The Joy of the ESP8266 and Blynk

I’ll admit it. I can be a little cheap. I also find it hard to pass up a bargain. So when I saw a robot kit at the local store that had been originally $125 marked down to $20, I had to bite. There was only one problem. After I got the thing home, I found they expected you to supply your own radio control transmitter and receiver.

Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem but lately… let’s just say a lot of my stuff is in storage and I didn’t have anything handy. I certainly didn’t want to go buy something that would double the cost of this robot that I really didn’t need to begin with.

However, I did have a few ESP8266 modules handy. Good ones, too, from Adafruit with selected 5 V I/O compatibility and an onboard regulator. I started thinking about writing something for the ESP8266 to pick up data from, say, a UDP packet and converting it into RC servo commands.

joymainSeemed like a fair amount of work and then I remembered that I wanted to try Blynk. If you haven’t heard of Blynk, it is a user interface for Android and Apple phones that can send commands to an embedded system over the Internet. You usually think of using Blynk with an Arduino, but you can also program the embedded part directly on an ESP8266. I quickly threw together a little prototype joystick.
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Star Trek Phone Dock Might as Well Be From Picard’s Night Stand

Star Trek is often credited with helping spur the development of technologies we have today — the go-to example being cell phones. When a Star Trek April Fool’s product inspires a maker to build the real thing? Well, that seems par for the course. [MS3FGX] decided to make it so. The 3D printed Star Trek-themed phone dock acts as a Bluetooth speaker and white noise generator. The result is shown off in the video below and equals the special effects you expect to find on the silver screen.

Taking a few liberties from the product it’s based on — which was much larger and had embedded screens — makes [MS4FGX]’s version a little more practical. Two industrial toggle switches control a tech cube nightlight and the internal Bluetooth speaker. An NFC tag behind the phone dock launches the pre-installed LCARS UI app and turns on the phone’s Bluetooth. Despite being a challenge for [MS3FGX] to design, the end product seems to work exactly as intended.

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Forget Wifi or Bluetooth, Pair Directly With Your Phone’s Speaker

[Kedar Nimbalkar] hyperbolically advertises the ultimate cell phone speaker dock. It costs a dollar. It doesn’t need you to pair with it via Bluetooth or WiFi. It pairs extremely fast, 0.000000000001, he clarifies. It may also look like a broken laptop speaker with a stomped wall wart soldered to it, but who can keep up with industrial design trends these days?

He shows us the device in operation. He starts playing some music on his phone’s speaker. It’s not very loud, so he simply lays the phone on the dock. Suddenly, all the audio fidelity a Dell Lattitude from the 90s can provide erupts from the device! How is this done?

Of course, there’s not much to the trick. Since the cellphone speaker is a coil it can induce a small current in another coil. The resulting voltage can be picked up by an audio amplifier and played through the speakers. Nonetheless it’s pretty cool, and we like his suggestion of betting our friends that we could wirelessly pair with their ear buds. Video after the break.

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Phone-To-Phone Power Thievery

Once again, [Rulof]’s putting his considerable hacking abilities to good use, his good use that is. By modding a few simple parts he’s put together something that he can carry around on his keychain that’ll allow him to steal power from his friend’s phones to charge his own phone.

He starts by cutting away the motor from an iPhone fan to isolate the Micro USB connector. He then removes the charging circuit board from a cheap Chinese USB power bank, and solders wires from the Micro USB connector to one side of the board. Lastly, he cuts away the Lightning connector from a Lightning-to-USB cable and solders that connector to the other side of the circuit board. For longevity and cosmetics, he puts it all in a small wood block and connects a key ring. The result is a small, neat looking box with a Micro USB connector on one side and a Lightning connector on the other. You can see him make it, and then use it to steal power from his friends in the video after the break.

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Retrotechtacular: Whatever Happened To The Paper Mobile Phone

It was one of the more interesting consumer tech stories floating around at the turn of the century, a disposable cell phone manufactured using a multi-layer folded paper circuit board with tracks printed in conductive ink. Its feature set was basic even by the standards of the day in that it had no display and its only function was to make calls, but with a target price of only $10 that didn’t matter. It was the brainchild of a prolific New Jersey based inventor, and it was intended to be the first in a series of paper electronic devices using the same technology including phones with built-in credit card payment ability and a basic laptop model.

