Ceiling Tiles Give it Up for Christmas LED Ornaments

The great thing about holidays is that they always seem to require some shiny things. The modern version of shiny things seems to be LEDs and advances in technology being what they are, we now have amazing programmable LEDs. And programmable LEDs mean animated shiny things! Years ago, [wpqrek] made an LED ornament using discrete components. This year he revisited his ornament and decided to make a new, animated, RGB ornament.

[Wpqrek]’s build is based around five WS2812b strips connected to an Arduino Pro Mini. The ornament itself is a thick styrofoam ceiling tile cut into a star shape with a red-painted wooden frame. Decorated with baubles and stars, the LED strips start in the center and end up at each point in the star. With each strip connected in parallel to the Pro Mini, [wpqrek] used the Arduino Light Animation library to handle the animations.

[Wpqrek] says the result is too big for his tree, so he uses it as a stand-alone ornament. Perhaps using lighter materials would help — or getting a bigger tree! Check out the Arduino lighting controller or the Trompe-l’oeil Menorah for more holiday hacks.

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Raspberry Pi and Alexa Make Teddy Ruxpin Smarter than the Average Bear

Behold the unholy union of Amazon’s Alexa and that feature-limited animatronic bear from the 80s, Teddy Ruxpin. Alexa Ruxpin?

As if stuffing Alexa inside a talking fish weren’t bad enough, now Amazon’s virtual assistant can talk to you through the creepy retro plush thanks to [Tinkernut]’s trip down memory lane. Having located a Teddy Ruxpin on eBay for far less than the original $70 that priced it out from under his childhood Christmas tree, [Tinkernut] quickly learned that major surgery would be necessary to revive the Ruxpin. The first video below shows the original servos being gutted and modern micro servos grafted in, allowing control of the mouth, eyes, and nose via an Arduino.

With the bear once again in control of its faculties, [Tinkernut] embarked on giving it something to talk about. A Raspberry Pi running AlexaPi joined the bear’s recently vacated thorax with the audio output split between the bear’s speaker and the analog input on the Arduino. The result is a reasonable animation, although we’d say a little tweaking of the Arduino script might help the syncing. And those eyes and that nose really need to get into the game as well. But not a bad start at all.

This isn’t the first time that Teddy Ruxpin has gone under the knife in the name of hacks, and it likely won’t be the last. And the way toy manufacturers are going, they might just beat us hackers to the punch.

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A Beacon Suitable for Tracking Santa’s sleigh?

High-altitude ballooning is becoming a popular activity for many universities, schools and hacker spaces. The balloons, which can climb up to 40 km in the stratosphere, usually have recovery parachutes to help get the payload, with its precious data, back to solid ground safely. But when you live in areas where the balloon is likely to be flying over the sea most of the time, recovery of the payload becomes tricky business. [Paul Clark] and his team from Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation are working on building a small, autonomous glider – essentially a flying hard drive – to navigate from 30 km up in the stratosphere to a drop zone somewhere near a major road. An important element of such a system is the locator beacon to help find it. They have now shared their design for an “Iridium 9603 Beacon” — a small Arduino-compatible unit which can transmit its location and other data from anywhere via the Iridium satellite network.

The beacon uses the Short Burst Data service which sends email to a designated mail box with its date, time, location, altitude, speed, heading, temperature, pressure and battery voltage. To do all of this, it incorporates a SAMD21G18 M0 processor; FGPMMOPA6H GPS module; MPL3115A2 altitude sensor; Iridium 9603 Short Burst Data module + antenna and an LTC3225 supercapacitor charger. Including the batteries and antenna, the whole thing weighs in at 72.6 g, making it perfectly suited for high altitude ballooning. The whole package is powered by three ‘AAA’ Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries which ought to be able to withstand the -56° C encountered during the flight. The supercapacitors are required to provide the high current needed when the beacon transmits data.

The team have tested individual components up to 35 km on a balloon flight from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility and the first production unit will be flown on a much smaller balloon, launched from the UK around Christmas. The GitHub repository contains detailed information about the project along with the EagleCAD hardware files and the Arduino code. Now, if only Santa carried this on his Sleigh, it would be easy for NORAD to track his progress in real time.

