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Using Hacked Wiimotes As Scientific Sensors 110

Posted by samzenpus
from the graduated-joystick dept.
garg0yle writes "Scientists are repurposing Wiimotes as scientific sensors to help measure wind speed or evaporation from lakes, among other things. At about $40 per unit, the controller is much cheaper than specialized sensors. The scientists are still considering how to add storage and extend the battery life."

*

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Using Hacked Wiimotes As Scientific Sensors

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    to detect global warming?

    • by lazybeam (162300)

      The wiimotes are being used to keep this article on the front page for days!! I keep refreshing and nothing new comes up - and this is from both my home and work computers. What is going on in Slashdot land?

  • "scientists" (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Seems like more of an engineering challenge than a scientific one.

    • Re:"scientists" (Score:4, Insightful)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:22PM (#30453288) Journal
      While you can get a fair amount of science kit off the shelves these days, "science" has always involved a good bit of engineering, if you want your experiments to actually happen.

      Sometimes there is an explicit division of labor, sometimes the same person performs both functions.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by HNS-I (1119771)
        Clifford Stoll:

        The first time you do something it's science, the second time it's engineering, the third time it's just being a technician.

    • by JWSmythe (446288)

          Everything's an engineering challenge, it all depends on how you look at it. :)

          Sometimes that's half the fun.

          The other half is enjoying the result.

          Come on, let your mind sink to the gutter. It's more fun here. :)

  • Oh Science. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Interoperable (1651953) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:03PM (#30453144)

    “There are probably better ways to measure wind, but it was a day well-spent,” Hut said. “I really felt the need to solder something.”

    A day well-spent indeed! There's nothing like spending a day to save a few dollars by not having to buy a specialized sensor. Sounds like my Master's research; why buy good equipment when grad students can spend ages building a poor imitation of it? Still, those days are usually the most fun part of "science" and certainly afford excellent learning opportunities.

    • by Shakrai (717556) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:05PM (#30453160) Journal

      There's nothing like spending a day to save a few dollars by not having to buy a specialized sensor.

      They won't be saving any money when they get hit with the DMCA lawsuit ;)

    • A day well-spent indeed! There's nothing like spending a day to save a few dollars by not having to buy a specialized sensor.

      Looking at the image, I have to wonder why a lab would need to buy or build a "Toy plastic boat" sensor of any type.

      There is a toy plastic boat right there. I saw it. I'm surprised they couldn't find a grad student capable of doing that. Really speaks poorly for the quality of our education system.

      • by xaxa (988988)

        A day well-spent indeed! There's nothing like spending a day to save a few dollars by not having to buy a specialized sensor.

        Looking at the image, I have to wonder why a lab would need to buy or build a "Toy plastic boat" sensor of any type.

        There is a toy plastic boat right there. I saw it. I'm surprised they couldn't find a grad student capable of doing that. Really speaks poorly for the quality of our education system.

        It floats, cost €2, and they could add an LED really easily. Then they can measure the water level in the tank as the water evaporates, which was the problem they were trying to solve (and the data is better than using the "proper" instruments).

        • Then they can measure the water level in the tank as the water evaporates, which was the problem they were trying to solve (and the data is better than using the "proper" instruments).

          But can it measure the WOOSH?

    • by V!NCENT (1105021)

      Not to mention the fact that with a day worth of salary you can buy a tenfold of these things...

      It's like driving ten extra miles to a store where you can get a 5 dollar discount. "Yeah but I save 5 dollers!" -"Yeah and you pay 6 dollar worth of fuel, you complete retard!"

      Sorry for the obviousness and the rant, but hey, this is the internet :)

      • It's like driving ten extra miles to a store where you can get a 5 dollar discount. "Yeah but I save 5 dollers!" -"Yeah and you pay 6 dollar worth of fuel, you complete retard!"

        Let's break out this charge and see how it really works (yes, I'm being a pedantic twit, but it's worth the effort in this case):

        The average price per gallon of gas in the U.S. is $2.65. My car, a 1998 Honda, gets, on average, 33 mph doing my normal driving. If I have to drive to an extra ten miles to save $5 on something
      • It's like driving ten extra miles to a store where you can get a 5 dollar discount. "Yeah but I save 5 dollers!" -"Yeah and you pay 6 dollar worth of fuel, you complete retard!"

        If it costs you $6 in fuel to drive 10 miles, I would say you are the retard.
        • by V!NCENT (1105021)

          Well maybe I set a bad example. Incorrect example.

