This ESP8266 Dev Board Has A Surprising Story Behind It

If you’re looking to get started with the ESP8266, there’s no shortage of development boards out there to select from. But we don’t think you’ll find one with a more unique a backstory than the open source ME-ESP8266. That’s because Malouf, the company that makes the $20 USD board, is a home goods company better known for their pillows and bed frames.

So how do you go from mattress toppers to microcontrollers? Well, as unlikely as it might seem, the missing element is Toys R’ Us. Or more specifically, the liquidation of Toys R’ Us. A Texas distribution center Malouf purchased from the iconic toy retailer included an automated conveyor belt system to move product through the gargantuan building, but unfortunately, they couldn’t get it to work with their existing system. The company decided to use their in-house team of engineers to solve the problem, and the ME-ESP8266 was born.

It turns out that an ESP8266 board developed to move bedding around an old Toys R’ Us warehouse has a lot of useful features for hackers and makers. It’s got an integrated relay, 16 MB of flash storage, an IR receiver, beefy screw terminals, and a 2.54mm-pitch GPIO pin header. There’s even a MAX232 on the board so it can talk to RS-232 devices. The hardware is compatible with the standard Arduino IDE as a “Generic ESP8266 Module”,  so you’ll have no problem using existing libraries and example code.

Now under normal circumstances, the public would never know about this sort of behind the scenes engineering. But instead of keeping their new ESP board to themselves, the team at Malouf got the go ahead from the company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to release it as an open source project. Even more impressive, they got the company to put the board into production so it could be sold to the public. So today we not only learned that bedding companies have CTOs, but that they can be exceptionally open-minded.

Our hats off to the engineers at Malouf and the forward thinking brass that green lit production of the ME-ESP8266. It’s not the first interesting development to come from the liquidation of Geoffrey’s kingdom, but it just might be the most useful.

IR Detective Eases Development With Compact Decoding

Hardware development often involves working with things that can’t be directly perceived, which is one reason good development tools are so important. In appreciation of this, [David Johnson-Davies] created the IR Remote Control Detective to simplify working with IR signals. While IR remote controls are commonplace, there are a number of different protocols and encoding methods in use across different brands. The IR Detective takes care of all of that with three main components, none of which are particularly expensive. To use the decoder, one simply points an IR remote at the unit and presses one of the buttons. The IR Detective will identify the protocol, decode the signal, and display the address and command related to the key that was pressed. The unit doesn’t consist of much more than an ATtiny85 microcontroller, a small OLED display, and an IR receiver unit. The IR receiver used is intended for a 38 kHz carrier, but such receivers can and do respond to signals outside this frequency, although they do so at a reduced range.

As a result, not only is the unit useful for decoding IR or verifying that correct signals are being generated, but the small size and low cost means it could easily be used as a general purpose receiver to add IR remote control to other devices. It’s also halfway to bridging IR to something else, like this WiFi-IR bridge which not only interfaces to legacy hardware, but does it across WiFi to boot.

How The Hero Droid BB-8 Rolls

By now we’ve come to expect a bountiful harvest of licensed merchandise to follow every Star Wars film. This year’s crop included many flavors of BB-8 so every fan can find something to suit their taste. At the top of this food chain is a mobile interactive “Hero Droid BB-8”. For those who want to see how it works, [TheMikeSenna] cracked open his unit to feed our curiosity.

Also called “Spin Master BB-8” for the manufacturer, this toy is impressively sophisticated for its price point. The video surveyed the mechanical components inside the ball. Showing how the droid travels, and how the head articulates.

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DIY Lap Counters For Drone Racing

Drone racing is a very exciting sport, in which there is a lot of room for hackers and makers to add that special sauce into the mix. Usually the aerial finish line requires special race-timing hardware to do the lap counting, and there are timing gate transponders available for around $40. In his project CoreIR and CoreIR-Uplink, [Michael Rickert] decided to reverse engineer the IR Protocol that goes into these beacons and made a homebrew version that mimics the original. The transponders send a 7-digit number out repeatedly to a receiver at the finish line as the UAV passes by and that helps track how fast drone pilots flew around a race track. The hack involves flipping an IR LED ON and OFF with the correct timing, and [Michael Rickert] confesses that it was not as easy as he had imagined.

