Debugging PCBs With Augmented Reality

Mihir Shah has designed many a PCB in his time. However, when working through the development process, he grew tired of the messy, antiquated methods of communicating design data with his team. Annotating photos is slow and cumbersome, while sending board design files requires everyone to use the same software and be up to speed. Mihir thinks he has a much better solution by the name of InspectAR, it’s an augmented reality platform that lets you see inside the circuit board and beyond which he demoed during the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

The InspectAR package makes it easy to visualise signals on the board.

The idea of InspectAR is to use augmented reality to help work with and debug electronics. It’s a powerful suite of tools that enable the live overlay of graphics on a video feed of a circuit board, enabling the user to quickly and effectively trace signals, identify components, and get an idea of what’s what. Usable with a smartphone or a webcam, the aim is to improve collaboration and communication between engineers by giving everyone a tool that can easily show them what’s going on, without requiring everyone involved to run a fully-fledged and expensive electronics design package.

The Supercon talk served to demonstrate some of the capabilities of InspectAR with an Arduino Uno. With a few clicks, different pins and signals can be highlighted on the board as Mihir twirls it between his fingers. Using ground as an example, Mihir first highlights the entire signal. This looks a little messy, with the large ground plane making it difficult to see exactly what’s going on. Using an example of needing a point to attach to for an oscilloscope probe, [Mihir] instead switches to pad-only mode, clearly revealing places where the user can find the signal on bare pads on the PCB. This kind of attention to detail shows the strong usability ethos behind the development of InspectAR, and we can already imagine finding it invaluable when working with unfamiliar boards. There’s also the possibility to highlight different components and display metadata — which should make finding assembly errors a cinch. It could also be useful for quickly bringing up datasheets on relevant chips where necessary.

Obviously, the electronic design space is a fragmented one, with plenty of competing software in the market. Whether you’re an Eagle diehard, Altium fanatic, or a KiCad fan, it’s possible to get things working with InspectAR. Mihir and the team are currently operating out of office space courtesy of Autodesk, who saw the value in the project and have supported its early steps. The software is available free for users to try, with several popular boards available to test. As a party piece for Supercon, our very own Hackaday badge is available if you’d like to give it a spin, along with several Arduino boards, too. We can’t wait to see what comes next, and fully expect to end up using InspectAR ourselves when hacking away at a fresh run of boards!

Companion Bots Definitely Are The Droids You’re Looking For

Companion robots are a breed that, heretofore, we’ve primarily seen in cinema. Free from the limits of real-world technology, they manage to be charismatic, cute, and capable in ways that endear them to audiences the world over. Jorvon Moss and Alex Glow decided that this charming technology shouldn’t just live on the silver screen, and have been developing their own companion bots to explore this field. Lucky for us, they came down to Hackaday Superconference to tell us all about it!

The duo use a variety of techniques to build their ‘bots, infusing them with plenty of personality along the way. Jorvon favors the Arduino as the basis of his builds, while Alex has experimented with the Google AIY Vision Kit, BBC Micro:bit, as well as other platforms. Through clever design and careful planning, the two common maker techniques to create their unique builds. Using standard servos, 3D printed body parts, and plenty of LEDs, it’s all stuff that’s readily accessible to the home gamer.

[Alex]’s companion bot, Archimedes, has been through many upgrades to improve functionality. Plus, he’s got a cute hat!
Having built many robots, the different companions have a variety of capabilities in the manner they interact. Alex’s robot owl, Archimedes, uses machine vision to find people, and tries to figure out if they’re happy or sad. If they’re excited enough, it will give the person a small gift. Archimedes mounts on a special harness Alex built out of armature wire, allowing the avian to perch on her shoulder when out and about. Similarly, Jorvon’s Dexter lurks on his back, modeled after a monkey. Featuring an LED matrix for emotive facial expressions, and a touch sensor for high fives, Dexter packs plenty of character into his 3D printed chassis.

