I Should Have Bought a Real Wire Stripping Tool a Long Time Ago

A lot of the talks at Hackaday Superconference 2017 were inspiring, informative, entertaining, or a combination of the above. But one of them is the first to have a significant impact on my hands-on projects and that honor goes to the Wiring Bootcamp talk by Bradley Gawthrop.

Your first reaction is probably the same as mine: “wiring? really?” Yes, really. At first glance a boring subject, Bradley turned it into an engaging presentation. One portion of the talk preached the wonders of having an actual wire-stripping tool. After the talk I felt motivated enough to try the Knipex tool he recommended.


After using it in a few projects, I found myself really enjoying the luxury of stripping wire insulation with a single motion. This purchase has thus been categorized under “Where have you been all my life?

Knipex Jaw.jpg

Key to the magic is the relationship between the handle, the front jaw (black plastic) and the cutting blade (shiny metal.) When the handle is first pulled, the motion goes towards closing this assembly. When jaw closes on the wire insulation, the blade closes a little bit further to cut into the insulation. Beyond this point, motion on the handle is translated into horizontal movement so the blade pulls the insulation away from the conductor.

There’s no obvious way to adjust the distance between the jaw and the blade. It is either fixed or inferred from some spring tension. This works fairly well, the only problem surfaces when cutting wires with very thin insulation. In these cases the blade bites too deeply and nicks the conductor.

But that is a minor nitpick. I certainly nick conductors at a far higher rate when using my previous wire strippers. Which have been assigned the job of collecting dust while waiting as backup in case the Knipex breaks.


I got myself a real wire stripping tool and loved it. You should do it, too.

Here’s the wiring talk posted on the Hackaday YouTube channel:

Mazda Vision Coupe: Design Highlights

Different people go to an auto show to see different things. My personal target for the LA Auto Show was a concept car in the Mazda pavilion: the Vision Coupe. Mazda unveiled it at the Tokyo Auto Show a little over a month ago and it has been pretty well received. When I found out Mazda would bring it to Los Angeles I had to go see it for myself.

Front three quarter

A significant aspect of the design is the evolution away from creases in the sheet metal. About ten years ago the Mazda Nagare concept car illustrated the use of creases, and the idea spread through the Mazda line. I thought the show car was novel but I am not a fan of the translation into production cars. While some of the creases do illustrate a story flowing from one design element to another, too many of the creases feel forced. They form from seemingly nowhere and fade out to nothing, contributing little (or distracting from) the story told by the overall shape of the car.

With the Vision Coupe (and the RX-Vision before it) Mazda design declared sharp creases are played out. Moving on to the smooth sculpted surfaces has a risk – they do not show up on photographs as well as creases. So Mazda risks losing sales with people who car-shop by looking at pictures. Photos miss the full impact of the design that can only be appreciate by seeing how lights reflect and move around the body. I look forward to seeing how these ideas translate to Mazda showrooms.


Another idea I want to see translated to production are the lights. We’ve had big round headlights for most of the history of the automobile. With the introduction of compact LEDs bright enough to be headlights, designers now have new flexibility and explored different styles of LED illumination. Some designs weren’t very bold and laid out the LED in a straightforward grid. Some tried to spread them in a creative pattern, but an array of LEDs can easily make people think of arthropod eyes which can be unsettling. Some of those designs have been quite polarizing.

The solution presented on the Vision Coupe concept is to take the LEDs and form them into a circle so our human anthropomorphic brains can see an eye. But not limit it to a circle – the design plays with a line of light that carries through the eye (but doesn’t cut into the ‘eyeball’) and also with the shadows cast by the sculpted surround that evokes eyelids. Futuristic yet familiar. I like this design though I’m not sure it’ll survive translation to production. There are a lot of legal requirements on headlights that are difficult to satisfy and so are usually ignored in show cars.


