ESP32 Serial Interface Modernizes Old Equipment

There’s still plenty of useful hardware out there that uses an RS-232 interface, like the Behringer Ultradrive loudspeaker systems that [Lasse Lukkari] works with from time to time. Rather than ditch perfectly good gear because modern computers (to say nothing of phones or tablets) don’t have physical serial ports, he decided to come up with a WiFi adapter for these old devices that he calls SerialChiller.

Inside the SerialChiller is an ESP32, a MAX3232 line driver, a LM1117 linear regulator, and a few passives. The professionally manufactured PCB is housed inside of an enclosure that [Lasse] has repurposed from a cheap DB15 breakout adapter. The USB cable is used to power the board and for programming, though it can also be used to turn the SerialChiller into a USB-to-serial cable as well.

The hardware for this project is pretty straightforward, but what we really like is the direction he’s taken with the software. Rather than using the SerialChiller as a simple serial to WiFi bridge, [Lasse] is actually implementing a complete web-based interface directly on the microcontroller. In the video after the break he demonstrates his firmware for controlling the aforementioned Behringer Ultradrive, but that’s just one possible application for the project. Firmware could be spun up for all sorts of classic devices, breathing new life into hardware that might otherwise be in danger of heading to the landfill.

Of course, using the ESP family of chips as serial adapters is hardly anything new. In fact, that’s what they were designed for. But developing modern user interfaces for old hardware thanks to the power of the ESP32 has some fascinating potential.

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Date Clock Requires (Almost) No Interaction

A lot of commercial offerings of technology aimed at helping the elderly seem to do a good job on the surface, but anything other than superficial interaction with them tends to be next to impossible for its intended users. Complicated user interfaces and poor design consideration reign in this space. [7402] noticed this and was able to design a better solution for an elderly relative’s digital day planner after a commercial offering he tried couldn’t automatically adjust for Daylight Savings.

Of course, the clock/day planner has a lot going on under the surface that the elderly relative may not be able to use, but the solution to all of that was to make it update over the network. This task [7402] plans to do remotely since the relative does not live anywhere nearby. It is based on a Raspberry Pi connected to a Uniroi screen which automatically dims but can be switched off by means of a large button in the front. The UI shows the date, time, and a number of messages or reminders in large font in order to improve [7402]’s relative’s life.

This is a great idea for anyone with their own elderly relative which might need something like this but won’t want to interact with the technology other than the cursory glance, but the project is also a great illustration of proper design for the intended users. Commercial offerings often had hidden buttons and complicated menus, but this has none of that, much like this well-designed walker for an elderly Swede.

Designing Sci-Fi Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, October 9 at noon Pacific for the Designing Sci-Fi Hack Chat with Seth Molson!

We all know the feeling of watching a movie set in a galaxy far, far away and seeing something that makes us say, “That’s not realistic at all!” The irony of watching human actors dressed up as alien creatures prancing across a fantasy landscape and expecting realism is lost on us as we willingly suspend disbelief in order to get into the story; seeing something in that artificial world that looks cheesy or goofy can shock you out of that state and ruin the compact between filmmaker and audience.

Perhaps nowhere do things get riskier for filmmakers than the design of the user interfaces of sci-fi and fantasy sets. Be they the control panels of spacecraft, consoles for futuristic computers, or even simply the screens of phones that are yet to be, sci-fi UI design can make or break a movie. The job of designing a sci-fi set used to be as simple as wiring up strings of blinkenlights; now, the job falls to a dedicated artist called a Playback Designer who can create something that looks fresh and new but still plausible to audiences used to interacting with technology that earlier generations couldn’t have dreamed of.

Seth Molson​ is one such artist, and you’ve probably seen some of his work on shows such as TimelessStargate Universe, and recently Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space. When tasked to deliver control panels for spacecraft and systems that exist only in a writer’s mind, Seth sits down with graphics and animation software to make it happen.

Join us as we take a look behind the scenes with Seth and find out exactly what it’s like to be a Playback Designer. Find out what Seth’s toolchain looks like, how he interacts with the rest of the production design crew to come up with a consistent and believable look and feel for interfaces, and what it’s like to design futures that only exist — for now — in someone’s imagination.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, October 9 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

 

Developing An Automatic Tool For CAN Bus Hacking

In the old days, a physical button or switch on the dashboard of your car would have been wired to whatever device it was controlling. There was potentially a relay in the mix, but still, it wasn’t too hard to follow wires through the harness and figure out where they were going. But today, that concept is increasingly becoming a quaint memory.

Assuming your modern car even has physical buttons, pushing one of them likely sends a message over the CAN bus that the recipient device will (hopefully) respond to. Knowing how intimidating this can be to work with, [TJ Bruno] has been working on some software that promises to make working with CAN bus user interfaces faster and easier. Ultimately, he hopes that his tool will allow users to rapidly integrate custom hardware into their vehicle without having to drill a hole in the dashboard for a physical control.

