In this solder sesh, Carrie chats with Tommy of Oskitone while putting together an Oskitone Scout Synth! Tommy gives us some insight into the development process for the Scout Synth and mulls over all the 555 timers he's used in previous projects! Carrie and Tommy talk about the chip shortage from the beginning of the year, new project ideas,, and how Tommy went from animation and web design to mechanical CAD projects!
Follow Oskitone on Twitter and Instagram, and be sure to check out their website!
(13:07 – 16:55) 3D Printed Battery Holder
Carrie: I have to say when I saw this and that you had basically created your own battery holder, that kind of blew my mind. It just never occurred to me to create your own battery holder and that you could necessarily even buy those things individually. Right. So, I mean, of course it makes sense, but I had never even looked for them before.
Tommy: You’re not the first person to think that. I don't know exactly, but I feel like this kit may be one of the very few electronics kits where you make your own battery holder. It's a dubious claim because I'm not sure if that's something to be proud of, but I think it's kind of cool. I absolutely did play with off the shelf ones but decided against them for two reasons. One is cost, these four metal things are a fraction of the cost of a plastic thing, and two is size because the plastic thing is much bigger. I guess the third reason is that because it's my own design, it can snap better into the thing. You'll see later in final assembly, but this kind of like clunks into the enclosure bottom in a way that would have been a little harder if I were tied to some other thing.
Carrie: Yeah, totally. I mean, it makes complete sense. I think it's kind of cool because it allows you to make the whole thing. I mean, you're already doing the 3d printed case, so, why would you then try to buy an off the shelf battery holder that then you would have to incorporate into the case. And use mounting hardware or something like that in order to fasten or tape or something like that. I think it's totally cool.
Tommy: The extra cost here is that we're losing like 20 minutes to make this thing when it could have just been some off the shelf part. I think that's the real problem with this, which I'm kind of okay with. If I were a good educator, I would write a whole thing on how batteries work and how batteries and series add together. How if you take apart your remote control or game boy or something, and you look at how the batteries arranged, they're always this sort of zigzag pattern so that they can all add up in series. And that 3x 1.5V batteries make 4.5V and how that's within the range of the supply voltage for this thing and blah, blah, blah. You don't necessarily get that education with an off the shelf component, but I'm rationalizing.
Carrie: No, it's all good stuff. Until I started designing with electronics, I definitely never thought about why do some things only use two batteries? Why do some things use three? Why do you even others use four, you know? Then you start to think about all of that stuff. How am I powering? How many batteries is that going to take? How much space is that going to be? Maybe the weight is an issue. So, yeah, definitely.
(19:39 – 24:56) 555 Timer Pigeonhole
Carrie: Awesome. So last time you were like, “Yeah, I made the Scout because I still wanted to do fun music stuff. I wanted it to be hackable. I wanted to play around with programming and Arduinos, and not be stuck as that that 555-timer guy.” Not be pigeonholed in your musical synth career here.
Tommy: Yeah. Last time you had me on Solder Sesh, you put together the APC which is based on the 556, which is two 555s, the old timer chip. We also talked about the Poly555 which is the instrument that uses 20x 555s. I was like no more 555s. I want to do some, I don't know, write some code. I don't remember if I had the Scout done yet or released; I don't remember the timeline.
Carrie: You were just about to release it. I think you might've held up one and showed it, I think. It was like right before you released it.
Tommy: The Scout has been cool. It's my best-selling kit and it’s fun. I've seen a handful of folks do some very interesting hacks with it.
Carrie: It seems like I keep seeing on Twitter, some people that make it make different noises. What are some of the coolest things that people have done with it? Or the most surprising things?
Tommy: The least surprising things are the things that I encourage. I've had folks change the octave and glide and stuff, which I hoped would happen. So really quick, the way that this keyboard works is it's a matrix. There are 20 keys and instead of using 20 pins in the controller, it uses 9. The way that it does that is that it makes a matrix of these things – 4 rows and 5 columns or vice versa; so, it can use 9 pins. This is a total tangent, but the point of the story is that it's wired-up kind of like a keyboard. It does a weird thing called ghosting which keyboard do, where if you hold it down too many keys, it doesn't really know what you're trying to do. It gets confused and there are ways to get around that in hardware, but it requires more components. It requires a diode at every switch. Because I was trying to make the scout as simple as possible and I was aiming for the least amount of time to make music, right. So, I left that out. One hacker sent me images of him putting diodes on to every switch so that he could make it do pseudo-polyphonic stuff, like arpeggiating through these notes which is interesting; not very musically useful, but kind of cool.
Tommy: Jason [from the chat] brings up, “Todd Curt put Mozzi on it.” Yeah, he did that, that is very cool. Mozzi is an Arduino library for audio synthesis. There's some hardware hacking that you have to do on the Scout because you have to swap pins, but it's totally doable. Yeah, pretty cool! You'll see on the PCB that there's a row of all the unused pins on the 328; I think I've labeled it hacking or something. I'm waiting to see if anybody uses those pins because it's all the vestigial analog inputs and stuff.
Carrie: Ah, interesting.
Tommy: Jason continues to ask, “Has anyone gotten MIDI out of it, if that's even possible?” Nobody has yet. I do think it's possible, I'm waiting to see if anybody does it. I also had MIDI on the list of possibilities, but I scratched it because I didn't think it was worth the effort. Definitely a later keyboard out of me will have MIDI.
(33:45 – 35:55) Chip Shortage
Carrie: So, it sounds like your favorite product maybe of everything that you've made so far is the Scout.
Tommy: Yeah, I think so. You know, there's recency bias, so the last thing’s always favorite.
Carrie: Always. It's hard to pick between your children.
Tommy: Yeah, it's the baby. The baby's the favorite let’s not kid ourselves. The scout is cool. It's probably not the coolest in the midst of a chip shortage. That's currently the one I'm worried most about. We'll see what happens.
Carrie: How has that been to navigate for you, and did you have to change anything about the design before you started shipping them or since you've started shipping?
Tommy: I was saved by, one that the 328 is relatively old and two, that it's in the dip package, which is not as sought after as surface mount. They're actually some memes of engineers prying off dip things and like pushing out their legs and converting them.
Carrie: Making them be surface mount.
Tommy: Yeah, I think as a joke, I hope it's joke.
Carrie: Might not be.
Tommy: Might not be. And that kept me safe for a little while I think. I mean, we'll see, knock on wood, but I may have exhausted the supply of this chip.
Carrie: Oh no.
Tommy: Keep me in your thoughts.
Carrie: I will. If anybody has extra 328s in dip packages, contact Tommy, it has to be in good condition and stored properly. There we go.
Tommy: Name your price. I'm okay for a little while, but what I have, I will definitely run out of.
(40:11 – 42:41) Upcoming Projects
Carrie: Is there anything else that you would like to say about the Scout or about upcoming projects or whatever, and if anybody watching, is there anything that you want to ask? Put it in the comments now so that we can be sure to get to it.
Tommy: Yeah, I'm excited about the Scout and what it opens up for me. I am planning a Scout II tentatively featured to have more keys and polyphony. So, it'll add the diodes that we talked about previously. If anybody's interested in that I can share stuff with you. I usually don't, all my stuff is open source, but I don't necessarily share the progress because I don't like a lot of peanut gallery comments. like to wait until I can ship it and then I push. But if anybody is very interested in that I'm happy to share.
Carrie: I’m interested.
Tommy: What else can I say? 2021 was a nice year for Oskitone. 2022 I'm hoping we'll continue that trajectory. I've got some plans and they probably again, because of the chip shortage, they probably won't be as smart.
Tommy: You know what I mean? It'll probably be stuff closer to the APC. Less musical, more noisy. Less musical utility, more, I don't know, noise toy.
Carrie: For people like Robyn and myself who don't really have any musical talent or training, noise machines are super great. We can't do anything wrong with them so it's kind of nice. We automatically feel like virtuosos.
(50:38 – 56:47) 3D Animations
Carrie: So, tell me about the animations, because I mean, that's kind of your background though, right. Is more design and like doing that stuff day in and day out. So, it's probably no big deal for you but for me, it's just like, damn, that looks so pro and cool. Can you tell us a little bit about like making those?
Tommy: I would love to. The CAD program that I used is a programming language called Open SCAD. I'm some kind of software engineer so I tend to think in code, and I have a background in making websites. Literally writing the code that says this website should look like this as you resize your window, it does all this stuff, animation code, blah, blah, blah. In college, I did a lot of flash animation stuff when that was cool.
Carrie: I want to see some of your old flash animation stuff.
Tommy: It's not the best. Yeah, that hearkens back, doesn't it?
Carrie: Viking kittens’ era, man.
Tommy: Exactly right. Badger, Badger, Badger. Oh, we're old.
Carrie: We’re so old. We're crossing over though, we're so old we’re cool.
Tommy: Okay. Yeah, all right. So, I like animation. I watch a lot of cartoons. Great. Open SCAD isn't really designed for animations, but you can do them in it.
Carrie: Is it more of a mechanical CAD package? I don't know anything about open SCAD.
Tommy: Yeah, it’s really made for making gears and stuff like that. It's definitely not like Blender, like you're not going to be doing any character animation in it because everything is mathematical. You know what I mean?
Carrie: Like it's mechanical design and everything's dimensional kind of stuff.
Tommy: Yeah, fully parametric. If you're animating an arm, you can talk about the angle and stuff, but to do a full walk cycle would just be like, you know, trying to write an algorithm for nature or something. It would not work out. But it is very good at doing stuff like an enclosure opening and closing, like the parts of this thing flaying out and doing weird stuff. It seems superfluous and a lot of it is admittedly, but I use it a lot for checking to see that things work the way that I expect them to.
Tommy: So, in CAD, there's an idea called a CAD explosion where you take all the stuff and you kind of tear the sandwich apart. That way you can see how the layers come back together. I'll do that with my stuff too. I have the APC, for example, it's enclosure slides together. When I was writing that code, I animated how it slides so I can watch what it looks like. It's sort of my visual test to see if it does what I think, because Open SCAD doesn't have collision detection. It's not like a fully featured CAD thing. It kind of relies on the programmer to do that kind of checking. It's a little bit naive so I use animation for that. I also just like it. I'm not sure if it's a good marketing ploy, I'm not sure if people have found me through my animations and then bought my products. But I really enjoy it.
Carrie: Well, I think that they definitely add a level of professionalism to the product, it just, it looks cool.
Tommy: Oh, and I was going to say, because Open SCAD is a programming language it’s very easy when you're animating. If you've ever drawn a flip book, you're basically drawing like a hundred things and with code, you could just write a little strip that’s like here are the values that I want it to be. Or I want a range between zero and a hundred or it's going to loop or 0 to 360, and then it does this thing. It's very easy and gratifying to suddenly spit out hundreds of images and then have a little script that pumps out a GIF and an MP4.
Carrie: That's super cool. Yeah, that's interesting that you do it all in code and that there's no video or flight paths or those kinds of things. It's just all mechanical model manipulation, like rotate it 30 degrees, zoom out, zoom in, explode apart in these directions. From my background and my perspective, I can relate to that more. I relate to, you have this object and you're manipulating it in your hand. That kind of CAD makes more sense for my brain than the, like you are the camera and you're going around the thing you're moving in this path around the thing.
Tommy: I know what you're talking about, totally.
Just about a year ago, last August, we welcomed special guest Lenore of Evil Mad Scientist Labs on our weekly solder sesh! While Carrie soldered up an EMSL XL741 Kit, they got to geek out about 555 timers, 741 op amps, and #plottertwitter! Lenore talks us through what piqued her interest in electronics, various pen plotting robots she's collaborated on, and how it lead to the AxiDraw pen plotter!
You can find Lenore on Twitter and Evil Mad Scientist Labs on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube!
(3:23 – 11:12) Lenore’s Kits
Carrie: Should we do a little introduction for people who might not know what a 555 is? What is that chip anyway?
Lenore: The 555 timer is a ubiquitous chip. It's in almost everything, it's a timer; anything that has blinks, that need something to happen on a schedule, that makes tones all kinds of things. The 555 is in your washing machine, it's in your toaster, it's in your car. It gets embedded into other chips. It’s one of the most produced chips of all time. And like I said, it's just in everything. It was designed by Hans Camenzind in 1979, I think. Since then, it's just been used in so many different things.
Carrie: It was really the first way that you could make, with a single chip in minimal surrounding circuitry, a train of pulses, like a clock train or something like that. Something that could be used to keep time with microprocessors or blinking things, whatever. It was the first of its kind.
Lenore: It was one of the early ICs. They were just starting to make circuits that did a thing that you were putting together more than just gates and so on. It was really used in so many different things.
Lee: I feel like it's a really cool chip for beginners to really understand ICs. It was the first IC project that I did! First make the light blink and then you make that light theremin circuit and you're like, “Oh, I get what an IC is doing, and it's not just some computer stuff,” you know?
Lenore: Right. It's not a microcontroller where it's hidden in the code or there's software part of it. It really is electronics. You're using the circuit to create something rather than taking it out to another level of abstraction. There’re tons of kits that are built around it. There's the Drawdio Kit where you make a musical pencil and just all kinds of things.
Lenore: So, a friend of ours also brought a 555 project to the Analog Aficionados event. He brought this [Lenore holds up a 555 circuit on wooden breadboard], made by Eric Schlaepfer, @TubeTimeUS on Twitter. This is a 555 circuit on a traditional bread board, an actual wooden board - it's all of those transistors and resistors, that's all that it's built up of. He has set this down on top of our [555 timer] footstool and we were like oh we have to do something.
Carrie: That is awesome.
Lenore: So, we made the 555 Kit. You were talking about blinker circuits, and I've got an example. Here’s our 555 Kit, set up with my 9V battery here, and this is just an LED blinker circuit. It’s just a couple of resistors, a capacitor, and a power source; it's one of those things you can make something that does something with fairly few components. After we made the 555 Kit people loved it and were like, “Oh, what are you going to make next?” because we made the 555 with these cool decorative legs – the stand for it that look like IC legs. So, we wanted to keep in this form factor, the DIP [dual in-line package] eight form factor, so other popular chips that come in a DIP eight. DIP is dual in-line package, so your standard through-hole chip package.
Carrie: Yup, two rows of legs.
Lenore: The 741 [op amp chip] was another obvious one in part, because it gets used in a lot of things. It was one of the early op amps and was the first op amp to include a capacitor inside. That took up a lot of die space because capacitors take up a lot of area, so that's how it came about. You can see the capacitor on board, a little different ratio when it's a discreet component.
Carrie: I was surprised that this only had one capacitor in it. I don't know, I just assumed that there would be more.
Lenore: You would need so much more die space!
Carrie: Yeah. I mean, things are always getting smaller and they're always coming up with new materials and new ways of doing things. I wonder, are capacitors on dies a lot smaller now than they were in the 1970s, or is that just some laws of physics that you can't really get around and they still take up a lot of space?
Lenore: I think it's laws of physics and we tend to just use discrete capacitors for the most part now. if you're interested, I think that Ken Shirriff [@kenshirriff on Twitter] did a die photo and article on the 741, so you can see how much of the die the cap takes up. He also did one for the 555 which is just fun as well.
Carrie: I didn't know that people hide artwork on integrated circuit dies.
Lee: That's one of my favorite electronic secrets to have ever discovered. It's so physical and fun.
Carrie: So, dies are the substrate that your entire circuit is printed on, that are microscopic, that are inside of these, you know, black bodies that make up our ICs. So that's what we're talking about when we're talking about dies. On microscopic levels, people put little fun action figures and artwork and weird stuff on there. So, it's lurking in all of your electronics without you even knowing about it.
Lenore: Yeah. There’re some famous ones that have like a pair of scissors, there's signatures, there's all kinds of stuff. So, we call these our disintegrated circuits because they're integrated circuits that you blow up and take apart and make from discrete components. But one of the things that we realized is that it would be fun to do an intro surface mount version of them so that people could get started with surface mount soldering or just for fun. Here's the 555 version of that. One of the fun things that we did with this is we made it to scale, so you've got your DIP 8 and your SOIC.
(30:36 – 36:48) Pen Plotter and Egg Bot
Carrie: So, tell us a little bit about the pen plotter and about the EggBot, too. Those are super cool things that you guys make.
Lenore: The EggBot was our first pen plotter, it draws on spherical and egg-shaped things. That was a collaboration with Bruce Shapiro of The Art of Motion Control. He's a motion control artist and wanted to bring it out to a wider audience but didn't want to do kit production. So, we worked with him to get it manufacturable and supportable. One of the challenges with things like the pen plotters is that you have to support software and it needs to work on peoples’ computers that aren't yours.
Lenore: The EggBot works with an extension for Inkscape, the vector art program. We'd been working with Inkscape since EggBot came out in 2010, a really long time now! The next pen plotter that we made was the WaterColorBot, which was a collaboration with our friend, Seth, who wanted to take wanted to compete in a robotics competition in the art bot category. So, we helped Seth create the WaterColorBot, which was a lot of fun and such a great experience that we wanted to get it out to more people. So, we worked together to get that out. It's not currently in production; it turns out there's not a huge market for low precision watercolor robots, but it was very fun.
Lee: I feel that’s totally part of its charm! That's why I love it. I'm a huge fan of low precision robots, but I see why.
Lenore: The WaterColorBot inspired our friend, Lindsay Wilson, to create the first version of the AxiDraw. He didn't want to go into production, so we took the project over, re-designed it again for manufacturability and supportability. That came out 2016, we started making it and were absolutely inundated with orders. I had no idea that people needed pen plotters!
Carrie: What are they using them for?
Lenore: My favorite and what you will see a lot of in the right places of the internet is the algorithmic artists. So, #plottertwitter.
Carrie: I need to look at this.
Lenore: I love #plottertwitter! There's so much beauty there; there are even people using AxiDraw with watercolors. I've seen some people doing other kinds of paint things with AxiDraw, as well. Plotters are just fantastic, and my favorite is the algorithmic art community, but the most popular use for it is handwriting, like applications for marketing purposes.
Lee: I hadn't even considered that. In my head it was all #plottertwitter. That's just my art brain. I'm like, “Yeah, for sure, it's just robots drawing stuff.”
