What Is Sparkfun?
Welcome to the world of Sparkfun.com—an online community of people who like to build things by hand. If given the choice, these people would rather build something than buy it, and they often do. In fact, many of the things they build could only have been created by hand, since their visions are so imaginative that they don’t exist for sale at stores. These people call themselves Makers. Maker projects include everything from mechanical works of art to functional gadgets. In this article, we’ll introduce you to some of the makers and their projects that involve consumer electronics.
Sparkfun.com is a place for Makers to share their projects and learn from each other in the forums and chat rooms, but it is also a place to buy supplies—everything from simple circuit boards to preprogrammed microcontrollers. The site also sells basic kits for beginners.
Together with Sparkfun.com’s managers, who keep close tabs on the Makers’ projects, we selected some of the most interesting Maker inventions and concepts to highlight in this article. Some of them are funny and whimsical and will make you ask the question “why?” Others have true potential to change the gadget world and affect the products we buy in the future. Tell us which ones you think are most impressive.
CD Spindle LED Nightlight
Created by Ryan Baker
Sometimes it is possible to use your wit to come up with an elegant solution for a problem in a relationship. Such was the case with Ryan and his girlfriend. She, having adverse feelings towards the dark, preferred to sleep with the television on, but he, being a light sleeper and easily distracted by the flickering lights, couldn't sleep with it on. Of course, a cheap nightlight would remedy the issue, but Ryan had a better and much more graceful plan that he called the “girlfriend nightlight.”
He took an empty CD spindle and fitted a small LED circuit into it. His project's stylish yet simple nature made it a very good starting point for someone who is interested in getting into the maker scene. Ryan even took the extra step to document the process of building his LED nightlight in a detailed, step-by-step instructional guide. If you would like to see how his nightlight works or build one for yourself, his instructional guide can be found here.
Duplo Traffic Lights
Created by Paul Boardman
Like Ryan's LED nightlight, Paul's Duplo Traffic Light also deals with relatively simple circuitry, with the added complexity of a programmable microcontroller. As a Christmas present for his children, Paul modified a previous traffic light project of his to create this elegant Duplo-sized result. It has the same widely adaptable microchip, the Atiny13, that his previous project did, so he was able to use the exact same programming code. This Atiny13 chip is what cycles the lights from green, to yellow, to red. He managed to squeeze it all into a hollowed-out Duplo block, with just a little on/off switch sticking out. You can see the results and additional photographs on Paul's blog page here.
Rotating LED Display (POV)
Created by Aki Korhonen
Similar to the previous two projects, this one too is centered on the use of LED lights, but it takes yet another step towards complexity. The project is based on the concept of Persistence of Vision (known in the maker scene as POV), which takes advantage of the way our eyes work. When we see an object, especially a bright one, it lingers in our vision momentarily, even after it is gone. Because of this, it is possible to make a single column of lights appear as a plane of lights by moving it across the field of vision. A POV display, like Aki's, rotates a column of lights to keep it constantly moving across our field of vision, and with a microchip controlling the lights with careful timing, a solid image can be formed. Aki has more information about how he built his POV display, including photos and videos, on his site.
Copper Mountain Grooming Display
Created by Dwight Eppinger
Dwight helps manage the Copper Mountain Ski Resort and he wanted to build a better and easier way of keeping the ski-run signs up to date. He came up with the idea to use Arduino Mega boards along with the Xbee wireless shield. With this combination of hardware, Dwight was able to add an LED matrix display and create a system that he could update wirelessly from a single location. Now, whenever a run is groomed, opened, or closed; the sign is automatically updated when the ski patrol makes any changes to their central snow-reporting database. It is also used to update the resort's Facebook page, Website, and mobile site. It is a pretty respectable feat considering he's driving quite a few LED displays from a single Arduino board, and even more respectable that it is coming along so cleanly. You can check out the entire system on his blog.
Puzzlemation, Animated Puzzle
Created by John PetersonEvery now and then, a project comes along in the maker community that is truly original and years ahead of its time. John's Puzzlemation is exactly this. It uses a set of 8x8 LED displays that are individually powered and drive their own animations, allowing them to be picked up and re-arranged freely. A special docking tray allows you to load images and animated routines onto the individual displays and synchronizes them together. Once synchronized, the displays can be removed and positioned freely, lasting several hours before needing to be recharged. With the affordable prices and power requirements of new OLED displays and RF technology, John's project has a lot of potential to be adapted into a realistic product in the near future. It will be interesting to see how his idea might progress. You can see more details on Puzzlemation, including video, on his Website.
