Massive Microsoft Machinations For Makers

If you’re not stuck in the tech news filter bubble, you may not have heard the Microsoft Build Developers Conference is going on right now. Among the topics covered in the keynotes are a new Office API and a goal to have Windows 10 running on a Billion devices in a few years.

There are, however, some interesting things coming out of the Build conference. Windows 10 is designed for hackers, with everything from virtual Arduino shields running on phones, Windows 10 running on Raspberry Pis, and Visual Code Studio running on OS X and Linux.

This is not the first time in recent memory Microsoft has courted the maker market. Microsoft begrudgingly supported the hardware dev scene with the PC version of the Microsoft Kinect, and a year or two ago, Microsoft rolled out drivers for 3D printers that were much more capable than the usual serial interface (read: the ability for printer manufacturers to add DRM). To the true, tie-die wearing, rollerblade-skating, acoustic coupler-sporting, Superman III-watching hackers out there, these efforts appear laughable – the product of managers completely out of touch with their audience.

Depending on your perspective, the new releases for the Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and other ‘maker-themed’ hardware could go one way or the other.

As far as educational efforts go, the Windows Remote Arduino and Windows Virtual Shields for Arduino are especially interesting. Instead of filling a computer lab up with dozens of Arduinos and the related shields, the WVSA uses the sensors on a Windows 10 smartphone with an Arduino. Windows Remote Arduino allows makers to control an Arduino not through the standard USB port, but a Bluetooth module.

If Arduinos aren’t your thing, the Windows 10 IoT preview for the Raspberry Pi 2 and Minnowboard Max is out now. The Win10 IoT distribution does not yet have working WiFi or Bluetooth, making it the single most useless operating system for Internet of Things devices. It was, however, released at the Build conference.

Also announced was a partnership with a fabulous hardware project hosting site, Microsoft and will be collaborating with hackathons and other events focused on Windows technology. I get why they wouldn’t want another, vastly more popular project hosting site doing this, but I’m a little confused at why Instructables wasn’t the top Microsoft pick.

As always, you may express your infinite derision in the comments below. Spelling Microsoft with a dollar sign will result in a ban.

Kickstarting Even More Router-Based Dev Boards

The latest and greatest thing makers and IoT solutions is apparently router hacking. While most Hackaday readers lived through this interesting phase where Linksys routers were used to connect sensors and other such digital bits and bobs to the Internet a few years ago, SOCs have improved, and now there are router-based dev boards.

The latest is the Onion Omega, an exceptionally tiny board just under two inches square. Onboard is an Atheros AR9331 chipset – the same found in a number of cheap WiFi routers – attached to 32 pins breaking out GPIOs, SPI, I2C, and USB. With WiFi and Ethernet, this is a board designed to connect sensors, motors, actuators, and devices to the Internet.

This is not the only recent router-based dev board to make it to the crowdfunding sites. A week or so ago, the Domino hit Kickstarter, featuring the same AR9331 chipset found in the Onion Omega. The Onion does have a few things going for it – cloud integration, a web-based console, and an app store that make the Onion vastly more useful for the ‘maker’ market. The Domino has a boatload of pins available, and competition is always good, right?

Internet of Cowbell

If this is a sign of the times, the Internet of Things promises a lot of entertainment for hackers who can come up with wacky ideas and interactive projects. [Brandon] built a cowbell that rings when you tweet #morecowbell. Why? Because!

On the hardware side it is quite simple, and can be built in a number of different ways depending on the parts you have lying around. [Brandon] used an Electric Imp and its corresponding breakout board. A Sparkfun mini FET shield helps drive the solenoid that hits the cowbell. And because he had one lying around, he added a counter across the solenoid to count the number of times the Twitterati have rung the Cowbell.

The code for the Electric Imp consists of two parts – the “agent code” that runs on a server in the Electric Imp Cloud and the “device code” that runs on the imp itself – and is available at this Git link. Once you tweet with the hashtag, the Cowbell replies back, randomly selecting one from a list of stored responses. Would be nice to see a video of the Cowbell in action. And if it can be made to play the Salsa beat.

Another Radio Module for IoT fun – EMW3162

The availability of cheap radio modules is making them ubiquitous in an increasing number of projects that we have been seeing recently. The usual go-to solution is using any one of the several modules based on the ESP8266 device. [Willem] wrote in to share with us his experiences with another radio module – the EMW3162 from MXChip, which at $10 isn’t as cheap as the ESP8266 modules, but is a more capable, power packed, device.

