A Guide For Driving LED Matrices

Building an LED matrix is a fun project, but it can be a bit of a pain. Usually it starts with hand-soldering individual LEDs and resistors together, then hooking them up to rows and columns so they can be driven by a microcontroller of some sort. That’s a lot of tedious work, but you can order an LED matrix pre-built to save some time and headache. You’ll still need a driver though, and while building one yourself can be rewarding there are many pitfalls and trade-offs to consider when undertaking that project as well. Or, you can consider one of a number of drivers that [deshipu] has outlined in detail.

The hangups surrounding the driver board generally revolve around the issue of getting constant brightness from LEDs regardless of how many in the row or column are illuminated at one time. Since they are typically driven one row or column at a time, the more that are on the lower the brightness each LED will have. Driver boards take different approaches to solving this problem, which usually involve a combination of high-speed scanning of the matrix or using a constant-current source in order to eliminate the need for resistors. [deshipu] outlines four popular chips that achieve these purposes, and he highlights their pros and cons to help anyone looking to build something like this.

Most of these boards will get you to an 8×8 LED matrix with no problem, with a few going a few pixels higher in either direction. That might be enough for most of our needs, but for something larger you’ll need other solutions like the one found in this 64×32 LED matrix clock. There are also even more complicated drivers if you go into extra dimensions.

Photo credit: Komatta [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Play Chess Against A Ghost

While chess had long been a domain where humans were superior to computers, the balance has shifted quite substantially in the computers’ favor. But the one thing that humans still have control over is the pieces themselves. That is, until now. A group has built a robot that both uses a challenging chess engine, and can move its own pieces.

The robot, from creators [Tim], [Alex S], and [Alex A], is able to manipulate pieces on a game board using a robotic arm under the table with an electromagnet. It is controlled with a Raspberry Pi, which also runs an instance of the Stockfish chess engine to play the game of chess itself. One of the obvious hurdles was how to keep the robot from crashing pieces into one another, which was solved by using small pieces on a large board, and always moving the pieces on the edges of the squares.

This is a pretty interesting project, especially considering it was built using a shoestring budget. And, if you aren’t familiar with Stockfish, it is one of the most powerful chess engines and also happens to be free and open-source. We’ve seen it used in some other chess boards before, although those couldn’t move their own pieces.

Continue reading “Play Chess Against A Ghost”

The Art of Blinky Business Cards

Business cards are stuck somewhere between antiquity and convenience. On one hand, we have very convenient paperless solutions for contact swapping including Bluetooth, NFC, and just saying, “Hey, put your number into my phone, please.” On the other hand, holding something from another person is a more personal and memorable exchange. I would liken this to the difference between an eBook and a paperback. One is supremely convenient while the other is tactile. There’s a reason business cards have survived longer than the Rolodex.

Protocols and culture surrounding the exchange of cards are meant to make yourself memorable and a card which is easy to associate with you can work long after you’ve given your card away. This may seem moot if you are assigned cards when you start a new job, but personal business cards are invaluable for meeting people outside of work and you are the one to decide how wild or creative to make them.

Continue reading “The Art of Blinky Business Cards”

Oscillating Fan Controller Used As Relay

The most brilliant hacks we see aren’t always the thousand-dollar, multi-year projects spanning every facet of engineering. Rather, the most ingenious projects are ones that take an everyday thing and use it in a simple but revolutionary way. By that measure, it’ll be hard to top [Robert]’s latest hack which uses the controller board from an everyday oscillating fan to build a three-way remote-controlled relay board.

Most oscillating fans have a speed selector switch. What that does might be somewhat different between different types of fan, but in general it will select either a smaller portion of the fan’s motor to energize or switch in a resistor which will have the same speed-lowering effect. [Robert]’s fan had little more than a triple-throw switch on the control board, so when he decided the fan wasn’t worth keeping anymore, he was able to re-purpose the control board into a general-use relay. As a bonus, the fan could be controlled by infrared, so he can also remote control whatever he decides to plug into his new piece of equipment.

While this simple hack might not change the world, it may give anyone with an old fan some ideas for other uses for its parts. If you want to do a little more work and get the fan itself running again, though, it is possible to rebuild the whole thing from the ground up as well.

Etching a PCB In Ten Minutes.

Most circuit boards any maker could need for their projects can be acquired online at modest cost, but what if you need something specific? [Giorgos Lazaridis] of pcbheaven.com has designed his own etching bath complete with a heater and agitator to sped up the process of creating your own custom circuit boards.

[Lazaridis] started by building a circuit to control — in a display of resourcefulness — a fish tank heater he would later modify. The circuit uses a PIC 16F526 microcontroller and two thermristors to keep the temperature of the etching bath between 38 and 41 degrees Celsius. The fish tank heater was gingerly pried from its glass housing, and its bimetallic strip thermostat removed and replaced with a wire to prevent it shutting off at its default 32 degrees. All of it is mounted on a small portable stand and once heated up, can etch a board in less than 10 minutes.

