Building A Communications Grid With LoRaType

Almost all of modern society is built around various infrastructure, whether that’s for electricity, water and sewer, transportation, or even communication. These vast networks aren’t immune from failure though, and at least as far as communication goes, plenty will reach for a radio of some sort to communicate when Internet or phone services are lacking. It turns out that certain LoRa devices are excellent for local communication as well, and this system known as LoraType looks to create off-grid text-based communications networks wherever they might be needed.

The project is based around the ESP32 platform with an E22 LoRa module built-in to allow it to operate within its UHF bands. It also includes a USB-based battery charger for its small battery, an e-paper display module to display the text messages without consuming too much power, and a keyboard layout for quickly typing messages. The device firmware lets it be largely automated; it will seek out other devices on the local mesh network automatically and the user can immediately begin communicating with other devices on that network as soon as it connects.

There are a few other upsides of using a device like this. Since it doesn’t require any existing communications infrastructure to function, it can be used wherever there are no other easy options, such as in the wilderness, during civil unrest where the common infrastructure has been shut down, or simply for local groups which do not have access to cell networks or Internet. LoRa is a powerful tool for these use cases, and it’s even possible to network together larger base stations to extend the range of devices like these.

A Raspberry Pi Phone For The Modern Era

While it might seem like mobile phones are special devices, both in their ease of use and in their ubiquity in the modern culture, they are essentially nothing more than small form-factor computers with an extra radio and a few specific pieces of software to run. In theory, as long as you can find that software (and you pay for a service plan of some sort) you can get any computer to work as a phone. So naturally, the Raspberry Pi was turned into one.

[asherdundas], the phone’s creator, actually found a prior build based around the Raspberry Pi before starting this one. The problem was that it was built nearly a decade ago, and hadn’t been updated since. This build brings some modernization to the antiquated Pi phone, and starts with a 3D printed case. It also houses a touchscreen and a GSM antenna to connect to the cell network. With some other odds and ends, like a speaker and microphone, plus a battery and the software to tie it all together, a modern functional Raspberry Pi phone was created, with some extra details available on the project page.

The phone has the expected features — including calling, texting, and even a camera. A small WiFi USB dongle allows it to connect to the Internet too, allowing it to do all of the internet browsing a modern smartphone might want to do. The only thing that it might be pretty difficult to do is install Android apps, and although there are ways to get Android apps working in Linux, it’s not always strictly necessary to have this functionality.

Engraving A Puzzle Box? Here’s A Collection Of Single-Line Cryptex Fonts

Here’s a neat resource from [MSRaynsford] that is worth bookmarking for anyone who gets creative with laser engravers, CNC routers, or drawing robots: SVGFonts are single-line symbol fonts that [MSRaynsford] created for his laser-cut and engraved cryptex puzzle boxes. They provide an easy way to engrave text as symbols.

Single-line fonts for engraving that include a runic-looking alphabet, a Greek-inspired set, and two symbol sets based on Flag Semaphore.

CNC engraving of letters and symbols is one of those things that seems simple, but is actually more complex than it may appear. It is often desirable to use a tool to engrave symbols with a single line, in much the same way a person would write them if using a pen. But fonts and art for letters and numbers aren’t normally a single line. Thankfully there is a solution in the form of Hershey text, an extension for which is included in Inkscape. It turns out that Hershey Fonts have their origin back in the 1960s, when the changing landscape of electronics and industry opened new opportunities and demanded new solutions.

That’s why, when [MSRaynsford] needed fonts in different styles and symbols for creating his puzzle boxes, he had to design them himself and they had to be single-line vector art, just like Hershey Text. The small collection includes English letters designed to resemble a runic alphabet, a Greek-inspired series, and two coded alphabets based on flag semaphore.

Grab ’em on GitHub, because you never know when you’ll need to make a quick cryptex.

Remote Screen Viewer Is Text-Only

Have you been slowly falling down a rabbit hole of Stallman-like paranoia of computers ever since installing Ubuntu for the first time in 2007? Do you now abhor anything with a GUI, including browsers? Do you check your mail with the command line even though you’re behind seven proxies? But, do you still want to play Minecraft? If so, this command-line-only screen viewer might just be the tool to use a GUI without technically using one.

