Bespoke Processors Might Soon Power Your Artisanal Devices

Modern microprocessors are a marvel of technological progress and engineering. At less than a dollar per unit, even the cheapest microprocessors on the market are orders of magnitude more powerful than their ancestors. The first commercially available single-chip processor, the Intel 4004, cost roughly $25 (in today’s dollars) when it was introduced in 1971.

The 4-bit 4004 clocked in at 740 kHz — paltry by today’s standards, but quite impressive at the time. However, what was remarkable about the 4004 was the way it shifted computer design architecture practically overnight. Previously, multiple chips were used for processing and were selected to just meet the needs of the application. Considering the cost of components at the time, it would have been impractical to use more than was needed.

That all changed with the new era ushered in by general purpose processors like the 4004. Suddenly it was more cost-effective to just grab a processor of the shelf than to design and manufacture a custom one – even if that processor was overpowered for the task. That trend has continued (and has been amplified) to this day. Your microwave probably only uses a fraction of its processing power, because using a $0.50 processor is cheaper than designing (and manufacturing) one tailored to the microwave’s actual needs.

Anyone who has ever worked in manufacturing, or who has dealt with manufacturers, knows this comes down to unit cost. Because companies like Texas Instruments makes millions of processors, they’re very inexpensive per unit. Mass production is the primary driving force in affordability. But, what if it didn’t have to be?

Professors [Rakesh Kumar] and [John Sartori], along with their students, are experimenting with bespoke processor designs that aim to cut out the unused portions of modern processors. They’ve found that in many applications, less than half the logic gates of the processor are actually being used. Removing these reduces the size and power consumption of the processor, and therefore the final size and power requirements of the device itself.

Of course, that question of cost comes back into play. Is a smaller and more efficient processor worth it if it ends up costing more? For most manufacturers of devices today, the answer is almost certainly no. There aren’t many times when those factors are more important than cost. But, with modern techniques for printing electronics, they think it might be feasible in the near future. Soon, we might be looking at custom processors that resemble the early days of computer design.

 

How to Do Beautiful Enclosures with Custom Fiberglass

There are times when I feel the need to really make a mess. When I think of making messes with a degree of permanency, I think of fiberglass. I also really like the smell, reminds me of a simpler time in 8th grade shop class. But the whole process, including the mess, is worth it for the amazing shapes you can produce for speaker pods and custom enclosures.

Utilizing fiberglass for something like a custom speaker pod for a car is not difficult, but it does tend to be tedious when it comes to the finishing stages. If you have ever done bodywork on a car you know what kind of mess and effort I am talking about. In the video below, I make a simple speaker pod meant for mounting a speaker to the surface of something like a car door.

You can also use a combination of wood and fiberglass to make subwoofer cabinets that are molded to the area around them. You can even replace your entire door panel with a slick custom shaped one with built in speakers  if you’re feeling adventuresome.

Continue reading “How to Do Beautiful Enclosures with Custom Fiberglass”

Huge Functionality, Small Package: A Custom Tablet, Raspberry Style

As the adage goes, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” Desirous of a tablet but preferring to eschew consumer models, [Stefan Vorkoetter] constructed his own compact and lightweight Raspberry Pi tablet, covering several extra miles in the process.

The tablet makes use of a Raspberry Pi 3 and the official touchscreen, with the final product marginally larger than the screen itself. Designed with a ‘slimmer the better’ profile in mind, [Vorkoetter] had to modify several components to fit this precept; most obvious of these are the removal of the Pi’s GPIO headers, USB, and Ethernet ports, and removing the USB power out port from the touchscreen controller board so the two could be mounted side-by-side.

An Adafruit PowerBoost 1000C handles charging the 6200 mAh battery — meaning up to six hours(!) of YouTube videos — via a micro USB, but only after [Vorkoetter] attached a pair of home-made heatsinks due to negligible air flow within the case. A modified USB audio adapter boosts the Pi’s audio capabilities, enabling the use of headphones, a mic, and a built-in speaker which is attached to the tablet’s back cover.

Continue reading “Huge Functionality, Small Package: A Custom Tablet, Raspberry Style”

Reprogramming Bluetooth Headphones for Great Justice

Like a lot of mass-produced consumer goods, it turns out that the internal workings of Bluetooth headphones are the same across a lot of different brands. One common Bluetooth module is the CSR8645, which [lorf] realized was fairly common and (more importantly) fairly easy to modify. [lorf] was able to put together a toolkit to reprogram this Bluetooth module in almost all of these headphones.