Speed-Test Your Toys with Die-Cast Drag Strip

I’m sure many of us remember building toy car race tracks as kids, racing the cars, and then arguing over which car came in first and who cheated because they let go of their car too soon. Ah, good times. [Phil] wanted to create a drag strip race track for his son to introduce him to die-cast cars. The only commercial drag strip [Phil] could find didn’t have an electronic start gate or a timer, so he created his own with the help of an Arduino, a servo, and some light dependent resistors.

The Arduino controls everything, the button input, the lightrace2 sensor input, and the servo. A button press tells the Arduino to start the race by pulling the start gate down and starting the timer. When the light sensor is covered, the timer for that lane stops. The time is shown for each lane using a different colored 4-digit 7-segment LED.

There were a couple of problems that had to be solved. The servo launching the cars was pulling too much power when activated so that the IR LEDs used at the finish line would dim enough to trigger before the race had even begun! [Phil]’s article goes over these issues and his design ideas as he built the track.

It’s a simple build that should provide hours of fun for [Phil]’s son and his friends over the years and will hopefully put to rest any arguments over who won. There are lots of photos in [Phil]’s article, as well as several videos showing off how things work and at the end of the article, he includes the code he used to control everything. This would be a great surprise for any nieces and nephews coming to visit over the holidays — you might want to wait for final assembly and include them in the fun!

If you like these kind of projects, we’ve seen a similar Hot Wheels timing system, and a different kind of race track based on a turntable system.

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Revealed: Homebrew Controller Working in Steam VR

[Florian] has been putting a lot of work into VR controllers that can be used without interfering with a regular mouse + keyboard combination, and his most recent work has opened the door to successfully emulating a Vive VR controller in Steam VR. He uses Arduino-based custom hardware on the hand, a Leap Motion controller, and fuses the data in software.

We’ve seen [Florian]’s work before in successfully combining a Leap Motion with additional hardware sensors. The idea is to compensate for the fact that the Leap Motion sensor is not very good at detecting some types of movement, such as tilting a fist towards or away from yourself — a movement similar to aiming a gun up or down. At the same time, an important goal is for any added hardware to leave fingers and hands free.

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Arduino Lighting Controller With Remote Twist

The time for putting up festive lights all around your house is nigh, and this is a very popular time for those of us who use the holiday season as an excuse to buy a few WiFi chips and Arduinos to automate all of our decorations. The latest in this great tradition is [Real Time Logic]’s cloud-based Christmas light setup.

In order to give public access to the Christmas light setup, a ESP8266 WiFi Four Relay board was configured with NodeMCU. This allows for four channels for lights, which are controlled through the Light Controller Server software. Once this is setup through a domain, all anyone has to do to change the lighting display is open up a web browser and head to the website. The creators had homeowners, restaurants, and church displays in mind, but it’s not too big of a leap to see how this could get some non-holiday use as well.

The holidays are a great time to get into the hacking spirit. From laser-projected lighting displays to drunk, animatronic Santas, there’s almost no end to the holiday fun, and you’ve still got a week! (Or 53!)

Real-Time Planet Tracker With Laser-Point Accuracy

Space. The final frontier. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us are planet-locked until further notice. If you are dedicated hobbyist astronomer, you probably already have the rough positions of the planets memorized. But what if you want to know them exactly from the comfort of your room and educate yourself at the same time? [Shubham Paul] has gone the extra parsec to build a Real-Time Planet Tracker that calculates their locations using Kepler’s Laws with exacting precision.

An Arduino Mega provides the brains, while 3.5-turn-pan and 180-degree-tilt servos are the brawn. A potentiometer and switch allow for for planet and mode selection, while a GPS module and an optional MPU9250 gyroscope/magnetometer let it know where you are. Finally a laser pointer shows the planet’s location in a closed room. And then there’s code: a lot of code.

The hardware side of things — as [Shubham Paul] clarifies — looks a little unfinished because the focus of the project is the software with the intent to instruct. They have included all the code they wrote for the RTPT, providing a breakdown in each section for those who are looking to build their own.

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