Modular construction toys like LEGO and Meccano are great for prototyping, but they aren’t so great for large builds. OpenStructures promises to be a modular building system for projects large and small.
Originally conceived in 2007 by [Thomas Lommée], OpenStructures is a modern, more robust reinterpretation of Grid Beam, which was itself a reinterpretation of the earlier Living Structures. By using a common standard (PDF), parts can be reused project after project as they would with LEGO, meaning you can spend more time building and less time cutting or figuring out joints. OpenStructures parts need connection points, part diameters, or part dimensions at multiples of 20 mm to be compatible. To fulfill the spirit of the project, parts should be designed for disassembly, use recyclable materials when possible, and be Open Source.
The system seems like a great starting point for prototyping furniture or other large builds more quickly than building everything on a case-by-case basis. By including diameters for round objects as well as square and rectangular profiles, OpenStructures is a more flexible (and aesthetically pleasing?) option than Grid Beam.
Modularity is a fun topic for us. There’s something satisfying about seeing a complex system split into parts and these parts made replaceable. We often want some parts of our devices swapped, after all – for repair or upgrade purposes, and often, it’s just fun to scour eBay for laptop parts, equipping your Thinkpad with the combination of parts that fits you best. Having always been fascinated by modularity, I believe that hackers deserve to know what’s been happening on the CPU module front over the past decade.
We’ve gotten used to swapping components in desktop PCs, given their unparalleled modularity, and it’s big news when someone tries to split a yet-monolithic concept like a phone or a laptop into modules. Sometimes, the CPU itself is put into a module. From the grandiose idea of Project Ara, to Intel’s Compute Card, to Framework laptop’s standardized motherboards, companies have been trying to capitalize on what CPU module standardization can bring them.
There’s some hobbyist-driven and hobbyist-friendly modular standards, too – the kind you can already use to wrangle a powerful layout-demanding CPU and RAM combo and place it on your simple self-designed board. I’d like to tell you about a few notable modular CPU concepts – their ideas, complexities, constraints and stories. As you work on that one ambitious project of yours – you know, the one, – it’s likely you will benefit a lot from such a standard. Or, perhaps, you’ll find it necessary to design the next standard for others to use – after all, we all know there’s never too few standards! Continue reading “Future Brings CPU Modules, And The Future Is Now”→
Very few retrocomputing projects are anything other than a labor of love. There’s really no practical reason to build a computer that is woefully inadequate for just about any task compared to even an entry-level PC today. But the lack of a practical reason to do something rarely stops a hacker, as with this nifty modular Z80-based rack computer.
Actually, there’s at least one area where retrocomputers excel compared to their modern multi-core gigahertz counterparts — and that’s nostalgia. That’s what [Ricardo Kaltchuk] was going for with his build, which started by finding a Z80 and an Intel 8251 USART in his parts bin. Those formed the core of what would become the “Proton” computer, a modular beauty built around 7 cm by 10 cm PCBs that plug into a backplane inside a rack made from aluminum angle. Aside from the power supply and the Z80 CPU, other modules include a RAM card with a zero insertion force socket for an EPROM, a mass-storage module sporting a 128 MB Compact Flash card, plus modules for standard serial and I2C comms.
The fit and finish are excellent, and the performance is impressive. The Proton runs CP/M and boasts a ton of old applications that will bring back some memories, like SuperCalc and dBase. We’d venture a bet that WordStar is in there someplace, or easily could be. The video below is a little rough, but shows everything off really well.
In some ways, the Proton reminds us of the RC2014, but its fit and finish are what bring this build home. That’s not to take away from the work [Ricardo] obviously put into documentation, though. The 62-page manual has every detail of every module, plus instructions for building one of your own.
Plenty of gamers around these parts require an expensive PC to play games, often spending thousands of dollars for a gaming machine. Believe it or not, though, there are entire classes of games that don’t require any electronics at all, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit from the addition of some neat gadgets. This Settlers of Catan game uses custom LCD tiles with a built-in custom mesh network.
The tiles for the game board themselves are hexagonal and snap together using magnetic pogo pins in order to form a board of any size or shape. The pogo pins also allow communication for a pseudo-mesh network to operate with each tile’s built-in PCB to allow the game board to know exactly which tiles are placed where and to display the correct image on each one. Each tile contains it own RP2040 microcontroller, keeping the overall cost of each tile to a minimum.
For those regularly hosting game night, a project like this could really change the traditionally analog game’s dynamic for the better. It was mostly a project that [Colin Iuliano] built just for fun, and if he ever builds a second one he does plan on some improvements, but we’d say that it looks like a success already. For other Catan-based electronic design inspiration, take a look at this complete and non-modular electronic game board.
Most of us are familiar with virtual machines (VMs) as a way to test out various operating systems, reliably deploy servers and other software, or protect against potentially malicious software. But virtual machines aren’t limited to running full server or desktop operating systems. This tiny VM is capable of deploying software on less powerful systems like the Raspberry Pi or AVR microcontrollers, and it is exceptionally fast as well.
The virtual machine is built from scratch, including the RISC processor with only 61 opcodes, a 64 bit core, and runs code written in his own programming language called “Brackets” or in assembly. It’s designed to be modular, so only those things needed for a given application are loaded into the VM. With these design criteria it turns out to be up to seven times as fast as comparably small VMs like NanoVM. The project’s creator, [koder77], has even used its direct mouse readout and joystick functionality to control a Raspberry Pi 3D camera robot.
For anyone looking to add an efficient VM to a small computing environment, [koder77] has made the project open-source on his GitHub page. This also includes all of the modules he has created so far which greatly expand the project’s capabilities. For some further reading on exceedingly tiny virtual machines, we featured this project way back in 2012 which allows users to run Java on similar hardware.
In [Zack]’s words, the perfect workshop has tools and materials arranged in the following way: (a) every item has a dedicated home within reach of where you’ll use it. (b) items are exposed and in position for instant grabification. (c) the storage system shields you from accidents like spills and injuries. (d) it is effortless to setup and easy to put back and rearrange. An instant-access storage solution such as the Gridfinity is designed not to help you store more stuff, but finish more projects. The idea is very simple — display your stuff so that you can quickly find what you need and get back to the project as quickly as possible. We think these aims are pretty spot on!
From an implementation perspective, the system consists of a 3D printed base plate with a grid structure. It is angled internally so storage bins drop in, but are not easy to knock out. Storage units drop into the grid in various sizes and orientations, such that everything is contained within the grid’s outer boundary, so the whole assembly will fit inside a drawer with ease. Small part storage bins have a curved inner surface enabling one to easily scoop out a part when required. A partial lid on the top allows them to be stacked vertically if required.
Whilst the system is work in progress, there are still about a hundred different storage units, for anything from 3D printer nozzles to racks for tweezers. Implemented as parameterised models in Fusion360, it is easy to tweak existing models for your stuff, or create totally new ones, from the supplied templates.
Of course, the global semiconductor shortage combined with shipping slowdowns led to delays, but things did ultimately come together for the project. I’ve always been a sucker for small-format machines, especially ones that come as a well-designed kit, and that means I can tell you all about what it was like to put it together and turn it on. There’s a lot to look at, so let’s get started.