Sparkfun’s Alternate Reality Hardware

SparkFun has a new wing of hardware mischief. It’s SparkX, the brainchild of SparkFun’s founder [Nate Seidle]. Over the past few months, SparkX has released breakout boards for weird sensors, and built a safe cracking robot that got all the hacker cred at DEF CON. Now, SparkX is going off on an even weirder tangent: they have released The Prototype. That’s actually the name of the product. What is it? It’s a HARP, a hardware alternate reality game. It’s gaming, puzzlecraft, and crypto all wrapped up in a weird electronic board.

The product page for The Prototype is exactly as illuminating as you would expect for a piece of puzzle electronics. There is literally zero information on the product page, but from the one clear picture, we can see a few bits and bobs that might be relevant. The Prototype features a microSD card socket, an LED that might be a WS2812, a DIP-8 socket, a USB port, what could be a power switch, a PCB antenna, and a strange black cylinder. Mysteries abound. There is good news: the only thing you need to decrypt The Prototype is a computer and an open mind. We’re assuming that means a serial terminal.

The Prototype hasn’t been out for long, and very few people have one in hand. That said, the idea of a piece of hardware sold as a puzzle is something we haven’t seen outside of conference badges. The more relaxed distribution of The Prototype is rather appealing, and we’re looking forward to a few communities popping up around HARP games.

SparkFun Gets Back To Their Roots With SparkX

Way back in the before years when there were still interesting concepts for reality TV, Nate Seidle blew up a power supply in his dorm room. Instead of finding replacement parts, Nate decided to start a company. For the last decade and a half, SparkFun has grown immensely, been an incredible resource for makers and engineers alike, and shipped out hundreds of thousands of their iconic red boxes.

Being the CEO of a company means you need to do CEO stuff, and a few summers ago Nate the CEO became Nate the Engineer once again. SparkFun is still doing great, but now we know what Nate has been up to these last months. He’s getting back to SparkFun’s roots with SparkX. This is the newest stuff SparkFun has to offer, there is zero documentation or support, and they’re only developing products because Nate wants to.

In a series of blog posts on the SparkFun blog, Nate goes over what is involved in building a new brand for the latest and greatest SparkFun can produce. This involves setting up the SparkX lab, getting the OtherMills pumping out circuit boards, and  inevitably the occasional containment failure of the blue smoke.

The first product in the SparkX lineup, Product 0, is a breakout board for the MLX90393 magnetometer. This is a pretty nifty magnetometer that Ted Yapo over on hackaday.io has used to characterize magnets. Really, though, the SparkX Product 0 is exactly what it says on the tin: a breakout board that is just an experiment, comes with no guarantees or support. It is the heart of what Sparkfun set out to do twenty years ago.

SparkFun, AT&T to Sponsor Hackathon at Troy’s TVCoG

Big-name corporate sponsors, top-notch judges and mentoring, 36 hours to play in a huge new hackerspace, and all the Cheetos and Red Bull you need to stoke the creative fires. Sounds like a hackathon, and it’ll roll into The Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, New York next month. And from the look of it, it’s going to be a big deal. You should be there.

_DSC0140You might recall the TVCoG from a story we did this summer on the grand opening of their amazing newly renovated space in downtown Troy. Occupying an entire city block in a historic department store building and housing not only a huge hackerspace but a tech company incubator with manufacturing capabilities and a STEM outreach space, the CoG now has the room to reach out into the community and host big events. The hackathon scheduled for January 30 and 31 and is only the first of four events planned for 2016. This one has the theme “Internet of Things” and will feature SparkFun’s Jeff Branson as mentor and judge.

Here’s a call to arms for Hackaday readers in the northeast: let’s pack this hackathon and make it huge. There’s already a bunch of Jolly Wrencher stickers scattered all over from our last visit, so you’ll feel right at home. Head over to the TVCoG site and sign up for this one. We’d really like to see HaD take home bragging rights. And you can be sure we’ll be covering the event and bringing some swag of our own.

[Thanks to Duncan Crary for the tip!]

