Hackaday Links: December 27, 2020

We’re always pleased to see one of our community’s projects succeed, and we celebrate that success in whatever what it comes. But seeing a company launched to commercialize an idea that started as a Hackaday.io project and a Hackaday Prize entry is especially gratifying. So we were pleased as punch to see that MAKESafe Tools has managed to bring the idea of add-on machine tool braking to market. We’d love to add this to several tools in our shop. Honestly, of all the terrifying ways machine tools can slice, dice, and shred human flesh asunder, we always considered the lowly bench grinder fairly low-risk — and then we had a chance to “Shake Hands with Danger.”

Another great thing about the Hackaday community is the way we all try to keep each other up to speed on changes and news that affects even our smallest niches. Just last week Tom Nardi covered a project using the venerable TI eZ430-Chronos smartwatch as a makeshift medical alert bracelet for a family member. It’s a great application for the proto-smartwatch, but one eagle-eyed commenter helpfully pointed out that TI is shutting down their processors wiki in just a couple of weeks. The banner at the top of each page warns that the wiki is not read-only and that any files needed should be downloaded by January 15. Also helpfully, subsequent comments include instructions to download the entire wiki and a torrent link to the archive. It’s always sad to see a platform lose support, especially one that has gained a nice following, but it’s heartening to see the community pull together to continue to support each other like this.

We came across an interesting article this week that’s was a fascinating glimpse into how economic forces shape  and drive technological process, and vice versa. It turns out that some of the hottest real estate commodities these days are the plots of land occupied by AM radio stations serving metropolitan markets. It’s no secret that terrestrial radio in general, and AM radio in particular, are growing increasingly moribund, and the infrastructure needed to keep them on the air is getting harder and harder to justify. Chief among these are the large tracts of land devoted to antenna farms, which are often located in suburban and exurban areas near major cities. They’re tempting targets for developers looking to plunk down the physical infrastructure needed to support “New Economy” players like Amazon, which continue to build vast automated warehouses in areas that are handy to large customer bases. It’s a bit sad to watch a once mighty industry unravel and be sold off like this, but such is the nature of progress.

And finally, you may recall a Links article mention a few weeks back about a teardown of a super-sized IBM processor module. A quarter-million dollar relic of the 1990s, the huge System/390 module was an engineering masterpiece that met an unfortunate end at the hands of EEVblog’s Dave Jones. As a follow-up, Dave teamed up with fellow YouTuber CPU Galaxy to take a less-destructive tour of the module using X-ray analysis. The level of engineering needed for a 64-layer ceramic backplane is astonishing, and Dave’s play-by-play is pretty entertaining too. As a bonus, CPU Galaxy has some really interesting stuff; his place is basically a museum of vintage tech, and he just earned a new sub.

Brain Hacking With Entrainment

Can you electronically enhance your brain? I’m not talking about surgically turning into a Borg. But are there electronic methods that can improve various functions of your brain? Fans of brainwave entrainment say yes.

There was an old recruiting ad for electrical engineers that started with the headline: The best electronic brains are still human. While it is true that even a toddler can do things our best computers struggle with, it is easy to feel a little inadequate compared to some of our modern electronic brains. Then again, your brain is an electronic device of sorts. While we don’t understand everything about how it works, there are definitely electric signals going between neurons. And where there are electric signals there are ways to measure them.

The tool for measuring electric signals in the brain is an EEG (electroencephalograph). While you can’t use an EEG to read your mind, exactly, it can tell you some pretty interesting information, such as when you are relaxed or concentrating. At its most basic we’ve seen toys and simple hobby projects that purport to be “mind controlled” but only at an incredibly rudimentary level.

Brainwave entrainment is a hypothesis that sending low frequency waves to your brain can give your mind a nudge and sync up brain activity with the equipment measuring it. The ability to synchronize with the brain could yield much better measurements for a meaningful interface between modern electronics and electric storm of thought happening in your head.

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Hacking Hackaday.io From CircuitPython

If you’ve ever engaged in social media, you’re familiar with the little thrill you receive when your post, tweet, or project gets a like. But, if logging in feels like too much overhead to obtain your dopamine reward, [pt’s] CircuitPython Hackaday portal may be just what you’re looking for. This project creates a stand-alone counter to display the number of “skulls” (aka likes) received by a project on hackaday.io, and of course, it’s currently counting its own.

The code is running on a SAMD51 (Cortex M4) microcontroller and serving up the skulls on 240×320 TFT display. For WiFi connectivity, the project uses an ESP-32 controlled through the usual AT command set. All the gory details of this interaction are abstracted away by a CircuitPython library, which is great because that code really isn’t something you want to write for every project. The program accesses the hackaday.io API to retrieve the number of skulls for the project, but could be easily modified to interface with any service that returned a JSON result.

We’ve been seeing a lot of CircuitPython code lately. Just in case you’re not familiar with it, CircuitPython is Adafruit’s version of Micropython, a python language targeted at embedded processors. While it sounds like something concocted purely to make old-school embedded-C programmers grumble, it’s actually powerful and convenient for embedded prototyping and development. Fueled by the speed of the latest inexpensive microcontrollers and a rapidly growing set of libraries that take the sting out of using integrated peripherals and common hacker-friendly parts, it offers a solid alternative to older embedded frameworks. There are lots of examples around if you want to get started, and we’re maintaining our own list of CircuitPython projects over on hackaday.io that you can check out.

You can see a video of the display after the break. It’s not a live stream, so you won’t see your like appear on the display, but rest assured, [pt] will!

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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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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.

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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.

Learn FPGA Fast With Hackaday’s FPGA Boot Camp

FPGAs have gone from being a niche product for people with big budgets to something that every electronics experimenter ought to have in their toolbox. I am always surprised at how many people I meet who tell me they are interested in using FPGAs but they haven’t started. If you’ve been looking for an easy way to get started with FPGAs, Hackaday’s FPGA boot camp is for you. There’s even a Hackaday.io chat in the group specifically for FPGA talk for questions and general discussion!

While it is true FPGAs aren’t for everything, when you need them you really need them. Using FPGAs you can build logic circuits — not software simulations, but real circuits — and reap major performance benefits compared to a CPU. For digital signal processing, neural networks, or computer vision applications, being able to do everything essentially in parallel is a great benefit. Sometimes you just need the raw speed of a few logic gates compared to a CPU plodding methodically through code. We expect to see a lot more FPGA activity now that Arduino is in the game.

These boot camps gather together some of the material you seen spread over many articles here before, plus new material to flesh it out. It’s designed for you to work through more like a training class than just some text to read. There’s plenty of screenshots and even animations to help you see what you are supposed to be doing. You’ll be able to work with simulations to see how the circuits we talk about work, make changes, and see the results. We’ll focus on Verilog — at least for now — as it is close to C and easier for people who know C to pick up. Still not convinced? Let’s run though the gist of the boot camp series.

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