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Planet sparkfun

  • Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 08:00
    Enginursday: Hacking at the Gray Lady

    Last month (March 2014), I was fortunate to travel to New York City to participate in a working group at Columbia University’s Tow (rhymes with “plow” not “stow”)(and what a preposterous language English is) Center for Digital Journalism about the ethics and legality of drones and sensors in journalism. I was there to provide an opinion on the implications of FCC rules for journalists seeking to use drones or sensors as a part of reporting.

    While there, I met Deirdre Sullivan, who is a lawyer on staff at the New York TImes. Over dinner, she told me that the Times has an R&D group that does a lot of interesting hacking, and that they use a lot of SparkFun stuff, and would I like to meet them?

    Team members

    Some of the lab’s employees, L to R: Noah Feehan, Maker; Michael Dewar, Data Scientist; Alexis Lloyd, Creative Director

    Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. Here are some pictures of the projects they’re working on (or have been working on lately).

    Reveal

    This smart mirror project, dubbed “Reveal”, delivers headlines, tracks your medicines and integrates your Fitbit data with your morning grooming rituals. It incorporates a Kinect, RFID and environmental sensors to give you more information that you can possibly digest before you’ve had some coffee.

    Julia

    “Julia” is an interactive food preparation surface that delivers recipes from the Times to your kitchen. Not only does she walk you through the recipe, step by step, she also provides visible locations for all the ingredients (the circles in the picture above) and highlights which ones should be used for the current step. A gesture recognition sensor allows her controls and touchscreen to remain unsullied during even the messiest portions of meal prep.

    Curriculum

    In the “not sure how I feel about this” arena, each member of the group has an OLED display on their monitor that shows a ‘“stream of the topics a group has browsed” or a representation of the group’s information diet’, according to Noah. The project, called “Curriculum”, anonymizes the data and does not monitor https traffic, and the traffic is strictly opt-in. Noah tells me that it’s a great idea stimulator, but it totally wrecked any chance of surprise regarding intra-office Christmas presents.

    Blush

    This little pendant, called “Blush”, is a super-portable front-end for Curriculum. It’s constantly feeding your conversation via BLE to a speech recognition program, which compares your topics of discussion with your Curriculum feed and lights up when you hit on a topic in conversation that correlates with your recent information diet.

    Photo archiving project Lazarus

    The Times maintains a huge archive of old pictures. Many of these pictures are absolutely priceless, and haven’t been digitized yet. A simple one-bit scan of most (all?) issues of the Times exists, but the image quality in those scans is terrible. The R&D group is working on a device, called Lazarus, to automate this process. They can enter publication date information for a picture, place it on the surface and capture an image. The program then retrieves the existing digital copy, finds by image processing the likely matches for the image in question, then swaps the new image into the archive for the older, low res copy.

    Locus

    Finally, my favorite. The parasite-looking thing on Noah’s neck (dubbed “Locus”) connects with others of its kind via embedded Bluetooth and distributed base stations, creating a resilient distributed mesh network, and it warms up when you are close to a place a friend has recently been close to, with the idea being that it reminds you that your share a space, if not a time, with the people you care about. What I like most about it has nothing to do with the intended use, though; Noah tells me that when it warms up it feels exactly like shame.

    I was excited and honored to pay a visit to the New York Times building, and I’m glad that our work is in some way being incorporated into the work done by that amazing and prestigious organization.

    If you want more information about what the NYT R&D Group is doing, you should check out their site, visit their blog, or follow them on Twitter! Thanks for taking the time to show me around, guys!

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  • Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 18:33
    Introducing the NERFCS Shipping System (Beta)

    The New, Expedited, Really-fast Copter Shipping (or NERFCS) program is SparkFun’s latest and greatest shipping option. This special shipping program, while in its (shall we say) “Beta” form, is a disruptive technology that will change the way you shop. See for yourself:

    Ok, maybe the program needs a bit of work before being made live. We’ll get on that. But for now, we think you can build a better autonomous vehicle and the upcoming SparkFun AVC is your proving grounds! We also have a pretty exciting incentive to get you signed up (read on for more details).

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    The SparkFun Autonomous Vehicle Competition (or AVC) is an event where we invite robotics enthusiasts from around the globe to participate in a time-trial style race with their autonomous vehicles. Today, we want to ask - are you up to the challenge?

    If you’re not familiar with AVC, the event is taking place on June 21st, 2014 at the Boulder Reservoir. There are aerial and ground classes (and subclasses within those) that compete on a SparkFun-designed course. The bot that finishes with the fastest time in each class wins!

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    If you want to register as a competitor (or as a spectator - and, trust us, there is much to spectate), head over to the SparkFun AVC site.

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    But WAIT! There’s more…

    As an incentive to help folks new to AVC sign-up, we’ve partnered with our friends over at 3D Robotics. Right now, the next five people that sign-up will received a free 3DR Rover platform to use in the AVC. This is a pretty smoking deal! Thank you to 3DR for helping us make AVC even better!

    We hope you’ll join us at what will be the best AVC yet!

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  • Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 08:00
    Bring on the Robots at USASEF Friday Sneak Peak

    SparkFun Education will be at the United States of America Science and Engineering Festival for four days of soldering, programming, video games, programmable hats, robots and e-textiles.

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    We do workshops. Sometimes we do really big workshops.

    Friday, April 25th is Sneak Peak Friday, when people are allowed to check out the exhibit floor before everything goes crazy with Science! SparkFun won’t be on the exhibitor floor Friday, but we’ll be in conference room 150B in the Walter E. Washington Conference Center. While you do need tickets to go to Sneak Peak Friday, our event is free! Our robots would like to meet your robots (provided they are not mean robots, of course). You may encounter some weird looks on your way to our event, but once you’re in room 150B no one will bat an eye, IR emitter/detector pair or other sensory circuit/organ. The only stipulation is that we ask that all robots be terrestrial robots, so no aerial robots and no marine robots. I doesn’t matter if your robot is smart or not, we’re equal opportunity robot enthusiasts. So bring on the friendly earthbound bots, check out our robots, play some video games, light up some LEDs and maybe jump on our trampoline! Ten80 Education will be there with us, we’ll also have some Cubelets and an area where you can check out some of our Open educational materials. Don’t limit the idea of robot to something with wheels or legs, either. We’d love to see your e-textile costume, video game controller or robotically-enabled George Foreman.

