Sparklecon 2020 Day 2: Arduino VGAX

Unlike the first day of Sparklecon 2020, I had no obligations on the second day so I was a lot more relaxed and took advantage of the opportunity to chat and socialize with others. I brought Sawppy back for day two and the cute little rover made more friends. I hope that even if they don’t decide to build their own rover, Sawppy’s new friends might pass along information to someone who would.

I also brought some stuff to tinker at the facilities made available by NUCC. Give me a table, a power strip, and WiFi and I can get a lot of work done. And having projects in progress is always a great icebreaker for fellow hardware hackers to come up and ask what I’m doing.

Last night I was surprised to learn that one of the lighting panels at NUCC is actually the backlight of an old computer LCD monitor. The LCD is gone, leaving the brilliant white background illuminating part of the room. That motivated me to dust off the giant 30-inch monitor I had with a bizarre failure mode making it useless as a computer monitor. I wasn’t quite willing to modify it destructively just yet, but I did want to explore the idea of using the monitor as a lighting panel. Preserving the LCD layer, I can illuminate things selectively without overly worrying about the pixel accuracy problems that made it useless as a monitor.

The next decision was the hardest: what hardware platform to use? I brought two flavors of Arduino Nano, two flavors of Teensy, and a Raspberry Pi. There were solutions for ESP32 as well, but I didn’t bring my dev board. I decided to start at the bottom of the ladder and started searching for Arduino libraries that generate VGA signals.

I found VGAX, which can pump out a very low resolution VGA signal of 160 x 80 pixels. The color capability is also constrained, limited to a few solid colors that reminded me of old PC CGA graphics. Perhaps they share similar root causes!

To connect my Arduino Nano to my monitor, I needed to sacrifice a VGA cable and cut it in half to expose its wires. Fortunately NUCC had a literal bucketful of them and I put one to use on this project. An electrical testing meter helped me find the right wires to use, and we were in business.

Arduino VGAX breadboard

The results were impressive in that a humble 8-bit microcontroller could produce color VGA signals. But they were not very useful in the fact that this particular library is not capable of generating full screen video, only part of the screen was filled. I thought I might have done something wrong, but the FAQ covered “How do I center the picture” so this was completely expected.

I would prefer to use the whole screen in my project, so my search for signal generation must continue elsewhere. But seeing VGAX up and running started gears turning in Emily’s brain. She had a few project ideas that might involved VGA. Today’s work gave a few more data points on technical feasibility, so some of those ideas might get dusted off in the near future. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I’ll continue my VGA exploration with a Teensy microcontroller.

Sparklecon 2020: Sawppy’s First Day

I brought Sawppy to Sparklecon VII because I’m telling the story of Sawppy’s life so far. It’s also an environment where a lot of people would appreciate the little miniature Mars rover running amongst them.

Sparklecon 2020 2 Sawppy near battlebot arena

Part of it was because a battlebot competition was held at Sparklecon, with many teams participating. I’m not entirely sure what the age range of participants were, because some of the youngest may just be siblings dragged along for the ride and the adults may be supervising parents. While Sawppy is not built for combat, some of the participants still have enough of a general interest of robotics to took a closer look at Sawppy.

Sparklecon 2020 3 Barb video hosting survey

First talk I attended was Barb relaying her story of investigating video hosting. Beginning of 2020 ushered in some very disruptive changes in YouTube policies of how they treat “For Kids” video. But as Barb explains, this is less about swear words in videos and more about Google tracking. Many YouTube content authors including Barb were unhappy with the changes, so Barb started looking elsewhere.

Sparklecon 2020 4 Sawppy talk

The next talk I was present for was my own, as I presented Sawppy’s story. Much of the new material in this edition were the addition of pictures and stories of rovers built by other people around the country and around the world. Plus we recorded a cool climbing capability demonstration:

Sparklecon 2020 5 Emily annoying things

Emily gave a version of the talk she gave at Supercon. Even though some of us were at Supercon, not all of us were able to make it to her talk. And she brought different visual aids this time around, so even people who were at the Supercon talk had new things to play with.

Sparklecon 2020 6 8 inch floppy drive

After we gave our talks, the weight was off our shoulders and we started exploring the rest of the con. During some conversation, Dual-D of NUCC dug up an old school eight inch floppy drive. Here I am failing to insert a 3.5″ floppy disk in that gargantuan device.

Sparklecon 2020 7 sand table above

Last year after Supercon I saw photographs of a sand table and was sad that I missed it. This year I made sure to scour all locations to make sure I can find it if it was present. I found it in the display area of the Plasmatorium drawing “SPARKLE CON” in the sand.

