Arduino code sharing site Sketch Garden enters beta


US Arduino specialist Wicked Devices has announced the impending launch of a site dedicated to storing code for Arduino-compatible devices.

Dubbed ‘Sketch Garden,’ the site – which is currently in a pre-launch beta phase – aims to become a central repository of Arduino Sketches, allowing users to store code snippets, libraries and completed projects for access from any Internet-connected device.

Although not yet formally launched, the site’s creators promise to open the service to the public within the next three weeks, while those unable to wait that long can request entry to the private beta programme here.

Fairchild founder Julius Blank dies, aged 86

The engineer responsible for the creation of the first production line for silicon-based integrated circuits, Julius Blank, has died aged 86.

Blank was one of eight founders of Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, a Palo Alto company which developed the processes for mass production of the components that make modern technology possible.

Using little more than spare parts and improvised equipment, Blank and his colleagues created the precursor of the giant semiconductor plants of Intel, AMD, Texas Instruments, Samsung and the like today.

The New York Times, reporting on Blank’s death, has an interesting history of the corporation with a few names you might recognise, including Intel co-founders Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore.

The IKEA effect – why we love what we do

Image of IKEA by Wikimedia Commons user Sbotig

Image of IKEA by Wikimedia Commons user SbotigAlthough it sounds like another name for flat-pack rage, the IKEA effect is at the heart of hacker culture: it’s the term used for the phenomenon whereby we love something far more if we have made it ourselves.

In a fascinating blog post over on NeoAcademic, psychologist Richard Landers explains recent research that has seemingly proven the IKEA effect – even, as the name suggests, when the only ‘making’ involved is inserting Tab A into Slot B.

“I can attest personally to the power of the IKEA effect,” Landers writes. “We actually purchased an entire kitchen from IKEA, which I assembled and installed myself.  And it is a hundred times better than anything professionals could have made!

“Is this the reason that open source software proponents are so ‘enthusiastic’ about their products while the general market resists them,” he wonders, “because those proponents had a hand in developing them?”

While Landers admits that more research is required to see whether the IKEA effect holds true for complex projects like software development and electronics manufacture, it’s been proven – anecdotally, at least – over and over by the hacker and maker communities.

Making things is fun, and something you’ve made yourself will give far greater satisfaction than something you’ve bought, no matter what the thing.

Image of Ikea Headquarters by Wikimedia Commons user Sbotig, provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang on the future of the open hardware movement

Noted hacker, maker and author Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang has made an interesting prediction: the best days of the open hardware are still ahead of us.

In a reasoned and thorough blog post, Huang revisits the subject of a talk he gave at the 2011 Open Hardware Summit earlier this year: that of the future of open hardware.

“Currently, open hardware is a niche industry,” Huang admits. “In this post, I highlight the trends that have caused the hardware industry to favor large, closed businesses at the expense of small or individual innovators. However, looking 20-30 years into the future, I see a fundamental shift in trends that can tilt the balance of power to favor innovation over scale.”

These trends – including a point in the next few decades where we reach a fundamental limitation beyond which it will be impossible shrink semiconductors – will, Huang argues, lead to a return to the open hardware ideals of the consumer electronics industry’s early days.

“In the beginning, hardware was open,” Huang reminds us. “Early consumer electronic products, such as vacuum tube radios, often shipped with user manuals that contained full schematics, a list of replacement parts, and instructions for service. In the 80s, computers often shipped with schematics.”

As the race to create newer, faster, smaller components slows down, Huang argues, devices like tablets and smartphones will become inherently more open. Users will be able to drop in new processors and memory modules, much as they do with a desktop PC – one of the most ‘open’ of the proprietary hardware platforms around – or an Arduino.

Huang’s full blog post on the subject is well worth a read if you’re at all interested in the open hardware movement.

The Android MegaPad – a 23″ homebrew tablet

Hacker Martin Drashkov has created a device he believes predicts the future of mainstream computing: a 23″ touch-screen tablet running Google’s Android operating system.

While Drashkov is keeping the details of the build under wraps for now, he has released a video showing the tablet – which appears to be running Android 2.3 ‘Gingerbread,’ rather than the newer but still proprietary Android 3.0 ‘Honeycomb’ – in action, with impressive results.

“The Android MegaPad is the next logical step,” Drashkov argues in a blog post on the subject, “a modern touch-based computing device with a screen size that will enable a whole different set of experiences. Unlike tablets, devices like this will make simultaneous use by two users a practicality and will let users more fully immerse themselves in apps and games.”

Drashkov isn’t the only person to believe touch is the future: both Canonical’s Unity interface and the Gnome Shell include a primarily touch-driven user experience, while Microsoft’s Windows 8 looks to be going the same way with the Metro UI.

