The Little Cat That Could

Most humans take a year to learn their first steps, and they are notoriously clumsy. [Hartvik Line] taught a robotic cat to walk [YouTube link] in less time, but this cat had a couple advantages over a pre-toddler. The first advantage was that it had four legs, while the second came from a machine learning technique called genetic algorithms that surpassed human fine-tuning in two hours. That’s a pretty good benchmark.

The robot itself is an impressive piece inspired by robots at EPFL, a research institute in Switzerland. All that Swiss engineering is not easy for one person to program, much less a student, but that is exactly what happened. “Nixie,” as she is called, is a part of a master thesis for [Hartvik] at the University of Stavanger in Norway. Machine learning efficiency outstripped human meddling very quickly, and it can even relearn to walk if the chassis is damaged.

We have been watching genetic algorithm programming for more than half of a decade, and Skynet hasn’t popped forth, however we have a robot kitty taking its first steps.

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Talking To Alexa With Sign Language

As William Gibson once noted, the future is already here, it just isn’t equally distributed. That’s especially true for those of us with disabilities. [Abishek Singh] wanted to do something about that, so he created a way for the hearing-impaired to use Amazon’s Alexa voice service. He did this using a TensorFlow deep learning network to convert American Sign Language (ASL) to speech and a speech-to-text converter to interpret the response. This all runs on a laptop, so it should work with any voice interface with a bit of tweaking. In particular, [Abishek] seems to have created a custom bit of ASL to trigger Alexa. Perhaps the next step would be to use a robotic arm to create the output directly in ASL and cut out the Echo device completely? [Abishek] has not released the code for this project yet, but he has released the code for other projects, such as Peeqo, the robot that responds with GIFs.

[Via FlowingData and [Belg4mit]]

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Medium Machine Mediates Microcontroller Messages

Connecting computers to human brains is currently limited to the scope of science fiction and a few cutting-edge laboratories. Tapping into some nerves farther from our central wetware is possible and [Peter Buczkowski] shows us his stylish machine for implanting a pattern into our brains without actively having to memorize anything.

His Medium Machine leverages a TENS unit to activate forearm muscles in a pattern programmed into an Arduino. Users place their forearm across two aluminum electrodes mounted on a tasteful wooden platform and extend a single finger over a button. Electrical impulses trigger the muscles which press the button. That’s all. After repeating the pattern a few times, the users should be able to recite it back on command even if they aren’t aware of what it means. If this sounds like some [Johnny Mnemonic] memory cache, you are absolutely correct. This project draws inspiration from the [William Gibson] novel which became a [Keanu Reeves] movie.

Users can be programmed with a Morse code message or the secret knock to open an attic library or play a little tune. How about learning a piano song?

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Won’t Somebody, Please, Think Of The Transistors!

At what age did you begin learning about electronics? What was the state of the art available to you at the time and what kinds of things were you building? For each reader these answers can be wildly different. Our technology advances so quickly that each successive generation has a profoundly different learning experience. This makes it really hard to figure out what basic knowledge today will be most useful tomorrow.

Go on, guess the diode!
Go on, guess the diode!

Do you know the forward voltage drop of a diode? Of course you do. Somewhere just below 0.7 volts, give or take a few millivolts, of course given that it is a silicon diode. If you send current through a 1N4148, you can be pretty certain that the cathode voltage will be that figure below the anode, every time. You probably also have a working knowledge that a germanium diode or a Schottky diode will have a lower forward voltage, and you’ll know in turn that a bipolar transistor will begin to turn on when the voltage between its base and emitter achieves that value. If you know Ohm’s Law, you can now set up a biasing network and without too many problems construct a transistor amplifier.

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Kniwwelino Is An ESP8266 Micro:Bit

Kniwwelino is the latest in a line of micro:bit-inspired projects that we’ve seen, but this one comes with a twist: it uses an ESP8266 and WiFi at the core instead of the nR51 ARM/BTLE chip. That means that students can connect via laptop, cellphone, or anything else that can get onto a network.

That’s not the only tradeoff, though. In order to get the price down, the Kniwwelino drops the accelerometer/magnetometer of the micro:bit for a programmable RGB LED. With fewer pins to break out, the Kniwwelino is able to ditch the love-it-or-hate-it card-edge connector of the micro:bit as well. In fact, with all these changes, it’s hard to call this a micro:bit clone at all — it’s more like a super-blinky ESP8266 development kit.

So what have they got left in common? The iconic 5×5 LED matrix in the center, and a Blockly visual programming dialect dedicated to the device. Based on the ESP8266, the Kniwwelino naturally also has an Arduino dialect that students can “graduate” to when they’re tired of moving around colored blobs, and of course you could flash the chip with anything else that runs on an ESP8266.

