Packing a Lot Into a Little PCB: Winners of the Square Inch Project

It is mind-boggling when you think about the computing power that fits in the palm of your hand these days. It wasn’t long ago when air-conditioned rooms with raised floors hosted computers far less powerful that filled the whole area. Miniaturization is certainly the order of the day. Things are getting smaller every day, too. We were so impressed with the minuscule entries from the first “Square Inch Project” — a contest challenging designers to use 1 inch2 of PCB or less — that we decided bring it back with the Return of the Square Inch Project. The rules really were simple: build something with a PCB that was a square inch.

Grand Prize

It was hard to pick, but there can only be one grand prize winner. This time around that honor goes to [Danny FR] for a very small smart motor driver for robotics. The little board takes an I2C link to a microcontroller and does PID control with RPM feedback. No need for an H-bridge or any sophisticated control electronics — that’s all onboard.

The board is a great fit for a motor and makes it easy to build moving projects. That was the grand prize, but there were some other great entries that won in specific categories, too.

Best Project

[Drix] likes to know where things are. The Hive Tracker uses laser “lighthouses” that sweep across the room. A special microcontroller with a dedicated hardware block reads the laser light and triangulates its position relative to the lighthouses with a great deal of precision. A picture’s worth a thousand words, so:

The high-speed reading of the lasers uses “Programmable Peripheral Interconnect” — a feature of a Nordic BLE microcontroller that lets the chip read timestamps in hardware without interrupting the processor. The little boards hook up to a hub board which is also pretty small.

We’re hackers, so we think a few bare PCBs connected to another PCB can be artistic. But most people have something different in mind.

Best Artistic Project

If you hang out at Hackaday.io much, you’ll recognize [ꝺeshipu] and his entry was one of those things that you immediately know you could use, but also brings a little smile to your face when you use it. How often do you need to plug some LEDs into a breadboard? Why not do it with a Rainbow Jellyfish?

The circuit operation should be obvious. We really liked the color-coded wiring. You could probably use at least two of these so they could keep each other company. You could probably even use this as part of a badge.

Best Social Media Award

Speaking of badges, [nwmaker] built a badge that looks like another animal — an owl called PurpleSnowy. Again, the circuit is simple enough, but what caught our eye on this project was how well the social media promotion of it was. Maybe cute owls are just easier to go viral, but we liked it.

Best Documentation

[Kris Winer] (remember that name), built a very high-tech spectrometer project. Not only was it small in size, but at $25 it was also small in price. The project used the AMS AS7265X 3-chip set to provide an 18 channel, 20 nm FWHM spectrometer. The documentation was very well done and we were impressed with the fitment of the chips on the board.

Many Runners-Up

We had so many great entries that it was hard to pick so we named several runners-up.

[Greg Davill’s] Bosun frame grabber that uses an FPGA to capture images from a FLIR Boson camera.

[Kris Winer’s] high-tech $25 spectrometer project (from above) was also runner-up, and [Kris] was also recognized for sensors that can smell and hear.

If you want something less science-related, the Rotovis-Mod1 by [zakqwy] makes it easier to build persistence of vision displays. Of course, as hackers, we love an oscilloscope and [Mark Omo’s] 20 msps scope that fits in one inch caught our imagination for making some really cool instrument panels.

You really should look at all the entries — they were amazing. [Kris] really went all out, taking two runner up slots and the best documentation prize.

Recap:

Speaking of prizes, The grand prize was $500, and the other prizes received $100 Tindie gift certificates. Thanks to OSH Park, the runner ups also got $100 OSH Park gift cards — that’s a lot of one inch PCBs.

Will this be our last inch square contest? The magic 8 ball says probably not, so don’t stop thinking small and look for your chance to enter your design in the next contest.

Packing 10 into 1: A Square Inch Dekatron Replacement

One of the things that always attracts our eye in old movies is how many kinds of displays you see on old gear both real and imaginary. Really old stuff usually had meters or circular recorders. But slightly newer movies often had some kind of exotic digital display with Nixes or Numitron tubes. One of the really exotic display devices was a Dekatron. While these are pretty rare, you can make a stand-in using modern LEDs and [Dave] did just that in an entry into our square inch competition.

