2022 Sci-Fi Contest: The Winners Are In

The Sci-Fi Contest closed out on Monday, and we put our heads together and picked our favorites. And it was no easy task, because in addition to many of the projects simply looking stellar, many went all-out on the documentation as well, making these stellar examples that we can all learn from, whether you’re into sci-fi or not. But who are we kidding? From the responses we got, you are.

The Winners

[RubenFixit]’s Star Trek Shuttle Console is a Trek themed escape room in a box. The project’s extraordinary attention to detail and exhaustive project logs absolutely won our judges heart. From the LCARS graphics to the 3D printed isolinear chip bays and mimetic crystals, it’s all there. [Ruben] estimates about 300 hours of work went into this one, and it shows.

We had no shortage of robotic projects in the contest, but [RudyAramayo]’s R.O.B. won our judges over. This one is not a joke, weighing in at over 140 lbs of custom metalwork and righteous treads. It’s also made out of some expensive hardware all around, so maybe this isn’t your weekend-build robot. We love the comment on the Arduino test code suite: “For gods sake man, you must test your code when it becomes an autonomous vehicle.”

Finally, [zapwizard]’s Functional Razor Crest Control Lever is a prop and a video game controller in one. We can totally see Grogu playing with this, and we were wowed by the attention to detail in the physical build — with custom gears and a speed limiter — as well as the attention to prop-making detail. Some parts are custom-cut stainless steel plates. 3D printed parts are covered in aluminum tape and chemically aged. Awesome. Oh yeah, it’s also a working USB joystick.

These three winners will be receiving a $150 shopping spree at Digi-Key.

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Movie Prop Electronics Hack Chat Takes Us Behind The Scenes

It’s no surprise that the hacking and making community has traditionally had something of a love affair with movie props, especially those of the science fiction variety. Over the years we’ve seen folks put untold hours into incredible recreations of their favorite pieces of fictional gear — and by the time this post goes out, our 2022 Sci-Fi Contest will be entering into the final stretch. So it’s a safe bet that if you make your living by creating the electronics behind all that Hollywood movie magic, you’ll find ours to be an especially welcoming community.

We were fortunate enough to see this in action this week when Ben Eadie stopped by to host the Hack Chat. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s been living out what most of us would consider a dream, having worked on films from iconic franchises such as Star Trek and Predator. But perhaps his most enviable credit is that of propmaster for 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, where he got the chance to work on the proton packs and ghost traps; arguably some of the most well-known props in the history of cinema.

Not bad for a guy who only recently got in the game. Ben spent 20 years working as an aerounatical engineer until a friend from his local maker space mentioned they were working on a film and could use a hand. Suddenly he found himself behind the scenes of Star Trek: Beyond in 2015, helping to design and fabricate one of the largest rotating sets ever made. He figures he must have done something right, because Hollywood has been calling ever since.

This anecdote about his first time working on a feature film helped answer what many wanted to know early on in the Chat, which was how one manages to get into the prop and special effects industry. Ben once again confirmed a truth well known to this community: that what you’re capable of is far more important than where you went to school and what you studied. There’s not a lot of formal education out there that can train you to make the impossible possible, and Ben says the majority of his day-to-day knowledge came from a lifetime of fiddling around with electronics. In fact, he attributes much of his professional success with hanging out in maker spaces, reading Hackaday, and watching YouTube. If that’s the recipe, then we should all be in pretty good shape.

Over the last few years, Ben has been trying to pay that forward by documenting some of the tricks of the trade on his own YouTube channel. In a particularly interesting piece of marketing on Sony’s part, some of Ben’s videos have even been featured on the official Ghostbusters YouTube channel as part of a “Maker Monday” series. In fact, we first got in contact with Ben when he left a comment on our coverage of his “PKE  Meter” prop build. This is the kind of advertisement we can get behind, and wish more companies would embrace the hacker and maker culture with this kind of interactive content. Ben says the best way to make initiatives like this more popular is to consume it — if Sony sees people watching and sharing this kind of content, hopefully more will follow.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hack Chat unless some arcane compartmentalized technical knowledge was dished out. In this case, several of the questions were about the unique challenges posed by operating custom electronics on a movie set. For example, Ben says he always uses addressable LEDs controlled by the APA102 chip as it offers an external clock pin that he can feed with a different frequency to avoid on-screen flickering. The radio spectrum also tends to be pretty noisy on set, so if at all possible, you want to make sure your gear has a wired connection. Otherwise, you’ll need to get intimately acquainted with what other RF signals are being used on set so as not to interfere with the production.

