Failed: Air Umbrella

About five years ago, a Kickstarter popped up for the air umbrella. It wasn’t long before the project fell apart and the company made at least some refunds. Old news, we know. But [The Action Lab] recently explored the physics behind the air umbrella and why it wouldn’t be very practical. (Video, embedded below.)

Notice we said not very practical, not unworkable. It is possible to shoot rain away from you by using pressurized air. The problem is you need a lot of air pressure. That means you also need a lot of battery. In particular, [The Action Lab] used a leaf blower and even with that velocity, there was only minimal water deflection. In other words, you are still going to get wet.

Continue reading “Failed: Air Umbrella”

Tales (and Advice) From Setting Up A Product Line

Making something that has to get into others’ hands involves solving a lot of different problems, many of which have nothing at all to do with actually building the dang things. [Conor Patrick] encountered them when he ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for an open-source USB security key that was not only shipped to backers, but also made available as an ongoing product for sale. There was a lot of manual and tedious work that could have been avoided, and so [Conor] laid out all the things he wishes he had done when first setting up a product line.

Turning these unprogrammed boards into finished products then shipping them is a big job.

If the whole process is a river, then the more “upstream” an issue is, the bigger its potential impact on everything that comes afterwards. One example is the product itself: the simplest and most easily managed product line is one that has only one product with no variations. That not only minimizes errors but makes supply, production, and shipping more straightforward. Striving for a minimum number of products and variations is also an example of something [Conor] didn’t do. In their crowdfunding campaign they offered the SoloKeys USB device — an implementation of the FIDO2 authentication token — as either USB-A or USB-C. There were also two types of key: NFC-capable (for tapping to a smartphone) and USB only. That is four products so far.

Offering keys in an unlocked state for those who want to tamper makes it eight different products. On top of that, they offered color choices which not only adds complexity to production, but also makes it harder to keep track of what everyone ordered. [Conor] also observed that the Kickstarter platform and back end are really not set up like a store, and it is clunky at best to try to offer (and manage) different products and variations from within it.

Another major point is fulfillment and in [Conor]’s opinion, unless the quantities are small, an order fulfillment company is worth partnering with. He says there are a lot of such companies out there, and it can be very time consuming to find the right one, but it will be nothing compared to the time and effort needed to handle, package, address, and ship several hundreds (or thousands!) of orders personally. His team did their own fulfillment for a total of over 2000 units, and found it a long and tedious process filled with hidden costs and challenges.

There’s good advice and background in [Conor]’s writeup, and this isn’t his first rodeo. He also shared his thoughts on taking electronics from design to production and the more general advice remains the same for it all: be honest and be open. Under-promise and over-deliver, especially when it comes to time estimates.

ATX2AT Makes Retrocomputing Safer, Heads To Kickstarter

It’s easy to take power supplies for granted in modern computing, but powering vintage hardware is not always so simple or worry-free. The power supplies for old electronics are themselves vintage, and the hardware being powered can be quite precious. A power problem can easily cause fried components and burned traces on a board. As [Doc TB] observes, by the time you hear crackling, it’s already far too late.

To address this, [Doc TB] designed the ATX2AT Smart Converter as an open source project and recently decided to make it available through a Kickstarter campaign. ATX2AT is a way to safely and securely replace some vintage power supplies with a standard PC ATX power supply, and adds a large number of protection features such as current monitoring and programmable reaction time for overcurrent protection. All of this can help prevent a retrocomputer enthusiast’s precious vintage hardware from being damaged in the event of a problem. It’s not just for powering known-good hardware; it can be invaluable when testing or repairing hardware that might be in an unknown state.

When we first came across [Doc TB]’s ATX2AT project we recognized it as a well-made device to address a specific niche, and to do it well. Assessing risk takes into account not only the probability of a problem occurring, but also just how bad things would be if it did happen. If your old hardware is precious enough to warrant the extra protection, or you are into repairing or assessing old hardware, then an ATX2AT might be just what you need. You can see it in action in the video embedded below.

Continue reading “ATX2AT Makes Retrocomputing Safer, Heads To Kickstarter”

Tilt Five: A Fresh Take On Augmented Reality Tabletop Gaming

Tilt Five is an Augmented Reality (AR) system developed by Jeri Ellsworth and a group of other engineers that is aimed at tabletop gaming which is now up on Kickstarter. Though it appears to be a quite capable (and affordable at $299) system based on the Kickstarter campaign, the most remarkable thing about it is probably that it has its roots at Valve. Yes, the ones behind the Half Life games and the Steam games store.

Much of the history of the project has been covered by sites, such as this Verge article from 2013. Back then [Jeri Ellsworth] and [Rick Johnson] were working on project CastAR, which back then looked like a contraption glued onto the top of a pair of shades. When Valve chose to go with Virtual Reality instead of AR, project CastAR began its life outside of Valve, with Valve’s [Gabe] giving [Jeri] and [Rick] his blessing to do whatever they wanted with the project.