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    Sometimes robots look, well, not exactly like robots.

    Some come by! Bring your robots, costumes, video games and anything else you might feel comfortable walking with around the Walter E. Washington Center.

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  • Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 08:00
    Bring on the Robots at USASEF Friday Sneak Peek

    SparkFun Education will be at the United States of America Science and Engineering Festival for four days of soldering, programming, video games, programmable hats, robots and e-textiles.

    alt text

    We do workshops. Sometimes we do really big workshops.

    Friday, April 25th is Sneak Peek Friday, when people are allowed to check out the exhibit floor before everything goes crazy with Science! SparkFun won’t be on the exhibitor floor Friday, but we’ll be in conference room 150B in the Walter E. Washington Conference Center. While you do need tickets to go to Sneak Peek Friday, our event is free! Our robots would like to meet your robots (provided they are not mean robots, of course). You may encounter some weird looks on your way to our event, but once you’re in room 150B no one will bat an eye, IR emitter/detector pair or other sensory circuit/organ. The only stipulation is that we ask that all robots be terrestrial robots, so no aerial robots and no marine robots. I doesn’t matter if your robot is smart or not, we’re equal opportunity robot enthusiasts. So bring on the friendly earthbound bots, check out our robots, play some video games, light up some LEDs and maybe jump on our trampoline! Ten80 Education will be there with us, we’ll also have some Cubelets and an area where you can check out some of our Open educational materials. Don’t limit the idea of robot to something with wheels or legs, either. We’d love to see your e-textile costume, video game controller or robotically-enabled George Foreman.

    alt text

    Sometimes robots look, well, not exactly like robots.

    Some come by! Bring your robots, costumes, video games and anything else you might feel comfortable walking with around the Walter E. Washington Center.

    comments | comment feed

  • Monday, April 21, 2014 - 18:41
    The Birth of castAR: Q&A with Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson

    At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, SparkFun’s Technical Researcher Pearce and Director of Marketing Jess were fortunate enough to nail down electronics superstars Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson to talk to them about their company Technical Illusions, the castAR glasses project and taking Kickstarter by storm. A lot of us at SparkFun look up to Jeri and Rick as personal tech heroes, and we were grateful that they took the time to sit down and chat with us about their triumphs and challenges. Let’s check out what they had to say!

    Pearce: What is castAR?

    Rick: CastAR is a pair of glasses you put on that projects out a holographic, stereoscopic-like image that you can interact with and move around, and visualize games, data and collaborations. It has a clip on that allows you to have a full VR experience, as well as an AR experience. We have two input devices: a magic wand, which allows you to interact in a 3D environmental way to the scene, as well as an RFID grid which tracks any object that has an RFID tag. So you can imagine board games scenarios - D&D figures, Magic the Gathering cards, anything like that - can be tracked across the surface, augmented with data or have the computer respond to it. You could put down a Magic card and a dragon could spawn from it; a D&D figure could have stats; you could put down a physical miniature and then somebody playing remotely could see a virtual miniature, and you can share board game environments now remotely. In addition, we have an advanced version that uses a microprocessor, and this allows two-way communication between the grid and the microprocessor, so you can have switches, control motors, smoke generators, lights – the idea I like to use is a virtual race car, or a physical race car controlled by the computer, driving around a virtual racetrack.

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    CastAR prototype diagram (photo courtesy of castAR Kickstarter page)

    Pearce: You did a Kickstarter – how did you feel about it? In the past we’ve seen Pebble and others that make an overwhelming amount of money; do you think what you raised was overwhelming?

    Jeri: I was very happy with it. We hit the dollar figure that we wanted to hit. It was pretty exciting; there were only 11 Kickstarter campaigns that got over a million dollars this year. We had a lot of anxiety going into it, because it’s such a complicated thing to express in video or text, or describe in words to folks until you actually try it, and we weren’t sure how people would receive it. So starting at Maker Faire in spring 2013 (that was our first release), we started showing it in public every couple weeks or monthly clear up until Kickstarter. We showed thousands of people, so there were many people out there that would be there to say, “It’s for real; it does what they say it’s going to do.” And we tried in the Kickstarter video to shoot through the glasses even though it doesn’t look as good. We could have rendered it and maybe made it look snazzier, but we just wanted to be very honest.

    Rick: Jeri and I were engineers at heart, and everybody will tell you when you run a Kickstarter campaign that it’s completely disruptive to your life, and that’s 100% true. Pretty much from a month before Kickstarter and through the campaign, we never did any engineering to speak of. You have to come up with a script for the film, content for the film, you have to make the film, edit the film, create text for the Kickstarter page, set the financials for the rewards, write the reward text, make sure Kickstarter’s happy with all of it, hit the launch button, and then you’re doing interviews and additional content, and stress and stress and stress, and then you’re done, and then you can think about doing engineering work again.

    Jeri: We were going to do a couple videos a week, but it actually turned out to be maybe one-ish – we could barely get enough time to do another update video.

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    Jeri and Rick (photo courtesy of castAR Kickstarter page)

    Pearce: I’m in technical research; I have to go out and find the parts for us. Our CEO Nate comes back with some wild idea and I have to go find the parts for it. How difficult did you find it sourcing the components for the castAR?

    Jeri: Extremely difficult. And that’s always the case in every startup, so it’s not unique to what we did at all. All the sales folks want to deal with the Sonys and the Microsofts and people who are going to want to buy 10 million units, and they look at anyone who’s a startup as a drain on their resources, so they’ll either never give you the parts, or won’t give you the data sheet. It took a lot of persuading to get the micro-displays and the image sensors and the various parts that we needed.

    Pearce: Would you say that’s been the most difficult step of the process so far?

