Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bloominglabs 2011 in review, Part II


We were involved in a couple of other events the past year in addition to the Workshops I mentioned last time and our Open House. The big ones being another BugBot workshop at Wonderlab, the 4th of July parade, and the Indy Mini Maker Faire.

Bugbots at Wonderlab

The Bugbot workshop was a bit of a step up for us. Our previous workshop was part of the Metal Mayhem Robot Day, but this one the workshop was the main event at Wonderlab, one of our favorite Bloomington institutions and one we look up to as a big success story in going from an idea to a very real and very cool place. Several people and their kids came out for this, and we had some valuable help from Wonderlab people in addition to the Bloominglabs members that came out for it. Many bugbots were built, and then when head to head (kind of) in the Bugbot arena. I've done this workshop a few times and am still impressed by how something so simple manages to navigate around and keep going for so long with obstacles and other bots in its way.

4th Of July Parade

This one was a bit funny, as while we were smart enough to start pretty early brainstorming for it (months ahead), we kind of fell short of our grand vision when the day rolled around. There were plans including a 'human bugbot', an infrared LED sign that could only be seen thru a digital camera (you can see how this would work using a TV remote), and a circuit bent band. Some of these grand plans fell victim to proof of concept research (LEDs in full sunlight? Maybe not.), others to the fact that we all have jobs and/or school or what not, or other projects drew us in (about which, more shortly).

Enough suggested projects came through that we went ahead with the float - we had smoke cannons that were suggested and put together by Jenett and some others, Joe brought his guitar he had built himself and played it (alas there was no circuit bent band - the Steel Band behind us didn't know about the bullet they'd dodged there), and we had Twinkie cannons although we were not allowed to use them (the idea at one point made me think of Homer Simpson firing a shotgun outside the bowling alley as a 'promotion', so I wasn't entirely surprised by this). The big project and feature of the float was the Straandbeest. While as is often the case, this proved to be way more complicated than anticipated, I also saw it as a model of future projects I hope to see more of in Bloominglabs' future.

Charlie suggested the idea, and then rather than sit back and congratulate himself on his mental and verbal work and waiting for the project to spontaneously organize and implement itself, he and Ross dug in heavily to researching and prototyping and making the thing happen. Toward the end, some 'build days' were organized where everybody could pitch in, and even if we were just drilling holes or sawing or hammering, the feeling of everybody pitching in to make it happen was a great thing I hope we see more of in 2012. As I said, it turned out to be far more complicated than anticipated, and installing motors and a drive system to make the thing walk around didn't happen in time for the parade, but all the structural parts including the walking motion were in place.

The parade itself was great fun and helped us get the word out to the community that we existed, and in 2012 we'll see if we can pull off something on a grander scale.

Indianapolis Mini-Maker Faire

Indiana is doing well for itself this year in the Maker department. There were two Maker Faires in 2011, this one in Indianapolis, and one in Fort Wayne. Rex had the idea of putting together a Bloominglabs booth at the Indiana Mini-Maker Faire, and more importantly he put considerable effort and energy into making it happen, along with several other members. I kind of lamed out and wasn't part of the booth, but I did make it to the Maker Faire and was quite impressed with the booth and the Faire itself. Rex brought several robots and soldering stations, and showed how he designs and etches circuit boards, and Jay brought many Arduinos and laptops for people to play with. Jonathan helped out all-around as did Rex's son and wife and others.


A hackerspace is nothing without some cool projects. Well, that's not entirely true, it's a fun place to hang out and talk to really interesting people and have beer and pizza, but you can do that at Geek Dinners, too, and hackerspaces are all about doing things. At any given time people are working on individual projects - soldering together and playing with shields and Arduino kits, trying out ideas for bigger projects, and so on, but we do same bigger scale projects, too.

RFID Access System

This project took some time to get fully operational, but it's in place at the new space and is pretty cool. After some initial prototypes that ran into some interference problems, we ended up putting together and installing the Open Access Control kit the good people at Shop 23b have released to the hackerspace world in the open source spirit. Being open source it is nicely hackable and customizable, and I'm working on a database-backed app that lets you manage and track users beyond the RFID tag values (0x324153 for example) stored in the EEPROM. There are also all kinds of cool things you can do with logging and tracking people's comings and goings, you can add sensors and alarms to the board - it's nicely open ended in the 'we can always add another cool thing to it' way of the Open Source and Open Hardware world.

