Lessons in Disposable Design from a Cheap Blinky Ball

Planned obsolescence, as annoying as it is when you’re its victim, still has to be admired. You can’t help but stand in awe of the designer who somehow managed to optimize a product to live one day longer than its warranty period. Seriously, why is it always the next day?

The design of products that are never intended to live long enough to go obsolete must be similarly challenging, and [electronupdate] did a teardown of a cheap LED blinky toy to see what’s involved. You’ve no doubt seen these seizure-triggering silicone balls before, mostly at checkout counters and the like where they’re sold at prices many hundreds of times what it took to make them. This particular device, which seems representative of the species, has two bright LEDs, a small controller chip, a trio of button cells for power, and a springy switch to activate it. All this is mounted to a cheap scrap of phenolic resin PCB, with the controller chip and one of the LEDs covered by a blob of clear epoxy.

This teardown one-ups most others, as [electronupdate] disrobes the chip and points a microscope at the die; the video below shows just how few transistors are employed and proposes a likely circuit. Everything about this ball just oozes cheapness, and it’s likely these things cost essentially nothing to build. Which makes sense for something destined for the landfill within a week or so.

Yes, this annoying blinky-thing is low-end garbage, but there are still design lessons to be learned from it. Anything that’s built for a broad market has to be built to a price point, and understanding those constraints is important to understanding how planned obsolescence works.

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Redeem Your Irresponsible 90s Self

If you were a youth in the 90s, odds are good that you were a part of the virtual pet fad and had your very own beeping Tamagotchi to take care of, much to the chagrin of your parents. Without the appropriate amout of attention each day, the pets could become sick or die, and the only way to prevent this was to sneak the toy into class and hope it didn’t make too much noise. A more responsible solution to this problem would have been to build something to take care of your virtual pet for you.

An art installation in Moscow is using an Arduino to take care of five Tamagotchis simultaneously in a virtal farm of sorts. The system is directly wired to all five toys to simulate button presses, and behaves ideally to make sure all the digital animals are properly cared for. Although no source code is provided, it seems to have some sort of machine learning capability in order to best care for all five pets at the same time. The system also prints out the statuses on a thermal printer, so you can check up on the history of all of the animals.

The popularity of these toys leads to a lot of in-depth investigation of what really goes on inside them, and a lot of other modifications to the original units and to the software. You can get a complete ROM dump of one, build a giant one, or even take care of an infinite number of them. Who would have thought a passing fad would have so much hackability?

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You Should Not Try These Taser NERF Darts

For most of us, a good part of our childhood involved running around someone’s backyard (or inside the house) trying to score hits with a toy NERF gun. The fun level was high and the risk of personal injury was low. Now that we’re all mostly adults, it’s probably time to take our NERF game to the next level with some risk of serious personal harm.

In an effort to help his brother get back at him for being somewhat of a bully in their youth, [Allen Pan] gifted him with an upgraded NERF gun. Specifically, one with darts that pack a punch. Each of the “Elite” darts was equipped with a 300 V capacitor packed into the interior of the dart. New tips were 3D printed with special metal tips that allow the capacitor to discharge upon impact.

Besides the danger, there’s a good bit of science involved. Parts were scavenged from a new (and surprisingly expensive) disposable camera, and a customized circuit was constructed around the barrel of the dart gun that allows the darts to charge up when they’re loaded. It’s an impressive build that would be relatively simple to reconstruct for yourself, but it’s probably not the worst thing we’ve seen done with high voltage and a few small capacitors.

Thanks to [Itay] for the tip!

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A Nibble And A Half Of Wooden Bits

If you are familiar with binary, what would you need to teach someone who only knows decimal? If you do not know how to count in binary, let us know if the video below the break helps you understand how the base-2 number system works. If learning or counting binary is not what you are interested in, maybe you can appreciate the mechanics involved with making a counter that cycles through all the ones and zeros (links to the video shown below). The mechanism is simple enough. A lever at the corner of each “1” panel is attached off-center, so it hangs when it is upside-down, then falls to the side when it is upright, so it can swivel the adjacent panel.

Perhaps this is a desktop bauble to show off your adeptness at carpentry, or skills with a laser cutter, or 3D printer. No matter what it is made out of, it will not help you get any work done unless you are a teacher who wants to demonstrate the discrete nature of binary. If wood and bits are up your alley, we have a gorgeous binary driftwood clock to feast your eyes on. Meanwhile if analog methods of working digital numbers suit you, we have binary math performed with paper models.

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Retrotechtacular: Voice Controlled Robot from 1961

We like to think that all these new voice-controlled gadgets like our cell phones, Google Home, Amazon Echo, and all that is the pinnacle of new technology. Enabled by the latest deep learning algorithms, voice-controlled hardware was the stuff of science fiction back in the 1961s, right? Not really. Turns out in around 1960, Ideal sold Robot Commando, a kid’s toy robot that featured voice control.

Well, sort of. If you look at the ad in the video below, you’ll see that a kid is causing the robot to move and fire missiles by issuing commands into a microphone. How did some toy company pull this off in 1961?

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The Lichtspiel: Not A Simple Child’s Toy.

For his niece’s second birthday, [Stefan] wondered what a toddler would enjoy the most? As it turns out, a box packed with lights, dials and other gadgets to engage and entertain.

For little Alma’s enjoyment, three potentionmeters control a central LED, a row of buttons toggle a paired row of more lights, a rotary encoder to scroll the light pattern of said row left and right, and some sockets to plug a cable into for further lighting effects. Quite a lot to handle, so [Stefan] whipped up a prototype using an Arduino — although he went with an ATmega 328 for the final project — building each part of the project on separate boards and connected with ribbon cables to make any future modifications easier.

[Stefan] attempted to integrate a battery — keeping the Lichtspiel untethered for ease of use — and including a standby feature to preserve battery life. A power bank seemed like a good option to meet the LED’s needed 5V, but whenever the Lichtspiel switched to standby, the power bank would shut off entirely — necessitating the removal of the front plate to disconnect and reconnect the battery every time. The simpler solution was to scrap the idea entirely and use the charging port as a power port instead — much to the delight of his niece who apparently loves plugging it in.

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Hacking a Pint-Sized Mercedes

[Jonas] bought an electric Mercedes “ride on” toy for his one-year-old son. At least that’s his story. However, the vehicle has become a target for dad’s obsession with hacking and he’s already done quite a few upgrades. Even better, he did quite a bit of analysis on what’s already there. He isn’t done, but he’s promised quite a bit in the next installment which isn’t out yet.

The original car can take a driver or it can use remote control. [Jonas] has an ambitious list of ideas, some of which are still not complete:

  • Speed along with softer acceleration and braking
  • Improve the radio controller
  • Proper rubber tires
  • Proper stereo system
  • Individual brake disks on the front wheels
  • Improved horn
  • Proper seat belt or maybe even a new seat

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