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Motobrain: High Tech Automotive Power Distribution Unit

It's been about a year since my last Kickstarter, a failed attempt to launch a mini USB host Arduino compatible mirocontroller platform. I am back for a double helping of humble pie. This time, my project is a Bluetooth 4 enabled automotive power distribution unit (PDU) and solid state fuse block. I go into great detail of the details of the project at my website motobrain.net and at the Kickstarter page. Suffice to say, it is a really smart, smartphone programmable, PDU with 8 outputs and 4 inputs. The inputs are used to link outputs logically with other circuits (either OEM circuits or custom switches or sensors).

It is a very flexible system. For example, you can setup your aux fog lights to turn on with the ignition BUT it will also turn them off whenever you turn on the high beams. The PDU can sense the ignition and you can program circuits to turn on the in response to the ignition and by linking the high beams to one of the inputs you can program the PDU to shut down the fog lights when that input wire goes to 12V. It may sound a little complicated, and I suppose it is, but it is not hard to do either.

 The Kickstarter launch went great. We reached 10% of our goal in an hour. At 3 days into the campaign we've reached about 30% of the goal so I have to be pleased with the progress we've made. Yesterday we quite a bit of press as well and I think it will put us over the top eventually. Engadget and Hackaday both ran stories and we had mad traffic at the website.

ProCSS Your Styles

Do you need to brush up on your CSS-fu? Freeside is hosting ProCSS, a professional CSS development lecture and workshop Saturday, September 7th 3:00 PM. ProCSS is a people-first look at what makes code good, and how CSS development can be organized for rapid development of front-ends with minimal fuss from browsers and whiny clients. Students will be taught to abandon improvised ("hacky") workflows in favor of a more pragmatic approach that keeps work simple as projects get complicated. The techniques taught in this course apply to dinky five page websites and to enterprise scale web applications.

ProCSS is for people who have used CSS, but who need more practice or a better way of doing things. Experienced CSS developers can also benefit from learning new tools introduced in the course, such as CSS preprocessors and component libraries.

Attending the course gets you lecture notes, source code and an one hour long workshop hosted by an experienced front-end developer. The open source examples are open for students to contribute to on GitHub, which means you can pad your resume for helping other students while sharpening your skills.

ProCSS teaches you what CSS development is really about, and what it means to future-proof both your web application and your outlook on web development.

You can't learn this stuff in tutorials!

If you want in on this, RSVP on Meetup.

Hacker Trips: Making Awesome

This is the first of what are (hopefully) many installments of Hacker Trips - encounters of the first and fourth kind with other hackerspaces throughout the country.  Freeside knows no bounds; our members appear and disappear throughout the world!  We're coming to your hackerspace and it's gonna be OK!  My own travels are likely going to take me to the DenHac sooner rather than later, so I'm definitely planning to report on that.

Tallahassee, Florida.  The word Tallahassee means "abandoned fields" in Seminole.  It is a town of about 180,000 residents, home to FSU and FAMU colleges which turns the city into a ghost town during winter and spring breaks.  Tallahassee kind of looks like a shrunken Atlanta - complete with its own perimeter, airport, and transit system.  I grew up in Tallahassee.  I have fond memories as a child of traversing its fine ground water drainage system that linked all the neighborhoods together, and some parts of downtown, like the old DOT building.  Days of feigned illnesses and put home from school spent unproductively wandering into random backyards or behind government office building shrubbery.  

No dice if you seek manatees, but plenty of turtles and the occasional alligator one must take care not upset while engaged in psuedo-urban trekking.  If there's anything Tallahassee does have is a super abundance of wildlife, forest, and a unique concentration of allergens that defined my destiny.  When I didn't have my face buried into a tissue during the pollen season I was stuck at home, behind an air filter, reading.  No regrets!

There's a handful of fun stuff to do in Tallahassee while you're there.  You can eat the pizza slice bigger than your head at Momo's!  Shoot a game of pool over cheap beer and get served free pizza at Poor Paul's!  There's cool food trucks, art, and live music at Railroad Square.  While you're there, you can also catch a documentary that details how Edward Ball exploited every single square inch of Wakulla Springs.