Alex and Jorvon also talk about some of the pitfalls and challenges they’ve faced through the development of their respective companion bots. Jorvon defines a companion robot as “any robot that you can take with you, on any type of adventure”. Being out in the real world and getting knocked around means breakages are common, with both of the duo picking up handfuls of smashed plastic and bundles of wires at times. Thankfully, with 3D printing being the tool of the trade, it’s easy to iteratively design new components to better withstand the rough and tumble of daily life out and about. This also feeds into the rest of the design process, with Jorvon giving the example of Dexter’s last minute LED upgrades that were built and fitted while at Supercon.

Develop on companion bots is never really finished. Future work involves integrating Chirp.io data-over-sound communications to allow the bots to talk. There’s been some headaches on the software side, but we look forward to seeing these ‘bots chatting away in their own droid language. While artificial intelligence doesn’t yet have homebrew companion bots matching the wisecracking droids seen in movies, designing lifelike bodies for our digital creations is a big step in that direction. With people like Alex and Jolyon on the case, we’re sure it won’t be long before we’re all walking around with digital pals on our shoulders — and it promises to be fun!

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The Way Of The PCB Artist: How To Make Truly Beautiful Circuit Boards

Getting your own PCBs made is a rite of passage for the hardware hacker. Oftentimes, it’s a proud moment, and many of us choose to immortalise the achievement with a self-aggrandizing credit on the silk screen, or perhaps a joke or personal logo. However, as far as artistically customized PCBs go, the sky really is the limit, and this is the specialty of [TwinkleTwinkie], whose Supercon talk covers some of the pitfalls you can run into when working at the edges of conventional PCB processes. 

[TwinkleTwinkie]’s creations are usually badges of one type or other — they’re meant to be worn on a lanyard around your neck, as a pin, or as a decoration added to another badge. The whole point is the aesthetic, and style is just as important as functionality. With diverse inspirations like Futurama, Alice in Wonderland and the shenanigans of the GIF community, his badges blend brightly colored boards with a big helping of LEDs and artistic silkscreening to create electronic works of art.

Keeping PCB Fab Houses from Upsetting the Artwork

These days, PCB fab houses offer more choice than ever, in terms of silkscreens, soldermask colors, and other options.  However, fundamentally, their primary concern is to produce reliable, accurate, electronically functional boards — and it’s something that can cause problems for #badgelife hackers designing for more aesthetic reasons.
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The Hacker History Of Music Technologies

Music throughout history has been inspired and changed by hackers and makers, and never moreso than in the 20th century. Helen Leigh is one such hacker, who brought a talk to Supercon to give us a crash course in the history of recording, electronics and music, and what the maker movement is doing in the music world today.

The tape recorder was an invention that kicked off a golden period of exploration in sound. Beginning in World War II, the Nazi propaganda machine cut and spliced recorded materials and disseminated them across broadcasting stations in Europe. To the astonishment of the Allies, certain German officials appeared to be making broadcasts from different studios at the same time, due to the high quality of the recording hardware. After the war, this technology was discovered by a group of Parisian recording artists who began to experiment with an art that became known as musique concrète, using tape hardware in weird and wonderful ways to create new sounds heretofore unheard in nature.

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Thea Flowers – Creating A Sega-Inspired Hardware Synthesizer From The Ground Up

For those who grew up with video games, the legendary sounds of consoles past are an instant nostalgia hit. [Thea Flowers] first got her hands on a gamepad playing Sonic the Hedgehog, so the sounds of the Sega Genesis hold a special place in her heart. Decades later, this inspired the creation of Genesynth, a hardware synth inspired by the classic console. The journey of developing this hardware formed the basis of [Thea]’s enlightening Supercon talk.

