Hackaday Podcast Ep 007 – Everything Microcontrollers, Deadly Clock Accuracy, CT X-Rays, Mountains Of E-Waste

Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys look at all that’s happening in hackerdom. This week we dive deep into super-accurate clock chips, SPI and microcontroller trickery, a new (and cheap) part on the microcontroller block, touch-sensitive cloth, and taking a home X-ray to the third dimension. We’re saying our goodbyes to the magnificent A380, looking with skepticism on the V2V tech known as DSRC, and also trying to predict weather with automotive data. And finally, what’s the deal with that growing problem of electronic waste?

Links for all discussed on the show are found below. As always, join in the comments below as we’ll be watching those as we work on next week’s episode!

Direct download (88.7 MB)

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Inefficient NeoPixel Control Solved with Hardware Hackery

Everyone loves NeoPixels. Individually addressable RGB LEDs at a low price. Just attach an Arduino, load the demo code, and enjoy your blinking lights.

But it turns out that demo code isn’t very efficient. [Ben Heck] practically did a spit take when he discovered that the ESP32 sample code for NeoPixels used a uint32 to store each bit of data. This meant 96 bytes of RAM were required for each LED. With 4k of RAM, you can control 42 LEDs. That’s the same amount of RAM that the Apollo Guidance Computer needed to get to the moon!

His adventure is based on the thought that you should be able to generate these signals with hardware SPI. First, he takes a look at Adafruit’s DMA-Driven NeoPixel example. While this is far more efficient than the ESP32 demo code, it still requires 3 SPI bits per bit of NeoPixel data. [Ben] eventually provides us with an efficient solution for SPI contro using a couple of 7400 series chips:

Schematic of SPI to NeoPixel circuit using 74HC123

[Ben]’s solution uses some external hardware to reduce software requirements. The 74HC123 dual multi-vibrator is used to generate the two pulse lengths needed for the NeoPixels. The timing for each multi-vibrator is set by an external resistor and capacitor, which are chosen to meet the NeoPixel timing specifications.

The 74HC123s are clocked by the SPI clock signal, and the SPI data is fed into an AND gate with the long pulse. (In NeoPixel terms, a long pulse is a logical 1.) When the SPI data is 1, the long pulse is passed through to the NeoPixels. Otherwise, only the short pulse is passed through.

This solution only requires a 74HC123, an AND gate, and an OR gate. The total cost is well under a dollar. Anyone looking to drive NeoPixels with a resource-constrained microcontroller might want to give this design a try. It also serves as a reminder that some problems are better solved in hardware instead of software.

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Freeform Wire Frame Tulip Blooms To The Touch

Holidays are always good for setting a deadline for finishing fun projects, and every Valentine’s Day we see projects delivering special one-of-a-kind gifts. Why buy a perishable bulk-grown biological commodity shipped with a large carbon footprint when we can build something special of our own? [Jiří Praus] certainly seemed to think so, his wife will receive a circuit sculpture tulip that blooms when she touches it.

via @jipraus

This project drew from [Jiří]’s experience with aesthetic LED projects. His Arduino-powered snowflake, with LEDs mounted on a custom PCB, is a product available on Tindie. For our recent circuit sculpture contest, his entry is a wire frame variant on his snowflake. This tulip has 7 Adafruit NeoPixel in the center and 30 white SMD LEDs in the petals, which look great. But with the addition of mechanical articulation, this project has raised the bar for all that follow.

We hope [Jiří] will add more details for this project to his Hackaday.io profile. In the meantime, look over his recent Tweets for more details on how this mechanical tulip works. We could see pictures and short videos of details like the wire-and-tube mechanism that allowed all the petals to be actuated by a single servo, and the components that are tidily packaged inside that wooden base.

Need more digital expressions of love? We have no shortage of hearts. Animated LED hearts, illuminated acrylic hearts, and talking hearts. We’re a little short on flower projects, but we do have X-ray of a rose among others to accompany [Jiří]’s tulip.

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Addressable 7-Segment Displays May Make Multiplexing a Thing of the Past

[Sean Hodgins] has a knack for coming up with simple solutions that can make a big difference, but this is one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” things: addressable seven-segment LED displays.