This past Sunday, I was able to make a pass through Tallahassee and visit Making Awesome (MA).  MA is a 5000sqft, free-standing facility located on a community college campus over on the west side of town.  Had I known about Making Awesome as a young person, maybe I might have picked up on a few skills after school I could be using today.  They share the hackerspace ethos and Freeside vision of providing an environment where exploration and play with technology is encouraged.

There I met with David Brightbill, one of the founders and president of MA, and he quickly put a beer in my hand faster than I could say, "Bully!" We talked at length about our experiences running hackerspaces, trading war stories and the whatnot.  It was a pretty chill space, but you could tell its members definitely enjoyed using all parts of the Making Awesome for their projects.  He took me on a tour of the space.

First thing I thought was great was their access control system.  Here's parts one, two and three of their write up on how they got it working.  Although it's a wired system (in contrast to what we're trying to do with Vuvuzela) it was inspiring to see the whole set up together.  They, too, share a love for the Raspberry Pi so we spent a good while talking about our different approaches.  They've also got plans in the works to create an access system where the RFID card has to rest on a sort of flat reader in order to render a machine operational.  Just a heads up, MA - we'll be copying you on that one.  Let's work together - like the co-mod!

MA has not one, but two CNC machines - one is huge, a 4ft square or maybe 5ft square machine (my eyeballs are spaced weird so who knows) that had some foam swords sitting on it - no doubt, bound for Dragon*Con.  Seeing foam pieces carved into fantastical shapes has got to be some kind of international symbol of trustworthiness.  The other CNC machine is this beautiful machine to the right.  It's a work in progress, but David tells me that when it's completed they'll be slicing through metal like a Talking Heads video.

This wooden thing redefined my architecture.   It's a giant, mobile, tool storage gazebo.  It has all the right places to stow away the tools.  I had intense and wild visions of tools getting stored properly at Freeside if this thing was around.  You could basically push it over to whatever you were working on.  They took that same concept from musicals where the piano is on casters and turned it into a useful thing.  This could appear at Freeside in some kind of musical production.  Grease meets the Village People, directed by John Waters, or such as: everybody dancing with this thing.  I want to dance with it.  It's a world of possibilities.

This was a particularly cool project - Launchpad: Moon - an educational economics board game designed at MA as part of the NASA Space Apps challenge.  It was inspiring to see the laser cut board and pieces!  I've mentioned it a few times but I'm trying to be super sneaky about turning our Analog Game Night attendees into the wonderful world of game development and prototyping.

 Finally, we rounded out the tour with visiting their hydraulic press (watch your hands!), the radial arm saw (watch your arms!), and a totally legit 1930's sewing machine.

It was lots of fun to spend a few hours with the Making Awesome gentlefolk.  If you're ever in Tallahassee for reasons, then you should definitely stop by.  You'll both feel right at home and simultaneously also be made to feel at home!

Infinity Mirror Prototype build

For our art project for Alchemy this year, we plan to build a huge archway in the forest with a portal to hyperspace. This is no easy task, so we decided to do some small-scale prototyping so that we can look into some of the challenges of this build and play with different effects to see what looks the coolest.

Our design is based around an infinity mirror, which is a cool device that is build from one regular mirror and one two-way mirror. Lights placed in the center echo between the two mirrors until they fade too low to be seen. The viewer looks through the transparent side of the two-way mirror and can see the effect move with their perspective.

Kevin and Edward working with the assembled frame.
That's the two-way mirror in the foreground.

 I had some help with the build from Kevin and Edward, who came in for the Tuesday night open house and got recruited to the project. Nathan (not pictured) also joined in to help, so we had 4 people working on it.

We also made the two-way mirror using a standard piece of glass from Home Depot and some mirrored window tint that we ordered online. That was fairly easy to do with 4 people on it, but it would be a total nightmare to do by yourself. Important lesson from the prototype: tint is REALLY difficult to get right.

Once we had both mirrors, we did a quick test by holding the two-way mirror over the regular mirror with the LEDs laid out in between to see how far apart we'd like to space the two.

Because it didn't need to be pretty, but it needed to be easy to disassemble and reassemble, we opted to just build it out of 2x4s and support the frame with cross-braces from the back.

