ESP32 Boards With Displays: An Overview

The ESP8266 has become practically the 555 chip of WiFi connected microcontrollers. Traditionally, you’d buy one on a little breakout board with some pins and a few connectors, and then wire up anything else you need. The ESP8266’s big brother, the ESP32, hasn’t quite taken over from the ESP8266, but it has a lot more power and many more options. [Andreas] has a new video that shows seven new ESP32 boards that have integral displays. These boards can simplify a lot of applications where you need both WiFi and a user interface.

Of the boards examined, six of them have OLED displays, but one has an E-paper display. To summarize results, [Andreas] summarized his findings on these seven along with others in an online spreadsheet.

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Using TensorFlow To Recognize Your Own Objects

When the time comes to add an object recognizer to your hack, all you need do is choose from many of the available ones and retrain it for your particular objects of interest. To help with that, [Edje Electronics] has put together a step-by-step guide to using TensorFlow to retrain Google’s Inception object recognizer. He does it for Windows 10 since there’s already plenty of documentation out there for Linux OSes.

You’re not limited to just Inception though. Inception is one of a few which are very accurate but it can take a few seconds to process each image and so is more suited to a fast laptop or desktop machine. MobileNet is an example of one which is less accurate but recognizes faster and so is better for a Raspberry Pi or mobile phone.

Collage of images for card datasetYou’ll need a few hundred images of your objects. These can either be scraped from an online source like Google’s images or you get take your own photos. If you use the latter approach, make sure to shoot from various angles, rotations, and with different lighting conditions. Fill your background with various other things and even have some things partially obscuring your objects. This may sound like a long, tedious task, but it can be done efficiently. [Edje Electronics] is working on recognizing playing cards so he first sprinkled them around his living room, added some clutter, and walked around, taking pictures using his phone. Once uploaded, some easy-to-use software helped him to label them all in around an hour. Note that he trained on 24 different objects, which are the number of different cards you get in a pinochle deck.

You’ll need to install a lot of software and do some configuration, but he walks you through that too. Ideally, you’d use a computer with a GPU but that’s optional, the difference being between three or twenty-four hours of training. Be sure to both watch his video below and follow the steps on his Github page. The Github page is kept most up-to-date but his video does a more thorough job of walking you through using the software, such as how to use the image labeling program.

Why is he training an object recognizer on playing cards? This is just one more step in making a blackjack playing robot. Previously he’d done an impressive job using OpenCV, even though the algorithm handled non-overlapping cards only. Google’s Inception, however, recognizes partially obscured cards. This is a very interesting project, one which we’ll be keeping an eye on. If you have any ideas for him, leave them in the comments below.

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Retro Rebuild Recreates SGI Workstation Demos On The Go

When [Lawrence] showed us the Alice4 after Maker Faire Bay Area last weekend it wasn’t apparent how special the system was. The case is clean and white, adorned only with a big red button below a 7″ screen with a power switch around the back. When the switch is flicked the system boots to display a familiar animation and drops you at a menu. Poking around from here elicits a variety of self-contained graphics demos, some interactive. So this is a Raspberry Pi in a box playing videos, right? Not even close.

Often retro computing focuses on personal computer systems. When they were new the 8-bit graphics or intricate 2D sprites were state of the art, but now their appeal tends towards learning opportunities and the thrill of nostalgia. This may still be true of Alice4, the system [Brad, Lawrence, Mike, and Chris] put together to run Silicon Graphics (SGI) demos from the mid 1980’s but it’s not the whole story. [Lawrence] and [Brad] had both worked at SGI during its heyday and had fond memories of the graphics demos that shipped with those mammoth workstation. So they built Alice4 from the FPGA up to run those very same demos in real-time.

Thanks to Moore’s law, today’s embedded systems put yesterday’s powerhouses within reach. [Lawrence] and [Brad] found the old demo code in a ratty FTP server, and tailor-made Alice4’s software and hardware to run them natively. [Brad] wrote a libgl which implements the subset of the IrisGL API needed to support their selected set of demos. The libgl emits sets of triangles to the SDRAM where [Lawrence’s] HDL running on the onboard FPGA fetches them to interpolate color and depth and draw the result on-screen. Together they allow the $99 Altera Cyclone V development board at Alice4’s heart to run these state of the art demos in the palm of your hand.

Alice4 is open source and extensively documented. Peruse the archeology of reverse engineering the graphics API or the discussion of FIFO design in the FPGA. If those don’t sate your appetite check out a video of Alice4 in action after the break.

