Sunday, October 14, 2012

Arduino Project: The Conference Panel Part 2

In this Part 2, of The Conference Panel project, I'll look into the actual geometry of the LEDS and ways to shape the display.

Channel Letter from Sign Expo
"Sign Expo #26 - Untitled" by KarmaBlue
Laying out the bare LEDS gave a diffused light with ill-defined edges. Inspired by an art deco lamp and the "cans" used in channel letter neon signage, I added reflective dividers between each lighting segment.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Arduino Project: The Conference Panel

This year, I attended Nerdtacular in person, and the NSFW show at DragonCon via live stream.
These events had audience voting in the form of sound. I remembered when I was a kid, on TV they would often put a camera on a VU (Volume Unit) meter to show just how loud the audience was.

I think they quit doing that for a number of reasons:

VU Meter
"VU Meter" by Iain Fergusson
  • Most of the time, the meter just pegged so no difference was detected
  • Big hassle for the sound guy to set up another microphone and mixer send
  • People closer to the microphone would have a bigger "vote"
  • Black needle on a white face not very telegenic
  • As we moved to digital technologies, an analog VU meter looked old-fashioned
But some sort of SPL (Sound Pressure Level) meter would still be handy for these events.
I've also been looking for a project to learn more about Arduino.
So I sketched out the initial design for The Conference Panel.
If the project works, it would be used at these conferences to simplify some of the show mechanics.

Design goals:

Basic Features:

  • Big and bright enough to be seen by the audience in a hotel conference room
  • Small enough to sit on a panel discussion table or hang from a lectern
  • Light enough to hang from a booth wall if needed
  • Durable and shippable
  • Single power cord (and optionally battery powered)
  • Based on regular Arduino Uno

VU Meter Features

  • Built-in microphone
  • Fast VU meter display
  • Self-calibrating SPL meter

Game Show Features

  • Buzz In mode with lockout
  • Answer clock
  • Simple show host controls
  • Sound effects
  • Wheel of fortune spinner and other random generators

Party Features

  • Beer resistant
  • Music-synched light display

Home Features

  • Webcam light panel with color temperature control
  • Deco lamp mode


The Design

I'm treating this like a software project. I want to create a Minimal Viable Product at each stage and iterate over the design.

Physically, I think the final project will be built on a gatorboard back and interior panel with a plexiglass front and a corrugated plastic perimeter. There will be a base where a "ribbon board" display could eventually be attached to the front and which would serve as storage for the cables and buttons.

There are a number of unknown factors that need to be defined for this project to work:
  • Can an Arduino drive enough LEDs fast enough to create a clear display?
  • How hard will it be to code?
  • Given the presumably fast sampling rate, can we slow or average the values into something can be meaningfully displayed?
  • What material should be used for the front face?
  • Is an Arduino fast enough to sample the audio and drive the display at the same time?


Phase 1

  • Get some addressable lights
  • Lay them out in a radial fashion
  • Write some code to display a VU-style meter.

Phase 1 Goals

  • Learn the basics of Arduino programming
  • See if addressable RBG LEDs are fast enough to perform the task.
I picked up a strand of Adafruit's Diffused Flat Digital RGB LED Pixels. There are 25 bright "pixels" per strand which are individually addressable via a simple serial protocol.

Then I created a layout that would place the 25 pixels on a big "dial" without cutting the strand.
The blue "pixels" aren't used in the display. But by leaving them connected, I don't need to cut and solder my strand.
To test this layout in the real world, I just eyeballed the layout and taped the strand to a box.

So far, so good!
In Part 2, I'll work on the mechanics of the light and try techniques for creating a clearer display.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sugru

Recently, the good folk at Adafruit Industries introduced us to Sugru.



Sugru is an air-cured silicon material that's good for lots of things.
I used my white Sugru for fixing a frayed original iPod Touch cable.

There's an allergy warning on the package, and I have no idea if I'm allergic to these crazy chemicals, so I used my nitrite gloves.
The material was easy to form, and the repair is working great!
In fact, I used this repaired cable to transfer the photo from the iPhone for this blog post.

Next time I do a fix on a cable that has connectors where orientation is important, I will use a bit of contrasting Sugru to indicate which side is "up."
Permanent marker doesn't seem to work very well on Sugru, and it will just look cooler to have the color molded in.

I've become one of those Sugru fanatics. This stuff is amazing. Stay tuned for more projects!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Adventures in Python

"6502" (cc) by Blakespot 
I’m an old-school coder.
Cut my teeth on BASIC and FORTRAN.
That was over two dozen languages ago.
Programmed primarily in Assembler for about 15 years.
I’ve dabbled in the dark art of self-modifying Assembler.
I fell in love with the off-putting perl.
Lua and I will always remember that time in Azeroth.
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter...

But this story isn’t about the past.


It’s about the future, and Google’s dominion.

Google loves python.
Google runs the Internet.
Best learn to love the python.
There are reasons besides appEgine to learn Python: The Raspberry Pi is designed to teach Python and will be a very Python-centric environment. I’ve noticed a trend with programmers I respect slowly moving to Python from PHP.
I think PHP still performs a valuable role, and that good code can be created in PHP, but I’ll happily acknowledge there has to be a better way.

