This ESP32 Bluetooth Page Turner Can’t Get Any Easier

Commercial Bluetooth pedals, designed to allow musicians to flip pages of sheet music on a tablet, have the sort of inflated price tag you’d expect for a niche electronic device. Rather than forking as much as $100 USD over for the privilege of hands-free page flipping, [Joonas Pihlajamaa] decided to build his own extremely low cost version using an ESP32 and a cheap foot pedal switch.

In terms of hardware, it does’t get much easier than this. All [Joonas] had to do was hook the pedal up to one of the ESP32’s digital pins, and plug the microcontroller into a USB power bank. From there, it became a software project. With the ESP32-BLE-Keyboard library, it only took a few lines of code to send RIGHT_ARROW or LEFT_ARROW depending on whether the pedal was quickly tapped or held down for a bit; allowing him to navigate back and forth through the pages with just one button.

[Joonas] mentions that the ESP32 development board he’s using is too large to fit inside the pedal itself, though we wonder if the bare module could get slipped in there someplace. Of course you could always build your own pedal with a bit of extra room to fit the electronics, but for less than $2 USD on AliExpress, it’s hard to go wrong with this turn-key unit.

Looking for an alternate approach? We covered a Bluetooth page turner last month that doubled the inputs and packed it all into a handsome wooden enclosure.

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Flashpen Is A High Fidelity Pen Input Device

Pen input has never really taken off in the computing mainstream, though it’s had somewhat of a renaissance in the last decade or so. Various smartphones and tablets are shipping with the technology, and some diehard users swear by it as the best way to take notes on the go. Recently, researchers at the Sensing, Interaction and Perception Lab at ETH Zurich have been working on Flashpen, a high-fidelity pen interface for a wide range of applications. 

The fundamental technology behind the pen is simple, with the device using an optical flow sensor harvested from a high-end gaming mouse. This is a device that uses an image sensor to detect the motion of the sensor itself across a surface. Working at an update rate of 8 KHz, it eclipses other devices in the market from manufacturers such as Wacom that typically operate at rates closer to 200Hz. The optical sensor is mounted to a plastic joint that allows the user to hold the pen at a natural angle while keeping the sensor parallel to the writing surface. There’s also a reflective sensor on the pen tip which allows cameras to track its position in space, for use in combination with VR technology.

The team show off the device being used in several ways, primarily in VR tasks, but also in simple handwriting and coloring work. It’s a project that could readily be replicated by any eager experimenter by gutting a gaming mouse and getting down to work; our writers will expect six of your submissions by June 1st to the tipsline. Those eager to learn more can check out the project paper, and may also find the team’s TapID technology interesting. Video after the break. Continue reading “Flashpen Is A High Fidelity Pen Input Device”

Bone Vibration Brings Typing Into VR

Virtual reality is becoming more of a thing, now that we have high quality headsets and the computing power to generate attractive environments. Many VR systems use controllers held in mid air, or camera-based systems that track limbs and hands for interaction. However, productivity scenarios often require prolonged interactions over a long period of time, which typically necessitates working at surfaces that allow the body to rest intermittently. To help facilitate this, a group of researchers at ETH Zurich developed TapID, including a preprint paper (PDF) that will be presented at IEEE VR 2021 later this month.

TapID consists of a wristband that carries two motion sensors, with one worn on each wrist. This allows TapID to detect taps from each of the user’s fingers individually, thanks to a machine learning algorithm that analyses the unique vibrations through your skeletal system. This is demonstrated as being useful for VR environments, where the user can type into a virtual keyboard, or interact with virtual objects on a surface, using their fingers as they would in the real world. This is a sensor fusion with the features of modern VR headsets that include hand tracking. The TapID wristbands deliver granularity and detection of small motions that is not nearly as accurate through headset-mounted senors and camera-based detection.

Test hardware includes 4 accelerometers. Two on flexible PCBs are the sensing hardware used by the system, the other two on the rigid PCB are used as a baseline during testing but do not contribute to the tap detection.

We’re not entirely convinced of the utility of sitting down in a virtual environment to type at a fake keyboard when monitors and real keyboards are more tactile and cheaper. However, having a device that can accurately determine individual finger interactions is sure to have applications in VR. And whether or not the demonstrated use cases are viable, the technology does indeed work.

It’s exciting to see the wrist-band form factor. It brings to mind the possibility of improving tap interactions in smart watches for non-VR uses. We envision chorded keyboard type gestures that detect which fingers are tapping but don’t need positional accuracy.

Those experimenting in VR interfaces may find it useful to reverse engineer what’s already out on the market, as we’ve featured before. Or, you can simply build your own! Video after the break.