Sparkfun Tears Apart Power Supplies

We love a good tear-down, and last week’s “Enginursday” at Sparkfun satisfied our desire to see the insides of AC-DC switching power supplies, accompanied by knowledgeable commentary. [MTaylor] walks us through how the basic circuit works and then points out why various other elaborations are made, and how corners are sometimes cut, in a few power supplies that he’s taken apart.

lishin_bottomshieldedWhat struck us in the comparison was that some of the power supplies were very minimal designs, while others had “features” that were obviously added after the fact. For instance, the Li Shin supply (about half-way down the page) has an extra circuit board tacked on to the bottom of the real circuit board to act as EM shielding.

Rather than declare this a dodgy hack, as we would have, [MTaylor] declares it to be “Good News!” because it means that they’ve probably run an emissions test, failed it, and then added this bit on to make it pass. This is of course in contrast to the other makers who’ve probably never even considered emissions testing. Sigh.

If you’re interested in seeing more inner bits of power bricks, Sparkfun forum reader [sgrace] passed along this field guide to various power supplies, which is also worth a look. And if you’re interested in building yourself the ultimate bench power supply, look no further than this Hackaday.io project by [The Big One].

Talking Big Changes At SparkFun With Nathan Seidle

SparkFun, you know them, you love them. They list themselves as “an online retail store” but I remember them for well-designed breakout boards, free-day, videos about building electronics, and the Autonomous Vehicle Competition. This week SparkFun turned my head for a different reason with the announcement that [Nathan Siedle], founder and CEO will be stepping down. He’s not leaving, but returning to the Engineering department while someone else takes the reigns. I spoke with him yesterday about what this means for him, the company, and what SparkFun has planned for the future.

Stepping Down Without Saying Goodbye

[Nate] founded Sparkfun in 2003 while still working on his Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Colorado Boulder. He cites wanting to return to his engineering roots as the reason for his title shift, which won’t happen for at least 9 or 10 months. It’s the concept of leaving the CEO position without leaving the company that raises many questions in my mind.

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SparkFun Stair Climbing Robot Challenge

In case you missed it, SparkFun recently held the Actobotics Stair Climber Challenge competition, where you could build a robot capable of ascending stairs and win some sweet SparkFun cash!

The contest is over now and the winners have just been announced — and some of the bots the contestants came up with are just plain awesome!

First prize went to the [Jaeger Family] who built a wheeled robot that can roll right up stairs without even batting an eyelash — it’s pretty cool to see. Check that out and more below.

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SXSW Create: Sparkfun Gives Kids Awesome Badges to Hack

By far the most desirable booth for the crowds at SXSW Create was the Sparkfun quadrant. We call it a quadrant because they had a huge footprint approaching 1/4 the tented area, but it was well used. They brought a number of staff down to Austin in order to give away a legit electronic badge project they call BadgerHack.

sxsw-sparkfun-badgerhack-kit-thumbWe love badge hacking. LOVE IT! But South-by isn’t purely a hardware conference so the badges aren’t made of PCBs (for shame). Add to that, free entry to Create scores you a wristband but no badge.

This is the answer to that, a badge giveaway and build-off aimed at kids but cool enough to make me feel only slightly awful for accepting one when I pretty much knew they were going to run out before the final day was done.

The USB stick PCB is, as you guessed it, an Arduino compatible loaded up with an FTDI chip and an ATmega328p which they call the BadgerStick. Accompanying this is a multiplexed 8×7 LED matrix board. Solder the three pin headers and the battery holder leads, connect to the plastic badge using the supplied double-stick tape, and you have a badge that scrolls a message in LEDs.

DSC_0508What an awesome giveaway. I really like it that they didn’t cut corners here. First off, the kids will value the badge much more because they had to actually assemble it rather than just being handed a finished widget. Secondly, there is the USB to serial chip and USB footprint that means they can reprogram it without any extra equipment. And an LED matrix… come on that’s just a gateway drug to learning Wiring. Bravo Sparkfun and Atmel for going this route with your marketing bucks.

The badge activity rounded out with some hardware interfacing. There’s a 3-pin socket that attendees could plug into 4 different stations around the booth. Once done they received a coupon code for Sparkfun that scrolls whenever the badge is booted up. For some at-home fun, the writeup (linked at the top) for the BadgerHack firmware is quite good. It offers advice on changing what is displayed on the badge and outlines how to build a game of Breakout with just a bit of added hardware.