DIY Telepresence Robot Built From Off-The-Shelf Parts

Petite, but it does the job. Note the huge LED headlight in the center.

Telepresence hasn’t taken off in a big way just yet; it may take some time for society to adjust to robotic simulacra standing in for humans in face-to-face communications. Regardless, it’s an area of continuous development, and [MakerMan] has weighed in with a tidy DIY build that does the job.

It’s a build that relies on an assemblage of off-the-shelf parts to quickly put together a telepresence robot. Real-time video and audio communications are easily handled by a Huawei smartphone running Skype, set up to automatically answer video calls at all times. The phone is placed onto the robotic chassis using a car cell phone holder, attached to the body with a suction cup. The drive is a typical two-motor skid steer system with rear caster, controlled by a microcontroller connected to the phone.

Operation is simple. The user runs a custom app on a remote phone, which handles video calling of the robot’s phone, and provides touchscreen controls for movement. While the robot is a swift mover, it’s really only sized for tabletop operation — unless you wish to talk to your contact’s feet. However, we can imagine there has to be some charm in driving a pint-sized ‘bot up and down the conference table when Sales and Marketing need to be whipped back into shape.

It’s a build that shows that not everything has to be a 12-month process of research and development and integration. Sometimes, you can hit all the right notes by cleverly lacing together a few of the right eBay modules. Getting remote video right can be hard, too – as we’ve seen before.

Smartphone Mod Goes Out On A Limb

The modern smartphone has a variety of ways to interact with its user – the screen, the speakers, and of course, the vibration motor. But what if your phone could interact physically? It might be unnerving, but it could also be useful – and MobiLimb explores exactly this possibility.

Yes, that’s right – it’s a finger for your mobile phone. MobiLimb has five degrees of freedom, and is built using servomotors which allow both accurate movement as well as positional feedback into the device. Additionally, a touch-sensitive potentiometer is fitted, allowing the robofinger to respond to touch inputs.

The brains behind the show are provided by an Arduino Leonardo Pro Micro, and as is usual on such projects, the mechanical assembly is 3D printed – an excellent choice for producing small, complex parts. Just imagine the difficulty of trying to produce robotic fingers with classic machine tools!

The project video shows many different possibilities for using the MobiLimb – from use as a basic notification device, to allowing the smartphone to crawl along a table. We frankly can’t wait until there’s a fully-functional scorpion chassis to drop an iPhone into – the sky really is the limit here.

Interested in other unique ways to interact with your smartphone? Check out these nifty 3D printed physical buttons.

The Modular Connector and How It Got That Way

They adorn the ends of Cat5 network patch cables and the flat satin cables that come with all-in-one printers that we generally either toss in the scrap bin or throw away altogether. The blocky rectangular plugs, molded of clear plastic and holding gold-plated contacts, are known broadly as modular connectors. They and their socket counterparts have become ubiquitous components of the connected world over the last half-century or so, and unsurprisingly they had their start where so many other innovations began: from the need to manage the growth of the telephone network and reduce costs. Here’s how the modular connector got that way.

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Print Physical Buttons for Your Touch Screen

Modern handheld gaming hardware is great. The units are ergonomic powerhouses, yet many of us do all our portable gaming on a painfully rectangular smartphone. Their primary method of interaction is the index finger or thumbs, not a D-pad and buttons. Shoulder triggers have only existed on a few phones. Bluetooth gaming pads are affordable but they are either bulky or you have to find another way to hold your phone. Detachable shoulder buttons are a perfect compromise since they can fit in a coin purse and they’re cheap because you can make your own.

[ASCAS] explains how his levers work to translate a physical lever press into a capacitive touch response. The basic premise is that the contact point is always touching the screen, but until you pull the lever, which is covered in aluminum tape, the screen won’t sense anything there. It’s pretty clever, and the whole kit can be built with consumables usually stocked in hardware stores and hacker basements and it should work on any capacitive touch screen.

Physical buttons and phones don’t have to be estranged and full-fledged keyswitches aren’t exempt. Or maybe many capacitive touch switches are your forte.

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Why Won’t This Darn Thing Charge?

What is more fun than plugging in your phone and coming back to find your battery on empty? Stepping on a LEGO block with bare feet or arriving hungry at a restaurant after closing probably qualify. [Alex Sidorenko] won’t clean your floors or order you a pizza, but he can help you understand why cheap chargers won’t always power expensive devices. He also shows how to build an adapter to make them work despite themselves.

The cheapest smart device chargers take electricity from your home or car and convert it to five volts of direct current. That voltage sits on the power rails of a USB socket until you plug in a cable. If you’re fortunate, you might get a measly fuse.

Smart device manufacturers don’t make money when you buy an off-brand charger, and they can’t speak to the current protection of them, so they started to add features on their own chargers to protect their components and profit margins. In the case of dedicated chargers, a simple resistor across the data lines tells your phone it is acceptable power. Other devices are more finicky, but [Alex Sidorenko] shows how they work and provides Eagle files to build whatever flavor you want. Just be positive that your power supply is worthy of the reliability these boards promise to the device.

Now you know why connecting a homemade benchtop power supply to a USB cable seems good on paper but doesn’t always get the job done. Always be safe when you make your own power supplies.

Making Software Defined Radio Portable

While most smartphones can receive at least some radio, transmitting radio signals is an entirely different matter. But, if you have an Android phone and a few antennas (and a ham radio license) it turns out that it is possible to get a respectable software-defined radio on your handset.

[Adrian] set this up to be fully portable as well, so he is running both the transceiver and the Android phone from a rechargeable battery bank. The transceiver is also an interesting miniaturized version of the LimeSDR, the Lime SDR Mini, a crowdfunded Open Source radio platform intended for applications where space is at a premium. It operates on the 10 MHz to 3.5 GHz bands, has two channels, and has a decent price tag too at under $100.

For someone looking for an SDR project or who needs something very portable and self-contained, this could be a great option. The code, firmware, and board layout files are all also open source, which is always a great feature. If you’re new to SDR though, there’s a classic project that will get you off the ground for even less effort.

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Easy Time-lapse Video via Phone and Command Line

A good time-lapse video can be useful visual documentation, and since [Tommy]’s phone is the best camera he owns he created two simple shell scripts to grab time-lapse images and assemble them into a video. [Tommy]’s work is just the glue between two other things: an app that turns the phone into an IP camera with a web server on the local network, and the ability to grab a still image from that server on demand.

The app he uses for his iPhone normally serves video but has an undocumented feature that allows single frames to be downloaded by adding ‘/photo’ to the end of the URL, but the ability to get a still image is a common feature on IP camera apps for smartphones. His capture script (GitHub repository here) should therefore need only minor changes to work with just about any IP camera app.

Perching a phone over a workspace and using it to create a time-lapse with a couple of shell scripts is a great example of combining simple tools to get better functionality. It could be a good way to get additional use out of an older smartphone, too. Heck, even older dumbphones can still get some use out of them; Shmoocon 2017 brought us details on rolling your own 1G network.