Carrie: That is so interesting to me that people are using it for that kind of marketing application. I'm curious why wouldn't you just make something using an iPad and whatever artistic software you like and then print it? What is different about the ink plotter or what kind of feel does it give rather than sort of a more traditional printing process?
Lenore: Well, if an envelope comes to you that was written with a pen versus one that is ink-jetted with a handwriting-like font. Which one are you more likely to open?
Lenore: Or you are ordering something from an online company for the first time. They want your loyalty, and they include a handwritten note in the package thanking you for your order.
Carrie: So basically, we need to stop handwriting our notes and get one of these plotters – get a robot to do it for us!
Robyn: Can they hold sparkle pens?
Carrie: Yes, can they hold sparkle pens? That is very important to us at Alpenglow Industries.
Lenore: Yes, they can. There's a discord for the Plotter community. I'll think of the name in a minute, but it has lots of discussions about pens and specifically gel pens, and more specifically glitter gel pens. Also, the color changing gel pens – all of that, yes.
Carrie: Awesome. That is rad!
Lee: I’m just about to put a UV pen in my plotter. So yeah, I'm all about this.
Lenore: Yeah. I love the stuff that people do with UV stuff or the writing on glow in the dark materials with a laser so that you have temporary artwork that fades. Those kinds of things are really cool.
(42:37 – 49:52) What’s an Op Amp?
Carrie: So, we have a question in the comments of what is an op amp?
Lenore: Op amp stands for operational amplifier. It's used for amplifying a signal or a voltage or – I don't know what. Here’s the thing, I've only used op amps a little bit, but I make a lot of them. So, I'll let you go into the technical details.
Carrie: Yeah, I would say that another reason op amps are kind of cool is that they can do more than just amplify. So yes, they can amplify signals, but what do we mean by that? Well, if you think about the volume knob on an old stereo, the volume knob is actually just a variable resistor and that is hooked up to your audio signal and also to something like this op amp. It actually makes your audio signal grow and shrink as you twist that knob. That’s what we mean when we're talking about amplifying; the amplitude of your audio signal is what correlates to volume. So, they can do a bunch of stuff like that.
Carrie: There were a lot of old analog sensors, although they weren't old when I started into electronics, and it was the way things worked. Basically, they changed resistance with respect to some sort of input. Some things change resistance when the temperature changes, some things change resistance when pressure changes. You took these little resistor bridges and what you could do is you could power them and then you can see a tiny difference in signal that was made by that resistance change. Then you would put them through this amplifier so that you would be able to look at the range that you wanted to and be able to get a lot better resolution in that range. So, instead of just being able to differentiate, like boiling and freezing, if you then amplify that signal, you could be like, “Oh, this is 75 degrees and this is 80 degrees…” that kind of thing. So, amplifiers were used a lot in instrumentation and there are specific kinds of amplifiers that are made of usually three op amps that are called instrumentation amps that are used for that kind of signal processing.
Carrie: I think pretty much all sensors are now digital. They just spit out a bunch of 1s and 0s that correlate to your temperature or your pressure or whatever, but they still have all of this stuff internally in their ICs. It's still definitely useful to understand how they work! Another cool thing that they can do, that's not amplification, is they can be used to compare two signals. So, is this signal bigger than the other one? If the answer is yes, then I output 5V. If the answer is no, then I output 0V. It was a very early way of creating something that was digital signal friendly that was only either at 0V or 5V that a little processor or computer could actually read and do something with. You know, versus having this signal that changed in infinite increments between 0V and 5V.
Carrie: I think that A to D converters – converting an analog signal that has basically infinite variation between 0V and 5V – converting that to a digital signal that a microprocessor can understand, store, and read. I think that that's still done with capacitors and op amps and it's like, “Okay, is this a signal bigger than 2.5V? Yes. Okay, then we'll see if it's bigger than 3.75V. Yes. Okay…” That's how a SAR ADC [successive-approximation register analog-to-digital converter] work, successive approximation. I forget what the R means, but that's okay. So that's an interesting use of op amps, and that's called a comparator because they're comparing to things.
Carrie: You can also use them to not necessarily amplify but offset a signal. So, if you have a signal – let's say an audio signal that's going through ground – it's varying between positive and negative voltage that you need to interface to something that needs to read a signal that's between 0V and 5V and it can't see anything below 0V. Then you can use an op amp to offset that signal, so now it's going between 0V and 5V instead of positive 2.5V and -2.5V. It's useful in a lot of signal processing things.
Lenore: One of our first set of kits that we made were for interactive LED projects and we made one that was entirely analog. It was op amps, resistors, and capacitors, and it would create a damped oscillation. So, when you got a signal from the changed photo transistor, it would trigger the oscillation which would then dampen out, but it also sent a signal to its neighbor who would get a smaller signal and would also oscillate, but at a lower amount. It was sort of a networked analog computer that would just ripple in the amount of light that it had. It was a lot of fun! Occasionally people would say things like, “Would you please make sure that the chips are programmed?” And it was like, “Well, these are just op amps.”
(51:09 – 58:29) Lenore’s Path into Electronics
Lenore: Leeborg you were going to ask something.
Lee: Oh yeah! I was going to ask you – I had no idea your background was not technical, I just make random assumptions – I was wondering, was there a project that you were involved in or saw that really made you fall in love with electronics? Something that really captivated you about it?
Lenore: Electronics specifically, that's a really good question. The first sort of electronics projects that we did were LED projects; stuff to light up our bikes when we were dressing them up for events. So that was much more about display than about electronics themselves.
Carrie: That's okay!
Lee: That totally qualifies!
Lenore: Yeah. The other super inspirational project from a different direction was seeing Bathsheba Grossman's sculptures at Maker Faire. I don't know if you're familiar with her work.
Carrie: I don't think so.
Lenore: She is a sculptor who works primarily in 3D printing, and if you'll hang on for just a second, I'll grab a piece!
Carrie: Ooh, yeah, absolutely.
Lee: It had me thinking about when I was in school, and I took this class called electronics for artists and we had to make a switch. We can make a switch out of anything conductive. I still make my students do this. I had no idea what I was going to do, and I ended up making a switch out of a pineapple. You put the head of the pineapple on, and the LED would turn on and I was like, woah electronics could be anything. I think of that as my origin moment.
Carrie: I love it, pineapple electronics. Now I want to make a circuit out of pineapples.
Lenore: So, this is one of Bathsheba’s pieces [2:07 in Highlight Video #4]. This is made out of sintered metal and it's mathematically complicated, right? It's just really beautiful, super satisfying to hold, and absolutely gorgeous. We saw her work at the very first Maker Faire back in 2006 and were just smitten. That's when we started working on the CandyFab project, a 3D printer that worked with sugar as the printing media. That got me not so much into electronics as into mechanisms. The Z stage for the original CandyFab, the vertical motion system for that, was made out of a car jack that we had turned into a servo motor to lift a large volume of sugar up and down, plus the wooden bucket that held it.
Lenore: It needed to be able to lift a lot of material very precisely. The types of mechanisms that we use for that were all fun and repurposed and interesting. We actually used pen plotters for a lot of it, because you could get the old HP pen plotters at the surplus stores for next to nothing; they have linear shafts and motion control stages that are wonderful quality. So, we did a lot of repurposing as we moved forward with the project. We started trying to recreate those types of designs and build something that was manufacturable from scratch, which is a lot harder in some ways. It's very hard to give someone instructions to make something I found at a surplus store.
Carrie: I just totally thought of an engineering use for pen plotters, which I have actually done before. Which is you can use them to plot circuit boards on copper clad substrate and etch your own circuit boards with them.
Lenore: Yep! That is something that people have done with AxiDraw. The other way that you can do that is actually with a conductive pen. You can just draw your circuit instead of etching it – people have done that with AxiDraw and EggBot as well – if you need a spherical circuit.
Lee: If you need a conductive egg.
Carrie: Was it way easier going from EggBot to pen plotter that just has two axes?
Lenore: No, because the EggBot is essentially direct drive. You have a motor that's turning the egg and you have a motor that's just turning the pen, just moving it in an arc over the egg. There's no, or very little, intermediary hardware; for the pen, there's a servo motor that just lifts and lowers.
Carrie: Is it spring loaded to keep touch with the surface of the egg?
Lenore: No, it is gravity driven. It's lifted away from the egg and then lowered to just ride along the surface of gravity and that’s true with the AxiDraw, as well. The WaterColorBot had power down, it would press the brush down because you need to be able to push the brush onto the paper. The AxiDraw and EggBot are both just gravity driven. So, no, all of the other types of motion control that we've done are more complicated because you need some kind of hardware to translate it into those positions. The AxiDraw does not have any moving motors and neither did the WaterColorBot. The WaterColorBot used an Etch-a-Sketch-style motion system with cords that hold the stages around and the AxiDraw uses a single belt that's connected to two motors. Neither of those is specifically X or Y, it's a combination of them that drives it to the correct location. So those are all much more complicated than the EggBot, which is just a direct; we have rotation, we have pen, and that's it.
Here's a transcript from our archives with special guest, and close friend of Carrie, Bibianna Cha! Bibianna a biomedical device engineer that has worked on stuff from insulin to eyeballs! Watch Carrie and Bibianna solder up a cheap Bluetooth Speaker kit and follow along with the transcript to the highlight clips below! She tells us about how she got into science, what her career path has been like, what changed for her when she had kids, and what course she's plotting now!
(0:00 – 6:09) Meet Bibianna Cha
Carrie: Hello everybody. I'm Carrie Sundra of Alpenglow Industries! Today, I have joining me, my good friend, Bibiana Cha. We met back in college, and we've known each other for a very long time. She's going to talk to us about making all sorts of cool biomedical devices and just going to chat about basically what got her into STEM and how she felt when we all hit college. Then we're going to talk about the cool things that she's worked on and the paths that her career has taken. I'd love to touch on how things changed when you had kids and if you felt supported in your career at that point or not, and stuff like that. Finally, what you’re thinking is about tech versus more managerial roots because I know you've done a little bit of both. A lot of people have those questions.
Bibianna: So, I have wanted to be an engineer since I was pretty young. I think that it's interesting because my mom was the one that fixed everything in the house. If a lamp broke and she'd be taking it apart and fixing things. So that's all I knew. When I came to America, the only subject that I was really good at in the beginning was math because the numbers translated. I really gravitated towards sciences and math just because of what I was good at when I got here, and I was really interested in it.
Carrie: And how old were you?
Bibianna: I was 10. I want to be an engineer probably since seventh grade. First, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer and then I decided that I wanted to be a medical device engineer. When I was a sophomore year of high school, I watched this 20/20 episode about these people who have TMJ, and they were trying to look at other devices to help with their locking jaw issues. I thought that was fascinating! I got really interested in medical devices and that's kind of where I focused all my career.
Bibianna: My current position is the only position that isn't directly a medical device company, but I really enjoy what I'm doing now, and I've enjoyed everything in the medical device field. I'd encourage anybody to go into that! There's something amazing about going to a surgical suite and seeing somebody using a device that you designed, and you know how it works and how it was produced. You’re sitting there with your fingers crossed and you're like, “Okay. I hope it doesn't fail.” It is an amazing feeling to know that what you're working on has affected the life of people in a way that is helping people one by one. Obviously, in other fields you'd be looking at more global changes. If you are doing aerospace, obviously you'd be helping a bigger group of people doing other things, but I wanted more of a direct impact in their daily lives.
Carrie: So, why do you think you had such a strong pull towards engineering at such a really young age? I am going to be super honest and say that I really didn't know shit about engineering until I got to college. I didn't really know what engineers did. Even though my dad was one, he wasn't working in the field. He'd been out of the field for a long time. So, I had no real idea of what it was like for an engineer daily. What exactly did they do?
Bibianna: I had no idea. My dad was an accountant and my mom, she became a hairdresser, but she was a stay-at-home mom for a long time. I just liked watching her fix things. She wasn't afraid to take things apart. I would say probably my first introduction to engineering was a drafting class I took. I took a drafting class and I liked making straight lines and making things match and it made me happy. It was all pencil and paper, and I was really good at it. I took some architectural classes, and I was designing cars for fun in the end. Then I was really interested in space, but I didn't really know much about what they actually did. I just wanted to be a part of that. But it was really the medical device.
Bibianna: I think, just knowing there's a field of engineering that is designed to help people that really just triggered this passion. So, everything that I did in college and after college was towards having a bigger impact and having more direction. As I got older, I wanted to be able to have more standard direction of the company and the projects people worked on. That's the thing that I'm still really interested in having impact on – knowing that some opinions I have about where we should go in our product releases and projects we work on, that can I make impact on that. With my current company, I just started and I’m two and a half months in. So, there's so much for me to learn because it's much more biology related than anything I've ever worked on.
Carrie: Yeah. So cool. Always fun when there's a ton of stuff to learn.
(11:58 – 19:24) College
Bibianna: So how did you end up going to Mudd if you weren't sure about sciences?
Carrie: I was sure about sciences. I just didn't really have any good concept of what engineering entailed and what engineers did, other than build stuff, which seemed very nebulous to me. I had no idea about how anything was manufactured at that point in time really. We didn't have shop in school. We didn't have a machine shop. My mom was very into woodworking and turning and I had done a little bit of that with her, but other than that, I didn't really have any visibility into how things were made.
Carrie: Engineering was on the list because it sounded kind of interesting, but I didn't know; I did know it was either going to be sciences or engineering. I knew new science, and this was back in the pretty much pre-internet days. So, the way that people learned about different schools was through those top 50 colleges books – Barron's books. We got some of those, actually somebody handed them down to us because again, lived on an island. So, somebody from the previous year, their parents handed us down a whole bunch of college prep books and stuff, that was super cool. Mudd was in it and the fricking description for Mudd was so darn funny that I was just like, “Oh my God.” We were going to go to California anyway to look at Stanford. So, we’ve got to check this place out because it was all about donut runs and unicycles and shit.
Carrie: So that's how I got to be there. Actually, kind of coincidentally, there was a guy four years ahead of me who went to Mudd from the island. Pretty surprising. So, the headmaster actually knew about Mudd and he's the one that suggested it, too, because he knew that I was into science and math and stuff. When I got to Mudd, even though I excelled in my very small pond, it was… Yeah, I got my ass kicked left and right and up and down and sideways. Compared to everybody else, I felt like I had so few opportunities and experiences and just had so much catching up to do. Even though I took all of the AP courses that I possibly could and did really well on the AP exams and stuff like that. It was still just a huge, huge ego crushing blow.
Carrie: So, what was it like when you got to Mudd? Did you feel prepared?
Bibianna: The first week orientation, there were a large quantity of kids that were valedictorian, and I was not valedictorian. I was like, “Oh my God.” So, yeah, it was like a kick in the butt for sure. I did bridge, remember?
Carrie: Oh, you did bridge. You see, I should've done bridge. I really should have.
Bibianna: It was interesting. I don't know if bridge necessarily prepared me anymore, I guess. I mean, I kind of had the system down a little bit, but yeah.
Carrie: Well, but didn't you also take the first CS class? So, bridge was a program that that was, how many weeks was it?
Bibianna: A month.
Carrie: Oh, wow. Yeah. That's why I didn't do it. Bridge was a program that was a month long and it was for incoming freshmen. It gave you a little bit of an introduction to Mudd and a leg up. You did basically the first CS class during that time. That would have really helped me because I did super shitty in computer science. I had never done anything even remotely like C before, so I was just like, what is this? I had no idea what the compile errors meant. Robyn’s laughing next to me, shaking your head like yes, I have that feeling. So, yeah, I struggled hard in that.
Bibianna: Yeah, but you know, it's funny I wish I had taken more computer science classes in college.
Carrie: Me too, kind of. Even though I did do CS 5 and I didn't need to, but it wasn't that relevant actually. We had to make this terrible game called Walrus, which was like ASCII art Tetris, but coming from both sides and disappearing in the middle. I was like, “Nope, nope.” Honestly, I still wouldn't know how to program that shit. Give me a microcontroller and I can totally make it do stuff, but, oh man, just programming for the sake of programming.
(30:51 – 35:31) Internships and First Jobs
Carrie: So, first job outside of college. Tell us a little bit, because I know that there are people out there who struggle with job searching, right? It's tough because the line that you're fed, I think a lot of times it's like, oh, go to this prestigious school and then you'll totally get a job. It'll be easy to get a job right out of college. And that's not always the case. I mean, it was hard for me to get a job right out of college, too.
Bibianna: It didn’t help that Mudd, at that time, was so not very well known.
Carrie: Yes, that didn't help.
Bibianna: I got my first job; I think it was a tech job at Medtronic or Mini-Med at that time. It was a temporary position, as a mechanical engineer. I think a lot of times you kind of have to do what you need to do. Internships and co-ops are great, and I wish I'd taken advantage of that more in college because
my summer job was at the university, which isn't really the best place if you want to go into the biomedical industry. I would have probably focused more on getting internships and co-ops; places you get extra experience in the workplace. It's oftentimes they actually have an avenue for you to be able to start work there as an intern.
Carrie: My problem was that I hated my internship and wanted no part of working there full-time. I remember a summer intern at McDonald Douglas down in Huntington beach, the summer that it became Boeing; I interned at their space systems place, which, I mean, that was pretty cool. Being able to more or less run amuck in little electric carts around a giant place that was basically a factory for space stuff. It was kind of cool. Of course, me being young and female people loved to talk to me. And hell yeah I took advantage of that because it was fun to learn about all of the things that were going on there, you know? It was also my first experience with a huge company and there's a ton of bureaucracy.
Carrie: There were union politics and stuff going on and it was just very rigid and regimented. I could sort of get some time with this tiny sort of prototyping machine shop that was next door to the lab that I was working at. I could only sort of do that without anybody complaining because I was a college intern. If I had been in a full engineer, then I would have had to go through the main shop and a union person would have performed that work. I am definitely in support of a lot of that and in support of unions, but there was also a practicality that just was not there. I was talking about doing incredibly simplistic machining, machining operations, you know, drilling holes and cutting roughly the right shape out of a piece of aluminum. I was doing things that needed maybe an hour or two of time and that was me doing it, so I was slow. For the main machine shop, it was just way too small of a job, and they were totally backlogged. I was in the position of having to do it myself or having to wait for a month or two, and then my internship would have been over. So yeah, there were a lot of bureaucratic things that were just incredibly inefficient, and it drove me nuts. It totally drove me nuts.
