Who’s Watching the Kids?

It wasn’t long ago that we saw the Echo bloom into existence as a standalone product from its conceptual roots as a smartphone utility. These little black columns have hardly collected their first film of dust on our coffee tables and we’re already seeing similar technology debut on the toy market, which causes me to raise an eye-brow.

There seems to be some appeal towards making toys smarter, with the intent being that they may help a child learn while they play. Fair enough. It was recently announced that a WiFi enabled, “Hello Barbie” doll will be released sometime this Fall. This new doll will not only be capable of responding to a child’s statements and questions by accessing the Internet at large, it will also log the likes and dislikes of its new BFF on a cloud database so that it can reference the information for later conversations. Neat, right? Because it’s totally safe to trust the Internet with information innocently surrendered by your child.

Similarly there is a Kickstarter going on right now for a re-skinned box-o-internet for kids in the shape of a dinosaur. The “GreenDino”, is the first in a new line called, CogniToys, from a company touted by IBM which has its supercomputer, Watson, working as a backbone to answer all of the questions a child might ask. In addition to acting as an informational steward, the GreenDino will also toss out questions, and upon receiving a correct answer, respond with praise.

Advancements in technology are stellar. Though I can see where a child version of myself would love having an infinitely smart robot dinosaur to bombard with questions, in the case of WiFi and cloud connectivity, the novelty doesn’t outweigh the potential hazards the technology is vulnerable to. Like what, you ask?

Whether on Facebook or some other platform, adults accept the unknown risks involved when we put personal information out on the Internet. Say for instance I allow some mega-corporation to store on their cloud that my favorite color is yellow. By doing so, I accept the potential outcome that I will be thrown into a demographic and advertised to… or in ten years be dragged to an internment camp by a corrupt yellow-hating government who subpoenaed information about me from the corporation I consensually surrendered it to.

The fact is that I understand those types of risks… no matter how extreme and silly they might seem. The child playing with the Barbie does not.

All worst case scenarios of personal data leakage and misuse aside, what happens when Barbie starts wanting accessories? Or says to their new BFF something like, “Wouldn’t we have so much more fun if I had a hot pink convertible?”

A Real-Time Networked VU Running on the ESP8266

Even though the ESP8266 WiFi chipsets are really cheap (and can be somewhat challenging to work with), they still pack a lot of processing power. For instance, [Mr.jb.swe] took one of these modules and made a stand-alone live VU meter with WS2812B LED strip. The VU runs entirely on the ESP chip, without any additional microcontroller. It’s an example we think a lot of projects could follow to do away with unused horsepower (extra microcontrollers) sometimes used to avoid programming directly on the ESP. The stuff you can do with these modules is wild… did you see this WiFi signal strength mapping project?

The ESP chipset acts as a UDP client which receives packets from a WinAmp plugin that [Mr.jb.swe] wrote. The plugin continuously calculates the dB of whatever track is playing and streams it over WiFi to his ESP8266. He also mentions that the ADC of the ESP chipset could be used to sample audio as well, although that pretty much eliminates the need for WiFi.

The whole setup is very responsive even though the processor is parsing UDP messages, driving the WS2812 strip, and driving a small OLED display for debug—and it doesn’t even use a separate microcontroller. [Mr.jb.swe] also posted snippets of his code to get you started on your own project. Check out the videos after the break to see it in action.

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Great Scott! A Flux Capacitor Notification Light

If you are into your social media, then you probably like to stay updated with your notifications. [Gamaral] feels this way but he wasn’t happy with the standard way of checking the website or waiting for his phone to alert him. He wanted something a little more flashy. Something like a flux capacitor notification light. This device won’t send his messages back in time, but it does look cool.

He started with an off-the-shelf flux capacitor USB charger. Normally this device just looks cool when charging your USB devices. [Gamaral] wanted to give himself more control of it. He started by opening up the case and replacing a single surface mount resistor. The replacement component is actually a 3.3V regulator that happens to be a similar form factor as the original resistor. This regulator can now provide steady power to the device itself, as well as a ESP8266 module.

The ESP8266 module has built-in WiFi capabilities for a low price. The board itself is also quite small, making it suitable for this project. [Gamaral] used just two GPIO pins. The first one toggles the flux circuit on and off, and the second keeps track of the current state of the circuit. To actually trigger the change, [gamaral] just connects to the module via TCP and issues a “TIME CIRCUIT ON/OFF” command. The simplicity makes the unit more versatile because an application running on a PC can actually track various social media and flash the unit accordingly.

