Hackaday Links: August 4, 2019

Is the hacking community facing a HOPEless future? It may well be, if this report from 2600 Magazine is any indication. The biennial “Hackers On Planet Earth” conference is in serious financial jeopardy after the venue that’s hosted it for years, the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan, announced a three-fold increase in price. Organizers are scrambling to save the conference and they’re asking for the community’s help in brainstorming solutions. Hackaday was at HOPE XI in 2016 and HOPE XII in 2018; let’s HOPE we get to see everyone again in 2020.

If you’ve ever been curious about how a 1970s PROM chip worked, Ken Shirriff has you covered. Or uncovered, as he popped the top off a ceramic MMI 5300 DIP to look at the die within. Closeups of the somewhat cockeyed die reveal its secrets – 1,024 tiny fusible links. Programming was a matter of overloading a particular fuse, turning a 1 into a 0 permanently. It’s a fascinating look at how it used to be done, with Ken’s usual attention to detail in the documentation department.

We had a great Hack Chat this week with Mihir Shah from Royal Circuits. Royal is one of the few quick-turn PCB fabs in the USA, and they specialize in lightning-fast turnaround on bare PCBs and assembled boards. He told us all about this fascinating business, and dropped a link to a side project of his. Called DebuggAR, it’s an augmented reality app that runs on a smartphone and overlays component locations, signal traces, pinouts, and more right over a live image of your board. He’s got a beta going now for iPhone users and would love feedback, so check it out.

With all the cool things you can do with LoRa radios, it’s no wonder that wireless hobbyists have taken to pushing the limits on what the technology can do. The world record distance for a LoRa link was an astonishing 702 km (436 miles). That stood for two years until it was topped, twice in the same day. On July 13th, the record was pushed to 741 km, and a mere five hours later to 766 km. All on a scant 25 mW of power.

Linux distro Manjaro made an unconventional choice regarding which office suite to include, and it’s making some users unhappy. It appears that they’ve dumped LibreOffice from the base install, opting instead to include the closed-source FreeOffice. Worse, FreeOffice doesn’t have support for saving .doc and OpenDocument files; potentially leaving LibreOffice users stranded. Paying for an upgrade to SoftMaker’s Office product can fix that, but that’s hardly free-as-in-beer free. It’s kind of like saying the beer is free, but the mug is an upgrade. UPDATE: It looks like the Manjaro team heard all the feedback and are working on a selector so you can install the office suite of your choice.

Tragic news out of New Hampshire, as amateur radio operator Joe Areyzaga (K1JGA) was killed while trying to dismantle an antenna tower. Local news has coverage with no substantial details, however the hams over on r/amateurradio seem to have the inside line on the cause. It appears the legs of the tower had filled with water over the years, rusting them from the inside out. The tower likely appeared solid to Joe and his friend Mike Rancourt (K1EEE) as they started to climb, but the tower buckled at the weak point and collapsed. K1EEE remains in critical condition after the 40′ (12 m) fall, but K1JGA is now a silent key. The tragedy serves as a reminder to everyone who works on towers to take nothing for granted before starting to climb.

And finally, just for fun, feast your eyes on this movie of the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft as is makes its flyby of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It’s stitched together from thousands of images and really makes 67P look like a place, not just a streak of light in the night sky.

Open Source Headset With Inside-Out Tracking, Video Passthrough

The folks behind the Atmos Extended Reality (XR) headset want to provide improved accessibility with an open ecosystem, and they aim to do it with a WebVR-capable headset design that is self-contained, 3D-printable, and open-sourced. Their immediate goal is to release a development kit, then refine the design for a wider release.

An early prototype of the open source Atmos Extended Reality headset.

The front of the headset has a camera-based tracking board to provide all the modern goodies like inside-out head and hand tracking as well as the ability to pass through video. The design also provides for a variety of interface methods such as eye tracking and 6 DoF controllers.

With all that, the headset gives users maximum flexibility to experiment with and create different applications while working to keep development simple. A short video showing off the modular design of the HMD and optical assembly is embedded below.

Extended Reality (XR) has emerged as a catch-all term to cover broad combinations of real and virtual elements. On one end of the spectrum are completely virtual elements such as in virtual reality (VR), and towards the other end of the spectrum are things like augmented reality (AR) in which virtual elements are integrated with real ones in varying ratios. With the ability to sense the real world and pass through video from the cameras, developers can choose to integrate as much or as little as they wish.

Terms like XR are a sign that the whole scene is still rapidly changing and it’s fascinating to see how development in this area is still within reach of small developers and individual hackers. The Atmos DK 1 developer kit aims to be released sometime in July, so anyone interested in getting in on the ground floor should read up on how to get involved with the project, which currently points people to their Twitter account (@atmosxr) and invites developers to their Discord server. You can also follow along on their newly published Hackaday.io page.

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Safely Dive Into Your Fears With Virtual Reality

What makes you afraid? Not like jump-scares in movies or the rush of a roller-coaster, but what are your legitimate fears that qualify as phobias? Spiders? Clowns? Blood? Flying? Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin are experimenting with exposure therapy in virtual reality to help people manage their fears. For some phobias, like arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, this seems like a perfect fit. If you are certain that you are safely in a spider-free laboratory wearing a VR headset, and you see a giant spider crawling across your field of vision, the fear may be more manageable than being asked to put your hand into a populated spider tank.

After the experimental therapy, participants were asked to take the spider tank challenge. Subjects who were not shown VR spiders were less enthusiastic about keeping their hands in the tank. This is not definitive proof, but it is a promising start.