Bibianna: No, I remember that. That's true for a lot of bigger companies because they, not only the union, but they [the company] want to make sure nobody's getting hurt using equipment, too. It's interesting. I feel like prototyping has changed so much since we were that age. With the advent of 3D printing and all these additive technologies that are coming to place, you can actually design up. I mean, there's more really cool stuff coming down the pipeline.
(53:07 – 1:00:19) Having kids while working in STEM
Carrie: So, when you had when you had your first kid, you changed jobs. Essentially, you quit one job and then started another one. How did that go with employers? I'm curious. I don't have kids, but I always hear other women saying that like, “Oh man, it's hard to get the flexibility that I need in order to take care of the kid and do things for the kid, as well as be at work.” “People don't expect me to perform as well, too. People tend to equate 8-5 butt in seat, with high performance.” “If you can't do that, if you need a little bit extra flexibility in your schedule or whatever, then you're not committed.” They get this attitude that they have to deal with. I'm curious if you experienced any of that or if the places that you worked for already had kind of robust maternity policies and things like that.
Bibianna: It's interesting because I would say that I never really had to deal with that much. I don't know. I might've mentioned I had kids, but it wasn't a question that, obviously, they are legally allowed to ask.
Bibianna: With my first job after I had the baby, I was very clear, like, “Hey, I need to make sure I can find daycare for my son.” At that point I didn’t have anything lined up and I wasn't going to start looking for anything unless I had to. The biggest thing for me was that Brandon was doing his hospital rotations. So, four times a year, he would be at the hospital pretty much 24/7. I’d have to be able to accommodate for my husband's schedule to take care of the kids, otherwise I'll be working from home and everything. I would say with the first one, they didn't have any issues. It was so long ago; I don't remember them having many issues. With the second one I was already working at a job where I was working pretty low-key hours and wasn’t very stressful. Then they said, “We have this other opportunity,” and I pretty much told them, “Hey, I need to be able to work from home. I have kids.” Honestly, I think that if it was any other company, I don't think I could have survived because the kids would be off school and I would bring them to work and they hang out in my office. The university, when I worked there, during the days that they have half days or whatever, I'd bring Brady to work with me and he would play with the fluids line and kind of get a sense of what it was like in the lab.
Carrie: That’s cool.
Bibianna: I'd bring the kids with me, and they would hang out in my cubicle.
Carrie: Now was that something that other coworkers were already doing, or did you just start doing that?
Bibianna: I just did it.
Carrie: You just did it, didn’t ask.
Bibianna: Maybe I asked, I can't remember. I just started, I was like, “Oh, the kids have a day off, I'm bringing them in.” They didn't have any objections to it. It's interesting, in any company there is the engineers and then there's the manufacturing plant people. I'm sure the people on the production floor were like, “Oh, it’s Bibianna. She gets to bring her kids to work while I have to slave away on the production floor and I have to find daycare for my kids.” So, I felt kind of bad.
Carrie: So, you think that there's maybe some privilege accorded to you and your status as an engineer versus somebody who was working on the floor.
Bibianna: Yes, I would say that after I started bringing my kids some other women who were accountants or whatever, there were not that many women engineers in the group, would bring their kids to work, too. Just for half a day or whatever, nothing long.
Bibianna: And they were super quiet, they just hung out in their little area.
Carrie: The normal for me growing up, I would get off of school and for me, I would get off of the boat, walk to my mom's office, do homework in our office for a couple of hours until she was done, and it was time to go home. I know a lot of kids that I went to school with, a lot of their parents were working in retail or own small, retail shops and things like that. Everybody would go to their parent's workplace for a few hours until it was time to go home.
Bibianna: Yeah. No, that makes sense. It would've been really hard if I couldn't bring them. I could've made it work, I guess. Obviously, I could always pay for daycare for them, to have them go somewhere else. I always kind of have felt bad. I think being a working mom, there's always guilt that you're not doing enough or you’re doing too much, you know? Thankfully, the boys made friends with a lot of other boys whose mom didn't work. So, they would go over to their house and hang out with them while I was working. I felt less guilt about doing my own thing and they really enjoyed having my boys around because they're their boys were playing with other people, so they don't have to worry about them and keeping them amused. So, it worked out. I think that having support at work and not having people get on my case about it and being able to work from home when the kids were sick, definitely made it worthwhile.
Bibianna: As much as things ended on a bad note in my last job at MST, they really allowed me to balance work and home really well, especially closer to the end. I'm not going to have any regrets about how long I stayed or anything like that. Even though I stayed a little bit longer than I should have.
Carrie: Well, you know, as long as there were good things about it.
Bibianna: Yeah, I learned a lot. The main thing I learned is that people are full of shit.
Carrie: Oh yeah. A common thing as it turns out.
TL;DR: how to use BigNums with I2C LCDs
We recently had a comment on our original BigNums2x2 blog post about using the library, which is designed for parallel interface Hitachi HD44780-based 16x2 LCDs, with an I2C-equipped LCD. We immediately set to work adding I2C compatibility to our library, with the goal of enabling 16x2 LCDs of all kinds to have big numbers. But then things got complicated – complicated enough that we ultimately decided not to incorporate I2C support into our library. Here’s what we learned – hopefully it will help you implement BigNums with whatever I2C LCD you are using!
Rewinding for a moment, let’s talk about the different interfaces that you may encounter with 16x2 LCDs. The most common Hitachi HD44780-based displays use a dozen or more pins – greater still if it’s RGB – which can lead to a fairly messy breadboard, before you’ve even fleshed out other parts of your project. By using I2C, you can bring that pin count down to four: the same power and ground as before, plus SDA (data) and SCL (clock). And because the I2C bus allows up to 128 devices (or more with multiplexing), you’re actually kind of not using any pins, since a second, third, or … 128th device can in theory also be added with no additional I/O overhead. So, using an LCD that uses I2C, or obtaining an adapter for your existing display, can really simplify things. But what happens if you want to use BigNums?
Our BigNums2x2 library in turn uses Arduino’s LiquidCrystal library, which only supports 4 or 8-bit parallel Hitachi-compatible displays. But there are a number of I2C LCDs designed for use with Arduino, so, how do they work? It turns out each one of them tends to have its own library – usually not well maintained, and largely ripped off from one another in the ones that we looked at!
The first display that we tried, simply because it was on hand, was Seeed’s Grove 16X2 LCD RGB Backlight. This LCD presented its own special challenge in that its I2C implementation appears to be flawed. When used alone, the example code for this device completely failed to work. Further investigation, including diagnostics via i2c_scanner, revealed that the device was not found on address 0x3e as expected. But curiously, Seeed’s Grove Digital Light Sensor v1.1 seemed to work fine with all things equivalent hardware-wise – and curiouser still, the LCD worked too when the Digital Light Sensor was also present on the bus! Our best guess is that the LCD lacks the correct termination resistance and thus adding the Digital Light Sensor helps terminate the bus line.
After resolving these hardware issues, we started prototyping an updated BigNums2x2 library, using the Grove_LCD_RGB_Backlight library. The easiest way to do this was actually to duplicate our library files BigNums2x2.h and BigNums2x2.cpp locally alongside our sketch in place of the “real” library. By substituting the Grove library, which (mostly) supports the same interface, for the stock Arduino library in our code, we had BigNums2x2 up and running on the Grove LCD fairly painlessly. But, what about other I2C boards – it seemed imperative that we get a larger sample of representative devices in order to ensure that other devices could be added similarly.
Next up was the DFRobot Gravity: I2C LCD1602 Arduino LCD Display. As with the Seeed device, a custom library provided by the manufacturer is used via include as a substitute for the original Arduino library. After a quick confirmation that the library examples worked, it was time to see if it could be adapted as easily as the Seeed library. Unfortunately, the DFRobot library appeared to be missing a critical function, createChar(), which BigNums2x2 uses to create the custom characters that we use to make the Big Nums themselves. A closer look at the datasheet revealed mention of the requisite CGRAM functionality, so how come it wasn’t in the library? Analyzing that source revealed two very interesting facts: first, that the CGRAM function existed, but was called customSymbol(), and … that vast portions of the header file appeared identical to Seeed’s! Which wouldn’t inherently be an issue, since it’s open source – but DFRobot failed to preserve Seeed’s 2013 copyright, claiming authorship and replacing with their own 2016 copyright.
So…surely we couldn’t be the first library to encounter the issue of wanting to support multiple I2C LCDs? After a few false starts with other libraries, we noticed a lot of references online to fmalpartida’s new-liquidcrystal library – which seemed to no longer exist at the BitBucket repo which all the links pointed to. Further searching revealed a clone of the BitBucket library on GitHub, with a handful of commits over the past half decade or so. And! The documentation was retrievable via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine! Before adopting it as the basis for our LCD support though, we thought we should put it through its paces with the displays on hand.
We installed the library as usual, but received the error Multiple libraries were found for "LiquidCrystal.h" – weird that this new library would collide with Arduino’s default; but a closer look at those old docs clarified how the library was intended to be used:
The library has been developed to replace the current Arduino library, therefore you will need to remove/backup the LiquidCrystal folder from the Arduino library folder the original LiquidCrystal library and replace it for this one. You will also potentially need to remove other LCD libraries like LiquidCrystal_I2C as that will also conflict with this library.
Instead of just including the library, we had to use it to physically replace the stock library files in C:\Program Files (x86)\Arduino\libraries\LiquidCrystal – highly unusual! And a hassle we wouldn’t want to force on our users … but perhaps we could just rename it to prevent the conflict and include in the normal fashion if it turned out to be good – so let’s see how it goes…
With the standard HD44780 display, everything worked great once the pins were updated to match our breadboarded example. The DFRobot I2C module, however, presented further challenges. Unlike using the device’s own library, we had to specify the I2C address ourselves; actually, let’s take a moment to unpack what that means: remember the earlier discussion about i2cscanning? Different I2C devices have different addresses – typically a good thing, since it means you can combine them on a single bus. But what this also means is that LCDs from different manufacturers often have different addresses, so you can’t just have a hard-coded value like the individual libraries that were provided by each OEM (and even those typically require hacking if you cut the trace or bridge the pads that allow you to use their alternate address in order to eliminate a conflict with another device) and expect it to work for all. So either the library needs a way to “know” the address of each commonly-used device, in order to provide a seamless experience for users, or, as is the case with new-liquidcrystal, users are required to specify the address during initialization. But, manufacturers don’t always do a good job of making the address clear – in fact, as mentioned, they typically abstract it in the library so that users don’t have to “worry” about it. And in the case of the DFRobot display there was nothing in their wiki or examples, so we had to go digging. Diving into their library source code (again) suggested it was 0x7c, so we updated the example sketch to use this, and:
HelloWorld_i2c_DFR:8:27: error: no matching function for call to 'LiquidCrystal_I2C::LiquidCrystal_I2C(int)'
Weird, why would changing the address cause that? The answer was that it wouldn’t: the example didn’t compile even with the default value. There were multiple signatures for the lcd() function, and one finally built without error when we #DEFINE’d the missing POSITIVE macro, but … nothing happened with the LCD. Double-checking the device using the i2c_scanner revealed a device on 0x3e (same as the Grove!) – but … didn’t the code say 0x7c? Closer inspection revealed that the value is right shifted (0x7c>>1 = 0x3e) – because I2C addresses are 7-bit plus one more bit for read/write – but even the corrected value failed to produce any result.
Running out of development boards to test with while trying to avoid continually rewiring between testing, we tried the Grove LCD on Adafruit’s Metro M0, a SAMD21-based board. The original lcd() signature worked on this different architecture, but provided no output, and the other, even after manual #DEFINE of POSITIVE resulted in the error:
HelloWorld_i2c_Grove:11:18: error: invalid conversion from 'int' to 't_backlightPol' [-fpermissive]
11 | #define POSITIVE 1
At this point it felt like time to accept defeat.
What did we learn in our failed attempt to add I2C support to our library? First of all, be skeptical of your hardware: it might not be you – it might be a flawed I2C implementation! Second, pay close attention to library source code and its providence. And finally: sometimes it’s best to just do the thing, instead of creating a universal factory to do all the things. If we would have just demonstrated how to hack the library by making a local copy and adjusting it to the specific board/library that the commenter was working with, we would have been done much sooner. But at the same time, we wouldn’t have this lovely blog post full of lessons, so … maybe it was worth it in the end!
Check out the transcripts for the all the highlight clips from this past soldersesh with David Ray! Carrie spoke with David Ray of Cyber City Circuits (based in Georgia) and had some great conversations! David talked about running a subscription service and the fast-pace nature of monthly delivery cycle, fulfilling childhood dreams and growing a business just as the pandemic started (early 2020, here!). David also answers the chat's burning questions about PCB assembly and manufacturing and talks about his ideas for a traveling roadshow!
Cyber City Circuits is on Twitter and Instagram, and you can find more information about the company on their website!
(2:21 – 7:33) Subscription Kits
Carrie: I'm going to start soldering and I would love to chat with you, David, about the whole subscription club and how it got started. And if you don't mind sharing with us some of the challenges of it. I like to do small business talk at times and let people know some of the behind the scenes struggles, right?
David: Oh my God. Yeah, it's important that if someone can learn from my lessons, they don't have to make the same mistakes. They could choose to make the same mistakes, but they don't have to. At least give them the opportunity to see where I didn't. So, in late 2019, I cashed in my retirement account, I started a business, I bought a pick and place machine, and then we got a pandemic three months later.
David: So, Chris and I decided at that point, because we didn't know what to do, to make face shields. We started doing face shields for the local hospitals for the pandemic. We got the plastic from Coca-Cola. We had to pay for the shipping, but they literally gave us a ton of plastic, like bottle plastic. It came on a spool; it was like 2,200lbs of plastic. We got it all laser cut and we made a bunch of face shields, and we were sitting there. We had a lot of time just sitting there, making face shields, just looking at each other. First of all, if you can get a subscription product off the ground and make it really successful it will pay all your bills.
Carrie: It's nice because you know, you have some prediction of what kind of money is coming in every month. So, it makes cashflow and finances a lot smoother.
David: Right! So, we thought, we'll give it a try with a subscription box. So, we spun up the store so that we could do the subscription box. Then we also had the other stuff – we came out with the cyber digit, which is a really cool, neo-pixel kind of seven segment display. We came up with a lot of products and we're going to do subscription boxes. So, the first few were easy. Everyone has an idea for a decent soldering kit, right?
Carrie: Yeah, you started off with them once a month. Which is quite a lot.
David: Imagine walking into a month and having a deadline that's 28 days away that you have to ship a product and you don't even know what the product is yet. And you have 28 days to ship it. And you know, with China and you got to ship all the stuff from overseas, you got to get the boards made. And yeah, we did it monthly for like a year and it was rough! Man, you talk about getting really quick with development time.
Carrie: Yeah. I feel like it's super easy to have it sort of planned in your head. It's easy to have the best intentions at the beginning. You think, I'm going to spend one month just prepping all of these kits and doing all this work ahead of time, and then we'll just slow roll it month by month. Right? And then life happens. Other business stuff happens, and it turns out that you get the first thing done, then you need to take a break because you have a whole bunch of other stuff that needs immediate attention. Then you start getting in this cycle of always lagging and you're just a little bit later than you want to be and then it gets to be super stressful.
David: And it compounds. That’s another thing, if you think something's going to take you a couple days, it's really going to take you six days. Whatever you think it's going to take, it's going to take three times longer without exception.
(23:44 – 26:55) Growing Business
Carrie: So, the good part about deciding not to do the soldering kit anymore is that part of the reason that you were having so much trouble keeping up with it is also because you were busy with other stuff, right?
David: Yeah, we started it when we didn't have any business when we just started out and then we finally got business where we became successful at what we wanted to do, and there's just no more room for it, unfortunately. I really wanted to keep it going.
Carrie: So, tell us, for people who might not know, what that other side of the business is.
David: Oh my God. I'm the largest electronics manufacturer in August! We’ve got pick and place machines, we've got a reflow oven and we've got this big, fancy stencil printing machine that's had to meet a crane twice just to get into our building. We do a lot of design work; we also do a lot of fabrication and box builds. For example, right now we have like 50 waterproof enclosures that we're building these things into that go places. And so, we're going to be QC-ing them all, putting batteries in them, doing a 72 hour burn in over a weekend, and all that. So, we offer all these services and we're really good at it for the most part. And we're new, we really got going in 2020, and we're on fire. We're doing really, really, really good. And I'm happy that for people like Bob and Jason and Carrie, that really helped us along this journey, thank you.
Carrie: Yeah, no problem. It's been awesome getting to know you through Twitter and the internet and meetups and stuff like that. That's what it's all about.
David: [Question from Tom: “What is your main business that needs SMD line?”] Well, I do PCB assembly, Tom. I can do it for you, too! We do a lot of PCB work for Jason; we've done work for Carrie, and yeah. We’re looking to get a new line; well new to me – it's used, but a Manncorp line hopefully by the end of this quarter.
Carrie: What is that, is that like a pick and place and reflow, or is that inspection?
David: Oh, it’s fancy stuff, Carrie!
Carrie: Oh, tell me, I want to hear about fancy machines.
David: We're going to take the little garbage stuff we got and go put it in a dumpster and put in all the new stuff!
Carrie: Before you put it in the dumpster, give a girl a ring, haha.
David: I’m just kidding, we'll end up taking those machines and dedicating them to customers, but maybe at some point I can give a little tour.
(30:15 – 36:37) Stealing a Book/ Fulfilling Childhood Dreams
David: So, when I was 12 years old, I stole a book from the Lexington County public library.
Carrie: Wait, you weren't charged a million dollars in late fees.
David: I don't think they ever knew how to find me. This is the book that I stole when I was a kid. [Giant Handbook of 222 Weekend Electronics Projects] That's the same book, Giant Handbook of 222 Weekend Electronics Projects. And as a kid I never built any of these, but I read this book over and over and over and I wanted so hard to understand what the hell this meant. You know, please explain this to me. And I found some more books, I didn't steal those. I got some other books and I started learning and I started fooling around with it. Then I went to the Marine Corps, and I did radio repair for the Marines, and they trained me some. And now, here I am. This is like childhood dream kind of stuff. It's so cool and I'm sure Carrie’s in the same boat.
