Running Programs On Paper

It’s a simple fact that most programs created for the personal computer involve the same methods of interaction, almost regardless of purpose. Word processors, graphics utilities, even games – the vast majority of interaction is performed through a keyboard and mouse. However, sometimes it can be fun to experiment with alternative technologies for users to interact with code – Paper Programs is an exciting way to do just that.

Paper Programs is a combination of a variety of existing technologies to create a way of interacting with code which is highly tangible. The setup consists of a projector, and a webcam which can see the projected area, combined with Javascript programs running in a browser. Programs can be edited in the browser, then printed out with special coloured dots around the page. When the page is placed in the projection area, these dots identify the unique program and are picked up by the webcam, and the server executes the relevant code, projecting back onto the page.

It’s a system that creates a very tactile way of interacting with a program – by moving the page around or placing different pages next to each other, programs can interact in various ways. The system is setup for collaboration as well, allowing users to edit code directly in the browser.

The project reminds us of earlier works on DIY multitouch screens, but with a greater focus on direct engagement with the underlying code. What other unique ways exist to interact with code? Let us know in the comments.

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MicroPython learns a new trick – ISP for AVRs

One of the reasons why the Arduino became so popular was the ability to program it with ease. It meant the end of big parallel programmers that would cost an arm and a leg. The latest installment of CircuitPython from [Lady Ada] and the team over at Adafruit is a library for programming AVR microcontrollers without a dedicated PC.

For the uninitiated, in-system programming or ISP for AVR controllers employ the SPI bus to write the compiled binary to the flash memory of the controller. The discount on the number of pins used itself is a benefit though getting the timings right was a bit tricky in the good old days. Most dedicated ISPs handle this nicely, though they are normally slaves to a host PC where an ‘upload’ button initiates the process.

With CircuitPython (a derivative of MicroPython), programming microcontrollers does not require going through the code-compile-flash cycle. It can be run on a number of processors, however, AVRs are not among them so this neat little library offers the next best thing. Wire-up an Atmega328P or ATmega2560 to a board like the ESP8266 that does run CircuitPython, and you can write firmware on the fly.

There is a complete tutorial on the subject thanks to [Phillip Torrone] and [Lady Ada] which includes some demo files for testing out the functionality. This opens up a lot of possibilities where OTA firmware updates for an AVR co-processor. We expect to see some keychain AVR programmers in the near future taking a hint from the ESP8266 based Two-Factor Authentication featured previously.

Solving Mazes with Graphics Cards

What if we told you that you are likely to have more computers than you think? And we are not talking about things that are computers while not looking like one, like most modern cars or certain lightbulbs. We are talking about the powerful machines hiding in your desktop computer called ‘graphics card’. In the ordinary gaming rig graphics cards that are much more powerful than the machine they’re built into are a common occurrence. In his tutorial [Viktor Chlumský] demonstrates how to harness your GPU’s power to solve a maze.

Software that runs on a GPU is called a shader. In this example a shader is shown that finds the way through a maze. We also get to catch a glimpse at the limitations that make this field of software special: [Viktor]’s solution has to work with only four variables, because all information is stored in the red, green, blue and alpha channels of an image. The alpha channel represents the boundaries of the maze. Red and green channels are used to broadcast waves from the beginning and end points of the maze. Where these two waves meet is the shortest solution, a value which is captured through the blue channel.

Despite having tons of cores and large memory, programming shaders feels a lot like working on microcontrollers. See for yourself in the maze solving walk through below.

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Educational Robot for Under $100

While schools have been using robots to educate students in the art of science and engineering for decades now, not every school or teacher can afford to put one of these robots in the hands of their students. For that reason, it’s important to not only improve the robots themselves, but to help drive the costs down to make them more accessible. The CodiBot does this well, and comes in with a price tag well under $100.

The robot itself comes pre-assembled, and while it might seem like students would miss out on actually building the robot, the goal of the robot is to teach coding skills primarily. Some things do need to be connected though, such as the Arduino and other wires, but from there its easy to program the robot to do any number of tasks such as obstacle avoidance and maze navigation. The robot can be programmed using drag-and-drop block programming (similar to Scratch) but can also be programmed the same way any other Arduino can be.

With such a high feature count and low price tag, this might be the key to getting more students exposed to programming in a more exciting and accessible way than is currently available. Of course, if you have a little bit more cash lying around your school, there are some other options available to you as well.

Pogo Pin Serial Adapter Thing

A few weeks ago, I was working on a small project of mine, and I faced a rather large problem. I had to program nearly five hundred badges in a week. I needed a small programming adapter that would allow me to stab a few pads on a badge with six pogo pins, press a button, and move onto the next badge.

While not true for all things in life, sometimes you need to trade quality for expediency. This is how I built a terrible but completely functional USB to serial adapter to program hundreds of badges in just a few hours.

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Using Modern C++ Techniques with Arduino

C++ has been quickly modernizing itself over the last few years. Starting with the introduction of C++11, the language has made a huge step forward and things have changed under the hood. To the average Arduino user, some of this is irrelevant, maybe most of it, but the language still gives us some nice features that we can take advantage of as we program our microcontrollers.

Modern C++ allows us to write cleaner, more concise code, and make the code we write more reusable. The following are some techniques using new features of C++ that don’t add memory overhead, reduce speed, or increase size because they’re all handled by the compiler. Using these features of the language you no longer have to worry about specifying a 16-bit variable, calling the wrong function with NULL, or peppering your constructors with initializations. The old ways are still available and you can still use them, but at the very least, after reading this you’ll be more aware of the newer features as we start to see them roll out in Arduino code.
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Program Your Brain, Hack Your Way to Productivity

Most people wish they were more productive. Some buckle down and leverage some rare facet of their personality to force the work out. Some of them talk with friends. Some go on vision quests. There are lots of methods for lots of types of people. Most hackers, I’ve noticed, look for a datasheet. An engineer’s reference. We want to solve the problem like we solve technical problems.

It's got the cover equivalent of click-bait, but the centimeter thick bibliography listing research sources at the back won me over.
It’s got the cover equivalent of click-bait, but the centimeter thick bibliography listing research sources at the back won me over.

There were three books that gave me the first hints at how to look objectively at my brain and start to hack on it a little. These were The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Flow By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Getting Things Done By David Allen.

I sort of wandered into these books in a haphazard path. The first I encountered was The Power of Habit which I found to be a bit of a revelation. It presented the idea of habits as functions in the great computer program that makes up a person. The brain sees that you’re doing a task over and over again and just learns to do it. It keeps optimizing and optimizing this program over time. All a person needs to do is trigger the habit loop and then it will run.

For example: Typing. At first you either take a course or, if your parents left you alone with a computer for hours on end, hunt-and-peck your way to a decent typing speed. It involves a lot of looking down at the keyboard. Eventually you notice that you don’t actually need to look at the keyboard at all. Depending on your stage you may still be “t-h-i-n-k-i-n-g”, mentally placing each letter as you type. However, eventually your brain begins to abstract this away until it has stored, somewhere, a combination of hand movements for every single word or key combination you typically use. It’s only when you have to spell a new word that you fall back on older programs.

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