Hackaday Prize Entry: Lighting the Way for Walkers

Chances are, you probably know someone who uses a walker to assist in their mobility. Ever wonder about how they could be made better? When [Alan McFarland] noticed his friend using his iPhone as a light to walk down a hallway — with only one hand on his walker — he realized something could easily be done to make the walker more functional. His own light bar.

Sure you could get a flashlight, zip tie it to the walker, or maybe a bike light with a dedicated mount — but [Alan] wanted it to be a bit more elegant; and functional. With this in mind, he attached an LED light strip to the lower frame of the walker to help illuminate the path ahead. A button is wired up to the handle for easy access, and he’s even using a PIC12F1501 microcontroller to give it some logic — it’ll turn off by itself, fading out, giving the person a chance to sit down before the lights go out.

The thing we like about this project is he programmed it using the PICBASIC PRO compiler — the same compiler that [Alan] himself used nearly 20 years ago programming the Borg suits and spacesuit lighting on Star Trek: First Contact — how’s that for a random trivia fact!

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Hello RAMPS, meet ESP8266

The proliferation of  DIY 3D printers has been helped in large measure by the awesome open-source RepRap project. A major part of this project is the RAMPS board – a single control board / shield to which all of the other parts of the printer can be easily hooked up. A USB connection to a computer is the usual link of choice, unless the RAMPS board has the SD-Card option to allow the 3D printer to operate untethered. [Chetan Patil] from CreatorBot built a breakout board to help attach either the ESP8266 WiFi or the HC-05 Bluetooth module to the Aux-1 header on the RAMPS board. This lets him stream G-code to the printer and allow remote control and monitoring.

While the cheap ESP8266 modules are the current flavor of the season with Hackers, getting them to work can be quite a hair tearing exercise. So [Chetan] did some hacking to figure out the tool chain for developing on the ESP module and found that LUA API from NodeMcu would be a good start. The breakout board is nothing more than a few headers for the ESP8266, the HC-05 and the Aux-1 connections, with a few resistors, a switch to set boot loader mode and a 3.3V regulator. If you’re new to the ESP8266, use this quick, handy, guide by [Peter Jennings] to get started with the NodeMCU and Lualoader. [Chetan]’s code for flashing on the ESP8266, along with the Eagle board design files are available via his Github repo. Just flash the code to the ESP8266 and you’re ready to go.

One gotcha to be aware of is to plug in the ESP module after the printer has booted up. Otherwise the initial communication from the ESP module causes the printer to lock up. We are sure this is something that can be taken care of with an improved breakout board design. Maybe use a digital signal from the Arduino Mega on the RAMPS board to keep the ESP module disabled for a while during start up, perhaps? The video after the break gives a short overview of the hack.

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Hack Your Own Analog Camera

We remember making pinhole cameras as kids out of cigar boxes. The Focal Camera website wants to enable you to make sophisticated cameras from a selection of building blocks. We’re talking cameras with film, not digital cameras (although we wondered if you could mount an image sensor… but that’s another hack).

The modules do require access to a laser cutter, and you’ll need to scrounge or otherwise acquire things like mirrors and lenses. The site has advice on how to hack things like first surface mirrors out of cheap items like acrylic mirrors.

The intent is to be able to build up your own cameras from the modules. They do have a pinhole camera, in case you are nostalgic, but you could also build SLRs, large format cameras, or even stereo cameras. Not all the modules are ready yet, but there are several example cameras and pictures taken with them on the site. Like most building blocks, the real treat will be when users begin to combine them in unexpected ways.

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Giant Stepper Motor Gets You Up to Speed on Theory

Few hackers have trouble understanding basic electric motors. We’ve all taken apart something that has a permanent magnet DC motor in it and hooked up its two leads to a battery to make it spin. Reverse the polarity, reverse the spin; remove the power, stop the spin. Stepper motors (and their close cousins, brushless DC motors) are a little tougher to grok, though, especially for the beginner. But with a giant 3D printed stepper motor, [Proto G] has made getting your head around electronically commutated motors a little easier.

