Building IoT Devices The Easy Way

Do you have a Raspberry Pi? What is it being used for right now? If you’re like the majority of people who replied to [Michael Hall’s] poll on Twitter, it’s likely yours is sitting on a shelf doing nothing too. So why not just turn it into an IoT device for your home?

[Michael] wrote an easy-to-follow guide focusing on getting the EdgeX Foundry IoT platform running on the Raspberry Pi. It is designed to be a unified multi-platform base for IoT devices hosted by the Linux Foundation, making it easy to control and integrate them into other systems. The framework for this consists of two parts, a Device Service running on your Pi, and the rest of the services running on a desktop or laptop where you’ll be monitoring it.

His guide goes into detail on how to get both parts working on your computer and your Pi using Docker for ease of installation. As for the IoT device, he uses the built-in PIR sensor example to show how to configure it without having to write any programming. You can then monitor the device’s sensors, which you can just connect straight to the Pi’s GPIO pins, from your desktop. Since the EdgeX software is designed to run on any flavor of Linux, this should make it easy to repurpose any forgotten single-board computer into the beginnings of a home automation system.

However, if you are confident in your programming skills, you’re probably looking for something slimmer such as the ESP8266 family of microcontrollers to do your bidding. Why not try an energy monitor or a smoke detector project with them?

A Cyberdeck Built With Ergonomics In Mind

With a new decade looming over us, the hot new thing for hackers and makers everywhere is to build cyberdecks to go with the flashy black-and-neon clothing that the sci-fi films of old predicted we’d all be wearing come next year. [Phil Hagelberg] has been designing one based on his own ergonomic keyboard, prioritizing not only form but also function.

The Atreus mechanical keyboard has a split layout that foregoes the traditional typewriter-inherited staggered arrangement in favor of one that better fits the user’s hands. The reduced number of keys limits hand movement for a more comfortable writing experience, however if you use function keys often, the trade-off is that you’ll need to use an auxiliary key to access them.

The deck [Phil] documents for us here is built from the ground up around that same design and aims to be small enough for travel, yet pleasant enough for serious use. It’s gone through four revisions so far, including an interesting one where the keyboard is laid out on the sides for using while standing up. As for the brains of the machine, the past revisions have used different flavors of Raspberry Pi and even a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone, though the latest model has a Pine64 running the show. How much has changed between each finished prototype really goes to show that you don’t have to get it right the first time, and it’s always good to experiment with a new idea to see what works.

[Phil] is now moving onto a fifth prototype, and hopes to eventually sell kits for building the whole cyberdeck along with the kits already available for the standalone keyboard. We’ve been struck by the creativity shown in these cyberdeck builds, which range from reusing retro computer shells to completely printing out a whole new one for a unique look. We can’t say for sure if this custom form-factor will eventually surpass mass-produced laptops, but it sure would be hella cool if it did.

How Many Commodores Does It Take To Crack A Nut?

It’s brilliant enough when composers make use of the “2SID” technique to double the channels in a Commodore 64 with two sound chips, but even then some people like to kick things up a notch. Say, five times more. [David Youd], [David Knapp] and [Joeri van Haren] worked together to bring us just that, ten Commodore computers synchronously playing a beautiful rendition of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at this year’s Commodore Retro eXpo.

The feat is composed of nine Commodore 64 computers and one Commodore 128, all fitted with the SID chip. It is a notorious synthesizer chip for utilizing both analog and digital circuitry, making each and every one of its revisions unique to a trained ear, not to mention impossible to faithfully reproduce in emulation. The SID was designed by Bob Yannes at MOS Technology, who later went on to co-found Ensoniq with his experience in making digital synthesizers.

How this orchestra of retro computers came to be, including details on how everything is pieced together can be found on this slideshow prepared by the authors of the exhibition. It’s interesting to note that because of timing differences in each computer’s crystal clock and how only the start of the song is synchronized between them, they can’t play long music tracks accurately yet, but a 90-second piece works just fine for this demonstration.

These synthesizer chips are slowly going extinct since they’re no longer being manufactured, so if you need a new replacement solution, FPGAs can fill that SID-shaped hole in your heart. If you need the whole computer though, the newer Teensy 3.6 will do just fine emulating it all. Check out this beast of a display in action after the break. While we’re at it, this isn’t the only time multiple 8-bit computers have been combined as an orchestra, though these Commodores sound a lot better than a table full of ZX Spectrums.