    Rick: I think probably overall it’s the sheer volume of work that Jeri and I put in for the majority of last year. It was her and I putting in five to six days a week of 14- or 16-hour days, and prior to that point in my life I always worked in an environment where I had a ton of colleagues, and if a problem came up, I had people I could talk to. In this environment, I’m on the software side, Jeri’s on the hardware side, and there’s nobody else to help us with problems, so one way or another, one of us has to solve everything. It’s a daunting environment and it adds stress, and there were times when we were perpetually sick with colds for months at a time, but we persevered, and it was very rewarding.

    Jeri: It was constant micro-adjustments throughout development, and we were always looking at three different directions we could go at any given point, so we theorized on how we could do the tracking, or how we could do the display driving, we were always ready to jump to another path when one got too difficult, so that’s how we got to the end product; there were a lot of jumps back and forth.

    Pearce: I noticed you guys are doing game jams – can you explain that a little bit?

    Rick: If you think about this technology – VR and all that – if I describe it to you or show you pictures of it, that’s a very different experience than when you just put it on and try it out, and we’re still at a point where the prototypes are hand-built and there’s only a few of them (and we cuddle with them at night so nobody steals them). So game jams are a way to help other developers gain an idea of the direction of gaming and what this technology is; we can invite people into our work environment and they can experience the tech firsthand and can try out their ideas.

    The thing we learned early on, especially in the AR space, is that we don’t actually know anything about the AR space: how the user interacts with the space, how they see their score, how other people interact with it, et cetera. For instance, if I share the same physical space with another player, am I gonna be sharing my arm space with them? Am I gonna be pushing them around? Aspects like that you really just need to experiment with, and game jams are a way that people can naturally see that. We can provide them with information that we’ve learned, and they can come up with new ideas. It’s a way to explore this area before we actually have dev kits in the public space.

    Jeri: It’s super fun, it’s a blast hanging out – it’s a good reason to get a bunch of fun people together, too.

    Pearce: I know you’re working at getting the dev kits together, but what would you say your next steps are?

    Rick: One of the bigger steps is that while Kickstarter has provided us with the funding to create the product for Kickstarter, we want to be a company that is sustained and has long term goals well beyond that. Initial steps are finding a businessperson to help grow the company, to find additional funds to grow the company, and hire staff so Jeri and I don’t have to sacrifice our lives in order to do this.

    The secondary aspect is actually delivering on Kickstarter. There was a transition between the SD and the HD; Jerri has eliminated the control box, we’ve gotten the new projector engines up and running, and she has other technology that she’s advancing at the same time, so it’s taking all these steps to get us to delivering each of the Kickstarter goals. There’s other technology and things that we’re working on behind the scenes toward that, but it’s not stuff that we’re quite divulging at this point.

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    CastAR prototype (photo courtesy of castAR Kickstarter page)

    Pearce: A lot of our customers are looking to take the same path as you guys; they want to put together something to bring to market – maybe through Kickstarter or other platforms. Is there any single piece of advice you wish you had going into this?

    Jeri: That’s a complicated question. It could be anything as far as international shipping and the weird psychology people have around paying more for international shipping than domestic, which was a surprise to us. We put a lot of thought into Kickstarter and I think the piece of advice to anyone going into it is: Don’t rush it. Take your time, think about the impact of big events that might be happening around that time. We strategically did our Kickstarter before Thanksgiving so the holidays wouldn’t get in the way, we didn’t do it in the summer when people were off on vacation, we made sure that we seeded the market by showing a lot of people the prototype, we talked to a lot of media ahead of time, and we had a really solid demo when we started talking to folks, so it was really plan, plan, plan. You have to also plan for post-Kickstarter too, and that’s the phase we’re in now – going through these different milestones, and miniaturizing things, and hitting these checkpoints that we plotted out ahead of time.

    Rick: I would say that if you’re going to go into this endeavor and you’re going to be doing it with multiple people, find people that complement your skill set and are like-minded to you. Jeri and I are both extremely passionate about what we do, we both put long hours in, and we’re both very dedicated to it … we both own Commodore 64s. You don’t want to find out too late in the process that somebody doesn’t have the will or the same energy level as you, or you have these weird divides on how to approach things, because you’re both in it for the long haul.

    Jess: Were you surprised by the huge outpouring of support that the Kickstarter got?

    Rick: There was a moment during the first Maker Faire where the day opened and we had people there, and we put a lot of effort into setting up the booth, and we had no idea what to expect. And the first person trickled in, and they invited friends, and all of a sudden we had an hour-long line, and then we had an hour-long line all day. Going through the amount of hours and stress we went through to get to that point, you have no idea what your confidence level’s going to be at that point. That evening we went out to dinner, and took everybody who came down to help us – it was about 12 people – and we got up and gave a speech to thank everybody who came, and that is probably one of the proudest moments in my life. All these people who believed in you and helped you out - it’s not what we did, but what WE did as an entire group - and it’s something that will always resonate to us a lot.

    And when we went into Kickstarter, we decided to launch at 8:00 a.m Eastern time Monday morning, so the people filing into work who are bored have something to spend their money on. So we’re up at 5:00 a.m Pacific time ready to hit the launch button, and we hit the button thinking, “Is there going to be a backer at all?” And a backer came in.

    I had inadvertently set the Kickstarter emails to come to my email account, and any time there’s a pledge, or a comment, or a change in a pledge, or anything, I got an email. And my email exploded, and I had the Kickstarter app and you get a ding, and ding-ding-ding-ding was happening. We went out to dinner at Chipotle, and I looked at it before we started in line, and then we sat down and ate dinner and I looked at it again and said, “Oh, we just made $13,000, I should just eat burritos the whole time.”

    We went into Kickstarter with the advice we were given, which was that if we hit 25% or 30% in the first few days, we would probably hit our $400,000 target, and we hit our goal in a couple days. It was exciting, but we were so drained mentally; we were driving to another interview and we got a notification that we hit our goal, and it was like, “Ohh, yaaay…”

    Jeri: I remember we were driving across the Oakland Bridge and all three of us in the car were like, “Yaay…,” and at that point we’d already done three interviews each day for the first two days.

