Resistance Is Futile, You Want This LED Cube

We’re suckers for a good desk toy here at Hackaday, so this 2019 Hackaday Prize entry from [Jack Flynn] certainly caught our eye. The idea is that by using professionally manufactured dual layer PCBs and only surface mount components, you can create a cube that has an LED matrix on each face and all of the electronics hidden within. We’re not entirely sure if there’s any practical application for such a device, but we know we’d certainly like to have one blinking madly away on our shelf regardless.

Before having any of the PCBs manufactured, [Jack] is putting a considerable amount of thought into the design so he doesn’t end up painting himself info a corner (which is of course eight times as bad when you’re building a cube). By importing the PCB files into OnShape, he’s able to “assemble” a virtual representation of the final product to better understand how everything will fit together. He wants to limit the amount of times the cube will need to be pulled apart, so everything from how it will sit in its 3D printed cradle to the placement of breakaway tabs that ensure the internal power switch is accessible are being carefully planned out.

The current design puts the “brains” on the bottom board, with every other panel holding a daisy-chained MAX7219 to drive its own individual 64 LED matrix. Initially the dimensions of the ATmega328p powered cube will be 42 x 42 x 42 mm, with a total of 384 LEDs. Ultimately, [Jack] hopes the modular nature of the design could allow the size of the cube to be increased, or perhaps even take on a different shape entirely.

Generally the LED cubes we see are of the more wiry variety, so it’s particularly interesting when they take on solid forms like this one. Given the nearly universal popularity of blinking LED gadgets, we think this particular project is well positioned to make the leap from one-off hack to a commercial product.

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Kinetic Sculpture Achieves Balance Through Machine Learning

We all know how important it is to achieve balance in life, or at least so the self-help industry tells us. How exactly to achieve balance is generally left as an exercise to the individual, however, with varying results. But what about our machines? Will there come a day when artificial intelligences and their robotic bodies become so stressed that they too will search for an elusive and ill-defined sense of balance?

We kid, but only a little; who knows what the future field of machine psychology will discover? Until then, this kinetic sculpture that achieves literal balance might hold lessons for human and machine alike. Dubbed In Medio Stat Virtus, or “In the middle stands virtue,” [Astrid Kraniger]’s kinetic sculpture explores how a simple system can find a stable equilibrium with machine learning. The task seems easy: keep a ball centered on a track suspended by two cables. The length of the cables is varied by stepper motors, while the position of the ball is detected by the difference in weight between the two cables using load cells scavenged from luggage scales. The motors raise and lower each side to even out the forces on each, eventually achieving balance.

The twist here is that rather than a simple PID loop or another control algorithm, [Astrid] chose to apply machine learning to the problem using the Q-Behave library. The system detects when the difference between the two weights is decreasing and “rewards” the algorithm so that it learns what is required of it. The result is a system that gently settles into equilibrium. Check out the video below; it’s strangely soothing.

We’ve seen self-balancing systems before, from ball-balancing Stewart platforms to Segway-like two-wheel balancers. One wonders if machine learning could be applied to these systems as well.

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Playing Pong With Micro:bits!

Where would the world be today without Pong, perhaps a lot less fun? For people like [Linker3000] the game is an inspiration toward teaching the next generation of hackers to build and play their own version using Micro:bits as controllers!

Aiming for doing all manner of diligence, [Linker3000] says the code can simply be uploaded to an Arduino — foregoing throwing together a circuit of your own — if you want to jump right into things. For the workshop environment, this setup uses composite video outputs — but this shouldn’t be an issue as most TVs still retain these inputs.

Once built — or sketch uploaded — the Micro:bit paddles can be connected to the ATmega328p and played like an old-school controller, but [Linker3000] has enabled Bluetooth control of the paddles’ A and B buttons via the Bitty app. Additionally — if wires really aren’t your thing and Bluetooth is too new-school for such an old game — a second Micro:bit can control the wired paddle using their built-in radio, provided they’re configured accordingly.

On top of Pong, there are also squash and soccer game modes! Check out the demo after the break.

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Ultrasonic Array Gets Range Data Fast And Cheap

How’s your parallel parking? It’s a scenario that many drivers dread to the point of avoidance. But this 360° ultrasonic sensor will put even the most skilled driver to shame, at least those who pilot tiny remote-controlled cars.