These were gas-filled tubes with ten positions. You had to reset the tube and then the tube would visibly count pulses providing a visual indicator from zero to nine. Depending on the tube configuration, you could use them to count or to act as a divider. Those with neon fill looked sort of orange, although there were argon-based ones that had a purple glow. You can see what an older version of the board looks like in the video below or skip to the second video if you want to see the real ones in action.

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Less is More: A Micromatrix Display in a Square Inch

In your living room, the big display is what you want. But in an embedded project, often less is more. We think [bobricius] will agree since he submitted a tiny 4×5 LED display into our square inch challenge. The board features an ATtiny CPU and twenty SMD LEDs in a nice grid. You can see them in action, scrolling to some disco music in the video below.

There is plenty of room left in the CPU for bigger text strings — the flash memory is just over 10% full. A little side-mounted header makes it easy to program the chip if you want to change anything.

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The Square-Inch Project Rides Again!

Want to play a game? Your challenge is to do something incredible with a printed circuit board that measures no more than one inch by one inch. It’s The Return of the One Square Inch Project and it’s going to be amazing!

We can’t believe that it’s been three years! The original One Square Inch Project was a contest dreamt up by Hackaday.io user [alpha_ninja] back in 2015, and we thought it was such a great idea that we ponied up some prizes. The entries were, frankly, the best we’ve ever seen. So we’re doing it again!

Last time around, the size constraint focused the minds and brought out the creativity in some of the best and brightest of Hackaday.io. What functionality or simply amusement can you pack into a square PCB that’s just a tad over 25 mm on a side? We’d like to see.

We’ll be featuring entries throughout the contest. We think geek ‘cred is the best reward but if you want something more to sweeten the pot here you go:

  • Grand Prize:

    • $500 Cash!
  • Four Top Entries Win Tindie Gift Certificates:

    • Best Project – $100
    • Best Artistic PCB Design – $100
    • Best Project Documentation – $100
    • Best Social Media Picture or Video – $100
  • Five Runner-Up Entries:

    • $100 OSH Park gift cards
Quadcopter in One Inch

Want some inspiration? Last time the winner was a quadcopter in one square inch, but there were tons of useful and amusing projects crammed into tight quarters, and many of them transcend their constraints. There were not one but two hi-fi sound cards: one for your laptop’s USB port and one for your microcontroller projects that is now officially supported by the Teensy Audio Library. Need a MPPT power converter for a small solar project? How about a plug-load meter that fits on a US mains plug or an I2C to WS2818 converter to make blinking easier?

There were breakout boards for nearly every imaginable chip, a radio downconverter from our own [Jenny List], and a great magnetic rotary encoder design. Key Pass, an Arduino in the size of a DIP-8, and of course a bat detector, a bubble display volt meter, a smart watch, and a capacitive touch wheel.

It’s been three years, and parts have gotten cheaper, smaller, and more capable. What’s newly feasible in a square inch that wasn’t way back in 2015? Show us what you got.

The Square Inch Project

For the last few years, Hackaday has been putting together some amazing contests. We gave away a trip to space, but the winner took the money instead. We gave away another trip to space, but those winners took the money instead. But we had a ton of fun along the way and are glad to see some others are getting in on the action. In September, a contest appeared out of the blue on hackaday.io. It is the Square Inch Project, a contest with the goal of stuffing the most electronics on a square inch of printed circuit board.

This wasn’t a contest designed, planned, or organized by anyone in charge here; this is a completely organic competition arranged and implemented by the hackaday.io community. A few months ago, a few notable hackaday.io people just decided to have a contest. Awesome.

OSHPark was kind enough to give out credits for PCBs as prizes, a we added in a few gift certificates to the Hackaday Store. Apparently that’s all you need to get a lot of people making a lot of cool stuff.

There are a lot of really great entries – far too many to cover in a single post – but you’ll find a few great ones below.

Continue reading “The Square Inch Project”