Pick Up The Ball And Run With It

Once in a while we get to glimpse how people build on each other’s work in unexpected and interesting ways. So it is with the GateBoy project, a gate-level emulator built from die shots of the original Game Boy processor. The thing is, [Austin Appleby] didn’t have to start by decapping and taking photos of the chip. He didn’t even have to make his own schematics by reverse engineering those structures. Someone else had already done that and made it available for others to use. A couple of years back, [Furrtek] started manually tracing out the DMG chip and posted schematics to the DMG-CPU-Inside repo, kindly licensing it as CC-BY-SA 4.0 to let people know how they can use the info.

But playing Game Boy games isn’t actually the end game of [Austin’s] meticulous gate-level recreation. He’s using it to build “a set of programming tools that can bridge between the C/C++ universe used by software and the Verilog/VHDL universe used by hardware.” A new tool has been born, not for gaming, but for converting a meta language that assigns four-letter codes to gate structures (somewhat reminiscent of DNA sequences) and will eventually convert them to your choice of C++ or a Hardware Description Language for use with FPGAs.

The open source community is playing four-dimensional football. Each project moves the ball downfield, but some of them add an additional goal in an alternate hardware universe — advancing the aims of both (like finding and fixing some errors in [Furrtek’s] original schematics).

Of course the real challenge is getting the word out that these projects exist and can be useful for something you’re working on. For instance, [Neumi’s] depth sounding rowboat allows an individual to make detailed depth maps of lakes, rivers, and the like. It was in the comments that the OpenSeaMap project was brought up — a site working to create crowd sourced waterway charts. It’s the perfect place for [Neumi] to get inspiration, and help move that ball toward a set of goals.

How do we get the word out so more of these connections happen? We’ll do our part here at Hackaday. But it’s the well-document and thoughtfully-licensed projects that set the up playing field in the first place.

Getting Back Into Hackerspaces

Last week, I got my first chance to get out and about among the hackers in what feels like forever. Hackerspaces here in Germany are finally able to re-open for business-as-almost-usual, allowing access to reasonable numbers of people providing they’re immunized or tested, and wearing masks of course. And that meant that I got to take up [Andreas’] invitation to come see his Stereo Ninja inspection microscope project in person.

Stereo Ninja basically makes clever use of two Raspberry Pi cameras, swaps out the optics for greater enlargement, and displays the results on a 3D monitor — to be viewed with shutter glasses. This is one of those projects that you really have to see in person to “get it”. He’s still working on stripping the build down to make it simpler and more affordable, to make the project more accessible to the average hacker.

We talked about DIYing a 3D monitor. It turns out that the shutter glasses are cheap, and it looks like they’re synced by an IR pulse to the monitor. There should be a hacker solution for 3D to work with a fast gaming monitor at least. [Andreas] also pointed me to this great breakout board for the Raspberry Pi CM4 that breaks out both camera lanes for easy stereo / 3D capture. I got the tour of the FabLab, and we talked welding, metal 3D printing, software, hardware and assorted nerdy stuff. [Alex] showed up on his way out of town for the weekend — it’d been ages since we hung out.

In short, I remembered how it used to be in the before-times, when visits with other hackers, and to other hackerspaces, were possible. There’s this spontaneous and mutually inspirational kind of chat that’s just impossible remotely, and is tremendously important.

We’re not done with the COVID pandemic yet, I fear, and different parts of the world have entirely different trajectories. If you told me two years ago that I would be visiting hackerspaces with a mask and proof-of-vaccination, I would have thought you were crazy. But at the same time this brief visit gave me a little boost of hope for the future. We will get through all of this, and we’ll all meet up again at our local hackerspaces.

Who Owns The Machine Anyway?

The story of the McDonalds’ frozen treat machine involves technology, trade secrets, inside business dealings, franchiser/franchisee friction, and an alleged NDA violation. In short: lots of money and lawyers. But it also involves something that matters to all of us hackers — what it means to own a machine.

