Hexabitz, Modular Electronics Made Easier

Over the years there have been a variety of modular electronic systems allowing the creation of complex circuits by the interconnection of modules containing individual functions. Hexabitz, a selection of interlocking polygonal small PCBs, is just such a system. What can it bring to the table that others haven’t done already?

The problem facing designers of modular electronics is this: all devices have different requirements and interfaces. To allow connection between modules that preserves all these connections requires an ever-increasing complexity in the inter-module connectors, or the application of a little intelligence to the problem. The Hexabitz designers have opted for the latter angle, equipping each module with an STM32 microcontroller that allows it to identify both itself and its function, and to establish a mesh network with other modules in the same connected project. This also gives the system the ability to farm off computing tasks to individual modules rather than relying solely upon a single microcontroller or single-board computer.

An extremely comprehensive array of modules can be had for the system, which lends it some interesting possibilities, however, it suffers from the inherent problem of modular electronic systems, that it is less easy to incorporate non-standard functions. If they can crack a prototyping module coupled with an easy way to tell its microcontroller to identify whatever function is upon it, they might have a winner.

Modular Blocks Help Fight Disease

When engineering a solution to a problem, an often-successful approach is to keep the design as simple as possible. Simple things are easier to produce, maintain, and use. Whether you’re building a robot, operating system, or automobile, this type of design can help in many different ways. Now, researchers at MIT’s Little Devices Lab have taken this philosophy to testing for various medical conditions, using a set of modular blocks.

Each block is designed for a specific purpose, and can be linked together with other blocks. For example, one block may be able to identify Zika virus, and another block could help determine blood sugar levels. By linking the blocks together, a healthcare worker can build a diagnosis system catered specifically for their needs. The price tag for these small, simple blocks is modest as well: about $0.015, or one and a half cents per block. They also don’t need to be refrigerated or handled specially, and some can be reused.

This is an impressive breakthrough that is poised to help not only low-income people around the world, but anyone with a need for quick, accurate medical diagnoses at a marginal cost. Keeping things simple and modular allows for all kinds of possibilities, as we recently covered in the world of robotics.

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MoAgriS: A Modular Agriculture System

Hackaday.io user [Prof. Fartsparkle] aims to impress us again with MoAgriS, a stripped-down rig for bringing crops indoors and providing them with all they need.

This project is an evolution of their submission to last year’s Hackaday Prize, MoRaLiS — a modular lighting system on rails — integrating modules for light, water, airflow, fertilizer and their appropriate sensors. With an emphasis on low-cost, a trio of metal bars serve as the structure, power and data transmission medium with SAM D11 chips shepherding each plant.

Reinforced, angled PCBs extend rails horizontally allowing the modules to be mounted at separate heights. Light module? Up top. Water sensor? Low on the rails above the pot’s rim. You get the idea. 3D printed clamps attach the rails to the plant’s pot with a touch of paint to keep it from sticking out like a sore thumb among the leaves.

Airflow modules replicate wind currents — the lack of which results in thin, fragile stems — and light modules include a soft white LED to accompany and mitigate the full-spectrum LEDs’ pink neon-like glow. To manage watering the plants, [Prof. Fartsparkle] initially wanted to use one pump to distribute water to every plant, but found some smaller pumps at a low enough price-point to make one per plant viable — and simpler to integrate as a module as well!

If you prefer your gardening to take place outdoors, consider a robot assistant to tackle your weeding.

Synthbike Rolls To The Beat

Modular synthesizers are some of the ultimate creative tools for the electronic musician. By experimenting with patch leads, knobs and switches, all manner of rhythmic madness can be conjured out of the æther. While they may overflow with creative potential, modular synths tend to fall down in portability. Typically built into studio racks and composed of many disparate modules, it’s not the sort of thing you can just take down the skate park for a jam session. If only there was a solution – enter the madness that is Synth Bike.

Synth Bike, here seen in the 2.0 revision, impresses from the get go, being built upon a sturdy Raleigh Chopper chassis. The way we see it, if you’re going to build a synth into a bicycle, why not do it with some style? From there, the build ratchets up in intensity. There’s a series of sequencer modules, most of which run individual Arduino Nanos. These get their clock from either a master source, an external jack, or from a magnetic sensor which picks up the rotation of the front wheel. Your pace dictates the tempo, so you’ll want to work those calves for extended raves at the park.

The features don’t stop there – there are drums courtesy of a SparkFun WAV Trigger, an arcade button keyboard, and a filter board running the venerable PT2399 digital delay chip. It’s all assembled on a series of panels with wires going everywhere, just like a true modular should be.

The best thing is, despite the perplexing controls and arcane interface, it actually puts out some hot tunes. It’s  not the first modular we’ve seen around these parts, either.


