Nirvana Like You’ve Never Heard Them Before

If you were an early 1990s youth, the chances are [Nirvana]’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is one of those pieces of music that transports you straight back to those times. As your writer it evokes a student radio studio and the shelves of its record library, and deafening badly-lit discos with poorly adjusted PA systems and unpleasantly sticky dance floors.

One of our finds this morning therefore comes as an evocative diversion, Smells Like Teen Spirit on [SileNT]’s Floppotron. The Floppotron is a music player composed of a huge array of floppy drives, hard drives, and a couple of flatbed scanners. The scanners are controlled by off-the-shelf Arduino boards and the hard drives have ATMega16s with H-bridge drivers.

This build is the most refined floppy drive organ we’ve seen yet. The floppies are divided into single-voice blocks of eight controlled by an ATMega16, with dynamic volume envelopes mad possible by the number of simultaneously running drives, so the sounds can fade in and out like “natural” musical instruments. The hard drives and scanners are run against their mechanical stops, providing percussion. All the boards are daisychained via SPI to an Arduino that acts as a PC interface, and the PC schedules the performance with a Python script.

He’s provided a couple of pieces as YouTube videos, the floppy motors work particularly well for [Nirvana]’s grunge, but perhaps a bit more mechanical for Hawaii Five-O. This last track will be more evocative than the first if you attended a particular university in the North of England where it was the end-of night record played as the lights came up in one of the discos that had a much better-adjusted PA because the technician knew what she was doing. For those of you with different childhoods, there’s also the Imperial March.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: The World’s First Tampon Monitor

[Amanda], [Jacob], [Katherine], and [vyshaalij] had a class project for their ‘Critical Making’ class at UC Berkeley. The task was to design a ‘Neo-Wearable’ that would fulfill an unmet need. Realizing women make up about 50% of the population and experience monthly periods for about half of their lives, they decided to make what can only be described as a tampon monitor. It’s a small device that monitors the… uh… ‘fullness’ of a tampon. Yes, it’s wearable technology that is actually useful, and a great entry for the Hackaday Prize.

The my.Flow, as the team are calling it, uses mechanical means to measure the saturation level of a tampon. Why would anyone want to do this? Because of leakage, anxiety, and risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).

A ‘smart’ tampon needs some electronics, and the team’s solution to this is rather ingenious. They’re using a small, flat, wearable clip that attaches to the user’s undergarments and is connected to the tampon by an elongated tail.

Already the team is seeing a lot of success – the market research for this product showed a whopping 82% of women are ready to buy a product that would help prevent TSS. This fledgling startup was picked up by the HAX accelerator and moved to China to bring this product to life. It’s a great idea, and also a great entry for the Hackaday Prize.

The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by:

Lightweight Game Console Packs a Punch

Any maker worth their bits will look for new ways to challenge themselves. [Robert Fotino], a computer science student at the University of California, is doing just that: designing and building his own lightweight hobbyist game console that he has appropriately named Consolite.

[Fotino] wrote his own compiler in C++ that converts from C-like languages to a custom-designed assembler that he has dubbed Consolite Assembly. To test his code, he also wrote an emulator before loading it onto the Mimas V2 FPGA board. Presently, Consolite  uses 64KiB of main memory and 48 KiB of video memory; a future version will have 32 bit support to make better use of the Mimas’ 64 MiB of on board ram, but the current 16-bit version is a functional proof of concept.

consolite-status-leds-and-hardware-switches_thumbnailAn SD card functions as persistent storage for up to 256 programs, which can be accessed using the hardware switches on the Mimas, with plans to add user access in the form of saving game progress, storage outside of main memory, etc. — also in a future update that will include audio support.

As it stands, [Fotino] has written his own versions of Breakout, Tetris, and Tron to show off his project.

Not wanting for diligence, [Fotino] has provided thorough documentation of nearly every step along the way in his blog posts and on GitHub if you are looking for guidelines for any similar projects you might have on the back burner — like an even tinier game console.

