2023 Halloween Hackfest: Organ-playing Skeleton Livens Up Halloween

Every hacker appreciates how off-the-shelf parts can be combined into something greater, and [bryan.lowder] demonstrates this beautifully with his organ-playing skeleton, a wonderful entry to our 2023 Halloween Contest!

Skelly the 3-foot-tall novelty skeleton animatedly plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor while perched at an old (and non-functional) Hammond organ. The small animatronic skeleton has canned motions that work very well for mock organ playing while an embedded MP3 player takes care of playing the music.

That’s not to say the project didn’t have its challenges. Integrating off-the-shelf components into a project always seems to bring its own little inconveniences. In this case, the skeleton the MP3 player both expect to be triggered with button pushes, but taping the button down wasn’t enough to get the skeleton moving when power was applied. [bryan] ended up using relays to simulate button pushes, and a 555 timer circuit to take care of incorporating a suitable delay.

As [bryan] puts it, “a technical tour de force it ain’t, but it is practical and it works and it was done on time” which is well said. Watch Skelly in action in the video, embedded below. There’s also a second video showing the homebrewed controller and MP3 player, both concealed under Skelly’s robe.

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AI In A Box Envisions AI As A Private, Offline, Hackable Module

[Useful Sensors] aims to embed a variety of complementary AI tools into a small, private, self-contained module with no internet connection with AI in a Box. It can do live voice recognition and captioning, live translation, and natural language conversational interaction with a local large language model (LLM). Intriguingly, it’s specifically designed with features to make it hack-friendly, such as the ability to act as a voice keyboard by sending live transcribed audio as keystrokes over USB.

Based on the RockChip 3588S SoC, the unit aims to have an integrated speaker, display, and microphone.

Right now it’s wrapping up a pre-order phase, and aims to ship units around the end of January 2024. The project is based around the RockChip 3588S SoC and is open source (GitHub repository), but since it’s still in development, there’s not a whole lot visible in the repository yet. However, a key part of getting good performance is [Useful Sensors]’s own transformers library for the RockChip NPU (neural processing unit).

The ability to perform things like high quality local voice recognition and run locally-hosted LLMs like LLaMa have gotten a massive boost thanks to recent advances in machine learning, and it looks like this project aims to tie them together in a self-contained package.

Perhaps private digital assistants can become more useful when users can have the freedom to modify and integrate them as they see fit. Digital assistants hosted by the big tech companies are often frustrating, and others have observed that this is ultimately because they primarily exist to serve their makers more than they help users.

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William Blake Was Etching Copper In 1790

You may know William Blake as a poet, or even as #38 in the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. But did you know that Blake was also an artist and print maker who made illuminated (flourished) books?

Blake sought to marry his art with his poetry and unleash it on the world. To do so, he created an innovative printing process, which is recreated by [Michael Phillips] in the video after the break. Much like etching a PCB, Blake started with a copper sheet, writing and drawing his works backwards with stopping varnish, an acid-resistant varnish that sticks around after a nitric acid bath. The result was a raised design that could then be used for printing.

Cleaning up the ink smudges before printing.

Blake was a master of color, using few pigments plus linseed or nut oil to create pastes of many different hues. Rather than use a brayer, Blake dabbed ink gently around the plate, careful not to splash ink or get any in the etched-away areas. As this was bound to happen anyway, Blake would then spend more time wiping out the etched areas than he did applying the ink.

Another of Blake’s innovations was the printing process itself. Whereas traditionally, illuminated texts must be printed in two different workshops, one for the text and the other for the illustrations, Blake’s method of etching both in the same plate of copper made it possible to print using his giant handmade press.

Want to avoid censorship and print your own ‘zines? Why not build a proofing press?.

