MiniBloq IDE, Graphical Programming For Robots Of All Sizes

MiniBloq

The Arduino IDE only brings the ire of actual EEs and People Who Know Better™, but if you’re teaching robotics and programming to kids, you really don’t want something as simple as a text editor with a ‘compile’ button. For that educational feat, a graphical system would be much better suited. [Julián] has been working for months to build such a tool, and now miniBloq, the graphical programming tool for just about every dev board out there, has a new release.

The idea of a graphical programming language for robotics has been done before, most memorably with the Lego Mindstorms programming interface. That was closed source, of course, and only worked with the magical Lego brick that allowed you to attach motors and sensors to a child’s creation. miniBloq takes the same idea and allows the same programming environment to work with dozens of dev boards for robots of every shape and size. Already, the Pi-Bot, SparkFun RedBot, Maple, Multiplo DuinoBot, and anything based on an Arduino Leonardo works with miniBloq, as will any future dev boards that understand C/C++, Python, or JavaScript. It’s not just for powering motors, either: there’s a few Python and OpenCV tutorials that demonstrate how a robot can track a colored object with a camera.

The current version of miniBloq can be downloaded from the gits, with versions available for Windows and *nix. The IDE is written with wxWidgets, so this could also be easily ported to OS X.

Python With Braces

python

If there’s one thing about Python that’s slightly disconcerting, it’s the complete lack of braces, or as they’re called in American English, suspenders. A feature of every variety of C, Java, PHP, Perl, and a whole bunch of other very powerful languages, braces make things more legible and don’t rely on precise indentation. [Ruby] and [Eran] have come up with a way to use these punctuation marks with Python in a project they call Python with Braces.

As its name implies, Python with Braces doesn’t care about indentation: you’re free to make you code extremely ugly, or write your code properly in K&R style. Each line is terminated in a semicolon, and blocks of code with only one statement don’t require curly braces, just like C and Java.

Right now [Ruby] and [Eran] have a Windows installer with an OS X package on its way. Executing a Python with Braces script only requires executing it with a ‘pythonb’ executable instead of the normal ‘python’ executable.

Using A Computer To Read Braille

braille

[Matthiew] needed to create a system that would allow a computer to read braille. An electromechanical system would be annoying to develop and would require many hardware iterations as the system [Matthew] is developing evolves. Instead, he came up with a much better solution using a webcam and OpenCV that still gets 100% accuracy.

Instead of using a camera to look for raised or lowered pins in this mechanical braille display, [Matthiew] is using OpenCV to detect the shadows. This requires calibrating the camera to the correct angle, or in OpenCV terms, pose.

After looking at the OpenCV tutorials, [Matthiew] found a demo that undistorts an image of a chess board. Using this same technique, he used fiducials from the ARTag project to correctly calibrate an image of his mechanical braille pins.

As for why [Matthiew] went through all the trouble to get a computer to read braille – something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it – he’s building a braille eBook reader, something that just screams awesome mechanical design. We’d be interested in seeing some more info on that project as well.

Manual Bitcoin Transactions

bitcoin

For something that’s used for such banal transactions like buying drugs and sending the Jamaican bobsled team to the Olympics, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are actually very impressive pieces of software. It’s a very ingenious solution to the Two Generals Problem, and the fact it made a few Bitcoin early adopters very, very rich doesn’t hurt either. [Ken Shirriff] decided to take a look at the Bitcoin protocol by creating a Bitcoin address and transferring a small amount of bitcoin to that address, manually. It’s a great look at how the Bitcoin protocol actually works, and how ingenious this protocol actually is.

[Ken]’s first task was to create a Bitcoin address. This is a 256-bit private key is the basis for the Bitcoin wallet private key (after being encoded as ASCII characters), and as the 512-bit public key (after being sent through an elliptic curve algorithm). The 512-bit public key is then hashed with SHA-256 and RIPEM 160 to generate the 160-bit public key hash and the Bitcoin address.

After creating a bitcoin address and wallet, [Ken] set out on manually creating a transaction. The idea was to buy a few cents (USD) from Coinbase and send them to his manually created address. This involved creating a transaction according to the Bitcoin spec and signing the transaction. Signing each Bitcoin transaction is the key to Bitcoin’s security, and is done with a small bit of code written in the Bitcoin scripting language.