[via r/FPGA]

In Bed With an Arduino, Fighting Sleep Apnea

Sometimes the journey is as interesting as the destination, and that’s certainly the case with [Marc]’s pursuit of measuring his sleep apnea (PDF, talk slides. Video embedded below.). Sleep apnea involves periods of time when you don’t breathe or breathe shallowly for as long as a few minutes and affects 5-10% of middle-aged men (half that for women.) [Marc]’s efforts are still a work-in-progress but along the way he’s tried a multitude of things, all involving different technology and bugs to work out. It’s surprising how many ways there are to monitor breathing.

Debugging the Eeonyx conductive fabric approach
Debugging the Eeonyx conductive fabric approach

His attempts started out using a MobSenDat Kit, which includes an Arduino compatible board, and an accelerometer to see just what his sleeping positions were. That was followed by measuring blood O2 saturation using a cheap SPO2 sensor that didn’t work out, and one with Bluetooth that did work but gave results as a graph and not raw data.

Next came measuring breathing by detecting airflow from his nose using a Wind Sensor, but the tubes for getting the “wind” from his nose to the sensor were problematic, though the approach was workable. In parallel with the Wind Sensor he also tried the Zeo bedside sleep manager which involves wearing a headband that uses electrical signals from your brain to tell you what sleep state you’re in. He particularly liked this one as it gave access to the data and even offered some code.

And his last approach we know of was to monitor breathing by putting some form of band around his chest/belly to measure expansion and contraction. He tried a few bands and an Eeonyx conductive textile/yarn turned out to be the best. He did run into noise issues with the Xbee, as well as voltage regulator problems, and a diode that had to be bypassed.

But while [Marc]’s list of approaches to monitor sleep is long, he hasn’t exhausted all approaches. For example there’s monitoring a baby using lasers to detect whether or not the child is still breathing.

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Highlights From Robotic Shipwreck Exploration

DIY Research Vessel in use, while ROV is busy below. [Source: NYT]
DIY Research Vessel in use, while ROV is busy below. [Source: NYT]
OpenROV shared the results of their June 2016 underwater expedition to locate and robotically explore the wreck of the S.S. Tahoe, currently sitting at a depth of 150m in Lake Tahoe. Back in 1940 the ship was intentionally scuttled in shallow water, but unexpectedly slid to a much deeper depth. OpenROV used a modified version of their new Trident design to dive all the way down to the wreck and take a good look at things, streaming it over the internet in the process.

We previously covered the DIY research vessel that was designed and created as a floating base station for the ROV while it located and explored the wreck, and now the results are in! The video highlights of the expedition are below, as is a video tour of the ROV used and the modifications required to enable it to operate at 150m.

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Another Small Linux Computer With Pi In Its Name

Since the introduction of the Raspberry Pi, the embedded Linux scene has been rocked by well supported hardware that is produced in quantity, a company that won’t go out of business in six months, and a huge user base. Yes, there are a few small problems with the Raspberry Pi and its foundation – some stuff is still closed source, the Foundation itself plays things close to their chests, and there are some weird binary blobs somebody will eventually reverse engineer. Viewed against the competition, though, nothing else compares.

Here’s the NanoPi Neo, the latest quad-core Allwinner board from a company in China you’ve never heard of.

The NanoPi Neo is someone’s answer to the Raspberry Pi Zero, the very small and very cheap single board Linux computer whose out-of-stock percentage has led some to claim it’s completely fake and a media conspiracy. The NanoPi Zero features an Allwinner H3 quad-core Cortex-A7 running at 1.2 GHz, 256MB RAM, with a 512MB version being released shortly. Unlike the Raspberry Pi Zero, the NanoPi Neo features a 10/100 Ethernet port. No, it does not have PoE.

As with anything comparing itself to the Raspberry Pi Zero, only two things are important: size and price. The NanoPi Neo is a mere 40mm square, compared to the 65x30mm measurements of the Pi Zero. The NanoPi Neo is available for $7.99, with $5 shipping to the US. Yes, for just three dollars more than a Pi Zero with shipping, you get a poorly supported Linux board. What a time to be alive.

If you’re looking for another wonderful tale of what happens with cheap, powerful ARM chips and contract manufacturers in China, check out my review of the Pine64.

Gawking Hex Files

Last time I talked about how to use AWK (or, more probably the GNU AWK known as GAWK) to process text files. You might be thinking: why did I care? Hardware hackers don’t need text files, right? Maybe they do. I want to talk about a few common cases where AWK can process things that are more up the hardware hacker’s alley.

