State Of The Art Big Mouth Alexa Bass

Hackers seem intent on making sure the world doesn’t forget that, for a brief shining moment, everyone thought Big Mouth Billy Bass was a pretty neat idea. Every so often we see a project that takes this classic piece of home decor and manages to shoehorn in some new features or capabilities, and with the rise of voice controlled home automation products from the likes of Amazon and Google, they’ve found a new ingredient du jour when preparing stuffed bass.

[Ben Eagan] has recently completed his entry into the Pantheon of animatronic fish projects, and while we’ll stop short of saying the world needed another Alexa-enabled fish on the wall, we’ve got to admit that he’s done a slick job of it. Rather than trying to convince Billy’s original electronics to play nice with others, he decided to just rip it all out and start from scratch. The end result is arguably one of the most capable Billy Bass updates we’ve come across, if you’re willing to consider flapping around on the wall an actual capability in the first place.

The build process is well detailed in the write-up, and [Ben] provides many pictures so the reader can easily follow along with the modification. The short version of the story is that he cuts out the original control board and wires the three motors up to an Arduino Motor Driver Shield, and when combined with the appropriate code, this gives him full control over Billy’s mouth and body movements. This saved him the trouble of figuring out how to interface with the original electronics, which is probably for the better since they looked rather crusty anyway.

From there, he just needed to give the fish something to get excited about. [Ben] decided to connect the 3.5 mm audio jack of an second generation Echo Dot to one of the analog pins of the Arduino, and wrote some code that can tell him if Amazon’s illuminated hockey puck is currently yammering on about something or not. He even added a LM386 audio amplifier module in there to help drive Billy’s original speaker, since that will now be the audio output of the Dot.

A decade ago we saw Billy reading out Tweets, and last year we presented a different take on adding an Alexa “brain” to everyone’s favorite battery powered fish. What will Billy be up to in 2029? We’re almost too scared to think about it. Continue reading “State Of The Art Big Mouth Alexa Bass”

Kinetic Wire Animatronics Bend It Like Disney

The House of Mouse has been at the forefront of entertainment technology from its very beginnings in an old orange grove in Anaheim. Disney Imagineers invented the first modern animatronics in the 1960s and they’ve been improving the technology ever since, often to the point of being creepy.

But the complicated guts of an animatronic are sometimes too much for smaller characters, so in the spirit of “cheaper, faster, better”, Disney has developed some interesting techniques for animated characters made from wire. Anyone who has ever played with a [Gumby] or other posable wireframe toys knows that eventually, the wire will break, and even before then will plastically deform so it can’t return to its native state.

Wires used as the skeletons of animated figures can avoid that fate if they are preloaded with special shapes, or “templates,” that redirect the forces of bending. The Disney team came up with a computational model to predict which template shapes could be added to each wire to make it bend to fit the animation needs without deforming. A commercially available CNC wire bender installs the templates that lie in the plane of the wire, while coiled templates are added later with a spring-bending jig.

The results are impressive — the wire skeleton of an animated finger can bend completely back on itself with no deformation, and the legs of an animated ladybug can trace complicated paths and propel the beast with only servos pulling cables on the jointless legs. The video below shows the method and the animated figures; we can imagine that figures animated using this technique will start popping up at Disney properties eventually.

From keeping guests safe from robotic harm to free-flying robotic aerialists, it seems like the Disney Imagineers have a hardware hacker’s paradise at the Happiest Place on Earth.

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Amazing Mechanical Linkages and The Software to Design Them

Most of us are more bits-and-bytes than nuts-and-bolts, but we have the deepest appreciation for the combination of the two. So, apparently, does [rectorsquid]. Check out the design and flow of his rolling ball sculpture (YouTube, embedded below) to see what we mean. See how the arms hesitate just a bit as the ball is transferred? See how the upper arm gently places it on the ramp with a slight downward gesture? See how it’s done with one motor? There’s no way [rectorsquid] designed this on paper, right?

Of course he didn’t (YouTube). Instead, he wrote a simulator that lets him try out various custom linkages in real time. It’s a Windows-only application (sigh), but it’s free to use, while the video guides (more YouTube) look very comprehensive and give you a quick tour of the tool. Of special note is that [rectorsquid]’s software allows for sliding linkages, which he makes very good use of in the rolling ball sculpture shown here.

We’ve actually secretly featured [rectorsquid]’s Linkage software before, in this writeup of some amazing cosplay animatronic wings that used the program for their design. But we really don’t want you to miss out if you’re doing mechanical design and need something like this, or just want to play around.

If you’d like to study up on your nuts and bolts, check out our primer on the ubiquitous four-bar linkage, or pore through Hackaday looking for other great linkage-powered examples, like this automatic hacksaw or a pantograph PCB probe for shaky hands.