But if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to have things done for them (a safe bet, since you’re reading Hackaday), don’t worry. [TJ] starts off his write-up with an overview of how you can read and parse CAN messages on the Arduino with the MCP2515 chip. He breaks his sample Sketch down line by line explaining how it all works so that even if you’ve never touched an Arduino before, you should be able to get the gist of what’s going on.

As it turns out, reading messages on the CAN bus and acting on them is fairly straightforward. The tricky part is figuring out what you’re looking for. That’s where the code [TJ] is working on comes in. Rather than having to manually examine all the messages passing through the network and trying to ascertain what they correspond to, his program listens while the user repeatedly presses the button they want to identify. With enough samples, the code can home in on the proper CAN ID automatically.

The upside to all this is that you can activate aftermarket functions or hardware with your vehicle’s existing controls. Need an example? Check out the forward-looking camera that [TJ] added to his his 2017 Chevy Cruze using the same techniques.

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A Bolt-On I2C Navigation Key For Your Next Project

We often talk about the advantages of modular hardware here at Hackaday; the ability to just order a few parts online, hook them up with some jumper wires, and move onto the software side of things is a monumental time saver when it comes to prototyping. So anytime we see a new module that’s going to save us time and aggravation down the road, we get a bit excited.

Today we present the very slick I2CNavKey developed by [Saimon], a turn-key interface solution for your builds that can’t quite get away with a couple toggle switches. It not only gives you a four-way directional pad with center button, but a rotary “wheel” like on the old iPods. All of which you can access easily and with a minimum of wiring thanks to the wonders of I2C.

But even that might be selling the module short. This isn’t just a couple of buttons on a breakout board, the I2CNavKey is powered by its own PIC16F18345 microcontroller and features three configurable GPIOs with PWM support (perfect for an RGB LED) plus 256 bytes of onboard EEPROM storage.

[Saimon] has released the entire project as open source hardware for your hacking pleasure, but you can also get them as ready-to-use modules on Tindie for $18 USD [Editor’s Note: Because of a typo we originally we left the 1 out of the price]. Whether you’re a paying customer or not, you get access to the project’s absolutely phenomenal documentation, including a nearly 30 page manual that contains everything you’d ever want to know about the I2CNavKey and how to integrate it into your project. If all hardware was documented with this level of dedication, the world would be a much nicer place for folks like us.

If you recognize the name, or perhaps the affinity for neat I2C-connected input devices, it’s probably because you’ve seen his very similar I2C rotary encoder on these pages previously, which was a finalist in our Open Hardware Design Challenge during the 2018 Hackaday Prize.

Seth Molson Is Designing The Future, One Show At A Time

From the banks of levers and steam gauges of 1927’s Metropolis to the multicolored jewels that the crew would knowingly tap on in the original Star Trek, the entertainment industry has always struggled with producing imagery of advanced technology. Whether constrained by budget or imagination, portrayals usually go in one of two directions: they either rely too heavily on contemporary technology, or else they go so far in the opposite direction that it borders on comical.

Seth Molson

But it doesn’t always have to be that way. In fact, when technology is shown properly in film it often serves as inspiration for engineers. The portrayal of facial recognition and gesture control in Minority Report was so well done that it’s still referenced today, nearly 20 years after the film’s release. For all its faults, Star Trek is responsible for a number of “life imitating art” creations; such as early mobile phones bearing an unmistakable resemblance to the flip communicators issued to Starfleet personnel.

So when I saw the exceptional use of 3D printing in the Netflix reboot of Lost in Space, I felt it was something that needed to be pointed out. From the way the crew made use of printed parts to the printer’s control interface, everything felt very real. It took existing technology and pushed it forward in a way that was impressive while still being believable. It was the kind of portrayal of technology that modern tech-savvy audiences deserve.

It left such an impression that we decided to reach out to Seth Molson, the artist behind the user interfaces from Lost in Space, and try to gain a little insight from somebody who is fighting the good fight for technology in media. To learn how he creates his interfaces, the pitfalls he navigates, and how the expectations of the viewer have changed now that we all have a touch screen supercomputer in our pocket.

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Looking Back At Microsoft Bob

Every industry has at least one. Automobiles had the Edsel. PC Hardware had the IBM PCJr and the Microchannel bus. In the software world, there’s Bob. If you don’t remember him, Bob was Microsoft’s 1995 answer to why computers were so darn hard to use. [LGR] gives us a nostalgic look back at Bob and concludes that we hardly knew him.

Bob altered your desktop to be a house instead of a desk. He also had helpers including the infamous talking paper clip that suffered slings and arrows inside Microsoft Office long after Bob had been put to rest.

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