Carrie: Yeah, I am trying to also live my best 12-year-old life, although when I was 12, I didn't know anything about electronics. I didn't even know what I wanted to do when I was 12. I would have been in seventh grade. I think paleontologist was still what I wanted to be at that point in time. Maybe it was either that or astronaut. I'm not sure which.
David: What year was it? Do you know? Do you remember?
Carrie: I was 12 in 1989.
David: So, did you ever own a pair of parachute pants?
Carrie: I did not! However, some of my friends did and they looked super fly in them because they had the Hammer moves, too. So, I grew up in the Caribbean.
David: Where in the Caribbean? I didn't know that. Where are you from?
Carrie: So, I grew up on the island of St. John and the US Virgin Islands and I went to school on St. Thomas for most of my life from when I was 7 on through high school. I was taking a boat to a different island every day and back for school. I lived with my mom in the Caribbean and my dad was living in New Jersey; I would see him for summers. He was the engineer electronics person. Although, when I was little, he wasn't working in electronics, he was working at a family restaurant business, but he had a big love for it, and he also worked on the Apollo program. He was always into space stuff, and he was really into computers even before PCs were a thing that everybody had. So, I learned about computers early from him. I had some electronic toys early, but I also got a lot from my mom, and I've always loved reading and literature and writing and things like that. So, I kind of got different stuff from each of them, but there wasn't a lot of opportunity to tinker with electronics. We didn't have an electronics lab at all. It wasn't actually until, well, we didn't even have an electronics lab in college. I hated electronics in college because the intro class was terrible.
Carrie: It wasn't until my first job after college that I started getting into electronics because suddenly there were cool projects that we were trying to build. We were trying to build this small little 6.0” airplane in pre-2000. So that was a really hard task at that point in time, not a hard task today, but you know, back in the last century it was a tough, tough thing. Electronics were bigger and more power hungry. So, I have come by a love of electronics from doing it for jobs and working with them and just learning for the last 25 years. But that means that I have a lot of making up for lost time when I was a kid. So, now we're all about all of the toys and the lights and the blinkies and the baby Yodas and the unicorn plushies. Space stuff, everything, just bring it, all the fun stuff we want it.
(44:55 – 48:17) Traveling Roadshow
Carrie: Traveling Roadshow.
David: Oh my God. Traveling Roadshow.
Carrie: You should talk about that.
David: So, I got this idea for a travel show. I got a new truck and it's nice, it’s a 2022 4Runner, but I got it so I can go on the road with it. I'm going to hop in the truck with somebody and a bunch of cameras and a whole bunch of microphones, and we're going to go to a town near you. We're going to meet local small businesses that do electronics hardware like me, like Carrie, like everybody else that we know, and hang out with them for the day! Eat dinner with them, get to know what their family's like, and ask them all of the burning questions. If you could send a message back to yourself five years ago, what would you say?
Carrie: Five years ago, was 2017. It would be injection mold SkeinTwister knobs because we' will sell enough of them that injection molding makes sense.
David: I was going to say keep it because I'll show everybody on the show when we come and visit you.
Carrie: I'll come up with another one. It'll be all good.
David: All right. And I'm going to come and see Jason. Jason doesn’t know it yet. You still here Jason?
Carrie: Yeah, he usually hangs out while he does some of his Fibonacci assembling things.
David: The idea with the show is to not to promote products that they people sell, right? Say, I go see Jason; let's show off the Fibonacci boards. That's not what we're here for. Instead, it would be more about learning more about you and the person behind the product and what drives you and what makes you want to come to do this for a living. Maybe you're not in it for a living. Maybe you moonlight and you still have a day job. Well, why is that? What would make you want to quit your day job and do it full-time? All these different things. The idea is I would do it for an entire month. I go see 20 people and then I bring all the footage back and hire somebody to edit it all. Then we got a YouTube series and I sell it to the travel channel and make money.
(55:04 – 59:36) Assembly Questions
David: Does anybody have any burning PCBA questions they like to ask? It's a Cyber City after dark. We can get all your burning DFM questions out of the way!
Carrie: Oh, did you see responses about the favorite Cyber City Circuits kits?
David: Yeah, Bob said that he really liked the Theremin and what was the other one?
Carrie: Jason's Fibonacci got a mention and the alarm clock kit.
David: Yeah, Jason’s Fibonacci was great, and the alarm clock kit, man. That one was fun; it has a built-in MP3 player. The song it played on the alarm clock kit is a song that I played on guitar. It's a recording I made when I was in high school, and it was called “The Digital Alarm Clock Song” because it just seemed like the kind of song that would play to wake you up in the morning.
David: Tommy Marshall asks, “Is there an SMD size you recommend and why?” That's a good question, it’s application dependent. If you're going to be hand soldering stuff, I'd recommend 1206 and 0805. If you're going to be using tweezers for manufacturability, I'd recommend 0603 and 0805. We do 0402. We just did a whole bunch of 0201 yesterday. [Groans from the audience.] So, Chris is really good at that kind of stuff. I'm not, I'm just good looking, we can do 0402 and we can do 0201, but we charge more for that. Everyone does, it's not just us. Any PCB assembler worth their money is going to charge you through the nose for 0201 and 0402, so avoid those when you can. 0603 is the most common size and 0805 is really nice. When you're doing KiCad, there's an option for hand solder pads. There's R0603, and then there's R0603 hand solder. Use the hand solder stuff; you're just going to make your life a lot easier for rework, if you can get away with it. Now if it's a really tight constrained design, maybe not, but they're not that much bigger, they don't take up that much more space, and it makes everybody's life easier.
David: Bob asks, “Do we need to provide parts for assembly, or do you provide those for an additional fee?” So, we do whatever you want! We can do turnkey; when we buy parts, we just do markup – that's an industry standard. Everyone charges you markup. So, we just charge markup when we buy parts. Otherwise, we do consignment fees which is $5 per piece of cut tape. Now, the reason we charge a consignment fee per piece of cut tape is because we had a joker that sent us 10 pieces of cut tape for the same part. For each of those pieces you have to have a special machine to splice cut tape together and that machine takes time. That machine can be very frustrating to work with, but you have to splice the cut tape together. So, we charged $5 per. Then it has to be loaded into the machine; the fastest we can do is 3 to 5 minutes per line, that's the fastest we can do, and that's if nothing goes wrong. So, we charge a consignment fee per line, and we charge markup if we buy stuff, but we're happy to do whatever. If you want a quote, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I would love to talk to you!
David: Always a salesman.
Here's a blast from the past soldersesh from last year with our special guest, Mark Smith! Mark is a software developer by profession, an amateur radio expert by choice, and a nerd by fate. Mark is passionate about all things HAM radio and in the first highlight video, he goes over just what exactly ham/amateur radio is and is used for. He grew up with the old school TRS-80 and PC Jr. computers and was encouraged from a young age to build, code, and tinker! After college, Mark became involved in a local security and hacking club, SLOwhiterabbit, which hosted fun scavenger hunts with QR codes and private keys! He was also an avid and frequent attendee at DEFCON (the largest hacking and security conference), where he participated in the birth of the #badgelife and even has the first badge from DEFCON 14!
You can find Mark on Twitter and YouTube to keep up with him and find out what he's working now!
(2:06 – 9:36) What is HAM Radio?
Carrie: I know pretty much nothing about ham radio. So, I have so many questions about it. First of all, tell us about how you got into ham radio.
Mark: That is an interesting one.
Carrie: I guess maybe we should actually back up and do a brief overview of what ham radio is.
Mark: So, amateur radio, ham is– it's not a derogatory term, but it is an unofficial term. The proper term [is amateur radio] we're going to be proper, stick your pinky up.
Carrie: Hang on, I'll drink my tea because I'm double fisting with tea and beer because that’s how you do it.
Mark: Uppers and downers.
Mark: Amateur radio is a way for non-commercial entities, individuals, people like me, to be able to experiment with radio. There are a billion and a half different things you can do in ham radio. So, when people say, what do you do with ham radio? One of our favorite phrases is that it is a hobby of a thousand hobbies because there are so many different things that you can do with it. Anything from short range, and by short range I mean miles to tens of miles to hundreds of miles in the absolute best case. If you think of an FRS radio, like you see kids running around the neighborhood with, like that, but on steroids. To the longer-range stuff, which is the lower frequencies ironically called high-frequency, HF. So, the HF range are longer wave lengths and bigger antennas, lower frequencies. And they are the kinds of waves that can bounce around the world, literally.
Carrie: It can like bounce off the atmosphere.
Mark: Yeah, and come back down again, thousands of miles away.
Carrie: Which is just super cool. And you actually can talk to people who are outside of line of sight of the antennas.
Mark: The VHF/UHF [very high frequency and ultra-high frequency] stuff is mostly line of sight and there's asterisks there because there are asterisks on all of this. There are exceptions to everything I'm about to tell you. But for the most part, the VHF/UHF stuff is short range line of sight. Typically, we'll use a what's called a repeater. It's a radio that you stick on a mountain top or on top of a building that receives a signal and then rebroadcasts it. So, the obligatory drawing is, think of a mountain and you got a person over here with a radio and a person over here with a radio. They can't talk directly to each other, but they can both talk to the top. So, repeaters are useful. HF is the direct person to person stuff. That's the long-range stuff. I do all of it. Both of those. Some people only do one, some people only do the other. These are just the two kinds of entry, simple to explain things, there are a jillion other things you can do with ham radio. So, what is ham radio? It is a kind of an internationally defined thing. The rules are not exactly the same in all the different countries, but most countries have something that is called amateur radio with the intention of being able to talk to other amateurs, either in the same country and/or other countries as well.
Mark: The whole point of amateur radio, the reason the governments still do it is because we… I'm going to get this wrong and I'm sure people are going to correct me… but the idea is, we are supposed to be experimenting. In the early days of radio in the early to mid-20th century, a lot of the new advancements in radio technology came out of amateurs, just playing around with stuff. Single side band and even AHAB [all hazardous alert broadcasting], all that kind of stuff came out of amateurs experimenting with it. Even now, a lot of new technology comes out of the amateur radio community. CDMA [code-division multiple access], some of the early cell phone technology wasn't actually experimented with in amateur radio, but an amateur radio operator is the one who developed it and used his knowledge from amateur radio to develop that. I can't remember the guy's name, but he's a very active ham. Fun story, he's also the guy who wrote ProComm, if any of you from the old BBS [bulletin board systems] days in the 80’s and 90’s, ProComm was a DOS terminal emulator – same guy. Anyway, experimentation to come up with new technologies.
Mark: We're also very good in emergencies because none of the stuff that we do requires any infrastructure, right? It doesn't require a telephone line. It doesn't require internet. Again, asterisk, we're getting into things that does make use of that sort of stuff, but the basis of the technology doesn't require any infrastructure. So, when the shit hits the fan, I can swear on this live stream! I can't swear on my other ones, but she told me it was okay. So, when the shit hits the fan and your cell networks are down or the Internet's down, or you don't have power or whatever, amateur radio operators are there, and they can communicate. We'll get called out when there’s earthquakes, you know, we’re in California so earthquakes are our natural disaster. But Red Cross will call us out and have us do communications for them and stuff like that.
Carrie: Yeah. It's super interesting. So, growing up in the USVI, U.S. Virgin Islands territory, it is part of the United States. It's really interesting because the radio played a much bigger role in even just person to person communications and community communications than it necessarily does here, I would say. Even the FM stations, right? When there was a hurricane, everybody would be broadcasting for as long as they could kind of thing, just updates. People would call into the radio station if they still had telephone to report on what was going on, on different islands and on different parts of the island. It’s really weird to me that the radio here does not. There's never anything about if there's a local fire, there's just not even anything on the local radio stations about that. I probably have to go to AM and there's probably some AM band that's the emergency one that I don't know about, but it's just odd for me that it seems like here radio is just not used in that way.
Mark: Our broadcast radio, in this area especially, doesn't have a lot of local ownership; it's produced locally, but it's all owned by Clear Channel and whatever else. So, the programming is done elsewhere. There are a few exceptions to that, KVEC… I can't remember whether KVEC is local still or not.
(1:13:55 – 1:20:15) Badge Life and DEFCON
Mark: Badges, badge life. Alright!
Carrie: Badges are super cool. We like doing little badges around here. Our badges are typically very simple and more kind of beginning soldering kit focused and are just fun, little graphics.
Mark: “I Voted”. This is one of my favorites. Definitely.
Carrie: “I Voted” – that one was a good one. Definitely our best seller in November.
Mark: I believe I bought two of them. All right, so, badge life. I, for many years, went to an event called DEFCON. I haven't been in a couple of years just because my life is kind of going in other directions these days, but I was a regular at an event called DEFCON, which is a hacker's convention in Las Vegas. It happens every year and has been going since 1992, I think. So, DEFCON 14 changed the world of conventions forever and I'm not exaggerating. This is not hyperbole. Joe Grand of Grand Idea Studio – if you've ever seen the TV show Prototype This, do you remember that show? You would enjoy Prototype This; I recommend you look it up. I think it was on Discovery Channel 10-15 years ago or so. Anyway, Joe Grand was the guy who did all the electronics on Prototype This. Do you remember when a hacker group went to testify to Congress back in the 90’s?
Carrie: Yeah, I have a vague, fuzzy memory. Yeah.
Mark: So, they convinced Congress… this is like the best hack ever. They convinced Congress that they couldn't use their real names. They had to testify under their handles for anonymity reasons and whatever. So, they're sitting there and there's a picture of L0pht Heavy Industries guys in their suit and ties at the Congress. They're being totally respectful and everything else, but they've got “kingpin” and all their different hacker handles in front of them.
Mark: I can't remember the names of some of the other guys, but Joe Grand was one of those guys. Joe is a wonderful person. I love him to death. He and I kind of became friends since he started doing this DEFCON 14. Every year at DEFCON they had to come up with new ways of making the badge unique and hard to copy because in the early days they were just laminated cards and people would go out to Kinko's make literal copies of them, laminate them, and get into DEFCON for free. Right. I don't know why, it was $20 back in the days, guys. Come on, really? Anyway, I think it's more for doing it for the hack, right. Can you hack them?
Carrie: Can you hack the hackers?
Mark: Can you hack the badge? Right. At DEFCON 14, Joe and Jeff, so “kingpin” and “darktangent.” Darktangent is the guy who runs DEFCON, Jeff Moss is his name. They got together and they're like, “We want to do something new, something that's never been done before.” So, Joe designed a circuit board with a little tiny PIC microcontroller, a little six pin pic microcontroller, a few passives, a coin cell, and a button that you use to turn it on and off. Let’s see if this battery still any good.
Carrie: We’ve got more if it's not.
Mark: No. Yeah, it's not working.
Carrie: Thank you, Robyn will get us a battery.
Mark: Anyway, he created this batch and it started out as, as you know, it would turn on solid and it would blink. Then you had this little random pattern in there.
Carrie: I just love the giant LEDs, too. They're like the 10mm ones.
Mark: Yeah. And he put out a challenge. He's like “Hack the badge, do something cool with it. Just anything, no rules.” Just hack the badge and if you can impress Joe Grand, then you won the competition. So solid, then blinky, and then I reprogrammed it. Did the wigwag and then I reprogrammed mine to transmit DEFCON 14 in Morse code.
Carrie: So, you had to learn Morse code for your HAM I’m assuming?
Mark: You don't anymore. So, my hack was that I reprogrammed the microcontroller to blink DEFCON 14 in Morse code. But the point being that when Joe created this, this became the standard by which all conference badges for the next decade or more were measured. Everyone started doing electronic badges for their conferences. This was the first, this is what started at all. And it says here, it says DEFCON; it doesn't actually say human in on this one anywhere, but the white ones were for humans, the attendees. Then there are goons who were the security that run it, green for the speakers. They all have different colors for the different types of badges that you have. That was on 14. I saw this and I fell in love with it. I'm super, super excited by it.
(1:20:15 – 1:26:27) Follow the White Rabbit
Mark: A few years later. @namniart on Twitter, his name is Austin. He came up to my desk one day and just handed me a sheet of paper. On this sheet of paper was a giant QR code and he just stuck it on my desk, and he walked away. Well, shit! Of course, I've got to scan that thing and figure out what it is. I got out my phone and I scanned it and decoded it and it turned out it was an RSA private key. His experiment, at that point, was to see whether I was intrigued enough just by a QR code to scan it, look at it, and try and figure out what to do. Of course I was, but I don't know what to do with it yet. He had this idea of starting a kind of scavenger hunt and using this as the Trailhead.
Mark: So, the two of us started thinking about this and we did an event at the local college; he was still a student. I had graduated at that point, 10 or 15 years earlier, but we did a little scavenger hunt thing where it started out with the QR code. The big one, this big single one was hard to decode so we cut it up into three blocks. You had one that had the begin RSA block and then a bunch of random characters, the one in the middle that just had a bunch of random characters, and then the third one, which was a bunch of random characters and the end key block. So, by scanning these 3 different QR codes, you could tell that this was a thing that you had to assemble and put together. On the flyers, we just wrote email@example.com and then we had a little ASCII art of a white rabbit on it. White rabbit, obviously you've got to chase it.
Carrie: Right, you have to follow it down the rabbit hole.
Mark: So, you have firstname.lastname@example.org and you have an RSA private key. What would you do if you saw that?
Carrie: I would go to the website and try to…
Mark: email@example.com as a website, I think it just had a picture of a rabbit on it and that was just it. Yeah.
Carrie: Oh well I would, I would email it. I would email it.
Mark: Yeah. You would get an automated response that says, “I like the way you think, but you're on the wrong path.”
Carrie: Interesting. So, it feels like it's credentials for something, right. It feels like it's a username and password combo essentially. So where would you use it to login?
Mark: Have you ever used SSH?
Mark: Okay, the RSA private key turned out to be a private key to an SSH server. And if you log in as Alice–
Carrie: So how would you know you where the server is?
Mark: You don’t, but the goal is to get people thinking about it and trying a bunch of different things. So, you log in using this RSA private key as your authenticator to firstname.lastname@example.org. For the first two weeks that we put this up, it had an ASCII art of a white rabbit, because of course it does, because we put white rabbits anywhere and everywhere to let you know that you're on the right track, then it printed out three numbers. The top one was static. It was a big nine-digit number. Then the next one was a slightly smaller number, but the same number of digits, and it was counting up once a second.