Supersonic Rail Gun
Created by Ravi Gaddipati
Just about every physics geek in the world has considered building a rail gun at some point. Ravi not only built one already, but is in the process of fine-tuning his second. His first was powered by 5,600 joules of electricity, yielding projectile speeds of around 500 feet per second (340 miles per hour). With his most recent version, he has upped the total energy to 12,000 joules, which should be capable of breaking the sound barrier when operating at optimum efficiency. A rail gun works by turning two metallic rails into massive capacitors, one positively charged and the other negative. These two rails create a strong magnetic field between them, and when a conductive material connects the two, extreme amounts of electrical current pass from one rail to the other. This is where the magic happens. When a current flows through a magnetic field, it generates force. It's this force that propels the projectile out of the rail gun. You can see more on Ravi's rail gun as well as a video of it in action on his blog.
RFiDJ, Wireless Tactile Music Control
Created by Victor Laynez
This is another one of those projects that has the potential to define a new era in future products. Victor always liked to relax to some music when he got home from work, but turning on his HTPC, logging in, and selecting a playlist felt just a bit too clumsy for his liking. He came up with an extremely elegant solution using picture-frame coasters and RFID chips. RFID is a type of wireless technology that utilizes ultra-low power usage to allow for very short distance wireless communications. Victor combined the RFID chips with the coasters to be used with a specialized RFID reading table. Each coaster can be paired to represent things like a radio station, playlist, or album. The end result is that Victor comes home, chooses a coaster, and sets it on the table to start playing his music. For more information on RFiDJ and videos of it in action, you can see Victor's Website.
Shruti-1, MIDI Synthesizer
Created by Olivier Gillet
Shruti-1 is a MIDI monophonic synthesizer, with compact being the operative term. Olivier wanted to build a synthesizer with as many features as possible within the constraints of an affordable microcontroller, and as a result, Shruti-1 has a very wide range of exotic and modulated sounds. He also wanted it to be small and affordable, and best of all, open source. This means that anyone can build one, if they wanted, and Olivier provides everything from parts lists and circuit printouts to firmware code. It is all based on the Atmega328 microcontroller, which is a very popular chip among the maker crowd. The synthesizer also includes an LCD screen for added feedback when synthesizing sounds. It may look a bit rough around the edges, as it is just a prototype right now, but it really does make some impressive sounds. You can see more, and hear the results, on Olivier's project page here.
Winduino II, Digital Wind Chime
Created by Jason Warriner
Winduino is a digital wind chime, although it shares more of a resemblance to an Aeolian harp. It takes movement from the wind and turns it into a soft, melodic sound. While digital wind chimes are nothing new or out of the ordinary, Winduino takes things a step further, adding wireless Bluetooth to its list of features. Using Bluetooth, it communicates with your computer, allowing for direct playback from your computer speakers. A lithium polymer battery, similar to your average cell phone battery, powers it and the digital chime has a large solar panel to charge the battery quickly on a sunny day. It is a very elegant, modern version of an ancient instrument, and it has a lot of potential to be built with all sorts of artistic enclosures. You can see more on Jason's Winduino, including a video of it in action, on his project page here.
ZephyrEye, Paintball Gaming System
Created by Brad Nelson
The ZephyrEye is a small electronic gadget, inspired by radar systems in first-person shooters. Using a GPS sensor and long-range transmitters, it can keep track of bases, forts, bunkers, field perimeters, as well as scoring for games such as King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, and video game favorites such as Team Slayer from Halo. And, of course, it also shows you where all the players are on the field and the direction they are traveling, with optional settings to show or hide enemy players. Depending on the chosen game-type, players can re-spawn, just like in video games, by returning to a neutral or base location for a preset duration of time. "Dead Men Walking" (or, players that are still on the field but have been shot, hence "dead" and out of bounds) are identified on the radar screen to discourage cheating and to keep players from accidentally shooting non-combatants. It also displays ammo count (usage detected by a microphone), time, and has a basic menu-based messaging system for team direction. You can see more on Brad's blog.
Biomimicry Serpentine Robot (Snake)
Created by Robotics and Beyond
Robotics and Beyond is composed of a group students interested in the pursuit of engineering endeavors. One of their members, a high school student, is working on a robotic snake he likes to call a Biomimicry Serpentine Robot. It uses individually housed sections, linked together by servomotors. Because of its inherently modular design, its functions are independent of the number of sections it has, so it could be anywhere from a couple to 30 or more linked sections. In its present form, it only has six sections, but they are in the process of creating and adding more. With each new segment, its movements become more and more lifelike. You can see its progress on a blog page created by one of Robotics and Beyond's members here. Other projects the group is working on can also be found here.