My dabblings in Python have been limited to modifying the occasional command-line script and attempting to code some XBMC addons.

And I didn’t like it.

I’m assuming this was because there were some basic things about the language that I didn’t understand, and that the framework for XBMC is it’s own gnarly beast.

I even have a real project in mind to test my hopefully growing skills.

So let’s learn some Python!
My favorite computer language book is Advanced Perl Programming http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596004569.do

Most of the Python educational materials are aimed at beginning programmers. While reviewing the basics is a good exercise, I’m more concerned about variable scoping, abstraction, and data structures than “hello world.”

Given the title, I thought “Learn Python the Hard Way” would provide a lot of CS context, but it’s aimed an even more naive audience than all the learn-to-program-with-python courses and books. The context has more to do with how to read and type code than syntax and data structures.
I actually did read the entire thing on the web. It clearly explained some basic nomenclature and how projects are laid out.

Dive Into Python” runs at the right speed, but hasn’t been updated since 2004. So I’ll pass.

LearnPython is current, covers the basics and has advanced tutorials. I don’t think I’ll start there, but it looks like a great reference.


The most promising appears to be the course Google uses to get programmers up-to-speed on Python.
http://code.google.com/edu/languages/google-python-class/

Not pretty. Not simple. Just right!



Google's Python Class

Section 1: Python Setup

I’m doing this on a Mac with BBedit.
Nothing really to do.
Everything worked as expected.
Google recommends spaces instead of tabs for indenting.
I’ve run into this on a number of open-source projects recently.
Again, being old-school, I remember the days when bytes were scarce. It also seems like “hard-coding” to use spaces instead of tabs.
But since it appears this has become a standard, I’ll embrace the space.

Section 2: Introduction

Interpreted - duh, it’s a scripting language.
Loosely Typed - like.
Run-time evaluation - potentially better for security.
Case Sensitive - like.
Newline for statement delimiters - I have no preference.
Indentation matters? I’m intrigued and alarmed. Actually this explains why my earlier attempts at modifying Python code failed. It never occurred to me that changing from spaces to tabs would break code.

Now we get into an actual program file. The traditional “hello world.”
We see an *import*, the main(), and the boilerplate that calls main().
Everything is perfectly sensible except the way main() is called. Seems odd to do it by using a special variable, but I can see the flexibility down the road.
Variables don’t have a delimiter. This makes sense with a loosely typed language, but I love perl’s way of being  able to cast a variable by just using the appropriate delimiter.

Plus sign for string concatenation. Now this I don’t like this for loosely typed languages since it’s ambiguous with addition.

Each file defines a module with its own namespace. This I like a lot.

That was a great introduction! Let’s learn some specifics.

Section 3: Strings

Clear description of delimters and escape sequences. I think this might be a typo:
String literals inside triple quotes, """" or ''', can multiple lines of text.
Perhaps “can contain?”
And here we encounter the most consistent failing of Google. How do I provide feedback on this typo?

Back to the lesson...
Here we learn that there is no automatic conversion of string and numeric values. So that makes the + concatenator a lot more acceptable.

The section on printf-style string expansion mentions using parentheses to span multiple lines. I thought we needed \ to cross multiple lines? I fear this is gonna get confusing...

Section 4: Lists

Bracket syntax is common form for both declaration and indexing. Assignment (=) doesn’t duplicate lists, just creates a symbol table pointer. While I like this, I’ve seen many inexperienced programmers spend a lot of time tracking down problems related to having two variables point to the same object.
I wonder what the Python equivalent of .duplicate() is?
The for, in, and range constructs all make sense, but I must admit, I’m still a bit bothered by the lack of a indicator at the end of a loop. This indentation-as-structure thing just feels odd.
Linear arrays (Lists) are all well and good, but how about lists of lists? Associative arrays? We see some of the object nature in the List methods, but I feel this section ended too soon. I look forward to more information on complex structures.

Section 5: Sorting

This section is a bit disorganized. The bits about sorting are clear enough. The sorted() construct seems very practical and easier to understand than the sort in perl, for instance.
sort() is a lot like Lingo’s sort in that it just modifies the array. Although it is unclear if it keeps it sorted like Lingo does.
But then we introduce “tuples” without explaining why they should be used. From a compiler design point-of-view they are intriguing since we could make some optimizations. But I suspect they exist more for conformance checking of objects. But it seems this part should be in the Lists section.

List Comprehensions also seems like it’s in the wrong section. A handy construct for array munging. I can see why web devs would like this - perfect for processing form input.

Section 6: Dicts and Files

Ah... Here we get our associative arrays/objects. Apparently they are called “dicts” in Python.
We also learn of a reason to use tuples: since they are immutable, they can be reliably used as keys in hash arrays.
We also revisit the % expansion in strings. This time with an associative array basically doing token expansion.
File operations are pretty familiar to anyone who’s done file operations in pretty much any language.
There’s an odd little piece of basic programming advice at the end of this section called Exercise Incremental Development. Seems out of place and slightly condescending here.

