Ask Hackaday: I Love The Smell Of Burnt Hair In The Morning

At the end of the 19th century, [King Camp Gillette] had the idea of creating a disposable razor blade that didn’t need sharpening. There was one problem with this idea: metallurgy was not yet advanced enough to produce paper-thin carbon steel blades and sharpen them for a close shave. In 1901, [William Nickerson] solved this problem, and the age of disposable razors began.

The Skarp laser razor. Source
The Skarp laser razor

This Kickstarter would have you believe there is a new era of beard technology dawning. It’s a laser razor called Skarp, and it’s on track to become one of the most funded Kickstarters of all time. The only problem? Even with relatively good documentation on the Kickstarter campaign, a demo video, a patent, and an expert in the field of cosmetic lasers, only the creators can figure out how it works.

Instead of using technology that has been tried and tested for thousands of years, the Skarp uses a laser to shave hairs off, right at the surface of the skin. You need only look at a billboard for laser hair removal to realize this is possible, but building a laser razor is something that has eluded us for decades. This patent from 1986 at the very least demonstrates the beginnings of the idea – put a laser beam in a handheld package and plunge it into a beard. This patent from 2005 uses fiber optics to send a laser beam to a handheld razor. Like anything out of the sci-fi genre, a laser razor is a well-tread idea in the world of invention.

But Skarp thinks it has solved all of the problems which previously block lasers from finding a place in your medicine cabinet.

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Can You Hear Me Now?

It’s great to build projects just to do something neat, to learn; to impress friends and other hackers. It’s even better to address a real need.

I’ve worn hearing aids for 40 some years. My response to the question “Can you hear me now?” is still all too often, “No.” Because of this I heartily applaud the Aegis Acoustics Headset currently active on Kickstarter. I’m happy to see it’s blown through its goal with over a month left.

The Aegis is targeted at prevent hearing loss, primarily in teens since they use headsets so often. It’s equally applicable to adults and pre-teens. The Aegis works by limiting the sound level emitted to 85db, which is a safe level. Above that the risk of damage to the tiny hairs in the cochlea – the inner ear – increases dramatically with a 3db increase cutting the safety time in half.

Future’s So Bright I’ve Got to Wear ‘Aids

My personal experience explains why this is important. At my first professional level job as a software developer I noticed that people at the other end of the table often mumbled during meetings. Not really, because everyone else understood them fine. I needed hearing aids.

My first hearing aids were analog devices. There were three frequency bands across the audio spectrum whose volumes could be custom set for my ears — resulting in crude and limited improvements in what I could hear. My current hearing aids are technological marvels of digital signal processing with a multitude of algorithms the audiologist can use to help me hear better. They even coordinate their actions by communicating between themselves.

I still need to ask people to repeat what they say at times. But who doesn’t? I had a successful career despite my loss. But it is still a royal pain-in-the-butt to miss out on one-third of the dialog in a movie, to not go to a local coffee house because I won’t understand the lyrics or comments by the musicians, and miss out on all the other small parts of life along these lines.

Hacking for Hearing

There are a range of areas where hackers could contribute and not just in assisting individuals, like myself, who personally gain from technological assistance.

Consider how the cell phone improved communications in developing countries. Using radio communications the countries avoided the need to string thousands of miles of wires. That saved the expense and the decades of construction time. It’s easier to get cell phone service than water in some locations. It’s important to notice that it didn’t come about because of a big plan. It came about as an unseen consequence of a technical development.

“We can rebuild him…we have the technology” is from the opening of an old TV series and movies, “The 6 Million Dollar Man” and has found it’s place in the pop-culture vocabulary. But it rings true. We have the technology. We have the tools. We have the expertise. We’re hackers and builders. We and the technology are all over the place. We’re a solution looking for a problem.

Devices that Extend the Body

All signs point to a coming revolution of devices that protect our bodies and make them work better. The 2015 Hackaday Prize theme is Build Something That Matters and that sentiment is obviously taking hold throughout the hardware hacker movement. The Aegis headphones I mentioned above are one example of preventive devices, but look around and there are many more like the UV-Badge which gives you feedback on safe levels of sunlight for your skin.