The idea of a $10 mobile phone does not seem remarkable today, it’s possible that sum might now secure you something with features far in excess of the Nokias and similar that were the order of the day at that time. But when you consider that those Nokias could have prices well into three figures without a contract, and that the new features people considered exciting were things like integrated antennas or swappable coloured plastic covers rather than the multicore processors or high-res cameras we’re used to today, a phone so cheap as to be disposable promised to be very disruptive.

The web site publicity shot for the disposable paper phone.
The web site publicity shot for the disposable paper phone.

The product’s wonderfully dated website (Wayback Machine link, we’ve skipped the Flash intro for you) has pictures of the device, and the video below the break features shots of it in use as its inventor is interviewed. But by the end of 2002 the Wayback Machine was retrieving 404 errors from the server, and little more was heard of the product. No sign of one ever came our way; did any make it to market, and did you have one?

With the benefit of fifteen years hindsight, why did we not have paper mobile phones as part of the ephemera of the early years of the last decade? It was not a product without promise; a ten-dollar phone might have been a great success. And the description of a cheap laptop that talks to a remote server for its software sounds not unlike today’s Chromebooks.

Some of you might claim the product was vapourware, but given that they demonstrated a working prototype we’d hesitate to go that far. The likelihood is that it did not find the required combination of component price and manufacturing ease to exploit its intended market segment before its competition improved to the point that it could no longer compete. If you have ever taken apart a typical mobile phone of the period you’ll have some idea of why they were not cheap devices, for example the RF filter modules of the day were individually adjusted precision components. And paper-and-ink printed circuit boards are still a technology with a way to go even now, perhaps the idea was simply too far ahead of its time. Meanwhile within a relatively short period of time the price of simple candybar phones dropped to the point at which they would tempt the $10 buyer to spend more for a better product, so the window of opportunity had passed.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Selfie Bot Let’s You Vlog Hands Free

[Sergey Mironov] sent in his SelfieBot project. His company, Endurance Robots, sells a commercial version of the bot, which leads us to believe that in a strange and maybe brilliant move he decided to just sell the prototype stage of the product development as a kit. Since he also gave away the firmware, STLs, BOM, and made a guide so anyone can build it, we’re not complaining.

The bot is simple enough. Nicely housed hobby servos in a 3D printed case take care of the pan and tilt of the camera. The base of the bot encloses the electronics, which are an Arduino nano, a Bluetooth module, and the support electronics for power and motor driving.

To perform the face tracking, the build assumes you have a second phone. This is silly, but isn’t so unreasonable. Most people who’ve had a smart phone for a few years have a spare one living in a drawer as back-up. One phone runs the face tracking software and points the bot, via Bluetooth, towards the user. The other phone records the video.

The bot is pretty jumpy in the example video, but this can be taken care of with better motors. For a proof-of-concept, it works. A video of it in action after the break.

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Dry Ice is Nice for Separating Broken Phone Screens

Smartphones are the opium of the people. If you need proof, just watch the average person’s reaction when they break “their precious”. Repairing smartphones has become a huge business. The most often broken item on phones is of course the front glass. In most cases, the screen itself doesn’t break. On newer smartphones, even the touchscreen is safe. The front glass is only a protective lens.

The easiest way to repair a broken front glass is to swap the entire LCD assembly. For an iPhone 6 plus, this will run upwards of $120 USD. However, the glass lens alone is just $10. The problem is that the LCD, digitizer and front glass are a laminated package. Removing them without breaking the wafer thin LCD glass requires great care. The hardest part is breaking down the optical glue securing the glass to the LCD. In the past that has been done with heat. More recently, companies from China have been selling liquid-nitrogen-based machines that cool the assembly. Now immersing a phone screen in -196° C liquid nitrogen would probably destroy the LCD. However, these machines use a temperature controller to keep a surface at -140° C. Just enough to cause the glue to become brittle, but not kill the LCD.

[JerryRigEverything] doesn’t have several thousand dollars for a liquid nitrogen machine, but he does have a $5 block of dry ice. Dry ice runs at -78.5°C. Balmy compared to liquid nitrogen, but still plenty cold. After laying the phone screens down on the ice for a few minutes, [Jerry] was able to chip away the glass. It definitely takes more work than the nitrogen method. Still, if you’re not opening your own phone repair shop, we think this is the way to go.

Broken phones are a cheap and easy way to get high-resolution LCD screens for your projects. The problem is driving them. [Twl] has an awesome project on for driving phone screens using an FPGA. We haven’t seen it done with iPhone 6 yet though. Anyone up for the challenge?

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