AdMoVeo: Robotic Platform for Teaching
Created by Sjriek Alers and Jun Hu
Designing intelligent products, systems, and related services require designers to be able to integrate different technologies into their designs. In the real world, larger-scale products generally have two teams working on them, one handling the programming, such as AI, and the other handling the hardware, such as circuits, motors, and sensors. Sjriek Alers and Jun Hu from the industrial design department at Eindhoven University of Technology, created AdMoVeo as a platform for design students to bypass the complexities of hardware and circuit design and to instead focus on the programming aspect. AdMoVeo itself is a small, versatile robot platform, capable of being programmed for functions like autonomous motion involving line following, wall detection, sound detection, and light detection. They can even be programmed to play small-scale, soccer-like games. You can find more information about AdMoVeo on the researchers’ official Webpage and in their paper.
Scooty Bot, the Balancing Robot
Created by the Evans Brothers
Scooty Bot is a two-wheeled balancing robot, much like a Segway scooter. The Evans brothers plan to make it into a viable transportation platform, but now it is only capable of balancing on its own and is not yet capable of carrying a person. However, the robot is extremely good at keeping its balance, so the day it can transport a human being is not far off. Ideally, Scooty Bot will become a very affordable alternative to a Segway scooter. In its current form, Scooty Bot only costs about $200 to build, not including the microcontroller programmers. Compared to the $5,000 plus price tag for a new Segway, it would seem that Scooty might have a very good chance at becoming a true consumer product. Of course, a true production model of Scooty will likely cost considerably more than $200, but it still has a lot of headroom before hitting the Segway’s $5,000 mark. You can see more on Scooty Bot in the Evans brothers' blog, including a link to their gallery with images and videos of Scooty in action
GUI Bot, the Tiny Robot
Created by Rodrigo Forrequi
Rodrigo created GUI Bot as a self-teaching aide to try his hand at autonomous-motion control, specifically line mazes. But GUI Bot is also capable of being controlled with a remote, making it a fun little toy to drive around. While this project is very similar to AdMoVeo, Rodrigo's thorough documentation makes it a very interested find. In his blog, you can see the evolution of GUI Bot as it goes from concept, to prototype, to final product. He really does a great justice to the maker's community, giving a deep insight into the process of bringing an idea to life.
HydroStar, Autonomous Submarine
Created by KJ Edwarks and Kate Lew Newcomb
KJ and Kate are senior students in an advanced high school robotic engineering course. Their project goal was to create a fully submergible and autonomous underwater vehicle. HydroStar utilizes several systems to achieve autonomous control. Using bump sensors, it can avoid obstacles, and using two hydrophones (underwater microphones) positioned on opposites sides of its chassis, it can identify and hone in on locations of sound sources, much like the human ears. Lastly, using CO2 canisters and a hot water bottle, HydroStar can vary its buoyancy allowing it to control its depth as a result. It turns out to be an affordable and adaptable system for underwater exploration, and perhaps with a bit of modification, the vehicle will one day be used for underwater scavenging and recovery. You can see the students’ full write-up on their product page here.
Air – R.E.S.C.U.E. Autonomous Helicopter
Jake Neighbors, Kelvin To, Eric Harmatz, and Luke Hatchbatch are students in the same advanced robotic engineering course as the creators of HydroStar. Air–R.E.S.C.U.E. is designed to become a fully autonomous flying machine, based on a helicopter chassis. At press time, it had mastered the ability to take off and hover entirely on its own. The flying machine will soon have the ability to navigate and negotiate a course autonomously as well. To achieve full autonomous maneuverability, it makes use of a plethora of sensors, including ultrasonic range finders, an accelerometer, a digital compass, and a GPS unit. The team hopes that the project can be adapted in the future to become an affordable platform for aerial photography. You can see the entire project write-up on the build page here.
AeroQuad, Four-Rotor Helicopter
Created by Ted Carancho
AeroQuad is a remote-controlled helicopter platform based on the extremely stable four-rotor design. The four-rotor design makes for a very flyable platform by itself, but Ted has taken it a step further by adding features such as low-cost gyroscopic stabilization and a customizable computer flight controller using open-source tools. Not only is the design inherently stable, it also makes for a strong platform for heavy lifting, which is ideal for things like aerial photography. Ted uses the very popular Arduino microcontroller board to tie everything together and to serve as the brains of the system. It uses three accelerometers and gyros to monitor pitch, roll, and yaw, which the Arduino mainboard uses to calculate the necessary rotor speeds to keep the system stable while still giving you adequate control over it. You can see all of the additional features Ted has added, as well as images and videos of AeroQuad in action on his page.
