Inputs Of Interest: Tongues For Technology

Welcome to the first installment of Inputs of Interest. In this column, we’re going to take a look at various input devices and methods, discuss their merits, give their downsides a rundown, and pontificate about the possibilities they present for hackers. I’ll leave it open to the possibility of spotlighting one particular device (because I already have one in mind), but most often the column will focus on input concepts.

A mouth mouse can help you get your input issues licked. Via @merchusey on Unsplash

Some inputs are built for having fun. Some are ultra-specific shortcuts designed to do work. Others are assistive devices for people with low mobility. And many inputs blur the lines between these three ideas. This time on Inputs of Interest, we’re going to chew on the idea of oral inputs — those driven by the user’s tongue, teeth, or both.

Unless you’ve recently bitten it, burned it, or had it pierced, you probably don’t think much about your tongue. But the tongue is a strong, multi-muscled organ that rarely gets tired. It’s connected to the brain by a cranial nerve, and usually remains undamaged in people who are paralyzed from the neck down. This makes it a viable input-driving option for almost everyone, regardless of ability. And yet, tongues and mouths in general seem to be under-utilized as input appendages.

Ideally, any input device should be affordable and/or open source, regardless of the driving appendage. Whether the user is otherwise able-bodied or isn’t, there’s no reason the device shouldn’t be as useful and beautiful as possible.

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Lighting The Way For The Visually Impaired

The latest creation from Bengali roboticist [nabilphysics] might sound familiar. His laser-augmented glove gives users the ability to detect objects horizontally in front of them, much like a cane or pole is used by the visually impaired to navigate through a physical space.

As a stand in for the physical cane, he uses the VL53L0X time-of-flight (TOF) sensor which detects the time taken for a laser source to bounce back to the sensor. Theses are much more accurate than IR distance sensors and have a much finer focus than ultrasonic sensors for excellent directionality.

While the sensors can succumb to interferences from background light or other time-of-flight sensors, the main advantages are speed of calculation (it relies on a single shot to compute the distances within a scene) and an efficient distance algorithm that simplifies the measurement of distance data. In contrast to stereo vision, which requires complex correlation algorithms, the process for extracting information for a time-of-flight sensor is entirely direct, requiring a small amount of processing power.

The glove delivers haptic feedback to the user to determine if an object is in their way. The feedback is controlled through an Arduino Pro Mini, powered remotely by a LiPo battery. The code is uploaded to the Arduino from an FTDI adapter, and works by taking continuous readings from the time-of-flight sensor and determining if the object in front is within 450 millimeters of the glove, at which point it triggers the vibration motor to alert the user of the object’s presence.

Since the glove used for the project is a bicycle glove, the form factor is straightforward — the Arduino, motor, battery, and switch are all located inside a plastic box on the top of the glove, while the time-of-flight sensor sticks out to make continuous measurements when the glove is switched on.

In general, the setup is fairly simple, but the idea of using a time-of-flight sensor rather than an IR or sonar sensor is interesting. In the broader usage of sensors, LIDARs are already the de facto sensor used for autonomous vehicles and robotic components that rely on distance sensing. This three-dimensional data wouldn’t be much use here and this sensor works without mechanical moving parts since it doesn’t rely on the point-by-point scan from a laser beam that LIDAR systems use.

XLIDAR Is A Merry-Go-Round Of Time-Of-Flight Sensors

[JRodrigo]’s xLIDAR project is one of those ideas that seemed so attractively workable that it went directly to a PCB prototype without doing much stopping along the way. The concept was to mount a trio of outward-facing VL53L0X distance sensors to a small PCB disk, and then turn that disk with a motor and belt while taking readings. As the sensors turn, their distance readings can be used to paint a picture of the immediate surroundings (at least within about 1 meter, which is the maximum range of the VL53L0X.)

The hardware is made to be accessible and has a strong element of “what you see is what you get.” The distance sensors are on small breakout boards, and the board turns the sensor disk via a DC motor and 3D printed belt drive. Even the method of encoding the disk’s movement and zero position has the same WYSIWYG straightforwardness: a spring contact and an interrupted bare copper trace on the bottom of the sensor disk acts as a physical switch. In fact, exposed copper traces in concentric circular patterns and spring pins taken from an SD card socket are what provide power and communications as the disk turns.