We don’t have one in our hands, but we like the idea. An RGB LED is a lot of fun on Day One, and the fact that the Kniwwelino fits so neatly into existing bodies of code makes the transition from novice to intermediate programmer a lot easier. These things are personal preference, but WiFi beats Bluetooth LE in our book, for sheer ubiquity and interoperability. Finally, the Kniwwelino comes in at about half the manufacturing cost of a micro:bit, which makes it viable in schools without large manufacturer subsidies. They’re estimating $5 per unit. (Retail is higher.) On the other hand, the Kniwwelino is going to use more juice than its ARM-based competitor, and doesn’t have an accelerometer.

Kniwwelino is apparently derived from a luxembourgish word “kniwweln” that apparently means to craft something. The German Calliope Mini is named after Zeus’ daughter, the programmer’s muse. We’re stoked to see so many cute dev boards getting into the hands of students, no matter what you call them.

What’s the Best Way to Learn Electronics?

What’s the best way to learn electronics? It’s a pithy question to ask a Hackaday audience, most of whom are at least conversant in the field already. Those who already have learned often have just their own perspective to draw upon—how they themselves learned. Some of you may have taught others. I want to explore what works and what doesn’t.

Hobbyists Learn Differently Than Students

One thing I can say straight off is that students learn differently than people who learn at home. Hobbyists have the advantage of actually being interested, which is a quality a student may not enjoy. People have been teaching themselves electronics since the beginning, with analog projects–Heathkit models, BEAM robots, and ham radio sets–evolving into purely digital projects.

Let’s face it, Arduinos lower the bar like nothing else. There’s a reason why the Blink sketch has become the equivalent to “Hello World”. Dirt cheap and easily configured microcontrollers combined with breakout boards make it easy for anyone to participate.

However, ask any true EE and that person will tell you that following wiring diagrams and plugging in sensor boards from Sparkfun only teaches so much. You don’t bone up on terms like hysteresis or bias by building something from uCs and breakout boards. But do you need to? If you are truly interested in electronics and learn by making those Adafruit or Sparkfun projects, sooner or later you’ll want to make your own breakout boards. You’ll learn how to design your own circuit boards and figure out why things work and why they don’t. I don’t need to tell you the Internet has all the answers a neophyte needs–but the interest has to be there in the first place.

What’s the Best Way to Learn in the Classroom?

There is a product category within robotics kits that consists of “educational rovers” designed to be purchased in group lots by teachers so that each student or small group gets one. These rovers are either pre-built or mostly built—sure, you get to screw in motor mounts, but all the circuit boards are already soldered up for you, surface mount, no less. They come pre-configured for a variety of simple tasks like line following and obstacle avoidance. The Makeblock mBot is an example.

I think it’s part of that whole “learn coding” initiative, where the idea is to minimize the assembly in order to maximize the coding time. Insofar as soldering together a kit of through-hole components teaches about electronics, these bots mostly don’t do it. By all appearances, if there is a best way to learn electronics, this an’t it. However, regardless of what kind of project the teacher puts in front of the student, it still has to generate some sort of passion. What those robots provide is a moment of coolness that ignites the firestorm of interest.

I once led a soldering class that used Blinky Grids by Wayne and Layne as the focus. This is a fantastic kit that guides you through building a small LED matrix. It’s particularly cool because it can be programmed over a computer monitor with light sensors interacting with white and black squares on the company’s web site. When my students finished their grids, they all worked and had unique messages scrolling through. Now, that is a payoff. I’m not saying that any of those folks became hardware hackers as a result of my class, but it beat the hell out of a Christmas tree, am I right?

Getting back to that rover, what must be acknowledged is that the rover itself is the payoff, and that’s only as far as it goes if everyone loses interest. However, a lot of those rovers have expansion possibilities like bolting on another sensor or changing the method of programming–for instance, the mBot has both a graphic programming interface and can also be reflashed with a regular old Arduino bootloader.

Readers, share in comments your own perspective. How did you learn? How would you teach others?

Is It A Stupid Project If You Learn Something From The Process?

Fidget spinners — so hot right now!

[Ben Parnas], and co-conspirator in engineering inanity [Greg Daneault], brought to the recent Boston Stupid Hackathon in Cambridge, MA, their IoT-enabled Fidget Spinner…. spinner. A Spidget Finner. Yep, that’s correct: spin the smartphone, and the spinner follows suit. Stupid? Maybe, but for good reason.

Part satire on cloud tech, part learning experience, a curt eight hours of tinkering brought this grotesque, ESP32-based device to life. The ESP can the Arduino boot-loader, but you’ll want to use the ESP-IDF sdk, enabling broader use of the chip.

Creating an app that pulls data from the phone’s gyroscope, the duo set up the spinner-bot to access the WiFi and request packets of rotational data from the smartphone via a cloud-based server — the ‘spincloud.’ Both devices were enabled as clients to circumvent existing IoT services.

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