Adventures in Wearable Electronics - Making a Light-up Dress

For New Year’s Eve 2014, my girlfriend and I went to a dance party where wearable electronics were not only encouraged but also on display from a variety of hobbyists. I decided to use this as an opportunity to combine two of my favorite hobbies: sewing and electronics.

It is my goal to encourage more people to weave wearable electronics into their own clothing. It’s the future and we might as well look the part. Plus it’s easy to get started and to modify existing code.

The full source code for this dress is available on GitHub.

Hardware

I attached six addressable LED strands from Sparkfun ($20 each) to the lining of Brittany’s dress, and then used a Flora module from Adafruit ($25) to control them. I then used a 3 x AAA battery holder from Adafruit ($2).

Setup

I used Adafruit’s NeoPixel library to control the LEDs. There were 60 LEDs per 1 meter-long strand. We only needed 40 of the LEDs, but instead of cutting them off, we simply sewed the unused third underneath the strand and cut the software off at 40 LEDs. This way we can repurpose the LED strands when we decide to move them to a new dress.

In order to make the connections between the LED strands and the Flora module, I used 30 AWG wire, which is an extremely thin and light wire. The gauge is 0.01” and is as fine as thread. This allowed me to sew the wire into the fabric. I could have used conductive thread, but this wire wrap has a sheath that prevents it from shorting other wires when they touch. It’s also extremely light-weight, so having 18 wires (3 wires per LED strand: power, ground, data) looping around the dress wasn’t an issue.

I also want to mention that the code below is hard-coded for six stands. There is a fine line between a hack and a project, and for this, due to my limited time budget, was closer to hack than reusable project. You can easily abstract the code below to account for more or fewer strands, but I was able to ship before midnight on NYE, so I’m considering it a success.

void setup() {
  // To ensure that the first random color in `loop` is never the same
  randomSeed(analogRead(0));

  led_a.begin();
  led_b.begin();
  led_c.begin();
  led_d.begin();
  led_e.begin();
  led_f.begin();

  clearLEDs(true);
}

void loop() {
  for (int i=0; i<2; i++) {
    hulahoop(randomColor(), random(20,60));
  }

  sparkle(randomColor(), random(30,70));

  raindrops(randomColor(), random(20,60));

  spiral(randomColor(), random(15,30));
}

Above we have the code for setup and loop, the two main Arduino routines. Notice that I am repeating the hula hoop routine, since it’s pretty quick and looks good on repeat.

I also want to note that every single routine gets its own random color and random delay. This bit of randomness is something I weave into all of my wearable electronics, since it goes just a bit further than off-the-shelf components and shows that there was some intelligence behind the routine.

By giving a random delay to each routine I am actually changing the speed of the routine. Sometimes the raindrops would fall quickly, sometimes the hula hoop would have a slow fall and rise. It’s all part of making mesmerizing patterns.

Continue reading Adventures in Wearable Electronics - Making a Light-up Dress (4958 words)...

Building a living photo frame with a Raspberry Pi and a motion detector

Every hardware hacker has a start, and this one is mine. My girlfriend bought me a Raspberry Pi for my birthday, and so I became determined to build something with it for her birthday two months later.

As you can see above, I built a photo frame that has a few interesting parts. For one, the software which runs the photo frame, which I explore below, keeps the photos fresh from Instagram and Flickr. It then displays a random photo for a configurable six seconds. Secondly, there is a motion detector, built using a PIR sensor, which only turns the monitor on when somebody walks by.

This photo frame is easy to build, but it does take a bit of know-how. Mainly, you should feel comfortable soldering wires and mounting the screen and Raspberry Pi to a board or other object. The hard part for me was figuring out how to turn the monitor on and off through the command line.

Everything else is gravy, from configuring wifi and autoboot/auto-login on the device to attaching and setting up the motion detecting PIR sensor. You can also use the eLinux guide to Raspberry Pi and its handy RPi Hardware Basic Setup wiki.

Parts

Raspberry Pi

I chose to use a Raspberry Pi for its simple wifi integration so that photos could be automatically updated. I didn’t want to have to load photos on to an SD card which could then be read by an Arduino.

Connecting the monitor was also trivial on a Raspberry Pi, where an Arduino, Maple, or Beagle Bone would require sourcing a connection between the monitor’s composite input and an output from the device.

Raspberry Pi, $29 on Adafruit.

Make note of the fact that you actually don’t see any of my connections on the top of the board (pictured below). In the below photo, where the Raspberry Pi is flipped vertically to show off the electrical connections, the monitor’s composite cable and the motion detecting PIR sensor’s red wires are soldered underneath.

This way the photo frame looks cleaner. If I had connected the monitor using the yellow composite cable, it would have to be with a male-to-male composite adapter, since both the Raspberry Pi and the monitor have a male RCA connection. This would jut out about 2 inches below the device, resulting in a messy look for the frame.

3.5” LCD Monitor

3.5” LCD Monitor, $45 on Adafruit

Note that if you do not plan to solder the composite cable’s two wires, you will need the ugly male-to-male adapter, sold for $1.50 on Adafruit.

There are a number of different sized LCD monitors:

1.5" LCD, $40
2" LCD, $40
2.5" LCD, $45
4.3" LCD, $50
7" LCD, $75
10" LCD, $150
Continue reading Building a living photo frame with a Raspberry Pi and a motion detector (2832 words)...

Backbonification: migrating a large JavaScript project from DOM spaghetti to Backbone.js

We’ve all done it. Our code base has one huge monolithic file, packed full of JavaScript spaghetti. It’s unwieldy, hard-to-debug, and has little to no separation of concerns. It is a nightmare to bring new engineers up to speed.

