Alt.SXSW: Dorks Convene in Palm Park

MAKE alt.SXSW content badgeToday is Today is the last official day of SXSW Interactive, and in a small park nestled behind the Austin Convention Center and I-35, the makers convened.  Two tents—one for maker exhibits, one for an all-day DorkbotADX lineup of speakers—hosted a great array of makers showing and talking about projects.

Thanks to Dorkbot Austin, ATX Hackerspace, and  SXSW for hosting. Here’s a glimpse at MAKE’s day at SXSWCreate.

A handcrafted landscape from John P. Funk's animated YouTube series, "Captain Cozmic of Planet Patrol"

10BitWorks hackerspace from San Antonio showing their hack on a RepRap Mendell 3D printer (it uses UAE parts vs. metric)

The Giant Brain by tested attendees for a variety of mental disorders, and provided reparation (not pictured) with medicinal tinctures and vibrating thought rectifiers.

Michael McDaniel (father of twins, Senior Visual Designer at frogdesign, AND founder/CEO of Reaction Housing System) spoke about his obsession to create inexpensive, robust, and dignified temporary housing solutions for disaster relief.

College of Lockpicking taught the fine art of cracking the physical code of common locks.

Fraternizing in the SXSWCreate exhibitor tent—with MAKE and the MakerBot's new Replicator at the entry.


Cell Phone Signal Detection

A schematic of a half-wave dipole antenna connected to an unbalanced coaxial cable.

The perfect example of a project that could use that extra little push to overcome specific technical hurdles or design needs, Sophi Kravitz from MIX Engineering has been working on cell phone detection for several months now. From coming up with a concept, to beginning research, then experimenting with available hardware, and finally, publishing results and fielding feedback, this is how an idea becomes reality! Speaking of her project, she says,
Road to Maker Faire Challenge

The circuit I’m working on simply detects (a power level) when a call, text, or email is made. It uses an antenna to detect the signal, which attaches to an RF detector to output a power level. Basically these chips are little power meters… Most of the RF detectors go to an input level of -60dBm, which means an amplifier will be required in between the antenna and the RF detector. Typical opamps don’t have the required frequency response, so a specialized RF amplifier is the type of amplifier needed.

Having achieved results already, sometimes funding is all a project needs to finally take off. So last week, Sophi submitted her project to the Road to Maker Faire Challenge, where one lucky maker will win $2,000 to fabricate their idea and bring it to Bay Area Maker Faire in May! Best of luck to you Sophi. Now, are you ready to accept the challenge? Apply now!


Killer Wildlife Shots

Kill Shot Camera

Brothers Randy and Michael Gregg are currently developing a product called the Kill Shot, a replica hunting gun that takes photos instead of firing bullets. Users would locate their “prey” in the crosshairs, then pull the trigger, snapping a time and date-stamped shot, which gets stored on the memory card housed where the standard magazine would normally be. The Kill Shot could zoom and take video as well, but it’s unclear if it would have the magnification of a scope or if it’s essentially a digital camera housed in a gun-shaped case. Interesting idea, nonetheless, but seems like a potential recipe for disaster if misunderstood. (SFGate ran a topically related article over the weekend titled “Wildlife photography embodies thrill of the hunt.”) What do you think?

Kill Shot

[via Gizmag]


Longboard Generates Light While You Ride

ITP student Danne Woo modified his longboard with strips of LED lights that illuminate when a wheel-mounted generator spins. In short, a stepper motor is run through a bridge rectifier followed by a one farad supercapacitor and then into the LEDs. The resulting project is suitably called “The Circuit Board.”

This self-contained unit gives the rider increased night-time visibility, but also looks wicked cool as it’s rolling down the street.

Note the thoughtful mounting of the stepper motor to the skateboard’s truck, and the spring-actuated tensioner that keeps the motor’s shaft mated snugly to the wheel. Also, a bit of Plasti Dip on the shaft keeps a suitable amount of friction to optimize power generation.

Danne has further documentation on his site. Maybe the next iteration can implement some rugged enclosures to protect the board from the elements and even utilize power to do something else. Perhaps to charge a cell phone?



Alt.GDC: Developing Skylanders’ Innovative “Portal of Power”

My alt.GDC series came to a close on Friday, but I still have one story I’ve been wanting to tell. In my day job, I work as a game designer for a company called Toys for Bob which recently released the wildly popular game called Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. The game comes with an external device (called the Portal of Power) that communicates with your console and action figures that can be identified by the portal and brought to life in the game. You swap out characters as you play by changing the character on the portal. Players can also expand their selection of playable characters by collecting more toys.

Before I went into GDC on Friday, I swung by the Toys for Bob offices in Novato, CA and sat down with Robert Leyland, the technical engineer behind the Skylanders hardware, and I-Wei Huang, the character and toy director (also known to MAKE readers as magazine and site-contributor CrabFu), to discuss the process of developing this innovative title.

MAKE: What can you tell us about the early development you did on the Skylanders concept; where did you start?
Robert: We started with a bunch of prototype ideas… When the Wii came out, it had these new controllers and people started thinking: We could make more devices, more accessories, and you saw this with things like Guitar Hero, Wii Fit, the Tony Hawk skateboard. So we wanted something that would connect to the Wii to create a physical device.

