A closeup of the ring, inner electronics including a lit green LED seen through the inner transparent epoxy, next to the official app used to light up the LED for a demo.

New Part Day: A Hackable Smart Ring

We’ve seen prolific firmware hacker [Aaron Christophel] tackle smart devices of all sorts, and he never fails to deliver. This time, he’s exploring a device that seems like it could have come from the pages of a Cyberpunk RPG manual — a shiny chrome Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) smart ring that’s packed with sensors, is reasonably hacker friendly, and is currently selling for as little as $20.

The ring’s structure is simple — the outside is polished anodized metal, with the electronics and battery carefully laid out along the inside surface, complete with a magnetic charging port. It has a BLE-enabled MCU, a heartrate sensor, and an accelerometer. It’s not much, but you can do a lot with it, from the usual exercise and sleep tracking, to a tap-sensitive interface for anything you want to control from the palm of your hand. In the video’s comments, someone noted how a custom firmware for the ring could be used to detect seizures; a perfect example of how hacking such gadgets can bring someone a brighter future.

The ring manufacturer’s website provides firmware update images, and it turns out, you can upload your own firmware onto it over-the-air through BLE. There’s no signing, no encryption — this is a dream device for your purposes. Even better, the MCU is somewhat well-known. There’s an SDK, for a start, and a datasheet which describes all you would want to know, save for perhaps the tastiest features. It’s got 200 K of RAM, 512 K of flash, BLE library already in ROM, this ring gives you a lot to wield for how little space it all takes up. You can even get access to the chip’s Serial Wire Debug (SWD) pads, though you’ve got to scrape away some epoxy first.

As we’ve seen in the past, once [Aaron] starts hacking on these sort of devices, their popularity tends to skyrocket. We’d recommend ordering a couple now before sellers get wise and start raising prices. While we’ve seen hackers build their own smart rings before, it’s tricky business, and the end results usually have very limited capability. The potential for creating our own firmware for such an affordable and capable device is very exciting — watch this space!

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Flexible, Thin-Film Biosensors

We like to keep a pulse on the latest biosensor research going on around the world. One class of biosensors that have really caught our attention is the so-called thin-film sensors, pioneered by the Rogers Research Group at Northwestern University.

We’re no strangers to the flexible PCB here at Hackaday. Flexible PCBs have become increasingly accessible to small-scale developers and hobbyists, explaining why we’re seeing them incorporated into many academic research projects. The benefit of these types of sensors lies in the similarity of their mechanical properties to those of human skin. Human skin is flexible, so matching the flexibility of skin allows these thin-film sensors to adhere more comfortably and naturally to a person’s body. Continue reading “Flexible, Thin-Film Biosensors”

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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