Supercon 2022: Selling Your Company And Not Your Soul

Haddington Dynamics is a particular company. After winning the 2018 Hackaday Prize with an open-source robotic arm, we’ve covered their micro-factories and suction cup end-effectors for making face shields during 2020. They’ve been laser-focused on their mission of creating a fantastic robot arm at a small price tag with open-source software and design. So how does a company with such a hacker ethos get bought by a much larger company, and why? They came to SuperCon 2022 to share their story in a panel discussion.

Haddington Dynamics started with two clever inventions: optical encoders that used analog values instead of digital values and an FPGA that allowed them to poll those encoders and respond rapidly. This allowed them to use cheaper motors and rely on the incredibly sensitive encoders to position them. After the Hackaday prize, they open-sourced the HD version of the robot and released the HDI version. But in 2020, they were bought by a group called Ocado. As to why the somewhat practical but not exciting answer is that they needed money. Employees needed to be paid, and they needed capital to keep the doors open.

So this leads to the next tricky question, how do you sell your company without changing it? The fine folks at Haddington Dynamics point out in their panel discussion that a company is a collection of people. The soul of that company is the collective soul of those people coming together. A company being bought can be akin to stopping working for yourself and going to work for someone else. Working alone, you have values and principles that you can easily stick to. But once you start working for someone else, they will value different things, and while the people that make up the company might not change, the company’s decisions might become unrecognizable.

As the panel points out, looking for a buyer with the same values is critical. Ocado was a great fit as their economic interests and culture matched Haddington’s. However, it’s not all roses, as Ocadao tends to be a very closed-source group. However, Haddington Dynamics still supports its open-source initiatives. It’s a fascinating look into a company’s life cycle and how they navigate the waters of open-source, funding, acquisitions, innovation, and invention. Despite the fairytale-like nature of inventing a revolutionary robot arm in your garage and winning many awards, it turns out there is quite a lot that happens after the happily ever after.

We look forward to seeing more of Haddington Dynamics and where they go next. Video after the break.

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Dungeons And Dragons Board Game From The 1980s Holds A TMS1100

Today is a little tour back to the early 1980s when Mattel released the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Computer Labyrinth Game. [Cameron Kaiser] was dealing with a few boxes of old stuff when he came across the game. Luckily for us, he decided to do a complete teardown and a comprehensive review more than 40 years after it came out.

The game itself is pretty simple. You and a friend are characters on the board, navigating an eight-by-eight maze. As you move through the labyrinth, a microcontroller emits twelve audio cues telling you what you’ve run into (walls, doors, treasure, and so on). The eight buttons on the side allow you to hear the different tones to know what they mean, as we imagine even the most well-written manual might struggle to describe that. In addition, the pieces are diecast metal, which allows the game to detect where the pieces have been placed. Continue reading “Dungeons And Dragons Board Game From The 1980s Holds A TMS1100”

Punycodes Explained

When you’re restricted to ASCII, how can you represent more complex things like emojis or non-Latin characters? One answer is Punycode, which is a way to represent Unicode characters in ASCII. However, while you could technically encode the raw bits of Unicode into characters, like Base64, there’s a snag. The Domain Name System (DNS) generally requires that hostnames are case-insensitive, so whether you type in,, or just, it all goes to the same place.

[A. Costello] at the University of California, Berkley proposed the idea of Punycode in RFC 3492 in March 2003. It outlines a simple algorithm where all regular ASCII characters are pulled out and stuck on one side with a separator in between, in this case, a hyphen. Then the Unicode characters are encoded and stuck on the end of the string.

First, the numeric codepoint and position in the string are multiplied together. Then the number is encoded as a Base-36 (a-z and 0-9) variable-length integer. For example, a greeting and the Greek for thanks, “Hey, ευχαριστώ” becomes “Hey, -mxahn5algcq2″. Similarly, the beautiful city of München becomes mnchen-3ya. Continue reading “Punycodes Explained”

Supercon 2022: All Aboard The SS MAPR With Sherry Chen

How do you figure out what is in a moving body of water over a mile wide? For those in charge of assessing the water quality of the Delaware river, this is a real problem. Collecting the data required to evaluate the water quality was expensive and time-consuming, taking over six years. Even then, the data was relatively sparse, with just a few water quality stations and only one surface sample for every six miles of river.