This blog post is about decomposing NewsBlur’s single-file 8,500 line JavaScript application into its component parts: 8 models, 12 views, 3 routers, 3 collections. This post explores patterns, techniques, and common pitfalls in migrating from vanilla JavaScript to Backbone.js. It covers moving routers, models, and views, and the process used to migrate a living app.

NewsBlur is a free RSS feed reader and is open-source. The benefit of being open-source is that you can see all of the changes I made in this migration by looking through the commit history.

As a bit of background, I worked on Backbone.js in its infancy, when Jeremy Ashkenas and I worked on DocumentCloud’s many open-source projects.

The Presentation

This post was written concurrently with a presentation. Depending on your style, you can either read on or flip through this deck. Both have the same content, but this post expands on every concept in the presentation.

There’s no need to go through the presentation. Just read on for the whole kaboodle.

Pre-reqs: Libraries

There are only two libraries you need to be intimately familiar with in order to make the most of your Backbone transition: Underscore.js and Backbone.js. That means not only being comfortable with reading the source code of these two libraries, but also knowing all of the methods exposed so you can reach into your grab-bag of tricks and pull out the appropriate function.

Underscore.js

Underscore.js is another DocumentCloud library that makes your code more readable and compact by providing useful functions that massage, filter, and jumble data.

One popular use of Underscore is creating short pipelines that take a large collection of models and filters it based on conditions. That much is easy. But there are other uses that are beneficial to know.

You should be comfortable with all enumerable methods. Think about all of your model collections as reduce-able, filterable, and selectable.

Here are two examples of Underscore.js at work:

// Get ids of all active feeds
_.pluck(this.feeds.select(function(feed) {
    return feed.get('active');
}), 'id');
// Returns: [42, 36, 72, ...]

// Count fetched/unfetched feeds
var counts = this.feeds.reduce(function(counts, feed) {
    if (feed.get('active')) {
        if (!feed.get('not_yet_fetched') || feed.get('has_exception')) {
            counts['fetched_feeds'] += 1;
        } else {
            counts['unfetched_feeds'] += 1;
        }
    }
    return counts;
}, {
    'unfetched_feeds': 0,
    'fetched_feeds': 0
});
// Returns: {'unfetched_feeds': 3, 'fetched_feeds': 42}

Backbone.js

The star of the show is Backbone.js. The entire backbone.js file is fewer than 1,500 lines long, and that’s with 228/1478 lines of whitespace (15%) and 389/1478 lines of comments (26%).

This is a basic example of the layout of the four main classes: models, views, collections, and routers. A fifth meta-class called Events is mixed in to each of these classes.

How to start

The first step is no easy task. Take your existing design and visually decompose it into its component views. Each view will be represented by either a single model or a combination of models. In fact, you can even have a view not be backed by a model at all.

Take the NewsBlur UI for example. It’s a standard three-pane view, with feeds, stories, and story detail:

Notice that there are multiple views inside other views. Some views are meant to be simple wrappers around other, more functional views.

Continue reading Backbonification: migrating a large JavaScript project from DOM spaghetti to Backbone.js (6072 words)...

For Good Reason, NewsBlur Will Not Compete With the Big Boys

NewsBlur has and, for as far out as I can see, will be a side-project. It’s fun, but I can’t even begin to imagine the headaches I’d face if I had to support a living salary through NewsBlur. My goal is just to meet potential co-founders and to try to make a splash. And I’ve been meeting folks here in NYC who I would not have met otherwise. So it’s working quite well, so far. Fabulously well, in fact.

Raising money for something like this must be difficult and a huge crapshoot. There are a lot of fadish readers out there who have already sucked up most of the goodwill that the press is willing to give to this area, and even then, they have a design element that is extremely hard to compete with. Financial backers would much rather shut a site down than let it live a meager existence. They’re not out to support a site, they want a 10x return. Funding doesn’t make any sense for what I want.

Besides, now I can build fun features like social, the iPhone app, and river of news in peace. Who knows what markets I would have to chase if I had stakeholders. Enterprise! Aggregators! Ick.

I think any other business is a better business to be in, but who knows if my tune will change within the next 12 months, as I roll out bigger features.

Old-style Mac OS X Leopard Exposé in Snow Leopard

Progress is progress, except when it gets in the way of your workflow. Let’s compare these two screenshots:

Old-style Leopard Exposé

New-style Snow Leopard Exposé

Notice how much more pleasant the old-style Exposé is? Introduced in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, and virtually unchanged until OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, it featured proportional windows. By just looking at the size of the window relative to the other windows, you can get a fair idea of what the application is.

The proportional windows went out the window with the new Exposé. Now it features an inexplicable grid, with windows resized to all different dimensions relative to their original size.

Old-style Exposé in Snow Leopard

The great news is that you can get the old-school Exposé back. The beta builds of Snow Leopard included a new Dock.app that used the old-style exposé. By installing the old Dock.app, you get the new Dock features of Snow Leopard, while preserving the legendary Exposé.

Installation

  1. Download the Snow Leopard beta-build of Dock.app
  2. Save to your Desktop and unzip.

Run the following commands in Terminal.app:

#!sh
sudo chown -R root ~/Desktop/Dock.app;
sudo chgrp -R wheel ~/Desktop/Dock.app;
sudo killall Dock && \
sudo mv /System/Library/CoreServices/Dock.app ~/Desktop/OldDock.app && \
sudo mv ~/Desktop/Dock.app /System/Library/CoreServices/

Easy to do and indispensible now that you have it back. Hat-tip to miknos at MacRumors for the original find.

Note that you will have to repeat this process every time you upgrade your Mac OS to a new patch release (10.6.6 -> 10.6.7).

@samuelclay is on Twitter.

Use Google Reader? I built NewsBlur, a new feed reader with intelligence.