On the opposite end, the taillights use a similar theme of a line of light through a circle. But now, rendered in red, the circles look like rocket engine exhausts instead of eyeballs. There are far fewer legal requirements around taillights so I hope this translates intact to some future showroom Mazda.

Sharp nose

The final detail that really attracted me is the staggered levels of the nose, led by the hood that ends in a sharp beak. Sleek and full of personality, it sadly has no chance of surviving translation to production. Real production cars need front bumpers, license plate holders, and are not allowed to cut pedestrian legs off at the knee.

But it does look awesome.

Technology for Promotion at the Los Angeles Auto Show

The 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show is underway this week. The cars are the stars, but you can read about them elsewhere. Instead, here are some of the interesting technology installed on the show floor.

There were two venues that featured the Microsoft HoloLens. I had been interested by this augmented reality headset and was happy this was a chance to try them myself.

Hololens 1 - Nissan

Nissan chose to use HoloLens to showcase their driving assist technologies. Up to six people (three front, three rear) can put on a HoloLens and look at the little toy Nissan on the table. Each of wearer sees an interactive environment projected around the toy car to illustrate how various features assist the driver. It’s possible to walk a bit to check different perspectives, but movement was limited because the HoloLens units were tethered to the table.

I felt this presentation underutilized HoloLens. It didn’t feel significantly superior to what you can accomplish with a cell phone, Pokemon-Go style.

Hololens 2 - Petersen

The other HoloLens exhibit was actually an exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum that they’ve brought to the auto show floor. The program is not interactive, but the user can walk around and check out views from different perspectives as the narrated presentation proceeded.

The best part was when they started illustrating airflow over and through the insides of the physical 2017 Ford GT in front of us. It’s quite informative to be able to move your head around to get a better feel of where the airflow is moving. Especially the X-Ray view of airflow through and under the car.

This was a much better demonstration of what’s possible with the superior precision and response rate of HoloLens tracking.

Several booth displays had some sort of virtual reality equipment. It is interesting that none of them were used to showcase any kind of driving. Just the opposite – most of them were there to showcase autonomous vehicle technology, a.k.a. the lack of driving.

VR 1 - Ford motion couch

Ford brought this motion-controlled couch with four seats, each of which can seat somebody with a Google Cardboard-style headset to experience riding in a Ford autonomous vehicle.

VR 2 - Volvo

Volvo brought in four Vive headsets to illustrate their safety technologies, much as Nissan did with Hololens. One random technical point of interest: I only found a single location beacon in the installation. Vive usually needs two beacons. I wonder where the other beacon was or if they’ve managed to do without the second.

VR 3 - Infiniti

Infiniti’s VR experience takes the guest on a virtual ride in the QX50. The most novel part of the program was the beginning, where parts of the SUV flew through space and assembled themselves around the viewer into a QX50.

VR 4 - VW

In contrast to the compact seating of the Volvo booth, VW put up this huge glass ring to give their I.D. Crozz VR ride plenty of elbow room. The guest seemed to stay seated through the whole experience so it’s not clear why this amount of room was necessary.

VR 5 - Nissan

I’m sure Nissan paid a lot of money for their Star Wars license for car promotion. And they were not afraid to use it! Liberally customized Nissans modeled after various Star Wars properties were on display. Their pavilion included this “Droid Repair Bay” VR activity. It looked so cool I almost didn’t wonder what it had to do with cars.

None of the AR or VR experiences featured any actual driving. For that, there were plenty of old-fashioned driving simulators on display.

Driving Sim 1 - Forza

Forza Motorsports are here to promote… themselves! I have Forza at home so didn’t bother to spend time playing it here.

Driving Sim 2 - Hyundai

Hyundai Racing had a four-seat configuration. What caught my eye is that they’re using Forza for the driving experience but the race car is sponsored by Gran Turismo. (See banner on top of the windshield.) Hmm…

Driving Sim 3 - Demon

Not all the driving sims were about the race track; the simulator set up in the Dodge pavilion lets people try their hands at drag racing. A fitting way to promote their drag strip focused Dodge Demon.

