Today’s Challenge Is All About Work-From-Home Life

You sure do learn a lot when life suddenly makes it impossible to go into the office and asks that you instead do the same work remotely. Sure, there are the obvious challenges like needing a device to do the work on and an internet connection that’s not going to melt down when family or roommates are trying to Zoom at the same time as you one-on-one with the boss. But there’s way more to it. The Refresh Work-From-Home Life challenge takes this on as the next phase of the Hackaday Prize gets under way this morning.

If the global pandemic caused you to find yourself working from home, I’m sure it’s been quite a ride. Maybe you learned what your spine feels like after hunching over a MacBook in bed for 40 hours. Others discovered that the commute had been silently serving as a power-down sequence for your “work brain” — without it you never stopped thinking about, or more likely worrying about, work. And without that change in venue, it’s far too easy to feel like you were now living at work. So let’s invent the things that can make us productive from home while maintaining physical health and preserving our sanity.

Ten entries in this challenge will be awarded with $500 and ushered into the final round where the grand prize of $25,000 and four other top prizes await. What kind of things are we looking for? The best ideas are the ones we haven’t had yet, but I can spitball a bit to get things rolling.

Mirror with a bracket turns a laptop webcam into an overhead project for Zoom classrooms

Furniture and other infrastructure can be a real sore-spot when not a good fit. We’d love to see your design that uses a single sheet of plywood (I know, those cost a bazillion dollars these days but just go with it) to build an adjustable workspace that fits your chair height and needs. Bonus points for one that folds away at quitting time to reassure you that work is done!

Office interruptions from co-works sometimes feel like a distraction. But without them you might not get your body moving for hours on end… not good for you! Design an assistant that watches for your poor sedentary habits and sasses you until you take some time to stretch your old bones. Or show off the gadgets that make living the digital nomad life easier like the awesome document camera hacks we saw from teachers when classrooms were closed last year.

Show off your proof of concept by starting a project page on Hackaday.io and using the dropdown in the left sidebar to enter it into the 2021 Hackaday Prize. You can continue to update it until judging begins at the end of July.

We’re already living in the future. Working or learning remotely is a big part of that. Let’s bend our homes and our habits to find a better way to do it!

Alexa, Bring Me A Beer!

Voice controlled home assistants are the wonder of our age, once you’ve made peace with the privacy concerns of sharing the intimacies of your life with a data centre owned by a massive corporation, anyway. They provide a taste of how the future was supposed to be in those optimistic predictions of decades past: Alexa and Siri can crack jokes, control your lights, answer questions, tell you the news, and so much more.

But for all their electronic conversational perfection, your electronic pals can’t satisfy your most fundamental needs and bring you a beer. This is something [luisengineering] has fixed, an he’s provided the appropriate answer to the question “Alexa: bring mir ein bier!“. The video which we’ve also put below the break is in German with YouTube’s automatic closed captions if you want them, but we think you’ll be able to get the point of it if not all his jokes without needing to learn to speak a bit of Deutsch.

As he develops his beer-delivery system we begin to appreciate that what might seem to be a relatively straightforward task is anything but. He takes an off-the-shelf robot and gives it a beer-bottle grabber and ice hopper, but the path from fridge to sofa still needs a little work. The eventual solution involves a lot of trial and error, and a black line on the floor for the ‘bot to follow. Finally, his electronic friend can bring him a beer!

We like [Luis]’s entertaining presentational style, and the use of props as microphone stands. We’ll be keeping an eye out for what he does next, and you should too. Meanwhile it may not surprise you that this is not the first beer-delivery ‘bot we’ve brought you.

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Hacking The Lidl Home Gateway

For years, Europeans have been browsing the central aisles of the German Aldi and Lidl supermarket chains, attracted by the surprising variety of transitory non-grocery bargains to be found there. There are plenty of temptations for hackers, and alongside the barbecues and Parkside tools at Lidl last year was a range of Zigbee home automation products. Every ZigBee network requires some form of hub, and for Lidl this comes in the form of a ¬£20 (about $28) Silvercrest Home Gateway appliance. It’s a small embedded Linux computer at heart, and [Paul Banks] has published details of how it can be hacked and bent to the user’s will.

Under the hood is a Realtek RTL8196E MIPS SoC with 16Mb of Flash and 32 Mb of memory. Gaining control of it follows the well trodden path of finding the bootloader, dumping the firmware, and re-uploading it with a known password file. If you’ve done much hacking of routers and the like you’ll recognise that this quantity of memory and Flash isn’t the most powerful combination so perhaps you won’t be turning it into a supercomputer, but it’s still capable enough to be integrated with Home Assistant rather than the cloud-based services with which it shipped.

There was a time when repurposing routers as embedded Linux machines was extremely popular, but it’s something that has fallen from favour as boards such as the Raspberry Pi have provided an easier path. So it’s good to see a bit of old-fashioned fun can still be had with an inexpensive device.

If you fancy a bit more German budget supermarket goodness, feast your eyes on an Aldi stick welder!

Home Automation Controller Uses Chalk

Responding to the Rethink Displays challenge of the 2021 Hackaday Prize contest, freelance design engineer [Rick Pannen] brings a retro look to his DIY home automation controller. You could be forgiven for not even realizing it is a controller at first glance. [Rick] built this using a magnetic chalk board and installed all the control electronics on the back. The main processor is a Raspberry Pi 400 running Raspian with IOBroker and Node-Red. Panel lettering and graphics are done free-hand with, you guessed it, chalk.