Surely we’re going to see further augmentation for the devices that help restore function. Wearables are all the rage, how long will it be before your smartwatch notification functions make it into my hearing aids? Imagine the improvements we will see in custom hearing profiles born of that smartphone-hearing aid connection. The foundations of this are user-controlled profile switching which is already in place for apps like Belltone’s HearPlus. If the advanced electronics in the smartphone can build a better noise profile and transfer it to the hearing aid my visits to the coffee shop just might get a lot better. And this doesn’t mean the devices need to look the same either. I love the Design Affairs Studio hearing aid concept that is shown at the top of this article. Hardware can be a status symbol after all.

This type of forward thinking easily extends to all assistive technologies such as wheelchair improvements and navigation systems for the blind.

As you look toward your next big hack, roll these concepts around in your mind. The tools, software, and talent have never been easier to connect for our group of citizen scientists who are hacking in basements and garages. It’s exciting to think about the change we can affect using the skills honed over the past decades of this hardware enlightenment we’re all living.

Hack Anything into a Phone

If you’ve spent much time tinkering with electronics, you’ve probably heard of [Seeedstudio] from their development boards, tools, and their PCB fabrication service. Their latest Kickstarter venture is the RePhone, an open source and modular cell phone that will allow hackers to put together a phone by blending GSM modules, batteries, screens, and other stock units, including an Arduino-based processing core, GPS, NFC, and other building blocks.

The funding campaign has already exceeded its goal and delivery is scheduled for next year with a basic kit weighing in at a projected $59, according to [Seeed]. Presumably, the core phone module will have regulatory acceptance, but the other ancillary modules won’t require as rigorous testing and certification.

What would you do with an inexpensive, embeddable cell phone? The modules are tiny, so you could implant them in lots of places. Some of [Seeed’s] more interesting ideas include building a phone into a walking stick, a dog collar, or a kite (although we were thinking quadcopters).

Of course, we’ve seen GSM and cell phone shields for Arduino before. Difficult to imagine sticking those in a dog collar, though, unless you have a fairly large dog. If you are a fan of 1960’s TV, it is easy to imagine a better shoe phone or a working Star Trek communicator.

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Hackaday Links: September 27, 2015

Many moons ago, [Joe Grand] built an adapter that turns Atari 2600 joysticks to USB controllers. Now it’s open source.

Hackaday Overlord [Matt] is holding an SMT and BGA soldering workshop in San Francisco on October 4th. Teaching BGA soldering? Yes! He made a board where the BGA balls are connected to LEDs. Very, very clever.

Our ‘ol friend [Jeremey Cook] built a strandbeest out of MDF. It’s huge, heavy, about the size of a small car, and it doesn’t work. [Jeremy] has built beests before, but these were relatively small. The big MDF beest is having some problems with friction, and a tendency to shear along the joints. If anyone wants to fix this beest, give [Jeremy] a ring.

Everyone loves the Teensy, and [Paul] has released his latest design iteration. The Teensy 3.2 isn’t that much different from the Teensy 3.1; the bootloader has changed and now USB D+ and D- lines are broken out. Other than that, it’s just the latest iteration of the popular Teensy platform.

The DyIO is a pretty neat robotics controller, a semifinalist for the Hackaday Prize, and now a Kickstarter. The big win of the Kickstarter is an electronics board (with WiFi) that is able to control 24 servos for all your robotics needs.

[pighixxx] does illustrations of pinouts for popular electronics platforms. Everyone needs a hobby, I guess. He recently put together an illustration of the ESP8266. Neat stuff is hidden deep in this site.

You would not believe how much engineering goes into making snake oil. And then you need to do certifications!

[David] identified a problem, created a solution, got a patent, and is now manufacturing a product. The only problem is the name.