Reverse Geocache

In what was probably not a highlight of 2011 for Bloominglabs, we were approached by the TEDxBloomington people to do a collaboration with the Geocaching community on a Toybox project. Initial enthusiasm about the project kind of ran into reality and some other factors including the fact that people were already pretty into 4th of July projects, the project idea was kind of open ended to the point where we weren't sure if our ideas were really appropriate to the vision of the project, and the fact that for whatever reason, the Bloominglabs and Geocache crews never really gelled, and the always important matter of funding and money.

I did have a couple ideas I got jazzed about and plowed ahead with. One involved labelling Geocache boxes with a phone number or QR code so people could log their visits vocally or by text using the Twilio API. I put the code for the prototype together over a weekend, but at that point things kind of fizzled. I did try the idea with easter eggs I left in the park near our house on Easter, but either my daughter and I did too well hiding the eggs, or people are afraid to call numbers found in eggs left by strangers in the woods, or both. I may try some other variant of this (maybe a proper geocache) in the future.

The other idea was for a Reverse Geocache (trademarked by Mikal Hart). I dug into this and put considerable effort and not inconsiderable money into it (the GPS unit alone was $60). In the end it was successful and I let some people play with it at the Open House (I really need to do a write up on it), but by the end of the project it was so much 'my baby' that I began in engineer fashion thinking of all the things that could go wrong if I released it into the wild (people dropping it, or trying to pry it open and destroying the lock, or other damage intentional or unintentional) and was by the end not about to let it go for the funding that was available at the time. That and none of the other boxes getting fully completed made this less than a high point for the group, but we learned a lot from the experience. I ended up pretty happy w/ the results and the people who've seen it and played with it like it, though.

IR Harp

The IR Harp is an ongoing project led by Jenett. This one's based on a project on the Cornell EE website, and I wrote about it in an earlier post. Ultimately it is to be a part of 'True Dungeon', as an interactive puzzle, and it is a really cool project that's been fun to watch take shape.

A high point of the past year for us was having the 'Rumble Challenge' combo lock picking and drinking game which was part of the FOOLs lockpicking village at Louisville's Derbycon featured in hack-a-day. dosman was the lead on this one (he also made a really cool fireworks control panel and other cool projects over the course of the year). I made some very modest contributions in the form of a Processing based scoreboard that communicated w/ the lockpicking stations via serial port communication. This one was great fun to demo - the rumbling is VERY loud and it makes quite an impression.

That's it (but not all of it) for now

This post has exceeded the usual preferred blogpost length. I've left a lot out, I'm sure, and I'm happy about that as it's because more happened in the past year than is easy to summarize. Our main goal for the new year is to do even more, especially in terms of big projects and we hope to draw in more interesting and interested people of all levels of skill and knowledge (serious about this - teaching people and bringing them into the making/hacking fold is a big part of what we do, and one of the most fun things besides).

Among other things I need to post more in the blog and elsewhere (we're on the usual social media things, Twitter and Facebook, and we've got our wiki/website). Hope to meet some new people next year at our Wednesday 7pm meetings. Happy 2012 to all!

Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 at Bloominglabs Part I

A lot happened at Bloominglabs over the past year. It was a better year for us than 2010, which in turn was better than 2009. Hopefully this trend continues. I'll try to sum it up for you here. This is not meant to be like a holiday 'Danny Jr. got a job at Wal-Mart in the summer' family update letter, but one of those magazine 'a look back at 2011' issues, so here we go.

The Big Move
In 2010 we moved out of the basement and into a shared space with The Collaboration Room. We continued to meet and work there for the first half of the year, moving to our grand new much bigger (1000 sq ft) space in early July. We had an Open House late in July that was pretty well attended, and aside from the location being less ideal than the Collaboration Room's (we got spoiled being downtown in walking or biking distance of many members' homes) it has been really great to have a good HQ with room for workshops and our ever-growing collection of tools. Sadly the Collaboration Room is no longer in existence and currently the space is one of many commercial spaces around town that's empty. I know the owners have to make money, but in our search we did find that a lot of commercial spaces are pretty pricey even with a lot of them vacant, and they aren't exactly making money w/ nobody in them.