          But you'll just have to read between the lines.

          I will not deny that you and smooth wombat are indeed correct ;)

    • by CaptDeuce (84529)

      There's nothing like spending a day to save a few dollars by not having to buy a specialized sensor. Sounds like my Master's research; why buy good equipment when grad students can spend ages building a poor imitation of it?

      research assistant n. see indentured servant

      I know that "why" is a rhetorical question. But... too bad grad students don't work on grant budgets. :-) Having wrestled with said budgets in Excel (before someone with a bussiness degree took over), I can tell you that the amount of money allocated to equipment tends to be rather flexible. Any give in the budget tends to be used for junket... er, travel expenses for attending scientific conferences.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:04PM (#30453150)

    ...this equipment can run $500 or more...

    The scientific equipment is more expensive because laboratories are willing to pay more, and have the money. Gamers aren't willing to pay $500 for a controller.

    Look here: Digikey [digikey.com] has 18000 pressure sensors available. I picked one [digikey.com] at random, and it can measure pressure up to 115 psi, which is about 60 meters deep in water. It only costs $12. I could make you the serial port/USB interface for like 20 bucks.

    Scientists only pay that much because they are willing to pay that much.

    • by Psaakyrn (838406) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:18PM (#30453258)

      However, you're underestimating the cost of time. Mass production decreases both the cost and time of making a specific product (or combination of products).

      • However, the cost of a grad student per hour is asymptotic at $0.

        • I roughly equate the rate for student employment to being one day's work is equal to one night's worth of beer in the Union bar.

          So, around £1.50 per hour. £10 will get you a lot of beer at 90p a pint.
        • Actually grad students pay you to build it. I don't know about you, but I had to pay for my education.
          • by Z1NG (953122)
            I think the likelihood of getting a stipend depends on a number of factors including: school, caliber of student, available funds, and department. I went to grad school for Math and think the vast majority had assistantships or fellowships. On the other hand, I don't think I've heard of a lot of people getting stipends when they work on an MBA.

            I would hope that students actually paying for their advanced degrees wouldn't be expected to do so much tedious work.
      • >Mass production decreases both the cost and time of making a specific product

        Sounds like Nintendo could make some pretty nifty scientific instruments just my making small changes to the Wiimotes and mass producing them.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by SleazyRidr (1563649)

          Which brings us back to the problem of a market that is too small.

          Not enough people are doing high-end research to make it worth Nintendo's (or anyone's) effort to produce them on a mass scale.

      • by sjames (1099)

        Too bad it doesn't also decrease the cost of lab equipment for researchers.

    • by Mr. Freeman (933986) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @10:22PM (#30453592)
      That, and the fact that a lot of scientific instruments are of the quality needed to do science. Sure, your bathroom scale is $20, but that won't do you any good when you need to measure masses on the order of one tenth of one milligram. Even a 3-place "precision" balance for $200 won't cut it for a lot of work. You need a 4-place analytical balance, which will run you about $4k.

      Cheap sensors work great for things like wind speed and the water level of a lake because any small variation in these readings means absolutely nothing.

      Now, as for the wiimote being an amazing tool, it's really not. It's being touted as such by scientists who apparently aren't actually examining how this thing works.

      The case in the article mentioned using it to measure water level by using the IR camera on the sensor to record an IR beacon on a floaty thing in the water. You can do the same thing with a cheap ass digital camera and the same laptop that reads the data from the wiimote for about $10-15. They also mention putting wiimotes on a collapsing building to gather data. This is because the wiimote contains a chap accelerometer which you can actually buy on sparkfun.com for much cheaper than an entire wiimote.

      Apparently these guys have never heard of embedded devices. The arduino, PIC microcontrollers, and NI DAQ devices have been around for years and would perfectly suit the purpose of data collection. As I'm attending an engineering university currently I've noticed something. Engineers seem to be much more up to date and logical about what's PRACTICAL. Sure, you could use a wiimote, but you could get an arduino, a flash drive, and some cheap accelerometers for about $50 and you could use it to collect AND PROCESS five times the amount of data and use it on orders of magnitude more applications.
      • by idolcrash (836925) <idolcrash AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @10:40PM (#30453694) Journal
        This is because, for the most part, scientists are focused on their research subject and their area of expertise, cost reduction, not so much. You can't really expect everyone everywhere (especially outside of engineering) to know the intricacies of arduinos, NI DAQs, etc. as well as how to best implement them. That's for the engineers, really, and having and extra engineer on the research team most likely costs more than the savings they could help with...plus I'm not sure how many, say electrical engineers, would be interested in that kind of work anyways.
        • Solution: collaborate.