Using a logic analyser he was able to capture the modulated 38Khz carrier signal and extract the timing from the original beacon, but it took a number of iterations to get the code just right. The IRRemote library has a ‘sendRaw’ function which is quite helpful in these situations and was employed for the task. He experimented with a number of Arduino boards to power the project, before finally going with the Arduino Pro Mini. He has shared the code on github, along with photos of the finished hack which replaces the original circuit. The final sketches include functions to generate the 7-digit code to uniquely identify the quadcopter, which completes the hack in itself.

If that was not enough, he’s gone a step further by coding and sharing a desktop client as well, which turns this hack into a full-fledged project and should prove quite useful for drone racers on a budget. The app is written in NodeJS and packaged using the electron framework, a choice that makes for a very simple way to create cross-platform desktop applications.

A build tutorial is available for you to get started, and if drone racing seems a bit tame, check out Drone Wars for a little more carnage.

Building Custom Integrated Circuits

The first integrated circuits weren’t tiny flecks of silicon mounted to metal carriers and embedded in epoxy or ceramic. The first integrated circuits, albeit a looser definition of such, were just a few transistors, resistors, and diodes mashed together in the same package. With this in mind, [Rupert] created his own custom IC. It’s an IR receiver transmitter constructed out of a transistor, resistor, and an LED.

The attentive reader should be asking, “wait, can’t you just buy an IR receiver transmitter?” Yes, yes you can. But that’s not a hack™, and would otherwise be very uninteresting.

[Rupert]’s IC is just three parts, a 2n2222 transistor, a 220Ω resistor and an IR LED. With a good bit of deadbug soldering, these three parts were melded into something that resembled, and had the same pinout of, a Vishay TSOP4838 IR receiver. The epoxy used to encapsulate this integrated circuit is a standard 2-part epoxy and laser printer toner. Once everything is mixed up into a gooey slurry, it’s dripped over the IC producing a blob of an integrated circuit. It’s functionally identical to the standard commercial version, and looks good enough for a really cool project [Rupert]’s been working on.

Thanks [foehammer] for the tip.

Multi Input IR Remote Control Repeater

[Peter]’s folks’ cable company is terrible – such a surprise for a cable TV provider – and the digital part of their cable subscription will only work with the company’s cable boxes. The cable company only rents the boxes with no option to buy them, and [Peter]’s folks would need five of them for all the TVs in the house, even though they would only ever use two at the same time. Not wanting to waste money, [Peter] used coax splitters can take care of sending the output of one cable box to multiple TVs, but what about the remotes? For that, he developed an IR remote control multidrop extender. With a few small boards, he can run a receiver to any room in the house and send that back to a cable box, giving every TV in the house digital cable while still only renting a single cable box.

The receiver module uses the same type of IR module found in the cable box to decode the signals from the remote. With a few MOSFETs, this signal is fed over a three-position screw terminal to the transmitter module stationed right next to the cable box. This module uses a PIC12F microcontroller to take the signal input and translate it back into infrared.

[Peter]’s system can be set up as a single receiver, and single transmitter, single receiver and multiple transmitter, many receivers to multiple transmitters, or just about any configuration you could imagine. The setup does require running a few wires through the walls of the house, but even that is much easier than whipping out the checkbook every month for the cable company.

Video below.

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USB Infrared Receiver Looks Good Sitting In Your Livingroom


The problem with building your own electronics for the living room is that the final product may not fit your decorating style. This was true with [Itay’s] prototype of a universal USB IR receiver. So after testing it out for a few weeks he decided to build a final version that started by selecting an enclosure he could be proud of.

He came across an LED flash light at the dollar store which has an aluminum body. When we read about this we envisioned a cheap version of a Mag Light from which he removed the cylinder that holds the batteries. But actually, the pod seen above is the entire flashlight (with an added base). It forced him to design a tiny surface mount PCB to fit everything inside.

It’s not too much of a stretch since IR receivers tend to be small anyway. [Itay’s] design put a PIC 18F2553 on one side of the board. The other side hosted the through hole components: an IR receiver, LED for feedback, and the connections for the USB cable that exit through the rubber button cover that used to switch the flashlight on. He had a problem with one of the resistor values which took a while to figure out. But eventually he got it working. It’s been in use now for six months.