Strike a Chord With This LED Ukulele

You may laugh off the ukulele as a toy or joke instrument, and admittedly, their starting price tag and the quality that usually comes with such a price tag doesn’t help much to get a different opinion on that. But it also makes it the perfect instrument for your next project. After all, they’re easy to handle, portable, and cheap enough to use a drill and other tools on them without too much regret. Plus, a little knowledge to play can get you far, and [Elaine] can teach you the essential, “all the pop songs use it”, four chords with her Arduino powered LED Ukulele.

As first step, [Elaine] drilled holes in her ukulele’s fingerboard to place some LEDs at all the positions required to play the four chords C, G, Am, and F. Connected to an Arduino attached to the ukulele’s back, each chord will light up its associated LEDs to indicate the finger positions required to play the chord itself. Taking the teaching part a step further, her next step is to extend each LED with a second, light sensing one, and read back if the fingers are placed at the correct position.

[Elaine] has already plans to turn the ukulele into an interactive game next. And if four chords are eventually not enough for you anymore, have a look at another LED based project teaching to play any major, minor and major seventh chord on the ukulele.

Kniwwelino Is An ESP8266 Micro:Bit

Kniwwelino is the latest in a line of micro:bit-inspired projects that we’ve seen, but this one comes with a twist: it uses an ESP8266 and WiFi at the core instead of the nR51 ARM/BTLE chip. That means that students can connect via laptop, cellphone, or anything else that can get onto a network.

That’s not the only tradeoff, though. In order to get the price down, the Kniwwelino drops the accelerometer/magnetometer of the micro:bit for a programmable RGB LED. With fewer pins to break out, the Kniwwelino is able to ditch the love-it-or-hate-it card-edge connector of the micro:bit as well. In fact, with all these changes, it’s hard to call this a micro:bit clone at all — it’s more like a super-blinky ESP8266 development kit.

So what have they got left in common? The iconic 5×5 LED matrix in the center, and a Blockly visual programming dialect dedicated to the device. Based on the ESP8266, the Kniwwelino naturally also has an Arduino dialect that students can “graduate” to when they’re tired of moving around colored blobs, and of course you could flash the chip with anything else that runs on an ESP8266.

We don’t have one in our hands, but we like the idea. An RGB LED is a lot of fun on Day One, and the fact that the Kniwwelino fits so neatly into existing bodies of code makes the transition from novice to intermediate programmer a lot easier. These things are personal preference, but WiFi beats Bluetooth LE in our book, for sheer ubiquity and interoperability. Finally, the Kniwwelino comes in at about half the manufacturing cost of a micro:bit, which makes it viable in schools without large manufacturer subsidies. They’re estimating $5 per unit. (Retail is higher.) On the other hand, the Kniwwelino is going to use more juice than its ARM-based competitor, and doesn’t have an accelerometer.

Kniwwelino is apparently derived from a luxembourgish word “kniwweln” that apparently means to craft something. The German Calliope Mini is named after Zeus’ daughter, the programmer’s muse. We’re stoked to see so many cute dev boards getting into the hands of students, no matter what you call them.

Nintendo Switch Gets Making with Labo

Over the years, Nintendo has had little trouble printing money with their various gaming systems. While they’ve had the odd misstep here and there since the original Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1983, overall business has been good. But even for the company that essentially brought home video games to the mainstream, this last year has been pretty huge. The release of the Nintendo Switch has rocketed the Japanese gaming giant back into the limelight in a way they haven’t enjoyed in a number of years, and now they’re looking to keep that momentum going into 2018 with a killer new gaming accessory: a cardboard box.

Some of the contraptions feature surprisingly complex internal mechanisms.

Well, it doesn’t have to be a box, necessarily. But no matter which way you fold it, it’s definitely a piece of cardboard. Maybe a few bits of string here and there. This is the world of “Nintendo Labo”, a recently announced program which promises to let Switch owners create physical objects which they can interact with via specially designed software for the console.

