Programming an Open Source Flashlight
After a year and a half, the HexBright Kickstarter actually delivered. Personally I think it was entirely worth the wait - the developer is clearly kind of obsessive and it’s wonderful the way the internet supports (and/or exploits :-) that. Mechanically, it is very impressive, I’ve been carrying it for a couple of weeks - it’s definitely my large flashlight of choice though I’m still wearing my Fenix E11 as well.
I’ve only done moderately well at using the stream of technology that KickStarter has supplied me, so it was notable that I was able to get “up and coding” for the HexBright in a couple of hours… On an ubuntu box,
$ apt-get install arduino $ git clone https://github.com/dhiltonp/hexbright.git $ less hexbright/README.md
and follow the instructions. (Note that if you’re on
precise rather than
quantal or later, you want to grab the
precise-backports version of
arduino-core - 1.0.1 is the lowest tested version, though there are some patches that sort of work with 1.0, at least they work well enough to build and upload
tactical.ino, a basic brightness-and-flashing firmware.)
tactical firmware is a good starting point; the main loop is only around 35 lines of code, and if you just want to do custom flashing patterns (sliding rate changes, or morse code or something) you’ve got the right starting points at hand. I just made the pulse rate drop by 10ms every 1/2s which is obnoxious to look at but does visibly do something :-)
My next step is to drop the
arduino GUI and just use
avrdude directly (since that’s all the GUI does anyway.) There’s an
arduino-mk package that I suspect will help with that. As someone who worked at Cygnus on G++ as an embedded systems cross-compiler in the mid 90’s, though, I’m a little boggled that I’m using a standard prepackaged 32 bit compiler to upload code into my flashlight :-)
Spark WIFI, MakeyMakey, paper computing
Spark WIFI light fixture looks plausible, if only because the Belkin WEMO already exists at a comparable price point. (The Spark is indoor only, and what I actually want is either an outdoor-socket-capable one, or an indoor light switch replacement, ideally one that can be dropped in as one of a pair of three-way switches, which would actually be tricky…) sponsored, not yet funded
I finally used my Makey Makey - basically a very sensitive closed-circuit detector that comes with a pile of alligator clips, and pretends to be a USB keyboard - the reference standard demo is the banana piano - anyway, I just moved into a new office, and traded up from a well-worn Comfy Chair to a standing desk (with advanced pneumatics, very easy to move up and down.) Stories about standing desks run the gamut from “it changed my life and I need a new wardrobe” to “meh, everyone here just leaves them at the lowest setting and uses chairs”. Clearly I need DATA… and a quick prototype showed I could hang some (zinc-plated) chains from the desktop, clipped to the Makey Makey, and have them trigger a key press whenever the desk was lowered enough for the chains to pool up on the base. That part was easy - the problem is that because it acts as a keyboard, it’ll “hit space” when it gets a connection, but I want to treat it as a distinct channel…
libusb was a messy failure, but in the end, the Python EVDEV bindings and in particular
InputDevice.grab came through, barring one memory leak that I may be able to work around. (Github link to follow soon…)
Finally, the classic “choose your own adventure” book is sort of like following a program, or at least walking a tree - well, in that spirit, there’s a KickStarter for doing Hamlet in that form - and if that weren’t cool enough, the list of “Amazing People Who Are Doing Pictures For This Book” is about 2/3 comic artists that I read, and 1/3 ones that I probably should :-) If you haven’t gone over there to look yet, do it for this quote: “But I’ll warn you: Shakespeare’s choices didn’t lead to the best ending for the characters.”. Paper and e-book versions. (Ok, that “paper computing” bit was kind of a stretch, I just needed an excuse to included it here, it’s Just That Cool.) sponsored, funded, still aiming for stretch goals
TinyDuino and TinyLily The former just smaller than a quarter, the latter just smaller than a dime, yet they have pluggable modules (“shields”) for a variety of features; the “Robotics Kit” pledge level is a couple of TinyLilys with a bunch of motor-drivers (1.8A H-bridge chips on washable circuit boards (pledged, funded, still available)
They’d pair really well with RadioBlocks which are a bit bigger (no handy coins for scale) and do 802.15.4 mesh networking using Open Source firmware, and draws 14mA at full power - so you can run it off of the data pins of another device, as long as one of them is set to “1”. (pledged, funded, less than an hour to go!)
It’s nice to see the modern “legos of computing” actually getting down to the size of lego bricks, and getting cheap too. Not quite at the level of “stick some coin cells, chips, and humidity+sunlight sensors into ping-pong balls and shake a bag of them over your garden” but definitely heading in the right direction, where it’s not completely ludicrous to think about “ubiquitous computing” ideas like that at the hobbyist level…
KickSoftware: bugs, sheet music, soundtracks
BugKick is an AGPL’ed bug tracker (with a hosted option.) Not that we need another bug tracker (especially given my Codes Well With Others ranting) and especially not one written in PHP… but the kickstarter itself is only aiming for a tiny amount of funding to do a couple of months of polish work (and presumably to find out if anyone cares) which would be a novel data point in the kickstarter software funding curves. (not yet funded; not backed)
Liederboard is an HTML5 sheet-music scratchpad with visions of user generated content :-) It made the initial funding target, has delivered some features already, and has a decent tech blog about the progress and goals. Not open source, but an interesting example of reaching a niche audience with a somewhat unique piece of software, and putting it all together and actually funding it. (funded to initial target, long list of stretch goals available; not backed)
Mission: Escape uses the GPS in an iPhone to track your driving, and produce an on-the-fly soundtrack for your commute. That just sounds like a lot of fun :-) (not yet funded, not backed)
The “tricorder” may come sooner via Kickstarter than via the Ansari/Qualcomm tricorder X-prize competition, a variety of well-connected sensors have gotten funding recently. The Public Laboratory Spectrometer is the most recent (still open, until October, but already past 200% funding) project to do optical analysis of materials; what makes it interesting is that it’s taking advantage of the cellphone’s builtin camera - and that they’ve already got a community of crowd-sourced observations and presentation tools, and some very close-to-home measurements (baseline measurements of various coffees at Tosci’s :-) They’ve still got a way to go to connect spectra to actual materials, though they’ve come up with wonderfully clever tricks like using the Mercury lines from ubiquitous CFL bulbs as calibration points. (Backed)
I mentioned the IO Rodeo Educational Colorimeter Kit last week, but forgot to point out that even though they KickStarter is done, the kit is available in their online store along with a bunch of other Science! gear, like optical sensors for measuring the wing-beat rates of flies…
In an entirely different sensing range, we have the Safecast pocket open source radiation sensor - designed by Bunnie and more sensitive than most commonly available devices, with sample logging, USB download, and local display of Alpha/Beta/Gamma events. Designed in response to the Fukushima event, it could also provide interesting data in conjunction with the EPA “Where You Live” program - I happen to live a couple of miles from the Starmet Superfund Site and the more “eyes” watching such things, the better.