Driving Sim 4 - Ford

Ford brought in a full-motion driving simulator to promote the off-road focused F-150 Raptor. The hydraulic cylinders simulate the rough and tumble of racing head-to-head (back-to-back?) through a dirt track.

All good marketing companies have worked to think up ways to build customer connection through social media. There were plenty of photo booths present for people to post company-sponsored images to their social media. Two stood out for their novelty.

Selfie 1 - Honda

Honda’s “Dream Machine” is a selfie cam mounted in a little pivoting pod at floor level. After the person takes the picture, they press a trigger and a smoke ring puffs out of the pod towards the big screen, “sending” the picture to be displayed on the big screen.

Selfie 2 - Toyota

Toyota brought an array of cameras that all takes a picture at the same time, so the guest receives an animated GIF of them in Matrix-style “bullet-time”.

Hands-On Fun for Kids at DTLA Mini Maker Faire

Today was the DTLA Mini Maker Faire (DTLA = downtown Los Angeles) and I went to see who the event would draw. I know there’s plenty of maker activity in the greater Los Angeles area, but it’s such a big area hindered by world-famous traffic congestion that it’s rare for everyone with common interest to gather together in one place. Any group of like-minded people are likely to congregate within several local clusters versus one big Los Angeles group. A call out to gather should be interesting to see.


I was not disappointed! Groups came from all across Los Angeles basin and I saw many interesting things I didn’t know existed. The event took place in the downtown Los Angeles Public Library during regular hours. Maker Faire exhibits were tucked into various rooms scattered throughout the library adding a scavenger hunt into the experience.

My favorite part was seeing so many booths offering hands-on activity for young children to play with. I had expected grown-ups showing off their hobbies, since that’s what I had read about other Maker Faires in the past. I certainly got that, but I was more amused watching little kids engrossed in their own activities so this post is focused on the little ones.

The loudest booth in the courtyard is definitely the reDiscover Center booth. They had a basic woodworking shop set up and kids were building things with real woodworking tools (not plastic pretend tools) under adult supervision.


At the other end of the courtyard, SGVLUG (San Gabriel Valley Linux User’s Group) had multiple activities but the most popular was where kids were given old computer hard drives and the tools to take them apart. It looked like hard drive platters were being extracted to become Christmas tree ornaments.


MatterHackers is a 3D-printing retailer within driving distance, but not close enough for me to have made a visit yet. They had a Ultimaker 3 running, but more interestingly, they had two 3D-printing pens set up for kids to freehand their own plastic creations.


HexLab Makerspace came prepared with laser-cut wood kits of dinosaurs. But they didn’t just hand them out to kids for assembly – they also had paint set out for kids to color their dinosaurs and staffers offered encouragement to the children creating their own masterpieces.


The scattered nature of the event meant some attractions were harder to find than others, which is unfortunate. Getting to the auditorium required walking through a few uninviting-looking hallways that probably caused it to be overlooked by many. Those who entered could see robots for the FIRST robotics competition set up on stage. Kids could get in line to drive one of them on stage.

FIRST drivingOne of the robots is built to launch balls into the air, a task required in one particular competition. This robot gets all the attention whenever they demonstrated the ball launch mechanism.

FIRST firing

This event had fun for tinkers young and old alike. It has made me much more interested in attending more Maker Faires.

HaasTec = Machinists’ Amusement Park

A few weeks ago I walked through the exhibition floor of WESTEC and had a great time looking over all the displays. There were Haas machines on the show floor, but they’re CNC grinders from a German company. Not the Haas based in Oxnard, CA. I’m told the two companies were founded by different men with the same family name but not related.

Haas Automation – the home team based in Oxnard, CA – did not participate in the industry trade show. They opted to hold their own event instead. Called HaasTec, I went and as an aspiring machinist I had a great time.

