Capsela is Dead, Long Live Capsela

In the magical 80s, there was a building set that stood apart from the rest. Capsela, originally created by Mitzubishi Pencil Company (the Uniball folks) looked like a series of clear plastic spheres with gears and motors inside. The signature Capsela modules served as both enclosure and functional component. The set came with a variety of gear options like planetary gear, worm gear, and clutch capsules. You could use chain drives and propellers. A lot of the parts were water-resistant, and part of the toy’s shtik was that you could make boats out of it with pontoons keeping most of the robot out of the water.

Hex connectors printed by ericd3

Capsela’s sets were relatively simple, with only DC motors to make things move. However, as the product found success, the company built increasingly larger and more complicated sets with  greater capabilities. For instance, in ’87 they released the Robotic Workshop that included an IR remote that could be configured with a Commodore 64. Later on the Capsela Voice Command 6000 was released, featuring a microcontroller that could understand 8 verbal commands as well as interpret IR signals within 25 feet.

I never got any of those fancy sets, but I still found a lot to do with the basic set my parents bought me for Christmas. The unique architecture of the set was both boon and bane–it certainly was a striking set, in terms of its appearance. However, there were only so many ways you could those spheres together. Also, if you weren’t making a boat the pontoons were fairly useless, with the most clever solution being to use one as a wheel substitute.

The thing that really did it for me, other than hacking out reconfigurable boats in my bathtub, was being able to see everything. All the gearboxes could be seen though the clear plastic. How many nerds learned about mechanical engineering by peering through Capsela spheres?

As with all things, Capsela had its peak and faded away. The product was licensed to a number of new manufacturers, but never found the same success. They tried focusing on the educational market but no dice.

Nevertheless, the product has retained a degree of  nostalgia for those of us who outgrew it. A few years ago, software developer [José Romaniello] described how the toy set him on a path toward being an engineer. He started a Hacker News thread that engaged a bunch of fans in a nerdfest about how great the toy was and how one might 3D print new pieces. Not much was done in the 3DP world that I have seen, other than re-creating Capsela’s hex connectors and that sort of thing.

It’s Baaaaack….

“If they can remake Beauty and the Beast they can bring back Capsela”, is how I’m assuming the thought process went. Sure enough, a company emerged with a redesigned version of the set, available over the internet and in brick and mortar stores. Put out by a shell company called the Unitrust Development Company, the product has been renamed IQ Key.

The new kits seem very similar to those classic sets from  the 80s, other than superficial changes in the product’s appearance — the faceted geography of the pontoons and capsules suggest a refreshed product — it looks pretty much the same. The battery pack (slash switch) has also been redesigned, and looks like it may have an IR receiver built in. The company has also redesigned those hexagonal connectors and now they are circular and bayonet into place.

Is it the same old Capsela we knew and loved? Maybe, maybe not, but there’s only one way to find out: to hack the hell out of it!

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LiPo Added to LEGO Power Functions Power Brick

LEGO’s Power Functions elements mostly consist of DC motors and the hardware to be driven by those motors like gears and wheels. They also include battery packs, usually a bunch of AA cells in a plastic box. One of the challenges of the system — for hackers, anyway — is interfacing with the product line’s plugs, which resemble 2×2 plates with power and ground connectors built in, designed to be impossible to connect in reverse. It’s difficult to make the physical shape of the plug, with the connectors right where they should be. This hurdle means you also pretty much have to use LEGO’s power boxes or take your chances with frying your components from an unregulated LiPo.

The LiPo Power Brick project serves as a DC-DC power supply, serving up constant 9 V output, with
over current protection limiting current to 3 A peak or 2 A continuous and over-discharge protection shutting down the power supply when it zeroes out. It can be used in conjunction with Sbrick smart Power Functions controllers. The SBrick can also source 3A per channel, which is more than any LEGO PF-compatible power supply can deliver.

The LiPo Power Brick is the same size as a standard 2×4 brick, allowing you to easily add it to your next project.

I’ve Seen the Future and It’s Full of Freakin’ Huge Bricks

“Did you know you can 3D-print LEGO bricks that can actually be used as regular LEGO?”–me, in 2009

Those magical words made real to me the wonder that was 3D printing. It was a magical time! Everyone was 3D printing everything, though most of it wasn’t very good because the technology wasn’t there. But just as every technology goes through an evolution, the goalposts of coolness move on past what used to be remarkable to the new thing everyone’s talking about.

These days, no one is going to be more than mildly curious about your 3D-printed LEGO brick. Still, when you look at that uneven lump of plastic as being just one step in an evolution, it’s pretty momentous. What I’m saying is that we’re looking at a future that can be described in three words: Freakin’ Huge Bricks.