What the Tilt Five AR system looked like in its CastAR days. (credit: The Verge)

Six years later Tilt Five is the result of the work put in over those years. Looking more like a pair of protective glasses along with a wand controller that has an uncanny resemblance to a gas lighter for candles and BBQs, it promises a virtual world like one has never seen before. Courtesy of integrated HD projectors that are aimed at the retroreflective surface of the game board.

A big limitation of the system is also its primary marketing feature: by marketing it as for tabletop gaming, the fact that the system requires this game board as the projection surface means that the virtual world cannot exist outside the board, but for a tabetop game (like Dungeons and Dragons), that should hardly be an issue. As for the games themselves, they would run on an external system, with the signal piped into the AR system. Game support for the Tilt Five is still fairly limited, but more titles have been announced.

(Thanks, RandyKC)

Trill: Easy Positional Touch Sensors For Your Projects

Creating capacitive touch-sensitive buttons is easy these days; many microcontrollers have cap-sense hardware built-in. This will work for simple on/off control, but what if you want a linear, position-sensitive input, like you’d find on a computer touchpad or your smartphone screen? Not so easy — at least until now. Trill is a family of capacitive touch sensors you can add to your projects as a linear slider, a square touchpad, or by creating your own touch surface.

Trill was created by the same team that designed Bela, an embedded platform for low-latency interactive applications, especially with audio. The new trio of Trill sensors rely on capacitive sensing to track finger movement, and communicate over I2C with your microcontroller or development board of choice. The Trill I2C library targets Arduino and Bela, but should be easy to port to any I2C host.

The hardware and software are both open-source — or will be as the Kickstarter that launched this morning has already met its goal. The firmware for the Cypress CY8C20636A (PDF) controller that powers these sensors will be released CC-BY-NC-SA. But, starting with the controller itself sounds like a lot of work that Trill has already done for you, so let’s have a look at what we know so far, along with a healthy dose of speculation.

Continue reading “Trill: Easy Positional Touch Sensors For Your Projects”

The Motor Synth Is What You Get When You Forget Hammond Organs Exist

There’s nothing new, ever. It’s all been done. But that doesn’t mean you can’t invent something interesting. A case in point is the Motor Synth, a crowdfunding project from Gamechanger Audio. It’s what you get when you combine advanced quadcopter technology with the market for modular and semi-modular synthesizers.

The core feature of the Motor Synth is an octet of brushless motors tucked behind a plexiglass window. These (either through an electromagnetic pickup or something slightly more clever) produce a tone, giving the Motor Synth four-note polyphony with two voices per key. On top of these motors are reflective optical discs sensed with infrared detectors. These are mixed as harmonics to the fundamental frequency. The result? Well, they got an endorsement from [Jean-Michel Jarre] at Superbooth earlier this month (see video below). That’s pretty impressive. Continue reading “The Motor Synth Is What You Get When You Forget Hammond Organs Exist”

Chatterbox Voice Assistant Knows To Keep Quiet For Privacy

Cruising through the children’s hands-on activity zone at Maker Faire Bay Area, we see kids building a cardboard enclosure for the Chatterbox smart speaker kit. It would be tempting to dismiss the little smiling box as “just for kids” but doing so would overlook something more interesting: an alternative to data-mining corporations who dominate the smart speaker market. People are rightly concerned about Amazon Echo and Google Home, always-listening devices for online retail sending data back to their corporate data centers. In order to be appropriate for children, Chatterbox is none of those things. It only listens when a button is pressed, and its online model is designed to support the mission of CCFC (Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.)

Getting started with a Chatterbox is much like other products designed to encourage young makers. The hardware — Raspberry Pi, custom HAT, speaker and button inside a cardboard enclosure — is conceptually similar to a Google AIY Voice kit but paired with an entirely different software experience. Instead of signing in to a Google developer account, children create their own voice interaction behavior with a block-based programming environment resembling MIT Scratch. Moving online, Chatterbox interactions draw upon resources of similarly privacy-minded entities like DuckDuckGo web search. Voice interaction foundation is built upon a fork of Mycroft with changes focused on education and child-friendliness. If a Chatterbox is unsure whether a query was for “Moana” or “Marijuana”, it will decide in favor of the Disney movie.

Many of these privacy-conscious pieces are open source or freely available, but Chatterbox pulls them all together into a single package that’s an appealing alternative to the big brand options. Based on conversations during Hackaday’s Maker Faire meetup, there’s a market beyond parents of young children. From technically aware adults who lack web API coding skills, to senior citizens unaware of dark corners of the web. Chatterbox Kickstarter campaign has a few more weeks to run but has already reached funding goals. We look forward to having a privacy-minded option in voice assistants.