The Wonderful World of USB Type-C

Despite becoming common over the last few years USB-C remains a bit of a mystery. Try asking someone with a new blade-thin laptop what ports it has and the response will often include an awkward pause followed by “USB-C?”. That is unless you hear “USB 3” or maybe USB 3.1. Perhaps even “a charging port”. So what is that new oval hole in the side of your laptop called? And what can it really do? [jason] at Reclaimer Labs put together a must-read series of blog posts in 2016 and 2017 plumbing the depths of the USB 3.1 rabbit hole with a focus on Power Delivery. Oh, and he made a slick Easy Bake Oven with it too.

A single USB Type-C connector

When talking about USB-C, it’s important to start at the beginning. What do the words “USB-C” entail? Unsurprisingly, the answer is complicated. “USB Type-C” refers only to the physical connector and detail about how it is used, including some of the 24 pins it contains. Then there are the other terms. “USB 3.1” is the overall standard that encompasses the Type-C connector and new high-speed data busses (“USB SuperSpeed” and “SuperSpeedPlus”). In addition there is “USB Power Delivery” which describes power modes and even more pin assignments. We’re summarizing here, so go read the first post for more detail.

The second post devotes a formidable 1,200 words to providing an overview of the electrical specifications, configuration communication, and connector types for USB 3.1.

A GIF of a flipping USB Type C connector
Marketing at its finest

The third post is devoted to USB Power Delivery. Power Delivery encompasses not only the new higher power modes supported (up to 100W!), but the ways to use the extra 10 or 13 pins available on the Type-C connector. This is both the boon and bane of USB-C, allowing apparently identical ports to carry common signals like HDMI or DisplayPort, act as analog audio outputs, and provide more exotic interfaces like PCIe 3.0 (in the form of Thunderbolt 3, which is a yet another thing this connector can be used for).

It should be clear at this point that the topics touched by “USB Type-C” are exceptionally complex. Save yourself the trouble of a 90MB specification zipfile and take a pass through [jason]’s posts to understand what’s happening. For even more detail about Power Delivery, he walks through sample transactions in a separate post.

Getting Kitted to Teach your First Hardware Workshop

I was always a sucker for art classes in my early days. There was something special about getting personal instruction while having those raw materials in your hands at the same time. Maybe it was the patient voice of the teacher or the taste of the crayons that finally got to my head. Either way, I started thinking: “I want to do this; I want to teach this stuff.”

Last year at Hackaday Superconference I got my chance. Hardware workshops with real hardware were so rare; I just had to bring one to the table! What follows is my tale of joys and woes bringing together a crew to take their first few steps into the world of cable-driven animatronics. If you’re thinking about getting your feet wet with teaching your own hardware workshop, read on. I’ve packed this story with as much of my own learnings as I could to set you on a path to success.

The good news is that Supercon returns every year. I you want to take part in some epic workshops like this one, grab a ticket for this year’s conference now. If you want to host a hardware workshop, the Call for Proposals is still open! Okay, let’s dive in.

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Track Everything, Everywhere with an IoT Barcode Scanner

I’ve always considered barcodes to be one of those invisible innovations that profoundly changed the world. What we might recognize as modern barcodes were originally designed as a labor-saving device in the rail and retail industries, but were quickly adopted by factories for automation, hospitals to help prevent medication errors, and a wide variety of other industries to track the movements of goods.

Medication errors in hospitals are serious and scary: enter the humble barcode to save lives. Source: The State and Trends of Barcode, RFID, Biometric and Pharmacy Automation Technologies in US Hospitals

The technology is accessible, since all you really need is a printer to make barcodes. If you’re already printing packaging for a product, it only costs you ink, or perhaps a small sticker. Barcodes are so ubiquitous that we’ve ceased noticing them; as an experiment I took a moment to count all of them on my (cluttered) desk – I found 43 and probably didn’t find them all.

Despite that, I’ve only used them in exactly one project: a consultant and friend of mine asked me to build a reference database out of his fairly extensive library. I had a tablet with a camera in 2011, and used it to scan the ISBN barcodes to a list. That list was used to get the information needed to automatically enter the reference to a simple database, all I had to do was quickly verify that it was correct.

While this saved me a lot of time, I learned that using tablet or smartphone cameras to scan barcodes was actually very cumbersome when you have a lot of them to process. And so I looked into what it takes to hack together a robust barcode system without breaking the bank.

