Retrotechtacular: How Old is the Remote?

A few weeks ago we covered a (probably) bogus post about controlling a TV with the IR from a flame. That got us thinking about what the real origin of the remote control was. We knew a story about the 38 kHz frequency commonly used to modulate the IR. We’ve heard that it was from sonar crystals used in earlier sonic versions of remotes. Was that true? Or just an urban myth? We set out to find out.

Surprise! Remotes are Old!

If you are a younger reader, you might assume TVs have always had remotes. But for many of us, remotes seem like a new invention. If you grew up in the middle part of the last century it is a good bet you were your dad’s idea of a remote control: “Get up and turn the channel!” Turns out remotes have been around for a long time, though. They just weren’t common for a long time.

If you really want to stretch back, [Oliver Lodge] used a radio to move a beam of light in 1894. In 1896, [Marconi] and some others made a bell ring by remote control. [Tesla] famously showed a radio-controlled boat in 1898. But none of these were really remote controls like we think of for a television.

mysteryOf course, TV wouldn’t be around for a while, but by the 1930’s many radio manufacturers had wired remotes for radios. People didn’t like the wires, so Philco introduced the Mystery Control in 1939. This used digital pulse coding and a radio transmitter. That’s a fancy way of saying it had a dial like an old telephone. As far as we can tell, this was the first wireless remote for a piece of consumer equipment.

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Stadium Sized Cellphone Light Show Is Controlled By Sound

18 months ago, [Jameson Rader] didn’t know how to code. He had an economics degree and worked for a minor league hockey team. He did have a dream, though. Broadcasting data through sound. When we say broadcast, we mean broadcast – as in one sender and thousands of receivers.

[Jameson] didn’t have the money to hire a team to build his application. So he did what any self-respecting hacker would do. He bought a few books and taught himself to code. We’re talking about a smartphone app here, so Java and Objective-C were necessary to cover Android and iOS devices. The result is XT Audio Beacons.

[Jameson] has created a light show for stadiums which requires no new hardware infrastructure. Ultrasonic cues are added to a pre-recorded soundtrack and played over the PA system. Fans attending the show simply run an app and hold up their smartphone. The app listens for the cues and turns on the camera flash. The result is a light show which can be synchronized to music, sound effects, or whatever the event calls for. Since the system relies on sound, the App only needs permissions to access the microphone. The system would still work even if the phones were in airplane mode.

Transmitting data to smartphones via ultrasonics isn’t exactly new. Amazon uses it in their Dash Buttons, and Google uses it in their OnHub. Using it as a broadcast medium in a stadium is a novel application, though. [Jameson] also has demos showing XT Audio Beacons being used for more mundane purposes – such as troubleshooting electronics, or even as an acoustic version of an iBeacon.

Most important here is that [Jameson] isn’t keeping all this new knowledge to himself. He’s published the source to his application on Github under the MIT license.

You can see the system in action – and even try it yourself, in the video after the break.

If you want to learn more about [Jameson] and his journey, definitely check out his AMA on Reddit.

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Acoustic Levitation with a Twist

Don’t blame us for the click-baity titles in the source articles about this handheld “acoustic tractor beam”. You can see why the popular press tarted this one up a bit, even at the risk of drawing the ire of Star Trek fans everywhere. Even the journal article describing this build slipped the “tractor beam” moniker into their title. No space vessel in distress will be towed by [Asier Marzo]’s tractor beam, unless the aliens are fruit flies piloting nearly weightless expanded polystyrene beads around the galaxy.

That doesn’t detract from the coolness of the build, revealed in the video below. There’s no tutorial per se, but an Instructables post is promised. Still, a reasonably skilled hacker will be able to replicate the results with ease straight from the video. Using mostly off the shelf hardware, [Marzo] creates a bowl-shaped phased array of ultrasonic transducers driven by an Arduino through a DC-DC converter and dual H-bridge driver board to boost the 40 kHz square waves from 5 Vpp to 70 Vpp. By controlling the phasing of the signals, the tractor beam can not only levitate small targets but also move them axially. It looks like a lot of fun.