The EMW3162 (PDF datasheet) is a low-power embedded WiFi module with integrated wireless LAN, and a STM32F205 Cortex-M3 microcontroller that runs a “self-hosted” WiFi networking library and software application stack. The microcontroller has 1M flash, 128k RAM and runs at 120MHz. And since MXChip is a Broadcom partner, they are allowed to use the WICED_SDK.

The on-board ARM M3 means all kinds of useful interfaces are available: UART, SPI, I2C, ADC, DAC, PWM, TIMERS, GPIO, and a JTAG flash interface. The good news could be on the power consumption figures – the module is touted to be low-power, and the data sheet shows 7mA when connected to an access point but with no data transfer. When transmitting at 20kbps, the current draw is about 24mA, which goes up to 320mA at 11Mbps.

[Willem] has his EMW3162_WICED repository up on Github, but also take a look at the MXChips MICO (Mico-controller based Internet Connectivity Operation System) repository. At the moment, he has it working using Linux, with a gnu gcc compiler and a JLINK JTAG programmer. He also has the WICED SDK working and has a WiFi AP with an on-board 120MHz arm chip. It would be interesting to hear about other users’ experiences with this radio module. Do let us know in the comments below!


Automatic Garage Door Opener Works for Your Cat

Using an Arduino or Raspberry Pi to perform a task in the real world is certainly a project we’ve seen here before, and certainly most of these projects help to make up the nebulous “Internet of Things” that’s all the rage these days. Once in a while though, a project comes along that really catches our eye, as is the case with [Jamie’s] meticulously documented automatic garage door opener.

This garage door opener uses an ATMega328 to connect the internet to the garage door. A reed switch is installed which lets the device sense the position of the door, which is relayed back to the internet. [Jamie] wrote an Android app that can open and close the door and give the user the information on the door’s status. One really interesting feature is the ability to “crack” the garage door. This is done by triggering the garage door opener twice with a delay in between. From the video after the break we’d say this is how [Jamie’s] cat gets in and out.

We love seeing projects that are extremely well documented so that anyone who wants to make one can easily figure out how. Internet-connected garage door openers have been featured in other unique ways before too, but we’ve also seen ways to automatically open blinds or chicken coops!

Hack your phone: turn your volume buttons into GPIO ports

Internet connected cameras are mighty useful, specially in situations requiring some form of remote monitoring. An always-on camera that is available over an internet connection, is cheap, and uses re-purposed  hardware – that’s what the Gonzo project hopes to achieve. To accommodate these requirements, the Exploratory Engineering program team in Telenor Digital are using off-the-shelf phone hardware running on top of a fork of Firefox OS. You hang the Gonzo where you want to monitor a situation, after which it will function for up to one month before needing a recharge, sending data to a designated public URL over the 2G network.

A big downside with using such hardware is that it is not designed for the task at hand, and offers no expansion ports that may be needed for certain functions. In this particular case, the designers needed a couple of output ports to drive some LED’s. The hardware guys got a bit creative,  and re-mapped the volume buttons of the phone into generic GPIO ports. On the software side, they looked at where the button GPIO’s were referenced, and located how they are mapped to a keymap. They then added a device driver that maps the GPIO ports to be generic ports instead. Modding the hardware needed a little bit more hard work, figuring out which traces connected to the two volume buttons, adding series resistors, and then wiring the LED’s in place. The project itself is still a work in progress, and you can read more about it at the Gonzo website.

If you’re like one of us and have a box full of old phones lying around, take a look at some creative suggestions here for some Arduino controlled robots.

Thanks for the tip [pb] !

Hack allows ESP-01 to go to Deep Sleep

The ESP-01 module based on the ESP8266 is all the rage with IoT folks at the moment – and why not. For about 5 bucks, it can’t be beat on price for the features it offers. The one thing that such radios do a lot is suck power. So, it’s no surprise that ways to cut down on the juice that this device consumes is top priority for many people. [Tim] figured out a simple hardware hack to get the ESP-01 to go to deep sleep, effectively reducing its current draw to 78uA – low enough to allow battery powered deployment.

While [Tim] was working on understanding the ESP8266 tool chain (NodeMCU firmware > Lua interpreter > ESPlorer IDE), he realized that some essential pins weren’t accessible on the ESP-01 module. [Tim] built a Dev board on perf board that let him access these pins and also added some frills while at it. We’re guessing he (or someone else) will come up with a proper PCB to make things easier. But the real hack is on the ESP-01 module itself. [Tim] needed to hardwire the ‘post-sleep-reset-pin’ on the MCU to the Reset terminal. That, and also pry off the indicator LED’s with a screw driver! That sounds a bit drastic, and we’d recommend pulling out your soldering iron instead. If you’re one of the unlucky one’s to receive the “magic smoke” releasing ESP8266 modules, then you don’t need the LED anyway.