    Rick: And Jeri had been sick for a month including that time. The oddest thing that happened right at the end of the Kickstarter is that about five hours before it ended I developed this weird…almost like if I’d been drinking for two days – that nausea type feeling – and it lasted about 36 hours. And I almost think it was my body saying, “You’ve abused me for hours at a time with stress for the past nine months, and I’m done with that.” And you developed the same thing like a day later.

    Jeri: I’ve been through a lot of stressful projects, and this one by far – the Kickstarter process – was the most stressful. The amount of PR that goes into it is incredible.

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    Jeri and Rick working on the castAR prototype (photo courtesy of castAR Kickstarter page)

    Jess: Can you talk a little bit about your prototyping process?

    Jeri: If we go all the way back to Valve software, where the first concept came about, it was an accident that we ran into this property of the retroflective screen. I was working on an optics bench trying to solve issues with near-to-eye displays – that’s where the image goes directly into your eyes – and so I had this projector system with lenses and beam-splitters and stuff, and I was looking into it and accidentally put a beam-splitter in backwards, and instead of projecting into my eye it was projecting into the room. I had all these lenses and I was kind of fiddling with them, thinking, “Why don’t I see anything?” And I hit the focus just right so that it focused across the room onto this piece of material that we had there for another experiment and I saw this beautiful image pop onto the surface and thought, “Well that’s very interesting.” So I went and grabbed the material and I started looking at it, so part of prototyping and developing things is always being open and curious about things and making observations, and you never know when those things will lead you down a really good path.

    I suspect that this is going to be a very comfortable experience; it solves some of these near-to-eye issues because the display is actually at a comfortable distance. The way I prototyped it was to put giant projectors on a hat – it was this giant hardhat type thing, we called it the “headcrab,” which was one of the things in [Valve’s] games - and project it out that way. And we proved that we could do a stereoscopic image; I saw a 3-D image and thought, “Good, ok, this is one step closer to being able to have holograms on the table.” I just had this dream of holograms on the table, so we took a webcam and stuck it onto the headcrab, and we did a very crude head-tracking thing, but at first it was really terrible and not responsive at all. So it was these baby steps, and at that point I had a lot of pressure on me to prove that these big projectors could be miniaturized. I actually – for the company – had to go through these hoops I wouldn’t have normally had to, so I intentionally took a sidestep and miniaturized one projector down and made a pair of glasses with one miniature projector on it, just to show the viability of having a small projector. I didn’t know anything about optics - I didn’t have any optics resources, and I wasn’t allowed to get any - so I read a lot of books, I did at a lot of experiments, and I ended up building my own projector just by trial and error, and learned a lot along the way.

    And then we left Valve. Up to that point we’d been working on our own hardware tracking system but it wasn’t working when we left Valve. We knew that was the key to our system, so Rick and I hyper-focused for a month on the tracking system and got our first version going. It was kind of funny, I put it together, handed it to Rick to test the software, and he said something like, “This thing’s broken –…"

    Rick: The way I had it set up was that I had the camera fixed on my desk, and I had the tracking fiducial on a tripod hanging by its cable – not really a stable environment – and every now and then I would get this weird, spurious data jump, and it took me several days to figure out that Jeri, who sits about ten feet from me, would stomp or tap her foot on the table or the floor, and the vibration went through the floor to the tripod and wiggled that fiducial ever so slightly.

    Jeri: At that point we thought, “Holy smokes, we’re picking up vibrations through the floor, this thing is super accurate,” and that’s when we took a step back. We hadn’t even hooked it up to our projection glasses yet, and we hooked it up to a little thumbscrew thing so we could measure the precision and realized, “Oh my god, this thing is out-performing far better than we expected.” We rushed to put it on a pair of glasses, and tried it on and said, “Oh…we’ve just done it.” Everything we tried before that point was just jumpy and no good. I think when the tracking was done, we knew - this is it. We’re going to be able to do this. And then it was just shrinking and testing, shrinking and testing. And now heading forward beyond Kickstarter, we have to focus more on production. The core electronics are there; there are a few bugs we need to work through, but not serious issues. It’s doing tests like using a piece of flex cable to send the data rate down to the displays… it’s just constant baby steps up until the last minute, and at some point (that’s the hard part of engineering that frustrates me at times) you’ve got to pull the plug and say, “I’m done. It’s done. I see that there’s improvements but this is it.”

    Thank you Jeri and Rick for your time; we can’t wait to see how the castAR project evolves!

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  • Friday, April 18, 2014 - 08:00
    New Product Friday: Just in Case...

    We’re back with another round of products for your Friday. This week was have an assortment of different products as well as some demos.

    We also did a demo for our new FadeCandy.

    That concludes the video portion of our program; let’s take a closer look at our new products.

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    We have a bunch of new enclosures for all your goodies this week. Chances are, if you have a board that needs a case, we’ve got what you need. All of these cases are made by the same company that makes the Pi Tin for the Raspberry Pi. They are simple economical cases that give you access to all the inputs and outputs, and don’t require tools to put them together. We have them for the Raspberry Pi Camera Module (in both clear and black), the PiFace (in just clear), the Beaglebone Black (clear and black), the Arduino Yun (clear and black), and the Arduino Uno (clear and black). They are very well thought-out cases with a lot of little features. The price is great too.

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    We have a few more new products from Adafruit this week as well. The FadeCandy is an easy way to control NeoPixel LEDs or any of the WS2811/12 variants. Eight outputs line the bottom of the FadeCandy to provide you with a way to support up to 512 LEDs total, assigned to each output in eight strips of 64 LEDs each.

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    This is the half-sized Raspberry Pi Perma-Proto Breadboard from Adafruit, a simple solder-able-type bare PCB kit that affords you with the luxury of soldering in your own custom prototype with GPIO connection capabilities to a Raspberry Pi. It comes with a shrouded GPIO header and has power rails and two separate prototyping areas.

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    Also for your Pi, this card adapter plugs into the SD socket on a Raspberry Pi and lets you use microSD cards without them sticking out. The adapter is only about 5.5mm thick and can easily fit into most cases that could surround a RPi without needing to remove the case.

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    We now have the BMP180 in retail packaging. This was the replacement to the popular BMP085 pressure sensor. The BMP180 offers a pressure measuring range of 300 to 1100 hPa with an accuracy down to 0.02 hPa in advanced resolution mode.