The Android MegaPad, as Drashkov has labelled the machine, cost around $600 (about £390) to build using purely off-the-shelf parts, putting it on a par with the higher end of the real Android tablet market.

There’s just one slight issue, Drashkov admits: it’s not exactly portable.

Hacker turns an Arduino into an oscilloscope

SourceForge user OLeuthold has been hard at work creating an oscilloscope-like device from something many hackers are likely to have lying around: an Arduino Uno.

The lxardoscope project creates a pleasingly oscilloscope-like display on a Linux host system to which the Arduino Uno board is connected. With a resolution of around 3,000 samples per second, the open source project won’t replace a real oscilloscope but is noteworthy for the sheer hackiness involved.

To get a clean signal, OLeuthold explains that users need to remove the ATMega chip from the Arduino Uno board post-programming and insert it into a custom-built circuit which includes a power source with ground set to -2.5V and VCC set to +2.5V.

While it’s a clever hack, some users are questioning the viability of the project as a tool. Comments on a Hack a Day post where lxardoscope was discussed range from incredulity at the poor bandwidth of the psuedo-oscilloscope to unfavourable comparisons to the rather more polished Xprotolab project.

If the naysayers haven’t put you off, the SourceForge project page has full construction details and source code.

NASA opens up the International Space Apps challenge

NASA has announced the opening of the International Space Apps competition, which aims to solve real problems using publicly available data as part of the Open Government Partnership.

“The competition embraces the concept of ‘open innovation’ to improve performance, inform decision-making, encourage entrepreneurship, and solve problems more effectively,” explained NASA’s Nick Skytland.

Despite being primarily a US-focused programme, the OGP extends to global – and, given NASA’s involvement, beyond – issues. Using publicly available data, teams or individuals develop software which addresses problems including the impact of weather on the global economy, depletion of ocean resources, and other hot-button topics.

The agency is already asking for ideas for projects, with users suggesting such things as a ‘NASA API’ for easy integration with the agency’s data stores, public access to medical data on how the human body responds to extreme conditions, and a distributed data storage system to provide high-speed high-throughput storage for scientific data.

Full details of the challenge, which is open to developers world-wide, are available on the official page – along with the link to make suggestion of your own.

Microsemi details diode with 50mV forward voltage drop

Shawn Fahrenbruch, a chip designer at Microsemi, has spoken up about a chance conversation seven years ago that led to his development of a power diode with a forward drop of a mere 50mV.

Talking to a Stanford professor, Fahrenbruch learned that traditional diodes have a poor lifespan when used in high-output solar panel installation. When the diode blows, so does the panel – and with many installation using poor monitoring systems, a series of broken panels can go unnoticed.

Fahrenbruch’s new design isn’t public, but he has described the Schottky-replacement part as featuring a MOSFET connected across the terminals to provide an open or short circuit, plus a control circuit and a switched-capacitor boost converter capable of powering the chip from its own 50mV forward voltage drop.

Acording to Microsemi’s internal testing, the production-ready LX2400 chip is a surface-mount component just 2mm tall and measuring 7.5mm x 11.5mm and is capable of maintaining its impressive forward voltage drop from the milliamp range up to 20A.

A fascinating interview with Fahrenbruch, in which he explains the design process for the part, is available over on Electronics Weekly.

Microsoft waives Windows Phone dev fee for students

For the next nine days, Microsoft is waiving the fee normally charged for Windows Phone Marketplace registrations in an effort to get UK students interested in developing for the platform.

While the development tools are already free, those wishing to publish their homebrew apps are usually expected to pay a fee to have them listed on the Windows Phone Marketplace, Microsoft’s equivalent to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Android Market.

“We’re waiving the marketplace registration fee and giving you the ability to publish your first 100 application submissions for free,” explains Microsoft’s Ben Nunney.

In addition, Microsoft promises those who manage to publish their first apps before the deadline on the 30th of September free goodies from the cupboards of the Windows Phone team.

Full details, plus links for registration, are available on the MSDN Blog.

Shedfest – a free learning festival

Plans are afoot to organise an independent learning festival in the UK, tentatively titled ‘Shedfest’ following the suggestion from one of its organisers that it could be held in his garden shed.

Shedfest looks to bring together ‘edtech’ – education technology – fans in a free festival, with suggested events including practical sessions to pass on physical skills and more social sessions for networking, collaboration, and simple relaxation in like-minded company.

While the event is still at the early stages of organisation, suggestions have been made for it to be held near a field where attendees can camp – although its organisers stress that nearby accommodation will also be available for those reluctant to spend a night under canvas.

“I would hope that this is not about avoiding other festivals but about doing something different from is currently available and taking the best bits from our favourite learning festivals,” the event’s organisers stated.

More information on the event is available in the Shedfest organisation document, or by searching for hashtag #shedfest on Twitter.