Adobe Scientist Cuts A Dash With LCD Shifting Dress

Adobe research scientist [Christine Dierk] showed off an interesting new project at the Adobe Max conference: Project Primrose, a dress covered with a series of liquid crystal panels that could react to movement, changing the design of the dress. Now, Adobe has released a paper showing some of the technical details of the process.

The paper is from the User Interface & Software (UIST) conference in 2022, so the examples it uses are older: it discusses a canvas and handbag. The dress uses the same technology, though, draped over a scientist rather than a frame. If you can’t access the version from UIST, [Dierk] has a free version here.

The dress uses Polymer-dispersed Liquid Crystal (PDLC) panels from the wonderfully named Shanghai HO HO Industry Co and is designed for use in windows and doors for privacy. It uses an Indium Tin oxide-coated PET film that is opaque by default but becomes transparent when a voltage difference is applied across the material.

These panels are shaped to a hexagonal shape, then wired together with flexible PCBs in a daisy chain. Interestingly, [Dierk] found that the smaller the panels were made, the lower the voltage was required to trigger them. For their canvas example, they dropped the voltage to a much safer -15V to 15V levels to trigger the two states, which is much safer for a wearable device.

The panels are also not completely transparent when triggered: the paper describes them as having a “soft ivory” look when they are overlaying a reflective material. Greyscales can also be made using Pulse Coded Modulation (PCM) to vary the panel’s transparency. Driving the panels at 3.2KHz, they created 64 shades of grey.

The main controller is a custom PCB with a Teensy 4.1 and a BlueFruit LE SPI module. The power comes from two 14.8V LiPo batteries, with converters to power the chips and switch modules so the Teensy can switch the -15 and +15V levels for the panels directly from each battery.

The array is made from modules, each with four panels connected to a controller PCB, which has several Analog Signal Device (ASD) ADG1414 chips. These receive the signals from the bus with switch registers to switch the panels individually.

Rather cleverly, [Dierk] uses the bus that daisy chains the modules together to deliver both power and the bus signal that controls the panels, using the -15 and +15V levels modulated with a 50Hz square wave to create the bus signal and power the panels at the same time. That’s a neat hack that reduces the complexity of the modules significantly.

The Teensy 4.1 controls the whole system and can use its IMU to sense movement and change the pattern accordingly. You don’t get to see the system’s electronics in the dress video, but they claim that the canvas example took just 0.58 Watts to drive, so the dress probably only needs a few watts.

It is a fascinating build (and a rather cute dress), and has a lot of potential. What would you do with this?

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The Other Way To Fight Software Rental

It’s been a distressing trend over the last decade, that of taking commercial software from a paid-for licence model and moving into the cloud and onto a rental model. In out line, we’ve seen this with CAD packages and notably with EAGLE PCB CAD, but it’s hit other sectors in exactly the same way. The art and design communities, in particular, are feeling the pinch from Adobe Suite going towards a rental model, and now the artist and perennial thorn in the side of anyone who seeks to own a colour, [Stuart Semple] is doing something about it. He’s launching a competing suite called provocatively, Abode, which will follow an affordable paid-for licence model. It’s a development that raises interesting questions for the open source community, so it’s definitely worth a second look from that perspective.

Taking on software rental can only be a good thing, and we hope that the new package gains a foothold for that reason. But since we’re sure that there will be open-source enthusiasts asking the question: why are the established open-source equivalents such as GIMP and Inkscape not the obvious alternatives to the Adobe suite? In there may be some uncomfortable moments of soul searching for the software libre world around usability and interfaces.

Whatever your take on open source versus paid software, it’s extremely encouraging to have somebody mount a high-profile challenge to the software rental model. We hope that Abode makes it to market and that it succeeds in making the graphics software market a little more open. Meanwhile, we’ve mentioned [Stuart Semple] before for his colour activism over the blackest of blacks, and for previously taking on Adobe over Pantone pricing.

LED Matrix Displays Get New Look Thanks To SMD Stencils

Even if surface-mount skills aren’t in your repertoire, chances are pretty good that most of us are at least familiar with SMD stencils. These paper-thin laser-cut steel sheets are a handy way to apply a schmear of solder paste to the pads of a PCB before component placement and reflowing. But are stencils good for anything else?