Enlarged Miniature Forklift

How do you classify something that is gigantic and miniature at the same time? LEGO kit 850, from 1977 when it was known as an Expert Builder set, was 210 modular blocks meant to be transformed into a forklift nearly 140mm tall. [Matt Denton] scaled up the miniature pieces but it still produced a smaller-than-life forklift. This is somewhere in the creamy middle because his eight-year-old nephew can sit on it but most adults would demolish their self-esteem if they attempted the same feat.

[Matt] has been seen before building these modular sets from enlarged LEGO blocks, like his Quintuple-Sized Go-Kart. He seems to have chosen the same scale for the pieces and who wouldn’t? If you’re printing yourself a ton of LEGO blocks, it just makes sense to keep them all compatible. Isn’t combing all your sets into one mishmash the point after all? We’ll see what his nephew/co-host constructs after his uncle [Matt] leaves.

In the time-lapse video after the break, you can see how the kit goes together as easily as you would hope from home-made bricks. With that kind of repeatability and a second successful project, it’s safe to say his technique is solid and this opens the door to over-sized projects to which LEGO hasn’t published instructions.

Hackaday is bursting with LEGO projects, K’Nex projects, and even Erector set projects.

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MIDI to CV/Gate The Easy Way

Let’s say you’ve got a modular synthesizer. You’re probably a pretty cool person. But all your cool laptop DJ friends keep showing off their MIDI-controlled hardware, and you’re getting jealous. Well, [little-scale] has the build for you.

The Teensy 3.6 is the current top-of-the-line Teensy from PJRC, and it’s [little-scale]’s weapon of choice here. With USB-MIDI and two 12-bit DACs on board, it’s made creating an interface between the worlds of analog and digital music into a remarkably simple job. Control voltages for pitch and velocity are pushed out over the analog pins, while pin 29 is used for gate signals.

It’s a testament to the amount of development that has gone into the Teensy platform that such projects can be built with virtually no off-board components. The build is a further step forward in simplicity from [little-scale]’s previous work, using a Teensy 2 with an offboard DAC to generate the output voltages.

Here at Hackaday, we’ve always been big fans of adding computer control to analog hardware. This CNC mod to a guitar pickup winding machine is a great example.

Capsela is Dead, Long Live Capsela

In the magical 80s, there was a building set that stood apart from the rest. Capsela, originally created by Mitzubishi Pencil Company (the Uniball folks) looked like a series of clear plastic spheres with gears and motors inside. The signature Capsela modules served as both enclosure and functional component. The set came with a variety of gear options like planetary gear, worm gear, and clutch capsules. You could use chain drives and propellers. A lot of the parts were water-resistant, and part of the toy’s shtik was that you could make boats out of it with pontoons keeping most of the robot out of the water.

Hex connectors printed by ericd3

Capsela’s sets were relatively simple, with only DC motors to make things move. However, as the product found success, the company built increasingly larger and more complicated sets with  greater capabilities. For instance, in ’87 they released the Robotic Workshop that included an IR remote that could be configured with a Commodore 64. Later on the Capsela Voice Command 6000 was released, featuring a microcontroller that could understand 8 verbal commands as well as interpret IR signals within 25 feet.

I never got any of those fancy sets, but I still found a lot to do with the basic set my parents bought me for Christmas. The unique architecture of the set was both boon and bane–it certainly was a striking set, in terms of its appearance. However, there were only so many ways you could those spheres together. Also, if you weren’t making a boat the pontoons were fairly useless, with the most clever solution being to use one as a wheel substitute.

The thing that really did it for me, other than hacking out reconfigurable boats in my bathtub, was being able to see everything. All the gearboxes could be seen though the clear plastic. How many nerds learned about mechanical engineering by peering through Capsela spheres?

As with all things, Capsela had its peak and faded away. The product was licensed to a number of new manufacturers, but never found the same success. They tried focusing on the educational market but no dice.

Nevertheless, the product has retained a degree of  nostalgia for those of us who outgrew it. A few years ago, software developer [José Romaniello] described how the toy set him on a path toward being an engineer. He started a Hacker News thread that engaged a bunch of fans in a nerdfest about how great the toy was and how one might 3D print new pieces. Not much was done in the 3DP world that I have seen, other than re-creating Capsela’s hex connectors and that sort of thing.

It’s Baaaaack….

“If they can remake Beauty and the Beast they can bring back Capsela”, is how I’m assuming the thought process went. Sure enough, a company emerged with a redesigned version of the set, available over the internet and in brick and mortar stores. Put out by a shell company called the Unitrust Development Company, the product has been renamed IQ Key.

The new kits seem very similar to those classic sets from  the 80s, other than superficial changes in the product’s appearance — the faceted geography of the pontoons and capsules suggest a refreshed product — it looks pretty much the same. The battery pack (slash switch) has also been redesigned, and looks like it may have an IR receiver built in. The company has also redesigned those hexagonal connectors and now they are circular and bayonet into place.

Is it the same old Capsela we knew and loved? Maybe, maybe not, but there’s only one way to find out: to hack the hell out of it!

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