A Stylish Home For Your Next ESP Project

The ESP8266 and ESP32 are fast becoming the microcontroller of choice for, well, everything. But one particular area we’ve seen a lot of activity in recently is home automation; these boards make it so incredibly easy and cheap to get your projects online that putting together your own automation system is far more appealing now than it’s ever been. Capitalizing on that trend, [hwhardsoft] has been working on a ESP enclosure that’s perfect for mounting on the living room wall.

Of course, there’s more to this project than an admittedly very nice plastic box. The system also includes a ILI9341 2.4 inch touch screen LCD, an integrated voltage regulator, and even a section of “perfboard” that gives you a spot to easily wire up ad-hoc circuits and sensors. You don’t even need to switch over to the bare modules either, as the PCB is designed to accommodate common development boards such as the Wemos D1 Mini and NodeMCU.

Despite its outward appearance, this project is very much beginner friendly. Utilizing through hole components, screw down terminals, and a impeccably well-labeled silkscreen, you won’t need to be a hardware expert to produce a very slick gadget the whole family can appreciate.

Much like the HestiaPi project we covered a few months back, this project takes a cheap and readily available development board and turns it into something that has all the trappings of a commercial offering. These projects are reminders that the line between built and bought is only getting blurrier as time goes on.

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Tiny Vacuum Cleaner Sucks (In A Good Way)

Sometimes something is remarkable not for its content, but for its size. A ball of yarn isn’t exciting for example, unless it’s a giant ball of yarn. At the other end of the scale writing your name is a quotidian event, but put it on a grain of rice and that’s ten bucks at the mall. [Toby Bateson] has been making vacuum cleaners since he was 8 years old — and he looks considerably older than that now. In of itself that’s not a big deal, but his machines are tiny. In fact, he has the Guinness Book of World Records entry for the smallest vacuum cleaner. His latest exploit? A vacuum in an Altoid’s tin!

Electronically, this is just a switch, a battery, and a motor. But if you are looking for a Dremel tool project, you are in luck. Check out the video of the diminutive device, below. Besides the Altoids tin, there is a metal pipe and some bits of a cut-up soda can.

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A Professional-Level Desk In A Dorm

Heading off to college comes with its own set of challenges. Harder course material, living away from home for the first time, and dealing with roommates are common hurdles to overcome, but an oft-overlooked issue is the poor quality dorm room desks. For a place that a student is expected to spend a majority of their study time, colleges and universities don’t often provide inspiring areas in the dorm rooms for this task. With a few tools and some time, though, anyone suffering in a dorm can have a much better place to work.

This desk build comes to us from reddit user [lucas_talbert] and is noteworthy for using simple tools and materials to transform the standard, boring desk in a way which won’t upset the facilities manager in charge of the dorm furniture. The backer is a piece of plywood which was covered in bamboo flooring. It was screwed into the back of the desk and secured with L-brackets. A piece of 1×4 was attached around the edges to help hide the LED lights and cables as well.

We like this build for its impressive transformation of an otherwise drab dorm room into a place that most of us wouldn’t mind having as our main workstation, even beyond college. It also uses common materials and is easily removable, both of which are perks when living as a student. The one thing it doesn’t have, though, is the ability to exercise when using it.

DJ Xiaomi Spins Beats And Brushes At The Same Time

Direct from the “Just Because I Can” department, this blog post by [Eddie Zhang] shows us how easy it is to get the Xiaomi robotic vacuum cleaner working as what might be the world’s most unnecessary Spotify Connect speaker. Will your home be the next to play host to an impromptu performance by DJ Xiaomi? Judging by the audio quality demonstrated in the video after the break, we doubt it. But this trick does give us a fascinating look at the current state of vacuum hacking.

For the first phase of this hack, [Eddie] makes use of Dustcloud, an ongoing project to document and reverse engineer various Xiaomi smart home gadgets. Using the information provided there you can get root-level SSH access to your vacuum cleaner and install your own software. There’s a sentence you never thought you’d read, right?

With the vacuum rooted, [Eddie] then installs a Spotify Connect client intended for the Raspberry Pi. As they’re both ARM devices, the software will run on the Xiaomi bot well enough, but the Linux environment needs a little tweaking. Namely, you need to manually create an Upstart .conf file for the service, as the vacuum doesn’t have systemd installed. There goes another one of those unexpected sentences.