It turns out they are, if you’ve got some plain old 8×8 LED matrix displays you want to jazz up a bit. In this case, [upir]’s displays were of the square pixel type, but this trick would work just as well for a matrix with circular elements. Most of the video below is a master class in Adobe Illustrator, which [upir] used to generate the artwork for his stencils. There are a lot of great tips here that make creating one simple shape and copying it over the whole array with the proper spacing a lot easier. He also details panelizing multiple stencils, as well as the workflow from Illustrator to manufacturing.

When lined up properly over the face of the LED matrix, the stencils have quite an effect. We really liked the narrow vertical bars, which make the LED display look a bit like a VFD. And just because [upir] chose to use the same simple shape over all the LEDs in a matrix doesn’t mean that there aren’t other options. We can see how you might use the same technique to create different icons or even alphanumeric characters to create custom LED displays. The possibilities are pretty much limited to your imagination.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen [upir] teaching old displays new tricks.

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After 40 Years, Adobe Releases PostScript Source V0.10 For Posterity

Celebrating their 40th anniversary, Adobe released the source code of PostScript v0.10 to the Computer History Museum. But before you ask, we tried and it won’t compile with GCC out of the box – it’s missing at least except.h, but we’d bet you can hack around it with a little dedication.

PostScript is the precursor to PDF, and at the time it was revolutionary. Coming out of Xerox’s PARC, the idea was to create device- and resolution-independent documents where all the characters, symbols, and graphics are described by their shapes instead of bitmaps. PostScript’s secret sauce was in how it went back to a pixel-based representation for end use on monitors or printers. It’s no exaggeration to say that this ended up revolutionizing the print industry, and it makes sense in the CHM’s collection.

Still, on the trade-secret front, you shouldn’t get too excited. Apparently the code released here only includes a first-draft version of Adobe’s font hinting algos, as evidenced by the early version number. Nonetheless, you’re free to dig into pretty readable C. For instance, vm.c contains the virtual machine that implements PostScript’s almost Forth-like language.

Of course, if you’d just like to mess around with PostScript, downloading a modern open-source interpreter like GhostScript probably makes a lot more sense. Even so, it’s fun to see the original codebase where it all started.

Interview: Stuart Semple On Pantone, Freetone, Colour, And Open Source

We recently covered the removal of Pantone colour support from the Adobe cloud products, with the two companies now expecting artists and designers to pay an extra subscription for a Pantone plugin or face losing their Pantone-coloured work to a sea of black blocks. Our coverage focused on our community, and on how the absurdity of a commercial entity attempting to assert ownership over colours would have no effect on us with our triple-byte RGB values.

Interview With An Artist And Pigment Activist

Freetone, 1280 liberated colours, Stuart Semple
The palette that could start a revolution.

It’s fair to say though that in our focus on hardware hackers and open source enthusiasts, we missed its effect on artists and designers. To rectify this omission we needed to step outside our field and talk to an artist, and in that context there’s an obvious person to interview.

Stuart Semple is probably one of the more famous contemporary British artists, but in relation to this story it’s his activism over the issue of colours and intellectual property that makes him an authority. He’s drawn attention to the issue by releasing his own art materials in colours that directly challenge those which companies have tried to claim for themselves, and is perhaps best known in our community for challenging Anish Kapoor’s exclusive licence for VantaBlack, the so-called “world’s blackest pigment”.

Most recently in response to the Adobe/Pantone controversy he’s released Freetone, a free plugin for the Adobe suite that in the words from its web page contains “1280 Liberated colours are extremely Pantoneish and reminiscent of those found in the most iconic colour book of all time. In fact it’s been argued that they are indistinguishable from those behind the Adobe paywall”. I had a phone conversation with him, in which he explained why Freetone had come into being.

Hackaday I understand Pantone is something used by designers, so I’ve worked for companies in the past where the designer would specify a Pantone index and it would appear on the screen, on the printed box, and on everything else identically. But why why do you as an artist use Pantone?

A rack of test tubes of blood-red paint
Art, activism, and a very red pigment.