Fortunately there are plenty of people in Bloomington determined enough to make cool things happen not to be discouraged by that, and I'm not just saying, 'yay for us' here, I'm thinking of other Bloomington institutions for creative types like The Bloomington Print Collective and The Paper Crane Gallery, too.

Our workshops started out with a Contact Microphone Workshop conducted by the rock/circuit bending band CMKT4 at Russian Recording (yet another cool Bloomington organization) in February. This brought out some new people and worked out really well - much fun was had with soldering irons and hot glue, and the band gave a performance while we waited for the plasti-dip coating the mics to dry. Joe S. was the main organizer/coordinator/flyer maker for this one, and a fine job he did.

Jay S., who does training on Kuali Software professionally, put together and conducted a super-slick and professional Intro to Arduino Workshop that went beyond the standard blinky lights to temperature sensors and other applications. We're hoping to get Jay to host this one again in 2012.

Jenett T. conducted a two-part workshop on AVR programming for those who wanted to go deeper into the AVR toolchain. This is one of the classic Bloominglabs workshops, in fact it's one of the first things we did when we started meeting. It was a fun workshop - as with the Arduino workshop, once people got things up and running, they really got into changing the code to try out their ideas.

We had a visit from Catarina Mota that I mentioned in my previous blog post at the end of November. She talked about materials like conductive threads, fabric, and paint, quantum tunneling composites, all kinds of cool stuff, with of course several projects she'd made that demonstrated their use. One of the fun things I learned in this workshop was that there's a site that caters to people who want more fashionable versions of the fabled tinfoil hats that's a great source of conductive material. It's:

In mid-December we held our second 'Holiday Mini-Workshops'. Mid December is not really a great time to schedule things in Bloomington, but we had a good turnout, and people brought along their kids. The most popular activity, as at last year, was making molds of pretty much anything people could think of with the vacuum former, and using the molds to make soap. Two new molds added to the collection were a Blackberry phone mold and a Buddha figurine (the mold was only good for one use due to the Buddha figurines' lack of convexity).

In Part II:

Cool events and projects of 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Quick 'n' Easy Polyphony for the Arduino

Bloominglabs was lucky enough to have Catarina Mota of OpenMaterials, NYCResistor, ITP, and more visit our space last month to give us a demo on open materials - conductive threads and fabrics, materials for modeling parts (e.g., Sugru), quantum tunneling composites, conductive paint - it was very cool and we came away from it inspired to make projects using the things she showed us.

Catarina is partially known as co-creator of the Jeltone Jello piano, which she brought to show us. Later during a health food stop a few of us made at the local Denny’s (the first time I’d eaten at one in at least 15 years) the subject of polyphony using the Arduino came up. Jennet, one of Bloominglabs’ founders, has been working on an IR harp based on a project some students did at Cornell. The site is a great resource of project ideas, and the projects are very well documented.

Anyhow, the code for the IR Harp was written for the ATMega644, and as the user plucks the strings, the notes ring out in some sweet sounding (for 8 bit) chords. This gave us the idea that it could definitely be done, although of course it would require something more than the Tone library.

I took a look at the code to see about porting it. Fortunately the Atmega328 the Arduino Uno is built around has pretty much the same registers and so on as the ATMega644, the main differences being the 644 has a lot more pins, and twice the memory.

I had an AD5330 DAC I had played w/ before, inspired by this tutorial over at Sparkfun, so I decided to use that.

To convert the code, I first switched over from using Timer0 to Timer2. Timer0 is used for millis() on the Arduino, so if you try to compile the code w/ Timer0, it will error out. I also had to add the code to accomadate my DAC (adapting for others shouldn’t be too tricky), and fiddled around a bit with which pins are used for what. I stuck with using the ‘PORT’ approach to I/O instead of the Arduino functions, b/c as we know they are way faster, and generally you want an interrupt routine to do its thing as fast as possible and get out.

Another change was to have a function to load the different waveforms on the fly as needed. These were all being loaded up front, and like I said, the 328 has only half the memory. Also, the waveforms are calculated, so you do not need to store a table.

The demo code goes thru all the waveforms, plucking out the same chord for each. Feel free to use it for whatever instrument you want. Maybe an Arduino-based 8bit clock tower/carillon. Why not?