Hackaday Links: May 24, 2020

We’re saddened to learn of the passing of Gershon Kingsley in December 2019 at the age of 97. The composer and electronic music pioneer was not exactly a household name, but the things he did with the Moog synthesizer, especially the surprise hit “Pop Corn”, which he wrote in 1969, are sure to be familiar. The song has been covered dozens of times, in the process of which the spelling of the name changed to “Popcorn.” We’re most familiar with the 1972 cover by Hot Butter, an earworm from our youth that doesn’t hide the Moog as deeply in the backing instruments as Kingsley did in the original. Or, perhaps you prefer the cover done by a robotic glockenspiel, because robotic glockenspiel.

A few months back, we covered the audacious plan to recover the radio gear from the Titanic. At the time, the potential salvors, Atlanta-based RMS Titanic, Inc., were seeking permission to cut into the submerged remains of the Titanic‘s Marconi room to remove as much of the wireless gear as possible. A federal judge granted permission for the salvage operation last Friday, giving the company the green light to prepare an expedition for this summer. The US government, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service, argued strenuously to leave the wreck be and treat it as a tomb for the 1,527 victims. For our part, we had a great discussion about the merits in the comments section of the previous article. Now that it’s a done deal, we’d love to hear what you have to say about this again.

Although life appears to be slowly returning to what passes for normal, that doesn’t mean you might not still have some cycles to spare, especially when the time spent can bolster your skillset. And so if you’re looking to adding FPGAs to your resume, check out this remote lab on FPGA vision systems offered by Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University. The setup allows you to watch lectures, download code examples, and build them on your local computer, and then upload the resulting binaries to real hardware running on the lab’s servers in Germany. It sounds like a great way to get access to FPGA hardware that you’d otherwise have a hard time laying hands on. Or, you know, you could have just come to the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

Speaking of skill-builders, oscilloscope owners who want to sharpen their skills could do worse than to listen to the advice of a real scope jockey like Allen Wolke. He recently posted a helpful video listing the five most common reasons for your scope giving “wrong” voltage readings. Spoiler alert: the instrument is probably doing exactly what you told it to do. As a scope newbie, we found the insights very helpful, and we can imagine even seasoned users could make simple mistakes like using the wrong probe attenuation or forgetting that scope response isn’t flat across its bandwidth.

Safety tip for the gearheads among us: your jack stands might be unsafe to use. Harbor Freight, the stalwart purveyor of cheap tools, has issued a recall of two different models of its jack stands. It seems that the pawls can kick out under the right conditions, sending the supported load crashing to the ground. This qualifies as a Very Bad Day for anyone unlucky enough to be working underneath when it happens. Defective jack stands can be returned to Harbor Freight for store credit, so check your garage and be safe out there in the shop.

And finally, because everyone loves a good flame war, Ars Technica has come up with a pronunciation guide for common tech terms. We have to admit that most of these are not surprising; few among the technology literate would mispronounce “Linux” or “sudo”. We will admit to a non-fanboy level of ignorance on whether the “X” in “iOS X” was a Roman numeral or not, but learning that the “iOS” part is correctly pronounced as three syllables, not two was a bit shocking. It’s all an exercise in pedantry that reminds us of a mildly heated discussion we had around the secret Hackaday writers’ bunker and whether “a LED” or “an LED” is the correct style. If the Internet was made for anything, it was stuff like this.

A Wireless Controller For The Mostly Printed CNC

The Mostly Printed CNC (MPCNC) is an impressive project in its own right, allowing anyone with a 3D printer and some electrical conduit to build their own fairly heavy-duty CNC platform perfect for routing. Customization is the name of the game with the MPCNC, and few machines will look the same when they’re done. But even fewer will feature a control interface nearly as slick as the wireless handset that [Steve Croot] has put together for his.

On the hardware side, the project is fairly straightforward. Inside the 3D printed enclosure is a 4.3″ Nextion touchscreen, a Mega 2560 PRO microcontroller, a nRF24L01 2.4 GHz transceiver, and a 4000 mAh 3.7 V LiPo battery with appropriate charging circuit. Besides the physical toggle switch to turn the handheld on and off, all of the device’s functions are touch controlled. For the receiver side, [Steve] is using another nRF24L01 radio and microcontroller pair to toggle relays and shuffle the appropriate G-code commands around.

But what really makes this project shine is the software. As you can see in the video after the break, [Steve] has done an absolutely phenomenal job with the user interface on this controller. The themed boot screen and concise iconography give the controller a very professional look, and the ability to jog the machine around using taps on a virtual workspace helps keep the touch interface from being a gimmick.

We’ve seen some impressive custom-built CNC controllers over the years, but between the mostly off-the-shelf hardware used and impressive UI, we think [Steve] has created something unique. It looks like he’s keeping the source code to himself for the time being, but hopefully he sees fit to release it in the future; a project of this caliber deserves to become more than a one-off creation.

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Handheld MQTT Remote For Home Automation

If you’re working on a home automation project, you’re probably knee-deep into MQTT by now. If not, you should be. The lightweight messaging protocol is an ideal choice for getting your “Things” on the Internet, and controlling them all can be done easily through a simple web interface or an application on your mobile device. Or if you’re [serverframework], you make yourself a handsome little all-in-one MQTT remote.

