Asking machines to make music by themselves is kind of a strange notion. They’re machines, after all. They don’t feel happy or hurt, and as far as we know, they don’t long for the affections of other machines. Humans like to think of music as being a strictly human thing, a passionate undertaking so nuanced and emotion-based that a machine could never begin to understand the feeling that goes into the process of making music, or even the simple enjoyment of it.
The idea of humans and machines having a jam session together is even stranger. But oddly enough, the principles of the jam session may be exactly what machines need to begin to understand musical expression. As Sara Adkins explains in her enlightening 2019 Hackaday Superconference talk, Creating with the Machine, humans and machines have a lot to learn from each other.
To a human musician, a machine’s speed and accuracy are enviable. So is its ability to make instant transitions between notes and chords. Humans are slow to learn these transitions and have to practice going back and forth repeatedly to build muscle memory. If the machine were capable, it would likely envy the human in terms of passionate performance and musical expression.
When you’re a nation state, secure communications are key to protecting your sovereignty and keeping your best laid plans under wraps. For the USA, this requirement led to the development of a series of secure telephony networks over the years. John McMaster found himself interested in investigating the workings of the STU-III secure telephone, and set out to replicate the secure keys used with this system.
[John] had a particular affinity for the STU-III for its method of encrypting phone calls. A physical device known as a Crypto Ignition Key had to be inserted into the telephone, and turned with a satisfying clunk to enable encryption. This physical key contains digital encryption keys that, in combination with those in the telephone, are used to encrypt the call. The tactile interface gives very clear feedback to the user about securing the communication channel. Wishing to learn more, John began to research the system further and attempted to source some hardware to tinker with.
As John explains in his Hackaday Superconference talk embeded below, he was able to source a civilian-model STU-III handset but the keys proved difficult to find. As carriers of encryption keys, it’s likely that most were destroyed as per security protocol when reaching their expiry date. However, after laying his hands on a broken key, he was able to create a CAD model and produce a mechanically compatible prototype that would fit in the slot and turn correctly.
Part of the fun of Supercon is that there is so much available in one place. For the price of admission, you’re surrounded by expertise, power, and soldering irons. Digi-Key brought several large parts bins stuffed full of everything from passives to LEDs to chips for people use in hacking away on their badges. But one thing that makes the whole experience really special is the stuff people bring. We don’t just mean the projects you brought to show off, we mean the stuff you bring to enhance your Supercon experience, whether it be tools, bits and bobs, or other fun stuff to play with.
This year was my first Supercon, and you never forget your first. I had a great time, and was overwhelmed by how much awesomeness was going on in one place. I wish Supercon was a simulation I could run again and again so I could listen to every talk, attend every workshop, and spend time talking to everyone about the things they brought and the cool things they’re doing with their time and badges.
We have just concluded a successful Hackaday Superconference where a highlight for many was digging into this year’s hardware badge. Shaped in the general form of a Game Boy handheld gaming console, the heart of the badge is a large FPGA opening up new and exciting potential for badge hacking.
Beyond our normal tools of compiling custom code or modifying hardware with a soldering iron, we now have the option to change core hardware behavior with Verilog. And people explored this new frontier to great effect, as seen at the badge hacking ceremony. (Video embedded below.)
FPGAs are not new, technically speaking, why are they exciting now? We can thank their recent growth in capability, their rapidly falling cost, and the relatively new availability of open source toolchains. These developments elevated FPGA into one of the most exciting trends in hardware today, so this year’s badge master [Sprite_TM] built an open FPGA playground for several hundred of his closest Supercon friends. Let’s take a look at what people were able to accomplish in just a few days using this unique and powerful hardware.
For many of us, the term “wearable technology” conjures up mental images of the Borg from Star Trek: harsh mechanical shapes and exposed wiring grafted haphazardly onto a human form that’s left with a range of motion just north of the pre-oilcan Tin Man. It’s simply a projection of the sort of hardware we’re used to. Hacker projects are more often than not a mass of wires and PCBs held in check with the liberal application of hot glue, with little in the way of what could be called organic design. That might be fine when you’re building a bench power supply, but unfortunately there are not many right angles to be found on the human body.