The Faceman, An Internet Remote
Created by Josh DeWinter
Josh, an apparent fan of The A-Team (which has a big-screen version coming out soon), created The Faceman, an Internet remote control. It is capable of switching digital outputs of on-and-off switches for lights, heaters, computers, etc. It also has analog inputs for monitoring many useful things, such as temperature, barometric pressure, and water levels. The Faceman wraps all of this up in a straightforward Web-based interface. In other words, you can access it from any browser anywhere, as long as you have an Internet connection. The system is a great (and affordable) solution for home automation that can even be used with Web-enabled cell phones. You can see more details about The Faceman on Josh's webpage here.
HCS_C Home Automation
Created by Robert Morrison
Similar to Josh's Faceman system, Robert has created the HCS_C Home Automation system. Where Faceman gives you the basic features you'd want, HCS_C adds a plethora of additional features. On top of the basic inputs and outputs necessary for home automation (Web-based control, relays for turning things on and off, etc.), it also has ports for peripherals like LCD displays, keyboards, touch screens, etc. It even has an intercom system that can broadcast audio messages around the house. The system also has a significantly more powerful ARM processor to drive everything. HCS_C is designed to be easily expanded through use of specialized combo cards, which can add an additional 16 relay switches, on top of the included 64 inputs and outputs. The HCS platform has been around for over 20 years, but it was only recently that Robert began implementing it into a modern platform. You can see more on his HCS_C system, as well as learn about the history of HCS, on his Webpage.
TAS, Twitter-Controlled Home-Automation System
Created by Erdem Yildirimer
Yes, this is yet another home-automation system, but Erdem puts an interesting spin on it. While the others have been based on timers and customized Web interfaces, TAS uses Twitter as a backbone for his project. His system monitors a specific Twitter feed and checks for pre-defined strings and terms, taking certain actions based on these terms. TAS relies on a host computer to pull the necessary Twitter updates, but Erdem hopes to add an integrated Ethernet solution to TAS in the future, allowing it to operate entirely on its own. You can see more on Erdem's blog. Although it is in Turkish, through the graces of Google Translator you can read the blog in comprehensible English.
D3 Detergent Dispenser Device
Created by Christian Becerra
Christian is a regular volunteer for House of Neighborly Service, and while dispensing small bags of laundry detergent, he noticed that it caused a lot of particulate to float around in the air. All of this detergent dust was very irritating to the skin and eyes after a long time of exposure, so Christian came up with the idea for a mechanical dispenser device that he called D3. It holds all of the detergent in a five-gallon water bottle, and upon the press of a button, dispenses a pre-measured amount of detergent to be passed out to those who need it. It is always nice to see a humanitarian-based project like this. You can see the entire build process as well as Christian's other projects on his site.
Modular||Neuroid, Wearable Sensor Pack
Created by Joe Saavedra
Here's another humanitarian project: Modular||Neuroid is a wearable, reconfigurable sensor pack and data contextualization system that allows users to collect, share, and understand data using wearable sensors recording environmental conditions such as carbon monoxide, light, noise pollution, and methane gas exposure among others. Users choose what to sense, and then connect with others around the world to share knowledge and experience. Using a GPS sensor, it pairs the statistical data with the user's location and time at which it was taken. With enough of these devices in use around the world, it could be possible to gather enough data to make statistical analysis and predictions on both a global and local scale, allowing scientists to work towards avoiding or preventing environmental havoc. You can read all about Joe's Modular||Nueroid on his thesis Webpage here.
SmartJacket, Haptic Feedback for the Seeing Impaired
Created by Janis Jakaitis
The SmartJacket is a jacket designed for the seeing impaired. It uses a wide array of sensors to help keep the user aware of his or her surroundings and out of harm's way. One of its features is gesture-controlled lighting, allowing the user to enable blinking lights while crossing a busy street, making them more visible to vehicles. These lights can also be turned on automatically when an ambient light sensor detects poor lighting conditions. The jacket also notifies the user of sub-zero temperature conditions in which sidewalks and streets may be icy. Future versions will also include a GPS sensor and vibrating mechanisms to keep the user on a predetermined path. It is a great project with a ton of potential. You can see extensive information on his entire project at Janis' blog.
LoneHeart, Real-Life Social Enabler
Created by Janis Jakaitis
The Internet brought about an entirely new social experience. Chat rooms and instant messengers gave us new methods to communicate with people, and with the added anonymity, engaging in conversation was much easier than in real life. However, other than the occasional "how's it going," there is next to zero interaction. That is why Janis came up with the LoneHeart concept. It's a small device that you carry with you that will broadcast your social availability (busy, free, looking for study buddy, etc). Other LoneHeart devices nearby pick up this broadcast wirelessly. You can also use your LoneHeart device to look for others that may be interested in your company. The whole idea behind the project is to remove that initial awkwardness we feel when approaching people in person. More on the LoneHeart project can be found here.