The Simple: Data Logs

If you look around, a lot of data loggers and test instruments do produce text files. If you have a text file from your scope or a program like SIGROK, it is simple to slice and dice it with AWK. Your machines might not always put out nicely formatted text files. That’s what AWK is for.

AWK makes the default assumption that fields break on whitespace and end with line feeds. However, you can change those assumptions in lots of ways. You can set FS and RS to change the field separator and record separator, respectively. Usually, you’ll set this in the BEGIN action although you can also change it on the command line.

For example, suppose your test file uses semicolons between fields. No problem. Just set FS to “;” and you are ready to go. Setting FS to a newline will treat the entire line as a single field. Instead of delimited fields, you might also run into fixed-width fields. For a file like that, you can set FIELDWIDTHS.

If the records aren’t delimited, but a fixed length, things are a bit trickier. Some people use the Linux utility dd to break the file apart into lines by the number of bytes in each record. You can also set RS to a limited number of any character and then use the RT variable (see below) to find out what those characters were. There are other options and even ways to read multiple lines. The GAWK manual is your friend if you have these cases.

BEGIN { RS=".{10}"   # records are 10 characters
      }

   {
   $0=RT
   }

   {
   print $0  # do what you want here
   }

Once you have records and fields sorted, it is easy to do things like average values, detect values that are out of limit, and just about anything else you can think of.

Spreadsheet Data Logs

Some tools output spreadsheets. AWK isn’t great at handling spreadsheets directly. However, a spreadsheet can be saved as a CSV file and then AWK can chew those up easily. It is also an easy format to produce from an AWK file that you can then read into a spreadsheet. You can then easily produce nice graphs, if you don’t want to use GNUPlot.

Simplistically, setting FS to a comma will do the job. If all you have is numbers, this is probably enough. If you have strings, though, some programs put quotes around strings (that may contain commas or spaces). Some only put quotes around strings that have commas in them.

To work around this problem cleanly, AWK offers an alternate way to define fields. Normally, FS tells you what characters separate a field. However, you can set FPAT to define what a field looks like. In the case of CSV file, a field is any character other than a comma or a double quote and then anything up to the next double quote.

The manual has a good example:

BEGIN {
  FPAT = "([^,]+)|(\"[^\"]+\")"
  }

  {
  print "NF = ", NF
  for (i = 1; i <= NF; i++) {
  printf("$%d = <%s>\n", i, $i)
  }

This isn’t perfect. For example, escaped quotes don’t work right. Quoted text with new lines in it don’t either. The manual has some changes that remove quotes and handle empty fields, but the example above works for most common cases. Often the easiest approach is to change the delimiter in the source program to something unique, instead of a comma.

Hex Files

Another text file common in hardware circles is a hex file. That is a text file that represents the hex contents of a programmable memory (perhaps embedded in a microcontroller). There are two common formats: Intel hex files and Motorola S records. AWK can handle both, but we’ll focus on the Intel variant.

Old versions of AWK didn’t work well with hex input, so you’d have to resort to building arrays to convert hex digits to numbers. You still see that sometimes in old code or code that strives to be compatible. However, GNU AWK has the strtonum function that explicitly converts a string to a number and understands the 0x prefix. So a highly compatible two digit hex function looks like this (not including the code to initialize the hexdigit array):

function hex2dec(x) {
  return (hexdigit[substr(x,1,1)]*16)+hexdigit[substr(x,2,1)]
}

If you don’t mind requiring GAWK, it can look like this:

function hex2dec(x) {
  return strtonum("0x" x);
}

In fact, the last function is a little better (and misnamed) because it can handle any hex number regardless of length (up to whatever limit is in GAWK).

Hex output is simple since you have printf and the X format specifier is available. Below is an AWK script that chews through a hex file and provides a count of the entire file, plus shows a breakdown of the segments (that is, non-contiguous memory regions).