Sad clown holding melted ice cream coneThe brief background is that McDonald’s requires its franchisees to buy a particular Taylor Soft Serve machine. The machine would enter pasteurizing mode and has opaque error codes that are triggered apparently without the owners or operators understanding, at which point Taylor service techs come in to fix them — and get paid for their service, naturally. A small hardware startup, Kytch, stepped into the mess with a device that man-in-the-middles the Taylor machine’s status codes, allowing the machine’s owners to diagnose and monitor it themselves. Heroes, right?

Taylor, naturally, wants to look at a Kytch device, but they’re locked up under NDAs that Kytch require users to sign in order to protect their trade secrets. So when Taylor gets their hands on one, Kytch takes them to court for, ironically, reverse engineering their device that they built to reverse Taylor’s protocols.

There are no good guys in this fight: it’s corporate secrecy fighting corporate secrets. None of which, by the way, is Hackaday particularly fond of. Why? Because these secrets rob the ostensible owners of the devices of their ability to inspect, fix, and operate their machines. This is akin to the “right to repair” idea, but it’s somehow even more fundamental — the right to know what your own devices are doing.

What this story needs is a Robin Hood. And as the devices we get sold become increasingly wrapped up in EULAs and NDAs, and full of secret sauce that’s out of our control, we’re going to need a lot more Robin Hoods. It’s McDonald’s frozen treat machines, but it’s also your smart thermostat and your inkjet printer and your — you name it. Have at it, Hackaday!

Robot Utopia

We see so many dystopian visions of automation, it’s time for us to do it right! The Redefine Robots round of the 2021 Hackaday Prize just started, and it’s your chance to build robots that respect the users. It doesn’t have to be the largest project in the world, but it does have to be automatic and helpful. Start your engines!

Keep Scraps Around

When I’m building something, I like to have a decent-sized scrap pile on hand. Because when I’ve got to test something out — does this glue adhere to this fabric, how much force will this hold if I tap it and put a screw in, will it snap if reinforced with carbon fiber and epoxy — it’s nice to have some of the material in question on hand just for experimentation. So I pull a chunk out of the scrap pile!

But scrap piles can’t expand forever, and we all know that “too much of a good thing” is a thing, right? Scrap piles require constant pruning. You don’t really need more than a few aluminum extrusion cutoffs, so when you start building up excess inventory, it’s time to scrap it. I mean, throw it away.

A corollary of this, that I’ve only recently started to appreciate, is that if I limit the number of materials that I’m working with, it’s a lot more manageable to keep the scrap pile(s) under control. It’s simple math. If I’m working with twenty different materials, that’s twenty different heaps of scrap. But if I can get by with one weight of fiberglass for everything, that one pile of scraps can do double or triple duty. There is also the added benefit that I already know how the material works, and maybe even have old test samples on hand.

Indeed, I’m such a scrapaholic that it’s almost painful to start working with a new material and not have a scrap pile built up yet. I’m always loathe to cut into a nice square piece of stock just to test something out. But this too is part of the Great Circle of Life. By not testing things out beforehand, I’m almost guaranteed to screw up and create scrap out of what I had hoped was going to be a finished piece. See? No problem! Next version.

What do you think? Are scrap, offcuts, and their close cousins — test pieces and samples — worth keeping around in your shop? Do you have a disciplined approach, or do you just throw them in the corner? Purge per project, or only when the mountain of XPS foam gets as high as your head?

Goals And Goalposts

In the winter, I hatched a vague plan to learn some of the modern unmanned aerial vehicle tech. Everybody needs an autonomous vehicle, and we’ve got some good flying fields within walking distance, so it seemed like it could work. Being me, that meant buying the cheapest gear that could possibly work, building up the plane by myself, and generally figuring out as much as possible along the way. I learn more by making my own mistakes anyway. Sounds like a good summer project.

Fast-forward to August, and the plane is built, controller installed, and I’ve spent most of the last month trying to make them work well together. (The firmware expects a plane with ailerons, and mine doesn’t have them, but apparently I’d rather tweak PID values than simply add a couple wing servos.) But it’s working well enough that it’s launching, flying autonomous waypoint missions, and coming home without any intervention. So, mission accomplished, right?