    In addition to the products listed above, we also have some new products in our sale category. Be sure to check the category periodically for new additions. You can find some good deals in there from time to time.

    As always, thanks for reading, watching, and giving us suggestions of new products to carry. We’ll be back again next week with more new products. See you then!

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  • Thursday, April 17, 2014 - 08:00
    AVC 2014 Course Preview

    Have you ever wanted to spend six months toiling over a workbench creating a robotic masterpiece only to see it explode in a ball of flames five seconds after you turn it on the day of the race? We’ve got the perfect competition for you: the SparkFun AVC! The Autonomous Vehicle Competition lets you put your autonomous vehicle through the paces with a separate ground and aerial course. The competition happens June 21st at the Boulder Reservoir. Check out the AVC site to learn more. We returned to the battlefield this week to shoot a short video detailing the course changes for this year.

    As we’ve mentioned in previous AVC posts, the course will remain pretty much the same as it did last year, with a few minor tweaks. For ground, we’re adding a line (for line followers) to make it easier to enter the Micro/PBR class, which has size and cost restrictions. For the aerial entrants, we’re adding three red balloons of death that can be either obstacles or an opportunity for more points. For the full rundown of the rules, click here. Also, it might be a good idea to re-watch the course preview video from last year.

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    We’ve also added a bit more information regarding the obstacles you’ll encounter. We now have the paint colors for all the obstacles, as well as a link so you can purchase your very own balloons for practicing. Be sure to check out all the information provided, including GPS waypoints.

    You have until May 21st to register, so head on over to the AVC site to register, read up on the rules, or check out videos or pictures from previous competitions. For anyone already registered, you have until May 21st to send us a “proof of concept.” At the end of this month, we will send out a reminder with more details. Also, the AVC is free to come and watch. So bring the friends - we’re covering the entrance fee for the reservoir for that day. See you then!

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  • Wednesday, April 16, 2014 - 17:55
    New Tutorials To Get Your Learn On!

    If you haven’t been over to our education site in a while - well, you’re missing out! Our Department of Education has been hard at work on new workshops, resources and more. We’ve also revamped our entire tutorial system to make it more user friendly and easier to find the topic you are interested in. Today, we want to draw your attention to a few new tutorials that are worth checking out!

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    The first is for all you weather nerds out there (and we have more than a few in the building here at SFE). In this tutorial written by our fearless leader/CEO Nate, you’ll learn how to create a weather station that connects wirelessly to Wunderground.

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    Next we have a teardown of the Misfit Shine. The Misfit Shine is one of those new-fangled activity trackers. In this tutorial from Creative Technologist Nick Poole, we get into the guts of the Shine to see what makes it tick!

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    Lastly, we have the MYST Linking Book. In this hack, Nick takes a book and incorporates a screen into it to create a custom linking book for the popular adventure game MYST.

    There are only three examples of the dozens of new tutorials we’ve added in the recent months. Check out the tutorial page to find something that piques your interest!

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  • Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - 18:09
    Engineering Roundtable - Interactive Hanging LED Array

    In today’s episode of “Engineering Roundtable,” SparkFun Creative Technologist Nick Poole is here with his Interactive Hanging Lightbulb Array. This project started as the brainchild of Nick and our videographer Gregg and grew into an impressive art installation that is housed in our main conference room. Check out the video:

    Nick also wrote a tutorial about his project so you can build one in your workshop, garage, dormroom or wherever an extra-heavy dose of geeky flair is just what the doctor ordered.

    As always, feel free to leave any questions you might have in the comments section below. Thanks for watching!

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  • Monday, April 14, 2014 - 16:35
    April Caption Contest Winner

    Last week, we posted our monthly caption contest and you responded with great aplomb. Unfortunately, there can only be one winner, and today we have just that. So without further ado, here is this month’s winner:

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    You’ll notice, our new model is black, with a yellow border.

    Congrats Member #543343! We love a good bit of topical humor. We’ll be in contact shortly with your prize ($100 in SparkFun credit).

    We’ll be back soon with another contest!

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  • Friday, April 11, 2014 - 17:22
    New Product Friday: Chomping at the BITalino

    It’s Friday once again, so we have a few new products to talk about. Nick even joins us again to demo one of the new products. Be sure to check out the video.

    If you want to know more about MPPT, check out the section of the tutorial here. You can learn more about what it is, what it does and why you want it for a solar charger.

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    The Sunny Buddy Solar Charger is the perfect charger for your next solar-powered project. This MPPT solar charger provide you with the ability to get the most possible power out of your solar panel or other photovoltaic device and into a rechargable LiPo battery. Set-up is easy as well, just plug your solar panel into one side of the Sunny Buddy and your battery into the other and you are good to start charging!

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    If you want to get into some bio-medical projects, you might be interested in the new BITalino Biomedical Development Kit. The main board has several sensors (including EMG, EDA, ECG) and comes with a battery, cables, and electrodes you need to get started. The board can be broken apart, rewired and the sensors used remotely. All communication is done over Bluetooth and example code is provided to get you going.

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    Does the pigment above look black to you? It’s more of a dark grey. We got a shipment of our thermochromatic pigment some of the bags weren’t quite the colors we were expecting. The black was more of a dark grey, and the red was more of a pale pinkish red. We have both the ‘pink’ and ‘grey’ pigments on sale. They still work as thermochromatic pigments, it’s just that the base colors are a bit less saturated than normal.

    This concludes another Friday New Product Post. Thanks for watching and reading. We’ll be back next week with more new products. For anyone wanting a new enclosure for one of their development boards, you might want to check back. See you then!

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  • Thursday, April 10, 2014 - 08:00
    Enginursday: The Hormes Robot Platform

    For those of you who have been living under a rock and weren’t aware, we really love robots around here. Flying robots, cute robots, ingeniously engineered robots and generally chill robots are always guaranteed to catch our eye. With this year’s AVC quickly approaching (and with it being National Robotics Week), I wanted to do a shout-out to an awesome customer project with a wickedly tough-looking robot.

