Hackaday Prize Entry: A Simple Spectrophotometer

Building on the work of other Citizen Science efforts, [doctek]’s entry for the Hackaday Prize promises to detect pollution, identify chemicals, and perform other analyses with a simple handheld device. It’s a spectrophotometer, and [doctek] is putting some real engineering into this build.

A spectrophotometer is one of the simplest devices able to perform spectroscopy, requiring only a light source, a photoresistor, and some means of producing monochromatic light. By putting a sample in front of the photoresistor, the absorption spectrum of the sample can be measured. With this data, it’s a simple matter to identify the sample.

A light and a photoresistor are simple enough, but as with every precision measurement device, the devil is in the details. [doctec] is using new, low-noise, low-offset opamps, and precision references to get his data. Some of the parts in the schematic were actually designed in this century – a far cry from the ‘plug the photoresistor into the analog input’ projects we see so often.

[doctec] is using a Teensy 3.0 to drive the electronics and collect the data, and he already has the mechanics of this build pretty much figured out. It’s a great project that shows off some engineering skill, making it a great entry for The Hackaday Prize.

Pips Help Everyone Around the House

Sometimes you start a project with every intention of using it in a specific way, or maybe your plan is to have a very well-defined set of features. Often, though, our projects go in a completely different direction than we might have intended. That seems to be the case with [Dave] and his Pips. These tiny devices were originally intended to be used by people with disabilities, but it turns out that they’re a perfect platform for this “Internet of Things” thing that we’ve been hearing so much about.

Built around the Bright Blue Bean microcontroller platform to take advantage of its low energy requirements, the Pips were originally intended to be placed around the house where they would light up to remind the user to perform some task. Once the button was pushed, the next Pip in the sequence would activate. While they are quite useful for people with cognitive or sensory impairments, they can also be used in a similar way to the Amazon Dash button or any other simple internet-enabled device. Especially when used in conjunction with a home automation setup, this device could be used in novel ways, such as automating your morning routine without having to add a weight sensor to your bed.

We are also pleased to see that all of the project files are available on GitHub for anyone looking to try this out. Its interesting when something that was originally intended to help out anyone with a disability finds a use somewhere else that it might not have originally been intended for. After all, though, the principle of using things in novel ways is kind of the entire basis of this community.

The Music of a Sunset

What would you do if you suddenly went blind and could never again see the sun set? How would you again experience this often breathtaking phenomenon? One answer is music, orchestrated by the sun and the Weather Warlock.

Built by the musician [Quintron] (builder and inventor of insane electronic instruments), the Weather Warlock is an analog synthesizer controlled by — you guessed it — the weather. It translates temperature, moisture, wind and sunlight into tones and harmonics with an E major root chord. UV, light, moisture, and temperature sensors combined with an anemometer set up outside feed the weather data to a synthesizer that has [Quintron] dialing knobs and toggling switches. The Weather Warlock steams 24/7 to the website weatherfortheblind.org so that the visually impaired are able to tune in and experience the joy of sunrise and sunset through music. Continue reading “The Music of a Sunset”

The Onion Omega2: The Latest Router Dev Board

A few years ago, the best way to put a device or project online was by hacking a router. With an inconspicuous Linksys WRT54G held onto a project with baling wire, anything can connect to the Internet. A lot has changed in a few years, and now those routers are development boards themselves. The latest of these is the Onion Omega2, a follow-up crowdfunding campaign to the very popular original Omega. Now, this tiny dev board is faster, more capable, and now it’s giving the Raspberry Pi Zero a run for its money.

The original Onion Omega was released last year with specs you would expect from an Internet of Things development board designed upon a chip for a cheap router. The original Onion used an Atheros AR9331 SOC running at 400 MHZ, had 64MB of RAM and 16MB of storage – enough to run a lightweight Linux distro – and also included USB, 802.11b/g/n, and a handful of GPIOs and a single UART. The Omega2 is a vast improvement over the original Omega, featuring a CPU that is 45% faster. The upgraded version of the Omega sports twice as much RAM, twice as much storage, and a MicroSD slot. This enables some Linux distros with a little more oomph behind them, and of course the SD card allows for local storage.

The original Onion Omega was funded through a crowdfunding campaign, with a single Onion Omega and dock available for a pledge of $19. Taking a lesson from the C.H.I.P. and the Pi Zero, the team at Onion have slashed the price. The Omega2 is only five dollars. If you want more RAM, storage, and an SD card socket, that price goes up to $9 USD. That’s amazing, and just goes to show how far hardware designed to service the Internet of Things has come in just a few short years.