We slotted the 2x4s on the table saw so that we could slide the glass in and out of the assembly. Then, after more tries than I care to remember, we got the frame cut down to a size so that the slots matched the 24x30 dimensions of the glass pieces. We slid the mirrors in while we only had 3 of the 4 frame pieces assembled so that we could get a tight fit with the supporting cross-pieces on the back.

We left the fourth side wall off until the end so that we could attach it with a hinge and a lock, which allows us to pull it apart as needed. We attached a hinge and a locking mechanism that we had laying around the space and the frame was done.

Rather than painting it, we opted to just use black tape to darken the inner walls. Next, we measured the total width of the inner chamber, which was 4x the width of the LEDs as we had planned. For the tunnel to look "even", the spacing between the two LED strips had to be double the spacing between each strip and the side wall. We did the math and found two jigs that were those heights and used them to lay out the strips. Interestingly enough, the adhesive on the backs of the LED strips can't handle the heat that the strips put it out... so we ended up stapling them to the walls.

We accidentally switched Nathan for bizzaro Nathan in the process.
The real Nathan is trapped in mirrorworld somewhere. Safety third!
Finally, we attached the control box and IR receiver for the strips to the top of the hinged piece. The primary colors worked fine, but when trying to get the ting to fade, it started flashing purple and got unresponsive to the IR remote. The problem ended up being that I was using a 12v 1a power supply and needed at least 3 amps. A bigger power supply fixed the issue.

After about 3 hours of work, we got a working prototype finished and learned A LOT about building the full-scale model. Some of these issues would have cost hundreds of dollars or pushed us behind schedule waiting for stuff in the mail. The total cost of this prototype was $100 and I'm gonna turn it into a coffee table when  I'm done.

Here's a video walkthrough of the final prototype (before I fixed the amperage glitch).

Event Highlight: Analog Game Night

Howdy e'rybody! Just wanted to give you a little update on the awesome that is Analog Game Night. We're now up to bimonthly, with board and card game fun to be had on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of every month.

Last Thursday was the first time we went for the second night a month, and given only two days' notice, we still had 11 people show up to play Isla Dorada and The Good, The Bad, and The Munchkin.

There was also poi, Chex mix, a yoga demonstration, and excellent taste in beer. 

So now you know. Y'all come now, and bring games, friends, and beer if you're so inclined and of age. It's a good time, and has been a great way to introduce new folks to the space.

Incidentally, I am also learning to make videos and work a DSLR, so we made this time lapse video of the first few hours of the evening. Enjoy.

A Winner Is Us!

We just got the news we won a LulzBot AO-100 3D printer as part of their giveaway contest!

Our submission landed us a spot in the 8 finalists out of over 200 submissions.  We even got a shout-out about Dr. Glass' original medical research!

Check out the announcement!

This Week at Freeside, April 15-21

Tuesday [7:30p]: CNC Build Project, Public, Free.

Freeside veterans, Preston and Eldon, will be leading this project to assemble and tune a smaller CNC for high-precision work, then design and build a full-size 4' x 4' CNC mill for the space as well.

Tuesday [7:30p]: Open House, Public, Free.

We host this meeting every Tuesday so that people can check out the space, chat with members of the organization, and get together to plan projects, events, and classes.

Tuesday [8:30p]: Introduction to Basic Electronics, Public, Free.

Chris Moore and Wayne Salhany explain basic electricity and electronics concepts that you can use in your next project.

Friday [8a-6p]: Telecommute from Freeside, Members-Only.

Members, come join your other telecommuters at Freeside and “work” remotely.

Sunday [3p]: Burners Without Borders, Public, Free.

Freeside turns the auditorium space over once a month to Burners Without Borders for their monthly meetup, where they plan fundraisers, community outreach, and reconstruction/beautification projects.

What Freeside Needs this Month, April Edition

Have you been itching to donate things to Freeside, but you’re not sure what we need? Have you been looking for volunteer opportunities to use your awesome skills?  This monthly post shall be your guide, henceforth!

Look for all these things in our up-to-date Wishlist, the next time you're out and about and wondering what extras you could throw in the cart to bring on down!

We're always looking for new opportunities to facilitate projects/education in the space. New equipment can help us do that, so we decided to make a wishlist of some of the things that we need for the space.

