Computer Vision Maps Christmas Lights

There’s a small but dedicated group of folks out there who spend all year planning their Christmas decorations. These aren’t simple lawn ornaments or displays, either, but have evolved into complex lightning performances that require quite a bit of computer control. For some things, hooking up a relay to a microcontroller can get the job done, but [Andy] has turned to computer vision to solve some of the more time-consuming aspects of these displays.

Specifically, [Andy] has a long string of programmable RGB LED lights to wrap around a Christmas tree, but didn’t want to spend time manually mapping out each light’s location. So he used OpenCV to register the locations of the LEDs from three different camera angles, and then used a Python script to calculate their position in the 3D space. This means that he will easily be able to take the LEDs down at the end of the holidays and string them back up next year without having to do the tedious manual mapping ever again.

While [Andy] notes that he may have spent more time writing the software to map out the LEDs than manually doing it himself, but year-after-year it may save him a lot of time and effort, not to mention the benefits of a challenge like writing this software in the first place. If you want to get started on your own display this year, all you really need is some lights and a MIDI controller.

Bobble-Bot Teaches Modern Real-Time Robot Control

Bobble-Bot uses the standard inverted pendulum problem to teach modern robotic control using a Raspberry Pi, RT-Linux, and ROS.

We’re really impressed by the polish and design effort put into this project, and it’s no surprise that it’s a finalist in the 2019 Hackaday Prize. Bobble-Bot is a top heavy bot sitting on two BLDC motors. The brains of the operation is a Raspberry Pi running real-time Linux and ROS. This allows the robot to respond in a predictable manner to its inputs, and also allows for more control over thread priority than a regular kernel. In the past we’ve seen these inverted pendulum bots mostly being run on micro-controllers for just this reason, so it’s cool to see it make the jump to Linux.

Mechanically the bot can be printed on any consumer grade printer and assembled. We really appreciate the small details like making sure one screw size could be used to assemble the entire bot, eliminating the need for multiple tools.

They also have a simulator, and the bot’s software was built inside of that. It was a big moment when the real-world behavior finally matched the simulated performance. In fact, if you’re interested in the Bobble-Bot, you can try it out in simulation before committing to building the whole thing.

This project seems like a fun build for any hacker. We would have loved to have a project as polished and up-to-date as this one when we were learning controls in university. Video introducing it after the break.


GPS Self-Adjusting Clock With An E-Ink Display

If you mention a clock that receives its time via radio, most people will think of one taking a long wave signal from a station such as WWVB, MSF, or DCF77. A more recent trend however has been for clocks that set themselves from orbiting navigation satellites, and an example comes to us from [KK99].  It’s a relatively simple hardware build in that it is simply an Arduino Nano, GPS module, and e-ink display module wired together, but it provides an interesting exercise in running through the code required for a GPS clock.

It does however give us a chance to remember the story from last year surrounding WWVB, as a budget proposal last year mooted the prospect of the closure of the Fort-Collins-based time signal transmitter. Were that to happen an estimated 50 million American clocks would lose their reference, and while their owners could always update them manually, there will always be time-based systems to which that won’t be applied for whatever reason.  Europeans meanwhile are safe in their time transmissions for now , but in case they think they have their mains grid to fall back on it’s worth remembering the time they lost six seconds.

GPS satellite image: USAF [Public domain].

Make The Time To Fix Your Time Debt

You’re too busy to read more than this intro paragraph. We all are. Your interest might get piqued enough to skim, but you can’t read the full thing. Our lives all resemble the White Rabbit, constantly late for our next thing, never enjoying the current thing. You feel simultaneously super productive and yet never productive enough to be satisfied. You yearn for a Jarvis that can automate the mundane aspects of your projects, and yet the prospect of building a Jarvis causes anxiety about not having enough time for yet another project. You see another YouTuber showing off not only a great build but also impressive video production and editing skills. You are suffering from Time Debt, and the solution requires as much discipline and tenacity as escaping from financial debt.

Continue reading “Make The Time To Fix Your Time Debt”

What Will You Do If WWVB Goes Silent?