Mark: The third one was a little tiny number, the difference of those two. These are Unix time, the number of seconds since December 31st or January 1st, midnight, 1970. Right? So, any hacker will recognize these numbers as Unix time. The top one was the Unix time when an event was going to happen, the second one was the current Unix time, and the third one was just a countdown timer. So, you log in and you're like, oh, okay, something's going to happen. You take the top number, translate that, and figure out when the next thing is going to happen. We had a whole bunch of people logged in at the time when that happened. I can't remember all of the steps, but it was a lot of fun. I think what we did next was we just output a latitude and longitude.
Carrie: Oh boy, okay. So now maybe you have to be in a certain place at a certain time.
Mark: So, it became like a geocache, right? Here's a lat. and long., go there. It was a spot out in Poly Canyon where there was a tree, and Austin went out there and hung a laminated card with a picture of a white rabbit on it. We used this a lot, unfortunately; another QR code, but this one had another private key that was used to connect into our website. So, this one was a forum program and you had to use this private key in your browser to connect to this forum so that you knew that anybody else that was in this forum was also playing the game.
Carrie: Got it.
(2:21:50 – 2:27:37) Software and Hardware
Carrie: So, your day job has been software for a long time.
Mark: Yes, dev ops.
Carrie: But obviously you have a quite strong background in hardware as well., I know you kind of downplay yourself in this aspect, but I'm like, dude, you're making audio amplifier PCBs. You're making all of these other badges that are quite complicated. Don't downplay yourself.
Mark: The problem is I know professional EEs [Electrical Engineers], so I am advanced for a hobbyist, but I've never done this as a paying gig.
Carrie: Yeah, we can talk a lot about what qualifies you for different things, and experience is the majority.
Mark: Fair enough. I have a fair bit of experience.
Carrie: Yes. So, my question is, was there one or the other that like came first? You started doing the radio shack kits when you were in third grade and stuff like that. Were you also playing around with programming at that point or did programming like come second or did one lead into the other?
Mark: I was doomed to be a nerd from birth.
Carrie: And why did you choose software as the professional thing?
Mark: So, my dad worked for IBM for 32 years. My mom was a network administrator at the local high school. My oldest sister is 9 years older than me, and she bought our family's first computer when I was 3 years old. So, we had a TRS 80 model-I growing up. That's what I had growing up. You know, my dad brought home a PC junior. I think I was probably 8 or 9 years old. So that's when I got into PCs, right? I've been around computers literally, my entire life, and I've been encouraged to program them and use them. I got into BBS-ing when I was in 5th grade; I started running my own BBS when I was in 7th grade. At the same time, all of that was going on, I was doing a lot of Legos– a shit ton. My parents say that they spent a veritable fortune on Legos, and it was the best investment they ever made.
Carrie: I know a guy who's selling some Legos. If you need some Legos, I have a hook up. I'm just saying, Kevin is selling some of his Legos.
Mark: I got into the Technic Legos very quickly, pretty young. There are a lot of motors and I got little project boxes from Radio Shack and put in switches to make my own controllers. I was building robotic arms. I was doing amusement parks, all of these large scale technical/mechanical Lego kits with motors and lights that I wanted to control.
Mark: So, I was playing with electrics from a very young age, playing with lights and batteries and motors and switches and that kind of stuff from a very young age; early elementary school. So, I don't know that one really came before the other. I've been doing software, writing things in BASIC on the TRS 80 and on the PC Jr. I actually wrote my own BBS code for a while, but it sucks. I ended up going back to other people's software. I ran Asgard or Citadel, if anyone knows what those are, [I ran them] for many, many, many years. In fact, technically, I still am running it on Unix now, but because I've been a system operator since 1987, when I was 12 years old, that kind of led into when I got into college, and I found Unix and I found Linux. I was a very early adopter of Linux. My first kernel compile was version 0.99 patch level 13G.
Mark: I've been doing this for a long ass time. So that led into systems engineering and network engineering and running applications. I write code, but I'm not a software developer. I write a lot of code for microcontrollers. I can do a lot of shell scripting. Historically, I've done Pearl; nowadays, I do Python – that kind of thing, but I'm not an application developer. I've never done a mobile app. I've never done a big web application or anything like that. My programs typically top out around 1,000 lines. Like right now, my secret squirrel project is probably going to be the biggest single application I've written. Wild guess, probably 3,000 lines, maybe a little bit more than that. So, you say I do software and I do, but not like huge application-level software. I've been doing that kind of stuff pretty much my entire life since I was a kid, same with hardware.
We have the transcripts from last week's soldersesh with Kelly Heaton along with the highlight videos ready!! Read along as Carrie and Kelly dive into Kelly's path into STEM and learn about how she got started at MIT! Kelly also goes into detail about her oscillating songbird circuit and what inspired her to build it, but you'll have to watch Highlight Video #3 to hear the "birds" sing! Her printed bird circuits are used in her larger art piece, Circuit Garden, where the entire soundscape is created with the electric vibrations of analog circuits!
Check out Kelly's website with all the latest information! You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Vimeo!
(2:13 – 12:50) An Artist’s Path to STEM
Kelly: Okay, so how did I get into STEM? I have been an artist for as long as I remember, and I always ever identified as a visual artist and growing up, I had a real love of nature. Nature was a continuous source of fascination and I have pretty early memories of wanting to build, at the time, what seemed like magical things, like a bat or a squirrel that would fly along tracks on the roof of my bedroom. My whole family was big into nature. My mom used to take me on these trips with The Museum of Natural History called Amphibian Alert. We would go in the spring and the sound of the spring Peepers chirping; that sonic, immersive, visceral, experience had a huge impact on me. It was something that I just imagined, “How cool would it be if you could capture that, if you could recreate it?” But I didn't grow up in a family of engineers, so I had no language for anything STEM related. I did have a Commodore 64 computer, and my brother and I would play around with that, but I wasn't, frankly, that drawn to computers. They were just not visually or sculpturally appealing to me as objects. I just saw them as like a beige case.
Carrie: I was just going to say, “A beige box was not appealing to you, with brown keys, why ever not?” I think Commodore 64 had a tiny rainbow on them, didn’t they?
Kelly: I mean it was like a novelty that you could play with them a little bit, but the video games back then were not that interesting. We had an Atari game console, but it never occurred to me that I could hack into it. Long story short, I was privileged to have technology in my life, but computers, to me, were synonymous with things that boys played with or something that I had to write my high school papers on. So that was pretty much it for me. I was not a STEM kid. With the exception that, given my love of nature, I did get interested in biological science and this was something running in tandem with art. Adults in my life were like, “Arts not… you don't make money as an artist you know that; you need some way to make money.” I railed against that, and I still do. But in college and then after college, I bounced around a lot because I hadn't– I couldn't find my voice. I wasn't a traditional artist. I mean, yes, I drew, I painted, I sculpted, but I wanted something more.
Kelly: There's this part of me that was always drawn back to science. I actually went to veterinary school for a while and then dropped out of that to go get my Master of Fine Arts, and then dropped out of that. Prior to dropping out, I had a fateful meeting with a neighbor in my studio complex, who was an MIT graduate. A man named Kevin Brown, who is the founder and owner of Brown Innovations. They're an audio engineering company in Boston. They were at the time [at least and] I assume they’re still there. Kevin saw that I was using a lot of scientific metaphor in my art. He said, “You should go to MIT.” I was like, “You are insane.”
Kelly: I had taken up to calculus in mathematics and I did have a lot of biological science in my background. I took it all to get into veterinary school, so that was okay. But you know, engineering and math and all the things you think of when you think of MIT, it's like, “Yeah, I had none of those qualifications.” One thing led to another, and it also happened to be at the end of the 90’s, the dot-com boom was happening, and a lot of money going was into creative, innovative, out-of-the-box, radical thinking. I met Michael Holly, who’s unfortunately now deceased, but Michael Holly was just an incredible creative; there are no limits, there isn't a problem I can't solve. He was really a wonderful thinker. He invited me to join his research group at the MIT media laboratory and three months later, I matriculated without ever having applied to MIT. I did later, I think I remember filling out the actual application forms, but I mean, how crazy is that? Right. So started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stranger than fiction, but that's what happened.
Carrie: I love it, I love the atypical way of matriculating, too.
Kelly: I mean, there was so many things that had to go right. It was a miracle really. It was a miracle of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. Also, there was obviously something about me and my hybrid creativity that they were attracted to. I was definitely using a lot of chemistry and biochemistry metaphors in my artwork. I had that kind of thinking. Again, with the dot-com thing exploding and so much optimism happening in the late 90’s, I think Michael Holly and the media lab felt like, “Well, you know, why not give it a try?”
Kelly: Let's take an artist who obviously has a penchant for science and scientific thinking and put her in the media lab environment with computer scientists and electrical engineers and see what happens. And that's exactly what they did. Now what they didn't tell me was that I actually did have to take classes. I took John Maeda’s “Design by Numbers” courses. I will never forget, this is no joke, my first computer science class ever with John Maeda, it's like going to the moon for STEM. My first ever computer science assignment was John Maeda saying that I needed to write a Java app that would load in a photograph and a simple tool where I could draw on the photograph and then convert the photograph using a fast Fourier transform to whatever weird image that became and be able to draw on it again and do a reverse fast Fourier transform. Oh my God. What is an app? What is Java?
Carrie: How do you spell Fourier?
Kelly: So, what happened was this defined my entire career at the MIT media lab. I had no choice but to tell my story of, “Okay, I'm the token artist that Michael Holly invited to join his research group. I'm screwed because I don’t know anything so, please work with me. I'll buy you a pizza. I'll make you a drawing. I'll help you design your product casing or whatever, please help me do my homework.” I had just wonderful colleagues when I was there, who would give me snippets of code; they wouldn't do my homework for me, but they would give me snippets of code. For example, like the shell of an applet, so I was then able to go in and make some adjustments. There's a lot of collaboration, and it was supported; I mean, I don't think that we were plagiarizing or anything like that. It was understood that it was hard and that we had to help each other. I mean, I learned how to write code basically on the kindness of my colleagues – my friends at the media lab.
Carrie: Well, you know, they don't tell you this, but that's how life goes after school. You learn from other people and from collaborating on projects and from other people teaching you things. It's funny how in a lot of school settings, that is not only not the norm, but specifically forbidden. It's kind of weird.
Kelly: Especially in technology. There is so much to know. Even if all you did was focus on fundamentals by the time you got your head out of your books. The world would have moved 20 or 30 years beyond and technology would be so different that your knowledge wouldn’t apply any longer, or at least not in the traditional way.
(21:00 – 28:53) Analog vs. Digital
Carrie: [reading the comments] David wants to know where he can get a cool cap cap.
Kelly: Oh, thanks for asking! yeah, my power cap. Right now, the answer is nowhere, but I am working on it. Not only do I want to make power caps, but I also want to… I don't have it, I should have brought it down, but I have this resistor backpack that I made; I want to make backpacks with many different stripes, like resistors of all values. I love fashion and I’d really like to make electronics inspired clothing. To empower everybody to take part in electronic culture. Engineering is so inaccessible to the vast majority of the population and yet technology is controlling everyone to a great degree. I find that disparity hurtful, alarming, and dangerous. I mean, there's so many things about it that are wrong. So anyway, one of the ways I plan to address that in the coming years is to make a line of really cool electronics inspired fashion to empower the people.
Carrie: Yes. I love it. I mean I feel pretty passionately about that, too. And part of the reason of doing livestreams and hanging out, is to just build circuits and learn stuff about circuits and get more information out there for people. The more people [that are] talking about electronics and explaining stuff in different ways, I feel like the better we are, even if it's the same circuit explained a hundred different times, a hundred different ways. Some of those ways are going to connect with some people in ways that those other 98 did not.
Kelly: I mean, I get it. Speaking of the astable multivibrator, I have a pretty solid, intuitive understanding of how that circuit works now; after working with it and building hundreds, if not thousands of them over more than a decade of my practice. Do I still completely understand how the electricity is moving in it? No. Am I continuously developing new insight about exactly how the circuit works? Yes. That's one of the things about analog electronics that is so cool and that's also why I want to get more people passionate about electronic hardware. There's tremendous potential in analog electronics that is underutilized because in the 60’s and 70’s, when electronic devices were miniaturized and the manufacturing processing was improved, they became more readily available.
Kelly: There was this brief period in human history when hobbyists could have pretty easy access to electronic supplies and build some amazing analog electronic circuits with them. But by the middle end of the 70’s that was already ending because you had digital integrated circuits coming out and everybody just left analog. “Oh, it's too hard.” “It's easier.” You know, you work with these chips and people move towards digital really fast. Now I get frustrated when I apply for art competitions or art grants and the categories are like, “You're either painting or sculpture or digital art.” I'm like, “That’s not fair, digital art is not synonymous with electronic art.”
Carrie: Yeah, that's a really interesting point. I hadn't thought of that before.
Kelly: It’s almost that bad. We need to get people back to thinking about hardware, working with hardware, and also looking at what analog circuits can do. That's why I developed my birdsong circuits – to show people, using a very small amount of hardware that I can get really interesting, complicated behavior. If you were to do this in a digital way, it would require thousand-fold, hundreds, maybe mill– I don't even know because for starters, you have to have the computing processor as your platform. With chip shortages in the world and everything already, just already getting that chip, that very basic computer, even an Arduino or whatever, you're already talking about tremendous manufacturing and sourcing complexity, right?
Kelly: Yeah. Right. So, what if you could build the same circuit with three discrete components? You know what I mean, people buy Arduinos to blink lights.
Carrie: They do indeed.
Kelly: But now you’re going to show them that they don't need to.
Carrie: It is true. I mean, I don't think I can necessarily pick a favorite because I do really enjoy embedded programming. It makes you think in much smaller, simpler terms. I mean, you really do have to think in 1s and 0s a lot and think about how many 1s and 0s are represented by this number that I am putting in my code and things like that. And like, “What happens if I “or” these two 1s and 0s together? What happens if I “and” them together?” I don't know, there’s something about that I really enjoy, but I also really love analog circuits, too. I don't know if it’s the retro-ness or the retro appeal, but it is really cool to have something that does a thing that you don't program, that just does that thing because of the nature of the components involved.
Kelly: I mean, you do program it in the sense that you are still building an intelligent architecture, you can't just throw a bunch of transistors at your breadboard and light magically.
Carrie: Yeah. I wish you could, that’d be great!
Kelly: Another circuit that would be really cool to build, especially for you, is our transistor logic circuits. You can use transistors to “and” and “or” and “xor”.
Carrie: Oh, speaking of something that's kind of a cool crossover, I recently saw the latest Tindie newsletter. Somebody is putting together a core RAM board. I believe you have to wire the ferrites yourself and make the lattice yourself on the board. And I was just like, “Oooh, core memory.”
Kelly: Core memory is beautiful.
Carrie: Yeah, I'm excited. I think I'm going to pick up that kit and maybe that will be a future solder sesh.
(36:06 – 46:33) Kelly’s Birdsong Circuit
Carrie: Okay Kelly, tell us about this awesome looking circuit that’s on your bench and the birdsong circuit. I think it's super cool. I have a few questions about different parts of it, too. But I would love for you to do the overview first.
Kelly: Yeah. I have a couple of them sitting here. This one's easier to plug in cause this one's got a wonky connector. Well, I'll let you hear it first. Cause I think that's the easiest way to introduce it.
[Electronic bird chirping noises start!]
Carrie: That is super cool.
Kelly: I just turned the sound off for a minute. So, the sound that you were just hearing is being dynamically generated by the analog electronic circuit. Right now, the bird thinks it’s singing, I've just disabled the switch to the audio of the speaker. What I'll do next [is I’ll] start to twist some of the knobs, which are the base resistors of the astable multivibrators. You can hear all the oscillating circuit and therefore the birdsong changes with that, but I just wanted to play it for a minute without touching anything so you could see that the circuit makes remarkably complex sounds with only five astable multivibrators and a modified Hartley oscillator.
Carrie: Yeah, it was remarkably natural sounding in complexity.
Kelly: Right, and then the pauses in between and everything.
[More electronic bird chirping noises]
Kelly: So, you see it changes the song pattern, so you get different syntax.
[More electronic bird chirping noises]
Carrie: That is really interesting.
Kelly: Thank you!
Carrie: That is very, very cool. So that's actually a perfect lead in for some of my questions. Which is, I think that the most interesting part of this entire schematic… So, I'll show you this, I'm going to zoom in so that people can see it in a little bit more detail. This schematic is mostly these little sections, those are the astable multivibrators, and they basically work by alternating off and on, on these transistors and that is controlled by a little charge pump capacitor circuit.
Carrie: So, once one of the capacitors is relatively charged, then it opens up the base on this transistor, which opens the path from emitter to collector. Then you have this side of the circuit that's on, but then as soon as that happened, because they have this cross coupled feedback, then what happens is this side of the circuit starts charging. As soon as it gets above the base voltage, it turns on and the other one turns off, so you keep getting this, this back and forth.
Kelly: Exactly, they're pulling each other.
Carrie: Yeah, and then all of the characteristics, like the frequency and things like that can be adjusted by the different components in the circuit. You have five of these and they're all set up a little bit different. They have different capacitor values. And of course, you can change the resistors here. These guys are the potentiometers, the knobs.
Kelly: I have since made some changes to the circuit to try and get as much diversity of sound out of it as I possibly can. But the blue Jay that you just heard is exactly that circuit that you have. Point being this particular model has a lot of options for modification and expansion. The addition of more oscillators that are coupled to make even complex sound patterns. Essentially, the circuit can be thought of as five astable multivibrators whose purpose is to create syntax, meaning, a grammar. It's an architecture, a pattern architecture so to speak, for one modified Hartley oscillator, which comes from the classic electronic Canary Birdsong circuit you can find widely on the internet. By competitively coupling the five sort of syntax oscillators, if you will, to the one voice oscillator. That's where the connections are coming in.
Kelly: You can see that I've got the capacitors there, which then if you go up on the schematic, that's the point at which those five oscillators are connecting to the base of the transistor that's controlling the chirp of the audio transformer. So that's the voice mechanism of the bird so to speak, where the quality of the bird sound is from. In that part of the circuit, if you make modifications to those capacitor values, you can make the voice either higher or lower pitched. The values that I chose, are just, I think the most kind of generically bird sound like. But yeah, I mean, that's it, it's really simple. It's just five oscillators controlling one oscillator where the five are for pattern and the one is for the voice generation.