There was a period there where we said “But how are we going to connect it? Will we need to mount a Wii-mote in it?” And right around that time, on MAKE or Instructables, I can’t remember where – we saw it on Gizmodo, somebody published a hack about how to use a Wii Nunchuck to control an R/C helicopter and we thought: Whoa, that’s really pretty cool. And we looked and sure enough they weren’t just wiring to the potentiometers in the controller, they were using the output signals and there was a bunch of software published that showed that you could get the signal data from the Nunchuck controller. And I thought that was neat that they’d done that, but I also thought, if I can pretend to be a Wii Nunchuck controller I can talk to the Wii and we can go the other way.

Robert Leyland at his desk. I think he likes his job.

So a few weeks later, we have an Arduino and a circuit board and some wires, and on the Arduino I’m pushing a button and its going through the controller and being registered in our script as a button press from the Wii. So if we’re controller 2, we can talk to the Wii while the player’s controller 1. We did a few tests and proved that it all worked. But then we talked to Nintendo and found out that there’s only about 15mA of power available to the controller which would barely run an LED, let alone a CPU or anything else, and there were way too many restrictions so we thought we’ve got to find some other way. Eventually, we ended up going through the USB port. And then somewhere along the line, somebody came up with the idea of “making toys come to life” and we thought: That’s good, that’s fantastic, in hindsight the best idea we’ve ever had. And we looked at different ways of connecting the toys. We looked at little contacts on the toys, different RFID techniques, and we finally settled on one of those, partly because it was an ISO standard, and partly because there were open source libraries published to access the RFID controller.

So, we got an RFID controller from Turkey, the Arduino from Italy, and the USB connection which was wired here in California with a software library from some guys in Germany – you can just pull all of these pieces together and gosh, you can quickly prototype something which is really neat.

The first connection we had was only 5 bits; we were pretending to be a keyboard and whenever you got a keystroke it said “Oh, that’s key X, so that’s Spyro” or “Key 7, that’s Bash.” So with those individual keystrokes you could essentially see a character, but we knew we needed more IDs than that, so we eventually wrote a protocol that would send longer data sequences. And it evolved from there.

The original portal prototype made from kitchen sink and toilet hardware.

MAKE: What kind of hardware did you use to build the original portal prototype?
I-Wei: We spent a lot of time going through hardware stores, office supply, and craft stores looking for things we could use. It’s fun, it’s really similar to what I do with my steam-powered robot stuff (CrabFu Steamworks), you go into a store with the mind of “I need something that has this shape and size.” It’s a different way of shopping, you’re pattern matching. “What could I find that would fit that look, if I painted this thing, or if I cut this part off, I don’t need this section, but if I take this other part and put it here…”
Robert: And it can be any part of the store; it could be the toy section, it could be the kitchen section, it could be the plumbing supply section… In the plumbing section we found a pipe that was the right diameter and flared at the bottom. It was for a toilet! But it enabled us to put a light in the bottom, a sheet of translucent plastic on top and a ring of LEDs around it to create the effect we wanted.
I-Wei: And on the bottom where the main LEDs are we used a kitchen sink drain because it had a nice reflective surface, it was already a bowl shape, so the light on the bottom would be like a flashlight, shining all the light upwards.

MAKE: And you were using Arduino for the electronics?
Robert: Yea, I think the early prototypes used a Boarduino from Adafruit. Actually even earlier than that I was using two 555 CMOS chips timed together to control the LEDs and they were wired to a “magic moment” button, so in our demos someone would put the toy on the portal, but I was off to the side pushing the button going “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

MAKE: At what point in prototyping the portal technology did you show it off to Activision?
I-Wei: Pretty early on. This was the kind of thing that we had to see the idea internally to prove to ourselves that we weren’t crazy, but also if you just imagine Skylanders as a pitch on paper, I don’t think it would have been very successful. But as soon as we made the first hand-made sculpey figure and you put it in your hand, you start to get it, and then having a portal that actually worked, where as soon as you put a character on it you see a character on screen running around a simple world, that’s all you need to sell it and we had that really early on.

MAKE: I-Wei, what can you tell us about the making of these incredibly popular toys?
I-Wei: The quality of the toys that are on the shelves today is the result of our ignorance in the toy industry. We weren’t toy makers, so we spent a lot of time going through every little detail with these characters because we wanted a cool toy, not just a good-enough toy for our age group. If you look at other toys in our price range, the amount of paint, the amount of detail isn’t there. You’d say “Oh, that’s a cool toy for a kid,” but to an adult it wouldn’t be as interesting. We just didn’t have that filter of “This is good enough to sell.” We wanted you to be able to look at the toy by itself, apart from the game, and say “Wow, that’s a cool toy!”

Name those Skylanders! (Trick question)

The humble beginnings of Skylanders

At the time we had no experience making toys and the kind of mold-making you need for mass-producing toys so we relied on an external company to make them. We would give them sketches of characters and in-game models, animations, screenshots, and everything, and they would produce a toy that we would then tweak and tune to get the likeness and personality to show through a little bit better and that process could take many many months. We did many iterations of the character and paint and pose and everything.

