A woman with a black vest and pink shirt with curly hair stands behind a podium in front of a projected presentation. She is speaking and has her hands moving in a vague guesture.

Supercon 2022: Carrie Sundra Discusses Manufacturing On A Shoestring Budget

Making hardware is hard. This is doubly true when you’re developing a niche hardware device that might have a total production run in the hundreds of units instead of something mass market. [Carrie Sundra] has been through the process several times, and has bestowed her wisdom on how not to screw it up.

The internet is strewn with the remains of unfulfilled crowdfunding campaigns for tantalizing devices that seemed so simple when they showed of the prototype. How does one get something from the workbench into the world without losing their life savings and reputation?

[Sundra] walks us through her process for product development that has seen several products successfully launch without an army of pitchfork-wielding fiber crafters line up at her door. One of the first concepts she stresses is that you should design your products around the mantra, “Once it leaves your shop IT SHOULD NEVER COME BACK.” If you design for user-serviceability from the beginning, you can eliminate most warranty returns and probably make it easier to manufacture your widget to boot. Continue reading “Supercon 2022: Carrie Sundra Discusses Manufacturing On A Shoestring Budget”

Image of the presenter on the podium, in front of the projector screen with graphs shown on it

Supercon 2022: [Alex Whittemore] On Treating Your Sensor Data Well

If you build your own devices or hack on devices that someone else has built, you know the feeling of opening a serial terminal and seeing a stream of sensor data coming from your device. However, looking at scrolling numbers gets old fast, and you will soon want to visualize them and store them – which is why experienced makers tend to have a few graph-drawing and data-collecting tools handy, ready to be plugged in and launched at a moment’s notice. Well, if you don’t yet have such a tool in your arsenal, listen to this 16-minute talk by [Alex Whittemore] to learn about a whole bunch of options you might not even know you had!

For a start, there’s the Arduino Serial Plotter that you get for free with your Arduino IDE install, but [Alex] also reminds us of the Mu editor’s serial plotter – about the same in terms of features, but indisputably an upgrade in terms of UX. It’s not the only plotter in town, either – Better Serial Plotter is a wonderful standalone option, with a few features that supercharge it, as [Alex] demonstrates! You don’t have to stop here, however – we can’t always be tethered to our devices’ debugging ports, after all. Continue reading “Supercon 2022: [Alex Whittemore] On Treating Your Sensor Data Well”

Testing the World's Thinnest Boombox with a modular setup containing the basic components.

Supercon 2022: Joe Grand And The Thinnest Boombox

Boomboxes are one of those status symbols that define the 1980s and part of the 1990s, being both a miracle of integration and the best way to share your love of music with as many people as possible. Naturally, this led Joe Grand to figure that it would make it a perfect subject for a modern take on such an iconic device. The primary inspiration for this came from a piezo speaker developed by TDK called the ‘PiezoListen’. These are piezo devices that can be less than a millimeter thick, while still claiming to reproduce a broad range of audio frequencies.

Just having these speakers is only part of the solution, of course, which led Joe down the rabbithole of not only figuring out the components that should go into the system, but also how to get it all on a single PCB and see how far one can push different solder mask colors with an appropriately boombox-like design. At its core is a Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W that runs Mopidy, to provide music server functionality. Also added are some RGB lighting and touch controls.

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Supercon 2022: [Liz McFarland] Builds Golden Wings, Shows You How

Are you, by any chance, wondering about giving yourself wings? You should listen to [Liz McFarland] sharing her experience building a Wonder Woman suit, and not just any – the Golden Eagle suit from Wonder Woman 1984, adorned with a giant pair of wings. If a suit like that is in your plans, you’ll be warmly welcomed at a cosplay convention – and [Liz] had her sights on the San Diego Comic Con. With an ambitious goal of participating in the Comic Con’s cosplay contest, the suit had to be impressive – and impressive, it indeed was, not just for its looks, but for its mechanics too.

[Liz] tells us everything – from producing the wings and painting them, to keeping them attached to the body while distributing the weight, and of course, things like on-venue nuances and safety with regards to other participants. The dark side of cosplay building reality isn’t hidden either – talking, of course, about the art of staying within a reasonably tight budget. This build takes advantage of a hackerspace that [Liz] is an active member in – the [Crash Space] in LA. Everything is in – lasercutting, 3D printing, and even custom jigs for bending wing-structual PVC pipes play a role.

It would have been a travesty to not have the wings move at will, of course, and [Liz] had all the skills you could want for making the wings complete. She went for two linear actuators, walking us through the mechanical calculations and considerations required to have everything fit together. It’s not easy to build a set of wings on its own, let alone one that moves and doesn’t crumble as you use it – if you have already attempted bringing mechanical creations like this into life, you can see the value in what [Liz] shares with us, and if you haven’t yet delved into it, this video will help you avoid quite a few pitfalls while setting an example you can absolutely reach.

The suit was a resounding success at the con, and got [Liz] some well-earned awards – today, the suit’s story is here for the hackers’ world. Now, your cosplay aspirations have an inspiring real-life journey to borrow from, and we thank [Liz] for sharing it with us.

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Supercon 2022: [Jorvon Moss] Gives His Robots A Soul

How do you approach your robot designs? Maybe, you do it from a ‘oh, I have these cool parts’ position, or from a ‘I want to make a platform on wheels for my experiments’ perspective. In that case, consider that there’s a different side to robot building – one where you account for your robot’s influence on what other people around feel about them, and can get your creations the attention they deserve. [Jorvon ‘Odd-Jayy’ Moss]’s robots are catchy in a way that many robot designs aren’t, and they routinely go viral online. What are his secrets to success? A combination of an art background, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration, and a trove of self-taught electronics skills helped him develop a standout approach to robot building.