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A Car Phone — No, Not That Kind

Autonomous vehicle development is a field of technology that remains relatively elusive to the average hacker, what with the needing a whole car and all. Instead of having to deal with such a large scale challenge, [Piotr Sokólski] has instead turned to implementing the same principles on the scale of a small radio-controlled car.

Wanting to lower the barrier of entry for developing software for self-driving cars, he based his design off of something you’re likely to have lying around already: a smartphone. He cites the Google Cardboard project for his inspiration, with how it made VR more accessible without needing expensive hardware. The phone is able to control the actuators and wheel motors through a custom board, which it talks to via a Bluetooth connection. And since the camera points up in the way the phone is mounted in the frame, [Piotr] came up with a really clever solution of using a mirror as a periscope so the car can see in front of itself.

The software here has two parts, though the phone app one does little more than just serve as an interface by sending off a video feed to be processed. The whole computer vision processing is done on the desktop part, and it allows [Piotr] to do some fun things like using reinforcement learning to keep the car driving as long as possible without crashing. This is achieved by making the algorithm observe the images coming from the phone and giving it negative reward whenever an accelerometer detects a collision. Another experiment he’s done is use a QR tag on top of the car, visible to a fixed overhead camera, to determine the car’s position in the room.

This might not be the first time someone’s made a scaled down model of a self-driving vehicle, though it’s one of the most cleverly-designed ones, and it’s certainly much simpler than trying to do it on a full-sized car in your garage.

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Circuit Art Brings Out The Lifelike Qualities Of Electricity

Functional circuit sculptures have been gaining popularity with adventuring electronic artists who dare attempt the finicky art form of balancing structure and wire routing. [Kelly Heaton’s] sculptures however are on a whole other creative level.

Not only does she use the circuits powering her works as part of their physical component, there are no controllers or firmware to be seen anywhere; everything is discrete and analog. In her own words, she tries to balance the “logical planning” of the engineering side with the “unfettered expression” of artworks. The way she does this is by giving her circuits a lifelike quality, with disorganized circuit structures and trills and chirps that mimic those of wildlife.

One of her works, “Birds at My Feeder”, builds up on another previous work, the analog “pretty bird”. On their own, each one of the birds uses a photoresistor to affect its analog-generated chirps, providing both realistic and synthetic qualities to their calls. What the full work expands on is a sizable breadboard-mounted sequencer using only discrete components, controlling how each of the connected birds sing in a pleasing chorus. Additionally, the messy nature of the wires gives off the impression of the sequencer doubling as the birds’ nest.

There are other works as well in this project, such as the “Moth Electrolier”, in which she takes great care to keep structural integrity in mind in the design of the flexible board used there. Suffice to say, her work is nothing short of brilliant engineering and artistic prowess, and you can check one more example of it after the break. However, if you’re looking for something more methodical and clean, you can check out the entries on the circuit sculpture contest we ran last year.

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Adding A Co-Processor To Help SNES Games With Slowdown

The Super Nintendo port of Gradius III is notable for being close to the arcade original, with its large, bright and colorful graphics. However, due to the limitation of the console’s hardware, the port is also well known for having constant slowdowns during gameplay, particularly during later sections. [Vitor] hacked away at the game and made a patched version of the ROM use a co-processor to eliminate those issues.

The slowdown seen here in Gradius is not uncommon to SNES players, many games of that era suffer from it when several sprites appear on the screen at once. This is partially due to the aging CPU Nintendo chose, supposedly in order to maintain NES backwards compatibility before the idea got scrapped. Unable to complete its tasks by the time the next frame needs to be shown, the hardware skips frames to let the processor catch up before it can continue. This is perceived as the aforementioned slowdown.

Around the later stage of the SNES’s life, games started using additional chips inside the cartridges in order to enhance the console’s performance. One of them is the SA1, which is a co-processor with the same core as the main CPU, only with a higher clock rate. By using it, games had more time to run through the logic and graphics manipulation before the next frame. What [Vitor] did was port those parts of Gradius III to the SA1, essentially making it just like any other enhanced cartridge from back in the day.

Unlike previous efforts we’ve seen to overclock the SNES by giving it a longer blanking time, this method works perfectly on real unmodified hardware. You can see the results of his efforts after the break, particularly around stage 2 where several bubbles fill the screen on the second video.

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