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Hardware Hacking United Kingdom Build

Add USB LED Notifications To Your PC With Just a Bit of Soldering (Video) 129

Posted by timothy
from the blue-flashing-means-a-sale dept.
Arvydas Juskevicius (say that five times fast) is an independent software developer and hardware hacker based in London (which is where I got a chance to talk with him) who's decided to bring the useful LED signalling capabilities of many modern smartphones into the world of desktop or laptop computers. With his £10 BlinkStick kit (£15 pre-assembled), you get a programmable multi-color LED that's about the size of a flash memory key. Deceptively simple -- it's essentially one giant pixel, after all, which might not sound exciting when you have millions of them on a dense display surface. But that LED light is something you can use as a signal for alarms, or to tell you that you have a message from one app while another is at full-screen, or practically anything else that you can devise software to notice and react to. I get the sense that Juskevicius would prefer that people get the kit version, to help spur interest in actually soldering some hardware rather than just plugging it in. If you're allergic to paying in other than U.S. dollars, the BlinkStick is also available from Adafruit Industries. Watch the video below to see it in action.

Arvydas Juskevicius: BlinkStick is a DIY kit I designed myself and this is something that I just wanted to solve a very simple problem. I want to display an email notification on my computer. We all have this on our phones and tablets but nobody does that I thought well, I just didn’t have something that I could build myself, that I could use it on my computer. So effectively, that’s what it is. And this small device - it is the size of a USB dongle for memory. And you can build it yourself.

Once you build it, then you just plug it into a computer and it just works with Windows, Mac and Linux. It doesn’t need any drivers. It comes with a wide range of API implementations and programing languages like Python, Node.js, Ruby, Dotnet and also Autoit if you have ever heard about that.And so it is also hackable.

So right here, I have it hooked up to an Ikea Dioder and it is controlling the whole LED strip right around this, around my table, (which is for the purpose of demo). In addition to that, it is also being hackable. It also can be linked over to BlinkStick.com where it can be controlled remotely. So you can set the color remotely and it has this very basic API. So this is pretty much it.

Tim:What does it cost?

Arvydas:It is£10.

Tim:And what are some examples of things you might use it for, okay email notifications

Arvydas:So one of them is emails. So there are two things that it can be used. I have heard people using it for various crazy things. So first of all, this is like something that you would do for educational purposes, where you would like to learn a little bit of soldering and it is really easy to solder it, it is just 15 components in it– I designed it that way. So it is like a learning experience.

So you solder it, you hook it up to a computer and then you can use one of the APIs just to control and interface it. Another option is it can also come in pre-soldered so you can just use it to do some email notifications, build process I know companies are using it for notifications about well, from third party telephone systems, about new messages, where they don’t have it normally.There is also a guy who is using it to calibrate a telescope somewhere in the mountains. This was really bizarre for me.There is also

Tim:How do you use it to calibrate a telescope?

Arvydas:To be honest, I know I just have this as a he wrote an email that he is going to be using that and he is doing it in some way so it is probably like pointing it to the light so that it focuses properly, or something like that.

There is also another option. I have also heard that they are using it as a postman detector where a wireless camera that links to Raspberry Pi and links to (it works great with Raspberry Pi), where a wireless camera links to a Raspberry Pi connected to a BlinkStick and whenever there is movement, the webcam notifies Raspberry Pi and lights up BlinkStick that there is somebody at the door.

So there is really a wide variety of ways it is being used. I have been putting a lot of tutorials on the website and there is also a blog where I write about whatever somebody comes up with it. So there is also like a possibility to use it as an Ambilight clone where it glows around the monitor and throws an average color (there is also a video on BlinkStick.com).So that’s pretty much.

Tim:I see several of them hooked into one USB controller and they are running independently, is that right?

Arvydas:Yeah. So all of them are controlled separately and they are all just running through different well animations as they call them, but each of them can be addressed separately, and if you have more of them you can control any of those, so you can one notification for an email, another notification for well, temperature, like it is going to be hot outside so I probably should take a coat, it is going to be hot, outside, so if it bothers you so don’t take a coat, and that could be represented by a red light from BlinkStick that picks the information from a web well, from a web based service.

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Add USB LED Notifications To Your PC With Just a Bit of Soldering (Video)

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  • Name (Score:3, Funny)

    by reikae (80981) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @04:35PM (#45612897)

    I said his name five times fast, nothing happened. Should I do it in front of a mirror?