[Thea’s] first begins by exploring why the Genesis sound is so unique. The Sega console slotted neatly into a time period where the company sought to do something more than simple subtractive synthesis, but before it was possible to use full-waveform audio at an affordable price point. In collaboration with Yamaha, the YM2612 FM synthesis chip was built, a cost-reduced sound engine similar to that in the famous DX7 synthesizer of the 1980s. This gave the Genesis abilities far beyond the basic bleeps and bloops of other consoles at the time, and [Thea] decided it simply had to be built into a dedicated hardware synth.

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Behind The Scenes Of The 2019 Superconference Badge

If you count yourself among the several hundred of our closest friends that have joined us at Supplyframe HQ for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, then by now you’ll have your hands on one of this year’s incredible FPGA badges. It should come as no surprise that an incredible amount of time and effort went into developing and manufacturing this exceptionally unique piece of hardware; the slick gadget in your hands today took nearly an entire year to develop, and work continued on it until very literally the last possible moment.

Badge designer Jeroen Domburg (aka Sprite_TM), Hackaday staff, and a team of dedicated volunteers were still putting the final touches on these ambitious devices less than 24 hours before they were distributed to the first wave of Superconference attendees. Naturally, that’s not exactly how things were supposed to go. But when you’ve got a group of people that want to push the envelope and build something truly incredible, convincing them to actually stop working can be a challenge in itself.

In fact, development of the badge is still ongoing. Fixes and improvements are being made to the software even as you read this, and if you haven’t already, you should upgrade your badge to make sure you’ve got the latest and greatest from our international team of wizards. We all know that conference badges have an unfortunate habit of languishing on the shelf and collecting dust, but the 2019 Superconference badge was built to challenge you for longer than just one weekend. Consider yourself warned: for every Supercon badge that gets tossed in a drawer come Monday, Sprite_TM will shed a single tear.

After the break, come along as we turn back the clock and take a look at the last minute dash to get 500+ badges programmed and ready to go before the doors opened for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

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Supercon Keynote: Dr. Megan Wachs On RISC-V

Hackaday has open-source running deep in our veins — and that goes for hardware as well as software. After all, it’s great to run open-source software, but if it’s running on black-box hardware, the system is only half open. While software has benefited mightily from all of the advantages of community development, the hardware world has been only recently catching up. And so we’ve been following the RISC-V open-source CPU development with our full attention.

Dr. Wachs, making her own wedding ring.

Our keynote speaker for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference is Dr. Megan Wachs, the VP of Engineering at SiFive, the company founded by the creators of the RISC-V instruction-set architecture (ISA). She has also chaired the RISC-V Foundation Debug Task Group, so it’s safe to say that she knows RISC-V inside and out. If there’s one talk we’d like to hear on the past, present, and future of the architecture, this is it.

The RISC-V isn’t a particular chip, but rather it’s a design for how a CPU works, and a standard for the lowest-level language that the machine speaks. In contrast to proprietary CPUs, RISC-V CPUs from disparate vendors can all use the same software tools, unifying and opening their development. Moreover, open hardware implementations for the silicon itself mean that new players can enter the space more easily, bring their unique ideas to life faster, and we’ll all benefit. We can all work together.

It’s no coincidence that this year’s Supercon badge has two RISC-V cores running in its FPGA fabric. When we went shopping around for an open CPU core design, we had a few complete RISC-V systems to pick from, full compiler and development toolchains to write code for them, and of course, implementations in Verilog ready to flash into the FPGA. The rich, open ecosystem around RISC-V made it a no-brainer for us, just as it does for companies making neural-network peripherals or even commodity microcontrollers. You’ll be seeing a lot more RISC-V systems in the near future, on your workbench and in your pocket.

We’re tremendously excited to hear more about the project from the inside, and absolutely looking forward to Megan’s keynote speech!

The Hackaday Superconference is completely sold out, but that doesn’t mean that you have to miss out. We’ll be live-streaming the keynote and all other talks on the Supercon main stage, so subscribe our YouTube channel and you won’t miss a thing.