hardware hackers.

TIP is the part number prefix for a series of power transistors created by Texas Instruments.  In fact, “TIP” stands for Texas Instruments Power. The series was originally released in 1969. Yes, that’s right, 1969. Why are we still using parts designed when man first walked on the moon? The same reason people are still using the 555 timer: they’re simple, they’re easily available, they’re robust, and most of all, they get the job done. The TIP series has been used in thousands of classes, tutorials both online and off, and millions of projects over the years. Much of that documentation is already out there on the internet. The TIP series is also out in the distribution channel – they’ve been used for 40 years. Any retail shop that stocks a few electronics parts will have at least one of the TIP series.

The TIP series aren’t always the best transistors for the job. However, for most hobbyist-designed circuits, we don’t need the best performance, nor the best price – we’re going to use the parts we have on hand. There is always room to improve once you get the basic circuit working.

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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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Alcove: Blinky Art with a Killer Story

We should come clean right up front. We like blinky stuff, tech art, smoke machines, and dark atmospheric electronic music. This audiovisual installation piece (scroll down) by [supermafia] ticks off all our boxes. As the saying doesn’t really go, writing about site-specific audiovisual art pieces is like dancing about architecture, so go ahead and watch the video (Vimeo) below the break.

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Self Built Power Meter Uses Dual Sense Transformers

[Renaud] built a AC power meter from scratch. While commercial power meters like the Kill A Watt are available [Renaud’s] build gives an interesting insight into the methods used.

currentAt the heart of [Renaud’s] design lie two sense transformers. The first is a typical voltage stepdown transformer. This brings the AC line voltage down to +/- 10V, which is more amenable to digital sampling. The second is a current sense transformer. In current transformers the primary is typically a single wire (the AC line in this case) passing through the middle of a ring (see the picture to the right from wikipedia). The secondary is wrapped round the ring. When the secondary coil is shorted a current in the primary wire/coil induces a current in the secondary coil.

In practice, the voltage drop across a low value resistor is used to detect the current in the secondary. Clamp meters use this principle to make non-contact current measurements. Other power meters often use hall effect sensors for current measurements. It will be interesting to see how these methods compare when [Renaud] benchmarks this build.

[Renaud] takes the voltage and current readings from these transformers and samples them with a PIC in order to calculate power. As the AC voltage is periodic [Renaud] uses a method similar to Equivalent Time Sampling (ETS) to combine waveforms from multiple cycles and increase the effective sample rate.

Great stuff [Renaud]!