Code Craft-Embedding C++: Hacking the Arduino Software Environment

The Arduino software environment, including the IDE, libraries, and general approach, are geared toward education. It’s meant as a way to introduce embedded development to newbies. This is a great concept but it falls short when more serious development or more advanced education is required. I keep wrestling with how to address this. One way is by using Eclipse with the Arduino Plug-in. That provides a professional development environment, at least.

The code base for the Arduino is another frustration. Bluntly, the use of setup() and loop() with main() being hidden really bugs me. The mixture of C and C++ in libraries and examples is another irritation. There is enough C++ being used that it makes sense it should be the standard. Plus a good portion of the library code could be a lot better. At this point fixing this would be a monumental task requiring many dedicated developers to do the rewrite. But there are a some things that can be done so let’s see a couple possibilities and how they would be used.

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Magic Mirror on the Wall, “Is Pi or ESP, Fairest of All?”

“What’s the weather like, honey?” “I don’t know. Let me check the mirror.”  The mirror?

Both [Dylan Pierce] and [Dani Eichorn] have mirror projects that display the weather. They took two different approaches which makes for an interesting comparison. [Dylan] uses a Rapsberry Pi with an actual monitor behind the mirror. [Dani] puts an OLED behind the mirror driven by a ESP8266.  It appears there is more than one way to hack a mirror, or anything, which is what makes hacking fun.

[Dani] started with a picture frame, adding tinting film to the glass so it would reflect. A small section of tint was removed to allow the OLED to be seen. The ESP8266 software connects to the Weather Underground to get the latest information.

The Raspberry Pi version by [Dylan] puts a 27″ monitor behind the mirror. That is either terribly impressive or way over the top but seeing Linux boot behind the mirror makes it worth the effort. The Pi generates a web page which makes this adaptable as a general purpose kiosk.

A video of [Dani’s] mirror in operation, after the break.

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Eagle to KiCad made easy

One barrier for those wanting to switch over from Eagle to KiCad has been the lack of a way to convert existing projects from one to the other. An Eagle to KiCad ULP exists, but it only converts the schematic, albeit with errors and hence not too helpful. And for quite some time, KiCad has been able to open Eagle .brd layout files. But without a netlist to read and check for errors, that’s not too useful either. [Lachlan] has written a comprehensive set of Eagle to KiCad ULP scripts to convert schematics, symbols and footprints. Board conversion is still done using KiCad’s built in converter, since it works quite well.

Overall, the process works pretty well, and we were able to successfully convert two projects from Eagle. The entire process took only about 10 to 15 minutes of clean up after running the scripts.

The five scripts and one include file run sequentially once the first one is run. [Lachlan]’s scripts will convert Eagle multi sheet .sch to KiCad multi sheets, place global and local net labels for multi sheets, convert multi part symbols, build KiCad footprint modules and symbol libraries from Eagle libraries, create a project directory to store all the converted files, and perform basic error checking. The Eagle 6.xx PCB files can be directly imported to KiCad. The scripts also convert Via’s to Pads, which helps with KiCad’s flood fill, when Via’s have no connections – this part requires some manual intervention and post processing. There are detailed instructions on [Lachlan]’s GitHub repository and he also walks through the process in the video.

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Engauge Makes Graph Thieving a Cinch

We’ve seen ’em before: the charts and graphs in poorly photocopied ’80s datasheets, ancient research papers, or even our college prof’s chalkboard chicken scratch. Sadly, this marvelously plotted data is locked away in a poorly rendered png or textbook graphic. Fortunately, a team of programmers have come the rescue to give us the proper thieving tool to lift that data directly from the source itself, and that tool is Engauge.

Engauge is an open source software tool that enables to convert pictures of plots into the numerical representation of their data. While some of us might still be tracing graphs by hand, Engauge enables us to simply define reference points on the graph, and a clever image-processing algorithm extracts the curve for us automatically! Sure, there’s a little fine-tuning to determine what counts as data, but the net result is an all-in-one software tool that eats pictures and produces data–no intermediate steps required!