    Hormes Robot

    Meet the Hormes Robot

    The Hormes robot was created by Charles and Richard Raitt, who have both participated numerous times in the FIRST robotics competition. Both brothers bring their area of expertise to the robot design process, with Richard working on the mechanical design and Charles working with the electrical systems. Beside the joy of just having a beastly, 56-pound robot, they decided that they wanted something where they “can hand the controls to someone at a Maker Faire and not worry about it getting broken. No promises about anyone’s shins though…”

    The original idea was drafted up in SketchUp before they began building.

    SketchUp Robot Draft

    A mid-project picture of the working drawing

    With the design mostly worked out, it was material gathering time. Most of the chassis was bought from brick and mortar hardware stores. A stock 1/8" steel plate was cut and drilled on a press to create custom corner brackets. However, the ½-inch trade conduit (which is actually 5/8-inch ID) used in the roll frame was actually gathered as scrap practice bends from a local vocational school. This brings up a great point - where do you collect scrap materials for your projects? Let us know in the comments!

    Detailed T Joint

    T Joint showing the frame connections

    Richard then counterbored the steel axle slug inside the joints to accept an Allen bolt. A 2-inch long slug of the steel axle holds the front and back sections of the rollcage together, and barbed “tube connector nuts” hold the crossbar on and the rollcage to the frame. Richard also coped the crossbar ends to create a friction fit. This design is solid enough to even support Richard standing on it!

    One of my favorite features of this robot is the use of the dual-sprocket on the gearbox shaft to drive the wheels. Not only is it a slick-looking design, but this design also allows a higher clearance on the robot. The interwheel space is clear of chains, allowing Hormes to tackle larger obstacles.

    Dual Sprocket Chain Connection

    Snazzy dual sprocket connection for the #35 roller chain

    After getting the chassis together, the first integration of the electronics with the mechanical build came together beautifully, just in time for Christmas. This was the first functioning version of the robot, though it wasn’t weather-proof or safe from the mud (no one wants their robot’s insides looking like this after a test drive).

    First Iteration of Hormes

    First iteration of the Hormes robot

    Two TALON SR motor controllers drive the two CIM brushed DC motors. The system is powered off of a sealed lead acid battery at 12V, 10Ah, running through a power distribution board. Each motor connects to its own 30A auto resetting breaker.

    The brains of the Hormes are actually surprisingly simple. Charles used an Arduino Uno R3, a USB Host Shield, a PC USB Xbox360 wireless controller, and a SEEED Studio Protoshield. The proto shield has two red indicator LEDs on it. An XBox360 wireless controller functions as the driving remote. You can check out the code on the Arduino here.

    Interior of Control Box

    Interior of Control Box

    A heavy duty tool box functions as the housing for the control system, protecting the electronics from the elements and creating a solid mounting system. Not pictured above is the USB Xbox receiver, as it had broken.

    While the robot itself is fantastic, I also appreciate the origin of the name. According to the brothers, “Hormes” is the Greek spirit of “putting oneself into action.” Being no strangers to the project cycle, Richard says “I’ve started so many projects, and I swear I am going to finish this one.” Perhaps my naming convention for projects has been my problem with finishing them all…

    The Raitt brothers showed off Hormes at the FRC NASA/VCU Regional event in Richmond recently. They also plan to attend the Hampton Roads Mini Maker Faire in October. You can also find out more information about their robot here. We wish them the best of luck with the Hormes robot, and hope this has inspired you AVC contenders with some additional robot ideas!

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  • Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 21:17
    Heartbleed

    Heartbleed

    Heartbleed, or CVE-2014-0160, is a pretty serious vulnerability in OpenSSL, one of the more popular libraries for encrypting communications on the internet, and its exposure this week has the internet on high alert.

    You can read about the details behind the bug at Heartbleed.com, but here’s how it works in a nutshell: a couple years ago OpenSSL got a “heartbeat” feature which allows computers and servers with secure connections to each other to “ping” each other regularly to keep the secure connection open. A bug in the heartbeat feature allowed for computers without secure connections to still get a response this way, and that response could be exploited to include chunks of data from the server’s RAM, which could include all sorts of recently-decrypted stuff like passwords.

    What We Are Responsible For

    As soon as the vulnerability was exposed to the greater internet on April 7th we sprang into action along with the administrators of sites great and small, worldwide. It’s our responsibility to first patch all SSL libraries on all servers (to “stop the bleeding” as it were). Next we revoke and reissue all SSL certificates as the private keys may have been compromised. With some pressure on our certificate authority we’ve got fresh certs inbound and as soon as those are in place, likely sometime this afternoon, we’ll dump all sessions on SparkFun.com as those are also at risk of having been compromised.

    This means every SparkFun customer will be logged out and any customers who have built a cart without signing in will lose that cart. However from that point on when you sign in to SparkFun.com you’ll be doing so over SSL using a new certificate where there’s no risk of the private keys having been leaked. But there’s still more to be done…

    What YOU Are Responsible For

    First of all, don’t log into any websites until you know they’re patched against this bug. Most major websites have already responded, and the patch isn’t very complicated so there’s no excuse not to respond. There’s a utility here that can help you determine if a given website has taken some of the necessary steps for protection.

    Secondly, it’s about time to reset all of your passwords. Seriously. This vulnerability existed for the better part of two years and was only just exposed on Monday. If your account credentials somewhere were slurped up using this exploit at some time in that past and yesterday that site patched against Heartbleed those attackers still have your credentials. Change your password, and also consider setting up two-factor authentication for any sites or services that offer it.

    What Happens Now?

    This story has a lot of interesting angles. It’s arguably one of the biggest security vulnerabilities in the entire history of the internet. It’s technical but not terribly so, so I’m curious to see how it is covered in the main-stream media.

    In the netsec community Heartbleed is already the highlight of the year. Flurries of discussions on various fora are churning right now on how this happened, how to react, what the long-term impacts are, etc. A family member who works as a penetration tester (someone who’s paid to steal your data and tell you how it was done) summarized the reaction from the offensive side of the network security community thusly.