[Sean]’s design is basically a merging of everyone’s favorite Neopixel RGB LED driver with the ubiquitous seven-segment display. The WS2811 addressable RGB driver chip doesn’t necessarily have to drive three different color LEDs – it can drive three segments of the same display. With three of the chips on a single board, all seven segments plus the decimal point of a display can be controlled over a single data line. No more shift registers, no more multiplexing. And as a nice touch, individual displays can be ganged together with connectors on the back of each module. [Sean] has some code to support the display but is looking for someone to build a standalone library for it, so you might want to pitch in. Yes, he plans to sell the boards in his shop, but as with all his projects, this one is open source and everything you need to build your own is up on GitHub. The brief video below shows a few daisy-chained displays in action.

Like many of [Sean]’s designs, including this Arduino rapid design board, this is a simple way to get a tedious job done, and it wrings a lot of functionality from a single IO pin.

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Lighting Up The Night Sky With A Flying POV Display

We’ve seen loads of persistence of vision displays before, but this sky-writing POV display seems as though it may be a first. And we have to agree with its creators that it’s pretty cool.

The idea man on this was [Ivan Miranda], who conceived of a flying POV as a twist on his robotic dot-matrix beach printer. But without any experience in RC flight, he turned to fellow YouTuber [Tom Stanton], whose recent aerial builds include this air-powered plane, for a collaboration. [Ivan]’s original concept was a long strip of Neopixels that would be attached to the underside of a wide-wingspread plane. WIthout much regard for the payload limits of most RC planes, he came up with a working display that was 3 meters long. His video below shows it in use in his shop, with some pretty impressive long exposure images.

[Tom]’s part was to make the POV display flyable. He cut the length down to 2 meters and trimmed the weight enough to mount it to a quadcopter. Ungainly as the machine was, he was able to master its control enough to start painting pictures across the twilight sky. The images at the end of his video are actually stunning – we’re especially fond of Thunderbird 2, which takes us back to our childhood.

We’re not sure what the practical uses of this are, but that’s hardly the point. It’s enough that it’s an interesting project from an unlikely duo. Continue reading “Lighting Up The Night Sky With A Flying POV Display”

Code Review Lamp Subtly Reminds You To Help Your Fellow Developer

[Dimitris Platis] works in an environment with a peer review process for accepting code changes. Code reviews generally are a good thing. One downside though, is that a lack of responsiveness from other developers can result in a big hit to team’s development speed. It isn’t that other developers are unwilling to do the reviews, it’s more that individuals are often absorbed in their own work and notification emails are easily missed. There is also a bit of a “tragedy of the commons” vibe to the situation, where it’s easy to feel that someone else will surely attend to the situation, but often no one does. To combat this, [Dimitris] built this Code Review Lamp, a subtle notification that aims to prod reviewers into action.

The lamp is based on a ring of RGB LEDs and a Wemos D1 Mini board. The Wemos utilizes the popular ESP8266, so it’s easy to develop for. The LED ring and Wemos are tied together with a slick custom PCB. Mounting the LED ring on the top of the PCB and the Wemos on the bottom allows for easy powering via a USB cable while directing light upward.  The assembly is placed in a translucent 3D printed enclosure creating a pleasant diffuse light source.

Every developer gets a Code Review Lamp. The lamps automatically log in to the change management system to check whether anything is awaiting review. If a review is ready, the Lamp glows in a color specific to the individual developer. All this serves as a gentle but persistent reminder that someone’s work is being held up until a review is completed.

We love the way that the device has a clear purpose: it does its job without any unnecessary features or parts. It’s similar to this ESP8266 IoT Motion Sensor in that it has a single job to do, and focuses on it well.

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IoT Traffic Light Is Cardboard Made Fun

Traffic lights! Kids love them, hackers love them, and they’re useful in industrial contexts to see if the giant machine is currently working or having a bad day. While the real deal are unwieldy and hard to come by, there’s nothing stopping you tackling a fun cardboard build at home.

It’s a great way to teach kids about traffic rules, too.

In this case, the light is courtesy of WS2812b LED strips. They’re a great choice, as they interface easily with most microcontrollers thanks to readily available libraries. An ESP8266 runs the show here, serving up a basic web interface over WiFi. This allows the color of the various LEDs to be controlled remotely. It also allows the lights to be switched on and off to direct whatever traffic you may be controlling. The whole project is all wrapped up in a simple cardboard enclosure, mimicking the municipal street furniture which so resolutely commands our movements.

The cardboard traffic light is a project that shows just what can be done with some off-the-shelf parts and some good old-fashioned kindergarten-style arts and crafts. If you find yourself similarly admiring these devices, check out our primer on the North American traffic signal. Video after the break.

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