Volunteer Opportunities:

Electrical wiring: running new outlets, and...other activities...
Woodworking, construction: help with shelf/hutch building for electronics, help with member storage build-out
Mural Art: artists, pick a spot on the wall and make it yours!  We also want input on designing logos for each of our zones


ABS: Our 3D printers need more spools in a variety of colors
Batteries: 9V
Paint (dark, black, matte): for shrouding the stage in the darkness
Paint (brighter colors especially, not black/grey/white): we are painting an internet meme explosion mural in the front bathroom, and Carrie needs more paint
Printer ink for the HP L7680


Recording and mastering software/hardware
Valid Windows licenses
VOIP solution for linking our Google Voice number (or similar service) to the space


Good, functional computers
Audio/lighting/DJ equipment
Interesting Human Interface Devices
Arduinos, other automation controllers or kits
Raspberry Pis: for use with the access control project, or with the informational kiosks like we have in the welcome zone
4+ port NIC card for rack system, or full system: we are trying to build a router to create subnets, see Alan or any IT staff person for details
Mounts for rack systems: stacking the pizza boxen on top of each other just won’t do
Larger LCD monitors, flat screen TVs: we want to put up informational kiosk displays around the space
Breadboards: some members have asked and are unclear if some “projects” could be reclaimed or if there are extra breadboards to go around
Folding chairs: for when we host large talks or events
Door and ceiling: for the classroom, to cut down on the noise
Door/Steel/Mesh: for the server room door, for peace of mind
Help with getting the existing phone system up and running, for being able to dial other phones in the space, and linking that to VOIP


Member storage bins: We are getting new members!  Let’s have a few bins at the ready to get them on-board
Small to Medium plastic bins: We can start subdividing or replacing cardboard boxes storing things in the parts storage


Lumber: ask about specifics, but the two main projects that could use some lumber are for the electronics lab benches and for improvements to member storage
Engraving plastic: for creating signage with Randy’s CNC!


Pallet jack
Pottery wheel
Welding supplies
UV Curtain Material
Welding Gloves


Hammer drill
Concrete bits
Painting supplies
Magnetic Sweeper/Pickup tool for the floor
1/4" Allen wrench (for the lathe)

This Week at Freeside, April 1-7

This Week at Freeside

Tuesday [7:30p]: Open House, Public, Free.
We host this meeting every Tuesday so that people can check out the space, chat with members of the organization, and get together to plan projects, events, and classes.

Tuesday [8:30p]: Introduction to Basic Electronics, Public, Free.
Chris Moore and Wayne Salhany explain basic electricity and electronics concepts that you can use in your next project.

Friday [8a-6p]: Telecommute from Freeside, Members-Only.
Members, come join your other telecommuters at Freeside and “work” remotely.

Coming Up Next at Freeside

Please note that Analog Game Night moved, due to a schedule conflict! Analog Game Night will resume to its regular schedule of first Wednesday of the month starting in May.

2013-APR-10, Wednesday [8p-11p]: Analog Game Night, Public, Free.
Come get your board and/or card game on!

Super-Cheap and Effective Off Road Wheelchair Hack

Last year for Alchemy, we decided to launch a really ambitious art project on a really short timeline. It almost didn't get done, but we were able to get it out just in time... and it worked!

Ferris, Abigail, and Robin playing with the
bubble generator
Our project was to build a different kind of art car. Alan got the idea to build an Off Road Wheelchair for our friend Robin, who is an anthropologist and a disability advocate, so that she could get around these outdoor festivals to enjoy all of the crazy awesome stuff that happens there. We did the first round of fundraising at the Alchemy Art Fundraiser (FB event link here) and afterwards Alan, Joy, and Robin set up a second fundraiser at Freeside. Once they raised the money (which still had us on a razor-thin budget), I picked up the project from there and managed the planning and build. As it turned out, I was in way over my head.

The idea was this - Robin had a really hard time getting around at these events and spent most of her time at her camp. She has partial paralysis on her right side, making it really difficult for her to get around, especially on uneven terrain.  There's sooo much to see there, so we wanted to help her out. But we didn't just want to help her get around, we wanted make her the most intimidating and crazy-powerful vehicle out there so that nothing would stand in her way! It was our way of making a statement and drawing attention to the idea that Radical Inclusion means that not only should everyone be welcome, but everyone should be able to join in. The way we saw it, if we had the ability to make that happen, then we should.

