Circuit-less PCB Featured As Faceplate For A Digital Clock

If there’s no circuitry on a printed circuit board, does it cease being a “PCB” and perhaps instead become just a “PB”?

Call them what you will, the fact that PCBs have become so cheap and easy to design and fabricate lends them to more creative uses than just acting as the wiring for a project. In this case, [Jeremy Cook] put one to work as the faceplate for his “742 Clock,” a name that plays on the fact that his seven-segment display is 42 mm tall, plus it’s “24/7” backward.

In addition to the actual circuit board that holds the Wemos ESP32 module and the LEDs, a circuit-less board was designed with gaps in the solder mask to act as light pipes. Sandwiched between the boards is a 3D printed mask, to control the light and direct it only through the light pipes. [Jeremy] went through a couple of iterations of diffuser and mask designs, finally coming up with a combination that works well and looks good. He mentions a possible redesign of the faceplate board to include a copper backplane for better opacity, which we think is a good idea. We’d also like to see how different substrates work; would boards of different thickness or using FR-4 with different glass transition temperatures work better? Check out the video below and see what you think.

We’re seeing more and more PCBs turn up as structural elements, from enclosures to control panels and even tools, and we approve of this trend. But what we really approve of is what [Jeremy] did here by making this clock just a dumb display that gets network time over NTP. Would that all three digital clocks in our kitchen did the same thing — maybe then they wouldn’t each be an infuriating minute out of sync with the others.

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This Simple Media Player Will Inspire Beginners And Invite Experimentation

While it would have been considered science-fiction just a few decades ago, the ability to watch virtually any movie or TV show on a little slab that fits in your pocket is today no big deal. But for an electronics beginner, being able to put together a pocketable video player like this one would be quite exciting, and might even serve as a gateway into the larger world of electronics design.

For inspiration, [Alex] from Super Make Something on YouTube looked to the Rickrolling keychain media players we featured back in January. His player is quite a bit larger and more capable, with a PCB design that allows the player to be built in multiple configurations, from audio-only to full video and a LiPo battery. The guts of the player center around an ESP32 module, with an audio amp and speakers plus a 1.8″ LCD screen with SD card reader for storing media files. Add in a few controls and switches and a little code, and you’ll be playing back media files in a snap. Build info and demo in the video below.

It may be a simple design, but we feel like that’s the whole point. [Alex] has taken pains to make this as approachable a build as possible. All the parts are cheap and easily available, and the skills needed to put it together are minimal — with the possible exception of soldering down the ESP32 module, which lacks castellated edge terminals. For a beginner, getting a usable media player by mixing together just a few modules would be magical, and the fact that it’s still pretty hackable afterward is just icing on the cake.

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Steam Power Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 17 at noon Pacific for the Steam Power Hack Chat with Quinn Dunki!

The steam power age may be behind us now, but that doesn’t mean that the engineering that went into steam engines isn’t worth exploring. In a lot of ways, the steam age is what made modern engineering what we know it as today. Where wind- and water-powered devices could often work well enough with a couple of inches of tolerance, steam engines required parts measured to the hundredth or even thousandth of an inch. Optimizing steam engines required a deep understanding of thermodynamics, too, which unveiled more about the way the universe works than had ever been realized before. And the need for parts strong enough to withstand steam pressure and the lubricants needed to keep the wheels turning paved the way for advances in materials science and chemical engineering that are still paying dividends today.

Celebrating the achievements of steam power may seem anachronistic, but in light of everything steam has done for us, it makes a lot of sense. And that’s not to mention the cool aesthetics of steam engines, with beefy castings and brass parts sliding back and forth, complicated linkages doing who-knows-what to make the engine work on nothing more than a little bit of boiling water. There’s the attraction of danger, too; improperly built boilers can be a disaster, so building one that’s safe to use can be quite a challenge.

join-hack-chatAll this and more is what the steam hobby is all about, an area that Quinn Dunki has been exploring for a while now. Over on her YouTube channel, Quinn has documented the process of turning raw metal into a working steam engine and boiler, and is currently working on a bigger, more powerful engine. We’ve invited her on the Hack Chat to talk about all things steam — where to get started in the hobby, what kinds of things you can learn by building your own steam engines, and how her current builds are going. If you’ve ever wanted to explore steam power, here’s your chance to ask a real steam aficionado.

Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 17 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

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Hackaday Links: August 14, 2022

What’s this? News about robot dogs comes out, and there’s no video of the bots busting a move on the dance floor? Nope — it looks like quadruped robots are finally going to work for real as “ground drones” are being deployed to patrol Cape Canaveral. Rather than the familiar and friendly Boston Dynamics “Big Dog” robot, the US Space Force went with Ghost Robotics Vision 60 Q-UGVs, or “quadruped unmanned ground vehicles.” The bots share the same basic layout as Big Dog but have a decidedly more robust appearance, and are somehow more sinister. The dogs are IP67-rated for all-weather use, and will be deployed for “damage assessments and patrols,” whatever that means. Although since this is the same dog that has had a gun mounted to it, we’d be careful not to stray too far from the tours at Kennedy Space Center.

