Making A Birthday Party Magical With Smart Wands

Visitors to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios are able to cast “spells” by waving special interactive wands in the air. Hackers like us understand that there must be some unknown machinations happening behind the scenes to detect how the wands are moving, but for the kids wielding them, it might as well be real magic. So when his son asked to have a Harry Potter themed birthday party, [Adam Thole] decided to try recreating the system used at Universal Studios in his own home.

Components used in the IR streaming camera

The basic idea is that each wand has a reflector in the tip, which coupled with strong IR illumination makes them glow on camera. This allows for easy gesture recognition using computer vision techniques, all without any active components in the wand itself.

[Adam] notes that you can actually buy the official interactive wands from the Universal Studios online store, and they’d even work with his system, but at $50 USD each they were too expensive to distribute to the guests at the birthday party. His solution was to simply 3D print the wands and put a bit of white prismatic reflective tape on the ends.

With the wands out of the way, he turned his attention to the IR imaging side of the system. His final design is a very impressive 3D printed unit which includes four IR illuminators, a Raspberry Pi Zero with the NoIR camera module. [Adam] notes that his software setup specifically locks the camera at 41 FPS, as that triggers it to use a reduced field of view by essentially “zooming in” on the image. If you don’t request a FPS higher than 40, the camera will deliver a wider image which didn’t have any advantage in this particular project.

The last part of the project was taking the video stream from his IR camera and processing it to detect the bright glow of a wand’s tip. For each frame of the video the background is first removed and then any remaining pixel that doesn’t exceed a set brightness level if ignored. The end result is an isolated point of light representing the tip of the wand, which can be fed into Open CV’s optical flow function to show [Adam] what shape the user was trying to make. From there, his software just needs to match the shape with one of the stock “spells”, and execute the appropriate function (such as changing the color of the lights in the room) with Home Assistant.

Overall, it’s an exceptionally well designed system considering the goal was simply to entertain a group of children for a few hours. We almost feel bad for the other parents in the neighborhood; it’s going to take more than a piñata to impress these kids after [Adam] had them conjuring the Dark Arts at his son’s party.

It turns out there’s considerable overlap between hacker types and those who would like to have magic powers (go figure). [Jennifer Wang] presented her IMU-based magic wand research at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference, and in the past we’ve even seen other wand controlled light systems. If you go all the way back to 2009, we even saw some Disney-funded research into interactive wand attractions for their parks, which seems particularly prescient today.

Continue reading “Making A Birthday Party Magical With Smart Wands”

DIY Arc Light Makes An Unnecessarily Powerful Bicycle Headlight

Remember when tricking out a bike with a headlight meant clamping a big, chrome, bullet-shaped light to your handlebar and bolting a small generator to your front fork? Turning on the headlight meant flipping the generator into contact with the front wheel, powering the incandescent bulb for the few feet it took for the drag thus introduced to grind you to a halt. This ridiculous arc-lamp bicycle headlight is not that. Not by a long shot.

We’re used to seeing [Alex] doing all manner of improbable, and sometimes impossible, things on his popular KREOSAN YouTube channel. And we’re also used to watching his videos in Russian, which detracts not a whit  from the entertainment value for Andglophones; subtitles are provided for the unadventurous, however. The electrodes for his arc light are graphite brushes from an electric streetcar, while the battery is an incredibly sketchy-looking collection of 98 18650 lithium-ion cells. A scary rat’s nest of coiled cable acts as a ballast to mitigate the effects of shorting when the arc is struck. The reflector is an old satellite TV dish covered in foil tape with the electrodes sitting in a makeshift holder where the feedhorn used to be. It’s bright, it’s noisy, it’s dangerous, and it smokes like a fiend, but we love it.

Mounting it to the front of the bike was just for fun, of course, and it works despite the janky nature of the construction. The neighbors into whose apartments the light was projected could not be reached for comment, but we assume they were as amused as we were.

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Umbrella And Tin Cans Turned Into WiFi Dish Antenna

There’s something iconic about dish antennas. Chances are it’s the antenna that non-antenna people think about when they picture an antenna. And for many applications, the directionality and gain of a dish can really help reach out and touch someone. So if you’re looking to tap into a distant WiFi network, this umbrella-turned-dish antenna might be just the thing to build.

Stretching the limits of WiFi connections seems to be a focus of [andrew mcneil]’s builds, at least to judge by his YouTube channel. This portable, foldable dish is intended to increase the performance of one of his cantennas, a simple home-brew WiFi antenna that uses food cans as directional waveguides. The dish is built from the skeleton of an umbrella-style photographer’s flash reflector; he chose this over a discount-store rain umbrella because the reflector has an actual parabolic shape. The reflective material was stripped off and used as a template to cut new gores of metal window screen material. It’s considerably stiffer than the reflector fabric, but it stretches taut between the ribs and can still fold up, at least sort of. An arm was fashioned from dowels to position the cantenna feed-horn at the focus of the reflector; not much detail is given on the cantenna itself, but we assume it’s similar in design to cantennas we’ve featured before.

