Teardown: What’s Inside a Christmas Laser Projector?

In the world of big-box retail, December 26th is a very special day. The Christmas music playing on the overhead speakers switches back to the family friendly Top 40, the store’s decorations get tossed in the compactor, and everything that’s even remotely related to the holiday is put on steep clearance. No more money to be made on the most commercialized of all holidays, so back to business as usual.

It’s in this narrow corridor of time, between the Great Holiday Unloading and the new spring products coming in, that you can find some fantastic deals on Christmas decorations. Not that long ago, this would hardly be exciting news for the readers of Hackaday. But Christmas lights and decorations have really started pushing the envelope in terms of technology: addressable RGB LED strands, Bluetooth controlled effects, and as of the last couple years, friggin’ lasers.

That’s right, you’ve seen them all over the neighborhood, probably took a few stray beams to the eye, you might even own your own. Laser projectors have been one of the most popular Christmas decorations for the last couple of years, and it’s not hard to see why. Just set the projector up in front of your house, and you’re done. No need to get on a ladder and string lights on the roof when you can just blast some directed energy up there instead.

Given how popular they are, I was surprised to see a lone Home Accents Holiday Multi-Color Light Projector on the clearance rack at Home Depot for around $14 a few days after Christmas. This was a 75% price reduction from normal MSRP, and right in that sweet impulse-buy price range. Let’s see what’s hiding inside!

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ESP8266 Beacon Announces Your Arrival

It used to be people were happy enough to just have to push a button in their car and have the garage door open. But pushing a button means you have to use your hands, like it’s a baby toy or something. We’re living in the 21st century, surely there must be a better way! Well, if you’ve got a home automation system setup and a spare ESP8266 laying around, [aderusha] may have your solution with MQTTCarPresence.

The theory of operation here is very clever. The ESP8266 is powered via the in-dash USB port, which turns on and off with the engine. When the engine is started, the ESP8266 is powered up and immediately connects to the WiFi network and pushes an MQTT message to Home Assistant. When Home Assistant gets the notification that the ESP8266 has connected, it opens the garage door.

When [aderusha] drives out of the garage and away from the house, the ESP8266 loses connection to the network, and Home Assistant closes the door. The same principle works when he comes home: as the car approaches the house it connects to the network and the garage door opens, and when the engine is shut off in the garage, the door closes again.

The hardware side of the setup is really just a WeMos D1 mini Pro board, though he’s added an external antenna to make sure the signal gets picked up when the vehicle is rolling up. He’s also designed a very slick 3D printed case to keep it all together in a neat little package.

We’ve covered automated entry systems based on the ESP8266 before, though usually the ESP stays at home. Be sure to check out the awesome series [Elliot Williams] has on the wonders of MQTT if you’re looking to setup your own automation system.

The (Unnecessary?) Art of Connector Crimping

The “Completion Backwards Principle” is a method of reasoning through a problem by visualizing the end result and then working your way backwards from that point. The blog post that [Alan Hawse] has recently written about the intricacies of crimping wires for plug connectors is a perfect example of this principle. The end result of his work is the realization that you probably shouldn’t bother crimping your own connectors, but watching him work backwards from that point is still fascinating. It’s also the name of a rock album from the 80’s by The Tubes, but this is not a useful piece of information in regards to electrical wiring.

Of course, sometimes people do silly things. Even though there are pre-crimped wires available online for a pittance, you might still want to do your own. With this in mind, [Alan] has put together an exceptionally detailed and well-research post that gives you all the information you could possibly want to know about crimping what is often erroneously referred to as the “JST connector”.

He starts by showing off some common examples of this connector, which if you’ve ever opened a piece of consumer electronics will be like looking through a High School yearbook. You might not know their names without reading them, but you definitely remember what they look like.

We’re then treated to an array of macro shots showing the scale of the pieces involved. If getting up close and personal with metal bits that are only a few millimeters long is your kind of thing, then you’re really going to love this part.

