Hackday regular [Akiba] is working on a series of video tutorials guiding newbies into the world of the 802.15.4 wireless protocol stack — also known as ZigBee. So far, his tutorials include a “getting started with chibiArduino”, his own Arduino-based wireless library, as well as a more basic tutorial on how radio works.
[Akiba] already made a name for himself though a large number of wireless projects, including his Saboten sensor boards, which are ruggedized for long-term environmental monitoring. The Saboten boards use the same wireless stack as his Arduino-compatible wireless development boards, his Freakduino products. The latest version features an ATmega 1284P with 8x the RAM and 4x the flash of the older, 328P-based Freakduinos. It comes in both 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz and there’s also a special 900 Mhz “Long Range” variant. The boards include some great power-saving features, including switchable status LEDs and on-board battery regulation circuity allowing one to run a full year on two AA cells while in sleep mode. They also have a USB stick configuration that is great for Raspberry Pi projects and for running straight from the PC.
Akiba sits at a very interesting intersection of technology and culture. He is well known for his experience with manufacturing in Shenzhen — but he has a few other unique dimension I’ll get to in a minute. His experience manufacturing in China goes far beyond the electronics you might expect and covers, well, everything that could possibly be made. His talk, Shenzhen in 30 Minutes, at last year’s Hackaday Superconference is a crash course in the area, the culture, and the business side of things.
Now about those other dimensions. In the interview, Akiba and Sophi discuss two other areas where he has an incredibly unique viewpoint. The first is his founding of a hacker collective in the rural areas outside of Tokyo. Hacker Farm has been growing like crazy of the last three or four years. It seems that people come to visit and realize renting in the area is so cheap they can’t leave. This led to a culture boom around the camp; a self-feeding engine that attracts more visitors (and often visiting chefs who literally feed the group handsomely) and grows the collective.
They’re working on new applications of technology for farming in the area. One aspect of this is water level sensors for the rice farmers in the area which he wrote about at length for Hackaday. Wildlife turns out to be a huge challenge here — apparently spiders will exploit any hole or crevice to build a web which usually renders the sensor worthless. The group is also beginning experiments with the “three sisters” of gardening: corn, beans, and squash and plan to use this as a test bed for all kinds of agricultural automation.
Although touched on only briefly at the end of the interview, Akiba also works with wearable technology at an extreme level. He builds lighting and other interactivity into suits for the Wrecking Crew Orchestra. It’s always a treat to hear his experience dealing with wear and tear, communications latency, and a user interface for the dancers themselves.
Multi-talented hacker extraordinaire and electrical engineer [Akiba] is based in Japan, and this makes it just a hop, skip, and a jump over to Shenzhen, China, the hardware capital of the world. He’s led a number of manufacturing tours aimed at acquainting hackers with the resources there, and now he’s giving you the benefit of his experience in a 30-minute video. It’s great.
When you mention Shenzhen, many people think about electronic gadgets, cheap components, manufacturing, and technology. I’m there quite often and find that all of the technology and manufacturing related stress can be overwhelming at times. Sometimes I feel the need to escape it all so I go to markets and places that aren’t traditionally associated with technology so I can clear my head as well as expose myself to something different. It provides me with a constant source of new design ideas and also allows me to escape the persistent tech treadmill that Shenzhen runs on. There are a lot of places in Shenzhen that I consider hidden gems that don’t get a lot of press since mainstream media associates Shenzhen with either factories or technology. Here are my favorite places to window shop and de-stress in Shenzhen.
Rice is cultivated all over the world in fields known as rice paddies and it is one of the most maintenance intensive crops to grow. The rice paddy itself requires a large part of that maintenance. It is flooded with water that must be kept at a constant level, just below the height that would keep rice seedlings from growing but high enough to drown any weeds that would compete with the rice stalks for nutrients. This technique is called continuous flooding and a big part of the job of a rice farmer is to inspect the rice paddy every day to make sure the water levels are normal and there are no cracks or holes that could lead to water leakage.
This process is labor intensive, and the technology in use hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Most of the rice farmers in my area are elders with the approximate age of 65-70 years. For these hard working people a little bit of technology can make a big difference in their lives. This is the idea behind TechRice.
“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” goes the clichéd [William Gibson] quote. Growing up on all the Cyberpunk literature and spending a more-than-healthy amount of time obsessing over [Fred Gallagher’s] Megatokyo series, I always imagined Japan to be at the very tail of this distribution. The place where the Future lives. Though it has been decades since the Bubble burst, and there’s no way this could still be the case, there was something romantic about believing it just might be. Thus, I opted for keeping the dream alive and never actually visited the place.
Not until a few weeks ago — [Bilke], one of our crazy sysadmin guys that keeps Hackaday.io alive, made me do it. He found these cheap tickets from LA, and the next thing you know – we were flying out for a 48-hours-in-Tokyo weekend. With no time to prepare, we reached out to [Akiba] from Freaklabs and [Emery] from Tokyo Hackerspace for some tips. By the time we landed, emails were waiting for us, with our full schedule completely worked out. It’s great to know that no matter where you are, there’s always a friendly local hacker willing to help.
Past the immigration, we took the JR Narita Express line into to the City that Friday evening. From there we grabbed a taxi because we couldn’t understand a word in katakana but then we hopped the JR Yamanote Metro line once we had figured things out. We checked out all the major places we had ever heard of (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, Ginza…) because the jet lag was not letting us sleep anyway.
Sometime way past midnight, it hit me – Future Shock. But this was the kind I never expected…
[Akiba] over at Freaklabs has been working with electroluminescent (EL) wire. An entire dance company worth! We know [Akiba] from his post tsunami radiation monitoring work with the Tokyo Hackerspace. Today he’s one of the engineers for Wrecking Crew Orchestra, the dance company that put on the viral “Tron Dance” last year. Wrecking Crew Orchestra just recently put on a new production called Cosmic Beat. Cosmic Beat takes Wrecking Crew’s performances to a whole new level by adding stage projection mapping and powerful lasers, along with Iron Man repulsor style hand mounted LEDs.
As one might expect, the EL wire costumes are controlled by a computer, which keeps all the performers lighting effects in perfect time. That’s where [Akiba] came in. The modern theater is awash in a sea of RF noise. Kilowatts of lighting are controlled by triacs which throw out tremendous amounts of noise. Strobes and camera flashes, along with an entire audience carrying cell phones and WiFi devices only add to this. RF noise or not, the show must go on, and The EL costumes and LEDs have to work. To that end, [Akiba] He also created new transmitters for the group. He also changed the lighting booth mounted transmitter antenna from an omnidirectional whip to a directional Yagi.
The EL wire itself turned out to be a bit of a problem. The wire wasn’t quite bright enough. Doubling up on the wire would be difficult, as the dancers are already wearing 25 meters of wire in addition to the control electronics. Sometimes best engineering practices have to give way to art, so [Akiba] had to overdrive the strings. This means that wires burn out often. The dance troupe has gotten very good at changing out strands of wire during and between shows. If you want a closer look, there are plenty of pictures available on [Akiba’s] flickr stream.