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.

Continue reading “Packing 10 into 1: A Square Inch Dekatron Replacement”

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.

Continue reading “Less is More: A Micromatrix Display in a Square Inch”

How Big is Your Oscilloscope? One Inch?

We are anxious to see the finished product of [Mark Omo’s] entry into our one square inch project. It is a 20 megasample per second oscilloscope that fits the form factor and includes a tiny OLED screen. We will confess that we started thinking if you could use these as replacements for panel meters or find some other excuse for it to exist. We finally realized, though, that it might not be very practical but it is undeniably cool.

There are some mockup PCB layouts, but the design appears feasible. A PIC32MZ provides the horsepower. [Mark] plans to use an interleaved mode in the chip’s converters to get 20 megasamples per second and a bandwidth of 10 MHz. It appears he’ll use DMA to drive the OLED. In addition to the OLED and the PIC, there’s a termination network and a variable gain stage and that’s about it.

Continue reading “How Big is Your Oscilloscope? One Inch?”

One Square Inch Expanded in the Time Dimension

No, we’re not talking about spooky feats of General Relativity. But you should know that the Return of the Square Inch Project just got its deadline extended.

If you missed the call the first time around, our favorite user-contributed contest on Hackaday.io is up and running again. Hackaday.io tossed in some good money for prizes, and folks started thinking about what functionality they could cram inside a 25.4 mm x 25.4 mm square. But while one constraint can help bring out creativity, adding a tight deadline to a tight squeeze caused a number of our entrants to ask for an extension.

If you’re working on the Square Inch Project, you’ve got until October 1st to get your boards ready. Breathe a quick sigh of relief and then get back to soldering! We’re looking forward to seeing all the great entries.

Competitive Soldering is Now a Thing

At Hackaday, we’re constantly impressed by the skill and technique that goes into soldering up some homebrew creations. We’re not just talking about hand-soldering 80-pin QFNs without a stencil, either: there are people building charlieplexed LED arrays out of bare copper wire, and using Kynar wire for mechanical stability. There are some very, very talented people out there, and they all work in the medium of wire, heat, and flux.

At this year’s DEF CON, we opened the floodgates to competitive soldering. Along with [Bunny] from Hardware Hacking Village and the many volunteers from the HHV and Soldering Skills Village, dozens competed to solder up a tiny kit full of LEDs and microscopic resistors.

The kit in question was an SMD Challenge Kit put together my MakersBox, and consisted of a small PCB, an SOIC-8 ATtiny, and a LED and resistor for 1206, 0805, 0603, 0402, and 0201 sizes. The contest is done in rounds. Six challengers compete at a time, and everyone is given 35 minutes to complete the kit.

We’ve seen — and participated in — soldering challenges before, and each one has a slightly unique twist to make it that much more interesting. For example, at this summer’s Toorcamp, the soldering challenge was to simply drink a beer before moving to the next size of parts. You would solder the 1206 LED and resistor sober, drink a beer, solder the 0805, drink a beer, and keep plugging away until you get to the 01005 parts. Yes, people were able to do it.

Of course, being DEF CON and all, we were trying to be a bit more formal, and drinking before noon is uncouth. The rules for this Soldering Challenge award points on five categories: the total time taken, if the components are actually soldered down, a ‘functionality’ test, the orientation of the parts, and the quality of the solder joints.

The winners of the soldering challenge, at the Hackaday Breakfast Meetup at DEF CON 26

So, with those rules in place, who won the Soldering Challenge at this year’s DEF CON? Out of a total 25 points, the top scorers are:

  • [True] – 23 pts
  • [Rushan] – 19 pts
  • [Ryan] – 18 pts
  • [Beardbyte] – 18 pts
  • [Casey] – 18 pts
  • [Bob] – 18 pts
  • [Nick] – 18 pts
  • [JEGEVA] – 18 pts

The Soldering Challenge had an incredible turnout, and the entire Soldering Skills Village was packed to the gills with folks eager to pick up an iron. The results were phenomenal!

We’d like to extend a note of thanks to [Bunny], the Hardware Hacking Village, the Soldering Skills Village, and MakersBox for making this happening. It was truly a magical experience, and now that competitive soldering is a thing, we’re going to be doing this a few more times. How do you think this could be improved? Leave a note in the comments.

Unofficial Badges Get Official Recognition at DEF CON: Badge Life Contest

Badge·Life (noun): the art of spending too much time, energy, money, and creativity to design and produce amazing custom electronics and get them into the hands of those who appreciate incredible craftsmanship.

Brand new to DEF CON 26 is the Badge Life Contest to celebrate the creativity and ingenuity that gets poured into a custom badge.

For years, #BadgeLife has been flying under the radar at DEF CON. A growing movement of creative designers have put in late nights, emptied pocket books, and agonized over production, shipping, lanyards, boxes, batteries, programming woes, and every other kind of problem you can image to bring hundreds of unofficial badges to the conference. These aren’t a secret, the whole point is to wear blinky badges, often loaded with cryptographic puzzles and wireless interactivity, around your neck. For many, acquiring an awesome badge is a must-do to make their con a successful one. But DEF CON hasn’t officially recognized BadgeLife, until now.

If you’re a badge creator, you should show off your badge as part of the contest. It’s an opportunity to let more people see all the details that make each badge a work of art. During the con, most people will only see badges as they walk past them in the hallway. For the contest, all badges will be on display in the Hardware Hacking Village during the weekend to provide a close look for everyone.

The judging panel for this is an incredible slate of talented and well-known people from the hardware community. It doesn’t look like those names have been made public yet, but I’m honored and humbled to be among them. Help kick this inaugural year of the Badge Life Contest off right. You can submit your badge information now and deliver one badge (which will be returned to you) for display by 5 pm PDT on Friday 8/10.