Stuart Well, I use it in lots of ways. So I make a lot of screen prints as part of my art. So you know, if I’m working with a screen printer, I want to know that the print that they make of my work is the colour that I want it to be, so Pantone’s really useful for me for that.

But also, even with within the paints, so I just did a thing where I made some paints, which actually uses the blood of gay men. It was really important to me that the colour of the paint matched the colour of actual blood. So I was working with a lot of people, we’ve been collaborating, and I was working with some friends in New York on it, and we needed a common language.

The red I was talking about was the red they were talking about, and Pantone is super useful for that. In fact, it’s the go-to for that. I just did a record cover for Placebo, the band, that was produced for me by someone that prints, so I had to tell them what spot colours I wanted. So I had to tell them Pantone references, it’s the language they understand.

Hackaday So my next question relates to Freetone. Obviously, as as you’ve distributed it, it’s a Adobe plugin. How does it solve the problem? Because obviously, I can specify a Freetone colour, and anybody else with Freetone can tell yes, that’s that colour. But how do I then go to a printer who buys his inks with Pantone specifications and map one to the other?

An open Pantone swatch book in a fan
The Pantone swatch book which you’ll see in the hands of artists and designers everywhere. Céréales Killer CC BY-SA 3.0.

Stuart How it works is, if you download Freetone, you’ll find colours in there, and one of them will be called Sempletone 648C. Well, it’s exactly the same as Pantone 648C. If you do your work on the screen, use the Freetones, and then when you send it to the printer, it’s actually blatantly obvious to anyone that 648C is clearly apparent. If you’ve got the Pantone fan book and you look at the colours, it’s the same. 846C in mine is the same as 846C in the fan, in the Pantone book. I’d like to see them try and argue that they own it, but I don’t think they do in the name or the Pantone trademark, but these are Sempletones with a number. So I think it’s gonna be hard.

Hackaday My next question is probably getting more into the technology of it all. Do you think it will be possible to replace Pantone’s service completely? So if you took every Sempletone colour and threw it at a spectrometer and published the spectrum, would you then be able to say to an ink manufacturer or similar, here are the full technical details rather than just a colour, and does your paint correspond to this spectrum? I’m curious how far you could push open source in this line.

PySpectrometer version 2, showing mini spectroscope, 4 inch display and hand for scale
The PySpectrometer project, something for anyone with an interest in colour.

Stuart That’s really cool. I love it. Like, if you could just give them that spectral data, and if they’ve got a spectrometer they could measure it a their end. But there’s nothing that advanced at the moment, a lot of action is done by eye still. My answer is, I don’t see why not if there was a cool enough device. I don’t know if the spectrometer would be good enough to match it. I don’t see why not, I don’t see why you couldn’t publish the data. But it would have to be the whole spectral information and not just like an RGB value.

(At this point the interview digressed for a moment into a discussion of open-source spectrometers such as the Raspberry Pi project we featured recently, as Stuart’s lament was that a spectrometer can be an extremely expensive instrument. It isn’t the job of an interviewer to lead their interviewee so we’re skipping this part of the transcript, however I think we can all look forward to whatever uses Stuart makes of an affordable spectrometer. We’ll pick up the interview at the next question.)

Photoshop Pantone warning popup.
This widely shared screenshot represents the destruction of past work.

Hackaday One of the real problems with the whole Adobe suite, and this has happened in world as well with for instance the Autodesk CAD packages, is that they have gone into the cloud and become software as a subscription. So I understand completely, the frustration of artists at suddenly being told they have to pay an extra subscription to keep their Pantone support, and I’m particularly shocked to find that Photoshop isn’t just displaying black pixels over Pantone colours, I’m told it’s wiping out the Pantone information on saving. Do you think that anything in the open source software ecosystem comes close to replacing proprietary products like the Adobe suite for you as an artist?

Stuart Yes, 100%, there’s loads of stuff. I think open source is just the answer, I believe in freedom. And freedom means freedom to express yourself and freedom to own the thing and tweet the thing and change the thing and all the rest of it. So yeah, 100%. I think there’s actually better things than Photoshop, the problem we’ve got is that Adobe have the industry stranglehold. And if you want to work with someone, you have to be talking that language. And that’s still the problem. It’s like an operating system, but it’s got the monopoly.

