Hackaday Links: June 21, 2020

When Lego introduced its Mindstorms line in 1998, in a lot of ways it was like a gateway drug into the world of STEM, even though that term wouldn’t be invented for another couple of years. Children and the obsolete children who begat them drooled over the possibility of combining the Lego building system with motors, sensors, and a real computer that was far and away beyond anything that was available at the time. Mindstorms became hugely influential in the early maker scene and was slowly but steadily updated over the decades, culminating with the recently released Mindstorms Robot Inventor kit. In the thirteen years since the last release, a lot has changed in the market, and we Hackaday scribes had a discussion this week about the continued relevancy of Mindstorms in a time when cheap servos, microcontrollers, and a bewildering array of sensors can be had for pennies. We wonder what the readers think: is a kit that burns a $360 hole in your pocket still worth it? Sound off below.

Are you looking for a way to productively fill some spare time? Plenty of people are these days, and Hackaday has quite a deal for them: Hackaday U! This series of online courses will get you up to speed on a wide range of topics, starting tomorrow with Matthew Alt’s course on reverse engineering with Ghidra. Classes meet online once a week for four weeks, with virtual office hours to help you master the topic. Beside reverse engineering, you can learn about KiCad and FreeCad, quantum computing, real-time processing of audio and sensor data, and later in the year, basic circuit theory. We’ve got other courses lined up to fill out the year, but don’t wait — sign up now! Oh, and the best part? It’s on a pay-as-you-wish basis, with all proceeds going to charity. Get smarter, help others while doing it — what’s not to love about that?

Speaking of virtual learning, the GNU Radio Conference will be moving online for its 10th anniversary year. And while it’s good news that this and other cons have been able to retool and continue their mission of educating and growing this community, it’s still a bummer that there won’t be a chance to network and participate in all the fun events such cons offer. Or perhaps there will — it seems like the Wireless Capture the Flag (CTF) event is still going to happen. Billed as “an immersive plot-driven … competition featuring the GNU Radio framework and many other open-source tools, satellite communications, cryptography, and surreal global landscapes,” it certainly sounds like fun. We’d love to find out exactly how this CTF competition will work.

Everyone needs a way to unwind, and sometimes the best way to do that is to throw yourself into a project of such intricacy and delicate work that you’re forced into an almost meditative state by it. We’ve seen beautiful examples of that with the wonderful circuit sculptures of Mohit Bhoite and Jiří Praus, but here’s something that almost defies belief: a painstakingly detailed diorama of a vintage IBM data center. Created by the aptly named [minatua], each piece of this sculpture is a work of art in its own right and represents the “big iron” of the 1400 series of computers from the early 1960s. The level of detail is phenomenal — the green and white striped fanfold paper coming out of the 1403 line printer has tiny characters printed on it, and on the 729 tape drives, the reels spin and the lights flash. It’s incredible, all the more so because there don’t appear to be any 3D-printed parts — everything is scratch built from raw materials. Check it out.

As you can imagine, the Hackaday tip line attracts a fair number of ideas of the scientifically marginal variety. Although we’re not too fond of spammers, we try to be kind to everyone who bothers to send us a tip, but with a skeptical eye when terms like “free energy” come across. Still, we found this video touting to Nikola Tesla’s free energy secrets worth passing on. It’s just how we roll.

And finally, aside from being the first full day of summer, today is Father’s Day. We just want to say Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, both those that inspired and guided us as we were growing up, and those who are currently passing the torch to the next generation. It’s not easy to do sometimes, but tackling a project with a kid is immensely important work, and hats off to all the dads who make the time for it.

 

Hackaday Links: March 22, 2020

Within the span of just two months, our world of unimaginable plenty and ready access to goods manufactured across the globe has been transformed into one where the bare essentials of life are hard to find at any price. The people on the frontline of the battle against COVID-19 are suffering supply chain pinches too, often at great risk to their health. Lack of proper personal protective equipment (PPE), especially face masks, is an acute problem, and the shortage will only exacerbate the problem as healthcare workers go down for the count. Factories are gearing up to make more masks, but in the meantime, the maker and hacker community can pitch in. FreeSewing, an open-source repository of sewing patterns, has a pattern for a simple face mask called the Fu that can be made quickly by an experienced threadworker. Efficacy of the masks made with that pattern will vary based on the materials used, obviously; a slightly less ad hoc effort is the 100 Million Mask Challenge, where volunteers are given a pattern and enough lab-tested materials to make 100 face masks. If you know how to sew, getting involved might make a difference.