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Rotating Necked Guitar Looks Difficult To Play

Have you ever looked at a guitar and thought “Nah, that’s way too easy to play.”[Mattias Kranz] seems to have done, so he built the 360 Guitar, a new instrument with a circular, rotating neck. The rotating neck means that it can have more strings than most: we think that it has sixteen, but it’s hard to tell. Anyway, it has a lot of strings and looks utterly impractical, which makes it an exciting project.

The basic idea is intriguing: take a conventional guitar design and replace the fretboard with a rotating pillar. Perhaps even stick a motor in there to rotate it on command. Each of the strings is mounted along this pillar using standard string retainers and tuning pegs, with frets along the pillar. Because you can fit so many strings, you can use all of the standard strings for a bass and treble guitar, plus a few extra like the thickest bass string available and the thinnest guitar strings. It’s like a four-dimensional Chapman Stick.

[Mathias] is still working on the project as you can see in the video below the break, so we will be interested to see what new design aspects he comes up with, like the plan to use a motor to rotate the neck. [Mattias] has built a few instruments that we have featured before, like the Helium guitar, which replaces the resonant cavity with a helium balloon, and the Plasma Piano, a combination of piano and tuned plasma coil.

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Particle Accelerator… On A Chip

When you think of a particle accelerator, you usually think of some giant cyclotron with heavy-duty equipment in a massive mad-science lab. But scientists now believe they can create particle accelerators that can fit on a chip smaller than a penny. The device uses lasers and dielectrics instead of electric fields and metal. The conventional accelerators are limited by the peak fields the metallic surfaces can withstand. Dielectric materials can withstand much higher fields but, of course, don’t conduct electricity.

Physicists fabricated a 225 nanometers wide channel in various sizes up to 0.5 millimeters long. An electron beam moves through the channel. Very short infrared laser pulses on top of the channels accelerate the electrons down it using tiny silicon pillars.

The electron beam entered the channel at 28,400 electron volts. They exited at 40,700 electron volts, a substantial increase. The tiny pillars are only two microns high, so fabrication is tricky. Possible applications include cancer treatment, electron microscopy, and the creation of compact high-energy lasers.

The nanofabrication required for these devices won’t be in our garage any time soon. However, we hope this might lead to a new class of devices that we can use to build exciting new things. After all, remember how it used to be hard to build things using a laser?

We’ve seen laser-based accelerators before. If you want a history of particle accelerators, we can help you there, too.

Saving Australia’s Ants With Age Of Empires II

Australia’s native meat ants are struggling. Invasive species of foreign ants have a foothold on the continent, and are increasingly outcompeting their native rivals for territory. Beyond simple encroachment, they pose a hazard to native animals and agriculture.

Scientists at the CSIRO have been investigating the problem, hoping to find a way to halt the invasion. Charged with finding a way to help Australia’s native ants fight back, they turned to one of the most popular battle simulations of all time: Age of Empires II. 

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Tile-Based Macro Pad Keeps Getting Better

If there’s one thing we love to see around here, it is the various iterations of a project. If you keep up with Keebin’, you know that [Michael Gardi] created a tile-based macropad after developing a tile system for yet another project. This macro pad would have 3D-printed tiles next to the keys that would not only make them easy to relabel, but give [Michael] a novel way to change the function when changing the tile using magnets and Hall effect sensors.

Well, fast forward to [Michael] actually using the thing, and he’s found that, more often than not, he’s pressing the tiles instead of the keys next to them. So it was time for another iteration: a macro pad with tile buttons. Much like the previous iteration, this one uses a Pro Micro for a brain and a handful of very cool Futaba MD switches that bear Cherry MX stems.

Those Futaba switches are activated by tile holder buttons, which were quite the feat to create. These tile holder buttons each contain two Hall effect sensors and have a Cherry MX-style recession on the other side to connect to the Futaba. Unfortunately, some usage has already damaged the connections, so the next iteration will include small PCBs for surface-mount Hall effect sensors and a main PCB, as well.

[Michael] can make these pretty cheaply, but are they cheap enough to be given away?