[andrew] hasn’t done rigorous testing yet, but a quick 360° scan from inside his shop showed dozens of WiFi signals, most with really good signals. We’ll be interested to see just how much this reflector increases the cantenna’s performance.

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Grease Gun Hydroforms Custom Motorcycle Parts

Never underestimate the power of an incompressible fluid at high pressure. Properly constrained and with a full understanding of the forces involved, hydraulic pressure can be harnessed to do some interesting things in the home shop, like hydroforming stainless steel into custom motorcycle parts.

From the look of [Clarence Elias]’s video below, it seems like he has a 100% custom motorcycle build going on in his shop. That means making every part, including the reflectors for the lights. While he certainly could have used a traditional approach, like beating sheet stainless with a planishing hammer or subjecting it to the dreaded English wheel, [Clarence] built a simple yet sturdy hydroforming die for the job. A thick steel ring clamps the sheet stainless to a basal platen with an inlet from the forming fluid, which is ordinary grease. [Clarence] goes through the math and the numbers are impressive — a 1,500-psi grease gun can be mighty persuasive under such circumstances. The result is a perfectly formed dish with no tool marks, in need of only a little polishing to be put into service.

Whether by a pressure washer, a puff of air, or 20-tons of pressure on a rubber pad, hydroforming is a great method to master for making custom parts.

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Serious DX: The Deep Space Network

Humanity has been a spacefaring species for barely sixty years now. In that brief time, we’ve fairly mastered the business of putting objects into orbit around the Earth, and done so with such gusto that a cloud of both useful and useless objects now surrounds us. Communicating with satellites in Earth orbit is almost trivial; your phone is probably listening to at least half a dozen geosynchronous GPS birds right now, and any ham radio operator can chat with the astronauts aboard the ISS with nothing more that a $30 handy-talkie and a homemade antenna.

But once our spacecraft get much beyond geosynchronous orbit, communications get a little dicier. The inverse square law and the limited power budget available to most interplanetary craft exact a toll on how much RF energy can be sent back home. And yet the science of these missions demands a reliable connection with enough bandwidth to both control the spacecraft and to retrieve its precious cargo of data. That requires a powerful radio network with some mighty big ears, but as we’ll see, NASA isn’t the only one listening to what’s happening out in deep space. Continue reading “Serious DX: The Deep Space Network”

Easy Parabolic Mirror From A Trash Can Lid

Parabolic reflectors for solar applications are nice stuff, and making your own is a great project in itself. One of the easiest ways we have seen is that of [GREENPOWERSCIENCE], who uses nothing more than a trash can lid, mylar film, and tape. You need a way to make a partial vacuum though.

The idea is so simple that it´s almost like cheating. Cut a circle of mylar slightly larger than the lid, and tape it all around, taking care of stretching the mylar in the process. After you´re done with this, you end up with a nice flat mirror. Here´s where the vacuum is needed to force the film into parabolic shape. Extract the air from a little hole in the lid that was previously drilled, and tape it to prevent the loss of the vacuum. The atmospheric pressure on the mylar film will take care of the job, and magically you get a nearly-parabolic reflector ready for work.

In this other video, you can see the reflector in action burning stuff. One obvious problem with this technique is the loss of the vacuum after some time, about an hour according to the author. Here´s another way to make a more durable mirror also with mylar as the reflecting element, however the quality of the resulting mirror is not as good.


Pressure-formed Parabolic Mirror From A Mylar Blanket

Parabolic reflectors are pretty handy devices. Whether you’re building a microwave antenna or a long-distance directional microphone, suitable commercial dishes aren’t that hard to come by. But a big, shiny mirror for your solar death-ray needs is another matter, which is where this pressure-formed space blanket mirror might come in handy.

Pressure-forming was a great choice for [NighthawkInLight]’s mirror. We’ve covered pressure-formed plastic domes before, and this process is similar. A sheet of PVC with a recessed air fitting forms the platen. The metallized Mylar space blanket, stretched across a wooden frame to pull out the wrinkles and folds, is applied to a circle of epoxy on the platen. After curing, a few puffs with a bicycle tire pump forms the curve and stretches the film even smoother. [NighthawkInLight]’s first attempt at supporting the film with spray foam insulation was a bust, but the later attempt with fiberglass mesh worked great. A little edge support for the resulting shiny taco shell and the mirror was capable of the required degree of destructive potential.

We doubt this process can be optimized enough to produce astronomy-grade mirrors for visible light, but it still has a lot of potential applications. Maybe a fiberglass radio astronomy dish could be pressure-formed directly with a rig like this?