While we’ve seen 3D printed stepper motors before, the size and simple layout of this one really lends to understanding the theory. With a 3D-printed frame, coils wound on nails, and rare-earth magnets glued to a rotor, this is an approachable build that lays the internals of a stepper motor out for all to see and understand. You can easily watch how the rotor lines up as the various coils are energized in a circular pattern, although it might be more revealing to include bi-color LEDs to indicate which coils are energized and what the polarity is. Those would be especially helpful demonstrating the concept of half-stepping. We’d also like to see more detail on the controller electronics, although admittedly all the video-worthy action is in the motor itself.

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Learning Verilog for FPGAs: Flip Flops

Last time I talked about how to create an adder in Verilog with an eye to putting it into a Lattice iCEstick board. The adder is a combinatorial circuit and didn’t use a clock. This time, we’ll finish the demo design and add two clocked elements: a latch that remembers if the adder has ever generated a carry and also some counters to divide the 12 MHz clock down to a half-second pulse to blink some of the onboard LEDs.

Why Clocks?

Clocks are an important part of practical digital design. Suppose you have a two input AND gate. Then imagine both inputs go from zero to one, which should take the output from zero to one, also. On paper, that seems reasonable, but in real life, the two signals might not arrive at the same time. So there’s some small period of time where the output is “wrong.” For a single gate, this probably isn’t a big deal since the delay is probably minuscule. But the errors will add up and in a more complex circuit it would be easy to get glitches while the inputs to combinatorial gates change with different delays.

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Tap On! Tap Off! The Backlight!

We recently covered [TechnologyCatalyst’s] excellent $50 multimeter shoot out, and we weren’t surprised when the winner was the Uni-T UT61E. It’s jam packed with features, and has a lot of bang for your buck. But one thing that it’s missing is a backlight.

The 61E uses a chip form CyrusTek called the ES51922A. This chip has a back light features built into it, but Uni-T simply didn’t add the supporting circuitry and LEDs. This was done either to keep cost down, or to not take away sales from their higher end models – your guess is as good as ours. Even though several people have tried carefully soldering to this fine pitch chip package to add back lights, the backlight timer is set to turn off in 60 seconds.

[Nisei] on the EEVBlog forum came up with an elegant capacitive touch solution that we could see being used in many other applications. The mod centers around a using a TTP223 touch sensor module that you can find on eBay for $1 instead of tapping into the meter’s dormant backlight controller. Add in a voltage regulator, a resistor, 2 leds and some foil tape, and that’s about all you need. [Nisei] did a great job documenting the mod with graphics rather than pictures (that can be a bit ambiguous at times.) Also, in case you missed the $50 DMM review you can find it here.

With all that said, we’re thinking the next multimeter mod might just need to be the “Clap-On, Clap-off” meter.

Drivers for 3D Printers and Why We Need Them

Manufacturers of 3D printers have a lot to do before they catch up with makers of the cheapest 2D, paper-based printers. If you’ve ever taken an inkjet apart, you’ll most likely find some sort of closed-loop control on at least one of the axes. The 2D printer will tell you when you’re out of ink, when a 3D printer will go merrily along, printing in air without filament. File formats? Everything is Gcode on a 3D printer, and there are dozens, if not hundreds of page description languages for 2D printers.

The solution to some of these problems are drivers – software for a 3D printer that slowly consumes the slicing of an object, printer settings, and placing an object on the bed. It’s coming, and the people who are responsible for making your 2D printer work with your computer are busy at work messing up the toolchain for your 3D printer.

The latest version of CUPS (C Unix Printing System) adds support for 3D printers. This addition is based on meetings, white papers, and discussions in the Printer Working Group (PWG). There has already been a lot of talk about what is wrong with the current state of 3D printer toolchains, what can be improved, and what should be completely ignored. Let’s take a look at what all of this has accomplished.

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