Especially over the last year and a half, most of us have gotten the feeling that there’s precious little distinction between our computers and ourselves. We seem welded together, inseparable even, attached as we are day and night to our machines as work life and home life blend into one gray, featureless landscape where time passes unmarked except by the accumulation of food wrappers and drink cans around our work areas. Or maybe it just seems that way.
Regardless, there actually is a fine line between machine and operator, and in most instances it’s that electromechanical accessory that we all love to hate: the keyboard. If you buy off the shelf, it’s never quite right — too clicky, not clicky enough, wrong spacing, bad ergonomics, or just plain ugly design. The only real way around these limitations is to join the DIY keyboard crowd and roll your own, specifically customized to your fingers and your needs — at least until you realize that it’s not quite perfect, and need to modify it again.
Hitting this moving target is often as much a software problem as it is a hardware issue, but as is increasingly the case these days, Python is ready to help. To go into depth on how Python can be leveraged for the custom keyboard builder, our good friends at Adafruit, including Limor “Ladyada” Fried, Phillip Torrone, Dan Halbert, Kattni Rembor, and Scott Shawcroft will stop by the Hack Chat. We suspect they’ll have some cool stuff to show off, in addition to sharing their tips and tricks for making DIY keyboards just right. If you’re building custom keebs, or even if you’re just “keyboard curious”, you won’t want to miss this one.
When we first laid eyes on Keybon, the adaptive macro keyboard, we sort of wondered what the big deal was. It honestly looked like any other USB macro keyboard, with big icons for various common tasks on the chunky keys. But looks can be deceiving, and [Max.K] worked a couple of surprises into Keybon.
First of all, each one of Keybon’s buttons is actually a tiny OLED display, making the keycaps customizable through software. Each of the nine 0.66″ displays has a resolution of 64 x 48 pixels, which is plenty for all kinds of icons, and each is mounted over an SMD pushbutton switch. He had to deal with the problem of the keycaps just wobbling around atop the switch button without depressing it; this was solved with a 3D-printed cantilever frame that forced the keycaps to pivot only in one axis, resulting in clean, satisfyingly clicky keypresses.
The other trick that Keybon has is interactivity. By itself, it boots up with a standard set of icons and sends the corresponding keystrokes over USB. But when used with its companion Windows application, the entire macro set can be switched out to accommodate whatever application is being used. This gives the users access to custom macros for a web browser, EDA suite, CAD applications, or an IDE. The app supports up to eight macro sets and can be seen in action in the video below.
We love the look and the functionality [Max.K] has built into Keybon, but we wonder if e-ink displays would be a good choice for the keycaps too. They’re available for a song as decommissioned store shelf price tags now, and they might be nice since the icon would persist without power.
Now that November of 2019 has passed, it’s a shame that some of the predictions made in Blade Runner for this future haven’t yet come true. Oh sure, 109 million people living in Los Angeles would be fun and all, but until we get our flying cars, we’ll just have to console ourselves with the ability to “Enhance!” photographs. While the new service, AI Image Enlarger, can’t tease out three-dimensional information, the app is intended to sharpen enlargements of low-resolution images, improving the focus and bringing up details in the darker parts of the image. The marketing material claims that the app uses machine learning, and is looking for volunteers to upload high-resolution images to improve its training set.
We’ve been on a bit of a nano-satellite bender around here lately, with last week’s Hack Chat discussing simulators for CubeSats, and next week’s focusing on open-source thrusters for PocketQube satellites. So we appreciated the timing of a video announcing the launch of the first public LoRa relay satellite. The PocketCube-format satellite, dubbed FossaSat-1, went for a ride to space along with six other small payloads on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched from New Zealand. Andreas Spiess has a short video preview of the FossaSat-1 mission, which was designed to test the capabilities of a space-based IoT link that almost anyone can access with cheap and readily available parts; a ground station should only cost a couple of bucks, but you will need an amateur radio license to uplink.
We know GitHub has become the de facto standard for source control and has morphed into a collaboration and project management platform used by everybody who’s anybody in the hacking community. But have you ever wished for a collaboration platform that was a little more in tune with the needs of hardware designers? Then InventHub might be of interest to you. Currently in a limited beta – we tried to sign up for the early access program but seem to have been put on a waiting list – it seems like this will be a platform that brings versioning directly to the ECAD package of your choice. Through plugins to KiCad, Eagle, and all the major ECAD players you’ll be able to collaborate with other designers and see their changes marked up on the schematic — sort of a visual diff. It seems interesting, and we’ll be keeping an eye on developments.