So there are other things, for instance, on a Mac, there’s something called Pixelmator, which is as good as Photoshop in my opinion, I use it every day. It’s not free, but you buy it once, and that’s it, free updates. Like software used to be. And there are other things, like GIMP is amazing. It’s awesome, but it doesn’t really replace Photoshop.

A screenshot of GIMP
We all like using GIMP, perhaps other people could learn to love it too. (

Hackaday Here at Hackaday we can make noises about how wouldn’t it be great if the developers of GIMP or other software could stick Freetone into their products, because they don’t have Pantone as it’s licensed?

Stuart Yeah, that’d be a dream, wouldn’t it? I mean, why not? I made it for everybody. As far as I’m concerned, it’s out there, use it, change it. incorporate it, the more people the better, I think.

A lot of people use GIMP, and it’s good. Really good open source stuff that always has been. We know the future is in the open source stuff, proprietary stuff just won’t last, it’s just not adaptable. It’s putting greed and profits above the user, it can’t work. There’s no freedom in it.

Hackaday To me the most egregious thing is that as I understand it they will delete the Pantone information from your PSD.  This really shocked me.

Stuart They’re literally holding it hostage. It’s like 20 quid, or delete from your work, which is, wow. They’re not giving me anything, anyway. I’m renting the software, paying to use the software every month, it’s not free. And the licence fee is a lot. We’re already spending hundreds and hundreds a year on this software, probably about 800 quid a year. Another 20 quid, just to pen the work we make before. I mean, it’s our work! It’s pure corporate greed, isn’t it.

Hackaday Thank you very much for the interview.

As we wrapped up, I asked him about his Black 3.0 pigment, produced as a reaction to VantaBlack and Anish Kapoor. I was curious whether it might have a specially good infra-red response for headsinks or solar collectors, but sadly he informed me that it’s primarily a visual colour for artists. It’s very cool stuff, incredibly black, and I really want to get some to play with, but probably no better than a rattle can for heat purposes. Never mind, an engineer’s curiosity satisfied.

What’s Next, For Both Artists And Engineers?

Swatchbooker screenshot
Could SwatchBooker hold the answer?

Following the interview, it’s worth looking at the Freetone project from our side of the table as well as his. If we as a community would like to ensure that colours do not become ever more proprietary, then it is probably on us to ensure that where appropriate it is supported within our sphere. GIMP support for instance would at a stroke make open source software an easier choice for millions of artists and designers, and could I think be done relatively easily through its existing palette support. There’s SwatchBooker which appears to perform the necessary interchange, and I found the ASE2GIMP project which imports Adobe palettes into GIMP, but sadly I couldn’t make it work here. If GIMP shipped with a Freetone palette built-in, would that be too much of a development task to contemplate?

From Stuart’s side, having sat down and played with Freetone, if there’s one thing I could ask him it would be to release it as more than just an Adobe plugin, and to give it an open source licence. As it stands it’s a binary available for no charge through his web shop, I think that releasing it as a straightforward list, perhaps even as simple as a CSV file, would make it so much more accessible to developers. And coupled with an open source licence that allowed them to include it within their software, I think it would be unstopable. We’re not open source licence nerds here at Hackaday, but I’m guessing something that does the same for a palette as a library licence such as the LGPL does for libraries would be appropriate.

In our world we’re wrapped up in electronics and code, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that the work we do reaches way beyond our workbenches. If you’ve spent enough time in a hackerspace you’ll know that art and engineering are almost the two sides of the same coin, so it’s pleasing to find such a moment of crossover. Let’s hope Freetone support can find its way into the open source movement, and together we can keep the tentacles of yet another IP land grab at bay.

