Hacker Heroism: Building Your Way Out of AV Hell

Many years ago, in a rainy concrete jungle on the west coast of Australia, I worked for a medium-sized enterprise doing a variety of office-based tasks. Somehow, I found myself caught up in planning a product launch event outside the official remit of my position. We got through it, but not before the audiovisual (AV) setup of the event turned into one giant hack.

The initial planning stages went remarkably smoothly until less than a month out from the big day when three weeks of frantic changes and revisions to the presentation rained down. These were some of the hardest days of my working life to date, as it seemed that we would lock in a new arrangement, only to tear it up days later as some new vital criteria came to light, throwing everything back into disarray.

Things came to a head on the night before the event. Working with two different AV teams we had planned for four projection screens and five flat screen televisions spread throughout the venue and controlled from the central AV desk. But somewhere in all those changes the televisions were set up to all display a still image, or nothing at all. I needed to show different videos on each and have the ability to black them all out.

It was at this point I realized we were screwed. The production team simply didn’t have the hardware to drive another five screens, but they could source it — for the sum of $5000. Management were furious, and were under the impression, like myself that this was what we had asked and paid for already. I was at an impasse, and beginning to wonder if I’d have a job come Monday. I wandered off to a corner to curse, and more importantly, think. After all, I’m a hacker — I can get through this.

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RADAR Controlled Speakers

[Scott] had a simple problem – he was tired of leaning over his work bench to change the volume on his speakers. He desired a system that would readily allow him to switch the speakers on and off from a more comfortable distance. Not one to settle for the more conventional solutions available, [Scott] whipped up a RADAR-activated switch for his speaker system.

The build relies on a surprisingly cost-effective RADAR module available off the shelf, running in the 5.8GHz spectrum. At under $10, it’s no big deal to throw one of these into a project that requires some basic distance sensing. [Scott] decided to keep things simple – instead of going with a full-fat microcontroller to control the speakers, a 74HC590 IC was used to create a latch. Each time the RADAR module senses an object in close proximity, it toggles the state of the latch. The latch then controls a transistor that switches the power for the speakers.

Overall it’s a build that combines a modern integrated RADAR module with some very simple control logic to create a functional build. Of course, there’s so much more you can do with some 74-series logic. Video after the break.

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Microswitches: Past the Tipping Point

You find them everywhere from 3D printers to jet airliners. They’re the little switches that detect paper jams in your printer, or the big armored switches that sense when the elevator car is on the right floor. They’re microswitches, or more properly miniature snap-action switches, and they’re so common you may never have wondered what’s going on inside them. But the story behind how these switches were invented and the principle of physics at work in the guts of these tiny and useful switches are both pretty interesting.

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Oscillating Fan Controller Used As Relay

The most brilliant hacks we see aren’t always the thousand-dollar, multi-year projects spanning every facet of engineering. Rather, the most ingenious projects are ones that take an everyday thing and use it in a simple but revolutionary way. By that measure, it’ll be hard to top [Robert]’s latest hack which uses the controller board from an everyday oscillating fan to build a three-way remote-controlled relay board.

Most oscillating fans have a speed selector switch. What that does might be somewhat different between different types of fan, but in general it will select either a smaller portion of the fan’s motor to energize or switch in a resistor which will have the same speed-lowering effect. [Robert]’s fan had little more than a triple-throw switch on the control board, so when he decided the fan wasn’t worth keeping anymore, he was able to re-purpose the control board into a general-use relay. As a bonus, the fan could be controlled by infrared, so he can also remote control whatever he decides to plug into his new piece of equipment.

While this simple hack might not change the world, it may give anyone with an old fan some ideas for other uses for its parts. If you want to do a little more work and get the fan itself running again, though, it is possible to rebuild the whole thing from the ground up as well.

Fidget Pyramid with Help From a 2500 Pound Robot

Depending on whom you ask, fidgeting is an unsightly habit or a necessity for free-form ideation. Fan of the latter hypothesis? Well, why aren’t you making yourself a fidget pyramid?

[lignum] sculpted his fidget toy out of a chunk of 2000 year old bog-oak using hand tools and a little precision help from a Kuka KR 150 industrial robot arm. A push button, a toggle switch, a ball-bearing, and a smooth side provide mindless distraction on this piece.

Two plates of 1.5mm aluminium — also cut using the robot arm — are used to attach the button and toggle to the tetrahedron, while the ball bearing is pushed onto a cylindrical protrusion left during the cutting process for the purpose. The build video makes it look easy.

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Illuminating New Take on Magnetic Switches

While there’s something to be said for dead-bug construction, hot glue, and other construction methods that simply get the job done, it’s inspiring to see other builds that are refined and intentional but that still hack together things for purposes other than their original intent. To that end, [Li Zanwen] has designed an interesting new lamp that uses magnets to turn itself on in a way that seems like a magnetic switch of sorts, but not like any we’ve ever seen before.

While the lamp does use a magnetic switch, it’s not a traditional switch at all. There are two magnetic balls on this lamp attached by strings. One hangs from the top of the circular lamp and the other is connected to the bottom. When this magnet is brought close to the hanging magnet, the magnetic force is enough to both levitate the lower magnet, and pull down on a switch that’s hidden inside the lamp which turns it on. The frame of the lamp is unique in itself, as the lights are arranged on the inside of the frame to illuminate the floating magnets.

While we don’t typically feature design hacks, it’s good to see interesting takes on common things. After all, you never know what’s going to inspire your next hackathon robot, or your next parts drawer build. All it takes is one spark of inspiration to get your imagination going!

Diodes: The Switch You Never Knew You Had

Vishay's take on the 1N4148 data sheet (PDF), describing it as a switching diode.
Vishay’s take on the 1N4148 data sheet (PDF), describing it as a switching diode.

When looking across the discrete components in your electronic armory, it is easy to overlook the humble diode. After all, one can be forgiven for the conclusion that the everyday version of this component doesn’t do much. They have none of the special skills you’d find in tunnel, Gunn, varicap, Zener, and avalanche diodes, or even LEDs, instead they are simply a one-way valve for electrical current. Connect them one way round and current flows, the other and it doesn’t. They rectify AC to DC, power supplies are full of them. Perhaps you’ve also used them to generate a stable voltage drop because they have a pretty constant voltage across them when current is flowing, but that’s it. Diodes: the shortest Hackaday article ever.

Not so fast with dismissing the diode though. There is another trick they have hiding up their sleeves, they can also act as a switch. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, after all a quick look at many datasheets for general purpose diodes should reveal their description as switching diodes.

So how does a diode switch work? The key lies in that one-way valve we mentioned earlier. When the diode is forward biased and conducting electricity it will pass through any variations in the voltage being put into them, but when it is reverse biased and not conducting any electricity it will not. Thus a signal can be switched on by passing it through a diode in forward bias, and then turned off by putting the diode into reverse bias.

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