A rugged, human-powered wheelchair can cost between $2,500 and $8,000. An electric or gas-powered wheelchair can cost upwards of $10,000. Our chair had to take steep inclines (including "effigy hill") and rough terrain on its own power, run reliably for 3-4 day events with spotty access to infrastructure, and have similar accessibility, controls, and behavior to a normal wheelchair.

This was a huge dilemma, which we discussed in detail in our first blog post on the project. The only reasonable solution for our budget was to modify a high-torque zero-turn lawn mower to turn it into a super-powerful, ruggedized wheelchair. It's not ideal, but it's a surprisingly effective solution... especially with a 2 month, $2,300 project.

Humble beginnings for a crazily ambitious project.
So we found a crap zero-turn mower and bought it without the deck for $1,400. It was ugly, had structural damage, electrical problems, body damage, rust, no lights, and was really heavy. However, it also has a 20HP motor and working hydrostatic transmissions that distribute huge amounts of torque to the off road tires independently, meaning that the machine can pivot in place similarly to a regular wheelchair. It was a substance-over-style decision.

After that was a massive series of builds. We had over 30 people work on the project on and off. As the project wore on, we hit bottlenecks and people lost enthusiasm. There were a lot of challenges.

We had a huge number of things to get done to get the project ready. We needed to repair mechanical damage, do some structural welding, remove rust, reduce noise, repair the electrical system, add running lights, and give it style. We added a trailer hitch as well, but couldn't get the right kind of winch to attach to it in time. We'll have to take care of that on the next round.

Kate was one of the leaders on the project and did a lot of
mechanical work, as well as getting the new seat done.
Even with as many people as we had working on it, the project took every bit of the 2 months that we were allotted, including an almost sleepless 72-hour burn to wrap things up at the end.

Safety was the major concern. Everything we did was weighed, checked, and re-checked. We wanted to push the limits of the system, but we wanted to guarantee Robin's safety in the process. So we developed a testing program for the machine and a training program for operators. We watched some safety videos from zero-turn manufacturers together and built a training course behind the shop to practice circles, reverse circles, figure-eights, reverse figure-eights, and 5- 10- and 15-degree inclines from all angles of approach. It was a full day of work even after all of the planning we did.

Originally, Albert from Carbon Age Designs had designed a front clip to attach to the chair to reduce the likelihood of the chair tipping forward. However, we decided that the attachment could bottom our and cause the chair to roll forward, so it was too dangerous to use. Instead, we opted to include an inclinometer on the chair and train Robin on how to use it to keep the chair under 15 degrees for the initial test run. We have time to refine it later.

Igor and Smitty's last minute work to get the project ready
For style we looked to Ferris, one of the Directors at Freeside, who came up with the idea of setting up LED strips on the chair that robin could remote-control. He hacked together a battery power and IR receiver system for it that would be waterproof and set it up. He also added a bubble generator on it so that it will leave a trail of bubbles wherever it goes. We'll try blacklight bubbles on the next iteration.

Finally the day(s) of reckoning came and surprisingly... everything went better than expected! It worked the entire 4 days, though we did have to change the battery out at the end. It worked exactly the way we wanted it to and Robin even got to see the effigy burn up close for the first time. In fact, there was no camp at the event that she wasn't able to make it to including Area 51.

Of course, I wasn't totally satisfied. It was too noisy and I had really high expectations of the final result. The hacker in me wanted to build it from scratch, but the project manager in me was pretty satisfied with the short turnaround and low budget. We've got plenty of time to make it quieter, prettier, and more sleek. In the mean time, it gets the job done really effectively. When it comes down to it, that's really all the project was about in the first place.

Special thanks to Robin for her support and patience, and everyone that put your hard work into this project! We're going to keep developing it for this year's burns and push this idea as far as we can to develop a cost-effective, safe, and outrageous powered off road wheelchair.

Robin, looking stunning on her chariot of torque and ready to rock on any terrain.