Haas subcontracts out the metal casting operations around the world. Those castings are brought to Oxyard to be machined and assembled. The Haas manufacturing floor is an endless parade of highly automated machinery working on their assigned jobs with minimal human supervision. Many of which are Haas machines built in the very same factory.

Haas Factory 1

There were more people present on the assembly side of the factory floor, with machines in various stages of assembly. The manufacturing workflow is tracked in a computer database and we happened to catch a production manager with some time and he was enthusiastic enough about the system to walk us through a few of his everyday tasks that he can perform on his iPad. It was fascinating to see how high-tech the whole process has become.

After the factory tour we walked through the showroom and watched various sales representatives put machines large and small through their paces cutting metal. As a fun side bonus, we can take home some of these demo pieces as souvenirs.

It was well worth the >3 hours (round trip) drive to attend the event. I certainly enjoyed it much more than I would anything they could have set up on the WESTEC exhibition floor.



TechDay LA 2017 Notes

TechDayLA.PNGWESTEC 2017 ran for three days, but I only got my hands on the free registration towards the end of the second day. Unfortunately that third day overlaps with TechDay LA so I had to split my day between the two venues. Going from one to the other is like going to another planet. The atmosphere was decidedly different between the two venues.

TechDay LA had quite a few companies that follow the current trend of offering a web-based service – sometimes with or without a mobile app component – that purports to help solve problems that I didn’t even know existed. Many of these blended together after a while as one company offering free T-shirts hasn’t really differentiated themselves in my mind from another company offering free T-shirts.

I was pleasantly surprised to find 3Diligent present at TechDay LA. A rapid manufacturing company that is willing to deal with low-volumes of a startup was something I had expected to (and did) find at WESTEC. And these guys are just across town in El Segundo. When I asked about learning the ins and outs of each of the processes, so I can design to optimize for them, I was told I would be sent a “design guide” to help me get up to speed. I look forward to receiving it.

A name I was pleasantly surprised to see here was Arrow. They were present because in addition to being the electronic components dealer I know them for, they have gotten into the business of small volume assembly. So they were here to connect with hardware-based startups that might need a hand building the electronics guts of their product. One day I might count myself in that group.

One criticism I have for this and many similar tech meets is that more than 50% (maybe as high as 75%) of the presenters aren’t startups. They are marketing companies, direct-mail solutions, venture capital funding, legal offices, generally support infrastructure that want to sell a service to a startup. Even a “Party on Demand” service that pumped obnoxiously loud music the entire time I was there. I don’t want these companies to be excluded from the conversation (after all, my two highlights Arrow and 3Diligent were in this category) we have more “support crew” than innovators. The LA area start-ups actually trying to do something novel gets crowded out.

But to end on a happy note: I did have a great chat with a small startup that, with its understated display, is evidently more focused on the product than on flashy show presence. We read about the oncoming era of drone deliveries, DASH is one of the companies working to make it happen. Staffed by SoCal aerospace industry veterans, using the open-source ArduPilot as a foundation, they build a turnkey delivery solution. I hope they find success.

WESTEC 2017 Notes

westeclogoCourtesy of Tux-Lab, I got a chance to attend WESTEC 2017 on a free exhibits-only pass. Sort of like how I got in SIGGRAPH 2017 exhibits. And just like SIGGRAPH, I was not the target audience and much of the show went over my head. Half of the time I would stare at a company’s booth and be at a complete loss as to what their product or business was. Fortunately, since I attended on the third and final day with tapering traffic, most of the exhibitors had spare time to explain what they do. The marketing manager for SW was even nice enough to chat about career and life advice on dealing with people in general. Well above and beyond the treatment I had expected for someone not remotely a prospective customer.