As people around the world wrap their heads around the new normal of social distancing and the loss of human contact, there’s been an understandable spike in interest in amateur radio. QRZ.com reports that the FCC has recorded an uptick in the number of amateur radio licenses issued since the COVID-19 outbreak, and license test prep site HamRadioPrep.com has been swamped by new users seeking to prepare for taking the test. As we’ve discussed, the barrier for entry to ham radio is normally very low, both in terms of getting your license and getting the minimal equipment needed to get on the air. One hurdle aspiring hams might face is the cancellation of so-called VE testing, where Volunteer Examiners administer the written tests needed for each license class. Finding a face-to-face VE testing session now might be hard, but the VEs are likely to find a way to adapt. After all, hams were social distancing before social distancing was cool.

The list of public events that have been postponed or outright canceled by this pandemic is long indeed, with pretty much everything expected to draw more than a handful of people put into limbo. The hacking world is not immune, of course, with many high-profile events scuttled. But we hackers are a resourceful bunch, and the 10th annual Open Source Hardware Summit managed to go off on schedule as a virtual meeting last week. You can watch the nearly eight-hour livestream while you’re self-isolating. We’re confident that other conferences will go virtual in the near-term too rather than cancel outright.

And finally, if you’re sick of pandemic news and just want some escapist engineering eye candy, you could do worse than checking out what it takes to make a DSLR camera waterproof. We’ve honestly always numbered cameras as among the very least waterproof devices, but it turns out that photojournalists and filmmakers are pretty rough on their gear and expect it to keep working even so. The story here focuses (sorry) on Olympus cameras and lenses, which you’ll note that Takasu-san only ever refers to as “splash-proof”, and the complex system of O-rings and seals needed to keep water away from their innards. For our money, the best part was learning that lenses that have to change their internal volume, like zoom lenses, need to be vented so that air can move in and out. The engineering needed to keep water out of a vented system like that is pretty impressive.

Hackaday Belgrade Conference Postponed

Due to uncertainties about the progress of the spread of the novel corona virus, it’s with a sad heart that we announce that we’re postponing the 2020 Hackaday Belgrade conference.

We will be rescheduling for later in the year, but for now we’ll be refunding conference tickets. We received a record number of incredible presenter proposals, and once we’ve rescheduled, we’ll get in touch with everyone who entered a proposal to check up on your availability.

In the meantime, come and hang out with us virtually on Hackaday.io’s Hackaday Belgrade page.

We know how much you were all looking forward to Belgrade in May, and it pains us to have to take this step. When we get more details ironed out, we’ll be sure to let you know! See you all a little bit later in the summer?

Building Cameras For The Immersive Future

Thus far, the vast majority of human photographic output has been two-dimensional. 3D displays have come and gone in various forms over the years, but as technology progresses, we’re beginning to see more and more immersive display technologies. Of course, to use these displays requires content, and capturing that content in three dimensions requires special tools and techniques. Kim Pimmel came down to Hackaday Superconference to give us a talk on the current state of the art in advanced AR and VR camera technologies.

[Kim]’s interest in light painting techniques explored volumetric as well as 2D concepts.
Kim has plenty of experience with advanced displays, with an impressive resume in the field. Having worked on Microsoft’s Holo Lens, he now leads Adobe’s Aero project, an AR app aimed at creatives. Kim’s journey began at a young age, first experimenting with his family’s Yashica 35mm camera, where he discovered a love for capturing images. Over the years, he experimented with a wide variety of gear, receiving a Canon DSLR from his wife as a gift, and later tinkering with the Stereorealist 35mm 3D camera. The latter led to Kim’s growing obsession with three-dimensional capture techniques.

Through his work in the field of AR and VR displays, Kim became familiar with the combination of the Ricoh Theta S 360 degree camera and the Oculus Rift headset. This allowed users to essentially sit inside a photo sphere, and see the image around them in three dimensions. While this was compelling, [Kim] noted that a lot of 360 degree content has issues with framing. There’s no way to guide the observer towards the part of the image you want them to see.

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Companion Bots Definitely Are The Droids You’re Looking For

Companion robots are a breed that, heretofore, we’ve primarily seen in cinema. Free from the limits of real-world technology, they manage to be charismatic, cute, and capable in ways that endear them to audiences the world over. Jorvon Moss and Alex Glow decided that this charming technology shouldn’t just live on the silver screen, and have been developing their own companion bots to explore this field. Lucky for us, they came down to Hackaday Superconference to tell us all about it!

The duo use a variety of techniques to build their ‘bots, infusing them with plenty of personality along the way. Jorvon favors the Arduino as the basis of his builds, while Alex has experimented with the Google AIY Vision Kit, BBC Micro:bit, as well as other platforms. Through clever design and careful planning, the two common maker techniques to create their unique builds. Using standard servos, 3D printed body parts, and plenty of LEDs, it’s all stuff that’s readily accessible to the home gamer.