          I know, I know. Obviously beyond any real-world scenario in academia.

          • Solution: collaborate.

            I know, I know. Obviously beyond any real-world scenario in academia.

            Actually, collaboration is very strong in US universities. At work we are constantly hearing about some research project or other being helped out by someone from a different department who brings new or unique skills or methodologies to the project.

            What is not favored however, is falling behind schedule on your grant-funded research because you're waiting for some weenie to hack together an experimental sensor from scratch when you can go down to Gamestop and buy one for $39.

      • Turns out people are interested in real-time tracking of small variations in environmental data. USGS and NOAA, to name two, pay for 0.1% accuracy or better in their instruments. I have an 0.01% barometer sitting in my desk drawer.
      • by hairykrishna (740240) on Wednesday December 16, 2009 @05:39AM (#30455468)

        So the accelerometer set up you propose would cost about the same as the wiimote only they'd have to build it from scratch and write some software for it? Plus, why would you want to process the data on board? You're not doing anything with it immediately. I see your point about the camera though. What res are wiimote cameras?

        • by Spatial (1235392)

          What res are wiimote cameras?

          128x96 @ 100hz.

        • "From scratch" means literally attaching the wires to the board. Not even soldering them. You take the leads from the accelerometer and plug them into the headers on the board. That's about as much work as plugging the wimote into a computer.

          Your argument about writing software is moot. The wiimote doesn't work right out of the box either. You have to write just as much, if not more, software to interface with it.
    • by ctmurray (1475885)
      In industry we are willing to trade money (which we have sometimes) for time (which we are always short of). Since I don't know how to take the sensor and wire it up to a USB port (nor do I know anyone in my lab who can do this) it would take me well over $500 in hourly wages to learn this skill and produce this sensor. As mentioned in another post, academic situations allow for undergrad and grad volunteer (or slightly paid) to spend the time and learn some valuable skills. If anyone at my work needs help
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by confused one (671304)
      You got your units wrong. That's a 115 kPa sensor, or 16.7 PSIA. It's a barometer; a baro of 1.5% accuracy. A waterproof UL / IS / FM approved water level transducer in a rugged welded stainlesss steel casing in roughly the same accuracy range (1%) will cost you a few hundred dollars.
    • by willy_me (212994)

      Scientists only pay that much because they are willing to pay that much.

      No, that is not the reason. It is essential that scientific experiments can be repeated by scientists at other universities. Because different sensors can take readings differently, that means the equipment used must be readily available to all. It also requires that a listing of equipment used must be included in any publications that result from the acquired data. Saying that you captured measurement 'x' with some custom hardware is only acceptable if you had a really good reason for requiring custom

  • by Tisha_AH (600987) <Tisha.Hayes@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:06PM (#30453162) Journal

    I think the pricing of scientific instrumentation is based largely upon the limited number of devices produced. The folks who make sensors really do not care too much about the price and are looking at recovering their development, manufacturing and marketing costs off of very small sales quantities.

    A case in point; I work with AMI (SmartGrid) systems for measuring water and electricity consumption. These devices have a surprising level of sophistication, very long battery lives (10-20 years off of a Li-Ion battery) and can store a data-point every fifteen minutes and report it back across a radio network. I "know" the manufacturing costs are down in the $30-60 range for each device. The manufacturers are all anxious to get customers (utilities) to spend their millions on projects to put SmartGrid technologies into cities so the more you buy, the cheaper they get. The data is frequently coming from "absolute encoders" on water meters and less frequently, from pulse encoders that generate a certain number of pulses per 1000's of gallons (the device counts them up, multiplies them by a K factor and gives you a corrected value for gallons of water consumed).

    The Nintendo Wi is a good example. How many millions of the Wi devices are made? If they were $250 each there would not be many consumers buying them so they mass-produce and keep the prices low. You see the same effect when you hear about banks of PlayStation 3's being used in clusters for supercomputing.

    • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:58PM (#30453472)
      The pricing of scientific equipment also reflects several other factors (not to say that some scientific equipment isn't overpriced): first, there is very high quality control. Scientific equipment generally goes through fairly rigorous quality testing. Second, and more importantly, any device that is used to capture scientific data for electronic storage must comply with 21 CFR part 11 if that data will be submitted to a regulatory agency in the U.S. (and similar regulations if it will be submitted to regulatory agencies in the E.U., Canada, Japan or several additional countries which I don't know the identity of off the top of my head).
      • by tlhIngan (30335) <[ten.frow] [ta] [todhsals]> on Wednesday December 16, 2009 @12:46AM (#30454350)

        And the flipside happens too - scientific instruments are used for cooking. In this case, it's for cooking delicate foods using a thermal immersion circulator to cook sous-vide.

        http://gizmodo.com/5346014/what-is-this [gizmodo.com]

        It's used because it's the best way to do precision temperature control.

        • Just so you know, you can build a circulator and precision controller for quite a bit less than the lab equivalent. A couple of years ago, I built exact that kind of sous vide immersion cooking unit for under $30, plus $70 for two controllers, because I was interested in comparing a factory-made PID controller and J-type thermocouple (~$40 incl. S/H on eBay) with a microcontroller and thermistors (~$30). Result: either alone would've done the job just fine.

          Actually, since I do electronics/hardware tinkering

      • by sjames (1099)

        It's really a matter of how well your needs actually match the design. In some cases the price is worth it (or even necessary). In other cases where your requirements for accuracy, reliability, or ease of use are much less than the design goals, it's an outrageous price but the lower cost part with the looser design constraints doesn't exist. That's when it's time to get hacking.

      • by Tisha_AH (600987)

        Absolutely correct. You see the same thing happen with test equipment that must be periodically calibrated to NIST traceable standards. I had a "deadweight tester" (a very arcane piece of test equipment for accurately measuring pressures) that had to have it's brass weights tested to make sure they weighed "exactly" the right amount. We were even discouraged from polishing the brass weights as the polishing process would remove minute amounts of brass.

        When my former employer offered to send my DVM (digital

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      It seems like Arduino+XBee is the answer for stuff like this, at about $100/3pk of ATM328+Xbee boards; you get a repeating mesh-network and yes, very good battery life. I have a hard time believing that using Wiimotes and then adding battery to them and so on is going to be any cheaper, especially if you're calculating for the cost of development time.

  • I'm curious on the non-game advances the Wii, PS3, and XBox 360 has provided for the community.

    The Wii advances via it's mass-produced controller, the PS3 advances via mass-produced mini-computer, the XBox 360... um... (need some help here).

    • Xbox 360 is pretty well DRM locked down, so no help is forthcoming.

    • by Megane (129182) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @10:28PM (#30453626) Homepage
      The 360 advances via its mass-produced red LEDs.
    • the XBox 360... um... (need some help here).

      Provides endless comedy with its RRODs, massive overheating power brick, and user-phobic online gaming service.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    are there any details for the wind sensor? It's only mentioned in the story but not linked to any additional information.

  • Anything goes... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MindPrison (864299) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:21PM (#30453282) Journal

    ...thats the beauty of science, we're not limited to "have to", but more what we could do - "because we can".

    In amateur science circles, we also used commercially available TV-tuners as spectrum analyzers, instead of purchasing a commercial test-instrument that cost up to a 100.000 dollars, it could be made to perform pretty close and pretty well with some external circuitry for a few hundred bucks, made it affordable for the radio-amateur, science amateurs, and science students everywhere.

    Absolutely LOVE to see people use the resources like the Wiimote like that, excellent!

    So yeah - sky's the limit!

  • From my hours of research (read play) with a Wiimote, I'd question how accurate the data you'd get from a Wiimote would really be. Real scientific instruments can gather incredibly detailed data, and tons of it. I guess you get what you pay for.
    • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

      In my experience, doing some sensor systems with cheap sensors and expensive sensors, the difference is that cheap ones can be fast or accurate, while good ones can be both. Because you can average data and apply statistical methods to eliminate noise, a long integration time can get you very good precision (as long as your not doing an integrator... using an iPhone as a position sensor won't work, since you can't average the acceleration to get it).

      In this case, a cheap sensor is going to work quite well

      • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

        And forgetting my high school science classes, averaging gives you precision, not accuracy. Accuracy is a whole other issue, but its not very different between cheap and expensive sensors, and calibration can eliminate the issues.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by pbrooks100 (778828)

        In my experience, doing some sensor systems with cheap sensors and expensive sensors, the difference is that cheap ones can be fast or accurate, while good ones can be both. ... Its really a matter of knowing what you need. In many cases a cheap sensor works really well.

