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Off-The-Shelf Hacker: How Do I Make A Steampunk Eyeball?

Apr 16th, 2016 3:43am by
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As an Off-The-Shelf Hacker, I’m on a constant, never-ending and seemingly uncontrollable search for new project ideas. A potential new project always starts with some questions, even if I’m not aware of it consciously.

  • Where do I find a project idea?
  • How do I even get started with a project?
  • What is the “build” process?
  • What kinds of things hold me up and how do I overcome roadblocks to getting a project done?
  • What about the ideas I don’t use?

Over the next few Off-The-Shelf Hacker columns, we’ll explore the process of doing a new project and run down the answers to all those interesting questions and more.

Notice The Current Art

A while back, I came across the Pixy camera. It’s a medium-res device, with a powerful, built-in, on-board video processing engine. It is capable of tracking a hundred objects of 7 different colors at 50 frames per second. My mind raced with how I could use such a beast.

Within short order, I had one sitting on my desk. Now, what do I do?

Like any other gadget, I immediately hooked the camera up and ran it through its paces. Playing with a device, a new application or process is a necessary part of figuring out your next project. How can you possibly know, what you can build, particularly with bleeding-edge technology, if you don’t explore and come up to speed on the latest state of the art?

It’s always best to have a part, in your hand, while doing your exploration and due diligence. Sometimes the hardware isn’t quite yet available, for sale. No problemo. The Internet is jammed full of parts and project bits that are screaming out to be combined into cool stuff; you just don’t know about them yet. Take advantage of the magic of the Internet and regularly spend time on “idea” sites like Hacked Gadgets, Hack-A-Day, Instructables, Singularity Hub, GizMag and YCombinator.

Don’t forget to keep up with history and old tech. Check out and the recent Off-The-Shelf Hacker story, “The Past and Future of Hardware Hacking.”

What Problem Do You WANT To Solve?

OK, so I’ve found a Pixy camera and know its features and how it works. How do I transform a little circuit board into something useful?

I like to jot down a list of “wants.” In the corporate world, this list is known as “requirements.”

As a technology writer, who also does quite a bit of speaking, I have projects that are geared toward fitting into those two areas. I’m also a fan of Steampunk and have found that both readers and audiences like my use of the aesthetic in stories and tech talks. Put these things together and I get the following, in no particular order:

  • Use the Pixy camera
  • Make it unique so it attracts attention at conferences
  • Make it fun for the readers and audiences
  • Build something cool
  • Make it move
  • Give it a strong Steampunk look

Of course, moving from a list of “wants” to an actual working physical computing project that does something, requires a certain amount of imagination. The good thing, I think, is that you can develop your imagination and get better at it over time. Like everything else, imagination takes practice.

I thought about how I might use the Pixy for quite a while.

One Saturday, at the Orlando Robotics and Maker Club, a colleague demoed his robot with movable ping-pong ball eyes. I thought that was interesting and started experimenting with servos and my designs. Take a gander at my early “door knob” version.

Early "door knob" servo-eye prototype

Early “door knob” servo-eye prototype

It moved in the X-Y directions and had a blue LED behind the lens. At one point I hooked up the Pixy and could sort-of track objects, although it didn’t work all that great because I didn’t understand the particulars of the Pixy servo-control firmware and the servo geometry.

Later, the eyeball idea evolved into something that was big enough to be seen and attract the audience’s attention, would move during my presentation, be considered cool and look Steampunk.

That something is my current Steampunk Eyeball project.

It will be a table top device with a Steampunk theme, that “watches” me as I walk around on stage. It will use the color-object tracking capability of the Pixy camera to activate servos, causing the eye to follow my brightly colored shirt or marker (possibly infrared) that I’ll wear on my jacket or hat. We’ll get into the details of the parts and build soon.

My rationale is that audience members will be inspired by the contraption to possibly pursue their own project and want to start a conversation. And, naturally, here I am writing about the project, for fame and fortune. See, everything works out.

Homework Time

Pick a device that you really like and start making up your “want” list. Carry the part around for a few days, periodically looking at it and noting ideas that come into your head. Do this with several parts, if you want.

Explore the features and functions of the device(s). Think about how you can leverage those features and functions to do useful things. Don’t worry about the practical aspects yet, just knock the ideas around for a while. You may or may not think about combining multiple parts. Try not to get overwhelmed with all the great possibilities. Perhaps, it’s a good time to start a little project idea notebook that you can carry around.

Another suggestion is to use themes, to help you steer your project directions. I like Steampunk.

If you turn Steampunk into a partial acronym, you get Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math or STEAM. It’s a perfect metaphor for my interests of writing and speaking about cutting-edge maker-type projects. Steampunk, writing and speaking just go together for me. I now have an endless supply of project ideas.

Maybe you like space. Think about how your device might work in a space-themed application. Put an Arduino for telemetry in a model rocket. How about a gardening theme? Use a Raspberry Pi with a USB webcam to make time-lapses photos of your plants growing. Or, maybe a hot-rod theme for your projects. Use a Pi, some sensors, and a small color LCD to show engine performance or play music in your car.

You’ll get the hang of it.

What’s Next?

Bat those project ideas around, this next week and we’ll start working through how to bring it to life, over the next few weeks.

Columns two through four will cover project development and the build. Then column number five will wrap up the project, cover lessons I’ve learned and discuss next step/next generation ideas.

I’ll be covering my Steampunk Eyeball and you can track along with your own project. In about a month, we’ll both, hopefully, end up with working projects.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Shelf.
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