Finally, the post is wrapped up with a few words about the kind of crimping tools that are available on the market, and then a demonstration of his personal crimping method. While some tools would have you crimp both sets of “wings” at the same time, [Alan] tells us he finds taking them on individually leads to better results in his experience.

If this this little taste has left you hungry for a true feast of hyper-specialized knowledge, be sure to check out the Superconference talk by [Bradley Gawthrop].

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Nintendo Switch Gets Making with Labo

Over the years, Nintendo has had little trouble printing money with their various gaming systems. While they’ve had the odd misstep here and there since the original Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1983, overall business has been good. But even for the company that essentially brought home video games to the mainstream, this last year has been pretty huge. The release of the Nintendo Switch has rocketed the Japanese gaming giant back into the limelight in a way they haven’t enjoyed in a number of years, and now they’re looking to keep that momentum going into 2018 with a killer new gaming accessory: a cardboard box.

Some of the contraptions feature surprisingly complex internal mechanisms.

Well, it doesn’t have to be a box, necessarily. But no matter which way you fold it, it’s definitely a piece of cardboard. Maybe a few bits of string here and there. This is the world of “Nintendo Labo”, a recently announced program which promises to let Switch owners create physical objects which they can interact with via specially designed software for the console.

The Labo creations demonstrated in the bombastic announcement video make clever use of the very unique Switch hardware. The removable Joy-Con controllers are generally still used as input devices, albeit in less traditional ways. Twisting and tilting the cardboard creations, which take varied forms such as a fishing rod or motorcycle handlebars, relays input to the appropriate game thanks to the accelerometers and gyroscopes they contain.

Many of the more complex contraptions rely on a less-known feature of the controller: the IR depth camera. By pointing the controller’s camera inside of the devices, the motion of internal components, likely helped along by IR-reflective tape, can be tracked in three dimensions. In the video, the internal construction of some of the devices looks downright intimidating.

Which leads into the natural question: “Who exactly is this for?”

Clearly some of the gadgets, not to mention the folded cardboard construction, are aimed at children, an age group Nintendo has never been ashamed to appeal to. But some of the more advanced devices and overall concept seems like it would play better with creative teens and adults looking to push the Switch in new directions.

Will users be empowered to create their own hardware, and by extension, associated software? Will hackers and makers be able to 3D print new input devices for the Switch using this platform? This is definitely something we’ll be keeping a close eye on as it gets closer to release in April.

The popularity of the Switch has already given rise to a surprising amount of hacking given how new the console is. It will be interesting to see if the introduction of Labo has any effect on the impressive work already being done to bend the console to the owner’s will.

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Getting to Know an 18th Century Hacker

Here at Hackaday we tend to stay pretty close to the bleeding edge in tech, not by any conscious effort, but simply because that’s what most hackers are interested in. Sure we see the occasional vintage computer rebuild, or reverse engineering of some component that was put into service before most of us were born; but on the whole you’re way more likely to see projects involving the latest and greatest microcontroller to hit AliExpress than ones involving the once ubiquitous vacuum tube.

Bill Maddox

But occasionally it’s nice to take a step back from the latest and greatest, to really look at what makes the hacker spirit without the all modern trappings of blinking LEDs and Wi-Fi connectivity. We make and explore because it’s something we are passionate about, and while today most of us are doing that with a soldering iron or a compiler, that hasn’t always been the case. In the video below, historic interpreter and woodworker [Bill Maddox] talks about what draws him to 18th century technology. His tools may look foreign to us, but the passion he shows while talking about his creations will be familiar to anyone who’s ever set foot in a hackerspace.

Even with a vastly different set of interests than the modern hacker, [Bill] runs into some very familiar problems. When the highly specialized tools he needed to work like an 18th century craftsman weren’t available, he decided to make his own. But to make his own tools he needed to learn how to forge, and after he forged his hand tools he moved on to forging chisels for the lathe he decided to build.

Whether or not we ever take a knife to a piece of wood and try to carve out a spoon, it’s impossible to watch [Bill] speak about his creations and not see him as a kindred spirit. Like many of us, he’s honed skills in a niche that the everyday person takes for granted. Makes you wonder what people from 300 years in the future would think of us if they could peer back through the centuries.

