Image Sensors Demystified By [IMSAI Guy]

The February 1975 issue of Popular Electronics had what was — at the time — an amazing project. The Cyclops, a digital camera with a 32 by 32 pixel resolution with 4 bits per pixel. It was hard to imagine then that we would now all carry around high-resolution color cameras that were also phones, network terminals, and so many other things. But how much do you know about how those cameras really work? If you want to know more, check out [IMSAI Guy’s] recent video on how image sensors work.

The video doesn’t cover any practical projects or circuits, but it has a good explanation of what goes on in modern digital cameras. If you don’t know what digital cameras have in common with an octopus, you might want to watch.

If you want to see what the state of the art in 1975 was, have a look at this post. The image sensor in that camera didn’t have much in common with the ones we use today, but you have to admit it is clever. Of course, 1975 was also the year Kodak developed a digital camera and failed to understand what to do with it. Like the Cyclops, it had little in common with our modern smartphone cameras, but you have to start somewhere.

Wooden Disc Player Translates Binary Back Into Text

[jbumstead] used MATLAB to convert the text messages into binary to be cut out of the disk.
[jbumstead] wanted to demonstrate the idea of information-storing devices such as LPs, CDs, and old hard drives. What he came up with lies directly at the intersection of art and technology: an intricately-built machine that plays beautiful collaged wooden disks. Much like the media that inspired the Wooden Disk Player, it uses a laser to read encoded data, which in this case is short bits of text like “Don’t Panic”.

These snippets are stored in binary and read by a laser and photodiode pair that looks for holes and not-holes in the disk. The message is then sent to an Arduino Nano, which translates it into English and scrolls the text on an LED matrix. For extra fun, the Nano plays a MIDI note every time it reads a 1, and you can see the laser reading the disk through a protective acrylic shield.

Though the end result is fantastic, [jbumstead] had plenty of issues along the way which are explored in the build video after the break. We love it when people show us their mistakes, because it happens to all of us and we shouldn’t ever let it tell us to stop hacking.

If anyone knows their way around lasers, it’s [jbumstead]. We loved playing their laser harp at Supercon!

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A Pulse Oximeter From Very Little

Against the backdrop of a global respiratory virus pandemic, it’s likely that more than a few readers have been thinking about pulse oximeters. You may even have looked at one closely and seen that it’s little more than a device which shines light through your finger, and wondered how they work. It’s something [Giulio Pons] has done, and to show us how it’s done he’s created a working pulse oximeter of his own.

He started with an infra-red heartbeat sensor module, which is revealed as nothing more than an IR LED and a photodiode. Sampling the output from the photodiode allows measurement of heartbeat, but gives not clue as to oxygen saturation. The interesting part comes via the property of red light in that it’s transmission through flesh varies with oxygen saturation, so adding a red LED and alternately measuring from the IR and red illuminations allows a saturation figure to be derived.

Commercial pulse oximeters are pretty cheap, so many of us will no doubt simply order one from the usual sources and call it good. But it’s always interesting to know how any device works, and this project reveals something simpler than we might have expected. If pulse oximeters interest you, compare it with this one we featured a few years ago.

Fitness Tracker Hacked Into Optical Density Meter

What do fitness trackers have to do with bacterial cultures in the lab? Absolutely nothing, unless and until someone turns a fitness band into a general-purpose optical densitometer for the lab.

This is one of those stories that shows that you never know from where inspiration is going to come. [Chinna Devarapu] learned that as a result of playing around with cheap fitness bands, specifically an ID107HR. A community has built up around hacking these bands; we featured a similar band that was turned into an EEG. With some help, [Chinna] was able to reflash the microcontroller and program it in the Arduino IDE, and began looking for a mission for the sensor-laden platform.

He settled on building a continuous optical densitometer for his biology colleagues. Bacterial cultures become increasingly turbid as the grow, and measuring the optical density (OD) of a culture is a common way to monitor its growth phase. This is usually done by sucking up a bit of the culture to measure, but [Chinna] and his team were able to use the hacked fitness band’s heartrate sensor to measure the OD on the fly. The tracker fits in a 3D-printed holder where an LED can shine through the growing culture; the sensor’s photodiode measures the amount of light getting through and the raw data is available via the tracker’s Bluetooth. The whole thing can be built for less than $20, and the plans have been completely open-sourced.

We really like the idea of turning these fitness bands into something completely different. With the capabilities these things pack into such a cheap and compact package, they should start turning up in more and more projects.

Dark Absorbing Diodes Are No DAD Joke

We will confess that the authors of the Applied Physics Letters article “Experimental Demonstration of Energy Harvesting from the Sky using the Negative Illumination Effect of a Semiconductor Photodiode” never used the acronym DAD or the phrase “dark absorbing diode.” But we thought it was too good to pass up. The research work uses a type of diode to generate small amounts of power from darkness. Admittedly, the amount of power is small, but it is still an important result and could result in — another coined phrase — negative solar cells providing energy by taking advantage of the temperature differential between the cell and the night sky.

In theory — and with no atmosphere — the technique could only result in about 4 watts per square meter. Not only is this low compared to a solar panel’s 100 to 200 watts per square meter, but it is also far from the prototype’s 64 nanowatts per square meter. Clearly, this technology has a ways to go to become practical.

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Radiation Detector Eschews Tubes, Uses Photodiode

When the topic is radiation detection, thoughts turn naturally to the venerable Geiger-Müller tube. It’s been around for ages, Russian surplus tubes are available for next to nothing, and it’s easy to use. But as a vacuum tube it can be somewhat delicate, and the high voltages needed to run it can be a little on the risky side.

Luckily, there are other ways to see what’s going on in the radioactive world, like this semiconductor radiation detector. [Robert Gawron] built it as a proof-of-concept after having built a few G-M tube detectors before. His solid-state design relies on a reverse-biased photodiode conducting when ionizing radiation hits the P-N junction. The tiny signal is amplified by a pair of low-noise op-amps and output to a BNC connector. The sensor’s analog output is sent to an oscilloscope whose trigger out is connected to a Nucleo board for data acquisition. The Nucleo is in turn connected to a Raspberry Pi for totalizing and logging. It’s a complicated chain, but the sensor appears to work, even detecting alpha emissions from thoriated TIG electrodes, a feat we haven’t been able to replicate with our G-M tube counter.

[Robert]’s solid-state detector might not be optimal, but it has promise. And we have seen PIN diodes used as radiation detectors before, too.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]

Color Sensor Demystified

When [millerman4487] bought a TCS230-based color sensor, he was expecting a bit more documentation. Since he didn’t get it, he did a little research and some experimentation and wrote it up to help the rest of us.

The TCS3200 uses an 8×8 array of photodiodes. The 64 diodes come in four groups of 16. One group has a blue filter, one has green and the other has a red filter. The final set of diodes has no filter at all. You can select which group of diodes is active at any given time.

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