But it’s not all gawking. I had hoped to find a few businesses that might be interesting to work with, and fortunately there were some vendors present who are willing to work with small volumes and short production runs. In fact, a few places specifically cater to it. Roncelli is just down the street for machined plastic components, and Hilltop across town is similar for metal. If I’m willing to have the product shipped, there are smaller shops like Avid Product Development and large operations like Proto Labs.  Proto Labs feels like Shapeways, but instead of jewelry and trinkets, they cater to making precision parts for actual products and have the infrastructure (and price tag) to match.

But those were the exceptions. For the bulk of the vendors I’m just there to look at the nifty machines. The Vollmer Vgrind 360 caught my attention because it was “backwards”: The carbide cutting tool I saw wasn’t doing the cutting – it was being cut by precision grinding wheels. Another CNC grinder was made by a machine tool company named Haas, but it has no relation to the Haas machine tool company I knew of.  Fortunately I was assured I’m not the first person to get confused.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Exhibit Floor

And finally, a few words about the exhibit floor of SIGGRAPH 2017. After all, it is primarily what my exhibits-only pass is intended for. My first stop was a quick glance over the paper posters. It is interesting to see where researchers are focused today. Some of them are solving problems I didn’t even know were problems.

There were the mega-booths expected of a tech trade show, by the usual suspects. Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA were all present to proclaim each of them are the best for graphics. This year AMD has a pretty compelling story with their Ryzen CPUs and Vega GPUs and I wish the best for the underdog.

There were also many large booths offering VR experiences. Not the small consumer grade VR experiences like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive with two or three tracking devices. These are huge setups with tens of cameras offering freedom of movement over hundreds of square feet. I was impressed at all the technology and investment going into VR until I got a little smarter: They are actually motion capture companies that have configured their demonstration booths to show VR experiences because that’s what’s hot this year for getting people’s attention. Most of their revenue come from doing things other than virtual reality.

For trade show exhibits that are presumably trying to attract customers, some of these vendors are surprisingly cagey about the technology. Things that I thought were innocent beginner’s questions were met with “I’m sorry we can’t discuss that.” The friendliest representative I encountered was at the Motion Analysis booth.


He explained the booth – which had a line of people waiting to try the zombie apocalypse shooter VR experience on display – is a cooperation between his motion-capture company and one of their customers who operates VR arcades with the zombie shooter experience. The motion tracker system’s control computer was nearby and he walked me through the basics of how these systems track motion by correlating  the imagery across their many cameras. I learned that the price tag for a system like that used by the zombie VR arcade have six to seven digits after the dollar sign, which means I’m definitely not getting one in my home anytime soon.

I did not expect to see 3D printer companies on the exhibit floor. Makerbot, Formlabs, and several other names I didn’t know were present. I enjoyed getting a close look at all the finely detailed prints they can produce, I did not enjoy their associated price tags.

That is to be expected. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about computer equipment, VR systems, motion capture, or 3D printer. This is an industry trade show displaying professional-level equipment that can stand up to commercial use. Not the hobbyist-level equipment that I’m more familiar with.

It was fun to see them up close and personal on the SIGGRAPH exhibit floor.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Exhibitor Sessions

An exhibits-only pass holder like myself is barred from most of the interesting presentations and talks. However, we are thrown a bone in the form of the SIGGRAPH Exhibitor Sessions. I had expected these to be glorified sales pitches for the companies that exhibit at the convention, but they exceeded my expectations and turned out to be informative, educational, entertaining, and often combinations thereof.

OpenSubdivPixar had a few sessions centering around their open-source efforts. I realized I might have been out of my depth when the OpenSubdiv talk dove straight into adoption success and future road map of the product. They didn’t bother explaining what it was to ignorant people like myself – I guess if I didn’t know, I didn’t belong at that session.