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Grawler: Painless Cleaning For Glass Roofs

Part of [Gelstronic]’s house has a glass roof. While he enjoys the natural light and warmth, he doesn’t like getting up on a ladder to clean it every time a bird makes a deposit or the rainwater stains build up. He’s tried to make a cleaning robot in the past, but the 25% slope of the roof complicates things a bit. Now, with the addition of stepper motors and grippy tank treads, [Gelstronic] can tell this version of GRawler exactly how far to go, or to stay in one place to clean a spot that’s extra dirty.

GRawler is designed to clean on its way up the roof, and squeegee on the way back down. It’s driven by an Arduino Pro Micro and built from lightweight aluminium and many parts printed in PLA. GRawler also uses commonly-available things, which is always a bonus: the brush is the kind used to clean behind appliances, and the squeegee blade is from a truck-sized wiper. [Gelstronic] can control GRawler’s motors, the brush’s spin, and raise/lower the wiper blade over Bluetooth using an app called Joystick BT Commander. Squeak past the break to see it in action.

As far as we can tell, [Gelstronic] will still have to break out the ladder to place GRawler and move him between panels. Maybe the next version could be tethered, like Scrobby the solar panel-cleaning robot.

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Open Source Underwater Distributed Sensor Network

One way to design an underwater monitoring device is to take inspiration from nature and emulate an underwater creature. [Michael Barton-Sweeney] is making devices in the shape of, and functioning somewhat like, clams for his open source underwater distributed sensor network.

Underwater distributed sensor network descent and ascentThe clams contain the electronics, sensors, and means of descending and ascending within their shells. A bunch of them are dropped overboard on the surface. Their shells open, allowing the gas within to escape and they sink. As they descend they sample the water. When they reach the bottom, gas fills a bladder and they ascend back to the surface with their data where they’re collected in a net.

Thus far he’s made a few clams using acrylic for the shells which he’s blown himself. He soldered the electronics together free-form and gave them a conformal coating of epoxy. He’s also used a thermistor as a stand-in for other sensors and is already working on a saturometer, used for measuring the total dissolved gas (TDG) in the water. Knowing the TDG is useful for understanding and mitigating supersaturation of water which can lead to fish kills.

He’s also given a lot of thought into the materials used since some clams may not make it back up and would have to degrade or be benign where they rest. For example, he’s been using a lithium battery for now but would like to use copper on one shell and zinc on another to make a salt water battery, if he can make it produce enough power. He’s also considering using 3D printing since PLA is biodegradable. However, straight PLA could be subject to fouling by underwater organisms and would require cleaning, which would be time-consuming. PLA becomes soft when heated in a dishwasher and so he’s been looking into a PLA and calcium carbonate filament instead.

Check out his hackaday.io page where he talks about all these and more issues and feel free to make any suggestions.

Mechanisms: Solenoids

Since humans first starting playing with electricity, we’ve proven ourselves pretty clever at finding ways to harness that power and turn it into motion. Electric motors of every type move the world, but they are far from the only way to put electricity into motion. When you want continuous rotation, a motor is the way to go. But for simpler on and off applications, where fine control of position is not critical, a solenoid is more like what you need. These electromagnetic devices are found everywhere and they’re next in our series on useful mechanisms.

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Friday Hack Chat: Making Programming Easier

There is a long history of graphical programming languages. Some people don’t like to code, and for them, graphical programming languages replace semicolons and brackets with easy-to-understand boxes and wires.

This Friday, we’re going to be talking about graphical programming languages with [Boian Mitov]. He’s a software developer, founder of Mitov Software, and the creator of Visuino, a graphical programming language for the embedded domain. He specialized in video, audio, DSP, DAQ, industrial automation, communications, computer vision, artificial intelligence, as well as parallel and distributed computing. [Boian] is the author of the OpenWire open source technology, the IGDI+ open source library, the VideoLab, SignalLab, AudioLab, PlotLab, InstrumentLab, VisionLab, IntelligenceLab, AnimationLab, LogicLab, CommunicationLab, and ControlLab libraries, OpenWire Studio, Visuino, and author of the “VCL for Visual C++” technology.

For this Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking about ways to make programming microcontrollers easier. The focus of this discussion is Visuino, a graphical programming environment. Visuino allows anyone to program an Arduino, Teensy, or an ESP simply by connecting wires and choosing some logic. Think of it as a step above the programming environment that came with the Lego Mindstorms, Scratch, or whatever else MIT was coming out with in the early ‘aughts.

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, May 25th.  Here’s a clock counting down the time until the Hack Chat starts.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.