    • Spin around three times, widdershin, while standing in front of the mirror. It may help if there happens to be a Satanic mass in progress - or not. YMMV

    • Ar-vee-duhs You-skah-vitch-ee-us. Why not try a hard name like Alison Palin's son?

      The name is Lithuanian; Because the first and last name's endings match each other, almost definitely Arvydas was Lithuanian born. Also, that c should be a che, a c with a little carrot over it.

      If you want something that is really hard to say, try saying six geese with six goslings: sheshyos zhasheese su sheshiyays zhashy-yukiaise

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Nice work, dice holdings, you are continuously degrading /.

    • by danceswithtrees (968154) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @04:53PM (#45613137)

      I was thinking pretty much the same. This is a computer controlled, USB RGB LED (triplet of TLAs!). You can get a Tiva Launchpad from TI preassembled with RGB LED (surprisingly bright BTW) for $13 including shipping. The 15 GBP is about $25 and 10 GBP is $16 in comparison-- I don't know if shipping included in price. Granted the Blinkstick is in a smaller form factor that plugs in directly but the Launchpad has a ARM Cortex processor, GPIO, ADC, UART, USB, etc on it which you can use for other things should you tire of the notification light thing.

      • This is a computer controlled, USB RGB LED (triplet of TLAs!).

        Not only that, the PCB seems to be almost entirely PTH instead of SMT - perfect for the DIY market!

    • by zAPPzAPP (1207370)

      Hey, my first project with a microprocessor was also to make an LED blink.
      This guy is off to a good start!

  • More fun to grab an Arduino and a small alphanumeric LCD to read out statuses to you, I say. :P
  • Design (Score:5, Interesting)

    by benjfowler (239527) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @04:43PM (#45613007)

    Impressively tiny device. Had no idea that it was possible to build a device that interfaces to USB in so few components (it does USB in software on a tiny microcontroller, and the firmware is around 1kb in size...)

    The instructions look easier than falling off a log.

    Question for anybody who knows: would it be possible to generalize this design to drive an array, of -- say -- 10 or 20 RGB LEDs ? This would be a lot more useful for me, as then, I could rig my server case with a string of LEDs to tell the status of all my hard drives, network, load (amongst other things).

    • With arduino and a shield yes
      http://jimmieprodgers.com/kits/lolshield [jimmieprodgers.com]
      https://www.sparkfun.com/products/683 [sparkfun.com]

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Did you not see the USB hub that he was using with different notifications?

      • I did.

        I'm not sure if daisy-chaining a bunch of USB hubs to get a few LEDs going is necessarily the most elegant way of solving this problem though.

    • I recommend that you link a couple million LEDs, just in case you need more info. But if you do that, the USB port might not be happy, so you should fall back on the displayport one instead, since it's about the same size.
      I've got that thing with a big LED or laser for you to plug into the USB in the meantime, you can use it to rest your hand.

    • would it be possible to generalize this design to drive an array, of -- say -- 10 or 20 RGB LEDs ?

      Sure. Addressable LED strings [adafruit.com] are cheap, and widely used for annoying blinking holiday decorations. If you don't want to solder, here's an assembled USB light string controller. [amazon.com]

    • Brian Schmalz has a USB controlled "bit-banging" dev board called the Bit-Whacker. It has 78 IO pins! You can pick one up for $40 at Sparkfun (https://www.sparkfun.com/products/9713).

    • by Anonymous Coward

      ... which is something like http://www.ck3.co.uk/minimus-32-avr-atmel-atmega32u2-usb-dev-board.html, which does USB in hardware, has 2 LEDs already on board and only costs £6.00, or as little as £3.50 if you buy in bulk. Plus you can emulate pretty much any USB device you want - I've used one to drive a whole set of RGB LEDs by mimicking a MIDI output device and mapping notes to colours.

      £15 quid for a single LED driven by an inappropriate microcontroller? About the dumbest thing I've heard

      • This is JUST the ticket. Awesome, thanks!

      • by mirix (1649853)

        Yep, the AVRs with hardware USB, like the 32U2, coupled with the lovely open source LUFA usb library, make it painfully easy. I like to make things show up as serial ports.

        Though these days I've been using ARM cortex M3 (STM32) with the GPL libopencm3, as the tiny stm32's with hardware USB are cheaper and have more, well, everything. Kind overkill for blinking a couple LEDs, though.