Ctrl-X, Ctrl-V for DNA

Once upon a time, the aspiring nerdling’s gift of choice was the Gilbert chemistry set. Its tiny vials of reagents, rack of test tubes, and instruction book promised endless intellectual stimulation and the possibility of stink bombs on demand. Now a new genetic engineering lab-in-a-box Kickstarter, with all the tools and materials needed to create your own transgenic organisms, may help the young biohacker’s dreams come true.

The Kickstarter has been wildly successful. The initial goal was $1200AUD was met in a day, and currently stands at almost $6200AUD. Despite that success, color me skeptical on this one. Having done way more than my fair share of gene splicing, there seem to be a few critical gaps in this kit. For example, the list of materials for the full kit includes BL21 competent E. coli as the host strain. Those cells are designed to become porous to extracellular DNA when treated with calcium chloride and provided with a heat shock of 42°C. At a minimum I’d think they’d include a thermometer so you can control the heat shock process. Plenty of other steps also need fairly precise incubations, like the digestion and ligation steps needed to get your gene into the host. And exactly what technique you’d be using to harvest DNA from the animal, plant or fungal cells is unclear; the fact that most of the techniques for doing so require special techniques leads me to believe there’s a lot less here than meets the eye.

To be fair, I’ve been off the lab bench for the better part of two decades, and the state of the art has no doubt advanced in that time. There could very well be techniques I’m not familiar with that make the various steps needed to transform a bacterial culture with foreign DNA trivial. It could also be the case that the techniques I used in the lab were optimized for yield and for precise data, while the GlowGene kit provides the materials to get a “good enough” result. I hope so, because a kit like this could really expand the horizons of hackerdom and start getting the biohacking movement going.

[Thanks, Michael!]

Hackaday Links: September 13, 2015

One more go at new enclosures for the Amiga 1200. Yes, it’s a Kickstarter campaign, and we mentioned a similar the same campaign last month. The previous campaign received a little more than half of the desired funding in a 30-day campaign. The new campaign received half its funding in a week. The only difference? Now you can put a Raspberry Pi in a newly manufactured A1200 case. And they say Raspberry Pi consumerism isn’t a thing…

Cheap SLA printing service. [Ian] and Dangerous Prototypes have made a name for themselves with dirt cheap, acceptable quality PCBs. Now they’re going for custom prints on a resin machine. It’s $0.95 per gram (density is 1.3g/cc). That’s cheap.

[James Willis] built a floppy drive orchestra. There are 16 drives in this orchestra, all controlled by an FPGA. Here’s the writeup.

Here’s a video overview of a real, huge, rideable hexapod robot. ‘Wow’ is just about the only thing we got for this.

Western Digital introduced a hard drive made specifically for the Raspberry Pi. It’s a hard drive with a USB interface, and a USB cable that connects to the Pi, the drive, and a power adapter. In other news, externally powered USB hard drives exist. You can buy a 2TB drive for the price of the 1TB PiDrive. What was that thing about Raspi consumerism?

Next week is the Open Hardware Summit in Philadelphia. We’ll be there (or rather, I will). We’ll have a post on the OHS badge up on Monday. Would anyone like to go see the lady made out of soap? It’s right around the corner from the venue.

The Problem With Kickstarter: A Lack Of Transparency

Since 2010, over one and a half billion dollars has been transferred from Kickstarter backers to project creators, and with Kickstarter’s 5% cut taken on each dollar collected, that means Kickstarter has had somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 million dollars in revenue in the last five years. That’s a success by any measure, and as with this huge amount of money, questions must be asked about the transparency of Kickstarter.

This is not a post about a Kickstarter project for an impossible project, a project that breaks the laws of physics, or one that is hyped beyond all reasonable expectations. This is a post about Kickstarter itself, and it’s been a long time coming. In the past, Kickstarter has shown at least some transparency by cancelling projects that are obvious rebrandings of white label goods – a direct violation of their rules. Kickstarter has even cancelled projects that violate the laws of physics, like this wireless charging Bluetooth tag. It’s a start, but Kickstarter has a much larger problem on its plate: the Staff Pick problem.

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