High-end VR equipment and homemade rigs are in the budget for many gamers and hackers, and our archives are an indication of how much the cutting-edge crowd loves immersive VR. We have been hacking 360 recording for nearly a decade, long before 360 cameras took their niche in the consumer market. Maybe when this concept is proven out a bit more, implementations will start appearing in our tip lines with hackers who helped their friends get over their fears.

Via IEEE Spectrum.

Photo by Wokandapix.

Leap Motion’s Project North Star Gets Hardware

It’s been more than a year since we first heard about Leap Motion’s new, Open Source augmented reality headset. The first time around, we were surprised: the headset featured dual 1600×1440 LCDs, 120 Hz refresh rate, 100 degree FOV, and the entire thing would cost under $100 (in volume), with everything, from firmware to mechanical design released under Open licenses. Needless to say, that’s easier said than done. Now it seems Leap Motion is releasing files for various components and a full-scale release might be coming sooner than we think.

Leap Motion first made a name for themselves with the Leap Motion sensor, a sort of mini-Kinect that only worked with hands and arms. Yes, we’re perfectly aware that sounds dumb, but the results were impressive: everything turned into a touchscreen display, you could draw with your fingers, and control robots with your hands. If you mount one of these sensors to your forehead, and reflect a few phone screens onto your retinas, you have the makings of a stereoscopic AR headset that tracks the movement of your hands. This is an over-simplified description, but conceptually, that’s what Project North Star is.

The files released now include STLs of parts that can be 3D printed on any filament printer, files for the electronics that drive the backlight and receive video from a laptop, and even software for doing actual Augmented Reality stuff in Unity. It’s not a complete project ready for prime time, but it’s a far cry from the simple spec sheet full of promises we saw in the middle of last year.

Smartphone App Uses AR To Visualize The RF Spectrum

Have you ever wished you could see in the RF part of the radio spectrum? While such a skill would probably make it hard to get a good night’s rest, it would at least allow you to instantly see dead spots in your WiFi coverage. Not a bad tradeoff.

Unwilling to go full [Geordi La Forge] to be able to visualize RF, [Ken Kawamoto] built the next best thing – an augmented-reality RF signal strength app for his smartphone. Built to aid in the repositioning of his router in the post-holiday cleanup, the app uses the Android ARCore framework to figure out where in the house the phone is and overlays a color-coded sphere representing sensor data onto the current camera image. The spheres persist in 3D space, leaving a trail of virtual breadcrumbs that map out the sensor data as you warwalk the house. The app also lets you map Bluetooth and LTE coverage, but RF isn’t its only input: if your phone is properly equipped, magnetic fields and barometric pressure can also be AR mapped. We found the Bluetooth demo in the video below particularly interesting; it’s amazing how much the signal is attenuated by a double layer of aluminum foil. [Ken] even came up with an Arduino with a gas sensor that talks to the phone and maps the atmosphere around the kitchen stove.

The app is called AR Sensor and is available on the Play Store, but you’ll need at least Android 8.0 to play. If your phone is behind the times like ours, you might have to settle for mapping your RF world the hard way.

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Lenses For DIY Augmented Reality Will Get A Bit Less Unobtainable

You may remember that earlier this year Leap Motion revealed Project North Star, a kind of open-source reference design for an Augmented Reality (AR) headset. While it’s not destined to make high scores in the fashion department, it aims to be hacker-friendly and boasts a large field of view. There’s also an attractive element of “what you see is what you get” when it comes to the displays and optical design, which is a good thing for hackability. Instead of everything residing in a black box, the system uses two forward-facing displays (one for each eye) whose images are bounced off curved reflective lenses. These are essentially semitransparent mirrors which focus the images properly while also allowing the wearer to see both the displays and the outside world at the same time. This co-existence of both virtual and real-world visuals are a hallmark of Augmented Reality.

A serious setback to the aspiring AR hacker has been the fact that while the design is open, the lenses absolutely are not off the shelf components. [Smart Prototyping] aims to change that, and recently announced in a blog post that they will be offering Project North Star-compatible reflective lenses. They’re in the final stages of approving manufacture, and listed pre-orders for the lenses in their store along with downloadable 3D models for frames.

When Leap Motion first announced their open-source AR headset, we examined the intruiguing specifications and the design has since been published to GitHub.  At the time, we did note that the only option for the special lenses seemed to be to CNC them and then spring for a custom reflective coating.

If the lenses become affordable and mass-produced, that would make the design much more accessible. In addition, anyone wanting to do their own experiments with near-eye displays or HUDs would be able to use the frame and lenses as a basis for their own work, and that’s wonderful.

Bringing Augmented Reality To The Workbench

[Ted Yapo] has big ideas for using Augmented Reality as a tool to enhance an electronics workbench. His concept uses a camera and projector system working together to detect objects on a workbench, and project information onto and around them. [Ted] envisions virtual displays from DMMs, oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, and other instruments projected onto a convenient place on the actual work area, removing the need to glance back and forth between tools and the instrument display. That’s only the beginning, however. A good camera and projector system could read barcodes on component bags to track inventory, guide manual PCB assembly by projecting which components go where, display reference data, and more.

An open-sourced, accessible machine vision system working in tandem with a projector would open a lot of doors. Fortunately [Ted] has prior experience in this area, having previously written the computer vision code for room-scale dynamic projection environments. That’s solid experience that he can apply to designing a workbench-scale system as his entry for The Hackaday Prize.