        Anyone paying $15 for $2 of parts is a sucker. Seems to be a lot of suckers in the DIY crowd, these days.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      Changing to a micro with more I/O pins would be possible, or better still adding an LED driver chip with shift register so you can have arbitrary length strings.

    • Had no idea that it was possible to build a device that interfaces to USB in so few components (it does USB in software on a tiny microcontroller, and the firmware is around 1kb in size...)

      That's the genius of USB really. Most early USB devices probably had a Serial Interface engine in hardware and a few hundred bytes of firmware written in assembler in flash or masked prom.

      This device is actually quite high end

      http://www.atmel.com/devices/attiny85.aspx [atmel.com]

      http://www.atmel.com/Images/Atmel-2586-AVR-8-bit-Microcontroller-ATtiny25-ATtiny45-ATtiny85_Datasheet.pdf [atmel.com]

      You've got 8KB of flash. You can program it in C and you get a USB driver.

      http://www.blinkstick.com/help/firmware [blinkstick.com]

      Looking at the firmware ma

    • by thegarbz (1787294)

      How many components? All you need for USB communication is to get the line levels right (mostly through the use of external resistors and diodes), and have a micro-controller capable of talking at speeds fast enough that the computer doesn't think the device dropped off. USB1.1 is very easy to emulate in software on most microcontrollers 12MHz or greater.

      Microcontrollers with hardware USB controllers built into them start at around $2 and have the clamping taken care of so only 2 resistors are needed to get

    • Re:Design (Score:4, Interesting)

      by viperidaenz (2515578) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @09:40PM (#45615315)

      You don't need any microcontroller to do this.
      Attach an FTDI FT232 chip to the USB port and although its designed an a USB to UART chip it can be configured for GPIO.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      That sounds silly. You can "do USB" in a single chip much simpler than a microcontroller. Probably faster and more reliable too.

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Here you go http://www.obdev.at/products/vusb/index.html [obdev.at]
      vusb is a USB stack for the AVR line of chips. They even have a diagram of how to wire it up. You could also just use any number of micros that come with a USB interface.
      As to the number of parts needed to blink an LED using the USB port... You could do it really simply with this http://www.ftdichip.com/Products/ICs/FT232R.htm [ftdichip.com]

  • I've got an iMac... and to add insult to injury, Growl got installed somehow.
  • Blink(1) [thingm.com]
    I'm all for people building things, but if you just want a polished notification LED for your computer, go to the original creators.
    • by bobbied (2522392)
      How about going for simple and cheap... Write a program that pops a dialog box on your screen when you need to be notified about something..
      • Actually this little device solves a problem we are having with our new, stupider, Electronic Health Record. The old one would tell lab and xray that a stat order was up by triggering the speaker (lab has it set to the Star Trek Klaxxon sound which gets a tad old, but it's their department). This could just light up at the central computer on a trigger.

        You would be surprised how useful stupid things like this can be. Yeah, I can rig an Arduno to do this, but I'm kinda time contstrainted. I can solder th

        • by ceoyoyo (59147)

          You'd have to write software to make the light blink, and since it's hardware you'd have to deal with a driver of some sort. I would be much easier for you to just write software that plays a sound over the speakers.

        • I can ... whack on the keyboard for an hour

          Not on the hospital's time, pal.

    • by ssam (2723487)

      I have wanted a blink(1) for a while, but the price is very high for what it is. Then add in shipping to the UK, import tax and handling fees.

      BlinkStick is cheaper, though you loose the nice plastic enclosure.

  • Quaint (Score:4, Funny)

    by mugnyte (203225) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @05:12PM (#45613353) Journal

    Next up, a circuit to ring a bell when someone calls your phone.

  • Arr-VEE-dus You-SKAY-vee-chews. Not that difficult to repeat five times in a row even after a 10% Belgian quadrupel. What's the prize?
    • by Bucc5062 (856482)

      I had to take a moment and look this up Quadrupel [wikipedia.org] as I had no idea what that was when I read it.

      You can say that name 5 times after one of those? I tip my hat sir, well done. Now where can I find that fine brew, is my question.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So someone does something a bit cool and the first thing Slashdot can do is take the piss of his his foreign name.

    • by NoMaster (142776)

      "So someone gets a slashvertisment on the front page and the first thing Slashdot can do is take the piss of his his foreign name."