Sparklecon 2020 8 sand table below

Here’s the mechanism below – two stepper motors with belts control the works.

Sparklecon 2020 9 tesla coil winding on lathe

There are full sized manual (not CNC) lathe and mill at 23b shop, but I didn’t get to see them run last year. This year we got to see a Tesla coil winding get built on the lathe.

For last year’s Sparklecon Day 2 writeup, I took a picture of a rather disturbing Barbie doll head transplanted on top of a baseball trophy. And I hereby present this year’s disturbing transplant.

Sparklecon 2020 WTF

Sawppy has no idea what to do about this… thing.

SparkleCon Day 2

A great part of SparkCon is its atmosphere. It is basically a block party held by 23b Shop and friends in the same business park. Located in Fullerton, CA, the venue’s neighborhood is a mix of residential, retail, and commercial properties. As a practical matter, this meant good eats like Don Carlos Mexican Restaurant and Monkey Business Cafe were in easy walking distance.

Originally my Day 2 was going to start bright and (too) early for me at 9AM with the KISS Tindies presentation, but the relaxed easygoing nature of the event meant a schedule change was possible and we did it at noon instead. I loved talking to all my fellow people who thought my circuit sculptures were more interesting than a certain football game taking place around the same time.

Roger presenting at Sparklecon - Drew Fustini
Photo by Drew Fustini
Roger presenting at Sparklecon
Photo by Jaren Havell

It was another great opportunity to practice public speaking. I think it went well and some people let me know afterwards that they enjoyed the talk. Success!

The table and couches of NUCC once again hosted various hacks. Emily’s little green-tinted CRT attracted immediate attention.

Emily green tinted LED on NUCC table at Sparklecon

It wasn’t long before it hosted a Matrix waterfall of characters.

Emily wants to host a version of Adafruit Hallowing’s default eyeball program on her tiny round CRT. To see how it would look, Emily and Jaren took a video of the Hallowing eyeball and played it back on a Raspberry Pi.

While this was underway, I was unwinding by playing with my copper wires. Yesterday I made a crude taco truck, today I tried to make an abstract steam locomotive out of a single wire. There was no planning involved, so it was no surprise I ran out of wire before I could finish.

Single wire steam engine

Elsewhere on the table were electronic noisemakers to play with. To the left is a “Dronie” assembled by @hackabax this weekend, next to another of his noisemaker devices whose name I forgot. Inside the metal case in the right is one of Emily’s earlier projects, a simple sequencer powered by a pair of 555 timers.

Noisemakers Unite.jpg

One casualty of the pouring rain were the robot competitions, but the Hebocon boxes were still set out for people to play with. Maybe we won’t have robots this time, but we can still have other interesting contraptions.

Hebocon boxes at Sparklecon

Sometimes “interesting” veered into “unsettling”…

Barbie head baseball flag thing

It was a great weekend, rain or no rain. I had the opportunity to present one of my projects and saw it was well-received. I got to see people I’ve met before at other events, and met some new people too. And it was a great way to learn about spaces I’ve only heard about before. Chances are good I’ll be back at 23b Shop and/or NUCC before next Sparklecon rolls around.

SparkleCon Day 1

I have arrived at SparkleCon! I had thought this event was just at the hackerspace 23b Shop, but it is actually spread across several venues in the same business park. The original plan also included activity in the parking lot between these venues, but a powerful storm ruined those plans. Given this was in Southern California the locals are not very well equipped to handle any amount rain, never mind the amount that came pouring from the sky today. So people packed into the indoor venues where it was warm and dry. STAGESTheatre is where some talks were held, like Helen Leigh‘s talk From Music Tech Make to Manufacture demonstrating her Mini Mu.

Sparklecon Day 1 mini mu

The doors of Plasmatorium was also open and primary source of music. And finally the National Upcycling Computer Collective which had this festive sign displayed.

Sparklecon Day 1 sign

One corner of NUCC was set up with a pair of couches and a table, which grew into KISS Tindie headquarters. The original plan was to set up an inflatable couch and table someplace in the outdoor region, but the rain cancelled those plans and we took over this space instead.

Sparklecon Day 1 NUCC CouchThe table started the day empty, and there was a time when it was populated by scattered stickers, but towards the evening it became an electronics workshop. Here we can see multiple simultaneous projects underway.

Sparklecon Day 1 Workbench

I had a few taco, fries, and octopus kits to give out. While talking about tacos and KISS Tindie sculptures, it was suggested that I use my newfound circuit sculpture skills to build a taco truck. So I did!

Sparklecon Day 1 taco truck