Hackaday Links: September 6, 2020

That was a close shave! On Tuesday, asteroid 2011 ES4 passed really close to the earth. JPL’s close approach data pegs its nominal distance from earth at about 0.00081083276352288 au! Yeah, we had to look it up too: that’s around 75,000 miles (120,000 kilometers), just ten times the diameter of the earth and only about one-third the distance from the earth the moon. It got within about 52,000 miles of the moon itself. Bookworms who made it all the way through Seveneves are surely sweating right now.

There’s a low current arms race when it comes to lighting up LEDs. The latest salvo in the field comes from [Christoph Tack] who boasts a current of 1.36 µA at 3 V for a green LED that is roughly 10x brighter than a phosphorescent watch dial. Of course, the TritiLED is the design being chased, which claims to run 17.6-20.2 years on a single CR2032 coin cell.

Proving once again that Hanna and Barbera were indeed future-tech prophets, flying cars are now a thing. Sky Drive Inc. made a four-minute test flight of a single passenger octo-rotor aircraft. Like a motorcycle of the sky (and those are a thing too) this thing is single-passenger and the cockpit is open air. The CNN article mentions that “The company hopes to make the flying car a part of normal life and not just a commodity”. Yeah, we’re sure they do, but in an age when electric cars are demonized for ranges in the low hundreds of miles, this is about as practical for widespread use as self-balancing electric unicycles.

Just when you thought the Marble Machine X project couldn’t get any bigger, we find out they have a few hundred volunteers working to update and track CAD models for all parts on the machine. Want a quick-start on project management and BOM control? These are never seen as the sexy parts of hardware efforts, but for big projects, you ignore them at your own peril.

Google and Apple built a COVID-19 contact tracing framework into their mobile platforms but stopped short of building the apps to actually do the work, anticipating that governments would want to control how the apps worked. So was the case with the European tracing app as Elliot Williams recently covered in this excellent overview. However, the United States has been slower to the game. Looks like the tech giants have become tired of waiting and have now made it possible for the framework itself to work as a contact tracing mechanism. To enable it, local governments need to upload a configuration file that sets parameters and URLs that redirect to informational pages from local health departments, and users must opt-in on their phone. All other tracing apps will continue to function, this is meant to add an option for places that have not yet adopted/developed their own app.

And finally, it’s time to take back responsibility for your poor spelling. Auto-correct has been giving us sardines instead of teaching how to fish for them ourselves. That ends now. The Autocorrect Remover is an extension for Google Docs that still tells you the word is wrong, but hides the correct spelling, gamifying it by having you guess the right spelling and rewarding you with points when you get it right.

Mini Marble-Powered Synth Pays Homage To Its Bigger Cousins

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what then are we to make of something that shares only a few of the original’s design elements, operates in a completely different way, and has been scaled down to a fifth its size? Still seems like flattery to us.

Despite the changes, it’s clear where [Love Hultén] took inspiration for his miniature Marble Machine XS. Readers will no doubt see in it elements from [Martin Molin]’s original Marble Machine, the fantastic plywood and Lego musical contraption, along with his new Marble Machine X, the construction of which never seems to end. Like the originals, [Love]’s miniature version uses a lot of steel balls, albeit considerably scaled down, and it still uses a programming drum to determine where and when to drop them. But rather than strike real traditional instruments, the falling balls strike synthesizer keys, triggering a range of sounds through its built-in speaker. The whole thing is powered by a small electric motor rather than being hand-cranked and is small enough to sit on a desktop, a decided advantage over the mammoth machines to which it pays homage.

We have to say that as much as we love the hacksmanship of the original Marble Machine and the craftsmanship of its successor, the look and feel of [Love]’s machine just blows us away. We’re not sure what materials he used, but the whole hammertone paint scheme and Meccano look is a feast for nostalgic eyes.

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All About That Bass – Marble Machine X Keeps Growing

We’re okay if you call out Not A Hack™ on this one, because “hack” really doesn’t do justice to the creations of [Martin] from [Wintergatan]. You’re probably familiar with the Marble Machine that went viral a few years ago, and while it was impressive as-is back then, and most people would have declared the project finished at that point, it has turned into a seemingly never-ending work-in-progress project that has certainly come a long way ever since. Its latest addition: the Cyber Capos as upgrade for the bass, and you can find out all about it in its build video — also embedded below.

If you play a string instrument and ever used a capo — the clamping little helper device to smack the pitch up — you may have found yourself wishing that you could use it on any arbitrary fret on each string. Sure, there are partial capos and the spider capo to select individual strings, but you’re still limited to transpose along a single fret. Well, [Martin]’s Cyber Capos, a mechanical construct of four arms sliding along the neck, serve exactly that purpose, which allows him to free up his hands for other things while the marbles keep bouncing.

But you don’t have to be a bass player, or any musician really, to appreciate [Martin]’s build videos. We praised his general attitude and hacker-like spirit already the first time we mentioned the Marble Machine, and just watching him getting excited about his work and the appreciation for people supporting and assisting in the project, while embracing his mistakes, is a genuine delight.

Needless to say that [Martin] likes some uniqueness in music instruments, and the bass with its separate volume control and output for each string qualifies on its own for that. If you’re curious about more on that, there’s another video about it embedded after the break. And for the really impatient ones, you can see the capos in action in the first video around the 12:35 mark.

