Flexible Phototransistor Will Make Everything Subtly Better In The Future

University of Wisconsin-Madison is doing some really cool stuff with phototransistors. This is one of those developments that will subtly improve all our devices. Phototransistors are ubiquitous in our lives. It’s near impossible to walk anywhere without one collecting some of your photons.

The first obvious advantage of a flexible grid of phototransistors is the ability to fit the sensor array to any desired shape. For example, in a digital camera the optics are designed to focus a “round” picture on a flat sensor. If we had a curved surface, we could capture more light without having to choose between discarding light, compensating with software, or suffering the various optical distortions.

Another advantage of the University’s new manufacturing approach is the “flip-transfer” construction method they came up with. They propound that their method produces a vastly more sensitive device. The sensing silicon sits on the front of the assembly without any obstructing material in front; also the metal substrate it was built on before flipping is reflective; also increasing the sensitivity.

All in all very cool, and we can’t wait for phone cameras, with super flat lenses, infinite focus, have no low light capture issues, and all the other cool stuff coming out of the labs these days.

Video Gives you the Basics of DIY Rotary Encoders

Is it really possible to build a rotary encoder out of a flattened tin can and a couple of photodetectors? Sure it’s possible, but what kind of resolution are you going to get from such a contraption? Is there any way that you’d be able to put them to work in a DIY project like a CNC router? If you pay attention to the basics then the answer is yes, and [HomoFaciens] wants to prove that to you with this detailed video on homebrew encoder design.

Faithful Hackaday readers will no doubt recognize [HomoFaciens] from a number of prior appearances on these pages, including this recent hardware store CNC router build. When we first ran across his builds, we admit a snicker or two was had at the homemade encoders, but if you watch the results he manages to get out of his builds, you quickly realize how much you can accomplish with very little. The video is a primer on encoder design, walking you through the basics of sensing rotation with phototransistors, and how a pair of detectors is needed to determine the direction of rotation. He also discusses the relative merits of the number of teeth in the chopper; turns out more isn’t necessarily better. And in the end he manages to turn a car wiper motor into a high-torque servo, which could be a handy trick to have filed away.

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Triple Sensor Mailbox Alert Really Delivers

Messing with the U.S. Mail is not something we generally recommend. But if you build your own mailbox like [Bob] did, you stand a much better chance of doing what you want without throwing up any flags.

Speaking of throwing up flags, one of the coolest parts of this project is the toy mailbox inside the house that monitors the activity of the real box. When there is mail waiting, the flag on the toy mailbox goes up. Once [Bob] retrieves the mail, the flag goes back down automatically. A magnet in the real box’s flag prevents false alarms on the toy box provided the Flag Raised On Outgoing protocol is followed. Best of all, he built in some distress handling: If the mailbox door is left hanging open or the battery is low, the toy mailbox waves its flag up and down.

So, where do the three sensors come in? A magnetic reed switch on the wall of the real mailbox pairs with a magnet in the flag. To determine whether the door is open, [Bob] initially used another magnetic reed switch on the underside of the box. This didn’t work well in wet weather, so he switched to a mechanical tilt sensor. An IR LED on the ceiling and a phototransistor on the floor of the box work together to detect the presence of mail.

[Bob]’s homebrew mailbox has a false back that hides a PIC 16F1825. When the door opens, the PIC wakes up, turns on a MOSFET, and checks the battery level. It waits two minutes for the mailman to do his job and then reads the flag state. After comparing the IR LED and phototransistor’s states, it sends a message to the toy mailbox indicating the presence or absence of mail.

The toy mailbox holds a modified receiver board and a servo to control its flag. [Bob] has made the code and schematics available on his site. Walk-through video is after the jump.

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Light Pen Draws on LED Matrix


Who needs a 1920×1080 OLED display when you can have an 8×8 matrix of LED goodness? That’s the question [Kathy] asked when she built this LED matrix light pen project. It looks simple enough – a 64-LED matrix illuminates as the pen draws shapes. But how does the circuit know which LED is under the pen? Good old fashioned matrix scanning is the answer. Only one LED is lit up at any time.

[Kathy] used a pair of 74LS138 3-to-8 line decoders to scan the matrix. The active low outputs on the ‘138 would be perfect for a common cathode matrix. Of course [Kathy] only had a common anode matrix, so 8 PNP transistors were pressed into service as inverters.

The pen itself is a phototransistor. [Kathy] originally tried a CdS photoresistor, but found it was a bit too slow for matrix scanning. An LM358 op-amp is used to get the signal up to a reasonable level for an Arduino Uno to detect.

The result is impressive for such a simple design. We’d love to see someone use this platform as the start of an epic snake game.

A Mini Op-Amp Based Line Following Robot


There’s no denying it. Super small robots are just cool. [Pinomelean] has posted an Instructable on how to create a mini line following robot using only analog circuitry. This would make a great demo project to show your friends and family what you’ve been up to.

Analog circuitry can be used instead of a microcontroller for many different applications, and this is one of them. The circuit consists of two op-amps that amplify the output of two phototransistors, which control each motor. This circuit is super simple yet very effective. The mechanical system is also quite cool and well thought out. To keep things simple, the motors drive the wheel treads, rather than directly through an axle. After the build was completed, the device needed to be calibrated by turning potentiometers that control the gain of each op-amp. Once everything is balanced, the robot runs great! See it in action after the break.

While not the smallest line follower we have seen, this robot is quite easy to reproduce. What little robots have you build lately? Send us a tip and let us know!

[via Embedded Lab]

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Artemis Synthesizer Kit

The Artemis Synthesizer was created as a kit for Boston University’s Artemis Project. This project aims to teach female rising high school freshmen about computer science with hands-on activities. [Chris] based the kit on a ATMEGA328P microcontroller and a MCP4921 digital to analog converter. It can be used in a keyboard mode, where the buttons toggle various notes of the scale, or in a sequencer mode, where the buttons are used to toggle pre-programmed sequences.

[Chris] wanted the kit to be usable by the students after the workshop, so he used an optical link dubbed the “Optoloader” to program new sequences and waveforms into the device. A web based application allows for waveforms and sequences to be built in the browser, then programmed by holding a phototransistor up to a blinking square. The square flashes black and white corresponding to a Biphase Mark Code encoded message. This is decoded by the microcontroller on the synthesizer and stored in memory. As a result, no special hardware is needed to play new waveforms and sequences.

[Chris] has a thorough write up for the project, including feedback surveys from the students. He plans to add more specific information about the Optoloader in the future.

Check out a video of the kit in action after the break.

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Simple proximity sensor

[Dustin Andrews] built this add-on board which works as a proximity sensor. He wanted a standalone sensor for his Arduino projects which would use a single pin as a trigger. This lets him alert the Arduino when an object approaches the sensor without the need for polling or extra code on the Arduino side of things.

As you can see, a single chip on the board takes care of all the work. That’s an ATtiny13, they’re inexpensive and sometimes you can even salvage them from consumer electronics like this color changing light bulb. The microcontroller monitors the phototransistor which is wrapped in electrical tape to isolate it from the IR LED emitters on either side. This setup creates a reflective sensor. When an object nears the board, the infrared light from the emitters reflects off of it and onto the phototransistor. And since the Arduino works as an AVR programmer you don’t need special hardware to program the device.