Watch The Low-Cost Mechatronics Lab Dispense Candy, Sort Cups

A lot can be done with simple motors and linear motion when they are mated to the right mechanical design and control systems. Teaching these principles is the goal behind the LCMT (Low Cost Mechatronics Trainer) which is intended primarily as an educational tool. The LCMT takes a “learn by doing” approach to teach a variety of principles by creating a system that takes a cup from a hopper, fills it with candy from a dispenser, then sorts the cups based on color, all done by using the proper combinations of relatively simple systems.

The Low Cost Mechatronics Trainer can be built for under $1,000 and is the wonderful work of a team from the Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, USA. The LCMT is clearly no one-off project; there are complete CAD files and build documentation on the site, as well as a complete lab guide for educators.

A demo video of the assembled system is embedded below, with a walkthrough done by [Tim Callinan]. It’s worth a watch to see how cleanly designed the system is, and the visual learners among you may learn a thing or two just by watching the system go through its motions.

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Laser Cut Cardboard Robot Construction Kit Eases Learning And Play

It has never been easier to put a microcontroller and other electronics into a simple project, and that has tremendous learning potential. But when it comes to mechanical build elements like enclosures, frames, and connectors, things haven’t quite kept the same pace. It’s easier to source economical servos, motors, and microcontroller boards than it is to arrange for other robot parts that allow for cheap and accessible customization and experimentation.

That’s where [Andy Forest] comes in with the Laser Cut Cardboard Robot Construction Kit, which started at STEAMLabs, a non-profit community makerspace in Toronto. The design makes modular frames, enclosures, and basic hardware out of laser-cut corrugated cardboard. It’s an economical and effective method of creating the mechanical elements needed for creating robots and animatronics while still allowing easy customizing. The sheets have punch-out sections for plastic straws, chopstick axles, SG90 servo motors, and of course, anything that’s missing can be easily added with hot glue or cut out with a knife. In addition to the designs being open sourced, there is also an activity guide for educators that gives visual examples of different ways to use everything.

Cardboard makes a great prototyping material, but what makes the whole project sing is the way the designs allow for easy modification and play while being easy to source and produce.

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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