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Recreating the Radio from Portal

If you’ve played Valve’s masterpiece Portal, there’s probably plenty of details that stick in your mind even a decade after its release. The song at the end, GLaDOS, “The cake is a lie”, and so on. Part of the reason people are still talking about Portal after all these years is because of the imaginative world building that went into it. One of these little nuggets of creativity has stuck with [Alexander Isakov] long enough that it became his personal mission to bring it into the real world. No, it wasn’t the iconic “portal gun” or even one of the oft-quoted robotic turrets. It’s that little clock that plays a jingle when you first start the game.

Alright, so perhaps it isn’t the part of the game that we would be obsessed with turning into a real-life object. But for whatever reason, [Alexander] simply had to have that radio. Of course, being the 21st century and all his version isn’t actually a radio, it’s a Bluetooth speaker. Though he did go through the trouble of adding a fake display showing the same frequency as the one in-game was tuned to.

The model he created of the Portal radio in Fusion 360 is very well done, and available on MyMiniFactory for anyone who might wish to create their own Aperture Science-themed home decor. Though fair warning, due to its size it does consume around 1 kg of plastic for all of the printed parts.

For the internal Bluetooth speaker, [Alexander] used a model which he got for free after eating three packages of potato chips. That sounds about the best possible way to source your components, and if anyone knows other ways we can eat snack food and have electronics sent to our door, please let us know. Even if you don’t have the same eat-for-gear promotion running in your neck of the woods, it looks like adapting the model to a different speaker shouldn’t be too difficult. There’s certainly enough space inside, at least.

Over the years we’ve seen some very impressive Portal builds, going all the way back to the infamous levitating portal gun [Caleb Kraft] built in 2012. Yes, we’ve even seen somebody do the radio before. At this point it’s probably safe to say that Valve can add “Create cultural touchstone” to their one-sheet.

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Smartphone Controlled Periodic Table of Elements

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that here at Hackaday, we’re about as geeky as they come. Having said that, even we were surprised to hear that there are people out there who collect elements. Far be it from us to knock how anyone else wishes to fill their days, but telling somebody at a party that you collect chemical elements is like one step up from saying you’ve got a mold and fungus collection at home. Even then, at least a completed mold and fungus collection won’t be radioactive.

But if you’re going to spend your spare time working on a nerdy and potentially deadly collection, you might as well put it into an appropriate display case. You can’t just leave your Polonium sitting around on the kitchen counter. That’s the idea behind the interactive periodic table built by [Maclsk], and we’ve got to admit, if we get to put it in a case this awesome we might have to start our own collection.

A large portion of this project is building the wooden display case itself as, strangely enough, IKEA doesn’t currently stock a shelving unit that’s in the shape of the periodic table. The individual cells and edge molding are made of pine, the back panel is MDF, and the front of the display is faced off with thin strips of balsa to cover up all the joints. Holes were then drilled into the back of each cell for the LED wiring, and finally the entire frame was painted white.

Each cell contains an WS2812B RGB LED, which at maximum brightness draws 60mA. Given the 90 cells of the display case, [Maclsk] calculated a 5.4A power supply would be needed to keep everything lit up. However, he found a 4A power supply that made his budget happier, which he reasons will be fine as long as he doesn’t try to crank every cell up to maximum at the same time. Control for the display is provided by an Arduino Nano and HC05 Bluetooth module.

The final piece of the project was the Android application that allows the user to control the lighting. But it doesn’t just change colors and brightness, it’s actually a way to visualize information about the elements themselves. The user can do things like highlight certain groups of elements (say, only the radioactive ones), or light up individual cells in order of the year each element was discovered. Some of the information visualizations are demonstrated in the video below, and honestly, we’ve seen museum displays that weren’t this well done.

We last caught up with [Maclsk] when he created a very slick robotic wire cutting machine, which we can only assume was put to work for this particular project. Too bad he didn’t have a robot to handle the nearly 540 soldering joints it took to wire up all these LEDs.

[via /r/DIY]

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