Ben’s creations include the Remote Trap Vehicle (RTV) from Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

But while some of the challenges he has to deal with might seem pretty foreign to us, the technology itself is in some cases more familiar than you might think. It turns out there’s plenty of Sparkfun and Adafruit gear behind the scenes, with Ben specifically mentioning the Feather nRF52 as one of his go-to microcontrollers. Sometimes the graybeards on set grumble about his “consumer grade” tech, but when his gear is up and running in half the time, it’s usually he who gets the last laugh.

Towards the end of the Chat, Ben says the most important thing he’s learned over the years is to always have backups. His motto is “One is None”, and if he can help it, he usually builds four of everything: that gives him two to learn from, and a pair to actually use for whatever the project is. Even if our own projects don’t quite rise to the level of a key prop from a summer blockbuster, there’s no certainly no harm in being prepared.

We want to thank Ben Eadie for taking the time to talk with the community and sharing some of his fascinating stories and tips with us. At the risk of sounding a bit sappy, stories like his are what motivates us here at Hackaday. If we can provide even a small part of the what it takes to help people like Ben achieve their goals, that’s reason enough for us to keep the lights on.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

Improving An Already Phenomenal Star Trek Prop

When Star Trek: Voyager was in the development phase, concept art was created for a new style of tricorder to be used by the crew of the titular starship. But as it often the case with a younger sibling, the show ended up having to largely make do with the hand-me-down props from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had recently finished its TV run.

Trek aficionado [Mangy_Dog] completed a jaw-dropping recreation of this unused tricorder design back in 2019, but unable to leave well enough alone, he’s recently completed a second version that truly raises the bar for fan replicas. It’s not hyperbole to say that the prop he’s created is of a far higher quality and fidelity than anything they would have had during the actual filming of the show.

Now you might be thinking that building the second version of the tricorder was easier than the first, and indeed, [Mangy_Dog] learned some important lessons from the earlier build. But that’s not to say that construction of this new replica, which was actually done on commission, went off without a hitch. In fact, he almost immediately ran into a serious problem. When he attempted to order a new display from Nextion, he found the quality had dropped significantly from the ones he’d used previously. The viewing angles and color reproduction were abysmal, so he was forced to go back to the drawing board and not only find a new display, but a completely new graphics chip to talk to it. Continue reading “Improving An Already Phenomenal Star Trek Prop”

The Most Important Device In The Universe on display at Modern Props

The Most Important Device In The Universe Is Powered By A 555 Timer

The Hackaday comments section has become infamous for a recurring theme that goes something like “I don’t know why they used an Arduino, they could have done it with a 555 timer!” If you’ve ever thought the same way, then this post is for you!

What is The Most Important Device In The Universe, then? It’s the Modern Props #195-290-1, a movie prop originally built in the 1970’s. It’s a product of the creative mind of [John Zabrucky] who founded Modern Props in 1977 to serve Sci-Fi television and movie productions that wanted to invent the future with their props. Known for their high quality and impeccable craftsmanship, Modern Props’ products were in demand until the day they closed the doors so that [John] could retire.

This particular piece is called The Most Important Device In The Universe due to its ubiquity in modern productions that we’ve all heard of: several Star Trek franchises, The Last Starfighter, Knight Rider, Airplane II, Austin Powers, and countless others. The next time you sit down to watch a Sci-Fi show, see if you can spot it! Be sure to check the video below the break to see several examples.

Nobody is sure what The Most Important Device does, aside from the fact that it has red lights that go back and forth. What we do know, thanks to a comment by the man who installed the electronics, [Gene Turnbow], is how it’s powered. [Gene] explained that 45w NPN power transistors drive the neon tubes through step up transformers. The transistors themselves are connected to a 74C4514 demultiplexer, which is itself driven by a 7493 binary counter. What’s the 7493 driven by? You guessed it: the venerable 555 Timer. And so it is that the 555 timer runs The Most Important Device In The Universe.

We did think that [Gene]’s final comment was rather indicative of how much things have changed since the prop was originally built. After explaining the device, he says “These days we would just use an Arduino to do the same job.” Indeed.

Don’t worry, 555 lovers. We’ve got you covered with this Vacuum Tube 555, and and the Trollduino, a 555 on an Arduino Shield. Thanks [Matt K] for the great tip. Don’t forget to submit your favorite hacks to our Tip Line!