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All-LEGO Centrifugal Pump

[Yoshihito Isogawa] almost never employs non-LEGO parts in his creations. He created an excellent centrifugal pump out of 100% LEGO. While mostly a curiosity, you can definitely get a sense of how the mechanics work.

A Power Functions motor turns a 6×6 round plate that appears to have 1×2 smooth plates jammed between the studs, and secured with a 4×4 round plate on the other end. He geared up the motor so the assembly is spun very quickly, with those smooth plates forcing the water through a Technic mounting hole in one of the bricks.

[Yoshihito] is known for his utterly elegant, stripped down mechanical assemblies—-check out his books if this is your bag. According to his bio he’s twice won the Japanese medal for best manual, so I guess he’s really good at explaining things! Also, that’s a thing?

For more DIY pump creation check out the air pump made out of a PVC pipe and the DIY syringe pump we published previously.

Nerf Gun Ammo Counter and Range Finder

The proliferation of breakout boards that the DIY electronics movement has allowed has been staggering. Buy a few different boards, wire them together to a microcontroller or credit-card computer (both on their own breakout board) and write a bit of code, and you can create some really interesting things. Take Reddit user [Lord_of_Bone]’s Nerf Gun ammo counter and range finder, for example, a great example of having a great idea and looking around for the ways to implement it.

For the range finder, [Lord_of_Bone] looked to an ultrasonic rangefinder. For the ammo counter, [Lord_of_Bone] chose a proximity sensor. To run everything, the Raspberry Pi Zero was used and the visuals were supplied by a Rainbow Hat. The range finder is self-explanatory. The proximity sensor is located at the end of the gun’s muzzle and when it detects a Nerf dart passing by it reduces the ammo count by one. Blu-tack is used to hold everything in place, but [Lord_of_Bone] plans to use Sugru when he’s past the prototype stage.

The one problem [Lord_of_Bone] has with the build is that there’s no way to tell how many Nerf bullets are in the magazine. Currently the wielder must push a button when reloading to reset the count to a preset amount. We’re sure that [Lord_of_Bone] would appreciate any suggestions the Hack-A-Day crowd could offer.

[Lord_of_Bone] gives a full bill of materials, Python code, a lot of pictures and step-by-step instructions so that you, too, can determine how far away your target is, and whether or not you have enough ammo to hit them. We have quite a few Nerf mods on the site, and [Lord_of_Bone] could take a look at this article about how to keep track of your Nerf ammo, and here’s a different method of determining if a Nerf dart has been fired (and measuring its speed.)

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Toy Dash Turned Gaming Interface

We see a lot of MAME cabinets and other gaming emulator projects here on Hackaday, but it’s not often that we see one the form factor of which so elegantly matches the ROM. [circuitbeard] converted a Tomy Turnin Turbo toy dashboard into a mini arcade machine playing Outrun.

There are many fascinating details in [circuitbeard]’s writeup. His philsophy is to “keep it looking stock” so he went to great lengths to add functionality to various elements of the toy without changing its appearance. The gear shifter was turned into a 3-way momentary switch with high and low speeds at top and bottom, with rubber bands pulling the switch back the center (neutral) when he lets go of it. The original toy’s steering wheel mounts to a slide potentiometer. The dash has a working ignition switch that uses a PowerBlock to manage the safe startup and shutdown of the Pi.  The dash also lights up the way you’d expect, and even displays accurate MPG and rev info.

For more MAME goodness here on Hackaday, see this broken tablet turned into a mini MAME cabinet or the portable MAME system of the future

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A Disc Shooter For When Rubber Bands Or Nerf Darts Aren’t Enough

There are times in everybody’s life when they feel the need to shoot at things in a harmless manner. For those moments there are rubber bands and Nerf darts, but even then they feel like mere toys. If that is the point at which you find yourself, then maybe [Austin]’s home-made electric disc shooter can help.

Operation of the shooter is simple enough. A stack of 3D-printed plastic discs is loaded into a tubular magazine, from which individual disks are nudged by a motor-driven cam controlled by the trigger. Once the disc leaves the magazine it reaches a vacuum cleaner belt driven by a much more powerful motor, that accelerates the disc to ejection velocity.

The video below the break shows the gun’s construction, as well as a sequence involving the destruction of plenty of balloons, soda cans, and food items. The 3D-printed ammunition seems to us to be the weak link as in our experience it is inevitable that there is a high ammunition loss rate with these type of weapons, but maybe [Austin] has a line on some cheap filament. Either way, his disc gun looks like the kind of toy that could provide an entertaining diversion for many readers.

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