MAKE: How has this process been improved since the completion of the first game?
I-Wei: Now we have a 3D printer in our studio, so we can do everything internally. We take our in-game model and we res it up in Z-Brush so it looks great and has all kinds of detail in it. Then as soon as we have the high-res version we put it in different poses because it’s also an in-game model which already has a rig. We usually try about 3 poses and then we just export it, hit a button and the next day we have a 3D print (It’s actually a bit longer process to prep a 3D print in color). So this time around we have much more control over how the toy’s look. The 3D printer has sped up a process that could take, from final concept to a toy that looks great, around four months. Now we can have a model roughly done in about a week. We’ve greatly streamlined this process.

How many dollars does that guy owe me?

Several 3D Prints of Terrafin striking a pose

MAKE: In closing, do you have any advice for getting publishers or investors to subscribe to a crazy idea like this?
Robert: When you pitch your prototypes, you want to make sure that they are good quality, they’re neat and tidy. Take the time to put it in a box and package it up so it’s not just written on the back of a fish and chips wrapper.
I-Wei: Especially for me, on the visual side that’s vastly important because you’re really selling your idea and you want to make sure that the first impression is good. Make sure everything is as polished as you can make it. It’s harder to sell a tech demo. If it’s a beautiful looking thing and you can grab them by the emotional strings you don’t have to explain the tech.
Robert: Another piece of advice when prototyping: Go with standards.
Don’t try to own the entire space. The more you can do something unique, find a niche that works with other standards, the better off you are, because people will find ways to use your stuff that you didn’t envisage. It seems obvious, but sometimes it’s not.

See all of our alt.GDC coverage


Intern’s Corner: RFID Door Unlocker

As an intern in the Lab, I have the chance to work with professional makers — a group dedicated to the magazine, the readers, and the whole maker movement. As a student in the first year of the MAKE high school class, I get to see the awesome power of this movement as it captivates my peers. As a class, we have planned and built a geodesic dome large enough to house a car, two T-shirt cannons for school sporting events, PVC go karts to be entered in pedal-powered races, and much more. This semester, we have the opportunity to work on a project of our own design. I want to use RFID technology to unlock my car door as I approach.

Because my car has manual locks (it’s a 98 Toyota Tacoma), I must use an Arduino to translate the RFID reader’s signal into mechanical motion. Most projects online only pertain to cars with an electric locking system already in place, so this part of the project is truly my own.  I am using this 12V solenoid, wired to my car battery, to provide the mechanical motion to push the lock.

To pick up the RFID signal, I’m using this Parallax RFID reader, which will be mounted into the wall of my car door, directly under the handle.

Finally, to translate the RFID signal into the solenoid’s motion, I am using an Arduino Uno board, powered from a battery pack.

The RFID reader will be wired into the Arduino’s pins, as will my 12V car battery and the solenoid. The Arduino acts as a gate: when the reader detects the correct RFID tag, the Arduino opens the connection between my car battery and the solenoid, and the door unlocks.  Voila!

Before I set the components up inside my door, I have some potential problems to deal with. I don’t want the to be harmed by the vibration in the door when I shut it, so I think I’ll be mounting everything in a project box with ample styrofoam protection. However, I want the battery pack to be accessible, because removing the door panel repeatedly to change them will be irritating. For this, I think I’ll drill a small hole in the door panel, and run the battery pack out to the small door pocket.

I’m in the process of removing my door panel, and I’ll tackle the Arduino code next-there are ample RFID libraries online, thanks to the vast programming community. Stay tuned for the next steps of my project as I near completion, and feel free to pose questions or provide possible solutions to my problems! Until next time,

Make: Labs Engineering Intern


In the Maker Shed: RFID Starter Pack

Who doesn’t love RFID? It unlocks doors, helps you find lost pets, and even helps you pay for coffee. With applications ranging from industrial to domestic, the possible uses for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) are nearly endless. With the RFID Starter Pack (available in the Maker Shed) you can experiment with this amazing technology yourself! Just hook the included RFID reader  up to an Arduino (not included) and you’ll be able to add a whole new level of interactivity to your projects. Want to build a smart wine rack? How about a teddy bear that responds to its surroundings? Using the variety of included RFID tags and a few extra components you’ll be able to open all kinds of new doors for your creativity.



Lego Mindstorms NXT Beer Machine

NXT1engineer‘s remote controlled Beer Machine twists off bottle caps and trundles the beer into a mini cooling unit, which chills the brewski to -9 degrees C. [via The NXT Step]


Nanometer Scale 3D Printer

Researchers Jan Torgersen and Peter Gruber at Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) have successfully printed intricately detailed models of various objects at the nanometer scale using a process called “two-photon lithography”. In the process, they also managed to speed things up a bit and have gone from printing in millimeters per second to meters per second.

With such a fine print resolution, the group hopes to develop bio-compatible resin capable of generating scaffolds for medical use. [via]


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