When are Dumb LEDs the Smart Choice?

A couple years ago I got into making electronic conferences badges by building a device for DEFCON 25 shaped like a dragonfly. Like all badges the most important design factor was quite literally how flashy it was, and two years ago I delivered on that with ten RGB LEDs. At the time I planned to hand-assemble each and every of the 105 badges at my kitchen table. Given those constraints, and a desire for electrical and programmatic simplicity, I landed on using APA102s (DotStar’s in Adafruit parlance) in the common 5050 sized package. They were easy to place, easy to design with electrically, simple to control, and friendly to a human pick-n-place machine. Though by the end of the production run I had discovered a few problems, the APA102s were a success.

This year I made a new and improved version of the dragonfly, but applying my lessons learned led me to choose a very different LED architecture than 2017. I swapped out the smart LEDs for dumb ones.

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Computer Vision For PCB Layout

One of the big problems with doing PCB layout is finding a suitable footprint for the components you want to use. Most tools have some library although — of course — some are better than others. You can often get by with using some generic footprint, too. That’s not handy for schematic layout, though, because you’ll have to remember what pin goes where. But if you can’t find what you are looking for SnapEDA is an interesting source of components available for many different layout tools. What really caught our eye though was a relatively new service they have that uses computer vision and OCR to generate schematic symbols directly from a data sheet. You can see it work in the video below.

The service seems to be tied to parts the database already knows about. and has a known footprint available. As you’ll see in the video, it will dig up the datasheet and let you select the pin table inside. The system does OCR on that part of the datasheet, lets you modify the result, and add anything that it missed.

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The Zero Ohm Resistor

What’s your favorite value of resistor? 1K? 10K? They’re all fine, but when you need nearly no resistance at all, nothing beats the good old zero-ohm resistor.

Wait a minute! Resistors are supposed to resist current. What the heck does a zero-ohm resistor do? Well, the short story (tee-hee!) is that it’s like a jumper for single-sided surface-mount boards. In the bad old days, companies used to save money by running single-sided boards, and you could buy wire jumpers to help make the layout that much easier.

Fast forward to the modern era, where there’s not a through-hole component to be seen. What’s the resistance (ideally) of a wire? Zero ohms. And thus the zero-ohm resistor was born. We have a whole spool of them in our closet in 1206, the largest SMD size that we use, in order to be able to sneak two or three tracks underneath, even on a home-etched board. They’re great.

Anyway, what set us off rhapsodizing about the lowest value resistor was this article on the peculiarities of the zero ohm resistor. Of course, nothing has zero resistance, and the article walks you through some of their real-world properties. Enjoy!

LED Matrix Shades You Can Actually See Though

[Gal Pavlin] admits to enjoying the occasional dance music show. For those who have never been to one, LED one-upmanship at these shows is a real and terrible thing, so much so that an entire market exists around it. To that end, [Gal] built a pretty spiffy set of LED glasses.

It took quite a bit of work to arrive at the final design. All the circuitry and LEDs fit entirely within the envelope of the lenses on a pair of sunglass frames of dubious parentage. The batteries squeeze in between the user’s head and temples.

On top of the clever packaging is an equally impressive set of features. Each lens is a matrix of 69 LEDs. They have an accelerometer, a microphone, and a light sensor. There’s even a vibrating alert motor, which we feel is just showing off.  Best of all, you can actually see through the glasses, thanks to clever layout and very tiny LEDs.

The device requires a tag connect or soldering on a pigtail to program. If you’d like to build one yourself all the files are available on [Gavin]’s site. There’s a video of it in operation after the break.

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Design and Hacking Drilldown: SuperCon Badge

One can imagine a political or business conference without an interactive badge — but not a hacker conference. Does this make the case for hackers being a special breed of people, always having something creative to show for their work? Yes, I think it does.

Following the Hackaday Belgrade conference in April of this year, we met at the Supplyframe offices to discuss the badge for the Hackaday SuperConference that will happen in Pasadena on 5+6th of November. The Belgrade conference badge (which was fully documented if you’re curious) was surprisingly popular, and I was asked to design the new one as well.

I was prepared to come up with something completely new, but [Mike Szczys] suggested keeping with the same basic concept for the project: “No reason to change anything, we have a badge that works”. To which I responded: “Well, the next one will also work”. But then I realized that “works” does not stand for “being functional”. The key is that it was embraced by visitors who played with it, coded on it, and solved a crypto challenge with it.

