Magnetic Attraction Of Microduino MCookie Modules

We’ve seen countless different robot kits promoted for STEM education, every one of which can perform the robotic “Hello World” task of line following. Many were in attendance at Maker Faire Bay Area 2019 toiling in their endless loops. Walking past one such display by Microduino, Inc. our attention was caught by a demonstration of their mCookie modules in action: installing a peripheral module took less than a second with a “click” of magnets finding each other.

Many Arduino projects draw from an ecosystem of Arduino shields. Following that established path, Microduino had offered tiny Arduino-compatible boards and peripherals which connected with pins and headers just like their full-sized counterparts. Unfortunately their tiny size also meant their risk of pin misalignment and corresponding damage would be higher as well. mCookie addresses this challenge by using pogo pins for electrical contacts, and magnets to ensure proper alignment. Now even children with not-quite-there-yet dexterity can assemble these modules, opening up a market to a younger audience.

Spring loaded electric connections are a popular choice for programming jigs, and we’ve seen them combined with magnets for ideas like modular keyboards, and there are also LittleBits for building simple circuits. When packaged with bright colorful LEGO-compatible plastic mounts, we have the foundation of an interesting option for introductory electronics and programming. Microduino’s focus at Maker Faire was promoting their Itty Bitty Buggy, which at $60 USD is a significantly more affordable entry point to intelligent LEGO creations than LEGO’s own $300 USD Mindstorm EV3. It’ll be interesting to see if these nifty mCookie modules will help Microduino differentiate themselves from other LEGO compatible electronic kits following a similar playbook.

Exquisite Craftsmanship Elevate Vic’s Creations Above The Rest

This booth was easy to miss at Maker Faire Bay Area 2019 amidst tall professional conference signage erected by adjacent exhibitors. It showcased the work of [Dr. Victor Chaney] who enjoys his day job as a dentist and thus feels no desire to commercialize his inventions — he’s building fun projects for the sake of personal enjoyment which he simply calls Vic’s Creations. Each project is built to his own standards, which are evidently quite high judging by the perfect glossy finish on every custom wood enclosure.

Some of these creations were aligned with his musical interests. The Backpacking Banjo was built around a (well cleaned) cat food can to satisfy the desire for a lightweight instrument he can take camping. His Musical Laser Rainbow Machine (fully documented in Nuts & Volts) was created so little bands formed by independent artists like himself can have a visual light show to go with their live performances. The Music Kaleidoscope is another execution along similar lines, with an LED array whose colors are dictated by music. Venturing outside the world of music, we see a magnetically levitated Castle In The Clouds which also receives power wirelessly to illuminate LEDs

The largest and most complex work on display is an epic electromechanical masterpiece. Par One is a rolling ball sculpture featuring the most convoluted golf course ever. Several more rolling ball sculptures (also called marble machines or marble runs) are on display at Dr. Chaney’s office which must make it the coolest dentist’s lobby ever. The lifelike motions he was able to get from the automatons he built into the sculpture are breathtaking, as you can see below.

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StrollerController Free Parents From Menial Labor

Raising young children is hard work, and parents need all the help they can get. There’s a whole industry catering to parents who are willing to pay to make their lives a little easier. Then, we have hacker minded parents like [Sam Pearce] who build his own solutions like joystick-controlled motorized strollers. His kids have fun taking their first steps into independent autonomy, dad has freed up his hands from pushing strollers, and everyone wins!

We were impressed when we saw [Sam] and his StrollerController zipping along at Maker Faire Bay Area 2019. Normally the only way young children get to control their own vehicle is in a field of bumper cars or a constrained track like Autopia. These lucky kids can drive around without being constrained by pen or track. This will give them a great early start on their driver’s license test, assuming autonomous vehicles haven’t taken over by the time they grow up.

The StrollerController we saw is a two part affair, each capable of independent operation:

StrollerController v1 is a stroller enhanced with motor gearbox from cordless drills driving rear wheels. Its top speed can be constrained by a limiter depending on the child pilot’s driving proficiency. It also has a bright red emergency stop button on top, plus a remote controlled kill switch held by a supervising adult.

StrollerController v2 is a pusher module equipped with much faster wheelchair motors under an grownup-sized standing platform. Welded to the front is a pair of brackets to dock with either a regular non-motorized stroller or StrollerController v1. The linked system delivers expedient travel for both parent and child.

For such a display of inventive ingenuity and resourcefulness, this project won a well-deserved Editor’s Choice ribbon from Maker Faire. We hope such recognition and enthusiasm from other Maker Faire attendees helped motivate [Sam] as he continues to improve StrollerController.

Little Lamp To Learn Longer Leaps

Reinforcement learning is a subset of machine learning where the machine is scored on their performance (“evaluation function”). Over the course of a training session, behavior that improved final score is positively reinforced gradually building towards an optimal solution. [Dheera Venkatraman] thought it would be fun to use reinforcement learning for making a little robot lamp move. But before that can happen, he had to build the hardware and prove its basic functionality with a manual test script.

Inspired by the hopping logo of Pixar Animation Studios, this particular form of locomotion has a few counterparts in the natural world. But hoppers of the natural world don’t take the shape of a Luxo lamp, making this project an interesting challenge. [Dheera] published all of his OpenSCAD files for this 3D-printed lamp so others could join in the fun. Inside the lamp head is a LED ring to illuminate where we expect a light bulb, while also leaving room in the center for a camera. Mechanical articulation servos are driven by a PCA9685 I2C PWM driver board, and he has written and released code to interface such boards with Robot Operating System (ROS) orchestrating our lamp’s features. This completes the underlying hardware components and associated software foundations for this robot lamp.