Continue reading “Etching a PCB In Ten Minutes.”

Electroshock Timer Will Speed Up Every Game of Settlers of Catan

The fun of playing Settlers of Catan is only matched by the desire to punch your friend when their turn drags on with endless deliberating. [Alpha Phoenix] has solved that quandary of inefficient play by building the Settlers of Catan: Electroshock Therapy Expansion.

[Alpha Phoenix] is holding back on the details of the device to forestall someone trying this at home and injuring themselves or others, but there’s plenty to glean from his breakdown of how the device works. An Adafruit Trinket microcontroller connects to a single pole 12 throw switch — modified from a double pole six throw rotary switch — to select up to six different players (with the other six positions alternated in as pause spaces) and the shocks are delivered through a simple electrode made from a wire hot glued to HDPE plastic from a milk jug. The power supply is capable of delivering up to 1100V, but the actual output is much less than that, thanks to its built-in impedance of about 2.5M Ohms, as well as added resistance by [Alpha Phoenix].

To define what constitutes a ‘long turn,’ the Trinket calculates the mean of up to the first 100 turn lengths (instead of a static timer to accommodate for the relative skills of the players in each game) and zaps any offending player — and then repeatedly at a set time afterwards — to remind them that they need to pick up the pace.

Continue reading “Electroshock Timer Will Speed Up Every Game of Settlers of Catan”

Materials To Know: Tooling and Modeling Board

I was in a fit of nerd glee the first time I used tooling board. I’d used MDF for similar purposes before, and I doubt I ever will again. Called Renshape, Precision Board Plus, or that green stuff people on another continent buy; it’s all the same extremely useful, unfortunately expensive, stuff. It’s hard to pin down exactly what tooling board is. Most of the blends are proprietary. It is usually a very dense polyurethane foam, sometimes by itself, sometimes with a fine fiber filler.

What makes tooling board so good is its absolute dimensional stability and its general apathy to normal temperature swings. (It even comes in versions that can go through curing ovens.) It is impervious to humidity. It has good surface finish, and it machines perfectly without wearing down tools.

The CNC set-up I coaxed precision molds out of.

This stuff is really tops as far as machining goes. I got super precise molds out of a very basic CNC machine at the LVL1 hackerspace. Renshape cut easily at a high spindle speed, and put practically no load on the machine. Climb and conventional milling were equal load wise with no immediately perceivable difference in finish. In the end I hit the precision range of my cheap digital calipers: +-.005mm, when the temperature is right, the battery is a charged, and the planets align.

I like to do resin casting when I get serious about a part. If you are making a master mold, there’s nothing better than tooling board. I’ve used both Renshape 460 and Precision Board Plus. Both impart a very light matte pattern, equivalent to a light bead blast on an injection mold. There’s no finishing required, though I mistakenly bought Renshape 440 at first and had to sand it a little to get the finish I wanted.

Tooling board is great for masters in metal casting, and is often used in the industry for just that, especially if quick and accurate prototypes are needed. It’s also tough enough to last through a few rounds of metal stamping in the home shop.

If you are doing lay-up for carbon fiber, fiberglass, or leather, this is also a very good choice. It will be unaffected by the chemicals, heat, and vacuum you may use in the process. It is tough enough hold alignment pins for proper set-up without premature ovaling. It is also a very good choice for vacuum forming.

Tooling board is, unsurprisingly, really good for tooling. It’s a great material for soft-jaws, alignment fixtures, and assembly fixtures, especially if you are doing delicate precision assemblies.

If you’re made of money, tooling board can be used for models, signs and props. It sands, shapes, and files extremely well. It bonds well to a lot of substances. It also takes paint very well with none of the absorption properties of wood or MDF. Most professional model shops will use it.
2015-11-05-10.34.01The one big flaw of tooling board is its price — this stuff is expensive. There’s no good DIY version that I’ve scrounged up so far. If you’re making a mold master, a fixture, or anything where you need tooling board’s properties and you are likely to get a few uses out of the board, then it’s probably worth it. Also, be careful of sellers selling plain “Renshape” it is probably going to be the lower grade Renshape 440 and not the more expensive Renshape 460 (or equivalent), where you start to really see the surface finish advantage of the material.

Tooling board is an industrial material. Typically you can call up a supplier and tell them what you’d like to do with it and they will be able to help. If you are making tools for carbon fiber quadcopter frame lay-up, let them know and they’ll have a formulation for that. If you are resin casting, there’s a formulation that gives superior surface finish.

It’s a pretty common material in the industrial scene, but I don’t see it a lot on the hobby scene. This is almost certainly due to its cost, as well as a shortage of small quantity re-sellers. (If someone starts selling assorted sizes on eBay for a reasonable price you have at least one buyer in me.) However, after using it in the niches it is designed for, I really don’t use anything else. I used to hack MDF to fit, but MDF is awful to paint, has no dimensional stability, and dulls tools really fast.

Are you a fan of tooling board? Have a good source? If you have anything to add, let us know in the comments.