Thankfully, we have designers like Sophy Wong. Despite using tools and software that most of us would associate with mechanical design, her artistic eye and knowledge of fashion helps her create flexible components that conform to the natural contours of the wearer’s body. Anyone can take an existing piece of hardware and strap it to a person’s arm, but her creations are designed to fit like a tailored piece of clothing; a necessary evolution if wearable technology is ever going to progress past high-tech wrist watches.
Featuring graceful curves and tessellated patterns that create a complex and undeniably futuristic look, many of her pieces would be exceptionally difficult to create without modern additive or subtractive manufacturing methods. But even still, Sophy explains that 3D printers and laser cutters aren’t magic; these machines free us from time consuming repetitive tasks, but the skill and effort necessary to create the design files they require are far from trivial.
Driving an LED and making it flash is probably the first project that most people will have attempted when learning about microprocessor control of hardware. The Arduino and similar boards have an LED fitted, and turning it on and off is a simple introduction to code. So it’s fair to say that many of us will think we have a pretty good handle on driving an LED; connect it to a I/O pin via a resistor and that’s it. If this describes you, then Mike Harrison’s talk at the recent Hackaday Superconference (embedded below) will be an education.
Mike has appeared on these pages multiple times as he pushes LEDs and PCB techniques to their limits, even designing our 2017 Superconference badge, and his many years of work in the upper echelons of professional LED installations have given him an unrivaled expertise. He has built gigantic art projects for airports, museums, and cities. A talk billed as covering everything he’s learned about LEDs them promises to be a special one.
If there’s a surprise in the talk, it’s that he’s talking very little about LEDs themselves. Instead we’re treated to a fundamental primer in how to drive a lot of LEDs, how to do so efficiently, with good brightness and colour resolution, and without falling into design traps. It’s obvious that some of his advice such at that of relying on DIP switches rather than software for configuration of multi-part installations has been learned the hard way.
We are taken through a bit of the background to perceived intensity and gamma correction for the human eyesight. This segues neatly into the question of resolution, for brightness transitions to appear smooth it is necessary to have at least 12 bits, and to deliver that he reaches into his store of microcontroller and driver tips for how to generate PWM at the right bitrate. His favoured driver chip is the Texas TLC5971, so we’re treated to a primer on its operation. A useful tip is to use multiple smaller LEDs rather than a single big one in the quest for brightness, and he shows us how he drives series chains of LEDs from a higher voltage using just the TI chip.
Given the content of the talk this shouldn’t come as a shock, but at the end he reminds us that he doesn’t use all-in-one addressable LEDs such as the WS2932 or APA102. These are the staple of so many projects, but as he points out they are designed for toy type applications and lack the required reliability for a multi-thousand LED install.
Conference talks come in many forms and are always fascinating to hear, but it’s rare to see one that covers such a wide topic from a position of experience. He should write it into a book, we’d buy it!
For those who grew up with video games, the legendary sounds of consoles past are an instant nostalgia hit. [Thea Flowers] first got her hands on a gamepad playing Sonic the Hedgehog, so the sounds of the Sega Genesis hold a special place in her heart. Decades later, this inspired the creation of Genesynth, a hardware synth inspired by the classic console. The journey of developing this hardware formed the basis of [Thea]’s enlightening Supercon talk.
[Thea’s] first begins by exploring why the Genesis sound is so unique. The Sega console slotted neatly into a time period where the company sought to do something more than simple subtractive synthesis, but before it was possible to use full-waveform audio at an affordable price point. In collaboration with Yamaha, the YM2612 FM synthesis chip was built, a cost-reduced sound engine similar to that in the famous DX7 synthesizer of the 1980s. This gave the Genesis abilities far beyond the basic bleeps and bloops of other consoles at the time, and [Thea] decided it simply had to be built into a dedicated hardware synth.