The controls on this panel are an eclectic hodgepodge of meters, switches, and sensors that [Rick] scored on eBay or scavenged from friends. We are curious about the simple-looking rotary dial that sends a pulse train based on the number set on the dial — this seems to have all the functionality of an old phone’s rotary dial without any of the fun.

But [Rick]’s design allows for easy changes — dare we say, it encourages them — so maybe we’ll see a salvaged rotary dial added in future revisions. Also note the indoor lighting ON/OFF switch that must be a real joy to operate. We wonder, is there any way the controls could be magnetized and moved freely around the board without permanently attaching them? Maybe an idea for version 4 or 5.

This design has a lot of possibilities, and we look forward to any upgrades or derivative versions of this unique home automation controller. Let us know in the comments below if you have any suggestions for expanding upon this idea.

Shop Exhaust Fan Salvaged From Broken Microwave

You don’t have to look hard to find a broken microwave. These ubiquitous kitchen appliances are so cheap that getting them repaired doesn’t make economical sense for most consumers, making them a common sight on trash day. But is it worth picking one of them up?

The [DuctTape Mechanic] certainly thinks so. In his latest video, he shows how the exhaust fan from a dead microwave can easily and cheaply be adapted to blow smoke and fumes out of your workshop. While it’s obviously not going to move as much air as some of the massive shop fans we’ve covered over the years, if you’re working in a small space like he is, it’s certainly enough to keep the nasty stuff moving in the right direction. Plus as an added bonus, it’s relatively quiet.

Now as you might expect the exact internal components of microwave ovens vary wildly, so there’s no guarantee your curbside score is going to have the same fan as this one. But the [DuctTape Mechanic] tries to give a relatively high-level overview of how to liberate the fan, interpret the circuit diagram on the label, and wire it up so you can plug it into the wall and control it with a simple switch. Similarly, how you actually mount the fan in your shop is probably going to be different, though we did particularly like how he attached his to the window using a pair of alligator clips cut from a frayed jumper cable.

Got a donor microwave but not in the market for a impromptu shop fan? No worries. We recently saw a dud microwave reborn as a professional looking UV curing chamber that would be the perfect partner for your resin 3D printer. Or perhaps you’d rather turn it into a desktop furnace capable of melting aluminum, copper, or bronze.

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A Standing Desk On The Cheap

A programmer forced to work from home during the pandemic, [MrAkpla] was having back pains from sitting in front of the computer all day. He considered buying a standing desk, but all the various options didn’t fit with either his desk or his budget. Not to be deterred, he devised one of the simplest standing desk implementations that we’ve seen. It clearly works for him, because he’s been using it for one year now with great success. [MrAkpla] espouses three main benefits of his approach:

  • Cheap as heck
  • Five minute set up time
  • Uses your existing desk

These goals were accomplished. You can see in the video below that transition from sitting to standing is indeed as quick as he claims, is clearly inexpensive, and indeed it doesn’t require any modifications to his desk or furniture.

This design centers on a having an 80 cm long monitor arm, which is quite a range of adjustment. He’s using a monitor arm pole mount from UK manufacturer Duronic. Although they are having delivery problems these days because of Brexit issues, [MrAkpla] was able to get one delivered from existing inventory outside of the UK.

Admittedly, this is a crude design — in effect two trash bins and a board. But even if this doesn’t fit well with your office decor, its a great way to try out the concept of a standing desk without the up-front investment. By the way, [MrAkpla] is on the lookout for similar monitor mounting poles from non-UK manufacturers. If you have any recommendations, put them in the comments below. If you’re interested in a DIY standing desk that is on the opposite side of the complexity spectrum, check out this beauty¬†that we covered back in the pre-pandemic era.

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Using Ikea Guts To Add Sonos Compatibility To A Vintage Speaker

We’re in a fortunate position when it comes to audio gear, because advances in amplifier and signal processing technology have delivered us budget devices that produce a sound that’s excellent in comparison to those of a few years ago. That said, a decent quality device is good whichever decade it was manufactured in, and a speaker from the 1960s can be coaxed into life and sound excellent with a modern amplifier. It’s something [Sebastius] has explored, as he picked up an attractive-looking set of Swedish speakers from the 1960s. Wanting to bring them into the 21st century, he’s upgraded them for Sonos compatibility by hacking in the guts of an IKEA Symfonisk bookshelf speaker.

The speakers themselves looked good enough, but on closer examination they proved to bear the scars of many decades. After testing new wiring and drivers they still had a good sound to them. Their passive crossover meant that hooking them up to a single amplifier is as straightforward as it was decades ago, but a Symfonisk has an active crossover and two amplifiers. Fortunately there’s a neat hack by which those two amplifiers can be combined as one, and this is what he’s done with the resulting Symfonisk electronic package mounted on the reverse of the speaker.

The fate of the original speaker’s broken mid-range and tweeter drivers was a common enough one back in the day as speakers were ill-matched to amplifiers. Too small an amp would need turning up in volume to get a good sound resulting in distortion that would burn out the top end drivers, while too much power would result in the bass drivers being overloaded and failing. It’s unclear whether the drivers in a vintage speaker would be well-matched to an amplifier such as the Symfonisk, but we’re guessing they are safe while run at sensible volumes. Perhaps of more interest is whatever on-board DSP a Symfonisk contains, because while vintage speakers were designed for as flat a response as possible, modern compact speakers use DSP to equalise the frequency and phase responses of otherwise not-very-good-sounding enclosures. If the Symfonisk does this then those adjustments will appear as distortion in the sound of a different cabinet, but the question remains whether that distortion will be significant enough to be detectable by ear.

If the Symfonisk catches your attention, we’ve covered a teardown of it in the past.