Destination: that furthest red roof

Nope. When I’m enjoying a project, I have a way of moving the goalposts on myself. I mean, I don’t really want to be done anyway. When a friend asked me a couple weeks ago what I was planning to do with the plane, I said “take nice aerial videos of that farm over there.” Now I see flight opportunities everywhere, and need to work on my skills. The plane needed an OLED display. It probably still needs Bluetooth for local configuration as well. Maybe a better long-range data link…

This is creeping featurism and moving-the-goalposts in the best of ways. And if this were a project with a deadline, or one that I weren’t simply enjoying, it would be a problem. Instead, having relatively low-key goals, meeting them, and letting them inspire me to set the next ones has been a blast. It makes me think of Donald Papp’s great article on creating hacking “win” projects. There he suggests creating simple goals to keep yourself inspired. I don’t think I could have planned out an “optimal” set of goals to begin with — I’ve learned too much along the way that the next goal isn’t obvious until I know what new capabilities I have. Creeping is the only way.

What about you? Do you plan your hobby projects completely in advance? Not at all? Or do you have some kind of hybrid, moving-the-goalposts sort of strategy?

Hearing The Unhearable

My wife was watching a crime drama, and one of the plot twists involved a witness’ hearing aid malfunctioning so that he could hear electromagnetic waves around him. It’s not so implausible, if you think about it. Many hearing aids have a t-coil, which is essentially an inductor that’s designed to couple with the speaker in a telephone. If that went haywire, maybe you could hear all the changing magnetic fields around you, and if you could escape the constant hum of the mains power line, it might even be interesting.

So of course, she turns to me and says “we need to make one!” It shouldn’t be hard at all — a big inductor and an amplifier should do the trick. In fact, it’ll probably be easy enough that it’ll make a good introduction-to-electronics project for my son. But there are also enough unknowns here that it’ll be interesting. How big a coil? How close? How sensitive? What about that mains frequency bit? Ferrite core or not?

None of this is rocket science, for sure, but it will probably be full of kludges, discoveries, and straight-up exploration. In short, the perfect weekend project. And in the end, it’ll expose something that’s normally invisible, and that’s where the fun lies.

This must be the same urge that drove Faraday and Marconi, Volta and Maxwell. There’s something amazing about directly sensing, seeing, hearing, and understanding some of the stuff that’s outside of our limited hearing and eyesight, and yet is all around us. I can write down the equations that describe it — I learned them in school after all — but there’s no substitute for poking around in your own home. Who knows, maybe in a few more weekends we’ll build ourselves an all-band receiver.

What’s your favorite super power?

The Man-Machine

This week we saw a couple DIY tools for small-run manufacturing at home that help make your life easier if you’re climbing out of the happy bucket and into the pit of despair — when you’re making enough of the item that it’s not fun any more, but you still don’t have the volume to leave the manufacturing to someone else.

The first was an automatic through-hole soldering machine made from a 3D printer. This actually makes sense even if you’re getting boards assembled for you, because through-hole pads are a lot more expensive than SMT parts, and they usually charge per pin. Put a 2×20 pin header on your project, and it can end up costing a lot. Or you can robotificate the solution.

This week’s second solution really caught my eye. PnPassist is machine that turns your PCB around, locates a laser crosshair over the next SMT piece that you need to place, and even has an OLED screen that tells you what to put there. There are many great mechanical design choices here, but what really drew my attention is how well this machine fills a gap between manual and fully automatic pick-and-place.

I know you hate looking back and forth between the board and the schematic or parts list, trying to find just where Q23 is on the darn board, or looking up resistor values. With PnPassist, you still have to do the placing, but with machine guidance. If you don’t have the money or the space for a fully automatic PnP, this is an obvious win, but also for short runs when loading up the reels takes more time than populating the board, this could be a huge win.

I love this kind of human-capability-enhancing machine, and I’m always happy to see a design like this. It reminds me of the very clever Shaper Origin, or even just this handy automatic XY table for drilling many precise holes. In all these cases, there’s some part of the problem that would be hard to solve, require extremely bulky or expensive machinery, or can just be more simply accomplished by a meatbag. But combining machine precision with the human element produces something more than the sum of the parts.

What’s your favorite human-enhancing tool?