Carrie: I was curious about this mixing section.
Kelly: Oh yeah. That's another area where there were literally so many different ways, I could have designed the coupling that I just sort of picked one that I was like, okay, well, this one is cool, but there were so many other cool ones too.
Carrie: Why did you pick this particular one?
Kelly: Because I liked it.
Carrie: What'd you like about it?
Kelly: I mean, it's really, that's it. I'll show you my breadboard here for a sec. I don't really spend a lot of time planning my circuits. It doesn't mean I don't do research. I do, I'll have a concept and then I'll go scour around on the internet to see what existing schematics I can find that I can modify. Electronic Canary being one of them. But if you build that electronic canary circuit, as it is on the web, it just goes chirp, chirp, chirp, it's cool but annoying.
Carrie: Which is sometimes what you're going for, but sometimes not.
Kelly: Yeah, I wanted to give it, like I said, more syntax to make it more like a real birdsong. Once I got the basic architecture of the circuit in place, like the concept that there are five oscillators that make the syntax and one that makes the voice then how I coupled them and so forth, those component values, the capacitor values, or a diode or not a diode or put the diode somewhere else or swap out the wires. There's a lot of potential for expansion in the circuit. I'm working on those right now. I'm working on a product that I could sell so people can have one of these and play with it. I'm also in conversation with researchers who study bird neurology and birdsong, to look at ways that this circuit may support research and to understand. I really think it's the same model for essentially how a bird’s brain works to generate birdsong.
(1:13:52 – 1:19:59) Imitating Nature through Electronics
Carrie: So, question, have real birds responded to your deep fake birds?
Kelly: I love that question. The answer is sadly, I don't know. The reason is that in order for me to know, I need to set my birds up outside for a longer period of time and go away, meaning enough distance that I'm not interfering. And what's my excuse? Basically, my excuse is, well, number one, it would have to be a sunny day. That's not even an excuse because I can get that. I guess I've just been really busy.
Carrie: I would say, I think somebody should fund that study.
Kelly: Well, I think somebody should fund anything I do, anything. Because yes, that would, that would be nice. So yes, I will do that, and I will make eventually, with lots of money coming in my direction. Ha ha ha. But I'd like to make birds that talk to each other.
Carrie: Yeah. That’d be pretty cool.
Kelly: So, my birds in circuit garden all have wires that run back to the main controller panel, which is my tree of life circuit. For those of you who [don’t] know what I'm talking about, it's just basically relay switches that sequence the entire installation, so the birds aren't singing all of the time. But anyway, that particular switch doesn't necessarily need to be controlled by a relay it could be controlled by an infrared communication. It could be controlled by a radio. So, I'd like to develop a whole flock of birds that have some simple perceptual abilities, so that they can affect each other and even better if using the same analog principles when they communicate with each other; it actually affects the vibration syntax, so to speak, so it modulates their song.
Kelly: I have to say, though, for any of these outdoor bird experiments, if I find that real birds are getting upset, the fake birds are coming inside.
Carrie: That seems reasonable. I mean, I wouldn't see why real birds, as long as it was relatively close, I mean, real birds respond to the fake bird call things. So why wouldn't they respond to a computer making bird noises? Right.
Kelly: For sure Mockingbirds would definitely. I'm just saying that there is, in the back of my mind, this slight concern that when my fake birds are deployed on the world, I just hope that it benefits real birds not hurts real birds, that's all.
Carrie: Yeah. You don't want them to be the evil deep fake birds. We want benevolent deep fake birds.
Kelly: Definitely. I mean, in fact, one of my career goals is to generate enough profit from my electronics practice to donate a percentage to wildlife conservation because the circuits that I developed are inspired by nature because nature is so tremendously magnificent. While a bird circuit is cool, it's nothing compared to real birds. It's so critical that while we become increasingly engaged with technological media, we don't forget that the earth really needs our stewardship. We need to go outside and hug trees and love real birds and all of that. Important.
Carrie: Yeah, definitely. Have you ever done any other kind of analog sounds? I'm thinking something that would be super cool is to do something like this but try to make sounds of water running through pebbles on the beach, things like that
Kelly: I have done that. I use that technique in some of my soundscapes that were part of a show I did in 2012 called The Parallel Series. I did that using basically white noise generators where I slowed down the pace enough that you got kind of a wobble effect. I've also made the sound of crackling fire in a similar way. Again, white noise generators – very, very useful way to approach it. You can also just use a transistor for noise generation. In fact, if you look up my pretty bird schematic, I used a transistor for noise generation there. You could apply a similar principle for other types of sounds. I've made frogs, crickets, bees. What else? Moths… they don't make sound, but I have a big electrolier full of blinking moths.
Here's the transcript from last week's soldersesh with Natasha aka TechnoChic (pronounced Techno-Sheek)! During this time, Carrie and Natasha put together some of TechnoChic's DIY Blinky Bow Ties and lit up their look! Carrie also worked on putting some LEDs on her OHSummit bag (where the LEDs are, of course!) while Natasha got started on one of her DIY Light-Up Tutu Kits! Read below about how Natasha got started with STEAM growing up and throughout college and how that led into the idea of merging fashion and technology for TechnoChic! Natasha also did some show & tell with the Lady Gaga matrix mask (AND OUTFIT!) she made for Halloween and a project idea she had for a keyboard she had laying around. Hint, she completely reskinned it!
You can find Natasha on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, & Instructables.
You can shop for TechnoChic products on her website and Etsy!
(1:15 – 5:40) Why Natasha Started TechnoChic
Carrie: So, tell us a little bit about the bow tie kits. What was your impetus for creating them?
Natasha: It was all about Maker Faire. I went to a few Maker Faires, and I knew that the branding and the vibe that Maker Faire was giving off probably wouldn't be something that my parents would have brought me to as a girl. I'm an only child and I was a little ballet dancing girl, but I also obviously love all this tech stuff now. I knew that my parents wouldn't see that in me when they saw this big red robot and all these engineering things; they wouldn't bring me there. So, I thought, “You know, maybe I could try to make a really quick craft project that had that tech in it but was a craft project at its heart.”
Natasha: That way the parents might be like “Oh, look, it's a crafty place, let me bring the stereotypical mindset of bringing the girl into it.” I started to create these mashup projects and tried to figure out like, “Okay, if you're the type of person who only buys in the girl aisle and there's no tech there, that's not good.” So, I started to think about how I could do these crossover things, because the Maker Faire did a good job of welcoming the more masculine stuff, but not as much as the feminine stuff. So, that's kind of where it came up and I actually started; I made little flower pins and then I was like, “Oh, I could make a play on formal wear. So, you could wear it as a bow tie or a [hair] bow.” I was trying to bring in all the ranges of gender, all the ranges of different types of tech and shiny stuff. Just kind of throw all those things together and then make a project that was as simple as possible. So that you would feel not only was it a good experience, but you felt empowered by it, and you could then take the next step and think, “Oh look, there's an Arduino project with a flashing LED, I wonder how that works.” You know, be that little, tiny bridge that gets people feeling confident. So that's where that all came from.
Carrie: I love it. I also love that these are circuit board themes [bow tie patterns] too. Super cool. I didn't even know that when I got the kit and was like “Whaaat?!”
Natasha: You got a lucky one because they are random! There's I think seven different patterns that I made. Actually, it's kind of cool because you got two [bow tie patterns] in a kit with the circuit board and that would be kind of rare because they're randomly chosen.
Carrie: Dang I feel kind of special now. Now that I am noticing, it is pretty lucky that I got two circuit boards.
Natasha: So yeah, you have the blues kit and I have, there's actually four kits. I have two of the other ones in front of me. Should I do pink, orange, yellow, or red, white, black. What should I do?
Carrie: Well, I was going to say for us, it was between the blues kit and the neon kit.
Natasha: Okay, I’ll do the neon one. Let’s open this up and see what I got. It's a box of chocolates.
Carrie: They come with these nice instructions here.
Natasha: Yeah, everything in here is designed by me. I made the little instructions, and I made the battery packs and I added on it, “You have the power to change the world” so that if this is your first project with a battery, you feel empowered to keep going.
Carrie: Yeah. I loved that. I thought that was so cool that you had the batteries branded too. I was like, dang that is fancy.
(23:52 – 29:31) Natasha’s Path into STEM
Carrie: How did you get into STEM in the first place? Because it sounds like it might not have been on your parents' radar.
Natasha: I wasn't offered a lot of encouragement in that, but the funny thing is my parents actually owned a little mom and pop computer store when I was little. So, I remember being counter height, like I could barely see over the counter and watching the guy in the back soldering the machines, because when I was a kid and your computer broke, you didn't send it away – you got it fixed. It was not disposable or like, “Oh, send it and they'll repair it and sell it to someone as refurbished or whatever now.” So, there was a repair guy in the back; you bring your computer in and he's literally soldering on the computer itself. I think I was just around it a lot. That's what made me feel comfortable enough when I was out in the world to be like, “Oh, this is interesting to me.” But coming from the expectations of what a little ballerina looks like, you don't get offered as many of the more masculine [opportunities]. In that era, a generation above me, it was a masculine thing to be an engineer or to be a computer geek or whatever they wanted to call you.
Natasha: I kind of had both sides tugging at me like, “Oh, this is really cool, and I feel comfortable because I've been around it.” I kind of kept that in the back of my head. I did take a few computer art courses in high school, they honestly weren't very good, but they at least kept me in it. Then I went to art school where I thought I was going to do advertising and produce TV commercials, but that didn't really work out. I graduated in 2008 and there were no jobs. So, I was like, “I like teaching, I like computer stuff.” That was in my background and my mom's actually a teacher. So, I got a job at the Apple store, teaching computers. I did that for a bunch of years. That was interesting because I met so many people. Everyone comes into the apple store, right? So, you have this really wide range of personalities that you meet, expectations that people have for you and all of that. Through those classes, we sat down, and I would teach people how to use Final Cut Pro and Keynote and even how to use a mouse sometime – all ranges of people.
Carrie: I didn't know that the Apple store actually taught classes. Is that something that still do?
Natasha: I don't know. I know that they still do something. It used to be that you basically would book time with me, we would consider ourselves the “shrinks” of the Apple store. I could sit down and make you feel better about your relationship with your computer for an hour. So, it'd be these one-on-one classes with people. We would do small group workshops and at the bigger store, the one that I worked at in Soho, we actually had a theater! So, there would be a group of maybe like 30-40 people who could sit down and learn at once, like a classroom. That was really interesting because I was watching people learn software and kind of make them feel good about their confidence and their abilities to use everything.
Natasha: One of my students, actually, I was explaining that I really kind of loved this whole smart home thing, all these cool products coming in. I really would love to know how to be a creator of that, not a consumer of all this. She told me about this program at NYU that was called ITP [interactive telecommunications program]. It's basically a combination of art and tech. She was actually a professor somewhere else in NYU and she was like, “You need to go here to find people that are like you.” This weird mashup of artists and techie enthusiasts. And she was right. So, I went there, and I come at it hard from the arts, like “I'm just here to support my art, but I want to be able to learn how to incorporate all of this because they're so much more linked than anyone will ever let you believe, you know?” So, I hate that they put kids into boxes and say like, “Oh, are you good at art? Or are you good at science?” It's like both!
Carrie: Yeah. Can there be room for all of that? It's interesting how many people think that engineers are not creative. I'm just like, I don't know what engineers you’ve been hanging out with but man, engineers are some of the most creative people I know actually. Yeah, I’m definitely about breaking down those weird stereotypes and misconceptions.
(45:44 – 52:25) Lady Gaga Mask Project
Carrie: I would love to hear more about you're Lady Gaga mask project, because that was so impressive. I mean it looked like legit, the real deal and I'm curious, did you ever get any notice from lady Gaga herself for it?
Natasha: I didn’t… but the company that made the original mask, I tagged them, and they were like, “Oh, this is amazing! Good job doing a knock off of our project.” Which was awesome because sometimes when you do that, people are like, “Don't knock off my project.” It was clearly for a Halloween costume so hopefully they’d be cool with it. I just saw that, and I think that was when COVID hit and all of us were going, like, “What skills do I have? What skills do I want to have?” At the time I was working– I had like five jobs. I was working for a company that did LED lights and code and dance as this class. So, I was teaching in a few schools in Brooklyn, and then I was doing an afterschool program in Manhattan, and I was doing my TechnoChic stuff, and I was doing some content creation and I was also the janitor because I needed to afford this space. So, I was literally just so overworked. So, I went from being absolutely exhausted to just, “Bye no more work.” I just had started to list things like, “What would I like to do more of?” One of it was I'd like to get back into sewing.
Natasha: That's something that I really enjoyed when I was younger and haven't picked up with. I had started to do some LED stuff and I had never done a matrix before. I'd done LEDs preps, but never had a reason to do a matrix. Then I watched the VMAs and I saw that costume. For those of you who have never seen it, it's like a spandex bodysuit, that's pink and it has all these shapes cut out of it. I thought two things, first, I was like, “This is an amazing use of pink that doesn't look young.” And that's just exciting, because I actually love the color pink, but you risk looking like not being taken seriously if you wear it.
Carrie: I have a difficult relationship pink because of that. It's a difficult color for me because of that. I avoided it for a very, very long time because I wanted to be taken seriously as an engineer and that means you can’t be girly.
Natasha: Right? I mean, not right – wrong, but yeah. Working in retail, I learned how to control how people would talk to me based on what I was wearing and how I was standing and all of those things. Then I saw this costume and I thought, it looked powerful to me. It's a weird costume. It's totally weird. Go look it up.
Carrie: I mean, it's Lady Gaga. It's going to be weird. It's going to be great.
Natasha: It really was. First off, I just thought it was an amazing costume. Then she had this mask that was totally techie, which is obviously also my other passion. I thought, “Okay, first off, I had always wanted to sew spandex because I wanted to get into costume making and never did it. Plus, I had heard it was really hard; and I'd always wanted to do a matrix and I heard that was hard too, but I had time. So, I decided this is what I'm doing.” It was around my birthday actually in 2020. My boyfriend got me the matrix, I wasn't going to buy the matrix; I think it was over $200 worth of LEDs in the matrix. So, I was actually going to fake it with a raspberry PI with one of the little screens that you could get, but he got me the actual ones that lady Gaga used for my birthday! That was just cool because I was like, “Now I get to feel legit. I'm going to make this thing and it's going to look exactly like the real thing.” A lot of the fabric that I bought, not all of the colors, but some of them I'm pretty sure, were the same color swatch that was used in her costume. I was so happy to see this goal come up after all those, you know, 2020 was just, everyone's just scrambling for purpose and all of that and that's what I did with it.
Natasha: I have the mask here if you want to take a look. I don't actually know if it even turns on, but I can plug it in and find out. This is like a two-year-old project, but I have it on a little head here. I'll plug it in. Let's see what happens. Want to bet on it?
Carrie: I'm optimistic. I think it's going to work. Yeah, it’s on! Nice!
Natasha: Oh, the tape did undo itself, no. It was funny, I don't usually use duct tape, but this thing has to last for one Halloween night, so.
Carrie: Cool. You publish the instructions for it too, right?
Natasha: Yes, they're on Instructables and on my blog technochic.net. I'm still in the process of creating the video for the spandex bodysuit, which I did. I shot everything. Unfortunately, I had a hard drive failure at the end of 2020. It's still now two years later and it's on my to do list. I have to put that video together.
Carrie: We have plenty of things like that. Plenty of things that are on the to-do list and kind of languishing at the bottom.
(1:20:12 – 1:27:59) A Maker’s Mind
Carrie: I'm probably overthinking this. I mean, you know... [Carrie is sewing LEDs into her OHSummit bag]
Natasha: I think you're only overthinking it because you've probably had the experience of a stretchy fabric doing that. When I got those bags, I was adamant that it was going to be a non-scratch fabric, because if it is then exactly what you described, it bunches up and then it comes back together. Now there's a weird bunch in your threads also touching the wrong thing, and now it's not going to turn on. If it's not that, then, I liked your idea of potentially once it's done either sewing a piece of fabric on top of it or doing an iron-on fusible once it's all working and then that'll protect everything and keep it all structurally flat, I guess.
Carrie: Yep. Exactly. That was one of the things, too. I really liked about your bag is that you obviously designed it with the kit in mind to have that really big pocket on the inside that would cover up all of your stitches. I was like, “Oh, that's really smart because I could see that wearing as you use the bag and put stuff in and out or accidentally shorting your LEDs out, if you have something metal in there.” I was thinking I kind of want a protective layer on this bag, but it doesn't have a pocket.
Natasha: Yeah. I had a tote bag similar to the one that I ended up getting made for the kit and it did have a pocket and I actually loved that pocket first for its ability to hold my phone and it doesn't get lost in the bottom of the bag. But then I realized that's the perfect place to hide a circuit and have something useful. All it is, is two squares of fabric sewn together and then sewn at the top with the top side open. I am sold out of those bags so if anyone out there is wanting to make this, it's a fairly easy sewing project to make a pocket too. So, you could do that. The other benefit is if you just did with the bag from a year ago, a year has passed and you're like, gosh, I'd like to make another project, I wonder what the circuit looks like. It's not embedded into something that you can't lift up and look at anymore.
Carrie: Yeah, that's true for this one. If I do the iron on stuff, then it's going to be one-way.
Natasha: Right, one and done. Maybe that's just the maker in me that you don't want to cover anything up, because you know someone's going to ask you how you made it.
Carrie: Yeah. That is true. It's also definitely a sewer and a knitter thing where it's like, let me see the back. I want to see the back. I need to see how you did this.
Natasha: Yeah. I was so lucky; they did a show in New York that was all the costumes from Broadway when Broadway was shut down. You could look at the costumes up close, and I just thought that was so neat. You see it from the stage, like that's so pretty, but how did they do that? Then you get to see all the hand work that goes into everything. So yeah, it's a maker thing. We’ve got to see how stuff is put together, reverse engineer everything in our heads.
Carrie: Absolutely. How can I make something like that?