Acoustic levitation is nothing new here – we’ve covered 3D acoustic airbending, as well as an acoustic flip-dot display. Being able to control the power of sound waves in a handheld unit is a step beyond, though.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Ears On The Back Of Your Head

From context clues, we can tell that [TVMiller] has been in and around NYC for some time now. He has observed a crucial weakness in the common metropolitan. Namely, they deafen themselves with earphones, leaving them senseless in a hostile environment.

To fix this problem, he came up with a simple hack, the metrophone. An ultrasonic sensor is hung from a backpack. The user’s noise making device of choice is plugged into one end, and the transducer into the other. When the metropolitan is approached from the rear by a stalking tiger or taxi cab, the metrophone will reduce the volume and allow the user to hear and respond to their impending doom. Augmentation successful.

The device itself consists of an off-the-shelf ultrasonic sensor, an Arduino, and a digital potentiometer. It all fits in a custom 3D printed enclosure and runs of two rechargeable coin cells. A simple bit of code scales the volume to the current distance being measured by the ultrasonic sensor once a threshold has been met.

In the video after the break, you can observe [TVMiller]’s recommended method for tranquilizing and equipping a metropolitan in its natural habitat without disturbing its patterns or stressing it unduly.

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Self-Driving Cars Get Tiny

There’s a car race going on right now, but it’s not on any sort of race track. There’s a number of companies vying to get their prototype on the road first. [Anurag] has already completed the task, however, except his car and road are functional models.

While his car isn’t quite as involved as the Google self driving car, and it doesn’t have to deal with pedestrians and other active obstacles, it does use a computer and various sensors to make decisions about how to drive. A Raspberry Pi 2 takes the wheel in this build, taking input from a Pi camera and an ultrasonic distance sensor. The Pi communicates to another computer over WiFi, where a neural network operates to make decisions about how to drive the car. It also makes decisions based on a database of pictures of the track, so it has a point of reference to go by.

The video of the car in action is worth a look. It’s not perfect, but it’s quite an accomplishment for this type of project. The possibility that self-driving car models could drive around model sets like model railroad hobbyists create is intriguing. Of course, this isn’t [Anurag]’s first lap around the block. He’s already been featured for building a car that can drive based on hand gestures. We’re looking forward to when he can collide with model busses.

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An Affordable Ultrasonic Soldering Iron

One of the most interesting facets of our community of hackers and makers comes from its never-ending capacity to experiment and to deliver new technologies and techniques. Ample demonstration of this came this morning, in the form of [Hunter Scott]’s Hackaday.io project to create an ultrasonic soldering iron. This is a soldering technique in which the iron is subjected to ultrasonic vibrations which cavitate the surface of the materials to be soldered and remove any oxides which would impede the adhesion of the solder. In this way normally unsolderable materials such as stainless steel, aluminium, ceramic, or glass can be soldered without the need for flux or other specialist chemicals. Ultrasonic soldering has been an expensive business, and [Hunter]’s project aims to change that.

This iron takes the element and tip from a conventional mains-powered soldering iron and mounts it on the transducer from an ultrasonic cleaner. The transducer must be given an appropriate load which in the case of the cleaner is furnished by a water bath, or it will overheat and burn out. [Hunter]’s load is just a soldering iron element, so to prevent transducer meltdown he keeps the element powered continuously but the transducer on a momentary-action switch to ensure it only runs for the short time he’s soldering. The project is not quite finished so he’s yet to prove whether this approach will save his transducer, but we feel it’s an interesting enough idea to make it definitely worth following.

This is the first ultrasonic soldering project we’ve featured here at Hackaday. We have however had an ultrasonic plastic welder before, and an ultrasonic vapour polisher for 3D prints. It would be good to think this project could spark a raft of others that improve and refine DIY ultrasonic soldering designs.

Hackaday Dictionary: Ultrasonic Communications

Say you’ve got a neat gadget you are building. You need to send data to it, but you want to keep it simple. You could add a WiFi interface, but that sucks up power. Bluetooth Low Energy uses less power, but it can get complicated, and it’s overkill if you are just looking to send a small amount of data. If your device has a microphone, there is another way that you might not have considered: ultrasonic communications. Continue reading “Hackaday Dictionary: Ultrasonic Communications”