Watch the video below a few times and you’ll see that within the limits of the test system, [Dimitris Platis]’ “SonicDisc” sensor does a pretty good job of nailing the parallel parking problem, a driving skill so rare that car companies have spent millions developing vehicles that do it for you. The essential task is good spatial relations, and that’s where SonicDisc comes in. A circular array of eight HC-SR04 ultrasonic sensors hitched to an ATmega328P, the SonicDisc takes advantage of interrupts to make reading the eight sensors as fast as possible. The array can take a complete set of readings every 10 milliseconds, which is fast enough to allow for averaging successive readings to filter out some of the noise that gets returned. Talking to the car’s microcontroller over I2C, the sensor provides a wealth of ranging data that lets the car quickly complete a parallel parking maneuver. And as a bonus, SonicDisc is both open source and cheap to build — about $10 a copy.

Rather use light to get your range data? There are some pretty cheap LIDAR units on the market these days.

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1btn – An Open Source Dash

The availability of cheap radios, omni-present WiFi and powerful web services means the IoT wave is here to stay. Amazon got into the act with its “do only one thing” Dash button. But a more interesting solution would be an IoT “do it all” button.

[Anand] has been working on his 1btn Open Source WiFi connected IoT button for a while. It connects to the Internet over WiFi to trigger whatever action you have assigned to it using a simple, online interface. It’s reconfigurable and open source. Which means it can be used in pretty imaginative ways, and if needed, can be re-flashed with your own custom firmware should you decide to really get under its hood.

The 1btn’s ESP8266 module is usually in sleep mode, waking up when the button is pressed, making the connection, performing the task and then going back to sleep once confirmation is received. A Red/Green LED indicates if the action was successful or not. You can set it up to send e-mails, messages, tweets or perform actions via a custom script, API or the IFTTT – maker channel. To make it hacker friendly, all of the ESP8266 GPIO pins are accessible via headers. This makes it convenient to add external sensors, for example. There’s also a (unpopulated) QFN footprint to allow adding an ATmega device (168P/328P) whose GPIO pins are also accessible via headers. This opens up a large number of additional applications for the device such as home automation.

On the software side, the 1btn connects to a web console, where you can set up an account, configure the device, register its MAC ID, assign it an alias and set up its actions. All of the source files for the 1btn – firmware, enclosure, schematic, BOM, PCB layout and example use cases – are posted on his Github repository.

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Tiny Radio Tracks Your Balloons

The name of the game in rocketry or ballooning is weight. The amount of mass that can be removed from one of these high-altitude devices directly impacts how high and how far it can go. Even NASA, which estimates about $10,000 per pound for low-earth orbit, has huge incentives to make lightweight components. And, while the Santa Barbara Hackerspace won’t be getting quite that much altitude, their APRS-enabled balloon/rocket tracker certainly helps cut down on weight.

Tracksoar is a 2″ x .75″ x .5″ board which weighs in at 45 grams with a pair of AA batteries and boasts an ATmega 328P microcontroller with plenty of processing power for its array of on-board sensors. Not to mention everything else you would need like digital I/O, a GPS module, and, of course, the APRS radio which allows it to send data over amateur radio frequencies. The key to all of this is that the APRS module is integrated with the board itself, which saves weight over the conventional method of having a separate APRS module in addition to the microcontroller and sensors.

As far as we can see, this is one of the smallest APRS modules we’ve ever seen. It could certainly be useful for anyone trying to save weight in any high-altitude project. There are a few other APRS projects out there as well but remember: an amateur radio license will almost certainly be required to use any of these.

Unusual Nixie Tubes Lead To Unique Clock

There’s no doubting the appeal of Nixie tubes. The play of the orange plasma around the cathodes through the mesh anode and onto the glass envelope can be enchanting, and the stacking of the symbols in the tube gives a depth to the display that is unlike any other technology. So when [Ian] found a set of six tubes on eBay at a fire sale price, he couldn’t resist picking them up and incorporating them into a unique but difficult to read Nixie clock.

It turns out the set of tubes [Ian] ordered were more likely destined for a test instrument than a clock, displaying symbols such a “Hz”, “V” and “Ω”. Initially disappointed with his seemingly useless purchase, [Ian] put his buyer’s remorse aside and built his clock anyway. Laser-cut acrylic, blue LEDs under the tube for a glow effect, a battery-backed RTC talking to an ATmega328, and the appropriate high-voltage section lead to a good-looking and functional clock, even if [Ian] himself needs a cross-reference chart to read the time. You’ll be able to figure out at the whole character set after watching the video after the break; spoiler alert: sensibly enough, Ω maps to 0.

We’ve seen lots of Nixie projects before, but few as unique as [Ian]’s clock.

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