Formlabs Form 1+ API now available on Github

Since 2014, the Form 1+ has been serving a faithful community of avid resin-oriented 3D printer enthusiasts. With an API now released publicly on Github, it’s time for the Form 1+ to introduce itself to a crew of eager hardware hackers.

Exposing an interface to the printer opens the door to a world of possibilities. With the custom version of PreForm that arrives with this release, a whopping 39 different properties are open for tuning, according to the post on Reddit. Combining these newly-accessible parameters with a sufficient number of hackers, odds are good that the community will be able to quickly converge on stable settings for 3rd party resins. (We’re most excited to see the Homebrew PCBs community start exposing their UV-sensitive PCBs with this hardware setup.)

Heads-up: poking around in this brave new world is almost certain to void your warranty, but if you’re eager to get SpacewΛr up-and-running, it might just be worth it.

Books You Should Read: Instruments Of Amplification

Psst… Wanna make a canning jar diode? A tennis ball triode? How about a semiconductor transistor? Or do you just enjoy sitting back and following along an interesting narrative of something being made, while picking up a wealth of background, tips and sparking all sorts of ideas? In my case I wanted to make a cuprous oxide semiconductor diode and that lead me to H.P. Friedrichs’ wonderful book Instruments of Amplification. It includes such a huge collection of amplifier knowledge and is a delight to read thanks to a narrative style and frequent hands-on experiments.

Friedrichs first authored another very popular book, The Voice of the Crystal, about making crystal radios, and wanted to write a second one. For those not familiar with crystal radios, they’re fun to make radios that are powered solely by the incoming radio waves; there are no batteries. But that also means the volume is low.

Readers of that book suggested a good follow-up would be one about amplifier circuits, to amplify the crystal radio’s volume. However, there were already an abundance of such books. Friedrichs realized the best follow-up would be one on how to make the amplifying components from scratch, the “instruments of amplification”.  It would be unique and in the made-from-scratch spirit of crystal radios. The book, Instruments of Amplification was born.

The Experiments

Microphonic relays
Microphonic relays, via H.P. Friedrichs Homepage

The book includes just the right amount of a history, giving background on what an amplifier is and how they first came in the electrical world. Telegraph operators wanted to send signals over greater and greater distances and the solution was to use the mix of electronics and mechanics found in the telegraph relay. This is the springboard for his first project and narrative: the microphonic relay.

The microphonic relay example shown on the right places a speaker facing a microphone; the speaker is the input with the microphone amplifying the output. He uses a carbon microphone salvaged from an old telephone headset, housing everything in an enclosure of copper pipe caps, steel bar stock, nuts and bolts mounted on an elegant looking wood base. All the projects are made with simple parts, with care, and they end up looking great.

Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Instruments Of Amplification”

Bunnie and EFF Sue US Government over DMCA 1201

This morning Bunnie Huang wrote about his reasons for suing the US Government over Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The DMCA was enacted in 1996 and put in place far-reaching protections for copyright owners. Many, myself included, think these protections became far-overreaching. The DMCA, specifically section 1201 of the act which is known as the anti-circumvention provision, prohibits any action that goes around mechanisms designed to protect copyrighted material. So much has changed since ’96 — software is now in every device and that means section 1201 extends to almost all electronics sold today.

So protecting copyright is good, right? If that were the only way section 1201 was enforced that might be true. But common sense seems to have gone out the window on this one.

If you legally purchase media which is protected with DRM it is illegal for you to change the format of that media. Ripping your DVD to a digital file to view on your phone while on the plane (something usually seen as fair use) is a violation. Want to build an add-on for you home automation system but need to reverse engineer the communications protocol first? That’s a violation. Perhaps the most alarming violation: if you discover a security vulnerability in an existing system and report it, you can be sued under DMCA 1201 for doing so.

Cory Doctorow gave a great talk at DEF CON last year about the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s renewed push against DMCA 1201. The EFF is backing Bunnie on this lawsuit. Their tack argues both that section 1201 is stiffling innovation and discouraging meaningful security research.

If it’s illegal to write about, talk about, or even privately explore how electronics are built (and the ecosystem that lets them function) it’s hard to really master creating new technology. A successful lawsuit must show harm. Bunnie’s company, Alphamax LLC, is developing hardware that can add an overlay to an HDMI signal (which sounds like the continuation of the hack we saw from him a few years ago). But HDCP would prevent this.

Innovation aside, the security research angle is a huge reason for this law (or the enforcement of it) to change. The other plaintiff named in the suit, Matthew Green, had to seek an exemption from the DMCA in order to conduct his research without fear of prosecution. Currently there is a huge disincentive to report or even look for security vulnerabilities, and that is a disservice to all. Beneficial security research and responsible disclosure need to be the top priority in our society which is now totally dependent on an electronically augmented lifestyle.