BEGIN { ct=0;
  adxpt=""
}


function hex4dec(y) {
  return strtonum("0x" y)
}


function hex2dec(x) {
  return strtonum("0x" x);
}

/:[[:xdigit:]][[:xdigit:]][[:xdigit:]][[:xdigit:]][[:xdigit:]][[:xdigit:]]00/ {

  ad = hex4dec(substr($0, 4, 4))
  if (ad != adxpt) {
  block[++n] = ad
  adxpt = ad;
    }
  l = hex2dec(substr($0, 2, 2))
  blockct[n] = blockct[n] + l
  adxpt = adxpt + l
  ct = ct + l
  }

END { printf("Count=%d (0x%04x) bytes\t%d (0x%04x) words\n\n", ct, ct, ct/2, ct/2)
  for (i = 1 ; i <= n ; i++) {
  printf("%04x: %d (0x%x) bytes\t", block[i], blockct[i], blockct[i])
  printf("%d (0x%x) words\n", blockct[i]/2, blockct[i]/2)
  }

}

This shows a few AWK features: the BEGIN action, user-defined functions, the use of named character classes (:xdigit: is a hex digit) and arrays (block and blockct use numeric indices even though they don’t have to). In the END action, the summary uses printf statements for both decimal and hex output.

Once you can parse a file like this, there are many things you could do with the resulting data. Here’s an example of some similar code that does a sanity check on hex files.

Binary Files

Text files are fine, but real hardware uses binary files that people (and AWK) can’t easily read, right? Well, maybe people, but AWK can read binary files in a few ways. You can use getline in the BEGIN part of the script and control how things are read directly. You can also use the RS/RT trick mentioned above to read a specific number of bytes. There are a few other AWK-only methods you can read about if you are interested.

However, the easiest way to deal with binary files in AWK is to convert them to text files using something like the od utility. This is a program available with Linux (or Cygwin, and probably other Windows toolkits) that converts a binary file to different readable formats. You probably want hex bytes, so that’s the -t x2 option (or use x4 for 16-bit words). However, the output is made for humans, not machines, so when a long run of the same output occurs, od omits them replacing all the missing lines with a single asterisk. For AWK use, you want to use the -v option to turn that behavior off. There are other options to change the output radix of the address, swap bytes, and more.

Here are a few lines from a random binary file:

0000000 d8ff e0ff 1000 464a 4649 0100 0001 0100
0000020 0100 0000 dbff 4300 5900 433d 434e 5938
0000040 484e 644e 595e 8569 90de 7a85 857a c2ff
0000060 a1cd ffde ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff
0000100 ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff
0000120 ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff 00db 0143 645e
0000140 8564 8575 90ff ff90 ffff ffff ffff ffff
0000160 ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff
0000200 ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff
0000220 ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff ffff c0ff
0000240 1100 0108 02e0 0380 2201 0200 0111 1103
0000260 ff01 00c4 001f 0100 0105 0101 0101 0001
0000300 0000 0000 0000 0100 0302 0504 0706 0908
0000320 0b0a c4ff b500 0010 0102 0303 0402 0503
0000340 0405 0004 0100 017d 0302 0400 0511 2112
0000360 4131 1306 6151 2207 1471 8132 a191 2308

This is dead simple to parse with AWK. The address will be $1 and each field will be $2, $3, etc. You can just convert the file yourself, use a pipe in the shell, or–if you want a clean solution–have AWK run od as a subprocess. Since the input is text, all of AWK’s regular expression features still work, which is useful.

Writing binary files is easy, too, since printf can output nearly anything. An alternative is to use xxd instead of od. It can convert binary files to text, but also can do the reverse.

Full Languages

There’s an old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I doubt that AWK is the best tool to build full languages, but it can be a component of some quick and dirty hacks. For example, the universal cross assembler uses AWK to transform assembly language files into an internal format the C preprocessor can handle

Since AWK can call out to external programs easily, it would be possible to write things that, for example, processed a text file of commands and used them to drive a robot arm. The regular expression matching makes text processing easy and external programs could actually handle the hardware interface.

awk-wolfensteinThink that’s far fetched? We’ve covered stranger AWK use cases, including a Wolfenstien-like game that uses 600 lines of AWK script (as seen to the right).

So, sure it is software, but it is a tool that has that Swiss Army knife quality that makes it a useful tool for software and hardware hackers alike. Of course, other tools like Perl, Python, and even C or C++ can do more. But often with a price in complexity and learning curve. AWK isn’t for every job, but when it works, it works well.