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« May 2007 | Main | July 2007 »

iRobot iNstitute Lesson 1: Give Your Create a Brain


Classes are finally in session at Professor Dave's iRobot iNstitute. It's not too late to use your new education to submit an idea for a build to Instructables' iRobot contest: you could win $5,000! Hurry though, because if you don't already have a Create kit, Instructable is only taking "scholarship" concept entries until June 30. Regular contest entries are being accepted until August 31, so there's still plenty of time to apply your knowledge.

Be sure to come back next week for Lesson 2. Oh, and see the bottom of this post for a great video sidebar, in which Professor Dave reveals his robotic mad scientist side!—Eds.

The iRobot Create kit feature a special interface that enables users to control the robot’s behavior and locomotion as well as monitor its sensors. This interface is the iRobot Create Open Interface (OI). By using the OI, users can modify the functionality of a normal Create and build a new set of operating instructions—but without a brain, the Create’s interface is largely useless. So in this first tutorial, we’re going to show you how to get your Create thinking on its feet with a third-party microcontroller.


Overall, there are two distinctly different methods for transforming your Create from a vegetable to a genius: hard and easy. In the hard method, users must install a serial terminal program on a PC (e.g., RealTerm; http://realterm.sourceforge.net/), attach Create’s serial cable tether to the PC’s serial DB-9 port, orchestrate a series of nonsensical command strings, e.g.:
128 131 [RETURN] 137 1 44  128 0 156 1 120 137 1 44 0 1 157 0 90 158 -5
...then send the string and watch the action.

While achieving successful results with this hard method are possible, it does require keeping Create tethered to a PC. Doable, but yuck. And who’s got a DB-9 serial port these days anyway?

In the easy method, users can simply add an onboard brain. iRobot provides a controller called the Command Module, but many third-party controllers will also work and can provide different feature sets—here we’re using a chip called the Mind Control. Manufactured by Element Products, the Mind Control consists of an elegant lipstick-sized, removable mini-DIN controller module that plugs into the Create’s serial port and a special Mind Control programming board.

Continue reading below for much, much more info and a handy demonstration video:

Continue reading "iRobot iNstitute Lesson 1: Give Your Create a Brain" »

Hack every PSP


Bless the crazy PSP hackers: they've been battling with Sony for years to make the PSP run homebrew (read: unapproved) applications and games. Every time they crack the system, Sony updates the firmware to fix the hole, so hacking your PSP required stepping down to the last version. But now the good guys have come up with a new hack that works on any version firmware from 1.0 to 3.5, using an exploit in the game Lumines. Engadget notes that the game has now shot to #1 over at Amazon, which suggests there is a big block of consumers out there who want their PSP to run homebrew and are willing to not only pay for it, but risk bricking their unit to do so.

So what I can't figure out is why Sony (or Apple) doesn't monetize this group and sell the ability to run homebrew code, either with an unlocked version of the hardware that cost $50 more, or with a cartridge that did what the game exploits do. This kind of sanctioned system could also be made to run only true homebrew code and not pirated games. I bet even that kind of limited homebrew functionality would sell huge, especially if the company made it easy. Are you listening Mr. Stringer? Couldn't Sony use a new legacy right about now? Be the first major CE company that was smart enough to open itself up to user innovation. The press loves this stuff—at the very least, you'd get a lot of friendly coverage. Heck, at this point, what do you have to lose?

Anyway, with the PSP now down to $170 retail and a ton of great homebrew code out there, there's never been a better time to pick up a PSP or dust off your old one. For ideas on what to do with a pwned unit, check out our story "Do More with The PSP." And remember kids, game-pirating theives are just as bad as narrow-minded CEOs that lock down their hardware. —Mike Haney


The Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams Odyssey


The “Laser Finger,” the Palo Alto (Cal.) High School team’s head-mounted remote control intended for use by quadriplegics

This week is the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams Odyssey, an annual program showcasing some of the coolest inventions you'll see anywhere. The twist is that all the brilliant inventors behind them are still in high school. Teams of students received grants of up to $10,000 last fall to develop a prototype intended to solve a problem of their choosing.  Check out some of the kids showing off the fruits of their labor above and in our slideshow—just in case you needed a reminder of how you wasted four years of your life.—Doug Cantor

POV Tricks


We're working on a cool piece about LED art for the magazine, and we wanted to mention Make's awesome little MiniPOV kit. (POV stands for persistence of vision, where your eye sees trailing light in a dark room.) Phil Torrone had given me one of these months ago, and I just built it yesterday so we could shoot it for the story. Having not soldered anything significant since I was a kid, it was a blast to put something together from the circuit level and then see it actually work!

