An image of the track system of the Calico wearable on top of a garment. Different possible positions of the device (elbow, shoulder, etc) are shown by red dots overlayed on the top of the image.

The Calico Wearable Rides The Rails

If you’re feeling underwhelmed by yet another smartwatch announcement, then researchers at the University of Maryland may have just the wearable for you. Instead of just tracking your movement from one spot, Calico winds around you like a cartoon sidekick.

Using a “railway system,”(PDF) the Calico can travel around a garment to get better telemetry than if it were shackled to a wrist. By moving around the body, the robot can track exercise, teach dance moves, or take up-close heart measurements. Tracks can be magnetically linked across garments, and Calico can use different movement patterns to communicate information to the user.

This two-wheeled robot that rides the rails is built around a custom PCB with a MDBT42Q microcontroller for a brain which lets it communicate with a smartphone over Bluetooth Low Energy. Location is monitored by small magnets embedded in the silicone and plastic living hinge track, and it can use location as a way to provide “ambient visual feedback.”

The researchers even designed a friendly cover for the robot with googly eyes so that the device feels more personable. We think animated wearables could really take off since everyone loves cute animal companions, assuming they don’t fall into the uncanny valley.

If you love unusual wearables as much as we do, be sure to check out Wearable Sensors on Your Skin and the Wearable Cone of Silence.

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Plastic CPUs Will Bend To Your Will

As microcontroller prices drop, they appear in more things. Today you will find microcontrollers in your car, your household appliances, and even kid’s toys. But you don’t see them often embedded in things that are either super cheap or have to flex, such as for example a bandage. Part of the reason is the cost of silicon chips and part of the reason is that silicon chips don’t appreciate bending. What if you could make CPUs for less than a penny out of flexible plastic? What applications would that open up? PragmatIC — a company working to make this possible — thinks it would open up a whole new world of smart items that would be unthinkable today. They worked with a team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to create prototype plastic CPUs with interesting results.

This is still the stuff of research and dreams, but a team of researchers did work to produce 4-bit and 8-bit processors using IGZO –indium gallium zinc oxide — semiconductor technology. This tech can be put on plastic and will work even if you bend it around a radius as small as a few millimeters.

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A Tshwatch on a table

TshWatch Helps You Learn More About Yourself

TshWatch is a project by [Ivan / @pikot] that he’s been working on for the past two years. [Ivan] explains that he aims to create a tool meant to help you understand your body’s state. Noticing when you’re stressed, when you haven’t moved for too long, when your body’s temperature is elevated compared to average values – and later, processing patterns in yourself that you might not be consciously aware of. These are far-reaching goals that commercial products only strive towards.

At a glance it might look like a fitness tracker-like watch, but it’s a sensor-packed logging and measurement wearable – with a beautiful E-Ink screen and a nice orange wristband, equipped with the specific features he needs, capturing the data he’d like to have captured and sending it to a server he owns, and teaching him a whole new world of hardware – the lessons that he shares with us. He takes us through the design process over these two years – now on the fifth revision, with first three revisions breadboarded, the fourth getting its own PCBs and E-Ink along with a, and the fifth now in the works, having received some CAD assistance for battery placement planning. At our request, he has shared some pictures of the recent PCBs, too!

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The Tracer board strapped to the frame of a bicycle with a red Velcro strap

Tracer, A Platform For All Things Movement Logging

[elektroThing] is building a lightweight, battery-powered board to track and measure movement of all kinds, called Tracer. Powered by an ESP32, it has a LSM6DSL 6DoF accelerometer & gyroscope sensor, and a VL53L0X Time-of-Flight sensor. A small Li-ion battery in a holder reportedly provides for 5 hours of streaming data over Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) at 100 Hz. It’s essentially a wireless movement sensor platform to be paired with a more powerful computer for data logging and analysis. What’s such a platform good for?

They show it attached to a tennis racket, saying you could use the data to, for a start, count the strokes done in a given match. They’ve also strapped it to a bicycle’s crankshaft and used it as a cadence sensor – good for gauging your cycling efficiency! But of course, this can be used in more applications than sport. A device like this could be used for logging movement of any relatively nearby objects, be it your cat, an office chair, or a door someone might slam a bit too hard at times. Say, you wanted to develop a sleep tracker and were to collect some data for defining your algorithms and planning your hardware requirements – this would work wonders.

There’s already available example code for streaming data into the Phyphox data logging and graphing app, as well as schematics – hopefully, the full board files will be available soon. A worthy open-source opponent to commercial devices available for similar purposes, this platform is good news for any hacker that wants to do motion measurement projects without reinventing quite a few wheels at once. We are told this board might get to CrowdSupply soon, and we can’t wait! Platforms like these, if done well, can grow an offspring of new projects for us to have fun with, and our paid projects get all that much easier to work on.

