Programming Languages

Off-The-Shelf Hacker: When Funding Meets Inspiration

12 Sep 2018 2:00pm, by

Dreaming up and building new gadgets is always challenging. How do you come up with ideas for your project? How do you organize your valuable time for fabbing, modding and troubleshooting? How will I find all the parts I’ll need?

Of course, a major make-or-break question is always “how do I pay for this?”

I recently came into some funding from an interested benefactor. Today we’ll look at my parts list and what I have in mind for new and existing projects.

First… Walk for Inspiration

I frequently wander around Home Depot, Hobby Lobby or Skycraft Electronics looking for parts that will work in my projects. It is probably frustrating to be the salesperson who waits on me.

“What part are you trying to find, sir?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Can you tell me what you’re working on?”
“Well, no, not really.”
“What is the make and model of the __________?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t think I can help you, sir.”
“I know, thanks.”

It can be frustrating for me, too, if I can’t justify the cash outlay on something concrete.

Nevertheless, I just put my subconscious brain to work and ponder what might be. I make mental notes of things that might turn into solutions for projects. Typically it’s an “I’ll know it when I see it” kind of thing. The technique requires practice and trying to force the issue doesn’t work. The best ideas come when I can let my mind wander. Thoughts are recorded in a little notebook.

Free-associating while walking around looking at things is great for inspiration and connecting the dots. It could just as easily be in the barbecue grill department of an Ace Hardware store as it is in a third-Thursday contemporary art crawl through downtown galleries. Inspiration seems easier with a dash of open-mindedness and simple curiosity. Much of my fascination with steampunk is easily justified with this mindset.

I do exactly the same thing with virtual, online stores, although physically inspecting parts is still tremendously satisfying. Keeping all that theory in mind here is my parts list for this round of funding and why?

With patience, good things happen when the dough meets inspiration. Never stop dreaming.

The Big 3 “This Will Be Interesting” Parts

Audio Amp:

Lately, I’ve been busy making Hedley, my smart robotic skull, learn to talk. His jaw now realistically moves in sync with text spoken from a list of .wav files. Much of the work was while Hedley was hooked up to a small HDMI display with sound being built into both the monitor and the HDMI connection. Hedley won’t always have a monitor with an onboard speaker, particularly at a small demo session or when “portable.” Listening to him talk through headphones hooked up to the Raspberry Pi just isn’t practical for an audience. What to do?

Adafruit has a slick little 2.5-watt audio mono amplifier that will work great with a small speaker embedded in the roof of Hedley’s mouth. The board will get a feed from the audio output port on the Pi. It should be loud enough for small groups. How fun will it be to set up a microphone stand for Hedley at a conference session, then hear and watch him talk, just like a person?

Servo Driver Boards:

As my physical computing projects get ever more sophisticated I’ll need a way to control multiple servos. Adafruit also has a 16-Channel 12-bit PWM/Servo Shield that hooks up to a Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone or Arduino over an I2C interface. According to the spec sheet, the board manages the timing signals to each servo, so the host microcontroller is relieved of that duty. That way the Pi can concentrate on project logic, not updating the servo signals all the time. We’ll have to see what we can do with this board performance wise, but it looks promising.

Relay Board:

For the longest time, I’ve wanted to hook up my old sprinkler solenoids and control watering in my yard with a Raspberry Pi, especially over WiFi. Think about it. We have Python and all manner of web-based interfaces to play with on the Pi. Or, I may just go back to basics and start with a simple cron job, to switch the water on and off. Leverage the power of Linux, when possible.

I’m going to try an eight-channel relay board from Banggood. This little gem can handle 230 volts at 10 amps AC and 30 volts at 10 amps DC, per relay. Sprinkler solenoids use 24 volts at about 1 amp, so we should be good. The eight-channel model goes for $4.99. At that price maybe I’ll order several.

This board might also be useful for larger motor control projects too. Turn on AC and beefy DC motors for animation and outdoor projects sounds fun.

Spin-Off in a Different Direction

We’ve been on the same track with the Off-The-Shelf Hacker column for a while. This influx of cash will let me expand the scope of projects and explore new physical computing topics. I’m considering other parts and will portion out the remainder of the moolah over time.

Look for new story topics with these parts very soon.

Feature image via Pixabay.


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