Hackaday Podcast Ep19: Extreme Clock Accuracy, Mobius Gears and Planetary Stunts, Jamming All Fobs, Pi in Your Wii

Join Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams as they riff on the coolest hacks from the past week. Clocks and 3D printing seem to keep coming up this week as we look at using an FPGA plus GPS receiver for better accuracy than we’re used to, and we haggle over what to call the robot arms that nudge the hands on a shelf-clock. There’s a wicked 3D-printed planetary gear design, and brackets that turn flat cardboard into boxes (more useful than you might think). We close out with great reads on the Supermicro fallout of the last 7 months, and a pretty big oops-moment as a hacker knocks out keyfobs for an entire neighborhood.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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What’s More Accurate than a GPS Clock? The OpenPPS GPS Clock

Making a GPS clock is a relatively straightforward process on the face of it. Buy a GPS module for a few dollars, hook it up to a microcontroller board of your choice, pick the appropriate library and write a bit of code, et voila! A clock with time-wonk bragging rights!

Of course, your GPS clock will always tell the right time, but it won’t be really right. Your microcontroller will introduce all sorts of timing errors and jitter, so at best it’ll only be nearly right. [Rick MacDonald] has been striving to quantify and minimise these errors in his OpenPPS project, which aims to be as accurate a GPS time and frequency reference as possible.

In a very comprehensive multi-page write-up, he details his progression, through the GPS modules he used, his experience with timing jitter when he used an ESP32 alone to process their output, and then his experiments with an FPGA and then temperature-compensated oscillators. It moves from being a mere description of a GPS clock into a fascinating run-down of both GPS timing itself and the development pitfalls he encountered along the way. At the end of it all he has a GPS clock in a smart 3D-printed enclosure which he admits as yet doesn’t do anything more than tell the time, but as he points out it’s a clock with minimised jitter, delay, and drift, and it remains an ongoing project that will evolve into a full-blown time and frequency standard.

If your taste in GPS clocks is far more simple, there are plenty of projects showing how a more basic one can be produced.

Robot Arms Nudge the Hands of Time in the Strangest Clock

We see a lot of clocks here at Hackaday. Digital clocks, retro clocks, lots of Nixie clocks, binary clocks, and clocks that appear to be designed specifically to be unreadable. But this dual-servo kinematic clock is something we haven’t seen yet, and it’s certainly worth a mention.

[mircemk]’s idea is simple and hearkens back to grammar school days when [Teacher] put a large cardboard clock dial on the blackboard and went through the “big hand, little hand” drill. In this case, the static cardboard clock has been replaced by a 3D-printed dial and hands, while a pair of servos linked together by two arms takes the place of the teacher. The video below shows it in action; the joint in the linkage between the two servos has a screw sticking out that can be maneuvered across the clock face to reposition the hands. It’s a little jittery, though; [mircemk] might want to tune the servo loops up a bit or tighten the linkage joints to make things a little smoother.

Even with the shakes, we find it wonderfully weird and hard to stop watching. It reminds us a bit of this luminous plotting clock from a while back – same linkage, different display.

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Web Interface Controls Nixie Tube Clock

We love our clocks around here and we love nixie tubes as well. The combination of the two almost seems to be a no-brainer. With the modern twist of an ESP8266, Reddit user [vladco] built a minimalist nixie tube clock.

The build starts with the nixie tubes, Russian In4s, each one mounted on its own small circuit board. Each board is chained together and they’re mounted on a wooden frame. The frame is mounted inside a nice wooden case which was designed in Fusion 360 and milled out of oak at a local hackerspace.

There are no controls on the case. No buttons or knobs. This clock is set via the EPS8266 which gets the time and updates the shift registers that set the numbers on each of the tubes. The clock dims at night so it’s not as bright. [vladco] wrote a web UI to set the time and interact with the  tubes.