This tip comes to us from [Tigox] who has already made good use of [lorf]’s software. Using the toolkit, he was able to reprogram his own Bluetooth headphones over a USB link to his computer. After downloading and running [lorf]’s program, he was able to modify the name of the device and, more importantly, was able to adjust the behavior of the microphone’s gain which allowed him to have a much more pleasant user experience.

Additionally, the new toolkit makes it possible to flash custom ROMs to CSR Bluetooth modules. This opens up all kinds of possibilities, including the potential to use a set of inexpensive headphones for purposes other than listening to music. The button presses and microphones can be re-purposed for virtually any task imaginable. Of course, you may be able to find cheaper Bluetooth devices to repurpose, but if you just need to adjust your headphones’ settings then this hack will be more useful.

[Featured and Thumbnail Image Source by JLab Audio LLC – jlabaudio.com, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Need an enclosure? Try Scrap Wood with Toner Transfer Labels

This utilitarian-looking device takes an unusual approach to a problem that many projects face: enclosures. [Jan Mrázek] created a device he calls the Morse Thing for a special night’s event and used what appears to be a humble two-by-four plank for the enclosure. The device is a simple puzzle using Morse code and was intended to be mounted to a railing, so [Jan] milled out the necessary spaces and holes for the LCD and buttons then applied labels directly to the wood via toner transfer – a method commonly used for making PCBs but also useful to create clean, sharp labels.

Continue reading “Need an enclosure? Try Scrap Wood with Toner Transfer Labels”

Electronic Message In a Bottle

We remember going to grandfather’s garage. There he would be, his tobacco pipe clenched between his teeth, wisps of smoke trailing into the air around him as he focused, bent over another of his creations. Inside of a simple glass bottle was something impossible. Carefully, ever so carefully, he would use his custom tools to twist wire. He would carefully place each lead. Eventually when the time was right he would solder. Finally he’d place it on the shelf next to the others, an LED matrix in a bottle.

led-message-in-a-bottle-assemblyWell, maybe not, but [Mariko Kosaka]’s father [Kimio Kosaka] has done it. In order to build the matrix, he needed tools that could reach inside the mouth of the bottle without taking up too much space to allow for precise movement. To do this he bent, brazed, twisted, and filed piano wire into tools that are quite beautiful by themselves. These were used to carefully bend and position the LEDs, wires, and other components inside the bottle.

Once the part was ready, he used a modified Hakko soldering iron to do the final combination. We wonder if he even had to be careful to solder quickly so as not to build up a residue on the inside of the bottle? The electronics are all contained inside the bottle. One of the bottles contained another impressive creation of his: an entire Arduino with only wire, dubbed the Arduino Skeleton. Batteries are attached to the cork so when the power runs low it can be removed and replaced without disturbing the creation.

It’s a ridiculous labor of love, and naturally, we love it. There’s a video of it in operation as well as one with him showing how it was done which is visible after the break. He showed them off at the Tokyo Maker Faire where they were surely a hit.

Continue reading “Electronic Message In a Bottle”

Want To Wake Up In A Ship’s Warp Core? Circadia Sunrise Clock Makes it So

Who among you has difficulty rising in the mornings? Sunrise clocks that simulate a — well, sunrise,  are a gentle means of returning to the waking world. [FlorianH], grappling with this very issue, has built his own impressive sunrise clock he has named Circadia. Some sunrise clocks mate an LED with a dev board and call it a day. This work of hardware art will never be confused for something rudimentary.

Standing at 187cm tall, the 8mm thick PCB frame contains three main sections that plug into each other “like Lego”: the top houses a cleverly designed (and virtually silent) propeller clock and a speaker with a 3D-printed, omni-directional reflector. The midsection is reinforced with an MDF column, around which is wrapped 16 strips of 18 RGB LEDs with a heat-molded sheet of acrylic to diffuse the light, while the bottom section has the mid-woofer, the Raspberry Pi 2 brain, most of the electronics, and three switched power supplies.

Built over two years, the primary feature is a variety of themes — with more being added all the time — ranging from rain forest, to arctic, to the warp core of a starship that will rouse you over the course of a half hour. Circadia can also function as a visualizer during a party, or even a Tetris display (a theme that was designed and tested in an afternoon!). Seeing it in action is a treat:

Continue reading “Want To Wake Up In A Ship’s Warp Core? Circadia Sunrise Clock Makes it So”