        Using cheap sensors can allow you to validate your hypothesis. This can in turn help you justify the additional expense of calibrated and more precise sensors to accurately describe the relationship observed. (You can also use spares of the cheap sensor equipment to play games and blow off steam while the experiment is running; Mario Kart anyone? :)

    • Exactly, you do get what you pay for, so why pay for more than you need. I haven't RTFA but the type of science they are doing probably doesn't need to be all that accurate to get meaningful conclusions.

    • by sjames (1099)

      Without a doubt. But if the incredible detail will just be discarded in favor of a simple trend anyway, you'll be paying a lot for nothing.

  • Funny coincidence (Score:5, Interesting)

    by idolcrash (836925) <idolcrash AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:32PM (#30453350) Journal
    The lab I work in uses hacked Wiimotes to study visual pecerption in autism, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. They can be programmed with C#, which our PI and another undergrad learned to work with the Wiimotes...the ease of use and the hackability are pretty good selling points besides the price.
    • Plus, the Wiimotes are already safe for use around the general public, which must make your safety review a little smoother.
    • by acohen1 (1454445)
      This sounds very interesting. Do have any published work on that project or maybe a webpage?
  • by Craig Davison (37723) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @09:41PM (#30453388)

    There's a few Wii battery packs out there that allow the controller to be powered over USB with a standard A to mini-B cable. Here's one:
    http://www.dealextreme.com/details.dx/sku.4978 [dealextreme.com]
    Of course, if you drain the battery pack faster than you can recharge it, you might have a problem.

    • by bronney (638318)

      Well then don't drain it. Get the 5V off the USB and give 3V to the terminals directly.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by nametaken (610866) *

      What I found interesting was that they were able to figure out the relatively complicated parts of performing the measurements and recording them in a way they can use later, and yet they still haven't worked out a larger battery?

      • by Gordonjcp (186804)

        Many many years ago, my dad got annoyed with constantly replacing the little coin cells in process timers at work - about one a week on average. So with the aid of a couple of short bits of wire and some hot-melt glue he stuck alkaline D cells on the back of each one. Over twenty years later (and some 16 years after he went silent key himself) most of the timers are still on their original D cells...

  • because why would scientists care about how accurate their data is when you can just accuse anyone questioning your study of being paid by big oil/monsanto/big pharma.
    • Different experiments require different levels of accuracy. The rest of your post is just a troll... Seriously, who disses scientific pursuit in general?
      • Anyone with any brains can clearly see that scientific pursuit is the work of the Devil. Everything we could ever need to know is in the Bible, which is completely correct, so much so that we don't even have to verify it.

        Science what the Devil uses to undermine our faith in the one true Lord by implanting false assumptions into the heads of scientists, which they then go on to 'prove' via their 'scientific method'. Renounce science and save your soul before it's too late!

    • by evanbd (210358)

      Making your own instrumentation is common. I've done it in an industry setting, though not in a lab; but I've heard about plenty of labs that build their own special-purpose instruments. The end result is that you have to calibrate it. Obviously you can't use something like this without at least verifying the calibration, but that can be very easy.

      Once you've calibrated it, what's not to like about a piece of consumer electronics that does the job?

    • Clearly you don't know how accurate the Wii Sensor is. Any difficulties you have problems with the Wii mote on the Wii are part of poor setups and user error.

      The Wii Mote itself has an excellent sensor built into it, It's just that the sensor bar is terribly concieved. All it does is emit 2 Infrared signals at either end. Generally, this does just fine, but your TV is also emitting heat, the room is warm, etc etc. There are people who do it with 2 candles a foot from both sides of their television screen an

      • by wvmarle (1070040)

        There is accuracy.

        Then there is reproducibility.

        Those two are not the same.

        The Wiimote measurements must be accurate for a proper gaming experience, but not necessarily reproducible.

        This kind of measurements are nice if you wish to measure changes (change in water level), not if you wish to measure something absolute (the actual water level).

  • this story reminded me of this http://www.engadget.com/2009/07/08/video-wiimote-controlling-a-15-ton-grapple/ [engadget.com] ... its amazing how many uses there are for what is marketed as a toy for children and the elderly....
  • I've been using them in my Computer Eng. Problem Solving class for 3 years.

    Here's a vid where freshmen measure a drop (accounting for air resistance) using a wiimote.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPCBfyQP4eE [youtube.com]
    I'd say they make a great instrument as long as you quantify your error.

  • Two wires, solar panel. Bang.
  • I've seen other demos of using wiimotes for other purposes. Such as taping it to a google headseat for a semi-VR experience.

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