The Labo creations demonstrated in the bombastic announcement video make clever use of the very unique Switch hardware. The removable Joy-Con controllers are generally still used as input devices, albeit in less traditional ways. Twisting and tilting the cardboard creations, which take varied forms such as a fishing rod or motorcycle handlebars, relays input to the appropriate game thanks to the accelerometers and gyroscopes they contain.

Many of the more complex contraptions rely on a less-known feature of the controller: the IR depth camera. By pointing the controller’s camera inside of the devices, the motion of internal components, likely helped along by IR-reflective tape, can be tracked in three dimensions. In the video, the internal construction of some of the devices looks downright intimidating.

Which leads into the natural question: “Who exactly is this for?”

Clearly some of the gadgets, not to mention the folded cardboard construction, are aimed at children, an age group Nintendo has never been ashamed to appeal to. But some of the more advanced devices and overall concept seems like it would play better with creative teens and adults looking to push the Switch in new directions.

Will users be empowered to create their own hardware, and by extension, associated software? Will hackers and makers be able to 3D print new input devices for the Switch using this platform? This is definitely something we’ll be keeping a close eye on as it gets closer to release in April.

The popularity of the Switch has already given rise to a surprising amount of hacking given how new the console is. It will be interesting to see if the introduction of Labo has any effect on the impressive work already being done to bend the console to the owner’s will.

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Color Changing Clock gets a Pi Zero Heart

Hackaday reader [Don] dropped by the tip line recently to let us know about the latest version of his color-changing LCD clock project. This is his second version of the hardware which makes some pretty big improvements over the original, including moving from the Pi B to the Pi Zero and an internal simplification of the wiring. He mentions the next revision of the project will focus on Google Home integration, which should be interesting to see.

As a father of two pre-school age children, he was looking for a way to help his kids understand the concept of time and scheduled activities. Colors and shapes come fairly easy to children of this age, but time and how it relates to the day is a bit more difficult for them especially as their comprehension of numbers is still developing. [Don] reasoned that even if they couldn’t read the numbers on the clock yet, if he had the display change colors to indicate different periods of the day (sleep, play, cleanup, etc), it would not only keep them on schedule, but reinforce the meaning of the numbers on the screen.

ShiftBrite installed in the projector.

The project was made infinitely easier by a lucky find at a local retailer. For $10 he got a kid-friendly looking clock that utilized a simple projector to backlight the LCD display. This meant [Don] would just need to swap out the stock lighting module for a controllable RGB LED, and the hardware modifications would essentially be complete.

Even the Pi Zero fits perfectly inside the case of the clock, the only modification necessary was cutting a little hole in the back for the Pi’s micro USB port. His earlier version used an external Pi B connected to the clock via CAT5, so getting it all integrated into the one device is a huge improvement, especially when little kids are involved. Moving the Pi and its 5 V pins into the clock itself also allowed [Don] to drop the voltage regulator required previously.

With the basic hardware for a color changing LCD clock together, the rest of the project was just a matter of software. After some research, [Don] came across RPi-ShiftBrite by [Hive13] and made his own fork which added some features necessary for his project, namely the ability to quickly set the ShiftBrite to a specific color on the command line. To schedule the color changes, he used the very slick minicron: a web-based tool to create and monitor Linux cron jobs.

The Pi itself does not actually interface with the clock, and with no onboard RTC it’s necessary to keep it updated with NTP or else the times will become desynchronized. It can be necessary to sync the Pi’s clock to the Internet as often as every hour to make sure the colors shift at the appropriate times. The addition of a RTC module like the DS1307 could alleviate this issue and might be something to consider for a future revision.

All told, a fantastic project and something we’ll be sure to keep our eyes on as it progresses. We’ve seen our share of unique Raspberry Pi powered clocks, and even a few color changing ones, but this approach is easily the most straight-forward we’ve seen.