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Just How Good Is A Tape Measure Antenna Anyway?

Amateur radio operators have played a longstanding game of “Will It Antenna?” If there’s something even marginally conductive and remotely resonant, a ham has probably tried to make an antenna out of it. Some of these expedient antennas actually turn out to be surprisingly effective, but as we can see from this in-depth analysis of the characteristics of tape measure antennas, a lot of that is probably down to luck.

At first glance, tape measure antennas seem to have a lot going for them (just for clarification, most tape measure antennas use only the spring steel blade of a tape measure, not the case or retraction mechanism — although we have seen that done.) Tape measures can be rolled up or folded down for storage, and they’ll spring back out when released to form a stiff, mostly self-supporting structure.

But [fvfilippetti] suspected that tape measures might have some electrical drawbacks, thanks to the skin effect. That’s the tendency for current to flow on the outside of a conductor, which at lower frequencies on conductors with a round cross-section turns out to be not a huge problem. But in a thin, rectangular conductor, a little finite element method magnetics (FEMM) analysis revealed that most of the current is carried in very small areas, resulting in high electrical resistance — an order of magnitude greater than a round conductor. Add in the high permittivity of the carbon steel material of the blade, and you end up something more like what [fvfilippetti] calls “a tape measure dummy load.

One possible solution: stripping the paint off the blade and copper plating it. It’s not clear if this was tried; we’d think it would be difficult to accomplish, but not impossible — and surely worth a try.

Swarm Vs. Iridium: Which Satellite IoT Service Is Right For You?

In a world where it seems like everyone’s face is glued to a device screen, the idea that wireless service might be anything other than universal seems just plain silly. But it’s not, as witnessed by vast gaps in cell carrier coverage maps, not to mention the 70% of the planet covered by oceans. The lack of universal coverage can be a real pain for IoT applications, which is a gap that satellite-based IoT services aim to fill.

But which service is right for your application? To help answer that question, [Mike Krumpus] has performed the valuable work of comparing the services offered by Swarm and Iridium in a real-world IoT shootout. On the face of it, the match-up seems a little lopsided — Iridium has been around forever and has a constellation of big satellites and an extensive ground-based infrastructure. But as our own [Al Williams] discovered when he tested out Swarm, there’s something to be said for having a lot of 1/4U Cubesats up there.

[Mike] picked up the gauntlet and did head-to-head tests of the two services under real-world conditions. Using the same Swarm development kit that [Al] used for his test, alongside an Iridium dev board of his own design, [Mike] did basic tests on uplink and downlink times for a short message on each service. We couldn’t find specs on the test message length, but Swarm’s FAQ indicates that packets are limited to 192 bytes, so we assume they’re both in that ballpark. Iridium was the clear winner on uplink and downlink times, which makes sense because Swarm’s constellation is much smaller at this point and leaves large gaps in coverage. But when you consider costs, Swarm wins the day; what would cost over $1,500 with Iridium would set you back a mere $60 with Swarm.

The bottom line, as always, depends on your application and budget, but [Mike]’s work makes it easier to do that analysis.

Presence-Detecting Cushion Keeps You From Sitting Your Life Away

They say that sitting is the new smoking. They’re wrong — smoking is much, much worse, for you than sitting, and smoking only while standing or while jogging around the block in no way to justify the habit. But they’re also not wrong that humans weren’t made for extended periods parked on their posteriors, but we do it anyway, to the detriment of our heart health, posture, and general well-being. So something like this butt-detecting stand-up reminder could make a big difference to your health.

While like many of us, [Dave Bennett] has a wearable that prompts him to get up and move around after detecting 30 minutes of sitting, he found that it’s too easy to dismiss the alarm and just go right on sitting. Feeling like he needed a little more encouragement to get up and go, he built a presence detector completely from scratch. His sensor is a sheet of static-protective Velostat foam wrapped in conductive tape; when compressed, the resistance across the pad drops, making it easy to detect with a simple comparator circuit.

We admit to getting excited when we first saw the alarm circuit; a quick glance at the schematic seemed like it was based on a 555, which it totally could be. But no, [Dave]’s design goals include protection against spoofing the alarm with a quick “cheek sneak,” which was most easily implemented in code. So that 8-pin device in the circuit is an ATtiny85, which sounds the alarm after 30 minutes and requires him to stay off his butt for a full minute before resetting. The video below hits the high points of design and shows it in use.

Annoying? Yes, but that’s the point. Of course a standing desk would do the same thing, but that’s not going to work for everyone, so this is a nice alternative.

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