New Contest: Flexible PCBs

The now-humble PCB was revolutionary when it came along, and the whole ecosystem that evolved around it has been a game changer in electronic design. But the PCB is just so… flat. Planar. Two-dimensional. As useful as it is, it gets a little dull sometimes.

Here’s your chance to break out of Flatland and explore the third dimension of circuit design with our brand new Flexible PCB Contest.

We’ve teamed up with Digi-Key for this contest. Digi-Key’s generous sponsorship means 60 contest winners will receive free fabrication of three copies of their flexible PCB design, manufactured through the expertise of OSH Park. So now you can get your flex on with wearables, sensors, or whatever else you can think of that needs a flexible PCB.

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Freeforming The Atari Punk Console

This stunning piece of art is [Emily Velasco’s] take on the Atari Punk Console. It’s a freeform circuit that synthesizes sound using 555 timers. The circuit has been around for a long time, but her fabrication is completely new and simply incredible!

This isn’t [Emily’s] first rodeo. She previously built the mini CRT sculpture project seen to the left in the image above. Its centerpiece is a tiny CRT from an old video camera viewfinder, and it is fairly common for the driver circuit to understand composite video. And unlike CRTs, small video cameras with composite video output are easily available today for not much money. Together they bring a piece of 1980s-era video equipment into the modern selfie age. The cubic frame holding everything together is also the ground plane, but its main purpose is to give us an unimpeded view. We can admire the detail on this CRT and its accompanying circuitry representing 1982 state of the art in miniaturized consumer electronics. (And yes, high voltage components are safely insulated. Just don’t poke your finger under anything.)

With the experience gained from building that electrically simple brass frame, [Emily] then stepped up the difficulty for her follow-up project. It started with a sound synthesizer circuit built around a pair of 555 timers, popularized in the 1980s and nicknamed the Atari Punk Console. Since APC is a popular circuit found in several other Hackaday-featured projects, [Emily] decided she needed to add something else to stand out. Thus in addition to building her circuit in three-dimensional brass, two photocells were incorporated to give it rudimentary vision into its environment. Stimulus for this now light-sensitive APC were provided in the form of a RGB LED. One with a self-contained circuit to cycle through various colors and blinking patterns.

These two projects neatly bookend the range of roles brass rods can take in your own creations. From a simple frame that stays out of the way to being the central nervous system. While our Circuit Sculpture Contest judges may put emphasis the latter, both are equally valid ways to present something that is aesthetic in addition to being functional. Brass, copper, and wood are a refreshing change of pace from our standard materials of 3D-printed plastic and FR4 PCB. Go forth and explore what you can do!

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Skeletal Robot Skips The Chassis

With the high availability of low-cost modular electronic components, building your own little robot buddy is easier and more affordable than ever. But while the electronics might be dirt cheap thanks to the economies of scale, modular robot chassis can be surprisingly expensive. If you’ve got a 3D printer you can always make a chassis that way, but what if you’re looking for something a bit more artisanal?

For his entry into the Circuit Sculpture Contest, [Robson Couto] has built a simple robot which dumps the traditional chassis for a frame made out of bent and soldered copper wire. Not only does this happen to look really cool in a Steampunk kind of way, it’s also a very cheap way of knocking together a basic bot with just the parts you have on hand. Not exactly a heavy-duty chassis, to be sure, but certainly robust enough to rove around your workbench.

The dual servos constrained within the wire frame have been modified for continuous rotation, which combined with the narrow track should make for a fairly maneuverable little bot. [Robson] equipped his servos with copper wheels built in the same style of the frame, which likely isn’t great for traction but really does help sell the overall look. If you aren’t planning on entering your creation into a contest that focuses on unique construction, we’d suggest some more traditional wheels for best results.

The brains of this bot are provided by an ATmega8 with external 16MHz crystal tacked onto the pins. There’s also a ultrasonic sensor board mounted to the servos which eventually will give this little fellow the ability to avoid obstacles. Of course, it doesn’t take a robotics expert to realize there’s currently no onboard power supply in the design. We’d love to say that he’s planning on using the copper loops of the frame to power the thing via induction, but we imagine [Robson] is still fiddling around with the best way to get juice into his wireframe creation before the Contest deadline.

Speaking of which, there’s still plenty of time to get your own Circuit Sculpture creation submitted. If it’s a functional device that isn’t scared to show off the goods, we’re interested in seeing it. Just document the project on Hackaday.io and submit it to the contest before the January 8th, 2019 deadline.

We’re Dreaming Of A Circuit Sculpture Christmas

Whether or not you chose to believe our claim that we planned it this way, the holidays happen to fall right smack in the middle of our ongoing Circuit Sculpture Contest, which challenges hackers to build circuits that double as bona fide works of art. It’s become almost too easy to spin up your own PCB, so why not try your hand at building in three dimensions and without a net? The holidays are a perfect time for it as it’s not only a reprieve from the work, school, or forced labor camp that usually ties up our waking hours, but can also be a source of inspiration.

Case in point, this festive LED Christmas tree entry that comes our way courtesy of [Vincent Mkes]. This one really has it all: a recognizable theme, fantastic wire work, copious amounts of LEDs, and in a touch that is sure to delight even the electronics Scrooges amongst our readership, he does it all with the venerable 555 timer. It’s really what the Circuit Sculpture Contest is all about: taking a circuit that might otherwise be pretty ordinary and turning it into something truly unique.

The astute Hackaday reader (as if there was any other type) will likely notice there are actually two NE555 timers under the tree, each blinking their respective bank of LEDs at a different frequency. This makes the final result a bit more vibrant, and through some last-minute revisions, [Vincent] was able to hook them both up to a single power supply to really capture the minimalist spirit of the Contest.

