Hackaday Prize Entry: Modular, Low Cost Braille Display

A lot of work with binary arithmetic was pioneered in the mid-1800s. Boolean algebra was developed by George Boole, but a less obvious binary invention was created at this time: the Braille writing system. Using a system of raised dots (essentially 1s and 0s), visually impaired people have been able to read using their sense of touch. In the modern age of fast information, however, it’s a little more difficult. A number of people have been working on refreshable Braille displays, including [Madaeon] who has created a modular refreshable Braille display.

The idea is to recreate the Braille cell with a set of tiny solenoids. The cell is a set of dots, each of which can be raised or lowered in a particular arrangement to represent a letter or other symbol. With a set of solenoids, this can be accomplished rather rapidly. [Madaeon] has already prototyped these miniscule controllable dots using the latest 3D printing and laser cutting methods and is about ready to put together his first full Braille character.

While this isn’t quite ready for a full-scale display yet, the fundamentals look like a solid foundation for building one. This is all hot on the heels of perhaps the most civilized patent disagreement in history regarding a Braille display that’s similar. Hopefully all the discussion and hacking of Braille displays will bring the cost down enough that anyone who needs one will easily be able to obtain and use one.

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Modular Drum Machine Creates Random Rhythms

Don’t worry, the rhythms themselves aren’t random! That would hardly make for a useful drum machine. [kbob]’s creation does have the ability to randomly generate functional rhythms, though, and it’s all done on a breadboard.

The core of this tiny drum machine is two Teensy dev boards. One is an FM synth tuned to sound like drums, and the other is a random rhythm generator with several controls. The algorithms are from Mutable Instruments’ open source Eurorack modules. The entire thing fits on a breadboard with JIGMOD modules for the user interface. The machine runs on lithium batteries in the form of USB cell phone chargers. The battery holders were designed in Fusion 360 and 3D printed.

The function of the drum machine is pretty interesting as well. There are a set of triggers tied to the buttons on the machine. When a button is pressed, the drum machine plays that sound at the appropriate time, ensuring there are no offbeat beats. The potentiometers are polled once every millisecond and the program updates the output as required. There’s also a “grid” of rhythms that are controlled with two other knobs (one to map the X coordinate and the other for the Y) and a “chaos” button which adds an element of randomness to this mapping.

The modular nature of this project would make this a great instrument to add to one’s musical repertoire.It’s easily customizable, and could fit in with any of a number of other synthesizer instruments.

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3D Printering: Makerbot’s Class Action Suit Dismissed

This time last year, Stratasys, parent company of Makerbot, was implicated in a class action suit. Investors claimed Stratasys violated securities laws, and overstated both the performance of the 5th generation of Makerbot printers and the performance of the company itself. Court docs received by Adafruit have revealed this case has been dismissed with prejudice. Makerbot won this one.

The case presented by Stratasys investors relied on two obvious facts. First, the price of Stratasys shares fell far beyond expectations. Second, the extruder for the 5th generation of Makerbot printers – the ‘Smart Extruder’ – was terrible. No one can reasonably dispute these claims; shares of SYSS fell from $120 in September of 2014 to $30 in September of 2015. With many returns to handle, Makerbot quickly redesigned the Smart Extruder.

Both of these indisputable facts are in stark contrast to statements made by Stratasys and Makerbot at the time. In a press release for the 4th quarter 2013 financial results, Stratasys’ expected sales to grow at least 25% over 2013 and stated it was experiencing “strong sales” of its desktop 3D printer. Concerning the Smart Extruder, Makerbot stated this new feature of the 5th generation Makerbots would make them easy to use, and “define the new standard for quality and reliability.”

The facts of this case are not in dispute – Stratasys did not see the growth they expected in late 2013. The Smart Extruder certainly did not make printers more reliable. These facts, however, are not sufficient to violate securities law.  In a wonderful legal turn of phrase, the judge deciding this case called the statements about the quality of the 5th generation Makerbots consisted of, “non-actionable puffery,” and a ‘statement so vague and such obvious hyperbole than no reasonable investor would rely on them.’

Statements made by Stratasys on their financial performance were also found not to be sufficient to violate securities laws. Stratasys did make several statements about negative performance in late 2014 and 2015, and positive statements made earlier did not have an intent to deceive investors.

This is good news for Makerbot. The claims brought by investors in this case had little merit. The case cannot be appealed, and Stratasys is no longer facing a class action suit. Does this news actually matter? Not really; Makerbot is a dead man walking, and 2016 sales will be at levels not seen since 2010 or 2011.

The consumer 3D printing industry is booming, despite the Makerbot bellwether though.

Door Iris Porthole is the Perfect Fix for Detroit Hackerspace

In order to resolve the problem of congestion at the entrance to their hackerspace, the minds at i3Detroit installed a motion-activated mechanical iris in their door’s porthole.

