Repurpose a Classroom Clicker for Great Justice

If you’ve been in a university class of a certain size, with a professor who wants to get live feedback from the students, you’ve probably been forced to buy a Turning Point “clicker”. Aside from the ridiculousness of making students pay for their professor’s instructional aides (do the make you pay extra for the chalk too?!?!) these clickers are a gauntlet thrown down to any right-minded hacker because they supposedly contain secrets.

[Nick] had one of these gadgets, and hopped right up on the shoulders of giants to turn it into a remote control that interfaces with his computer and drives a synthesizer, so he can work through the chord changes by clicking. His two references, to [Travis Goodspeed]’s nRF promiscuity hack and to [Taylor Killian]’s Arduino library for the clickers are a testament to why we need both reverse engineers doing the hard work and people who’ll wrap up the hard work in an easy-to-use library.

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Start Your Path to Becoming an Antenna Guru

We’ve known a few people over the years that have some secret insight into antennas. To most of us, though, it is somewhat of a black art (which explains all the quasi-science antennas made out of improbable elements you can find on the web). There was a time when only the hams and the RF nerds cared about antennas, but these days wireless is everywhere: cell phones, WiFi, Bluetooth, and even RF remote controls all live and die based on their antennas.

You can find a lot of high-powered math discussions about antennas full of Maxwell’s equations, spherical integration and other high-power calculus, and lots of arcane diagrams. [Mark Hughes] recently posted a two-part introduction to antennas that has less math and more animated images, which is fine with us (when you are done with the first part, check out part two). He’s also included a video which you can find below.

The first part is fairly simple with a discussion of history and electromagnetics. However, it also talks about superposition, reflection, and standing wave ratio. Part two, though, goes into radiation patterns and gain. Overall, it is a great gateway to a relatively arcane art.

We’ve talked about Smith charts before, which are probably the next logical step for the apprentice antenna wizard. We also covered PCB antenna design.

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ZX81 Connects to the Network

 

[Victor Trucco] makes us wish we spoke Portuguese. He’s done a lot of retrocomputing projects including connecting a ZX81 to the Internet to load programs. The project uses — what else — an ESP8266 to get the WiFi communications. You can see a video below if you want to exercise your high school Portuguese.

It is somewhat ironic that the ZX81’s CPU is kept busy driving the video, reading the keyboard, and running about just over 3 MHz which doesn’t even translate into 3 MIPS on that processor. Meanwhile, the “servant” ESP8266 has a 32-bit Tensilica CPU running at 80 MHz. Times have changed.

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Building A LoRa PHY With SDR

The Internet of Things is terrible when it’s your toaster. The real fun happens when you have hundreds or thousands of sensors sending data back to a base station every day. That requires low power, and that means LPWAN, the Low Power Wide Area Network.

There are a lot of options for LPWAN, but few are a perfect fit. LoRa is one of the rare exceptions, offering years of operation on a single AA cell, and range measured in miles. Layers two and three of LoRa are available as public documentation, but until now layer one has been patented and proprietary. At the GNU Radio Conference, [Matt Knight] gave a talk on reverse engineering the LoRa PHY with a software defined radio. Now, LoRa is open to everyone, and anyone can decode the chirps transmitted from these tiny, low power devices.

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Slow 3.5″ Raspberry Pi LCD Hacked to 40 MHz with ESP8266

As microcontrollers become more and more common, we see more ways to get a lot of performance out of one chip. A great example of this was the ESP8266 which was originally seen as a cheap WiFi card but has since blossomed into its own dev platform thanks to the horsepower hidden within. To that end, [Martin] is trying to push the now-ubiquitous WiFi chip even further by rolling out his own LCD driver for it from scratch.

The display of choice is the KeDei LCD 3.5″ module which was originally intended for use with a Raspberry Pi. [Martin] points out that this display isn’t optimized for speed, but after everything is said and done he has its clock line running at 40 MHz. To get this kind of speeds from the LCD, he depopulates the first shift register and adds his own fast-propagation circuit to establish a more-traditional serial addressing mode. With use of a WLCD driver that [Martin] also wrote, it is now relatively easy to draw on the screen very quickly with an ESP module. Check it out in the video below.

If you’re looking for your own tiny, cheap, fast display, this is one cool way to do it but we would suggest spinning a carrier board for both the ESP and the added circuitry. We’re looking forward to future projects which puts devices like these inside of really tiny magic mirrors, or uses them in other places where a small graphical display would be handy.

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ESP8266 Lullaby

The ESP8266 is certainly a versatile device. It does, however, draw a bit of power. That isn’t really surprising, though, since you would expect beaming out WiFi signals to take a little juice. The trick is to not keep the device on all the time and spend the rest of the time in deep sleep mode. [Marco Schwartz] has a good tutorial about how to use this mode to run for “years” on a battery.

[Marco] notes that even using a 2500 mAh LiPo battery, he only gets about 30 hours of operation without sleep. By putting the chip in sleep mode, the current consumption drops from about 88 mA to just over 8 mA. That’s still high, though, because the board has a power LED! By removing a jumper or cutting a trace (depending on the board), you can drop the current draw to about 0.08 mA (80 uA) when it’s not doing anything.

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Web Matrix Control Proves Power of ESP8266

LED matrix projects are all over the place, but this one is interesting for its simplicity: it’s an LED matrix that is driven straight from an ESP8266 board. [Ray] put it together as a quick project for his students to teach the basics of LED programming.

It’s built using a WS2812 LED matrix board he designed himself and his own ESPToy ESP8266 dev board. But the gist of the hardware is simply an ESP8266 and some WS2812’s. Where this gets interesting is with the user interaction side of things. The ESP makes WiFi and web serving easy, and [Ray] has build a simple HTTP GET API into the firmware. This is a great combination for the web dashboard and JavaScript-based animation programs [Ray] is demonstrating in the video below.

Just get on the same network and load up the module’s WiFi address for a graphical representation of the 5×7 LED matrix. Pick a color, turn pixels on or off, or choose a predefined pattern and send it to the hardware. This is a powerful way to get use input and with this as a guide it’s fast to set up for pretty much an application you can think of. Just work your way through the documents he put together for the workshop (Zip file link), including all of the code and the slides he used to run the workshop.

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