Anyone know of an open-source linkage simulator that can also output STL files for 3D printing? Or in any format that could be easily transformed into OpenSCAD? Asking for a “friend”.

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Alas, Poor Yorick! He Hath Not Amazon Prime

If you are looking around for a Halloween project, you might consider The Yorick Project from [ViennaMike]. As you can see in the video below, it marries a Raspberry Pi acting as an Amazon Alexa with an animatronic skull.

This isn’t the most technically demanding project, but it has a lot of potential for further hacking. The project includes a USB microphone, a servo controller, and an audio servo driver board. It looks like the audio servo board is controlling the jaw movement and based on the video, we wondered if you might do better running it completely in software.

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Look at me with your Special Animatronic Eyes

Animatronics for movies is often about making something that works and is reliable in the short term. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to last forever. [Corporate Sellout]  shows us the minimalist approach to building animatronics with this pair of special eyes.  These eyes move in both the pan and tilt. Usually, that means a gimbal style mount. Not in this case. The mechanical assembly consists of with popsicle sticks, ping-pong balls, film canisters and dental floss.

The frame for the eyes is made of simple popsicle sticks hot glued together. The eyes themselves are simple ping-pong balls. Arduino powered servos control the movement. The servos are connected to dental floss in a cable arrangement known as a pull-pull system. As each servo moves, one side of the arm pulls on a cable, while the other provides enough slack for the ping-pong ball to move.

Mounting the ping-pong balls is the genius part of this build. They simply sit in the open end of a couple of film canisters. the tension from the dental floss holds everything together. We’re sure it was a finicky setup to build, but once working, it’s reliable. Only a glue joint failure or stretch in the dental floss could cause issues.

There are plenty of approaches to Animatronic eyes. Check out the eyes in this Stargate Horus helmet, which just won our Sci-Fi contest. More recently we saw Gawkerbot, which uses a CD-ROM drive to provide motion for a creepy robot’s eyes.

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Gawkerbot is Watching You

While sick with the flu a few months ago, [CroMagnon] had a vision. A face with eyes that would follow you – no matter where you walked in the room. He brought this vision to life in the form of Gawkerbot. This is no static piece of art. Gawkerbot’s eyes slowly follow you as you walk through its field of vision. Once the robot has fixed its gaze upon you, the eyes glow blue. It makes one wonder if this is an art piece, or if the rest of the robot is about to pop through the wall and attack.

Gawkerbot’s sensing system is rather simple. A PIR sensor detects motion in the room. If any motion is detected, two ultrasonic sensors which make up the robot’s pupils start taking data. Code running on an ATmega328 determines if a person is detected on the left or right, and moves the eyes appropriately.

[CroMagnon] used an old CD-ROM drive optics sled to move Gawkerbot’s eyes. While the motor is small, the worm drive has plenty of power to move the 3D-printed eyes and linkages. Gawkerbot’s main face is a 3D-printed version of a firefighter’s smoke helmet.

The ultrasonic sensors work, but it took quite a bit of software to tame the jitters noisy data stream. [CroMagnon] is thinking of using PIR sensors on Gawkerbot 2.0. Ultrasonic transducers aren’t just for sensing. Given enough power, you can solder with them. Ultrasonics even work for wireless communications.

Check out the video after the break to see Gawkerbot in action.

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Raspberry Pi and Alexa Make Teddy Ruxpin Smarter than the Average Bear

Behold the unholy union of Amazon’s Alexa and that feature-limited animatronic bear from the 80s, Teddy Ruxpin. Alexa Ruxpin?

As if stuffing Alexa inside a talking fish weren’t bad enough, now Amazon’s virtual assistant can talk to you through the creepy retro plush thanks to [Tinkernut]’s trip down memory lane. Having located a Teddy Ruxpin on eBay for far less than the original $70 that priced it out from under his childhood Christmas tree, [Tinkernut] quickly learned that major surgery would be necessary to revive the Ruxpin. The first video below shows the original servos being gutted and modern micro servos grafted in, allowing control of the mouth, eyes, and nose via an Arduino.

With the bear once again in control of its faculties, [Tinkernut] embarked on giving it something to talk about. A Raspberry Pi running AlexaPi joined the bear’s recently vacated thorax with the audio output split between the bear’s speaker and the analog input on the Arduino. The result is a reasonable animation, although we’d say a little tweaking of the Arduino script might help the syncing. And those eyes and that nose really need to get into the game as well. But not a bad start at all.

This isn’t the first time that Teddy Ruxpin has gone under the knife in the name of hacks, and it likely won’t be the last. And the way toy manufacturers are going, they might just beat us hackers to the punch.

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