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Hackaday Links: February 7, 2021

What’s that they say about death and taxes? Apparently that maxim doesn’t apply to Flash, at least when it comes to the taxman. As we noted last week, the end of the Adobe Flash era took with it a scheduling and routing app for the railway system in a Chinese city. This time around, it’s the unfortunately acronymed SARS, for South African Revenue Services, having Flash woes. They still have several online tax forms that haven’t been migrated to HTML5, so to keep the revenue flowing they built their own Flash-enabled browser. Taxpayers are free to download and use the browser while SARS works on getting the rest of their forms migrated. It sort of reminds us of those plans the Internal Revenue Service has to ensure tax collection continues after a nuclear apocalypse — death and taxes indeed.

Trouble for Nintendo in the EU? It looks that way, as consumer groups have made the case to EU regulators that Nintendo’s wildly popular Switch consoles are showing unacceptably premature obsolescence with the notorious “Joy-Con drift” issue. The problem, which manifests as players being unable to control a game due to constant movement despite no inputs on the joystick-like controller, requires a repair, one that Nintendo initially only did for free as warranty service for consoles less than a year old. For consoles out of the warranty period, Nintendo was charging €45, which is approximately the same as what a new controller would cost. This didn’t sit well with regulators, and now they’re breathing down Nintendo’s neck. They now offer free repairs for up to two years, but they’re still under the EU microscope. The interesting bit in the linked document is the technical reason for the problem, which is attributed to premature PCB wear — possibly meaning the traces wear away — and inadequate sealing of the Joy-Con mechanism against dust intrusion.

Last year looked as though it was going to be an exciting one with respect to some of our nearest solar and galactic neighbors. For a while there, it looked like the red giant Betelgeuse was going to go supernova, which would have been interesting to watch. And closer to home, there were some signs of life, in the form of phosphine gas, detected in the roiling atmosphere of our sister planet, Venus. Alas, both stories appear not to have panned out. The much-hoped-for (by me) Betelgeuse explosion, which was potentially heralded by a strange off-cycle dimming of the variable star, seems now to be due to its upper atmosphere cooling by several hundred degrees. As for Venus, the phosphine gas that was detected appears actually to have been a false positive triggered by sulfur dioxide. Disappointing results perhaps, but that’s how science is supposed to work.

Amateur radio often gets a bad rap, derided as a hobby for rich old dudes who just like to talk about their medical problems. Some of that is deserved, no doubt, but there’s still a lot of room in the hobby for those interested in advancing the state of the art in radio communications. In this vein, we were pleased to learn about HamSCI, which is short for Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation. The group takes to heart one of the stated primary missions of amateur radio as the “ontinuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.” To that end, they’ll be holding HamSCI Workshop 2021, a virtual conference that will be focused on midlatitude ionospheric science. This appears to be a real science conference where both credentialed scientists and amateurs can share ideas. They’ve got a Call for Proposals now, with abstracts due by February 15. The conference itself will be on March 19 and 20, with free admission. The list of invited speakers looks pretty impressive, so if you have any interest in the field, check it out.

And finally, we got a tip this week about a collection of goofy US patents. Everything listed, from the extreme combover to baby bum-print art, is supposedly covered by a patent. We didn’t bother checking Google Patents, but some of these are pretty good for a laugh. We did look at a few, though, and were surprised to learn that the Gerbil Shirt is not a garment for rodents, but a rodent-filled garment for humans.

The Ground Beneath Your Feet: SuperAdobe Construction

Homes in different parts of the world used to look different from each other out of necessity, built to optimize for the challenges and benefits of local climate. When residential climate control systems became commonplace that changed. Where a home in tropical south Florida once required very different building methods (and materials) compared to a home in the cold mountains of New England, essentially identical construction methods are now used for single-family homes in any climate. The result is inefficient and virtually indistinguishable housing from coast to coast, regardless of climate. As regions throughout the world are facing increasingly dire housing shortages, the race is on to find solutions that are economical and available to us right now.

The mission of CalEarth, one of the non-profits that Hackaday has teamed up with for this year’s Hackaday Prize, is to address that housing shortage by building energy-efficient homes out of materials already available in the areas that they will be built. CalEarth specializes in building adobe, or earth, homes that have a large thermal mass and an inexpensive bill of materials. Not only does this save on heating and cooling costs, but transportation costs for materials can be reduced as well. Some downside to this method of construction are increased labor costs and the necessity of geometric precision of the construction method, both of which are tackled in this two-month design challenge.

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