Hacked Calipers Make Automated Measurements A Breeze

Now, digital calipers with wired interfaces to capture the current reading are nothing new. But the good ones are expensive, and really, where’s the fun in plugging a $75 cable into a computer? So when [Max Holliday] was asked to trick out some calipers for automating data capture, he had to get creative.

[Max] found that cheap Harbor Freight digital calipers have the telltale door that covers a serial connector, making them a perfect target for hacking. A little Internet sleuthing revealed the pinout for the connector as well as some details on the serial protocol used by most digital calipers: 24-bit packets is six four-bit words. [Max] used his SAM32, a neat open-source board with both a SAMD51 and an ESP32 that can run CircuitPython. An inverting buffer interfaces the serial lines to the board, which is just the right size to mount on the back of the caliper head. It’s hard to tell how [Max] is triggering readings, but the SAM32 is mounted as a USB device and sends keystrokes directly to a spreadsheet – yes, with the ESP32 it could have been wireless, but his client specifically requested a wired setup. Taking multiple readings is easy now that the user never has to swap calipers for a pen.

Cheap calipers like these are pretty hackable – you can add Bluetooth, turn them into DROs for a milling machine, or even make them talk.

Vintage Speech Synthesizer Croons The Oldies

If you listened to the National Weather Service Weather Radio in the US about 25 years ago, you’ll no doubt remember [Perfect Paul], one of the synthesized voices used to read current conditions and weather forecasts. The voice came from a DECtalk DTC01, a not inexpensive voice synthesizer first made in 1984 that also gave voice to [Stephen Hawking] for many years.

Long obsolete, the DECtalk boxes have a devoted following with hobbyists who like to stretch what the device can do. Some even like to make it sing, after a fashion, and [Michael] decided that making a DECtalk sing “Xanadu”, the theme song from the 1980 [Olivia Newton-John] musical extravaganza, was a good idea. Whether it actually was is debatable, and we’ll take exception with having that particular ditty stuck in our head as a result, but we don’t judge except on the merits of the hack.

It’s actually easy if you have a DECtalk; the song is a straight ASCII file with remarkably concise instructions on which phonemes the box needs to generate. Along with inflection, tone, and timing instructions, the text file looks almost completely unlike English while still somehow being readable. The DECtalk accepts the file over RS-232, which would be easy enough to do with a modern computer, but [Michael] upped his game a bit by using a TRS-80 Model 100 computer as a serial terminal. The synthesized song is in the video below, with the original included for reference by those who didn’t experience endure the late disco-era glory days.

DECtalks seem pretty rare in the wild, so we appreciate this glimpse at what they can do. There are other retro speech synthesizer hacks, though: the simulated walnut goodness of the Votrax and the MicroVox come to mind, as does the venerable TI Speak and Spell.

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SerialPlot Does Exactly What You Think It Does

The serial port remains a hacker staple, being one of the easiest ways to move a little bit of data from one machine to another. All manner of projects use the interface, and often, sensors are connected and their data read over such connections. In these cases, it can be useful to plot said data, and SerialPlot is a tool that can do just that.

SerialPlot is capable of reading data over several serial ports at once, and plotting it for your viewing pleasure. It’s capable of interpreting data in a variety of integer and float formats, and plotting multiple channels in a synchronised manner. It’s also capable of sending basic commands out over the serial port, which can be used to trigger or control attached equipment.

Overall, it’s a useful utility for anyone with an array of sensor’s connected over the most classic of interfaces. Of course, if you’re having trouble keeping track of all your serial ports, there’s a utility to help with that, too.

Windows Utility Helps ID Serial Ports

The humble serial interface has been around for a very long time, and will stay with us in one form or other for the foreseeable future. It was easy enough to keep track of back in the days when a computer only had one, or perhaps two COM ports. However, in this day and age of USB-programmable microcontrollers, it’s likely you’ve got COMs coming out the wazoo. Thankfully, [Amr Bekhit] has put together a utility to help solve this problem.

[Amr’s] utility is called Serial Port Monitor, and it does what it says on the tin. When new serial ports are enumerated in Device Manager, a system tray notification pops up noting the number of the newly attached COM port. Additionally, it maintains a list of ports sorted in order of the newest first, and also features a right-click menu that allows the launching of various terminal programs.

It’s a useful tool to keep in your back pocket that can prove particularly so when programming many devboards at once, or any other time when you find yourself dealing with a mess of serial devices.

Incidentally, if you find yourself having continual headaches with USB-to-Serial adapters on Windows, this might just be your problem. Happy hacking.

Footnote: In light of this article, the author would like to formally apologise to [Cosmos2000] for permanently disabling COM1 on his main programming rig. Sorry, friend.