The World Doesn’t Have Enough LEDs

led-modules-versus-smdFast forward six months — here are the modifications made to the basic concept. First, the existing LED matrix, which was composed of two compact 8×8 blocks, was replaced by 128 discrete SMD LEDs. It was a much needed change to help scale down the dimensions and clunkiness, but also to avoid another painful experience of trying to purchase and have the matrix displays shipped, which seriously threatened the production of the previous badge.

It’s a long story which I discussed in my Belgrade talk — it turned out we did not manage to get enough common anode (CA) displays from all distributors in the whole world. We had a plan B, which also fizzled, leaving us with the plan C which actually included two “C”s: Common Cathode. We cleaned up all the supplies at five distributors, and managed to get 122 CA red, 340 CC red and 78 CA green displays (enough for only 270 badges) — the entire world supply. After that, you couldn’t get any 38 mm Kingbright’s display for months! The only problem was that there were two different versions of PCBs, one for CA and the other for CC displays, but luckily only one version of software, as it could autodetect the display type.

accelerometer-on-the-boardMotion and Expansion

So, what else was new in the concept? In the Belgrade version, the badge supported an accelerometer module and included an unpopulated footprint in case you decided to install it, but now the badge has the MEMS chip LIS3 as an integral part. There are nine pads (with five I/O ports, driven directly from the MCU) to which you can add a 9-pin expansion connector. There will be a number of these connectors at the Design Lab, so that anyone can expand their badge for their convenience, on the spot.

The Visual Design

The biggest change was in the visual design. What we came up with ended up being a fair bit smaller, lighter, with a more convenient shape, and less than half the thickness of the previous one. After we had scrapped quite a few ideas during the development process (including stylized skull, frog, etc), we were left with a couple of options which you can see on the image below. The wireframe drawing on the left hand side is the Belgrade badge, shown here for a size comparison. At this point the locale and date of the conference weren’t yet definitive, which is why you see San Francisco written on the images.

design-options-2016-supercon-badge

Design number 4 prevailed, so the PCB layout could begin. I don’t like autorouted PCBs, so I was in for quite a rough time trying to solve the routing manually having only 2 layers on the board at my disposal.

Routing a Compact LED Matrix

The LED matrix is so dense that there was virtually no room on the LED layer, so most of the tracks on the component layer had to be routed as if it was a single layer PCB. To make matters worse, the LED layer is routed as a matrix, with a bunch of horizontal and vertical tracks, otherwise a good reason to use a 4-layer PCB. To stay inside the budget, everything had to be placed on 2 layers, and that’s why the final result seems so confusing at the populated area between batteries:

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It’s Time to Finally Figure Out How to Use KiCAD

KiCAD has been making leaps and bounds recently, especially since CERN is using it almost exclusively. However, while many things are the same, just enough of them are different from our regular CAD packages that it’s hard to get started in the new suite.

[Chris Gammell] runs Contextual Electronics, an online apprenticeship program which goes from concept to assembled electronics covering everything in between. To take the course you pay a nominal fee, but [Chris] posted a very excellent ten-part video series made during the last run of classes which you can watch without charge. The videos go through the basics of KiCAD while hitting the major points to consider when designing and manufacturing your electronics.

The project [Chris] chose is a simple circuit that blinks an LED with a 555. The first videos cover navigating KiCAD’s component schematic editor and library system. Next comes creating circuit schematics and component footprint creation. [Chris] covers PCB layout, the generation of Gerber files, and finally ordering the design from OSH Park — the purveyors of purple boards we’ve come to know and love. The series finishes up with simulating the circuit in LTSpice, ordering the parts, and finally soldering and debugging of the board. If all goes correctly you should now have a single blinking LED.

If the bright summer sun is burning your delicate skin, and you’d rather be locked inside with solder fumes, add this to your watch list now!

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Beautiful and Bizarre Boards

weirdboard
An odd board (piezo coupler), fabbed by OSHPark.

Recently I’ve been getting curious about interesting PCB shapes. In the past I’ve always used simple Polygons, perhaps rounding out the corners to make the design a little more aesthetically pleasing. The board to the right was my introduction to the possibilities of oddly shaped boards. It’s designed to couple with a piezo buzzer (used as an actuator). I’ve been planning to have it fabricated out of FPC (Flexible Printed Circuits), but with fabrication being so cheap I sent it to OSHPark to see what they’d make of it. OSHPark doesn’t have hard specs around internal routing, but in my experience they’re up to try anything (and they’re quality is always great). The width of the prongs on the PCB shown is 5mm. I figured it was a risk, and that it was likely the FR4 could break, but it came back great!

This has led me to the realization that my boards could look much more exciting than they do currently, and that our highly optimized modern PCB fabrication process provides a lot of room for experimentation. This article will discuss some of the options available when creating non-traditional PCBs.

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