Grabbing the design online (which they are now hosting on their site here), the parts were laser cut out of wood, gold leaf was added for effect, and it was relatively easy to assemble. PIR sensors detect movement on both sides of the door and an FET resistor connected to an orange LED add some old-school science fiction flair. The iris is actuated by a 12V car window motor — which works just fine on the 5V power that it’s supplied with — and an Arduino filling in as a controller. Start and stop positioning required some limit switches that seem to do the trick.

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Hacklet 115 – More Quick Tool Hacks

Some of the best hacks are the tools people make to help them complete a project. I last looked at quick tool hacks back in Hacklet 53. Hackers have been busy since then, and new projects have inspired new tools. This week on the Hacklet, I’m taking  a look at some of the best new quick tool hacks on Hackaday.io.

pickupWe start with [rawe] and aquarium pump vacuum pickup tool. Tweezers work great for resistors and caps, but once you start trying to place chips and other large parts, things quickly become frustrating. Commercial machines use high dollar vacuum pickup devices to hold parts. [rawe] built his own version using a cheap Chinese hand pickup tool and an aquarium pump. With some pumps, switching from air to vacuum is easy. Not with [rawe’s] pump. He had to break out the rotary tool and epoxy to make things work. The end result was worth it, a vacuum pickup tool for less than 10 Euro.



Next we have [David Spinden] with ViaConnect Circuit Board Test Tool, his entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize. [David] wanted a spring loaded pin which could be used in .100 holes in printed circuit boards. He ended up using pins from one connector, shell from another, and packaging the whole thing up into a new tool. ViaConnect essentially makes any PCB as easy to use as a solderless breadboard. No headers required. This is great both for testing new designs and for the education sector.

Allen tool holderNext up is our favorite quick tool hacker, [Alex Rich] with Improved Allen Wrench / Hex Key Holder. If [Alex] looks familiar, that’s because he’s the creator of the Stickvise. This time he’s come up with a new way to store and organize your Allen wrenches. Inspired by a similar device seen on a YouTube video from [Tom Lipton], [Alex] opened up his CAD software and started designing. The original used a steel spring to keep the wrenches in place. [Alex] switched the spring to a rubber o-ring. The o-ring securely holds the wrenches, but allows them to be easily pulled out for use. Of course the design is open source, so building your own is only a couple of hours of printing away!



solderdoodFinally we have [Solarcycle] with Cordless Foam Cutting Tool – USB Rechargeable. Soldering irons make a lot of heat in a small area to melt metal. Foam cutters make heat in a larger area to cut Styrofoam. [Solarcycle] saw the relation and converted a Solderdoodle Pro cordless soldering iron into a banjo style hot wire foam cutter. A barrel connector converts the soldering iron tip output to two stiff wires. The stiff wires carry current to a 3 cm length of Kanthal iron-chromium-aluminium (FeCrAl) heating element wire. If you don’t have any Kanthal around, ask your local vape enthusiast – they have tons of it. The result is the perfect hand-held tool for carving and sculpting in foam. Just make sure to have lots of ventilation.

If you want to see more of these hacks, check out our newly updated quick tool hacks list! See a project I might have missed? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Staying In and Playing Skyrim Has Rarely Been This Healthy

Looking to add some activity to your day but don’t want to go through a lot of effort? [D10D3] has the perfect solution that enables you to take a leisurely bike ride through Skyrim. A standing bicycle combines with an HTC Vive (using the add-on driver VorpX which allows non-vr enabled games to be played with a VR headset) and a Makey Makey board to make slack-xercise — that’s a word now — part of your daily gaming regimen.

The Makey Makey is the backbone of the rig; it allows the user to set up their own inputs with electrical contacts that correspond to keyboard and mouse inputs, thereby allowing one to play a video game in some potentially unorthodox ways — in this case, riding a bicycle.

Setting up a couple buttons for controlling the Dragonborn proved to be a simple process. Buttons controlling some of the main inputs were plugged into a breadboard circuit which was then connected to the Makey Makey along with the ground wires using jumpers. As a neat addition, some aluminium foil served as excellent contacts for the handlebars to act as the look left and right inputs. That proved to be a disorienting addition considering the Vive’s head tracking also moves the camera. Continue reading “Staying In and Playing Skyrim Has Rarely Been This Healthy”

Capacitors are Simple, Right?

It is easy to dismiss passive components like resistors and capacitors as a boring subject. [James Lewis] of KEMET Capacitors would disagree. He gave a talk about capacitor tech that is both approachable and in-depth.

Like every other component we use, we always think of them as perfect. But just like wires have resistance and inductance that we often ignore, capacitors have different imperfect characteristics that you need to be aware of.

Ceramic capacitors, for example, lose capacitance over time. Different ceramic material have different temperature sensitivity. Aluminum capacitors don’t last forever. Voltage applied to a capacitor can change its value as much as 50%.

[James] also talks about polymer electrolytics and super capacitors. His burning question: Is there any truth to the old guideline that you should derate capacitors by 50%? Want to know what he thinks? Watch the video below. Speaking of burning, he tackles the touchy subject of tantalum capacitors. The image at the top is a test Kemet ran on their own parts at reverse polarity well beyond spec. All of them are blown but only some look burnt. That’s a mystery well worth watching the talk.

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