ESP8266 Keeps Tabs on the Kid’s Tablets

Assuming you have a child and it’s no longer womb-bound, there’s a fairly high chance they’ve already had some experience with the glowing beauty that is the LCD display; babies of only a few months old are often given a tablet or smartphone to keep them occupied. But as the child gets to the age where they are capable of going outside or doing something more constructive, staring slack-jawed and wide-eyed at their tablet becomes a concern for many parents.

[Richard Garsthagen] is one such parent. He wanted a way to monitor and control how much time his children were using their iPad, so he came up with an automated system based on the ESP8266. Not only does it keep track of how long the tablet is being used, it even includes a reward system which allows the parent to add extra usage time for good behavior.

At the most basic level, the device is a sort of “holster” for the child’s tablet. When the tablet is placed in the slot, it presses a microswitch at the bottom of the cavity which stops the timer. When the switch is open, the LED display on the front of the device counts down, and the ESP8266 pushes notifications about remaining time to the child’s device via IFTTT.

Time can be added to the clock by way of RFID cards. The cards are given out as a reward for good behavior, completion of chores, etc. The child only needs to pass the card in front of the system to redeem its value. Once the card has been “spent”, the parent can reset it with their own special card.

It’s a very slick setup, making perfect use of the ESP8266. Reading the RFID cards, updating the timer, and using IFTTT’s API keeps the little board quite busy; [Richard] says it’s completely maxed out.

You might be wondering what happens when the clock reaches zero. Well, according to the video after the break…nothing. Once the time runs out, a notification simply pops up on the tablet telling them to put it away. Some might see this as a fault, but presumably it’s the part of the system where humans take over the parenting and give the ESP8266 a rest.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a microcontroller used to get the little hackers on schedule. At least (so far) none of them have gone full Black Mirror and started tracking when the kiddos are watching it.

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Roll Your Own Rotary Encoders

[miroslavus] hasn’t had much luck with rotary encoders. The parts he has tested from the usual sources have all been problematic either mechanically or electrically, resulting in poor performance in his projects. Even attempts to deal with the deficiencies in software didn’t help, so he did what any red-blooded hacker would do — he built his own rotary encoder from microswitches and 3D-printed parts.

[miroslavus]’s “encoder” isn’t a quadrature encoder in the classic sense. It has two switches and only one of them fires when it turns a given direction, one for clockwise and one for counterclockwise. The knob has a ratchet wheel on the underside that engages with a small trip lever, and carefully located microswitches are actuated repeatedly as the ratchet wheel moves the trip lever. The action is smooth but satisfyingly clicky. Personally, we’d forsake the 3D-printed baseplate in favor of a custom PCB with debouncing circuitry, and perhaps relocate the switches so they’re under the knob for a more compact form factor. That and the addition of another switch on the shaft’s axis to register knob pushes, and you’ve got a perfectly respectable input device for navigating menus.

We think this is great, but perhaps your project really needs a legitimate rotary encoder. In that case, you’ll want to catch up on basics like Gray codes.

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Inside a Microswitch

We’ve taken a few microswitches apart, mostly to fix those pesky Logitech mice that develop double-click syndrome, but we’ve never made a video. Luckily, [Julian] did, and it is worth watching if you want to understand the internal mechanism of these components.

[Julian] talks about the way the contacts make and break. He also discusses the mechanical hysteresis inherent in the system because of the metal moving contact having spring-like qualities

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Microswitches: Past the Tipping Point

You find them everywhere from 3D printers to jet airliners. They’re the little switches that detect paper jams in your printer, or the big armored switches that sense when the elevator car is on the right floor. They’re microswitches, or more properly miniature snap-action switches, and they’re so common you may never have wondered what’s going on inside them. But the story behind how these switches were invented and the principle of physics at work in the guts of these tiny and useful switches are both pretty interesting.

