Hackaday Links: February 2, 2020

Is it just me or did January seem to last for about three months this year? A lot has happened since the turn of the decade 31 days ago, both in the normie world and in our space. But one of the biggest pieces of news in the hacker community is something that won’t even happen for four more months: Hackaday Belgrade. The annual conference in Hackaday’s home-away-from-home in Serbia was announced, and as usual, one had to be a very early bird to score discount tickets. Regular tickets are still on sale, but I suspect that won’t last long. The call for proposals for talks went out earlier in the month, and you should really consider standing up and telling the world what you know. Or tell them what you don’t know and want to find out – there’s no better way to make connections in this community, and no better place to do it.

Someone dropped a tip this week about the possible closing of Tanner Electronics, the venerable surplus dealer located in Carrollton, Texas, outside of Dallas and right around the corner from Dallas Makerspace. The report from someone visiting the store is that the owner has to either move the store or close it down. I spoke to someone at the store who didn’t identify herself, but she confirmed that they need to either downsize or close. She said they’re actively working with a realtor and are optimistic that they’ll find a space that fits their needs, but the clock is ticking – they only have until May to make the change. We covered Tanner’s in a 2015 article on “The Death of Surplus”. It would be sad to lose yet another surplus store; as much as we appreciate being able to buy anything and everything online, nothing beats the serendipity that can strike walking up and down aisles filled with old stuff. We wish them the best of luck.

Are you finding that the smartphone in your pocket is more soul-crushing than empowering? You’re not alone, and more and more people are trying a “digital detox” to free themselves from the constant stimulation. And there’s no better way to go about this than by turning your smartphone into a not-so-smart phone. Envelope, a  paper cocoon for your phone, completely masks the screen, replacing it with a simple printed keypad. A companion app allows you to take and make phone calls or use the camera, plus provides a rudimentary clock, but that’s it. The app keeps track of how long you can go before unwrapping your phone and starting those sweet, sweet dopamine hits again. It reminds us a bit of the story we also saw this week about phone separation anxiety in school kids, and the steps schools are taking to mitigate that problem.

We saw a lot of articles this week on a LoRaWAN security vulnerability. The popular IoT network protocol has been billed as “secure by default”, but a white paper released by cybersecurity firm IOActive found a host of potential attack vectors. Their main beef seems to be that client devices which are physically accessible can be reverse engineered to reveal their encryption keys. They also point out the obvious step of taking the QR code off of client devices so an attacker can’t generate session keys for the device.

And finally, the mummy speaks! If you ever wondered what the voice of someone who lived 3,000 years ago sounded like, wonder no more. Using computed tomography (CT) data, scientists in the UK and Germany have recreated the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian scribe and priest from the time of pharaoh Rameses XI. He died in his mid-50s, and his mummified remains have been studied since the 1800s. CT data was used to 3D-print Nesyamun’s larynx and nasopharynx, which was then placed atop a “Vocal Tract Organ”, possibly the strangest musical instrument in existence. The resulting vowel-like utterance is brief, to say the least, but it’s clear and strong, and it’s pretty impressive that we can recreate the voice of someone who lived and died three millennia ago.

 

Programming Arduinos With Voice Commands

Programming is a valuable skill, though one that can be daunting to learn. Throw hardware in the mix, and things ratchet up another level again. However, there are many projects that have sought to reduce the level of difficulty for newcomers. HeyTeddy is a new project that allows users to program an Arduino with voice commands, and the help of on-screen tutorials.

It’s a system that initially sounds cumbersome, but through smart design, is actually quite streamlined. Users can talk to the system, which uses an Amazon Alexa device for natural language voice recognition. This enables HeyTeddy to respond to questions like “how do I use a flex sensor?” as well as direct commands, such as “Set pin 10 to 250”.

The demo video does a great job of demonstrating the system. While the system is not suited to professional development tasks, its has value as an educational tool for beginners. The system is able to guide users through both hardware setup on a breadboard, as well as guide them through tests when things don’t work. Once their experience level builds, code can be exported to the Arduino IDE for direct editing.

It’s a great tool that has plenty of promise to bring many more users into the hardware hacking fold. It’s out of the workshop of [MAKInteract], whose work we’ve seen before. Video after the break.

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This Cardboard Box Can Tell You What It Sees

It wasn’t that long ago that talking to computers was the preserve of movies and science fiction. Slowly, voice recognition improved, and these days it’s getting to be pretty usable. The technology has moved beyond basic keywords, and can now parse sentences in natural language. [Liz Meyers] has been working with the technology, creating WhatIsThat – an AI that can tell you what it’s looking at.

Adding a camera to Google’s AIY Voice Kit makes for a versatile object identification system.

The device is built around Google’s AIY Voice Kit, which consists of a Raspberry Pi with some additional hardware and software to enable it to process voice queries. [Liz] combined this with a Raspberry Pi camera and the Google Cloud Vision API. This allows WhatIsThat to respond to users asking questions by taking a photo, and then identifying what it sees in the frame.