Mapping WiFi Signals in 3 Dimensions

[Charles] is on a quest to complete ever more jaw-dropping hacks with the popular low-cost ESP8266 WiFi modules. This week’s project is plotting WiFi received signal strength in 3D space. While the ESP8266 is capable of providing a Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI), [Charles] didn’t directly use it. He wrote a simple C program on his laptop to ping the ESP8266 at around 500Hz. The laptop would then translate the RSSI from the ping replies to a color value, which it would then send to the ESP8266. Since the ESP8266 was running [Charles’] custom firmware (as seen in his WiFi cup project), it could directly display the color on a WS2812 RGB LED.

The colors seemed random at first, but [Charles] noticed that there was a pattern. He just needed a way to visualize the LED over time. A single frame long exposure would work, but so would video. [Charles] went the video route, creating SuperLongExposure, an FFMPEG-based tool which extracts every video frame and composites them into a single frame. What he saw was pretty cool – there were definite stripes of good and bad signal.

wifiPOVThumbArmed with this information, [Charles] went for broke and mounted his ESP8266 on a large gantry style mill. He took several long exposure videos of a 360x360x180mm area. The videos were extracted into layers. The whole data set could then be visualized with Voxeltastic, [Charles’] own HTML5/WEBGL based render engine. The results were nothing short of amazing. The signal strength increases and decreases in nodes and anti-nodes which correspond to the 12.4 cm wavelength of a WiFi signal. The final render looks incredibly organic, which isn’t completely surprising. We’ve seen the same kind of image from commercial antenna simulation characterization systems.

Once again [Charles] has blown us away, we can’t wait to see what he does next!

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Wi-Fi Connected E-Ink Display

People implementing the Scrum Methodology for project management often record all their tasks on a big whiteboard. However, it’s useful to have up-to-date graphs to ensure projects are on track. [Sprite_TM] augmented the whiteboard by building an Wi-Fi connected E-Ink Display.

Interfacing with E-Ink displays isn’t easy. A variety of voltages are needed, and the connectors used are tiny. We’ve seen some nice solutions, such as the RePaper display. [Sprite_TM] chose the ED060SC4 display which is available from eBay and has been throughly reverse engineered. A custom breakout board was built up to connect to the tiny FPC pins and generate the required voltages using the LT1945 DC/DC converter.

The next step was adding on Wi-Fi. The ESP12 module was an obvious solution. This module provides Wi-Fi connectivity and a processor capable of controlling the display. The display is powered by a tablet battery, which makes it totally wireless and operates for about 200 days.

A simple laser cut enclosure holds all the bits together, and contains magnets that stick the screen to the whiteboard. On the software side, images are streamed to the ESP12’s processor and loaded directly to the screen, since the ESP12 doesn’t have enough RAM to store an entire screen worth of data. All the firmware can had by cloning a Git repository.

WiFi Controlled Power Outlets with Raspberry Pi

[Tim] was looking for a way to control his power outlets using WiFi. He looked into purchasing a WeMo but he realized that he could build something even better with more bang for his buck. He started out by purchasing a five pack of Etekcity wireless remote control outlet switches. These are kind of like the WeMo, only they aren’t controlled via WiFi. Instead, they come with an RF controller. [Tim] just needed to find a way to bridge the gap between the RF remote and WiFi.

[Tim] decided to use a Raspberry Pi as the brains of the controller. He also purchased a SMAKN 433MHz RF receiver and transmitter for communicating with the wireless outlet switches. The wiring for the modules is pretty simple. There are only four wires. There are power and ground wires for each module. Then the transmitter needs two GPIO pins while the receiver only needs one.

[Tim] began with a fresh installation of Raspbian. He then installed Wiring Pi, which gives you the ability to interface with the GPIO pins in a way that is similar to Arduino. He also installed Apache and PHP to create a web interface for switching the outlets. The last step was to write some custom software. The software included a script that allowed [Tim] to sniff out the controls of his RF remote. The correct codes are entered into the “toggle.php” file, and everything is set. All [Tim] has to do now is browse to his Pi’s web server and click a button. All of the custom code is available via git.

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.