Natasha: I wasn't even thinking about like all the components that I've saved. I had USB microscope and I broke the USB on it and I was like, “Oh my gosh, there's a tiny LED ring in the end of this, I must harvest you.” I have no idea what I’m going to use it for, but it just seemed like something that could not possibly be thrown away.
Carrie: We have a junk box and it's that same sort of thing where broken electronics go. Sometimes you just want to see how did they do those buttons? What was their implementation? Was it a Silicon stack up? Did it have a hard plastic point on the back of it that was actuating it and pushing another small button on a circuit board?
Natasha: I love that. I love looking through all that stuff. Oh, actually I have a show and tell. Do I have it? Well, I'll have to send you somewhere else to look for it then. What I was going to show you is one of the projects that I haven't created a video for yet, but plan on it. Hold me to it. I don't know if you watch Bob's Burgers…
Carrie: I don't, but Charlene who was on the show does. She does amazing, amazing stuff with LED rings and things like that, she is a big Bob's Burgers fan.
Natasha: Awesome. So, on Bob's Burgers, one of the little boy characters [Gene] has a keyboard and it's a very stylish, little 80s keyboard. I bought this rolly piano, which is a piano that rolls up. It’s silicone, has a little controller, and it rolls up. It was perfect because I wanted to make his keyboard. I basically disassembled it and re-skinned it. It looks just like the keyboard so, keep an eye out for that. When I had to cut the keyboard to use it in my project, I opened it up and it's just this gorgeous labyrinth of tiny little metal traces that went into each key in the keyboard but are on a flexible, I guess it's like plastic, transfer sheet basically. I saved the scrap that I cut off of this thing, just because I thought it was a beautiful circuit board, and the same thing, I basically repurposed all the buttons on the board and fed them through to the buttons that I had created for the keyboard in the style of the cartoon. So that was a fun project. I really got to get on posting that one, too. That's a fun thing to do with electronics, just give it the case that you want it to have.
(1:36:19 – 1:41:35) Keyboard Project
Carrie: Pat [in the comments] says they would love to see the inside of the flexible piano board and you've sparked some cool ideas.
Natasha: Okay, I will give it another 30 seconds of looking. I know it's in here. Oh wait, I found it. I'll give you a sneak peak of the project. You want to see a sneak peek of the project?
Natasha: So, this is Gene's keyboard from Bob's Burgers.
Carrie: Dang. Wow. That looks cool.
Natasha: If I remember how to turn it on. Oh, here's a little on-off switch. If you know the show, I made little foam buttons. I don't remember which one does it. There we go. It's a fart sound.
Carrie: Nice, I love it.
Natasha: There’ll be a video coming soon, but I'll show you the inside of this. So, I cut this off because it's scrap.
Carrie: And that's just like, sort of rubbery plastic on the outside?
Natasha: It's got to be some type of silicone because I tried to glue stuff to it and every adhesive was just like, no. So, look at this beauty.
Carrie: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Natasha: There’s actually multiple layers here. Then there's these little, tiny dots and then the mold of the interior of the keyboard. I don't know if you could see that, but there's little tiny dots underneath that line up with the little, tiny dots on here, which almost feels like braille to me. They must align up perfectly with whatever's on the next layer and then you see all the traces running back to the board. I think this thing costs maybe 20 bucks on Amazon. It’s marketed as a toy, but it's a really nice object.
Carrie: Yeah. I find that so interesting. I don't know anything about how to make, like how people make the kind of cheap circuits that aren't on circuit boards. There are, I mean, I didn't even know, but there are sometimes in some toys, there are paper circuits, which is crazy. It's just paper with, I guess, conductive ink on it. I'm just, I'm fascinated. I would love to learn more about how those very inexpensive circuits are made because that's cool.
Natasha: Yeah. I mean, I'm not a circuit, I do paper circuits as a craft. Not as an electrical engineer and I'm going to put those in a product. The flexible ones just are so interesting to me just because of their wearables application and it seems like a good way to do it, too. Why make something rigid when you can make it flexible.
Carrie: [Reading comment] “Looks like the remote we used for the traffic light game.” Yeah, I need to revisit that because that remote did not work like we thought it would. Now we have some ESP whatever's, not 32s, the other ones. I want to just use those maybe instead of Leonardo or just hook them up to the Leonardo and use them just for Wi-Fi. We have actual traffic lights that I got a surplus store. Robyn and her dad built this really cool wood enclosure for them. We made them into a Simon Says game with arcade buttons so the traffic lights flash, and you have to enter the sequence on the matching buttons. The only kind of issue was it was the traffic lights are really, really bright, like blindingly bright. So, we had these really long wires running to the controller. So, it'd be nice to make the controller and the traffic lights have wireless communication so that you could put the traffic lights way up and out of the way so that they don't blind you.
Here's the transcript from our soldersesh backlog - enjoy this gem from Nov 2021!
In this soldersesh, Carrie got to put together one of Charlyn's LED rings and jumped into some great conversations! Charlyn, a programmer by day and maker by night, loves to design wearable electronic jewelry and other glowy things! She talked about her first kit she designed for Adafruit (DotStar Fortune Necklace), growing up in the Philippines and how she grew an interest in STEM, and her awesome LinkedIn class: "CircuitPython: Connecting a Robot Cat to the Internet."
You can find Charlyn (aka @chardane) on Twitter and Instagram, and find her website here!
(0:00-5:03) Meet Charlyn
Carrie: Hello, everyone! I'm Carrie Sundra with Alpenglow Industries. Today I have Charlyn Gonda with me and she is amazing! She is @chardane on Twitter and if you are not already following her, you should. She is a coder by day and maker by night; as a software engineer, she makes all sorts of beautiful creations! Today we're going to make one of her creations, which is this really cool, twisted, LED ring. Welcome to the show and thank you so much for coming on.
Charlyn: Thank you for having me.
Carrie: No problem. There’re so many things I don't even know where to start. Why don't we start with some show and tell? It's always fun to just start with show and tell.
Charlyn: Okay, I've got a few things! My first LED Adafruit guide is a capacitive touch necklace that predicts your fortune, but only if your fortune consists of a yes or no answer... So, if you touch it, it dies. (Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work in the stream, the necklace turned off lol.) It says hello world right now, but if I disconnect it from Bluetooth, then this capacitive touch actually does something. (Charlyn: “I think I introduced the firmware bug there.”) It's powered by a little power pack in the back and has a nRF52840 chip, like the ItsyBitsy Bluetooth one. The entire case is laser cut, which was really fun to cram everything in there and the wires are actually inside the chain. I did a little bit of wire wrapping there with gold floss, so that was fun/tedious.
Carrie: Sounds like you could do in front of the TV.
Charlyn: Exactly, I had to put on some Bob's Burgers to make it actually bearable! I was super happy with how it turned out and the matrix inside here is a DotStar matrix, the little itty-bitty one from Adafruit. The first time I saw that matrix, I thought, I need to do something with it, but I didn't know what for the longest time! I learned about that Matrix kind of early on in my maker journey and just didn't have enough of a creative toolbox to make it happen. But that sort of black LED obsession actually started with this ring.
Carrie: Oh, cool! I just have to interject and say how I love, how you just unabashedly covered a corner of the of the Matrix. It looks so cool and works so well, and yet I feel like I would have done the engineer brain thing of, “Oh, I can't cover any part of this. I have to incorporate the whole thing,” but you just decided to block part of it and make it a different shape and I think that that is super neat!
Charlyn: Yeah, I was just trying to figure out a compelling shape because it's a square and it's kind of really uninteresting to me when it was a square. So, these brass shapes, I actually have a bunch of them. I had posted on my Instagram, this exploration that I did where I just kept combining different acrylic shapes with different brass shapes because it looks really strange, but these brass shapes are really satisfying to look at. Every time I look at them, I want to think about something to make with them because they're so compelling to me! That's kind of part of my process. I think is just finding something that's weirdly appealing and just pulling on that thread of what can I make with it so that it keeps its shape or the thing that makes it appealing, but then with LEDs.
Carrie: I like it, LEDs make everything better. Everything. It’s a proven fact.
(16:12 – 21:15) Hobbies, Projects, and Business
Carrie: So, what do you tell people who say, “Oh, you should totally make those and sell them.”
Charlyn: Oh my gosh, that's a pretty common refrain. As a software engineer, I could cobble together a script that will do a thing, but to put these into production and get them into people's hands is a different exercise entirely. I think it's the same with hardware, but 10X. I can't, I can't even begin to- I mean, it takes me a long time just for this one ring. We're going to make one today so we can see how long it takes, but to make something like this at scale…
Carrie: We could try to put an equivalent retail price on it.
Charlyn: Yeah, there we go. That would be really fun! Honestly, I have the luxury to not productionize it at the moment because it's a hobby. So, I'm kind of just leaning into the fact that it's a super fun thing that I get to do! There's a certain hesitance in putting pressure on it in terms of monetizing it because I am afraid of spoiling it for myself almost, although that's not always going to be the case. I think there's a lot of people who do the thing that they love and it's a sustainable sort of lifestyle. But it's scary, it’s a scary sort of thing to think about.
Carrie: Definitely. It's a big deal to turn a hobby into work, too. I have definitely seen people lose the enjoyment that they used to get out of it.
Charlyn: But it's also not guaranteed. I think there's also a world where both is true. You see the negative parts of it, but then you also experienced all the positive sort of highs with that. Maybe I'm just missing out on that, too, I don't know – it's different.
Carrie: Right. It's very different. It's still stressful just a different set of stresses. There are still things that are wonderful about the two, about work or making a hobby or work, but they're just different.
Charlyn: Yeah, for sure. And I mean, I'm sure you know, how that experience goes.
Carrie: I’ve done it a few times, with both results. Like when I dyed yarn for a little while and was actually doing yarn shows and I was going on the road and having booths at these different yarn festivals and stuff.
Charlyn: Wow, shows and festivals – it's a whole world that I have not yet seen.
Carrie: They're pretty cool. There are different ones. I think the ones that I liked the best are the ones where there are also fiber animals that you can actually see. Fleece judging shows are really interesting. At the end, after they've judged them all, you get to go around and just paw everything!
Charlyn: No cuddling though, even though you really want to.
Carrie: I didn't like the dying enough to do what I would have had to have done in order to make it work.
Charlyn: Well, it's good. I feel like the fact, you couldn't have known that until you have gone through that journey, right?
Carrie: Yeah, absolutely. And it was a great break from engineering because I was super burnt out on it. Then after I took a break for a little while, I got back into it and got a lot more enjoyment out of it, doing it on my own terms. So, it was good. It was a good break, even though financially it was not good.
Charlyn: That's always the case. That's always the eternal struggle, isn't it? But that's crazy. I have so much respect for you and the fact that you went through that journey because that's an adventure.
Carrie: It has definitely been, I still feel like the adventure is somewhat ongoing.
(1:44:50 – 1:50:48) Circuit Python Class
Carrie: So, tell me about learning circuit Python and the class that you just had. I am totally unfamiliar with LinkedIn in classes.
Charlyn: Yeah, to tell you the truth, I also was unfamiliar until I produced this course with them. I have recently launched this course; it's called Circuit Python: Connecting a robot cat to the internet. It's about using Circuit Python and Adafruit.io, this MQTT server that Adafruit has that is mostly free. It uses a Metro M4 Express AirLift Lite, which is a really long name. It's their M4 form factor board that has an ESP32 chip. Or is it ESP266? I don't know which one, but it’s one of the two Wi-Fi chips. As a side note, as I'm getting into a lot of this hardware stuff, the thing that hardware engineers and people who are really into hardware do, is memorize a bunch of random numbers and letters. That totally make sense once you know what they are, but when you don't, you're like, what? What do you mean? Why do you have to call it its full name? I mean, I guess it's an abbreviation, but anyway, I feel like I've had to learn a lot of it coming in. Ooh it’s lighting up!
Carrie: I'm now testing out the fit on different fingers. I think the middle finger is probably our best bet there.
Charlyn: Yeah. I actually think it's a little bit cramped on this finger, but you know, like I said, it might end up being a midi ring. That's always an option, right? Here we go, it's a midi ring right now. See, it's fancy! But yeah, that's the course and it's really fun to make. We filmed it at my old apartment in San Francisco and they shipped me seven boxes of equipment – lighting and cameras and all of that stuff. I had been writing the course in 2019, we were supposed to film it early 2020, and then locked down happened. So, we dropped the ball hard on producing the course and I was not in a mental state anyway to actually be productive. So, we picked that back up again earlier this year, cause we were like, okay, either we wait until next year or we try to get it to happen with remote filming. I decided I just want to have this course out there; I wrote most of the content already, I just needed some editing. I think that was maybe the most challenging. Well, two challenging parts were that I had to write it and then I also had to perform it. The performance piece of it was actually pretty challenging because I felt like I needed to know every single line of code and exactly what it does and every single component and exactly what that does before I could be confident in talking about it. So yeah, it's out and I am happy to have been able to do it.
Carrie: That is super cool! You said it is free for anybody with a LinkedIn account?
Charlyn: Yes! So if you have a LinkedIn account there's a specific link and it's in my Twitter feed (@chardane). The link makes the course free for 24 hours after you click it. It's not a super long course, it's like an hour, over 11 episodes. So it’s a bite sized thing.
(1:55:15 – 1:59:46) Path into STEM
Carrie: So, I do want to also hear, before we go, what was your path into STEM and how did you become a professional software engineer? What do you do? What's your day job, if you can talk about that.
Charlyn: Yeah, I’m a software engineer by day and the way that I got into it was kind of by luck. I actually grew up in the Philippines and I went to high school there. My junior year is when they started offering computer science courses and I was one of the lucky ones to be able to actually go to a school that offered computer science. We had computer classes, but they're mostly about using the computer, not coding.
Carrie: Yeah, I had typing, I had typing twice.
Charlyn: I feel like if I did not have that computer science course in high school, I definitely wouldn't have chosen computer science as a major – I wouldn't have gotten into coding. After I took that course, the other thing that happened was that Neopets was a thing. Do you know about that?
Carrie: I don't. I remember Tamagotchi.
Carrie: It’s more different from your normal day to day.
Charlyn: Yeah. I already have work; I already have to fight a bunch of complex coding systems at work.
Carrie: It’s not what you want to do when you’re at home to relax.
Charlyn: Some people really like doing that too as a hobby, but I think this is fun. Being able to just make stuff like this is fun.
This week we had Halle and Connor of Lixie Labs join us for our weekly soldersesh! While Carrie was assembling up two of the Lixie II displays, she talked with them about their journey from Lixies to Pixies, the process of crowd supplying their Pixie Chroma and the lessons learned along the way, making open source products and getting them OSHWA certified, and we even got to see some of Lady Lixie's rad art!!
You can find Lixie Labs on Twitter (and Lady Lixie!), Instagram, and YouTube & you can check out their products on Tindie, Crowd Supply, and GitHub!
(1:42 – 8:41) How Connor & Halle got Started in STEM
Carrie: So, tell us all about everything. I would love to hear about how your journeys into STEM got started, how your fascination with LEDs got started. Tell us all about how you kind of went from the Lixies to the Pixies and everything.
Connor: Around 2012 I went to school with a guy named Andrew and he told me one day that there was this computer that was $35 and the size of a credit card. I didn't believe him. I thought, “No way, that's got to be a scam.” He's like, “No, it's called a Raspberry Pi,” and he let me borrow it. One of the first examples you can find for Raspberry Po is how to put an LED on one of the pins and then do the little pseudo pin, whatever to set it on. As soon as that led came on, it just clicked for me. Because I had done software before, like websites, but all of that code exists behind a screen and in a different universe. But when the LED comes on, it's literally like a little light bulb.
Halle: It's exciting.
Carrie: It is really exciting. And it's kind of hard to convey how exciting that is until you've actually done it, I think. But yeah, making a thing do a thing is super cool.
Connor: Yeah. So, I stuck with that, and I ended up getting really interested in it and found the Arduino. Adafruit has just thousands of tutorials for how to do this stuff. I end up in 2016, I've got a few years under my belt, and I'm really interested in Nixie tubes because they're just gorgeous, but they're finite – except for the ones that are being made by people like Dalibor Farny. So, they're quite expensive, especially the bigger ones. I saw a few videos of people that had done edge lit signage and stuff before or animations with it and kind of reapplied that with a PCB, a light filter, and then 10 acrylic panes each with a numeral. So that became the LED Nixie, the Lixie.
Carrie: Love it.
Halle: We actually have a Nixie tube here, so you can see how small you actually get them.
Halle: The smaller ones are cheap, bigger ones are like $150 per tube.
Carrie: Yeah, one of the first things I did on a solder sesh was actually put together a Nixie tube clock. I had had those Nixie tubes sitting around for a year or so, I think I got them for $15 a tube and the last time I looked, I think that they were going for over $20 a tube.
Connor: They're pretty expensive.
Carrie: Yeah, definitely expensive.
Halle: Well, they have expiration dates. That's why it's so hard because if you get an old one who knows, because this one–
Connor: Yeah, this one, I don't have a functioning tens place on the seconds anymore. It got a little bit of burn-in or something.
Carrie: Yup, that's definitely an issue and they're not really being made anymore because it's old tech. Although I guess there are a few places that are sort of doing custom.
Halle: There’s two. Dalibor Farny and then I can't remember the other one, but I know they’re in Ukraine.
Carrie: I was going to say yeah.
Connor: So, the Lixie becomes quite popular, and the original design looked like this. I've got one here.
Carrie: Oh, look at that. Super cool.
Connor: Yeah. So, the 10 panes and then a base here, we'll light this up later to look at it, but it had hot glued tops with wood and acrylic. Once they were assembled, they weren't meant to be disassembled ever, which was kind of unfortunate. If it was damaged or, cooking grease in the kitchen nearby made them a little foggy. So Lixie II was my solution to that and then just leaving the panes as a modular top-loading version of that.
Carrie: Yeah. No, I can see how that would have been, how not being able to take it apart would have been maybe a little frustrating after it sits around for a while right.
Halle: Yeah, it can get dusty. I'm really new to this whole entire world. The first LEDs I lit up were his Pixies, his original Pixies and stuff like that. I'd love to say that I fully understand everything, but most of the time he talks, I'm like, I kind of get you, but definitely if I talked to myself a year ago versus now it's so different. I'm much more of a, I'm a very hands-on artist. I love putting together a lot of products and doing all that sort of stuff. I mainly like the logistics side and the shipping, all that for Lixie Labs.