Buried on page 25 of the 2019 budget proposal for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), under the heading “Fundamental Measurement, Quantum Science, and Measurement Dissemination”, there’s a short entry that has caused plenty of debate and even a fair deal of anger among those in the amateur radio scene:

NIST will discontinue the dissemination of the U.S. time and frequency via the NIST radio stations in Hawaii and Ft. Collins, CO. These radio stations transmit signals that are used to synchronize consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches, and may be used in other applications like appliances, cameras, and irrigation controllers.

The NIST stations in Hawaii and Colorado are the home of WWV, WWVH, and WWVB. The oldest of these stations, WWV, has been broadcasting in some form or another since 1920; making it the longest continually operating radio station in the United States. Yet in order to save approximately $6.3 million, these time and frequency standard stations are potentially on the chopping block.

What does that mean for those who don’t live and breathe radio? The loss of WWV and WWVH is probably a non-event for anyone outside of the amateur radio world. In fact, most people probably don’t know they even exist. Today they’re primarily used as frequency standards for calibration purposes, but in recent years have been largely supplanted by low-cost oscillators.

But WWVB on the other hand is used by millions of Americans every day. By NIST’s own estimates, over 50 million timepieces of some form or another automatically synchronize their time using the digital signal that’s been broadcast since 1963. Therein lies the debate: many simply don’t believe that NIST is going to shut down a service that’s still actively being used by so many average Americans.

The problem lies with the ambiguity of the statement. That the older and largely obsolete stations will be shuttered is really no surprise, but because the NIST budget doesn’t specifically state whether or not the more modern WWVB is also included, there’s room for interpretation. Especially since WWVB and WWV are both broadcast from Ft. Collins, Colorado.

What say the good readers of Hackaday? Do you think NIST is going to take down the relatively popular WWVB? Are you still using devices that sync to WWVB, or have they all moved over to pulling their time down over the Internet? If WWVB does go off the air, are you prepared to setup your own pirate time station?

[Thanks to AG6QR for the tip.]

Never Go To The Office Breakroom Again

If you’re tired of having to make small talk with random people in the office break room every time you need a cup of coffee, or simply don’t have the time to get up to pour yourself some more, it would be nice if there was a way you could have your cup filled for you, right at your desk. With this new drink dispenser, you won’t have to get up or even pour your drinks yourself!

We’ve certainly seen plenty of automatic drink makers, but those are more suited to parties and complicated drink mixing. This beverage dispenser is more for the person who knows their tastes and simply wants to save some time. It’s also much simpler, using a peristaltic pump for serving a single liquid from a large bottle into a glass, and using a load cell to know when to stop filling. The peristaltic pump is a little slow though, so it’s best to set the glass back in the dispenser and let it top you off each time.

We’re a big fan of time savers around here, especially when it comes to improving workflow. Of course, the best time saver is a clean, well-organized shop which will help you out whether you’re building a drink dispenser or anything else.

Continue reading “Never Go To The Office Breakroom Again”

A Tinfoil-Free Internet Of Ceiling Fans

Putting everything on the Internet is getting easier and easier, what with the profusion of Internet-ready appliances as well as cheap and plentiful IoT modules to integrate legacy devices. Think IoT light bulbs, refrigerators and dishwashers that can be controlled from a smartphone, and the ubiquitous Sonoff modules. But once these things are on the net, what are they talking about? Are they saying things behind your back? Are they shipping data about your fridge contents off to some foreign land, to be monetized against your will?

Maybe, maybe not, but short of a tinfoil helmet the only way to protect yourself is to build your own system. This IoT control for ceiling fans is a good example, with the added benefit that most wireless ceiling fan remotes are kind of lousy. [microentropie] didn’t like the idea of going the Sonoff route, so his custom controller is based on that IoT workhorse, the ESP8266. There are two versions, one switching the light and fan loads with relays, and one with triacs. The ESP serves up its own web page for control rather than using a cloud service, and is capable of setting up the fan to turn on and off automatically at preset times or temperatures. Everything sits in an unobtrusive box on the ceiling near the fan, but we bet this could be miniaturized enough to fit right inside the fan housing.

If some of [microentropie]’s code looks familiar, it might be because he borrowed it from his IoT rice cooker project.