With everything written in Python, [Ken] was ready to send his transaction off into the Bitcoin network. This was done by finding a few peers on the Bitcoin network and sending off a few packets. After a little bit of mining on the network, [Ken]’s transaction went through, confirmed by a deposit into his Bitcoin wallet.

It’s an awesome writeup and impressive achievement to manually send a few Bitcoins from one wallet to another. More impressively, [Ken] provided some amazing insight into how the Bitcoin protocol works, and how much work went into its creation.

International Obfuscated C Code Contest Winners Posted

ioccc

The International Obfuscated C Contest – the contest to create the most useful, useless, or unique program in absolutely unreadable C code – has just posted the winners of the 2013 contest.

Of the entries of note, a few really stand out. The pic at the top of this post, for instance, comes courtesy of this submission. It’s an iterative ray tracer stuck inside an infinite loop that, when left running overnight, is able to produce amazing renders.

An IOCCC contest wouldn’t be complete without some ASCII art C code, and this entry fits the bill. It’s a Tetris painting tool that creates images made out of tetronomoes. Each image is built up one line at a time from the bottom up, using Tetris’ lack of physics to create a picture out of un-cleared lines.

One of the most impressive entries for this (last?) year’s contest is a tiny 8086 PC emulator/virtual machine written in only 4043 bytes of code. It’s a fully functional 80s-era PC emulator that can run vintage copies of AutoCAD, Windows, Lotus 1-2-3, and SimCity.

All the submissions are awesome, but like any IOCCC contest, there aren’t actually any winners. Or they’re all winners. The Obfuscated rules aren’t very clear in that regard.

An Arduino With Better Speech Recognition Than Siri

The lowly Arduino, an 8-bit AVR microcontroller with a pitiful amount of RAM, terribly small Flash storage space, and effectively no peripherals to speak of, has better speech recognition capabilities than your Android or iDevice.  Eighty percent accuracy, compared to Siri’s sixty.Here’s the video to prove it.

This uSpeech library created by [Arjo Chakravarty] uses a Goertzel algorithm to turn input from a microphone connected to one of the Arduino’s analog pins into phonemes. From there, it’s relatively easy to turn these captured phonemes into function calls for lighting a LED, turning a servo, or even replicating the Siri, the modern-day version of the Microsoft paperclip.

There is one caveat for the uSpeech library: it will only respond to predefined phrases and not normal speech. Still, that’s an extremely impressive accomplishment for a simple microcontroller.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen [Arjo]’s uSpeech library, but it is the first time we’ve seen it in action. When this was posted months and months ago, [Arjo] was behind the Great Firewall of China and couldn’t post a proper demo. Since this the uSpeech library is a spectacular achievement we asked for a few videos showing off a few applications. No one made the effort, so [Arjo] decided to make use of his new VPN and show off his work to the world.

Video below.

Continue reading “An Arduino With Better Speech Recognition Than Siri”

Trimming The Fat From AVR GCC

avr

[Ralph] has been working on an extraordinarily tiny bootloader for the ATtiny85, and although coding in assembly does have some merits in this regard, writing in C and using AVR Libc is so much more convenient. Through his trials of slimming down pieces of code to the bare minimum, he’s found a few ways to easily trim a few bytes off code compiled with AVR-GCC.

To test his ideas out, [Ralph] first coded up a short program that reads the ATtiny85’s internal temperature sensor. Dissassembling the code, he found the a jump to a function called __ctors_end: before the jump to main. According to the ATtiny85 datasheet, this call sets the IO registers to their initial values. These initial values are 0, so that’s 16 bytes that can be saved. This function also sets the stack pointer to its initial value, so another 16 bytes can be optimized out.

If you’re not using interrupts on an ATtiny, you can get rid of 30 bytes of code by getting rid of the interrupt vector table. In the end, [Ralph] was able to take a 274 byte program and trim it down to 190 bytes. Compared to the 8k of Flash on the ‘tiny85, it’s a small amount saved, but if you’re banging your head against the limitations of this micro’s storage, this might be a good place to start.

Now if you want to hear some stories about optimizing code you’ve got to check out the Once Upon Atari documentary. They spent months hand optimizing code to make it fit on the cartridges.