Continue reading “The Most Important Device In The Universe Is Powered By A 555 Timer”

Miata Sci-Fi Digital Dash

One of the hardest, but sometimes best, things you can do for a project is to walk away. [Jroobi] had spent hundreds of hours crafting the digital dash for his MX5 Miata (video, embedded below) and after spending far too long chasing down I2C bugs, he made the difficult decision to step away for a while. However, as of May 2021, [Jroobi] returned to the project and found a power supply was under-specified and was causing brownouts that resulted in crashes.

All in all, it’s an incredible work of engineering. Everything from the massive codebase that describes all the different states to the tasteful graphic design is masterfully done. The Star-Trek-inspired theme and attention to detail really show in the different modes on the tachometer. The dynamic soft RPM limit based on engine temperature is particularly ingenious.

Under the hood of this custom dash are two Ardunios running the show. The center media console offers more controls with a generous touch screen while the instrument cluster shows most of the data. They talk over I2C to each other and communicate with other parts in the car, such as the RGB cabin lighting and the TEIN electronic suspension dampeners. Fuel and temperature levels come in as voltage levels which can be read via an ADC. The gear position is calculated based on RPMs and speed given the wheel size and the transmission in the vehicle.

It is a phenomenal labor of love and if you’re inspired to further upgrade your Miata you might want to see how to put carbs on the engine or RGB light rings in the instruments. Continue reading “Miata Sci-Fi Digital Dash”

What Every Geek Must Know

How is it possible that there’s a geek culture? I mean, it’s one thing to assume that all folks of a nerdy enough bent will know a little Ohm’s law, can fake their way through enough quantum mechanics to at least be interesting at a cocktail party, and might even have a favorite mnemonic for the resistor colors or the angles involved in sine, cosine, and tangents. But how is it that we all know the answer to life, the universe, and everything?

Mike and I were podcasting a couple of weeks back, and it came out that he’d never played Starcraft. I was aghast! Especially since he’s into video games in general, to have not played the seminal 3-way-without-being-rock-scissors-paper game! My mind boggled. But then again, there was a time in my life when I hadn’t actually read all of Dune or Cryptonomicon, which would have left Mike’s jaw on the floor.

Whether you prefer Star Trek or Star Wars, the Matrix or the Hobbit, it’s even more surprising that we have so much in common! And thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that exactly our interchange is the reason — it’s a word of mouth culture thing. Some folks at the hackerspace are talking about Cthulu, and chances are you’re going to be reading some Lovecraft. An argument about the plausibility of the hacks in The Martian has sent at least a couple of geeks to the cinema or the library. And so it goes.

So do your part! Share your geek-culture recommendations with us all in the comments. If you were stranded on a desert island, with a decent bookshelf and maybe even a streaming video service, what’s on your top-10 list? What do you still need to see, read, or hear?

Enterprise Helm Commands The Entertainment Center

Many a young geek wished they could get a chance to sit at the helm of the USS Enterprise, wildly tapping on unlabeled technicolor buttons with the self-assured confidence of a proper Starfleet officer. For most of us it was a dream unrealized, but right now somebody in the Seattle, Washington area is getting to do exactly that in their media room. We won’t deny being jealous, but at least our collective egos can take some comfort in the knowledge that they had to outsource the construction of their replica helm to the fine folks at [Blackmouth Design].

There’s not a lot of technical details to be had, but considering the page for this project is only meant to show off the company’s design and fabrication skills, we can’t blame them too much. If we were in the business of selling these things, we’d probably keep some of the juicer details under wraps too.

But we do know there’s “Arduino technology” under the hood that fires up different light and sound effects depending on which of the vintage rocker switches has been flipped. The red momentary buttons lined up on the right side of the coffee table sized panel are tied into the home media center to do things like turn off the lights and lower the projector screen. Check out the video below for a brief demo.

In a post on Reddit, one of the engineers behind the project explains that the top surface of the helm is 3/16″ powder coated aluminum, with the plywood that makes up the base laminated in the classic Original Series color scheme of red, grey, and black. The artwork for the astrogator was created from scratch, backlit with LEDs, and placed behind a 1/4″ acrylic panel for protection. We imagine the fact that it’s parallel to the ground means it’s supposed to be a space to place your drinks or popcorn, though if it was in our house, nobody would be bringing food or drink anywhere near it.

In all honesty, while Hackaday is decidedly more about building than buying, we can’t fault anyone for forking over their hard earned cash for craftsmanship of this caliber. After all, we’ve had our eyes on that officially licensed tricorder replica for quite some time now.

Continue reading Enterprise Helm Commands The Entertainment Center”