Carrie: You know, we all have to start somewhere and wherever you start is totally fine. A year from now, you're going to be like, oh my God, I've learned so much just in this past year or two. Hopefully we all never stop learning. Right? I'm a beginner at a ton of things too, because it's impossible to know it all.
(22:35 – 26:23) How the Lixies became Pixies
Carrie: Tell me about how the Lixies became Pixies.
Connor: So, the Lixies, I eventually found these little displays called LTP 305s, and they're these little micro-LED displays that have a 5x7 dot matrix on them. I thought they were so cool and I found a compatible driver chip called the ISFL 3135, or something like that.
Carrie: Say that 5 times fast.
Connor: I realized I could make these little displays chainable, like the Lixies were. So, the Lixies are really easy to add onto later, if you want to make a bigger display, just because they're the neopixel. You just need the three wires and then another one and then another display and another one. I did a similar thing with this ATTiny on the back where these are chainable. They talk one to the next, so you can have a big, long Marquis. And then trying to think, trying to remember my history here. Oh yeah, the pixie. So, they're just pixel Lixies. Then the chip shortage starts to happen. The very first signs of it were I couldn't get, for whatever reason, I couldn't get these LTP 305s very easily.
Halle: Especially the green ones. The red ones were everywhere, but the red ones in photos, they seem a lot dimmer. So, our green ones are what are really selling. So, it was a struggle.
Connor: So, I switched over to 0402 LEDs, basically just cloned it myself and sold those. These were all Pixie pros; these had faster firmware. It ran on assembly code. Then the chip shortage really starts to hit, and you can't get microcontrollers, you can't get the LED driver chip. I kind of had to pivot and in the end, it was for the best, I think it's an easier product. It's a better product. And that's our Pixie Chroma PCBs.
Connor: They are super easy to chain together. You can put them in little modular printed enclosures like this and make them as long as you'd like, and any color you want. So let me get this plugged in so we can show it. I recently got to make something for myself, in 2019 around the time that Lixie II came out I made myself a little plaque that says, Lixie Labs 1,000 sales. A little 3D printed thing with a Lixie I board on it. Then just this month I got to make another one. Lixie Labs 3,000 sales with my Chromas running on the bottom.
Carrie: Nice with a little infinity symbol.
Connor: And a kind of circuit sculpture thing in the back running it.
Carrie: Excellent. That's super cool.
(32:37 – 38:23) PNP Machines
Carrie: So, with the crowd supply campaign, how ready were you to go when you launched? Was it like, “We have all the parts ordered,” or was it, “We have everything except the order, because we don't know how much demand there's going to be, so we're ready to go but…”?
Connor: So, the way we did it is I got 20 prototype boards completed for myself first, just to verify the design and get photos and write code for it and get that all. So, the code was all completely done. Photos were done, PCB design was done but we didn't order any of the parts until after the money had cleared from Crowd Supply. After a campaign on Crowd Supply ends, you'll have two to three weeks before the money clears, everything's verified on their end, and they send it off. At which point I put in an order to PCBway to get 77,000 LEDs placed on boards. Then when those boards were ready and they came back, one of my biggest warnings I can give other makers is don't forget tariffs. There was a 25% tariff on that whole order. That was $1,600 we weren't expecting, and we had enough to cover it – that didn’t stop us. But wow, it was a sad day.
Carrie: Yeah. Yikes. Well, and it can be hit or miss with tariffs too. Sometimes it'll just sneak through without, and you're okay. But yeah, having to plan on them stinks and it's also hard to keep track of because everything changed very quickly.
Connor: Yeah. The tariffs, the misplaced intent, I believe of those tariffs was to bring manufacturing to be more domestic. I hate to say it actually worked because I just bought a pick and place machine from a really cool guy named Stephen Hawes. Who's been on YouTube for two years building an open-source pick and place kit that he can give out. So, I just bought one of his pick and place kits so that I never have to do that tariff thing again.
Carrie: Yeah, there are a few US places that that I've used for circuit board assembly, but it's definitely more expensive than PCBway, for sure. So, it just all depends.
Connor: I just like the prospect of running a pick and place machine, too. That just seems fun. Even if it is someone domestic, I can outsource it to it just seems fun to me.
Halle: Well and you built two of your own.
Carrie: Oh yeah?
Connor: Yeah. So, the first one, my first pick and place was like $150 3d printer from eBay that didn't even have a heated bed, but I had XYZ movement out of it. Then a specially printed base plate that could take the LEDs from peeled tape with a suction nozzle and bring them over, which is hard-coded G-code to where they go on a PCB for Lixie I. The solder paste was sticky enough to break the suction on the nozzle whenever you placed them down. So, it didn't even have suction changes.
Carrie: That's hilarious.
Connor: I attempted to convert an Ali Express laser cutter kit, like the black extrusion rails kind of ones, to my own pick and place. But that machine Stephen Hawes built just kind of outpaced mine. It has a huge community on it now. So, I just disassembled that the other night and I'm waiting on a new machine.
Carrie: Nice, nice. I will definitely have to check that one out because that one was not on my radar. I've seen – maybe this was a few years ago, like the $2,500 ones on Ali Express and I've always been like, “Hmm…”
Connor: Those Charm High ones on Ali Express, the main problem I think for makers with those is that they are a closed firmware. So Open PNP Project right now is trying to basically take all of those and reverse engineer those machines to make them work. The Lumen PNP is the thing I bought from Stephen Hawes. It's like $1,100 and it looks like one of those laser cutter frames and it's actually really cool how he did it. It comes with all the rails and the fasteners and cameras and motherboards and vacuum, but you print all of your own structural pieces on your own printer from a big list, like a bill of materials.
Carrie: Nice. So, it's definitely like a print your own.
Halle: Which is kind of funny because a lot of companies are clearly moving to that. Like Prusa, you see all the orange you're like oh that was the printed part. That's so cool. The cool thing about that is we can kind of color it to whatever we want. So, we just got this really, really insanely pretty fuchsia pink.
Connor: So, my machine is going to be this wild pink.
(52:54 – 58:00) Crowd Supply Process
Carrie: So, we went from Lixies to monochrome Pixies to Pixie Chromas, successful Crowd Supply campaign and now you're just shipping them, right. People can go buy them off of Crowd Supply. Is there any wait time or are you kind of still doing it in batches or?
Connor: The way crowd supply works for anyone who doesn't know, it's really neat. You raise the money, you get the capital, you do your order, and you actually send all of your finished units with special barcode tags in bags to Mouser who is Crowd Supply’s parent company. Then Mouser will handle the individual fulfillment of all of the orders and they also purchased stock for themselves. So, if you sold a hundred of something, Crowd Supply will buy anywhere from fifty to a hundred for themselves. Then they become a vendor for you. So right now, you can go buy a Pixie Chroma kit on crowd supply still, even after the campaign and your order will get delivered at the same time as the backers orders in this first batch.
Halle: Yeah, we shipped everything all at once, all in one box.
Connor: It was terrifying.
Halle: It was so scary. I had to go and meet him at the FedEx store, and we were like, oh, this is the scariest thing we've ever done.
Carrie: Oh man. I can imagine how terrifying that would be.
Halle: It was also weird to have that many units in one; it wasn't a very big box either because they're so tiny. Then they got here, they came in these panels, I depanelized all of them, and Connor tested them. We had a really, really good rhythm going, but then after that we realized we needed headers and I ended up cutting out 80,000 headers in sections of 3.
Carrie: Oh my god.
Connor: Yeah, it was a lot.
Halle: We have 2 pairs of flush cutters, and if I didn’t have the good ones with me or I was at work or something I was just not having it. We have a very destroyed pair and then a good pair.
Carrie: So, I'm like how many episodes of Grey's Anatomy did that take? Or what other things were you watching that has to have like 30 seasons for you to get through all of this.
Connor: We watched American Horror Story and YouTube and whatever we could to pass the time.
Halle: Yeah, we forgot to order the bags for the headers. We didn't want to put the headers just straight in ESD bags. So, I made these little paper, folded things and rubber banded them and I did that about a thousand times.
Connor: And we love her for that because wow it was a lot.
Halle: So, when you get them and you open it up and you're like, oh wow look at this nice little rubber band wrapped around this paper, I had done that a thousand times. It was the most exciting thing ever though, because when we were doing, because my first product with him was the regular Pixie and then moving on to the Pixie Pro. So, whenever I got to cut out, I don't know, 50 headers. “Wow. That was so cool. Oh my gosh look at this batch.” Then you're like, “Oh yeah, we'll go through this whole bag that’ll probably be fine.” We go through the whole bag and we're like, “We have to buy 40,000 more headers!” It was fun though.
Carrie: Yeah. That is super exciting though. I mean sending off that box must have been scary, but also very fulfilling. Right.
Connor: It was like a postpartum depression for me, I felt so useless the day after it was all done. It started in late July on the PCB and then August is when I started the CGI ad that we did for it and all the preparation for it. So finally, this month, March, I finally have days where I'm just kind of waiting because they're all off at Crowd Supply. They’re being forwarded to customers now. So, no one has them yet, I don't have them, and I'm in this weird purgatory.
Carrie: It's the anticipation, right? It's like the calm before the storm of everybody getting them and then posting all about their projects and that'll be super exciting. I mean, that'll be the best part, seeing your things go out into the world and seeing what people make out of them. Right?
(1:25:42 – 1:32:54) Lady Lixie’s Art
Carrie: Is there anything else that you guys want to tell us about, anything else that you're up to?
Connor: Do you want to show off some art? We should get some background on what Lady Lixie does. She makes the coolest art.
Halle: I feel so weird feeling like I'm in the maker community. Cause I'm an artist. I know that that is sort of in the maker community.
Halle: I don't know. I feel like I don't do all the cool stuff you guys do.
Carrie: You do super cool stuff.
Connor: She knows how to color with like yellow, magenta and cyan and stuff. I don’t understand that at all.
Halle: I know that’s something that we’re always polar opposite. I'm so much more pigment based and he's so color based. I’m like yeah just mix those colors and he's like, that's not how that works.
Carrie: Additive versus subtractive, yeah.
Halle: Gosh, I don't know what to show off. I guess, I have a lot of bases in horror art. Is that okay to share.
Carrie: Yeah, anything goes.
Halle: Here in Utah, we have a lot of thrift stores, like a lot of them. I don't want to say privately owned, we have like a lot of chain ones, and our biggest one always has the weirdest, slightly religious art. I love taking the art and just taking those types of paintings and just kind of destroying them. Like taking this boy that I can tell was in a church because of the markings and that’s where the frame originally came from and I just really gory him up and stuff like that. So yeah, I do a lot of stuff like that, I love it. I know my stuff doesn't do anything. It just sits there and looks the way it is. It doesn't change colors. It's just there.
Carrie: Art does things, it makes you feel things.
Connor: Yeah, it moves you.
Halle: And then this is a little creepy guy. I’m not done with his hair application; I still need to give him a full Mohawk all over the front. But his eyes are super shiny because I actually used resin from our resin printer and cured it in our resin curing machine.
Connor: That’s a hack, that counts.
Halle: I'm starting to try and do, obviously we're not really going to be able to tell, but I'm starting to try and do lithophanes with 3D printing, which you can't really see. I love doing the 3D printing stuff because it's much more, I have to see everything. So coding is really difficult for my brain to process. If I can't see every single part of it all at once I get lost and confused and frustrated and just like, I can’t see it, I don’t get it.
Carrie: It’s a lot of weird compartmentalizing that you have to do with coding yeah. It takes a while to get used to it.
Halle: I learned to do MIDI music. Is that what I did? I think that's what I did.
Connor: She transcribed MIDI to Arduino tone functions.
Halle: Yeah. I wish I had it to show, but I don't, my mom has it. I made her this 3D printed thing with like four different parts that were just stacked together of the Deathly Hallows symbol. Then the front was, we were going to try and put LEDs in it, but it just didn't really work out to try to fit everything inside. I did a little MIDI to Arduino tones playing, you know, just certain songs from Harry Potter. One of the more, I guess, classic maker, things is pottery. So, I'm huge into pottery specifically, things like teapots. I love working with the glazes and stuff like that. The science that goes in for glazes and stuff is just absolutely crazy.
Connor: Glazes will have data sheets.
Halle: Glazes do have data sheets, crazy data sheets. Because they're very, most glazes will just give you cancer, not like state of California cancer, like everywhere around the world.
Connor: Yup. So, do you have a pottery studio that you're a part of?
Halle: I used to be, I used to work at one as a teacher and the manager. But over time it just, it's one of those things where, when the owners don't care enough you kind of got to move on from there. I started out as pottery and then, because I lost my ability to have access to a studio and to fire things and stuff like that, I moved towards other art forms, like sculpting with polymer clay and stuff like that. And now that I've kind of figured out lithophanes I'm really going to try and actually push myself more into lithophanes with LEDs. He's probably going to do a lot of that.
Carrie: Well, I was just going to ask, are you thinking of incorporating LEDs into your art now?
Halle: Yeah, I definitely wanted to take our jig that has the cute little eyes. I've been wanting to just take a Chroma just like this and sculpt a spot into a little robot that I made. That's kind of like that one, where I can plug this guy in and have it be a cute little face. Because I think it would just be adorable to have this standing sculpture that I'm able to paint, but then he has a fully functioning face and stuff. Yeah, it was definitely something we realized that these are perfect eyes.
(1:36:50 – 1:45:30) Open Source & OSHWA Certification
Carrie: So, Bob is asking, “So when are you going to sell the Lixie test jig?”
Halle: We've actually had a few people ask if it's open source. Which I mean, it can be.
Connor: It can be, I just haven’t done that yet. I don’t really have any reservations.
Halle: It only works if you're going to test when you already have. We tested them all already, so hopefully they all work.
Connor: Yeah, the design itself or the firmware that's running the LED checks and that voltage drop a thing, that's definitely something I should generalize and release soon.
Carrie: I was going to say, I think that that is definitely the thing of interest because there are a lot of different people doing different things with addressable LEDs. I think that it would be very interesting to other makers who are doing addressable LED art type of things.
Carrie: We have a recommendation in the comments to make some money first before making it open source!
Halle: Yeah. Well, open source is just an interesting thing. Who was the guy who said it best about…?
Connor: Oh, Nathan Siedel co-founder of SparkFun. He has a Ted talk online if you guys haven't seen it where he discusses the pros and cons of open source and it turns out by the end of it, there's no real cons. Not really. The obvious ones you would throw up, if someone doesn't understand the open-source hardware community, they'd be like, “Wait a minute. Why? That's like the opposite of a patent? Don't you want a patent?” Not necessarily because there's a lot of creative thinkers out there. People willing to share their work and people that can take your work and make it into something you've never even thought it could do. Even if you have a patent, you're going to get cloned anyways, it doesn't matter. So just make it better for the customer. I’ve had stuff before, like that little vector robot that rolls around, that company went defunct and now you can't do anything until makers go through and figure out how to dump the ROM contents on all the little chips and decrypt it – it's a pain in the butt. Whereas, if it was open source or had an SDK [software development kit] that stuck around, I would still be able to use it as a customer; I would have only benefited if they’d made it open course.
Carrie: Yeah. It is a hard and a scary thing to contemplate too and I think it depends upon your product a little bit. Definitely, I would say that, especially for things that are geared towards learning and are platforms that you can build other things upon, open source is definitely the way to go.
Connor: Yeah. So, I didn't go to school for computer science or anything. I went for graphic design. So, all of this computer science, or programming Arduinos, or writing assembly code, it's just because there was thousands of open source things out there that I could dig into. I could break one thing and say, okay so I now know that that function was called from this one. It's a good exercise just to go pick a simple Arduino library and just read it, just go look at all of it. See how they did it. How the class constructors work or how verbose they are with how many functions they make you do or don't make you do. One of the things I pride myself on with the Pixie Chroma displays is the library is no more complicated than you need it to be. If you just needed to show text, it's like three lines, but if you wanted it to have an interrupt service routine that keeps some animation going inside of the text or something complex like that, you can also do that, but you don't have to know how to do complex stuff to do the basic thing. I think if you can make a product with an Arduino library, especially that is perfectly suited for whoever picks it up. So, if it's brand new, like this your day one, working with Arduinos and wires and stuff you should be able to hook it up with really good comments in the code of how to do so. And if you are super advanced with it, you should be able to have a lot of fun, you shouldn't be bored of it too fast.
Carrie: Yeah, no, I think you've definitely nailed it. Just definitely reading through other people's libraries has helped me a lot. Adafruit’s stuff is really great in that regard. I definitely learned about driving graphic LCDs through their open-source graphic LCD driver. That was really useful. Bob says, he thinks about how to test hardware and code before he actually creates any portions. So, he's all on testing from the beginning and Tom also echoes that open source is the way. You're actually OSHWA certified with the Pixie, too.
Connor: We are yeah.
Carrie: Nice. How was that process? Did you have to do a lot of extra work or were you pretty much like, well, we already made all of our documentation open-source and had it online, so it was pretty easy to do.
Connor: It's actually not too bad. So, for anyone who's out of the loop, if you want to get a little mark like this on your PC or an ID that goes with it. The original Lixie was US54. I was really early on that one and then the Pixie chroma is US 2058. All you need to do is make sure that your Arduino code is on GitHub or GitLab or whatever, GitBucket alternative and try to make sure that any hardware files are in an accessible format. So not everyone has Autodesk Inventor or even uses that anymore. So, it counts as open-source hardware, but it's not a preferred way to do it if you have a proprietary file format. I use Eagle for my PCBs and the PCBs are all small enough that the free version of Eagle can still work with them. But if I had a bigger one, I would probably want to do something like KiCAD that anyone can open up. It's like Adobe illustrator versus Inkscape. If you can leave up Inkscape files that's better for everyone. So OSHWA, the Open-Source Hardware Association, is in charge of verifying basically your integrity with how open source you are and make sure you've got that whole checklist, there's nothing really missing there. Once they've signed off on that, you get a permanent ID that you can put on the boards. Then in the future, what's really cool about having that ID on there. is if somebody just completely lost the documentation or how to get to it, they can type in the ID number it'll show up on the OSHWA site and you can get to all of the stuff that was submitted to have it qualified as open-source hardware.
Carrie: Very cool!