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A Gesture Recognizing Armband

Gesture recognition usually involves some sort of optical system watching your hands, but researchers at UC Berkeley took a different approach. Instead they are monitoring the electrical signals in the forearm that control the muscles, and creating a machine learning model to recognize hand gestures.

The sensor system is a flexible PET armband with 64 electrodes screen printed onto it in silver conductive ink, attached to a standalone AI processing module.  Since everyone’s arm is slightly different, the system needs to be trained for a specific user, but that also means that the specific electrical signals don’t have to be isolated as it learns to recognize patterns.

The challenging part of this is that the patterns don’t remain constant over time, and will change depending on factors such as sweat, arm position,  and even just biological changes. To deal with this the model can update itself on the device over time as the signal changes. Another part of this research that we appreciate is that all the inferencing, training, and updating happens locally on the AI chip in the armband. There is no need to send data to an external device or the “cloud” for processing, updating, or third-party data mining. Unfortunately the research paper with all the details is behind a paywall.

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Digital Expression Via Harmonica

There is a good chance you clicked on this article with a mouse, trackball, trackpad, or tapped with your finger. Our hands are how most of us interact with the digital world, but that isn’t an option for everyone, and [Shu Takahashi] wants to give them a new outlet to express themselves. Some folks who cannot use their hands will be able to use the Magpie MIDI, which acts as a keyboard, mouse, MIDI device, and eventually, a game controller. This universal Human Interface Device (HID) differs from a mouth-operated joystick because it has air pressure sensors instead of buttons. The sensors can recognize the difference between exhalation and inhalation, so the thirteen ports can be neutral, positive, or negative, which is like having twenty-six discrete buttons.

The harmonica mounts on an analog X-Y joystick to move a mouse pointer or manipulate MIDI sound like a whammy bar. [Shu] knows that a standard harmonica has ten ports, but he picked thirteen because all twenty-six letters are accessible by a puff or sip in keyboard mode. The inputs outnumber the Arduino Leonardo’s analog inputs, so there is a multiplexor to read all of them. There was not enough time to get an Arduino with enough native ports, like a Teensy, with HID support baked in. Most of the structure is 3D printed, so parts will be replaceable and maybe even customizable.

Even with two working hands, we like to exercise different hardware, but the harmonica is a nifty tool to have attached to your computer.

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Four On The Floor For Your Virtual Race Car

There was a time when building realistic simulations of vehicles was the stuff of NASA and big corporations. Today, many people have sophisticated virtual cockpits or race cars that they use with high-resolution screens or even virtual reality gear. If you think about it, a virtual car isn’t that hard to pull off. All you really need is a steering wheel, a few pedals, and a gear shifter. Sure, you can build fans to simulate the wind and put haptics in your seat, but really the input devices alone get you most of the way there. [Oli] decided he wanted a quick and easy USB gear shifter so he took a trip to the hardware store, picked up an arcade joystick, and tied it all together with an Arduino Leonardo. The finished product that you can see in the video below cost about $30 and took less than six hours to build.

The Leonardo, of course, has the ability to act like a USB human interface device (HID) so it can emulate a mouse or a keyboard or a joystick. That comes in handy for this project, as you would expect. The computer simply has to read the four joystick buttons and then decide which gear matches which buttons. For example up and to the left is first gear, while 4th gear is only the down button depressed. A custom-cut wooden shifter plate gives you the typical H pattern you expect from a stick shift.

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Teardown: Wonder Bible

Even the most secular among us can understand why somebody would want to have a digital version of the Bible. If you’re the sort of person who takes solace in reading from the “Good Book”, you’d probably like the ability to do so wherever and whenever possible. But as it so happens, a large number of people who would be interested in a more conveniently transportable version of the Bible may not have the technological wherewithal to operate a Kindle and download a copy.

Which is precisely the idea behind the Wonder Bible, a pocket-sized electronic device that allows the user to listen to the Bible read aloud at the press of a button. Its conservative design, high-contrast LED display, and large buttons makes it easy to operate even by users with limited eyesight or dexterity.

The commercial for the Wonder Bible shows people all of all ages using the device, but it’s not very difficult to read between the lines and see who the gadget is really aimed for. We catch a glimpse of a young businessman tucking a Wonder Bible into the center console of his expensive sports car, but in reality, the scenes of a retiree sitting pensively in her living room are far closer to the mark.

In truth, the functionality of the Wonder Bible could easily be replicated with a smartphone application. It would arguably even be an improvement by most standards. But not everyone is willing or able to go that route, which creates a market for an affordable stand-alone device. Is that market large enough to put a lot of expense and engineering time into the product? Let’s crack open one of these holy rolling personal companions and find out.

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