Mobile robot platforms using cellphones as the communication link (and local “brain”) are almost mundane at this point - adding simple but sophisticated sensors to them enables a lot of interesting environmental science, with locally developed data…
Colorimeters, Colorful LED displays, and Kicksaver
The IO Rodeo Colorimeter kit is building a basic easy-to-assemble (no soldering!) Open Source Hardware colorimeter - a basic scientific measurement tool, which uses different frequencies of light to measure properties of a liquid sample. The design looks very student-friendly, and is a good start on understanding that instruments aren’t magic…
This 8-digit 7 segment display board is a nice module for old-school lots-of-digits output - if you were doing your own version of a DeLorean back-to-the-future dashboard, it’d be a good component to have :-) I’ll note that in practice, a $60 refurb android tablet might be near-useless as a portable appliance, but it would make a great embedded display with graphs and whatever simulated-digit output you want… but I like LEDs so I backed it anyway.
Given how terrible Kickstarter is at actually helping me find interesting gadget projects (hey Amazon! buy them and force them to use your recommendation engine! :-) I owe credit for finding the LED display project to (KickSaver)[http://www.kicksaver.net/] - not actually a search engine, but certainly an interesting browsing alternative - you give them a price threshold, they give you kickstarter projects that need that amount to kick them over to successful funding. (Got a better idea? Fork Kicksaver on github and let me know what you came up with…)
The importance of feedback (return of the HexBright)
I’ve heard a lot of grumbling about the HexBright Kickstarter which raised $260k/$31k in July 2011, and the developer got trapped doing design improvements - worthy ones, from what I can tell, but there was a severe shortage of communication about the process.
Well, he’s finally re-emerged and started posting details of battery tests, lens and end cap samples, etc. Yay! While I’m personally in favor of erring on the side of adding more coolness to the design, it’s really worth communicating about it (which may not help convince the people who want the gadgets now but helps keep them from getting too upset with the whole process…) While there aren’t formal standards for any of this, I’d like to think it’s a Kickstarter Best Practice to communicate extensively once you start the work; see PrintrBot for an extreme example :-)
“CordCruncher” headphone cable tangle-preventer
The CordCruncher is a bit lower-tech than usually catches my attention - it was mentioned in passing in a comment on the Pebble E-paper phone-display (record-setting kickstarter, almost $4 million at this writing with a month to go) - skip the marketing video until you’ve watched the “How To Crunch” one down below (or skip to the 0:30 mark to see the first bit where someone uses the product instead of just looks pretty near it.)
The unfortunate bit is that they’re actually integrated with the headphones, and not a separate product. (Probably easier to sell that way, though.) Still seems a really clever way to protect a thin cable from tangling and looping around things, so maybe a later version will come along that can be retrofit. (I don’t actually use earbuds, so this is one of the few kickstarters mentioned here that I won’t be backing - but I still think it’s clever, and it’s already at 2.5x goal.)
Bluetooth Voltmeter/data-logger, cheap enough to toss around, kickstarting…
“i-Voltmeter” is probably a terrible name for getting the attention of the kind of people who actually want cheap sensors for experimentation, i-Stuff is usually shiny and locked down, whereas this voltmeter is described as Open Source hardware, and really, it’s pretty straightforward to talk to bluetooth devices in general, most of them are “serial ports without wires” and that’s actually good enough!
On top of that, if you actually make it further down the web page, it becomes a lot clearer that “voltmeter” (or ohmmeter) is actually one of the more flexible sensors you can have, since it can usefully hook up to most environmental sensors (light, temperature, reed switch) with nothing more than alligator clips. It’s “good glue” for this kind of thing; it has a different “scaling shape” than things like the Twine box - the Twine can itself hook up to a bunch of sensors and then you talk to it wirelessly, here you can have the sensors themselves farther from a computer (and farther from each other, even outside if needed.)
Unfortunately it’s a high-starting-point ($65k) project, apparently because of bluetooth radio certification (compare, though, the Ubertooth One OSHW firmware-replaceable bluetooth security analysis tool only needed $16K to get off the ground, but I’m guessing it’s in enough of an “experimental” category that it didn’t need as much certification/overhead to get built.
Still, this kickstarter is open until 13 April 2012, so if you’re interested in More Cheap Sensors (one of the interesting bottlenecks in household robotics in particular :-) it’s worth a look.
update This kickstarter was canceled early, on 2012-04-05.