It may seem like a frivolous project to those with working vision, but there is serious potential for this technology in the accessibility space. The device can not only describe things like animals or other objects, it can also read text aloud and even identify logos. The ability of the software to go beyond is impressive – a video demonstration shows the AI correctly identifying a Boston Terrier, and attributing a quote to Albert Einstein.

Artificial intelligence has made a huge difference to the viability of voice recognition – because it’s one thing to understand the words, and another to understand what they mean when strung together. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Baldpower for the tip!]

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Manhole Covers Hide Antennas

5G is gearing up to be the most extensive implementation of mesh networking ever, and that could mean antennas will not need to broadcast for miles, just far enough to reach some devices. That unsightly cell infrastructure stuck on water towers and church steeples could soon be hidden under low-profile hunks of metal we are already used to seeing; manhole covers. This makes sense because 5G’s millimeter radio waves are more or less line-of-sight, and cell users probably wouldn’t want to lose connectivity every time they walk behind a building.

At the moment, Vodafone in the UK is testing similar 4G antennas and reaching 195 megabits/sec download speeds. Each antenna covers a 200-meter radius and uses a fiber network because, courtesy of existing underground infrastructure. There is some signal loss from transmitting and receiving beneath a slab of metal, but that will be taken into account when designing the network. The inevitable shift to 5G will then be a relatively straightforward matter of lifting the old antennas out and laying the new hardware inside, requiring only a worker and a van instead of a construction crew.

We want to help you find all the hidden cell phone antennas and pick your own cell module.

Via IEEE Spectrum.

Add Nest Functionality To Your Thermostat For $5

The Nest Thermostat revolutionized the way that people control the climate in their homes. It has features more features than even the best programmable thermostats. But, all of the premium features also come at a premium price. On the other hand, for only $5, a little coding, and the realization that thermostats are glorified switches, you can easily have your own thermostat that can do everything a Nest can do.

[Mat’s] solution uses a Sonoff WiFi switch that he ties directly into the thermostat’s control wiring. That’s really the easy part, since most thermostats have a ground or common wire, a signal wire, and a power wire. The real interesting work for this build is in setting up the WiFi interface and doing the backend programming. [Mat’s] thermostat is controlled by software written in Node-RED. It can even interface with Alexa. Thanks to the open source software, it’s easy to add any features you might want.

[Mat] goes through a lot of detail on the project site on how his implementation works, as far as interfacing all of the devices and the timing and some of the coding problems he solved. If you’ve been thinking about a Nest but are turned off by the price, this is a great way to get something similar — provided you’re willing to put in a little extra work. This might also be the perfect point to fall down the home automation rabbit hole, so be careful!

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Alexa, Attack Intruders

If our doom at the hands of our robot overlords is coming, I for one welcome the chance to get a preview of how they might go about it. That’s the idea behind Project Icarus, an Alexa-enabled face-tracking Nerf turret. Designed by [Nick Engmann],  this impressive (or terrifying) project is built around a Nerf Vulcan, a foam dart firing machine gun mounted on a panning turret that is hidden behind a drop-down cabinet door. This is connected to a Pi Zero equipped with a Pi camera. The Zero is running OpenCV and Google Firebase, which connects it with Amazon’s Alexa service.

It works like this: you say “Alexa, open Project Icarus”. Through the Alexa skill that [Nick] created, this connects to the Pi and starts the system. If you then say “Alexa, activate alpha”, it triggers a relay to open the cabinet and the Nerf gun starts panning around, while the camera mounted on the top of it searches for faces. The command “Alexa, activate beta” triggers the Nerf to open fire.

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Alexa Controls This Projector Thanks To ESP8266

[jfessard] doesn’t have extra-sensory perception, but does have an ESP8266. The little board seems to pop up in every hack these days. Inspired by not wanting to get up from the bean-bag chair or leave the electronics-housing cabinet wide open to use an HDMI switcher, [jfessard] hacked together an Alexa-compatible projector control via the ESP8266!

The core functionality here is the ability to turn the projector on and off, and to switch the HDMI source. [jfessard] connected the Panasonic PT-AE3000U projector to a Monoprice HDX-401TA 4×1 HDMI switcher. Tucked away in the cabinet below the projector, it is controlled using a IR LED transmitter breakout board sitting at the end of a fairly long set of jumper wire. The projector control itself is through a RS232 interface.

To make this easy to use with Amazon’s Alexa, [jfessard] turned to some libraries for the ESP8266 D1 Mini. The fauxmoesp library makes it look like a WeMo device, and the IRemoteESP8266 library made remote control code cloning a snap. One really frustrating part of this hack was the MAX232-style breakout board; getting a board to work when it’s labelled backwards takes a bit of head-scratching to figure out.

If the the projector ever gets too noisy, we suggest this hack that shushes the machine. For the moment, we’d rather take another look at this laser projector that mimics a cool ‘laser sky’ effect.