Once all the parts have been printed, electronics wired, and everything assembled, [Dheera] hacked together a simple “Hello World” script to verify his mechanical design is good enough to get started. The video embedded after the break was taken at OSH Park’s Bring-A-Hack afterparty to Maker Faire Bay Area 2019. This motion sequence was frantically hand-coded in 15 minutes, but these tentative baby hops will serve as a great baseline. Future hopping performance of control algorithms trained by reinforcement learning will show how far this lamp has grown from this humble “Hello World” hop.

[Dheera] had previously created the shadow clock and is no stranger to ROS, having created the ROS topic text visualization tool for debugging. We will be watching to see how robot Luxo will evolve, hopefully it doesn’t find a way to cheat! Want to play with reinforcement learning, but prefer wheeled robots? Here are a few options.

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Hackaday Podcast Ep20: Slaying The Dragon Of EL, Siege Weapon Physics, Dis-entangled Charlieplex, Laser Internet

Join editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys as they unpack all the great hacks we’ve seen this week. On this episode we’re talking about laser Internet delivered from space, unwrapping the complexity of Charlieplexed circuits, and decapping ICs both to learn more about them and to do it safely at home. We have some fun with backyard siege weapons (for learning about physics, we swear!), gambling on FPGAs, and a line-scanning camera that’s making selfies fun again. And nobody thought manufacturing electroluminescent displays was easy, but who knew it was this hard?

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (78 MB of bodacious audio)

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Use Movie Tools To Make Your Robot Move Like Movie Robots

Robots of the entertainment industry are given life by character animation, where the goal is to emotionally connect with the audience to tell a story. In comparison, real-world robot movement design focus more on managing physical limitations like sensor accuracy and power management. Tools for robot control are thus more likely to resemble engineering control consoles and not artistic character animation tools. When the goal is to build expressive physical robots, we’ll need tools like ROBiTS project to bridge the two worlds.

As an exhibitor at Maker Faire Bay Area 2019, this group showed off their first demo: a plugin to Autodesk Maya that translate joint movements into digital pulses controlling standard RC servos. Maya can import the same STL files fed to 3D printers, easily creating a digital representation of a robot. Animators skilled in Maya can then use all the tools they are familiar with, working in full context of a robot’s structure in the digital world. This will be a far more productive workflow for animation artists versus manipulating a long flat list of unintuitive slider controls or writing code by hand.

Of course, a virtual world offers some freedoms that are not available in the physical world. Real parts are not allowed to intersect, for one, and then there are other pesky physical limitations like momentum and center of gravity. Forgetting to account for them results in a robot that falls over! One of the follow-up projects on their to-do list is a bridge in the other direction: bringing physical world sensor like an IMU into digital representations in Maya.

We look forward to seeing more results on their YouTube channel. They join the ranks of other animated robots at Maker Faire and a promising addition to the toolbox for robot animation from Disney Research’s kinetic wires to Billy Whiskers who linked servos to Adobe Animate.

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Integrated Circuits Can Be Easy To Understand With The Right Teachers

For years I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around how silicon chips actually work. How does a purposefully contaminated shard of glass wield control over electrons? Every once in a while, someone comes up with a learning aid that makes these abstract concepts really easy to understand, and this was the case with one of the booths at Maker Faire Bay Area. In addition to the insight it gave me (and hundreds of Faire-goers), here is an example of the best of what Maker Faire stands for. You’ll find a video of their presentation embedded below, along with closeup images of the props used at the booth.

The Uncovering the Silicon booth had a banner and a tablecloth, but was otherwise so unassuming that many people I spoke with missed it. Windell Oskay, Lenore Edman, Eric Schlepfer, John McMaster, and Ken Shirriff took a 50-year-old logic chip and laid it bare for anyone who cared to stop and ask what was on display. The Fairchild μL914 is a dual NOR gate, and it’s age matters because the silicon is not just simple, it’s enormous by today’s standards making it relatively easy to peer inside with tools available to the individual hacker.

ATmega328 decapped by John McMaster was also on display at this booth

The first challenge is just getting to the die itself. This is John McMaster’s specialty, and you’re likely familiar from his Silicon Pr0n website. He decapped the chip (as well as an ATmega328 which was running the Arduino blink sketch with it’s silicon exposed). Visitors to the booth could look through the microscope and see the circuit for themselves. But looking doesn’t mean understanding, and that’s where this exhibit shines.

To walk us through how this chip works, a stack-up of laser-cut acrylic demonstrates the base, emitter, and collector of a single transistor. The color coding and shape of this small model makes it easy to pick out the six transistors of the 941 on a full model of the chip. This lets you begin to trace out the function of the circuit.

For me, a real ah-ha moment was the resistors in the design. A resistive layer is produced by doping the semiconductor with impurities, making it conduct more poorly. But how do you zero-in on the desired resistance for each part? It’s not by changing the doping, that remains the same. The trick is to make the resistor itself take up a larger footprint. More physical space for the electrons to travel means a lower resistance, and in the model you can see a nice fat resistor in the lower right. The proof for these models was the final showpiece of the exhibit as the artwork of the silicon die was laid out as a circuit board with discrete transistors used to recreate the functionality of the original chip.

Windell takes us through the booth presentation in the video below. I think you’ll be impressed by the breakdown of these concepts and how well they aid in understanding. This was a brilliant concept for an exhibit; it brought together interdisciplinary experts whom I respect and whose work I follow, and sought to invite everyone to gain a better understanding of the secrets hiding in the chips that underpin this technological age. This is exactly the kind of thing I love to see at a Maker Faire.

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