Building A 60s Toy The Way It Should Have Been

The original Hasbro “Think-a-Tron”, a toy from the dawn of the computer revolution, was billed with the slogan, “It thinks! It answers! It remembers!” It, of course, did only one of these things, but that didn’t stop the marketers of the day from crushing the hopes and dreams of budding computer scientists and their eager parents just to make a few bucks. It’s not like we’re bitter or anything — just saying.

In an effort to right past wrongs, [Michael Gardi] rebuilt the 1960s “thinking machine” toy with modern components. The original may not have lived up to the hype, but at least did a decent job of evoking the room-filling computers of the day is a plastic cabinet with a dot-matrix-like display. The toy uses “punch-cards” with printed trivia questions that are inserted into the machine to be answered. A disk with punched holes spins between a light bulb and the display lenses, while a clever linkage mechanism reads the position of a notch in the edge of the card and stops the wheel to display the letter of the correct answer.

[Michael]’s update to the Think-aTron incorporates what would have qualified as extraterrestrial technology had it appeared in the 1960s. A 35-LED matrix with a 3D-printed diffuser and case form the display, with trivia questions and their answer as a QR code standing in for the punch-cards.He also added a pair of user consoles, so players can lock-in and answer before an ESP32-Cam reads the QR code and displays the answer on the LED matrix, after playing some suitable “thinking music” through a speaker.

As usual with [Michael]’s retrocomputing recreations, the level of detail here is fantastic. We especially like the custom buttons; controls like these seem to be one of his specialties judging by his slide switches and his motorized rotary switch.

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Roll Your Own Automation With ESPHome

There are several different paths to a smart home, and [Marcus] eventually settled on using ESPHome and ESP8266/ESP32 based devices to create a complete DIY smart home solution which covers his garage door, sprinklers, LED strips, light bulbs, and outlets. There’s even an experimental (and very economical) ESP32-CAM based camera, shown here.

In fact, [Marcus]’s write-up could double as a sort of reference design. If you’re curious about ESPHome, be sure to read what he has to say because he explains exactly how he configured each device and any challenges he encountered in the process.

Beyond the software guidance, the post is also a great resource on how to flash a new firmware onto several different smart devices. [Marcus] provides nicely labeled images of the boards that show where you need to connect your programmer, which just might save you some trouble down the line. Though he did manage to set fire to one of the bulbs, so keep an eye out for that.

Tasmota is another open source option for controlling ESP8266-based devices, and if you’d like to explore that direction don’t forget that flashing Sonoff devices with Tasmota firmware recently got much, much easier.

Lil’ ESP32 Bot Does Remote Surveillance, And It’s Easy

Digital cameras have been around for a long time, as have small remote control robotics platforms. However, combining the two has really only come into its own in the last decade or so, as more bandwidth has become available to the home tinkerer. This ESP32-CAM surveillance bot is a great example of what was once hard becoming trivially easy.

It’s a case of standing on the shoulders of giants. The ESP32-CAM is a device that allows one to stream live video images over a network using existing example code. In this case, it’s combined with an L298N DC motor driver which allows the Adafruit robot platform to be steered like a tank via its two wheels. A pair of SG90 servos then serve as a pan/tilt mechanism to further improve the robot’s field of view.

If you aimed to attempt this back in 2010, you’d have spent six months figuring out how to get a microcontroller to talk to a small camera module. Only then could you consider solving the multitude of other problems presented by getting the video feed off the bot to somewhere useful. These days, you can order a bunch of parts online and have it up and running in a couple hours. This project from 2013 serves as an example of how much things have changed in the intervening years. Video after the break.

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ESP32-Cam Does Time Lapse

Just a few years ago, had someone asked you how much a digital camera with WiFi would cost, you probably wouldn’t have said $6. But that’s about how much [Bitluni] paid for an ESP32-CAM. He wanted to try making the little camera do time lapse, and it turns out that’s pretty easy to do.

Of course, the devil is in the details. The camera starts out needing configuration on the USB interface and that enables the set up of Arduino integration and WiFi configuration. Because it stores each frame of the image on an SD card, the board can’t take rapid-fire pictures. [Bitluni] reports a 3-second delay was about the shortest he could manage, but for most purposes, he was using at least ten seconds.

The program has a live preview window to help you set up the shot, but before your recordings start that should be turned off so as not to overload the little processor and the I/O buses. The result is a bunch of JPG images that you can easily convert to a video on a PC if you wish.

This might be a good way to fit a camera on a 3D printer, especially if the time lapse effect was desired. Otherwise, you might sync to a layer change. Now all [bitluni] needs is an orbital rig.

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Add-On Makes ESP32 Camera Board Easier To Program

Don’t you just hate it when dev boards have some annoying little quirk that makes them harder to use than they should be? Take the ESP32-CAM, a board that started appearing on the market in early 2019. On paper, the thing is amazing: an ESP32 with support for a camera and an SD card, all for less than $10. The trouble is that programming it can be a bit of a pain, requiring extra equipment and a spare finger.

Not being one to take such challenges lying down, [Bitluni] has come up with a nice programming board for the ESP32-CAM that you might want to check out. The problem stems from the lack of a USB port on the ESP32-CAM. That design decision leaves users in need of a USB-to-serial adapter that has to be wired to the GPIO pins of the camera board so that programs can be uploaded from the Arduino IDE when the reset button is pressed. None of that is terribly complex, but it is inconvenient. His solution is called cam-prog, and it takes care of not only the USB conversion but also resetting the board. It does that by simply power cycling the camera, allowing sketches to be uploaded via USB. It looks to be a pretty handy board, which will be available on his Tindie store.

To demonstrate the add-on, he programmed his ESP32-CAM and connected it to his enormous ping pong ball video wall. The video quality is about what you’d expect from a 1,200 pixel display at 40 mm per pixel, but it’s still pretty smooth – smooth enough to make his interpretive dance moves in the last few minutes of the video pretty interesting.

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