Vintage Terminal Converted For Galactic Use In Time For May The Fourth

“Not as clumsy or random as Windows. An elegant terminal, for a more civilized age.” [Ben Kenobi] might well have said that about the Hewlett-Packard 264x-series of serial terminals, in use starting at just about the time the original installment of the Star Wars franchise was released.  With their wide-screen CRTs and toaster-oven aesthetic, they were oddballs in the terminal market, and [CuriousMarc] has gone and made one even odder by converting an H-P 2645A to display the Aurebesh character set from the movies.

A look under the hood of this lovely bit of retrocomputing history makes one think the designers almost foresaw the need to add support for a made-up language nearly half a century later. The terminal has a backplane and bus for pluggable cards, one of which carries the ROMs that [Marc] extracted and reprogrammed with the Aurebesh characters. He had a little trouble at first, needing to bodge the chip select and forgetting that he had made other “special modifications” to the terminal. The video below shows the results, along with some fatherly mortification of his daughters and a suitable tribute to the lately late [Peter Mayhew], he who donned the Wookiee suit and made a seven-foot space Sasquatch lovable.

Need more for you “May the Fourth” fix? How about a clumsy and random blaster, a cosplay speeder bike, or a fleet of droids?

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New Part Day: Lynxmotion Smart Servos

Anyone who shops for robotics kits would have come across a few designed by Lynxmotion. They’ve been helping people build robots since 1995, from robot arm kits to hexapod chassis and everything in between. We would expect these people know their motors, so when they launched their own line of servo motors called Lynxmotion Smart Servos (LSS), it is worth spending a bit of time to look over what they offer.

While these new devices have a PWM mode compatible with classic remote control servos, unleashing their full power requires bidirectional communication over a serial bus. We’ve previously given an overview of three serial bus servos already on the market for comparison. A quick look at the $68-$100 price tags listed on Lynxmotion’s parent company RobotShop made it clear they do not intend to compete on price, so what interesting features do these new kids on the block have?

Digging into product documentation found some great details. Acceleration and deceleration rates are adjustable, which can help with smoother robot movement. There’s also an adjustable level of “stiffness” that adds some “give” (compliance) so a robot won’t have to be as stiff as… well, a robot!

Mechanically, the most interesting internal component is the magnetic position sensor. They are far more precise than potentiometers, but more importantly, they allow positioning anywhere within full 360 degrees. Many other serial bus servos are constrained to positions within an arc less than 360 degrees leaving a blind spot.

An interesting quirk of the LSS offerings is that the serial communication protocol uses human-readable text characters, so sending a number 255 means transmitting a three byte string ‘2’, ‘5’, and ‘5’ instead of single byte 0xFF. This would make debugging our custom robot code far easier, at the cost of reduced bandwidth efficiency and loss of checksum for detecting communication errors. It’s a trade-off that some robot builders would be happy to make, but others might not.

Externally, these servos have bountiful mounting options including some we didn’t know to ask for. Historically Lynxmotion kits have used a wide variety of servo mounting brackets, so they are motivated to make mechanical integration easy. The most novel offering is the ability to bolt external gears to the servo body. A set of 1:3 gears allow for gearing the servo up or down, or you can use a set of 1:1 gears for a compact gripper.

As you’d expect of servos in this price range, they all have metal gears, but they also have the ability to power the motor directly from a battery pack (a 3 cell lithium polymer is recommended). There are additional features, like an RGB LED for visual feedback, which we didn’t cover here so dig into the documentation for more. We look forward to seeing how these interesting little actuators perform in future robotics projects.

All You Need To Know About I2S

Last month we marked the 40th birthday of the CD, and it was as much an obituary as a celebration because those polycarbonate discs are fast becoming a rarity. There is one piece of technology from the CD age that is very much still with us though, and it lives on in the standard for sending serial digital audio between chips. The protocol is called I2S and comes as a hardware peripheral on many microcontrollers. It’s a surprisingly simple interface that’s quite easy to work with and thus quite hackable, so it’s worth a bit of further investigation.

It’s A Simple Enough Interface

Don’t confuse this with the other Philips Semiconductor protocol: I2C. Inter-Integrated Circuit protocol has the initials IIC, and the double letter was shortened to come up with the “eye-squared-see” nomenclature we’ve come to love from I2C. Brought to life in 1982, this predated I2S by four years which explains the somewhat strange abbreviation for “Inter-Integrated Circuit Sound”.

The protocol has stuck around because it’s very handy for dealing with the firehose of serial data associated with high-quality digital audio. It’s so handy that you’ve likely heard of it being used for other purposes than audio, which I’ll get to in a little bit. But first, what does I2S actually do?

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