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Endurance Test Machine Is Not Quite Useless

It seems [Pete Prodoehl] was working on a project that involved counting baseballs as they fell out of a chute, with the counting part being sensed by a long lever microswitch. Now we all know there are a number of different ways in which one can do this using all kinds of fancy sensors. But for [Pete], we guess the microswitch was what floated his boat — likely because it was cheap, easily available and replaceable, and reliable. Well, the reliable part he wasn’t very sure about, so he built a (not quite) Useless Machine that would conduct an endurance test on the specific switch brand and type he was using. But mostly, it seemed like an excuse to do some CAD design, 3D printing, wood work and other hacker stuff.

The switches he’s testing appear to be cheap knock-off’s of a well known brand. Running them through the torture test on his Useless Machine, he found that the lever got deformed after a while, and would stop missing the actuator arms of his endurance tester completely. In some other samples, he found that the switches would die, electrically, after just a few thousand operations. The test results appear to have justified building the Useless Machine. In any case, even when using original switches, quite often it does help to perform tests to verify their suitability to your specific application.

Ideally, these microswitches ought to have been compliant to the IEC 61058 series of standards. When switches encounter real world loads running off utility supply, their electrical endurance is de-rated depending on many factors. The standard defines many different kinds electro-mechanical test parameters such as the speed of actuation, the number of operations per minute and on-off timing. Actual operating conditions are simulated using various types of electrical loads such as purely resistive, filament lamp loads (non-linear resistance), capacitive loads or inductive loads. There’s also a test involving a locked rotor condition. Under some of the most severe kinds of electrical loads, a switch may be expected to last just a few hundred operations. But if the switch is used for low power applications (contact current below 20 mA), then it is expected to last up to its mechanical endurance limit. For most microswitches, this is usually in the range to 100,000 to 300,000 operations.

Coming back to his project, his first version was cobbled together as a quick hack. A 3D-printed lever was attached to a motor fixed on a 3D-printed mount. The switch was wired to an Arduino input, and a four-digit display showed the number of counts. On his next attempt, he replaced the single lever with a set of three, and in yet another version, he changed the lever design by adding small ball bearings at the end of the actuator arms so they rolled smoothly over the microswitch lever. The final version isn’t anywhere close to a machine that would be used to test these kind of switches in a Compliance Test Laboratory, but for his purpose, we guess it meets the bar.

For those interested, here is a great resource on everything you need to know about Switch Basics. And check out the Useless Machine in action in the video below.

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Scratch-built Radial Solenoid Engine is Polished and Professional

There’s something alluring about radial engines. The Wasps, the Cyclones, the Gnomes – the mechanical beauty of those classic aircraft engines can’t be denied. And even when a radial engine is powered by solenoids rather than internal combustion, it can still be a thing of beauty.

The solenoid engine proves that he has some mechanical chops. If you follow along in the videos below, you’ll see how [Tyler] progressed in his design and incorporated what he learned from the earliest breadboard stage to the nearly-complete engine. There’s an impressive amount of work here – looks like the octagonal housing was bent on a press brake, and the apparently homebrew solenoids are enclosed in copper pipe and fittings that [Tyler] took the time to bring to a fine polish. We’re skeptical that the microswitches that electrically commutate the engine will hold up to as many cycles are they’d need to handle for this to be a useful engine, but that’s hardly the point here. This one is all about the learning, and we think [Tyler] has done a bang-up job with that.

For more radial solenoid engine goodness, check out this engine with an entirely different take on commutation. Or if you need the basics of radial engine theory, this wood mockup might be just the thing.

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Microswitch keyboard gives those lazy thumbs a workout

Upon first sight there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this is a hacker’s keyboard. [Tim Tyler] built the odd-looking conglomeration of keys a few years ago with the goal of improving the man-machine interface. Why waste all that thumb space with just one long keyboard when you can have at least nine keys per thumb?

After some additional consideration this isn’t all that unorthodox. We’ve seen keyboards that split the hands; in fact you can buy them. This just adds the thumb matrices and that rack of programmable keys above the alpha-numeric portion. It’s rather organ-like with its multiple ranks, don’t you think? Check out the demonstration video after the break. It certainly has a keystroke sound that is all its own. The sound is different from the clackity “M” keyboard and its modern relatives thanks to the microswitches that make up each key.

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