Several software vendors offered sessions for their customers to talk about their work. Such sessions accomplish multiple objectives at once: The software product is seen in action as a production tool, the customer of the product advertise their service, and we learn a little of the nuts-and-bolts behind the scenes. I attended one such talk that broke down some of the work behind the animated household items of Beauty and the Beast (2017), and a different session (by a different vendor) talked about Rocket and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Much of the technical details went over my head. I wish I was a little more conversant on these topics, but I did catch a few things here and there and jotted down a few items to look up when I got home. One example was the Alembic interchange format used by these effects houses to collaborate on a film. Since each shop has different software tools and different ways of working with them, an open data interchange format like Alembic is essential for the ecosystem to function.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Computer Animation Festival

“LOU” by Pixar Animation Studios

A highlight for many SIGGRAPH attendees is the computer animation festival. I was very happy to discover tickets for the show is a separate purchase from the very expensive conference ticket, which I can’t justify buying. As far as movie tickets go, $40 is pretty darn pricey. But it is SIGGRAPH, it is special, so out comes the credit card.

One disappointment of the festival is the VR theater. All advertising for the computer animation festival talked about the VR theater. Virtual reality is a new media and many filmmakers are exploring ways to tell a visual story with it. With all the promotion of the VR theater – including a pitch by a speaker at the screen event itself – it was a rude surprise to discover the VR theater was only open to conference attendees. My animation festival ticket did not permit entry.

This felt like bait-and-switch and left quite the bitter taste in my mouth.

But back to happier things, the non-VR animation shorts that made an impression on me. About half of them are short films that tell their own little story. There were several visual effect break-down reels of recent films, showing how the various effect shots were made. I enjoyed seeing the before/after footage cutting in between.

The Jury’s Choice short, Buster the Boxer, is unique by presenting both: the short film (which is also an advertisement) followed by a VFX breakdown of what we just watched. I loved seeing both back to back.

A few clips were just compilations of completed shots – effectively bits of the film with no breakdown information. I found those uninformative and just disappointing.

I was fond of the short Scrambled for two reasons: (1) non photo-realistic shading resembling hand drawn animation, and (2) animation for the Rubik’s Cube character. The animators managed to convey emotion and personality purely by arranging the 26 little cubes that make up a Rubik’s Cube.

Analogue Loaders offered an unexpected perspective: it re-imagines many various “please wait” animations we see on computers. Turning them into physical world (“analogue”) representations, and of course it is itself a computer animation done in the digital world. A little bit of animation Inception.

The Best in Show short, Song of a Toad, has been filed away in the “I don’t get it” section.

The festival, which can trace its roots to the Luxo Jr. short by an infant Pixar, wrapped up with the latest Pixar short: LOU. It lived up to the legacy and expectations of a Pixar production, and was a very entertaining way to wrap up the evening.

SIGGRAPH 2017 Los Angeles


I had been fascinated by computer graphics for almost as long as I’ve been interested in computers. My earliest memory of computer graphics was at the California Museum of Science and Industry, predecessor to the current day California Science Center. In association with the 1986 World’s Fair (Expo ’86) in Vancouver, British Columbia, the museum held an exhibit on computer graphics. Part of the exhibit was a computer lab where museum attendees can watch an artist work on a computer. Next to the lab was a TV screen running a video loop.

My attention was captured by the video loop. It included the landmark animation short Luxo Jr. There were many other technical displays of computer graphics in the video loop, but the little hopping lamp is the one that made me sit on the bench and wait for the loop to repeat.

Since this was before the age of Google and Wikipedia, it took me some time to learn that Luxo. Jr. was first presented at a computer graphics industry conference. At the time it was officially just a demonstration of the algorithm described in a paper presented at SIGGRAPH 1986. But history showed it was far more than a simple demo.

Once I knew about SIGGRAPH I knew it would be interesting. However, the conference is not cheap, even before considering the airfare and hotels. Most of the attendees are there for business: they work in a career where their employer would foot the bill. I did not work at such a job so SIGGRAPH remained out of reach.

Until this year.

SIGGRAPH 2017 is in the Los Angeles Convention Center, roughly a 40 minute commute away. Since I didn’t have to invest in airfare or hotel expenses, it made sense to get a taste with a cheap exhibits-only pass.