[Alex]’s companion bot, Archimedes, has been through many upgrades to improve functionality. Plus, he’s got a cute hat!
Having built many robots, the different companions have a variety of capabilities in the manner they interact. Alex’s robot owl, Archimedes, uses machine vision to find people, and tries to figure out if they’re happy or sad. If they’re excited enough, it will give the person a small gift. Archimedes mounts on a special harness Alex built out of armature wire, allowing the avian to perch on her shoulder when out and about. Similarly, Jorvon’s Dexter lurks on his back, modeled after a monkey. Featuring an LED matrix for emotive facial expressions, and a touch sensor for high fives, Dexter packs plenty of character into his 3D printed chassis.

Alex and Jorvon also talk about some of the pitfalls and challenges they’ve faced through the development of their respective companion bots. Jorvon defines a companion robot as “any robot that you can take with you, on any type of adventure”. Being out in the real world and getting knocked around means breakages are common, with both of the duo picking up handfuls of smashed plastic and bundles of wires at times. Thankfully, with 3D printing being the tool of the trade, it’s easy to iteratively design new components to better withstand the rough and tumble of daily life out and about. This also feeds into the rest of the design process, with Jorvon giving the example of Dexter’s last minute LED upgrades that were built and fitted while at Supercon.

Develop on companion bots is never really finished. Future work involves integrating Chirp.io data-over-sound communications to allow the bots to talk. There’s been some headaches on the software side, but we look forward to seeing these ‘bots chatting away in their own droid language. While artificial intelligence doesn’t yet have homebrew companion bots matching the wisecracking droids seen in movies, designing lifelike bodies for our digital creations is a big step in that direction. With people like Alex and Jolyon on the case, we’re sure it won’t be long before we’re all walking around with digital pals on our shoulders — and it promises to be fun!

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These Tips Make Assembling A Few Hundred PCBs Easier

There are a few common lessons that get repeated by anyone who takes on the task of assembling a few hundred PCBs, but there are also unique insights to be had. [DominoTree] shared his takeaways after making a couple hundred electronic badges for DEFCON 26 (that’s the one before the one that just wrapped up, if anyone’s keeping track.) [DominoTree] assembled over 200 Telephreak badges and by the end of it he had quite a list of improvements he wished he had made during the design phase.

Some tips are clearly sensible, such as adding proper debug and programming interfaces, or baking an efficient test cycle into the firmware. Others are not quite so obvious, for example “add a few holes to your board.” Holes can be useful in unexpected ways and cost essentially zero. Even if the board isn’t going to be mounted to anything, a few holes can provide a way to attach jigs or other hardware like test fixtures.

[DominoTree] ended up having to attach multiple jumper wires to reprogram boards after assembly, and assures us that “doing this a bunch of times really sucked.”
Other advice is more generic but no less important, as with “eliminate as many steps as possible.” Almost anything adds up to a significant chunk of time when repeated hundreds of times. To the basement hacker, something such as pre-cut and pre-tinned wires might seem like a shameful indulgence. But cutting, stripping, tinning, then hand-soldering a wire adds up to significant time and effort by iteration number four hundred (that’s two power wires per badge) even if one isn’t staring down a looming deadline.

[DominoTree] also followed up with additional advice on making assembly easier. Our own [Brian Benchoff] has also shared his observations on the experience of developing and assembling a large number of Hackaday Superconference badges, including what it took to keep things moving along when inevitable problems surfaced.

You don’t need to be making batches of hundreds for these lessons to pay off, so keep them in mind and practice them on your next project.

An All-In-One Conference Video Streaming Box

When running a hacker camp or other event, one of the many challenges faced by the organisers concerns the production and distribution of event videos. As the talks are recorded they must be put online, and with a load of talks to be processed it quickly becomes impractical to upload them one by one through a web interface such as that provided by YouTube. At the BornHack 2019 hacker camp in Denmark they were using a particularly well-integrated unit to do the video uploading in real time, and its creator [Mikkel Mikjær Christensen]  was good enough to share the video we’ve put below the break, a talk he gave about it at The Camp 2017, a Danish open source software camp.

It takes the viewer through the evolution over several years, from simple camcorders with integrated microphones and post-event processing, through a first-generation system with a laptop and rack-mount monitors, and into a final system in a rugged portable case with a significantly powerful laptop running OBS with a hardware MPEG encoder. Careful choice of power supplies and the use of good quality wireless microphones now give instantaneous video streaming to events such as BornHack without the need for extensive infrastructure.

If you were wondering where you might have heard that name before, [Mikkel] is the [Mike] from the Retrocomputing with Mike YouTube channel. It’s being honest to say that more of our conversation was about retrocomputers than the video box.

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