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Hazardous Dollhouse Teaches Fire Safety

Fire safety is drilled into us from a young age. And for good reason, too, because fire hazards are everywhere in the average home. Even a small fire can turn devastatingly dangerous in a matter of minutes. But how do you get kids to really pay attention to scary (and often boring) adult concepts? You can teach a kid to stop, drop, and roll until you’re blue in the face and still might not drive home the importance of fire prevention. Subjects like this call for child-sized visual aids that ignite imaginations.

That’s exactly what firefighters in Poznań, Poland did in collaboration with mlabs, a local software company. They built a mobile, interactive fire safety education tool that simulates common household fire hazards in great detail (translated). This is easily the most tricked-out dollhouse we’ve ever seen. The many different hazard scenarios are controlled via touchscreen using a custom-built application. At the tap of a button, the house becomes a total death trap. The lamp-lit hazards glow realistically and with varied intensity, and there is actual smoke coming out of them that triggers smoke detectors. Cameras embedded throughout the house provide a first-person view of the terror on a nearby monitor.

Almost no room is safe for the figurine family that lives inside this intricately detailed 1:12 scale dwelling. Dad’s in the kitchen standing idly by while food scorches on the stove. Grandma’s sitting on her bed upstairs, her forgotten cigarette burning a hole in the duvet. Daughter is overloading the electrical outlets in her bedroom with all her gizmos. Smoldering coals have spilled out from the toppled stove in the utility room.

This isn’t the first smart dollhouse we’ve seen, but it’s probably the most intriguing. The fire safety dollhouse was on display this week at POL-EKO-SYSTEM, an annual environmental fair in Poznań. Nowhere near Poland? Check out the video after the break.

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Educational Robot for Under $100

While schools have been using robots to educate students in the art of science and engineering for decades now, not every school or teacher can afford to put one of these robots in the hands of their students. For that reason, it’s important to not only improve the robots themselves, but to help drive the costs down to make them more accessible. The CodiBot does this well, and comes in with a price tag well under $100.

The robot itself comes pre-assembled, and while it might seem like students would miss out on actually building the robot, the goal of the robot is to teach coding skills primarily. Some things do need to be connected though, such as the Arduino and other wires, but from there its easy to program the robot to do any number of tasks such as obstacle avoidance and maze navigation. The robot can be programmed using drag-and-drop block programming (similar to Scratch) but can also be programmed the same way any other Arduino can be.

With such a high feature count and low price tag, this might be the key to getting more students exposed to programming in a more exciting and accessible way than is currently available. Of course, if you have a little bit more cash lying around your school, there are some other options available to you as well.

Friday Hack Chat: Making Electronics for Education

For this week’s Hack Chat on Hackaday.io, we’ll be talking with AnnMarie Thomas about making electronics for education. There’s a huge intersection between electronics and education, and whether you’re designing robots for a FIRST team or designing a geometry curriculum around 3D-printed objects, there’s a lot electronics can teach students.

AnnMarie Thomas is an associate professor at the School of Engineering and the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas. She’s the founder of the Playful Learning Lab, and along with her students she’s created Squishy Circuits. AnnMarie is the author of Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation. Basically, if you’re looking for someone who knows how to make an educational product, you can’t do any better.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’ll be talking about how to define how technology and education can intersect. There are ways to define a concept, build and sell an educational product, and how to find a market for a product. If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes into getting students to dive into electronics, this is the Hack Chat you have to sit in on.

Oh, AnnMarie is also a judge for this year’s Hackaday Prize. Neat.

Also on deck for this week’s Hack Chat will be Tindie. Tindie is Supplyframe’s (Hackaday’s parent company) answer to the question, ‘where should I sell my hardware product’. Think of it as ‘Etsy for electronics’, but with less furniture made out of pallet wood, but paradoxically more products that require a California prop 65 warning. Isn’t electronics fun?

Here’s How To Take Part:

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This Hack Chat will take place at noon Pacific time on Friday, July 21st. Confused about where and when ‘noon’ is? Here’s a time and date converter!

Log into Hackaday.io, visit that page, and look for the ‘Join this Project’ Button. Once you’re part of the project, the button will change to ‘Team Messaging’, which takes you directly to the Hack Chat.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.