We’ve shown projects with such sensors before – here’s one that helps your rifle aim by giving you data to debug your last-second rifle movements, and another that logs movement data from inside a football. There’s a million endpoints you could stream your data into, and we are told you could even use Google Sheets. Just a year ago, we held our Data Logging contest and the entries we received will surely point out quite a few under-explored areas in your daily life!

Human Power, Past And Future

We will assume you’ve seen The Matrix — it was from 1999, after all. The surprise, at the end, was that humans were being used as human batteries to power a civilization of intelligent machines. But aside from just putting out some heat, the idea does have some precedent. After all, humans powered machines like mills, sewing machines, and pumps for centuries before there were good alternatives.

History

Galley ship
Reconstruction of a squadron of ancient Greek galley ships.

Early machines used hand cranks, treadwheels, treadles, and even pedal power to harness energy from humans. Consider, for example, an ancient galley ship with many oarsmen providing an engine. This wasn’t a great use of human power. An oarsman on a galley used his arms and back but didn’t much use his legs. The legs, though, have larger muscles and are often stronger. A pedal boat or racing shell would have been much more efficient, but without mass production of strong metal parts, it would have been difficult to build and maintain such machines in ancient times.

There was a time when pedals or treadles operated lots of machines from sewing machines to lathes. There were even old radios able to transmit and receive with no external power thanks to pedals as late as the 1940s.

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Silicone Devices: DIY Stretchable Circuits

Flexible circuits built on polyimide film are now commonplace, you can prototype with them at multiple factories, at a cost that is almost acceptable to your average hacker. Polyimide film is pretty tough for something so thin, but eventually it will tear, and with larger components, bend radii are quite restricted. But what about stretchable circuits, as in circuits you can flex, twist and stretch? Let us introduce silicone devices. A research group from Hasselt University, Belgium, have been prototyping making truly flexible, silicone-based circuit substrates, managing to integrate a wide range of SMT component types with a dual layer interconnect, with vias and external contacts.

It should be possible to reproduce the process using nothing more special than your average Makerspace CO2 laser cutter, and a couple of special tools that can be easily made — a guide for that is promised — it is purely a matter of gathering a few special materials, and using off-cuts you have lying around for the rest. The interconnect uses Galinstan, which is a low melting point alloy of gallium, indium, and tin. Unfortunately, this material is fairly expensive and cannot be shipped by air due to the gallium content, without specialised handling, at considerable expense. But that aside, other than some acrylic sheets, some vinyl, copper foil and a few sprays, nothing is beyond reach.

The construction process is reverse to what we normally see, with the components and copper contact plates placed first, on to a primed vinyl sheet. This sheet is laser marked with the component outlines to enable them to be corrected placed. Yes, that’s right, they’re using a laser cutter to mark vinyl, a chlorine-containing plastic. Hold on to that thought for a bit.

Insulating layers and substrate layers are constructed by blade-coating with a layer of clear silicone. Interconnect layers are formed by sticking a fresh vinyl sheet onto the exposed contacts and laser cutting just though it to expose the pads and the interconnect traces. Next the fancy Galinstan is applied by brush and the vinyl stencil removed. Rinse and repeat for the next layer of insulating silicone, more circuit traces, then use the laser cutter to precisely etch through the via regions to allow more metalisation to be added. Finally a coating of silicone is applied over the whole assembly, the laser is again used to etch the silicone away from the contact pads, and with a little solder tinning of these, you’re done. Simple, if only our Makerspaces didn’t have rules against laser cutting vinyl.

This was clearly a very brief overview, here is a very detailed instructables guide ready for you, as well as a formal research paper, detailing why this came about and why you might want to try this yourself.

If you’re into custom wearables, you might remember this earlier piece about silicone circuits, and this one weird organic-looking thing from the same time-frame.

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At MIT, Clothing Fiber Watches You

[Yoel Fink] and his team at MIT have announced their creation of a fiber that can sense and store data. In addition, they can use data from a shirt made of the material to infer the wearer’s activity with high accuracy. The fiber contains hundreds of microscale silicon chips into a preform used to create a polymer fiber that connects the chips using four 25 micron tungsten wires. You can read the paper directly in Nature Communications.

The fiber contains temperature sensors and enough memory (24CW1280X chips) to store a short movie for two months without power. It also contains 1,650 neural network elements, which means the fiber can train to infer activity itself without additional help.

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