    The Business Side

    Another angle worth mentioning is the certificate authorities, or CAs. SSL certificates can be generated for free using open source tools, but when done so they are “self-signed.” The entire SSL model relies on certificates to verify a website is who they say they are, and a self-signed certificate (while functional) doesn’t provide any confidence in that. This is why browsers warn you when a cert is self-signed. Certificate authorities are companies like Verisign and Comodo that build a business on confirming people are who they say they are and then signing their certificates. This can be expensive depending on how iron-clad you want that certification to be. At SparkFun we pop for the Extended Verification, or EV certificates which can require months of investigation on the CA’s behalf to confirm who SparkFun really is.

    The curious thing about this vulnerability is that it requires an estimated 60-70% of all certificate holding websites across the internet to revoke+reissue or renew their SSL certificates. Revoke+reissue is free with our CA but renewal isn’t. If any sites unaware of their ability to revoke+reissue, or if a CA charges for that service, this could be a huge pay day for the CAs. That raises ethical questions about where their incentives lie… does it make good business sense for Comodo or Verisign to quietly encourage similar vulnerabilities in the future? Is a system like that ultimately sustainable? In fairness it’s also potentially a burden on the CAs as their volume for issuing certs has skyrocketed overnight. Time will tell how they react in the wake of Heartbleed.

    The Open Source Side

    We harp a lot about the virtues of open source here. This vulnerability, having appeared in an open source SSL library (OpenSSL) allowed for the netsec community to provide line-by-line diagnoses of the flaw within hours of its general exposure. Furthermore, open source is not about things being open now but things being open over time, so it’s been possible to peer deep into OpenSSL’s history to see how the flaw was introduced and evolved over time.

    I’ve seen some chatter already about how this was the net effect of poor programming from an amateur open source development team. The quality of the programming (and arguably the review process) and the open source nature of the library are two completely different aspects that should not be conflated, however. A proprietary SSL library developed behind closed doors could have easily introduced the same flaws. The open source nature of the library may have made it easier for attackers to craft exploits against the heartbeat feature, but it’s likely that a similar feature+flaw in a proprietary library would have been compromised the same way. The internet’s most skilled and nefarious are never slowed down much by working with compiled binaries as opposed to source, and security through obscurity is widely stigmatized for good reason.

    Ultimately the open source nature of the library that introduced the flaw has vastly aided the community in assessing the damages inflicted and mount a swift response. Regardless, the pessimist in me still expects to see “open source” taking some undue blame for this fiasco.

    Protect Thyself!

    So that’s Heartbleed in a nutshell from SparkFun’s perspective. I’ll close with a reminder to protect yourself. Use strong passwords that don’t repeat, pay attention when your browser is warning you about an insecure website, and use 2-factor authentication wherever you can. Stay safe and have fun. =)

    UPDATE: 2014-04-09 15:00 MST

    We’ve received and installed our reissued certificates, so we’ve dropped all browser sessions as an extra precautionary measure.

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  • Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 16:52
    Join Us at USASEF in D.C.

    In just a few weeks, we’ll be heading east to attend the United States Science & Engineering Festival (a.k.a. USASEF). USASEF is the largest STEM education event in the country and we are very excited.

    SparkFun at USASEF

    This is a reminder that we are hosting a few events that are free to anyone attending the pre-USASEF educator workshop. We would love for you to join us!

    The first event is Drag and Drop Programming for Robotics, taking place on Thursday, April 24th from 9 a.m. - 12 p.m.. During this workshop we’ll be using ArduBlocks, which is very similar to Scratch, to explore the six most important concepts for beginning roboticists. What are the six most important concepts? Join us to find out!

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    The second event will be Arduino Basics on April 24th from 1 p.m. - 5 p.m.. We’ll discuss introductory Arduino concepts and show you how you can use Arduino in your classroom.

    Lastly, we are hosting a Robotics Hangout in partnership with Ten80 Education on Friday, April 25th, from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.. This will be a more laid-back event where we can discuss robotics, do some hands-on electronics projects and talk shop.

    SparkFun at 2012 USASEF

    Finally on Saturday and Sunday (the 26th and 27th), we’ll be in the RobotFest section soldering away and doing occasional workshops. We’ll be set up next to our buddies from Parallax. Come by try your hand at some beginner soldering. We’ll also be putting on workshops about Pico and Scratch at 9:30 AM to 11:00 AM both Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday in the afternoon you can learn how to sew e-textiles with some of our e-textile specialists at 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM. Sunday from 4:00 PM to 5:30 PM we’ll be helping people learn how to reprogram their Simons.

    We hope you can join us at one (or all) of these events!

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  • Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 21:04
    Reminder: SparkFun Live - Temperature Sensing Lunchbox

    Don’t forget - today starting at 3 p.m. MT, we are airing the latest episode of “SparkFun Live!” In today’s episode, Evan will build his temperature sensing lunchbox. Here is the preview video for more info on his build:

    If you didn’t get your parts, don’t worry - we’ll be archiving the episode so you can watch and build along at a later date. If you want to tune in today, here is the stream:

    We’ll be getting started in just a couple hours - hope you can join us!

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  • Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 18:02
    April Caption Contest

    It’s time again for your monthly caption contest! The rules are simple:

    • Leave your funniest clean caption in the comments section below. We reserve the right to delete captions that we deem inappropriate. We’re not too stingy, but try to keep it moderately PG-13.
    • Captions submitted any other way besides in the comment section will not be accepted. That means do not use the feedback form!
    • Captions will be accepted from the moment this post goes live until Friday, April 11th at 10 a.m. Mountain Time.
    • Please only one caption per person. Please!
    • A crack team of humor experts will pick the winner and we will announce it next week.

    Here is today’s photo:

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    The winner will receive $100 in SparkFun credit! Submit your captions below! Good luck!

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  • Monday, April 7, 2014 - 17:44
    Join Us at Mini Maker Faire Denver

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    Denver’s first-ever Maker Faire will take place on May 3rd & 4th, 2014 at the National Western Complex - and SparkFun will be there! We’ll be teaching beginning soldering at our world famous-ish soldering booth - we hope you can join us!

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    Our soldering booth in action.