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Circuit VR: Starting an Amplifier Design

Sometimes I wish FETs had become practical before bipolar transistors. A FET is a lot more like a tube and amplifies voltages. Bipolar transistors amplify current and that makes them a bit harder to use. Recently, [Jenny List] did a series on transistor amplifiers including the topic of this Circuit VR, the common emitter amplifier. [Jenny] talked about biasing. I’ll start with biasing too, but in the next installment, I want to talk about how to use capacitors in this design and how to blend two amplifiers together and why you’d want to do that.

But before you can dive into capacitors and cascades, we need a good feel for how to get the transistor biased to start with. As always, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news it that transistors vary quite a bit from device to device. The good news is that we’ll use some design tricks to keep that from being a problem and that will also give us a pretty wide tolerance on component values. The resulting amplifier won’t necessarily be precise, but it will be fine for most uses. As usual, you can find all the design files on GitHub, and we’ll be using the LT Spice simulator.

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Learn FPGA Fast with Hackaday’s FPGA Boot Camp

FPGAs have gone from being a niche product for people with big budgets to something that every electronics experimenter ought to have in their toolbox. I am always surprised at how many people I meet who tell me they are interested in using FPGAs but they haven’t started. If you’ve been looking for an easy way to get started with FPGAs, Hackaday’s FPGA boot camp is for you. There’s even a Hackaday.io chat in the group specifically for FPGA talk for questions and general discussion!

While it is true FPGAs aren’t for everything, when you need them you really need them. Using FPGAs you can build logic circuits — not software simulations, but real circuits — and reap major performance benefits compared to a CPU. For digital signal processing, neural networks, or computer vision applications, being able to do everything essentially in parallel is a great benefit. Sometimes you just need the raw speed of a few logic gates compared to a CPU plodding methodically through code. We expect to see a lot more FPGA activity now that Arduino is in the game.

These boot camps gather together some of the material you seen spread over many articles here before, plus new material to flesh it out. It’s designed for you to work through more like a training class than just some text to read. There’s plenty of screenshots and even animations to help you see what you are supposed to be doing. You’ll be able to work with simulations to see how the circuits we talk about work, make changes, and see the results. We’ll focus on Verilog — at least for now — as it is close to C and easier for people who know C to pick up. Still not convinced? Let’s run though the gist of the boot camp series.

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Beginning BLE Experiments And Making Everything Better

Successfully connecting things without physical wires has a profound effect on the maker brain. Machines talking to each other without any cables is as amazing today as it was a decade ago. When Bluetooth came out, it was a breakthrough since it offered a wireless way to connect cellphones to a PC. But Bluetooth is a complicated, high-bandwidth power hog, and it didn’t make sense for battery-powered devices with less demanding throughput requirements to pay the energy price. Enter Bluetooth LE (BLE), with power requirements modest enough to enable a multitude of applications including low power sensor nodes and beacons.

Over the years, a number of gadgets with BLE have popped up such as the LightBlue Bean, BLE Beacons as well as quadcopters like the FlexBot that rely on BLE for communication. Android or iOS apps are the predominant method of talking to these wonderful gadgets though there are alternatives.

This is the first in a two part series on building with BLE devices. First, I’ll survey some BLE devices and how to get started with BLE from the Linux command line. Later, we will go into describing the process of making a NodeJS cross-platform app that will leverage the BLE capabilities and connect it to the Internet.
Lets get started.
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A Custom Keyboard At Maximum Effort

No one loves hacked keyboards more than Hackaday. We spend most of our workday pressing different combinations of the same 104 buttons. Investing time in that tool is time well spent. [Max] feels the same and wants some personality in his input device.

In the first of three videos, he steps us through the design and materials, starting with a layer to hold the keys. FR4 is the layer of fiberglass substrate used for most circuit boards. Protoboards with no copper are just bare FR4 with holes. Homemade CNC machines can glide through FR4, achieving clean lines, and the material comes in different mask colors so customizing an already custom piece is simple. We see a couple of useful online tools for making a homemade keyboard throughout the videos. The first is a keypad layout tool which allows you to start with popular configurations and tweak them to suit your weirdest desires. Missing finger? Forget one key column. Extra digit? Add a new key column. Huge hands? More spaces between the keys. [Max] copied the Iris keyboard design but named his Arke, after the fraternal sister to Iris which is fitting since his wrist rests are removable. Continue reading “A Custom Keyboard At Maximum Effort”