This remote screen viewer is built in Python by [louis-e] and, once installed, allows the client to view the screen of the server even if the client is a text-only console. [louis-e] demonstrates this from within a Windows command prompt. The script polls the server screen and then displays it in the console using the various colors and textures available. As a result, the resolution and refresh rate are both quite low, but it is still functional enough to play Minecraft and do other GUI-based tasks as long as there’s no fine text to read anywhere.

The video below only shows a demonstration of the remote screen viewer, and we can imagine plenty of uses beyond this proof-of concept game demonstration. Installing a desktop environment and window manager is not something strictly necessary for all computers, so this is a functional workaround if you don’t want to waste time and resources installing either of those components. If you’re looking for remote desktop software for a more specific machine, though, take a look at this software which enables remote desktop on antique Macs.

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Long-Distance Text Communication With LoRa

Affordable and reliable cell phones have revolutionized the way we communicate over the last two decades or so, and this change was only accelerated by the adoption of the smartphone. This is all well and good if you’re living in a place with cellular infrastructure, but if you’re in more remote areas you’ll have to be a little more inventive. This text-based communications device, for example, lets you send text messages without all of that cumbersome infrastructure.

While [Arthur] didn’t create this project specifically for off-grid use, it’s an interesting project nonetheless. The devices use a physical QWERTY keyboard and a small screen, reminiscent of BlackBerry devices from the late 2000s (partially because they are actually using BlackBerry keyboards). One of the other goals for this project was low power consumption, and between polling the keyboard, the memory LCDs, and receiving and transmitting messages using LoRa, [Arthur] was able to get the current draw down to 12 mA.

Between the relatively common nRF52840 and SX1262 chips, plus the fact that [Arthur] made the schematics available, this makes for an excellent off-grid device for anyone who likes to drive off into the wilderness or lives far enough outside of town that cell phone reception is a concern.

Looking for something a little easier to put together before your upcoming camping trip? This similarly styled LoRa communicator from [MSG] uses off-the-shelf modules to greatly reduce the part count. Another option for off-grid communications is to use existing smartphones paired with a LoRa network like we saw in this project.

IBM PalmTop Running Modern (Modified) Linux

The handheld computing market might seem dominated by smartphones today, but before their mass adoption there were other offerings for those who needed some computing power on-the-go. If a 90s laptop was too bulky, there was always the IBM PalmTop which packed punch for its size-to-weight ratio, and for the era it was created in. [Mingcong Bai] still has one of these antiques and decided to see if it was still usable by loading a customized Linux distribution on it.

The PalmTop sported modest hardware even for its time with an Intel 486SL running at 33 MHz with 20 MiB of RAM. This one also makes use of a 1 GB CompactFlash card for storage and while [Mingcong Bai] notes that it is possible to run Windows 95 on it, it’s not a particularly great user experience. A Linux distribution customized for antique hardware, AOSC/Retro, helps solve some of these usability issues. With this it’s possible to boot into a command line and even do some limited text-based web browsing as long as the Ethernet adapter is included.

While the computer is running at its maximum capacity just to boot and perform basic system functions, it’s admirable that an antique computer such as this still works, especially given its small size and limited hardware functionality. If you’re curious about more PalmTop-style computers, take a look at the first one ever produced: the HP-200LX.

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Textmeter Tells Its Tale

One time-proven method to make a lesson memorable is to make it a story, but that is not easy if your core material is the repair log of a rotted out analog ammeter. Most folks don’t need a 300A meter on their drill press, so [Build Comics] converted it to a text display and describes the procedure like they are writing a comic book. He is using HDLO-3416 LED cluster arrays for that dated-but-legible industrial feel, and everything looks right at home in a box made from oak and steel. Even the USB cord even gets a facelift by running it inside a fabric shoelace. In our own lives, covering charging cables is a hack on its own because we don’t want to fumble with the wrong charger when it is time to sleep or drive. Glow-in-the-dark cord upgrades, anyone?

We don’t have a pre-operation picture of the subject, but the innards suggest that it comes from the bottom of an industrial scrap pile. There is a cross-hatch pattern on the front plate, which hinted at 3D printing, but if you look closely at the early images, you can see that it is original. There is a nodeMCU board to fetch the date information and control the four alphanumeric displays. Except for the red lights, all the new hardware hides behind wood or steel, so this old workhorse’s aesthetic lives on and has a story to share that is a delight to read.

If you enjoy reading [Build Comics] and their adventurous recollections, we forecast you’ll enjoy this weather display, or maybe it is time to check out their clock, but we want to plant the seed of literary build logs.