    As a friend of Sparkfun, you can get $1.00 off all tickets by using the promo code “Sparkfun” when you check out! You’ll be amazed by a wide range of interactive makers such as sculpture games, a sound puddle, robotics, rockets, blacksmithing, a fire breathing dragon and more! Check out the Denver Maker Faire page to learn more and purchase tickets!

    We hope we’ll see you there!

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  • Friday, April 4, 2014 - 08:00
    New Product Friday: High Five For Wi-Fi

    Products, products, and more products. That’s what Fridays are all about here at SparkFun. We have a few new things this week. Check out the video and hear our engineer Shawn explain the new CC3000 shield and breakout board.

    I’m not kidding here: $50k for the first person to figure out how to harvest Shawn’s energy. I think the secret might be in his bow-tie. More research is necessary.

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    The CC300 is a handy little WiFi module from TI. This week, we are selling the bare module and a breakout board, as well as a shield. Pick your flavor. The module allows you to connect your project to a wireless network. It even has a clever little setup routine that enables you to configure the module for your network using your phone. So when you move the project from network to network, you don’t have to go in and reprogram the sketch. Nifty.

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    Looking for a bunch of sensors, but don’t want to throw down for the full sensor kit? Check out the new essential sensor kit. This kit includes a lot of our most popular sensors including a flex sensor, tilt sensor, hall effect sensor, force sensitive resistor, photocell, and more! It’s a great deal for beginners or anyone that just wants to start playing around with how microcontrollers interact with hardware.

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    We’ve been using double-sided foam tape for years to stick PCBs to enclosures. It works well, but sometimes you need something more, uh, industrial. Check out the foam PCB tape. This stuff is industrial grade foam tape for sticking things to other things. The ‘VHB’ stands for ‘very high bond’ (no, there’s not going to be a new 007 movie filmed in Denver). The tape is 1" wide and you get about a yard in length. Check the video above and you can see how strong it is.

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    People have been asking for us to carry the exact transistor that comes with the SIK. Sure. Here you go.

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    Lastly, there’s a new Beaglebone Black out this week. This isn’t shipping yet, we only have it for pre-order. This one is the ‘Rev C’ which is identical in every way, but has 4GB of onboard flash memory (instead of 2GB) and is $10 more. Keep in mind that Beaglebone plans to fill backorders on the ‘Rev B’ before the new ‘C’ starts shipping.

    That’s it for this week everyone. Thanks for watching, reading, and buying stuff. We’ll be back again next week with more new products, tutorials, and other things you might enjoy. See you then!

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  • Thursday, April 3, 2014 - 17:16
    Enginursday: Introducing the MicroView!

    I’d like to use my Enginursday post to chat about a new project our SparkFun team is working really hard on these days – something I’m super-excited about – the MicroView!

    The MicroView is a collaborative project between SparkFun and our friends JP, Marcus and Maddy from Geek Ammo, the team behind the Ninja Blocks and Little Bird Electronics.

    The MicroView, like many a brilliant product, began as a prank. When teaching Arduino classes, Marcus was frustrated by the disconnect between what’s going on inside the Arduino and the limited outputs a student can actually visualize. Aside from staring at hypnotizing, scrolling lines of the serial monitor text, there’s really no easy solution to show the data in your Arduino. To first combat this, they came up with the Magpie – an Arduino-compatible board with LEDs on every output – but Marcus asked JP if he knew of an even better solution. To which JP responded with:

    OLEDuino

    *OLEDuino not actually a thing.

    A completely fabricated, photoshopped image of a chip with a built-in OLED display. JP got Marcus hook, line and sinker, and Marcus instantly wanted it! When finding out that he couldn’t purchase this awesome new product, Marcus, not to be let down by JP’s prank, convinced his team to make the MicroView a reality.

    MicroView lit up with SFE Flame

    The Geek Ammo team has put the MicroView up on Kickstarter, and we’ve been working with them along the way, helping where we can with PCB design, part sourcing, manufacturing, and eventually reward fulfillment (this ain’t our first Kickstater rodeo). Check out their Kickstarter video!

    What’s awesome about the MicroView is its utility for electronics beginners and experts alike. For beginners, the MicroView is one of the easiest-to-use Arduino platforms available – it’s perfect for anyone looking for an education in electronics, programming, or Arduino. The integrated display really helps to visualize what the microcontroller is doing (you might say it gives you a view into the microcontroller). The MicroView will even ship with built-in tutorials to help folks get started; and the Geek Ammo team has built a set of cross-platform, interactive tutorials that teach you how to create 11 different circuits.

    uView attached to a photocell

    The MicroView is also great for experienced electronics users. It uses an ATmega328P chip – just like the Arduino Uno – and runs at 5V/16MHz. It breaks out a dozen I/O pins, including six analog inputs (A0-A5) and 3 PWM outputs.

    uView pinout

    The projected pinout of the MicroView.

    I’m personally excited about it because, by using it as a testing and rapid prototyping platform, it’s going to make my job easier. It’ll be especially awesome for testing out motion sensors, GPS modules, wearables, or anything that requires mobility. I’ve already built up a jig to use it to test our new LSM9DS0 9DoF Breakouts:

    Using the MicroView to test the LSM9DS0

    And, of course, the MicroView should have a bright future as the center-piece of finished projects. Smart watches, geo-cache sniffers, mobile breathalyzers…you name a project, I’m sure we’ll see the MicroView integrated into it soon.

    Right now we’re in a prototyping stage with the MicroView. We’ve got some functional boards and enclosures, and (not to brag or anything) I’ve been lucky enough to get to start playing with them testing them out. They’re awesome! If you want to get in early on the action, go back it now on Kickstarter!

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  • Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 18:42
    Engineering Roundtable - ELastoLite Captain America Shield

    For this edition of Engineering Roundtable, Creative Technologist Nick Poole shows us how to make your own Captain America shield in time for the “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” movie release this Friday.

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    Oooh, shieldy

    Nick decided to take his shield to the next level and incorporate some of our ELastoLite panels so the star will light up. Check it out!

    If you want to make your own shield, Nick has created a wishlist of parts here, and if you have questions, suggestions or your own ELastoLite project to share, let us know in the comments!

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