Now, [Jorvon] has quite a few successful robot projects under his belt, and at Supercon 2022, he talks about how our robots’ looks and behaviour shapes their perception. How do your own robots look to others, and what feelings do they evoke? With [Jorvon], you will go through fundamentals of what makes a robot look lively, remarkable, catchy or creepy, and it’s his unique backgrounds that let him give you a few guidelines on what you should and should not do when building a certain kind of robot.

You’ll do good watching this video – it’s short and sweet, and shows you a different side to building robots of your dreams; plus, the robot riding around on the stage definitely makes this presentation one of a kind. No matter your robot’s technical complexity, it’s significant that it can make people go ‘wow’ when they see it. Not all robots are there to single-mindedly perform a simple task, after all – some are meant to travel around the world.

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Jac Goudsmit and Ralf Porankiewicz at Supercon 2022

2022 Supercon: Jac And Ralf Explore The Secrets Of The Digital Compact Cassette

During the 1990s, music was almost invariably stored on CDs or cassette tapes. When the new millennium came around, physical formats became obsolete as music moved first to MP3 files, and later to network streams. But a few years before that big transition, there were several attempts at replacing the aging cassette and CD formats with something more modern. You might remember the likes of MiniDisc and Super Audio CD, but there were a few other contenders around.

The Digital Compact Cassette, or DCC, was one such format. Released by Philips in 1992 as a replacement for the analog audio cassette, it failed to gain traction in the market and disappeared before most people had even heard of it. Not so for [Jac Goudsmit] and [Ralf Porankiewicz] however, who have spent years researching all aspects of the DCC system and shared some of the results in their 2022 Supercon talk.

[Ralf] is the curator of the DCC Museum in Cathedral City, California, which owns examples of all DCC equipment ever released, as well as several devices that never made it to market. He also aims to document the history of audio recording and DCC’s contribution to it, which goes further than you might think. For example, the audio compression format used in the DCC system, called PASC, was an early version of what would later become MP3 – though most histories of audio compression ignore this fact.

[Jac], for his part, made an extensive study of all the technical features of the DCC format. He has written numerous articles about his findings, first in the DCC FAQ and later by maintaining the relevant Wikipedia articles. He is running several projects aimed at keeping the format alive, often in collaboration with the DCC Museum.

[Jac] and [Ralf] begin their talk with a brief introduction to the system and its media. DCC players were designed to be compatible with analog audio cassettes, so DCC cartridges are the same basic size, though with a different type of tape inside. Playback devices contain a complex set of magnetic heads to read either the analog signals from classic tapes, or the digital data stored on DCCs.

One unique feature of DCC is Interactive Text Transfer Service, or ITTS, which is a separate data area on the tape that can hold additional information like song lyrics or even simple animations. It was intended to be displayed on players that supported it, but no such devices were ever released. Luckily, [Jac] and [Ralf] managed to find a rare ITTS decoder system used in a tape mastering facility, and were able to reveal the contents of this “secret track”, which is present on all prerecorded tapes, for the first time.

User-recorded tapes never had any ITTS data, and differed from prerecorded ones in several other ways, too. The most obvious difference was that professionally-made tapes could be indexed by song title, while home-made ones could only jump to track numbers. [Jac] and [Ralf] are however working to enable all the professional features on home-made tapes as well, through a number of software and hardware projects.

The most basic software needed is an encoder and decoder for the PASC format, which [Jac] developed from existing MP1 sofware. But to explore some of the more obscure hardware features, he had to reverse-engineer several different DCC players. This led him to discover many interesting half-finished features: the ITTS data sector is one example, but he also found out that some players send ready-to-use VU meter data to their front panel, even though they are unable to display that information.

[Jac] was also one of the first people to buy the DCC-175 portable DCC player when it was released in 1995. This was the only DCC player ever sold with a computer interface, allowing direct transfer of digital audio between a computer and a DCC tape. The parallel port interface and its accompanying Windows 9x software are completely obsolete and unusable with modern PCs, so [Jac] is working on directly accessing the data from the DCC-175 through a custom cable. He’s making good progress: he already figured out the electrical interface and wrote some software that enables him to control the tape recorder directly.

We can’t help but be impressed by the amount of effort both [Jac] and [Ralf] have put into understanding and documenting all the intricacies of a long-obsolete audio format. Thanks to their efforts, we can still appreciate the impressive technology behind DCC – even if it never came close to replacing its analog cousin.

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Matt Venn speaking at Supercon 2022

Supercon 2022: Matt Venn’s Tiny Tapeout Brings Chip Design To The Masses

Not that long ago, rolling your own printed circuit boards was difficult, time-consuming and expensive. But thanks to an army of cheap, online manufacturing services as well as high-quality free design software, any hobbyist can now make boards to rival those made by pros. A similar shift might be underway when it comes to chip design: affordable manufacturing options and a set of free software tools are slowly bringing custom chips into the realm of hackers and hobbyists. One of those working hard to democratize chip design is Matt Venn, who’s been telling us all about his current big project, called Tiny Tapeout, in his talk at Remoticon 2022.

Matt’s quest to bring IC design to the masses started in 2020, when the first open-source compatible Process Design Kit (PDK) was released to the public. A PDK is a collection of files, normally only available under strict non-disclosure agreements, that describe all the features of a specific chip manufacturing process and enable you to make a design. With this free PDK in hand and a rag-tag collection of free software tools, Matt set out to design his first chip, a VGA clock, which he taped out (released to manufacturing) in July 2020. Continue reading “Supercon 2022: Matt Venn’s Tiny Tapeout Brings Chip Design To The Masses”