As an early Christmas gift to us all, [Vincent] has done an excellent job documenting this build so anyone who wishes to infuse their end of year party with a little diode-driven holiday cheer can follow along. He’s included build instructions as well as diagrams of the circuit, though we encourage anyone looking to make one of their own to experiment a bit and put their own spin on it. After all, this is supposed to be art.

There’s still plenty of time to get your own entry into the Circuit Sculpture Contest, Yule-related or otherwise. Just document your build on Hackaday.io and submit it before the January 8th, 2019 deadline. Remember that entries can’t just look cool, they still need to be functional. Words to live by in general, but doubly important when they’re the rules of a contest.

Packing A Lot Into A Little PCB: Winners Of The Square Inch Project

It is mind-boggling when you think about the computing power that fits in the palm of your hand these days. It wasn’t long ago when air-conditioned rooms with raised floors hosted computers far less powerful that filled the whole area. Miniaturization is certainly the order of the day. Things are getting smaller every day, too. We were so impressed with the minuscule entries from the first “Square Inch Project” — a contest challenging designers to use 1 inch2 of PCB or less — that we decided bring it back with the Return of the Square Inch Project. The rules really were simple: build something with a PCB that was a square inch.

Grand Prize

It was hard to pick, but there can only be one grand prize winner. This time around that honor goes to [Danny FR] for a very small smart motor driver for robotics. The little board takes an I2C link to a microcontroller and does PID control with RPM feedback. No need for an H-bridge or any sophisticated control electronics — that’s all onboard.

The board is a great fit for a motor and makes it easy to build moving projects. That was the grand prize, but there were some other great entries that won in specific categories, too.

Best Project

[Drix] likes to know where things are. The Hive Tracker uses laser “lighthouses” that sweep across the room. A special microcontroller with a dedicated hardware block reads the laser light and triangulates its position relative to the lighthouses with a great deal of precision. A picture’s worth a thousand words, so:

The high-speed reading of the lasers uses “Programmable Peripheral Interconnect” — a feature of a Nordic BLE microcontroller that lets the chip read timestamps in hardware without interrupting the processor. The little boards hook up to a hub board which is also pretty small.

We’re hackers, so we think a few bare PCBs connected to another PCB can be artistic. But most people have something different in mind.

Best Artistic Project

If you hang out at Hackaday.io much, you’ll recognize [ꝺeshipu] and his entry was one of those things that you immediately know you could use, but also brings a little smile to your face when you use it. How often do you need to plug some LEDs into a breadboard? Why not do it with a Rainbow Jellyfish?

The circuit operation should be obvious. We really liked the color-coded wiring. You could probably use at least two of these so they could keep each other company. You could probably even use this as part of a badge.

Best Social Media Award

Speaking of badges, [nwmaker] built a badge that looks like another animal — an owl called PurpleSnowy. Again, the circuit is simple enough, but what caught our eye on this project was how well the social media promotion of it was. Maybe cute owls are just easier to go viral, but we liked it.

Best Documentation

[Kris Winer] (remember that name), built a very high-tech spectrometer project. Not only was it small in size, but at $25 it was also small in price. The project used the AMS AS7265X 3-chip set to provide an 18 channel, 20 nm FWHM spectrometer. The documentation was very well done and we were impressed with the fitment of the chips on the board.

Many Runners-Up

We had so many great entries that it was hard to pick so we named several runners-up.

[Greg Davill’s] Bosun frame grabber that uses an FPGA to capture images from a FLIR Boson camera.

[Kris Winer’s] high-tech $25 spectrometer project (from above) was also runner-up, and [Kris] was also recognized for sensors that can smell and hear.

If you want something less science-related, the Rotovis-Mod1 by [zakqwy] makes it easier to build persistence of vision displays. Of course, as hackers, we love an oscilloscope and [Mark Omo’s] 20 msps scope that fits in one inch caught our imagination for making some really cool instrument panels.

You really should look at all the entries — they were amazing. [Kris] really went all out, taking two runner up slots and the best documentation prize.

Recap:

Speaking of prizes, The grand prize was $500, and the other prizes received $100 Tindie gift certificates. Thanks to OSH Park, the runner ups also got $100 OSH Park gift cards — that’s a lot of one inch PCBs.

Will this be our last inch square contest? The magic 8 ball says probably not, so don’t stop thinking small and look for your chance to enter your design in the next contest.

Packing 10 Into 1: A Square Inch Dekatron Replacement

One of the things that always attracts our eye in old movies is how many kinds of displays you see on old gear both real and imaginary. Really old stuff usually had meters or circular recorders. But slightly newer movies often had some kind of exotic digital display with Nixes or Numitron tubes. One of the really exotic display devices was a Dekatron. While these are pretty rare, you can make a stand-in using modern LEDs and [Dave] did just that in an entry into our square inch competition.

These were gas-filled tubes with ten positions. You had to reset the tube and then the tube would visibly count pulses providing a visual indicator from zero to nine. Depending on the tube configuration, you could use them to count or to act as a divider. Those with neon fill looked sort of orange, although there were argon-based ones that had a purple glow. You can see what an older version of the board looks like in the video below or skip to the second video if you want to see the real ones in action.

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Less Is More: A Micromatrix Display In A Square Inch

In your living room, the big display is what you want. But in an embedded project, often less is more. We think [bobricius] will agree since he submitted a tiny 4×5 LED display into our square inch challenge. The board features an ATtiny CPU and twenty SMD LEDs in a nice grid. You can see them in action, scrolling to some disco music in the video below.

There is plenty of room left in the CPU for bigger text strings — the flash memory is just over 10% full. A little side-mounted header makes it easy to program the chip if you want to change anything.

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