Sherry Chen, Quinn Wu, Vanessa Howell, Eunice Lee, Mia Mansour, and Frank Fan teamed up to create a solution, and the SS MAPR was the result. At Hackaday Supercon 2022, Sherry outlined the mission, why it was necessary, and their journey toward an autonomous robot boat. What follows is a fantastic guide and story of a massive project coming together. There are plans, evaluations, and tests for each component.

Sherry and the team first started by defining what was needed. It needed to be cheap, easy to use, and able to sample from various depths in a well-confined bounding box. It needed to run for four hours, be operated by a single person, and take ten samples across a 1-mile (2 km) section of the river. Some of the commercial solutions were evaluated, but they found none of them met the requirements, even ignoring their high costs. They selected a multi-hull style boat with off-the-shelf pontoons for stability and cost reasons.
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A Number Maze For Younger Hackers

[David Johnson-Davies] has a lofty goal of building a small device to give to younger hackers on a semi-yearly basis. So this last year, he designed and created The Number Maze Game, a small handheld logic puzzle maze.

It’s based on several 4-digit seven-segment displays controlled by an AVR128DA32. Navigation is just a few push buttons and a buzzer to let you know when you’ve won. The game is simple: you jump the amount listed on the space you’re currently on, trying to get to the space labeled “H.” [David] lays out how he built it in great detail, discussing the process of designing and assembly. He also expounds on many decisions, such as using a TQFP microcontroller instead of the through-hole ATmega328P due to the I/O pin count.

The instructions and design process are so detailed we’re confident most people could easily reproduce it, especially with the code and board files. But the value of this project is not in blindly copying it. Instead, we love how something so simple can be wonderfully entertaining and valuable to younger hackers. Programming headers are included so they can add new mazes. We suspect there are many out there who would love to get something so tactile, simple, and modifiable.

Of course, we’ve seen other minimal maze games, so there’s no lack of inspiration for making some different.

A Simple Serial Display

Often with more “modern” complex protocols involving handshaking, token exchanges, and all the other hoops and whistles accompanying them, we forget how useful and powerful serial can be. In what might be a wonderful tribute to that, [Davide Gironi] created a simple AVR-powered 16-digit serial display.

It can display two numbers, and that’s it. A MAX7219 drives the display, and the brains are an ATmega8. It’s straightforward to send new values: a start byte, a CRC, the data to display, and an end byte. A CP2102 provides a UART to USB interface to connect to a host. An EEPROM helps it remember the last numbers shown. It supports positive, negative, and floating-point numbers.

This is a beautiful example of doing one thing and doing it well. The design is simple and allows it to be used for anything. You can show the current stock market price, the time for the next two trains for your commute, or whatever else you can think of. [Davide] included a schematic, code, and a 3d printed enclosure.

Perhaps the idea could be combined with a clever design for a single-motor seven-segment display.

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Spaceballs Get Serialized

As much as we’d love a TV show version of the cult classic movie, we’re talking about a different kind of Spaceball. While there have been many iterations, [Evan] had a Spaceball built by a company known as Spacetec in 1991 and rebranded by HP. Being an older peripheral, he used the Orbotron 9001, a converter from RS232 serial to USB, to interface his Spaceball with modern devices.

The spaceball was one of the first 6 degrees of freedom controllers, useful for CAD and some games that supported it. It’s famous for being involved in the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission as it was used to control the Sojourner rover. In addition to the perfect orb, it also features eight handy buttons.

The Orbotron is a USB-capable microcontroller (Atmel SAMD21) designed to support the Spaceball 360, 4000, and 5000 series. Ultimately, after tinkering with the code to support the 2003 and 3003 Spaceballs, he had some reasonably usable with some rough edges. For example, acceleration curves still need tweaking, and going too fast can get you stuck. The downside was the rubber coating on the ball that had degraded over the years, making it horrendously sticky.

All the code changes are on GitHub. We’d love to see more spacemice integrated into things, like this ergonomic keyboard. Or even an open-source version of a spacemouse. After the break, we have a video of [Adafruit] showing a Spaceball 2003 working with a serial adapter.

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