The hardware here is pretty simple; inside there’s just a NodeMCU ESP8266 development board, some buttons, an RGB LED to give feedback, and a 3.7v 1200mAh LiPo battery with associated charging module. Everything is held inside a nice little wooden box that looks like it would fit right in with the living room decor. We’d like to see some kind of a cover over the exposed perfboard the circuit is assembled on, but that’s arguably a personal preference kind of thing.

Most of the magic in this project is actually happening on the software side. Not only does the provided source code handle all the MQTT communications with Home Assistant, but it provides a clever user interface that allows [serverframework] to perform 25 functions with just five buttons. No, you aren’t seeing things. There are actually six buttons on the device, but one of them is a dedicated “power” button that wakes the remote out of deep sleep.

If you’d like to learn more about getting this protocol working for you, our resident MQTT guru [Elliot Williams] has plenty of thoughts on the subject. From his talk at the 2017 Hackaday Supercon to his home automation tutorial series, there’s plenty of information to get you started.

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Cloned Gate Remote Does It (Slightly) Better

Ever make something just to see if you could? Yeah, we thought so. [serverframework] wanted to see if he could clone the remote that opens his neighborhood gate, inspired by the long distance ding-dong-ditch efforts of [Samy Kamkar].

This clone uses an ATtiny85 and an RF module to emulate and send the frequency that the gate is waiting for. To accomplish that, [serverframework] had to figure out both the operating frequency and the timing used by the remote. The crystal inside seemed to indicate 295 MHz, and a quick check of the device’s FCC registration confirmed it. Then he used an SDR dongle to watch the data coming across when he pressed the button, and ran it through Audacity to figure out the timing.

Unfortunately, the 295 MHz crystal is a rare beast, so [serverframework] had to transplant the original to the donor RF module. Then it was just a matter of programming the ATtiny85 to send the frequency with the right timing. It actually does a better job since the original has no timing crystal, and the ‘tiny is clocked with a standard 16 kHz oscillator. The code is available within [serverframework]’s excellent write-up, and you can see a tiny demo after the break.

There’s more than one way to clone a gate remote. This one leverages MQTT to turn friends’ phones into remotes.

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File Systems For Tiny Devices

Sometimes you build a computer and use it every day. Sometimes you build a different type of computer and it sits alone on a mountaintop for years. The design considerations for these two setups are remarkably different, right down to the type of file system used. For small computers like [Jo] is using, and for the amount of time they sit alone in remote locations, he decided to build his own file system for them.

Known as JesFs ([Jo]’s embedded serial File system), the file system is for SPI Flash and intended for use in scientific data logging. It can be used on the chip-scale processors found in many development boards, and is robust enough to use in applications where remoteness is a concern. It has a small RAM footprint, is completely open source, includes wear leveling, and has a number of security features built-in as well.

Some of the benefits of using a file system on such a tiny chip aren’t immediately obvious unless you’re doing a lot of data logging, but it does allow you to change virtually any aspect of the firmware much more easily if everything is accessible as a file, and not something you would have to change by reflashing the whole chip, for example. There are also a number of traps that you can easily fall into when working with file systems for tiny devices.

A New Way To Remote Terminal

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, collaborating with others across great distances has become pretty simple. It’s easy now to share computer desktops over a network connection, and even take control of another person’s computer if the need arises. But these graphical tools are often overkill, especially if all we really need is to share a terminal session with someone else over a network.

A new project from [Elis] allows just that: to share an active terminal session over a web browser for anyone else to view. The browser accesses a “secret” URL which grants access to the terminal via a tunnel which is able to live stream the entire session. The server end takes care of all of the work of generating this URL, and it is encrypted with TLS and HTTPS. It also allows for remote control as well as viewing, so it is exceptionally well-featured for being simple and easy to run.

To run this software only a binary is needed, but [Elis] has also made the source code available. Currently he finds it a much more convenient way of administering his Raspberry Pi, but we can see a lot of use for this beyond the occasional headless server. Certainly this makes remote administration easy, but could be used collaboratively among a large group of people as well.

Optimizing Screen Time To Heart Beats

Kids spend too much time in front of a screen these days. They also won’t get off my lawn, and music today is just a bunch of static. They don’t respect their elders, either. While kids today are terrible, we can fix that first problem — sitting in front of a screen all day. For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Donovan] has created a device that optimizes screen time to reduce sensory overload. It’s the Optimote, the combination of a remote control and biofeedback.

The idea behind the Optimote is to actually to reduce stimulation when watching something on a screen. For many people, including people on the autism spectrum, watching TV or YouTube videos can often result in debilitating sensory overload. You can’t relax in this state, you can’t learn, and you certainly can’t get any entertainment value out of the glowing rectangle in front of your face.

The Optimote uses a pulse sensor, an Arduino, an incredible break-away cable that seems to be missing from any other wearable device like this, and a software stack that interacts with VLC. During periods of high pulse rate, the video skips to low-intensity footage. There’s a ‘calm’ mode that puts media volume and tempo in sync with heart rate. The ‘thrill’ mode plays an eerie scene looping with the Jaws theme.

So far, the prototype is a success, and [Donovan] is looking forward to large-scale user experience testing to determine how effective and enjoyable this technology can become.