We’re certainly no stranger to robotic vacuum hacking, though historically the iRobot Roomba has been the target platform for such mischief. Other players entering the field can only mean good things for those of us who get a kick out of seeing home appliances pushed outside of their comfort zones.

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Detecting Cars With An ESP8266 Magnetometer

Having a motorized gate on your driveway is great, but only if there’s an easy way to trigger it. [Andrew] says the gate at his parent’s place could only be controlled by manually pushing a button on the panel or with a dinky remote that didn’t have nearly the range they wanted. So he decided to build his own magnetometer allowing the gate to automatically open when a car was trying to leave.

Naturally, there are commercial offerings that would solve this problem. But with a sticker price of more than $150 USD, [Andrew] was more than happy to spend a bit of time tinkering to get the job done for less than 1/10th the cost with an ESP8266 and a QMC5883X series magneto-resistive sensor. Of course, this is one of those projects that seems simple enough in your head, but ends up taking a bit of finesse to pull off in the real-world.

For one, [Andrew] had to figure out how to prevent false positives. Pretty much any object brought close enough to the sensor, including his hand, would cause it to react. He ended up coming up with a way to use a rolling average to prevent the gate from firing off just because a squirrel ran past. The built-in safeties are designed to ensure that the gate only opens when an actual car is sitting in the appropriate spot for long enough.

Speaking of, we love how [Andrew] deployed the QMC5883X sensor for this project. The small sensor board and a few moisture-absorbing packets were placed in a Sonoff IP66 waterproof enclosure, and buried under the rocks of the driveway. A standard CAT5 cable is used to tether it to the ESP8266, relay, and assorted other goodies that now live in the gate’s control box. In the future he says the cable will likely have to go into a conduit, but for now the system is working more or less how he expected.

If your estate isn’t quite palatial enough to have a motorized gate out front, we’ve seen plenty of projects that add some much-needed intelligence to the humble garage door opener which might be more your speed.

Reading The Water Meter In A Literal Sense With An ESP8266

In our info-obsessed culture, hackers are increasingly interested in ways to quantify the world around them. One popular project is to collect data about their home energy or water consumption to try and identify any trends or potential inefficiencies. For safety and potentially legal reasons, this usually has to be done in a minimally invasive way that doesn’t compromise the metering done by the utility provider. As you might expect, that often leads to some creative methods of data collection.

The latest solution comes courtesy of [Keilin Bickar], who’s using the ESP8266 and a serial TTL camera module to read the characters from the LCD of his water meter. With a 3D printed enclosure that doubles as a light source for the camera, the finished device perches on top of the water meter and sends the current reading to HomeAssistant via MQTT without any permanent wiring or mounting.

Of course, the ESP8266 is not a platform we generally see performing optical character recognition. Some clever programming was required to get the Wemos D1 Mini Lite to reliably read the numbers from the meter without having to push the task to a more computationally powerful device such as a Raspberry Pi. The process starts with a 160×120 JPEG image provided by a VC0706 camera module, which is then processed with the JPEGDecoder library. The top and bottom of the image are discarded, and the center band is isolated into blocks that correspond with the position of each digit on the display.

Within each block, the code checks an array of predetermined points to see if the corresponding pixel is black or not. In theory this allows detecting all the digits between 0 and 9, though [Keilin] says there were still the occasional false readings due to inherent instabilities in the camera and mounting. But with a few iterations to the code and the aid of a Python testing program that allowed him to validate the impact of changes to the algorithm, he was able to greatly improve the detection accuracy. He says it also helps that the nature of the data allows for some basic sanity checks;  for example the number only ever goes up, and only by a relatively small amount each time.

This method might not allow the per-second sampling required to pull off the impressive (if slightly creepy) water usage data mining we saw recently, but as long as you’re not after very high resolution data this is an elegant and creative way to pull useful data from your existing utility meter.

How The Power Gets To The Outlet

[Practical Engineering] is ready to explain how power substations get electricity to you in his latest video, which you can see below.  One of the things we always notice when talking to people either in our community or outside it is that most people have no idea how most of the modern world works.

Ask your non-technical friend to explain how a cell phone works or how a hard drive stores data and you aren’t likely to get a very good answer. However, even most of us are only focused on some particular aspect of electronics. There are a lot of people who hack on robots or radios. The AC power grid,though isn’t something a lot of people work with as a hobby. Do you know exactly what goes on in that substation you pass every day on your commute? If you don’t, you’ll learn something in the video.

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