The prototype looks good and sounds like it should work, but how well does it hold up? We’ll find out once [JRodrigo] does some testing. Until then, the board designs are available on the project’s GitHub repository if anyone wants to take a shot at their own approach without starting from scratch.

Measuring Air Flow With Ultrasonic Sensors

Measuring air flow in an HVAC duct can be a tricky business. Paddle wheel and turbine flow meters introduce not only resistance but maintenance issue due to accumulated dust and debris. Being able to measure ducted airflow cheaply and non-intrusively, like with this ultrasonic flow meter, could be a big deal for DIY projects and the trades in general.

The principle behind the sensor [ItMightBeWorse] is working on is nothing new. He discovered a paper from 2015 that describes the method that measures the change in time-of-flight of an ultrasonic pulse across a moving stream of air in a duct. It’s another one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” things that makes perfect sense in theory, but takes some engineering to turn into a functional sensor. [ItMightBeWorse] is using readily available HC-SR04 sensor boards and has already done a proof-of-concept build. He’s getting real numbers back and getting close to a sensor that will go into an HVAC automation project. The video below shows his progress to date and hints at a follow-up video with more results soon.

Here’s wishing [ItMightBeWorse] the best of luck with his build. But if things go sideways, he might look to our post-mortem of a failed magnetic flow meter for inspiration.

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Amazing 3D-Scanner Teardown And Rebuild

0_10ea1b_776cdc71_origPour yourself a nice hot cup of tea, because [iliasam]’s latest work on a laser rangefinder (in Russian, translated here) is a long and interesting read. The shorter version is that he got his hands on a broken laser security scanner, nearly completely reverse-engineered it, got it working again, put it on a Roomba that was able to map out his apartment, and then re-designed it to become a tripod-mounted, full-room 3D scanner. Wow.

The scanner in question has a spinning mirror and a laser time-of-flight ranger, and is designed to shut down machinery when people enter a “no-go” region. As built, it returns ranges along a horizontal plane — it’s a 2D scanner. The conversion to a 3D scanner meant adding another axis, and to do this with sufficient precision required flipping the rig on its side, salvaging the fantastic bearings from a VHS machine, and driving it all with the surprisingly common A4988 stepper driver and an Arduino. A program on a PC reads in the data, and the stepper moves another 0.36 degrees. The results speak for themselves.

This isn’t [iliasam]’s first laser-rangefinder project, naturally. We’ve previously featured his homemade parallax-based ranger for use on a mobile robot, which is equally impressive. What amazes us most about these builds is the near-professional quality of the results pulled off on a shoestring budget.

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New Part Day: Time Of Flight Sensors

Every robotics project out there, it seems, needs a way to detect if it’s smashing into a wall repeatedly, acting like the brainless automaton it actually is. The Roomba has wall sensors, just about every robot kit has some way of detecting obstacles its running into, and for ‘wall-following robots’, detecting objects is all they do.

While the earliest of these robots used a piece of wire and a metal contact to act like a switch for these object detectors, ultrasonic sensors – the kind you can buy on eBay for a few bucks – have replaced this clever wire spring switch. Now there’s a new sensor for the same job – the VL6180 – and it measures the speed of light.

The sensors that are used for object and collision detection now use either ultrasonic or infrared light. They’re susceptible to noise, and if you’re doing anything automated, you really don’t want rogue measurements. A time of flight sensor clocks out photons and records how long it takes them to return at 299,792,458 meters per second. It’s less sensitive to noise, and if you can believe this SparkFun demo of this sensor, extremely accurate

This is not the first Time of Flight distance sensor on the market; earlier this week we saw a project use a sensor called the TeraRanger One. This sensor costs €150.00. The VL6180 sensor costs about $6 in quantity one from the usual suspects, and breakout boards with the proper level converters and regulators can be found for about $25. More expensive sensors have a greater range, naturally; the VL6180 is limited to somewhere between 10cm (on paper) and 25cm (in practice). But this is cheap, and it measures the time of flight of pulses of light. That’s just cool.