Amazon is now offering a stripped-down version of their Echo smart speaker called Input, which teams up with speakers that you already own to satisfy all your privacy invasion needs on the super cheap — only $10. At that price, it’s hard to resist buying one just to pop it open, which is what Brian Dorey did with his. The teardown is pretty standard, and the innards are pretty much what you’d expect from a modern piece of surveillance apparatus, but the neat trick here involved the flash memory chip on the main board. Brian accidentally overheated it while trying to free up the metal shield over it, and the BGA chip came loose. So naturally, he looked up the pinout and soldered it to a micro-SD card adapter with fine magnet wire. He was able to slip it into a USB SD card reader and see the whole file system for the Input. It was a nice hack, and a good teardown.
Audiophiles have worked diligently to alert the rest of the world to products with superior sound quality, and to warn us away from expensive gimmicks that have middling features at best. Unfortunately, the downside of most high quality audio equipment is the sticker price. But with some soldering skills and a bit of hardware, you can build your own professional-level audio equipment around an ESP32 and impress almost any dedicated audiophile.
The list of features the tiny picoAUDIO board packs is impressive, starting with a 3.7 watt stereo amplifier and a second dedicated headphone amplifier. It also has all of the I/O you would expect something based on an ESP32 to have, such as I2S stereo DAC, an I2S microphone input, I2C GPIO extenders and, of course, a built-in MicroSD card reader. The audio quality is impressive too, and the project page has some MP3 files of audio recorded using this device that are worth listening to.
Whether you want the highest sound quality for your headphones while you listen to music, or you need a pocket-sized audio recording device, this might be the way to go. The project files are all available so you can build this from the ground up as well. Once you have that knocked out, you can move on to building your own speakers.
The first LED digital wristwatches hit the market in the 1970s. They required a button push to turn the display on, prompting one comedian to quip that giving one to a one-armed man would be in poor taste. While the UIs of watches and other wearables have improved since then, smartphones still present some usability challenges. Some of the touch screen gestures needed to operate a phone, like pinching, are nigh impossible when one-handing the phone, and woe unto those with stubby thumbs when trying to take a selfie.
You’d think that the fleet of sensors and the raw computing power on board would afford better ways to control phones. And you’d be right, if the modular mechanical input widgets described in a paper from Columbia University catch on. Dubbed “Vidgets” by [Chang Xiao] et al, the haptic devices are designed to create characteristic acceleration profiles on a phone’s inertial measurement unit (IMU) when actuated. Vidgets take various forms, from push buttons to scroll wheels, each of a similar size and shape and designed to dock into one of eight positions on the back of a 3D-printed phone case. Once trained, the algorithm watches for the acceleration signature caused by actuating a Vidget, and sends commands to the phone to mimic the corresponding gestures. The video below demonstrates a couple of use cases, of which the virtual saxophone is our favorite.
Perhaps you’ve played a flight simulator before, using something like a mouse and keyboard. That’s a fine experience, but like any other activity you can get a lot more out of it if you put a little more effort into the experience. Some will upgrade to a joystick for a modest improvement, and others will build incredible accurate cockpit replicas down to the smallest detail. The builders of these “pits” are always looking for ways of improving their setups, and it’s from this world that we find a method of building specialized, inexpensive hall-effect sensors.
This build is essentially a solution for anyone needing a potentiometer that’s easier to build, less expensive, has higher precision, and interacts with a digital input in a much more predictable (and programmable) way. Certainly this has applications in the simulator world, but will work for many other applications. If you’ve never thought about the intricacies (and shortcomings) of potentiometers, some other folks have taken a deep dive into that as well.
People love their tech, and feel like something’s missing when it’s not there. This is the story of one person’s desire to have the venerable trackpoint in their new keyboard.
[Klapse] loves a Lenovo old-style non-chicklet keyboard, so, despite the cost, five were ordered. They very quickly ended up with keys that didn’t work, although the trackpoints still did. After buying a sixth which ended up the same, [Klapse] decided that maybe giving up on the Lenovo keyboards was the best idea. A quick stop at a local store scored a fill-in mechanical keyboard, but in the back of [klapse]’s mind the need for a trackpoint remained. Maybe one could be frankensteined in to the keyboard that was just purchased?
The keyboard’s circuit board had traces everywhere, with nowhere to drill through between the correct keys, typically between the G, H and Y keys. But there was a hole used for mounting the PCB nearby. between the H, J, U and Y keys. The trackpoint needed to be extended to reach all the way through the key caps, so [klapse] searched the house looking for something that might do. Turns out that a knitting needle fits perfectly.
At this point a side-hack emerged. [Klapse] found a drill bit small enough to make the necessary hole in the trackpoint shaft to fit the needle. But the bit was too small for the drill chuck. In true hacking style, the bit was wrapped with duct tape and held in the drill. Sure, it wobbled a lot and it was really difficult to get it to drill in the center of the shaft, but it worked, eventually. The needle was cut off and glued into the hole, the key caps were modified a bit to allow the trackpoint through and the rubber tip put back on.