The code and files for the case and circuit board are available online. The result is a nice, minimalist clock for your desk. There are plenty of clock builds on the site, several built from nixie tubes, including another nixie tube clock with an ESP8266, and another.

via Reddit

Clock Radio Receives Upgrade

Before everyone had a cell phone alarm to wake them up in the mornings, most of us used clock radios that would faithfully sit by our beds for years. You could have either a blaring alarm to wake you up, or be gently roused from slumber by one of your local radio stations. These devices aren’t as commonly used anymore, so if you have one sitting in your parts drawer you can make some small changes and use it to receive radio stations from a little further away than you’d expect.

This Panasonic clock radio from [Ryan Flowers] has several upgrades compared to the old clock radio hardware. For one, it now can receive signals on the 7 and 14 MHz bands (40 and 20 meters). It does this by using separate bandpass filters for each frequency range, controlled by a QRP Labs VFO kit which can switch between the two filters automatically once programmed. The whole thing is powered by 8 AA batteries, true to form with a clock radio from the ’90s.

[Ryan] notes that his first iteration was a little quiet but he’s now able to receive radio stations from as far away from Japan with this receiver. Even without a license, you can make these changes and listen in to stations from all around the world, as long as you don’t start transmitting. If you want to make a small upgrade from this clock radio though, it’s not that hard to get into.

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GPS Self-Adjusting Clock With An E-Ink Display

If you mention a clock that receives its time via radio, most people will think of one taking a long wave signal from a station such as WWVB, MSF, or DCF77. A more recent trend however has been for clocks that set themselves from orbiting navigation satellites, and an example comes to us from [KK99].  It’s a relatively simple hardware build in that it is simply an Arduino Nano, GPS module, and e-ink display module wired together, but it provides an interesting exercise in running through the code required for a GPS clock.

It does however give us a chance to remember the story from last year surrounding WWVB, as a budget proposal last year mooted the prospect of the closure of the Fort-Collins-based time signal transmitter. Were that to happen an estimated 50 million American clocks would lose their reference, and while their owners could always update them manually, there will always be time-based systems to which that won’t be applied for whatever reason.  Europeans meanwhile are safe in their time transmissions for now , but in case they think they have their mains grid to fall back on it’s worth remembering the time they lost six seconds.

GPS satellite image: USAF [Public domain].

Vintage Camera Flash Turned OLED Desk Clock

After covering a few of his builds at this point, we think it’s abundantly clear that [Igor Afanasyev] has a keen eye for turning random pieces of antiquated hardware into something that’s equal parts functional and gorgeous. He retains the aspects of the original which give it that unmistakable vintage look, while very slickly integrating modern components and features. His work is getting awfully close to becoming some kind of new art form, but we’re certainly not complaining.

His latest creation takes an old-school “Monopak” electronic flash module and turns it into a desk clock that somehow also manages to look like a vintage television set. The OLED displays glowing behind the original flash diffuser create an awesome visual effect which really sells the whole look; as if the display is some hitherto undiscovered nixie variant.

On the technical side of things, there’s really not much to this particular build. Utilizing two extremely common SSD1306 OLED displays in a 3D printed holder along with an Arduino to drive them, the electronics are quite simple. There’s a rotary encoder on the side to set the time, though it would have been nice to see an RTC module added into the mix for better accuracy. Or perhaps even switch over to the ESP8266 so the clock could update itself from the Internet. But on this build we get the impression [Igor] was more interested in playing with the aesthetics of the final piece than fiddling with the internals, which is hard to argue with when it looks this cool.

Noticing the flash had a sort of classic TV set feel to it, [Igor] took the time to 3D print some detail pieces which really complete the look. The feet on the bottom not only hold the clock at a comfortable viewing angle, but perfectly echo the retro-futuristic look of 50s and 60s consumer electronics. He even went through the trouble of printing a little antenna to fit into the top hot shoe, complete with a metal ring salvaged from a key-chain.

Late last year we were impressed with the effort [Igor] put into creating a retro Raspberry Pi terminal from a legitimate piece of 1970’s laboratory equipment, and more recently his modern take on the lowly cassette player got plenty of debate going. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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