Section 7: Regular Expressions

Apparently, I’m “the regex guy” on most of the teams I work with. I learned sed back when I was first introduced to unix-style operating systems and have used regular expressions pretty much daily since then. Let’s learn about the regex in Python!
search() and findall() are pretty clear, but I’d just as soon return a string or array instead of a “match object.” Perhaps we’ll learn of some reason for this added complexity later.
Non-greedy syntax is the same as perl. Whew! I’m thrilled that “Python includes pcre support.” Makes my life a whole lot more consistent.
I’ve skipped the exercises so far, since most of this has been straightforward information, but I’m going to play with the Baby Name Excercise.
The Baby Name Excercise drops us immediately in the deep end. We are given a folder of HTML files with baby name popularity information in tables.
We get to read files, parse HTML using regular expressions, build structures to hold the data, format the data and return it from a function.
It look a lot of flipping back to the lessons, but it was a good exercise.
I got the syntax for join() wrong a couple time though...
text = '\n'.join(names)
just seems odd. I realize it’s a string method iterating over a parameter, but traditionally we see this as a list or object method.
After completing the exercise, I looked at provided solution. Their solution did not handle cases where the same name was in both the boys and girls columns. I learned how to reference elements in a more complex data structure while constructing my solution.

Section 8: Utilities

Here we get the usual interfaces for shell and file operations. Try/Except construct is introduced. This construct seems very similar to the try/catch in most languages.

The exercises were great an applied to things I want to with Python right away.

After the introduction

I was able to put my newfound Python skills to work right away fixing a gPodder scraper.
I also used Python for a little log analysis where I would normally use perl.

So far so good!

The next section on the Google class is a bunch of video. I've never found video to be a particularly good medium for learning programming, but I'll give it a shot the next article in this series.








Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Dual

I run XBMC as my main television interface. I subscribe to dozens of great video podcasts, live streams and YouTube channels.

On those rare occasions when I want to watch live broadcast TV, I hit the "watch TV" button on my remote and watch regular over-the-air broadcasts.

But I'd also like to record those broadcasts so I can watch them "on demand," and I'd like to be able to watch broadcast TV on my Nexus7 or my iPhone.

The networked tuners from Silicon Dust  sound like a viable solution to both problems.

I also want to experiment with using a battery to power the HDHomeRun and a WallTenna to create an on-the-go OTA solution.


Unpacking:
The HDHomeRun Dual come is a nice box with hook-and-loop closures. Three clear piecs of vacuum-formed  plastic form two stacking trays and lid that hold the package contents:

  • HDHomeRun Dual
  • Cat5 Ethernet Cable
  • power supply
  • Coax cable
  • MiniCD with Windows Software


My Windows machine is not part of the Television setup. It is reserved for gaming, testing, and Windows-specific development. It has a small, but fast drive and not intended for media consumption or storage.
So the Windows software isn't of much use to me.
And I don't have any drives that safely read a MiniCD. Companies need to stop using these.

I'm starting with the Mac since it's right here on the desk. The Linux tests will be my actual installation which means reconfiguring the coax and changing my network topology. (More on that later.)
I found Mac software at http://www.silicondust.com/support/hdhomerun/downloads/
The software is very basic. Each of the tuners appears as an addressable device. You select a band/protocol, a channel, and program.  If you get a signal, the Status bars light up and the View button becomes active.

Clicking View launches VLC. You still have to hit PLAY in VLC to get the stream to start, but once running, everything is rock-solid.
This is a TERRIBLE experience for channel-surfing, but works fine if you watch only one or two channels.
Closing the Config program close the instance of VLC it launched. You will want to copy the stream to a playlist. I was unable to open the stream manually for some reason. VLC kept adding http:// to the front of my udp URL.

I'm a little disappointed with the performance of the WallTenna + HDHomeRun. 
I'm in a bad spot for OTA reception, and use an Antennas Direct DB4 on my main TV which can pull in pretty much anything.

People claim near magical properties for the WallTenna so my expectations were high.
The Scan button in the Config software only revealed about half the channels I get on my main TV.

I assumed Config would let me set a channel for a tuner and then pull up that tuner at a later time. That does not appear to be the case. Once I quit Config, I'm unable to open the stream with VLC.

This default method is a terrible solution for Macs. There must be a better way.
Ah... Plex!

Go the App Store from the main menu, Categories, TV, and then look for the HDHomeRun app and install it.
Now go back to the main menu and select Videos. The video source HDHomeRun is now available.
Start by filling in the Settings. You will need to get an ID off the bottom of your HDHomeRun unit for this.
Once the Settings are saved, download channel data. This data provides names and broadcast type for channels in your area.
Browse through the channel list, test and verify which channels work for you and they will be added to this menu.
A little bit of setup, this looks great and works great.

I've been running this setup at the office for a few weeks. You can customize the channel artwork and put just the channels you want on the menu.
We put Plex on a number of machines and everyone can watch the 1080i streams just fine.

The tuner will be heading home in a couple weeks. An upcoming article with cover the data and media transport network updates I'm implementing to get my dream media distribution system.