Engauge has been helping scientists and engineers preserve ancient data logs for years now, but it’s a tool that’s still fresh today when we’re recording from an analog o’scope or lifting those xs and ys off a textbook. In a world that’s increasingly digital, we’ve got the Engague developers to thank for arming us with the right tool for the job. All that said, If graph-thieving isn’t your thing, try spline-thieving to go from camera to CAD.

Engauge is a little lacking in the demo-video department, but we dug up a quickie on YouTube.

Thanks for the tip, [Jason]!

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Raspberry Pi Laser Beam Profiler

[Anthony] at UCLA needed to verify the shape of a laser beam. Commercial units for this, as you would expect, are expensive. But a Raspberry Pi with a Pi Noir camera easily handles the task. Not only is the use of the Pi cool but so is the task – they are using lasers to cool molecules to study quantum effects. The Pi camera without the IR filter captures a wide bandwidth making it suitable for use with non-visible lasers. [Anthony] captures the beam along two axes and plots both curves on the LCD touchscreen. That data, based on the pictures, is also available on a host PC. All this in a super compact package with a 7″ touch screen display.

One reason I find this fascinating is I did something similar 1977 at the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics. My project was measuring the energy cross-section of a laser beam. The research goal of the Laboratory was the study of inertial confinement laser fusion. While [Anthony] uses an entire camera my project was limited to a 1 dimensional array of charge coupled devices (CCD). The output went to a Tektronix storage terminal and was printed on thermal paper for reference. He uses Python running on the target system. My work used a Z80 development system the size of a tower PC to write my program in assembly language which was then executed on a single board computer. We’ve come a long way. My code is long gone but you can get [Anthony’s] on GitHub.

Microsoft, Minecraft, and Kids

Code.org annually sponsors an Hour of Code (December 7th to the 13th will be the third one). The goal is to try to teach kids the basics of computer science in just an hour. Microsoft has announced they will team with Code.org to bring Minecraft-based lessons to this year’s hour.

It makes sense when you remember that Microsoft bought Mojang (the company behind Minecraft) last year. Users can sign up for the free Hour of Code Minecraft module and learn how to make characters adventure through a Minecraft world using programming. There are other themed modules, too, including Star Wars, Frozen, and other kid-attracting motifs. There’s also a lot of videos (like the one below) that explain why you might want to learn about computer science.

If you think Minecraft isn’t a sufficient programming language, don’t be so sure. There are many Minecraft CPUs out there as well as a (very slow) word processor. If you want real hardware, you might check out our review of Minecraft-related projects from earlier this year.

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KiCad Script Hack for Better Mechanical CAD Export

Open source EDA software KiCad has been gaining a lot of traction recently. CERN has been devoting resources to introduce many new advanced features such as differential pair tracks, push and shove routing and this plenty more scheduled in the pipeline. One important requirement of EDA packages is a seamless interface with mechanical CAD packages by exporting 3D models in industry common formats. This improves collaboration and allows further engineering designs such as enclosures and panels to be produced.

KiCad has had a 3D viewer available for quite a long time. But it uses the VRML mesh format (.wrl files) and there are compatibility issues which prevent it from rendering certain versions of VRML files. Moreover, the VRML mesh export is not particularly useful since it cannot be easily manipulated in mechanical CAD software. Recent versions of KiCad now offer IDFv3 format export – the Intermediate Data Format, a mechanical data exchange specification for the design and analysis of printed wiring assemblies. Taking advantage of this new feature, [Maurice] created KiCad StepUp – an export script that allows collaborative exchange between KiCad and FreeCAD.

A FreeCAD macro and a corresponding configuration file are added to the KiCad project folder. You start with .STEP files for all the components used in the KiCad design. The next step is to convert and save all .STEP files as .WRL format using FreeCAD. On the KiCad side, you use the .WRL files as usual. When you want to export the board, use the IDFv3 option in KiCad. When [Maurice]’s StepUp script is run (outside of KiCad) it replaces all instances of .WRL files with the equivalent .STEP versions and imports the board as well as the components in to FreeCAD as .STEP models. The result is a board and its populated components which can be manipulated as regular 3D objects.

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