The instructions over at ladyada.net are crystal clear, even for novices. Programming messages gets a little trickier—it involves typing arcane commands into a Run window—but I found a great program in the forums that really helped crank out custom text. For anyone keen to dive into circuit-level building and soldering or who just wants a cool party toy for those summer gatherings, I highly recommend picking up the kit.

And for a really crazy POV project, check out John's post from Maker Faire. —Mike Haney

5-Minute Project: Cord holder


Reader Noah Baird writes in with a 5-Minute Project idea: the guitar cord holder (though it could work with any cord).

2 Tic Tac containers
Duct tape
Guitar cord
1: Duct tape the Tic Tac containers to each other.
2: Wind the guitar cord around them.
Increase the number of containers with the length of the cord.

I suspect you could substitue lots of things for the Tic Tac containers (the Altoids cord holder?).

Have a 5-Minute Project idea of your own? Send it to us at h20 at time4.com or submit it to the PopSci Instructables group. —Mike Haney

The $72 PC is a hit!


I knew when H20-wiz Dave Prochnow suggested a $75 PC project that it'd be popular, but I had no idea how popular. My failure to get the promised "more info" online before the article hit newsstands has resulted in a flood of letters from readers eager to get started. Nothing makes a DIY editor happier, so I'm glad to say the info is now online, with some extra details from Dave, as well as some new sources for the parts. It seems we'd driven so many people to the original sources that they sold out. In the article, we also asked people what they'd do with a cheap PC and have gotten several great responses, which I'll post up here this week. Here's one from reader Mike Creamer:

I bought all the parts you listed ($62 because I bought a couple of parts used on eBay). I have a hinged wooden box—a pretty lacquered thing—in which I'll assemble the PC. This is going to be exclusively for Skype. I'll attach a USB handset and use it to call my sister in Tennessee for free. I gave her the software and a handset for a gift, and we use the Skype software to keep in touch, but talking in front of my computer is a drag. With this setup, I can keep the tiny Skype PC in the living room and talk to her in comfort. Thanks for the inspiration!

Another reader wrote to remind us that Puppy Linux is a fine alternative to the Damn Small Linux OS we recommended in the article.

Have a cool use for the cheap PC, or a way to make it better or cheaper? Let us know in the comments below. —Mike Haney

WiiTunes—Play Your iTunes Library From the Living Room


The Wii may not come with as many whiz-bang media-center features as the Xbox 360 or PS3, but there are still plenty of ways to use the little guy as a pretty solid living room entertainment center via the built-in Opera Web browser.

There are plenty of applications that let you stream your iTunes library to other computers via a local network or the Web—but MyTunesRSS has the distinct advantage of being free and platform-independent. After some painless configuration settings, you can use the Wii's browser to access, search, and play your iTunes library from the comfort of the living room. Pretty cool. —John Mahoney

Check out the full instructions here. [Hackaddict.net via MAKE]

iRobot iNstitute: Classes Beginning Soon


In honor of the $5,000 iRobot Create Challenge being thrown by our DIY pals over at Instructables.com, PopSci’s How 2.0 blog will be hosting a series of tutorials on learning the basic fundamental techniques for using, programming, and hacking your own project together with the Create kit, hopefully sending you well on your way to the juicy $5,000 prize.

As you may recall, Create is the iRobot bot that doesn’t suck—or, slurp, for that matter—basically a vacuum-less sibling of the famous Roomba equipped with a bevy of ports and open interfaces, making it an ideal DIY platform for building your own robot.

Forget all that hardware wiring stuff about motors, controllers, and sensors, the Create’s base platform already has those things covered. Instead you can concentrate on learning how to add an LCD, finagle Bluetooth communications, or even add a weather prediction station to your new companion while grabbing some entertaining instruction from the elite PopSci team of “Create-tionist robotologists.”

We’re calling this series of tutorials, “iRobot iNstitute.” And each instructional entry will be dedicated to providing you with some helpful information for meeting, and hopefully, beating the iRobot Challenge. Our tentative schedule will cover everything from giving your Create kit a brain to teaching it to predict the weather. Pretty neat, eh?

Accompanying each topic will be some juicy hands-on instruction, maybe a design secret or two, and a jaw-dropping, eyeball-popping, Oscar-nabbing informational video that will give you a “once-around-the-shop” overview of how to apply your newfound ‘bot knowledge to a Create robot.

So save some space on your calendar for getting Create-ive (oh!) at the iRobot iNstitute in the coming weeks. —Dave Prochnow

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