Camera Axe, a High-Speed Photography Trigger
Created by Maurice Ribble
Camera Axe is a tool for photographers to trigger camera- or flash-based signals from various sensors. It is useful for catching phenomena that happen too quickly for human reflexes. Some examples are photographing a popping balloon, a milk-droplet splash, or a bullet piercing a strawberry. It can also be configured for motion activation, allowing you to set up the camera in situations that you may only happen occasionally, such as birds flying by a feeder or someone walking down a hallway. The possibilities are endless. Maurice's Webpage has more information on the Camera Axe, including examples of its work.
Orientation Aware Camera
Created by Andrew Magill
Andrew built an orientation-aware camera using an accelerometer and magnetometer along with some specialized software code. Using the two sensors, the camera is capable of keeping track of its pitch, roll, and yaw. With this information at its disposal, Andrew's specialized software is able to do things like stabilize the image, keeping it level regardless of the rotation of the camera. It can also be used to combine sweeping images together into a panoramic view or to paint a skybox for a complete 360-degree image. Andrew wrapped it all up in a nice-looking enclosure. The end product looks very nice and it quite functional. He also has detailed information, including the software source code, on his Webpage.
OpenMoco, Photographic Motion Control
Created by C. A. Church
OpenMoco is an open-source hardware and software system for photographic motion control. Its main purpose is for that of time-lapse photography, using the popular Arduino platform to run up to two cameras, three to four motor axes, and perform complex functions such as linear speed ramping in output video, key framing, action scripting, and more. Church hopes that future versions will be able to handle additional features like stereoscopic shooting and even gigapixel photography. The system is designed to be very modular, allowing for communication with other existing systems and retro-fitting control for existing hardware solutions. Church's primary focus is to enable do-it-yourself motion-control enthusiasts to use new techniques and hardware, without having to re-learn the basics with every hardware change. You can see more on his site.
Created by Ian Cole
Ian is building an Arduino-based spaceship simulator for his son's spaceship-themed room. They managed to get their hands on a ton of military surplus parts that have worked really well to create the illusion of a spaceship cockpit. So far, they have managed to gather up a joystick from an M1 Abrams tank; a keypad, which I believe is from an Apache Helicopter; and a collection of analog gauges and buttons. With an LCD display, a strobe light, and a few sirens; there is an awful lot of hardware to make for quite the imaginative experience for Ian's son and his friends. Ian is actually working very closely with his son, letting him give input and come up with ideas for ways to best use the hardware they have. It is an excellent father-son project to spark a fun and early interest in the maker scene. To see their progress, check out their blog.
ShapeOko Mill, a Cheap CNC Router
Created by Edward Ford
With the creation of RepRap a few years ago, the DIY CNC (computer numerical-controlled) mill became very popular in the maker scene. ShapeOko, named after Shapeways 3D printing and Ponoko laser cut services, is the beginning of an affordable CNC router. Edward is aiming for a total build cost under $400 with the added constraint of making it into an easy-to-build system. So far, ShapeOko is only capable of 2D etching, but progress is coming along well, and before long, it will be proficient at full three-dimensional routing. Given that most commercial CNC routers cost upwards of $1,500, ShapeOko will make a very strong competitor in the 3D-routing market. You can watch Edward's progress and access more information about ShapeOko at his Webpage.
CubeSpawn, CNC and Manufacturing System
Created by James Jones
While CNC machines have become fairly common recently, CubeSpawn is extremely unique. A normal CNC system is capable of printing out a 3D part, perhaps with some electronic circuitry if it is a particularly fancy CNC printer, but these systems are still only capable of printing out a single part. However, CubeSpawn will provide an entire manufacturing platform, capable of not only printing several parts, but assembling them as well. In short, CubeSpawn is a modular and adaptable assembly line. The cubes come in several types, allowing the user to adjust his or her cost index very precisely. So far, there are five types planned, for light CNC milling, cheaper 3D routing, a loading cell, a tool changer, and a head changer as well. Their Webpage details all of their plans and progress thus far.
Though we selected 30 projects for this article, there are dozens more at Sparkfun that are worth checking out.
Here are a few more projects that we were not quite able to squeeze into the article:
Judd Tomsbases' Cheap Heliostat
David Chase's Modified Bike Generator
Russ Patterson's Backyard Solar Projects
Peter Tyser's Motion-Based iPod Remote