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Hackaday Links: March 29, 2020

It turns out that whacking busted things to fix them works as well on Mars as it does on Earth, as NASA managed to fix its wonky “mole” with a little help from the InSight lander’s robotic arm. Calling it “percussive maintenance” is perhaps a touch overwrought; as we explained last week, NASA prepped carefully for this last-ditch effort to salvage the HP³ experiment, and it was really more of a gentle nudge that a solid smack with the spacecraft’s backhoe bucket. From the before and after pictures, it still looks like the mole is a little off-kilter, and there was talk that the shovel fix was only the first step in a more involved repair. We’ll keep an ear open for more details — this kind of stuff is fascinating, and beats the news from Earth these days by a long shot.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic news isn’t all bad. Yes, the death toll is rising, the number of cases is still growing exponentially, and billions of people are living in fear and isolation. But ironically, we’re getting good at community again, and the hacker community is no exception. People really want to pitch in and do something to help, and we’ve put together some resources to help. Check out our Hackaday How You Can Help spreadsheet, a comprehensive list of what efforts are currently looking for help, plus what’s out there in terms of Discord and Slack channels, lists of materials you might need if you choose to volunteer to build something, and even a list of recent COVID-19 Hackaday articles if you need inspiration. You’ll also want to check out our calendar of free events and classes, which might be a great way to use the isolation time to better your lot.

Individual hackers aren’t the only ones pitching in, of course. Maybe of the companies in the hacker and maker space are doing what they can to help, too. Ponoko is offering heavy discounts for hardware startups to help them survive the current economic pinch. They’ve also enlisted other companies, like Adafruit and PCBWay, to join with them in offering similar breaks to certain customers.

More good news from the fight against COVID-19. Folding@Home, the distributed computing network that is currently working on folding models from many of the SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins, has broken the exaFLOP barrier and is now the most powerful computer ever built. True, not every core is active at any given time, but the 4.6 million cores and 400,000-plus GPUs in the network pushed it over from the petaFLOP range of computers like IBM’s Summit, until recently the most powerful supercomputer ever built. Also good news is that Team Hackaday is forming a large chunk of the soul of this new machine, with 3,900 users and almost a million work units completed. Got an old machine around? Read Mike Sczcys’ article on getting started and join Team Hackaday.

And finally, just because we all need a little joy in our lives right now, and because many of you are going through sports withdrawal, we present what could prove to be the new spectator sports sensation: marble racing. Longtime readers will no doubt recognize the mad genius of Martin and his Marble Machine X, the magnificent marble-dropping music machine that’s intended as a follow-up to the original Marble Machine. It’s also a great racetrack, and Martin does an amazing job doing both the color and turn-by-turn commentary in the mock race. It’s hugely entertaining, and a great tour of the 15,000-piece contraption. And when you’re done with the race, it’s nice to go back to listen to the original Marble Machine tune — it’s a happy little song for these trying times.

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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Marvelously Machined Clutch Masters Musical Marble Machine Mayhem

As far as marble runs go, few can hope to compete with [Wintergatan]’s amazing musical works. While undertaking the build of the Marble Machine X, timing problems became apparent. You can crank the machine faster or slower to alter the tempo, but the time it took marbles to drop due to gravity and hit an awaiting drum remains constant. You can’t control gravity, so you look to a mechanical solution in adjusting marble drops. In music, as in a jewel heist, timing is everything. Thankfully, [Machine Thinking] was on hand to collaborate, and a solution was found in the form of a beautifully machine indexable clutch.

The duo came together and designed a clutch, that would allow the timing relationship between various parts of the Marble Machine X to be varied. At 7:10 into the Wintergatan video below he gets down to brass tacks on how this brass music timing clutch actually works. At 90 BMP, the clutch allows the synchronization of the machine to be altered in approximately 10ms increments. Without this vital addition, drum beats would tend to slip out of time.

It’s a part that would challenge the novice, requiring the cutting of teeth and the inscription of accurate markings to allow it to do its job. However, it’s no trouble for [Machine Thinking], who shared a video of the machining process, including the outsourcing of the hand-engraved dial numbers.

Such a piece takes significant work to produce, and yet it is just one part of a much larger machine. We can’t wait to see the Marble Machine X finished, but if you’re unfamiliar with [Wintergatan]’s earlier works — you’re in for a treat.

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Problems That Plagued An Edible Marble Machine

Prolific creator [Martin Raynsford] recently created a plus-sized edible version of his laser-cut Marble Machine for a Cake International exhibit and competition; it seemed simple to do at first but had quite a few gotchas waiting, and required some clever problem-solving.

Gears are three layers, stacked and cemented with sugar glue, and coated with a hard edible shine.

The original idea was to assemble laser-cut gingerbread parts to make the machine. Gingerbread can be laser-cut quite well, and at first all seemed to be going perfectly well for [Martin]. However, after a few days the gingerbread was sagging badly. Fiddling with the recipe and the baking was to no avail, and it was clear [Martin] needed to find something other than gingerbread to work with. After experimenting, he settled on a modified sugar paste which kept its shape and dried hard enough to work with. (While appearing to stretch most people’s definition of “cake” past the breaking point, the category [Martin] entered in the competition allows it.) The parts were cut by hand using laser-cut wood parts as a guide, then finished in a food dehydrator overnight.

The next problem was how to create the large spiral which forms the main ramp. The answer was to laser-cut a custom support structure that supported the piece while it dried out, and doubled as a way to transport the piece safely. High stress points got extra layers cemented with sugar glue, and some parts were reinforced internally with strands of uncooked spaghetti. Everything was sealed with an edible shine, which [Martin] says acts as a kind of varnish for cakes. A video demonstration is embedded below. Continue reading “Problems That Plagued An Edible Marble Machine”