      FTFY.

      SMD (If you can solder DIL & through hole parts you can solder SOIC & 1206 surface mount) would make that thing 1/3 of the size, allow you to have 3 (e.g. red, yellow, & green) or more LEDs, and might make it worth the asking price.

      Or, for the same price or less, you could build a USB 2x16 or 2x20 LCD display.

    • So someone does something a bit cool and the first thing Slashdot can do is take the piss of his his foreign name.

      I though it was kind of rude too.

  • by GrangerX (1959200) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @05:45PM (#45613673)

    I made a top-of-the-cubicle LED indicator using Devcon.exe and a Microsoft Mouse that happened to glow red when it was receiving USB power once.

    I basically had devcon.exe 'enable' the mouse when it was ready to indicate something and 'disable' it otherwise.

    Worked reasonably well, but that was back before I got all the notifications on the smartphone anyway.

    • Not digging this device, and especially not the Arduino fans trying to pimp an even more expensive variation. I'm all for kit electronics, but e-mail / smartphone notifications are the way to go for computer notifications remotely. And the comms down argument against fails if you setup some form of heartbeat system. As for the Arduino is the bestest crowd... ummm, your community is already well aware of how to wire in notification LEDs to the kit.
      • I'm all for kit electronics, but e-mail / smartphone notifications are the way to go for computer notifications remotely.

        Everyone is not you. There are plenty of reasons not to have your phone connected 24/7. For that matter, there are plenty of people who don't own smart enough phones.

    • Ha! Pretty clever actually. That has the additional benefit that the USB device is not using any power as it is turned completely off.
  • by HoldenCaulfield (25660) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @06:08PM (#45613901) Journal

    There was a kickstarter, blink(1) a little over a year ago that did the same thing - http://stackexchange.com/leagues/1/year/stackoverflow/2013-01-01/759517#759517 [stackexchange.com] (and in a nicer package).

    I wanted something similar (visual cues for meeting reminders; my "email" system is on a KVM with other "dev" systems). I ended up getting the Dream Cheeky 815 USB Webmail Notifier (http://www.dreamcheeky.com/webmail-notifier) - the thing is designed for email notifications with webmail, but there's an Apache License 2.0 driver and helper app (http://dreamcheekyusb.codeplex.com/), which worked fine to drive the thing - the little command line app that uses the driver had enough functionality (gradual on, color change, and blink) that I didn't need to write any real code.

    A little macro scripting, and it was working fine with Outlook.

    A little bigger that the other solutions, so maybe not great for a rack (though it's probably about 1U so it would work fine), but works nice sitting on my desk under my displays . . .

  • How about something similar that perhaps goes into the headphones jack of a cell phone to add LED notification to THAT?

    Blackberry got it right and while a smattering of other phones include notification LEDs, it's very rare. If such a device could be powered through the headphone jack (no idea if there's enough current... IANAEE) and a little helper application for Android/iOS was written, I'd spend big bucks for such an add-on.
    • How about something similar that perhaps goes into the headphones jack of a cell phone to add LED notification to THAT?

      Blackberry got it right and while a smattering of other phones include notification LEDs, it's very rare.

      Nexus One, Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, Nexus 5, Galaxy SIII, S4 are popular phones that include it.

      • Nexus One, Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, Nexus 5, Galaxy SIII, S4 are popular phones that include it.

        Right. So almost none, which was my point. Galaxy Note series, and pretty much every other phone on the market that isn't a Blackberry doesn't. Brand new releases don't, showing that it's not just some magic innovation that needed time to be discovered.

        I'm convinced Blackberry owns some patents on notification LEDs and other manufacturers can't generally be bothered to license them.

  • by VortexCortex (1117377) <VortexCortex@@@project-retrograde...com> on Thursday December 05, 2013 @06:23PM (#45614009)

    Modern connection interfaces are complex enough that you need an IC to negotiate a connection before you can even get a LED blinking. Today's systems aren't exactly designed for hobbyists to build things.

    Get an old beige box. You can solder a resistor and LED to the DTR pin of a serial port, and program it with a couple lines of assembly -- Oop, nope. The modern OSs aren't really designed for hobbyists to build things either. You'll be learning how to write a kernel driver for your OS if you use Linux. This is why I still use and make small DOS-esque OSs -- It's quite easy using BIOS interrupts. Also, you can still install DOS on nearly all x86-64 systems...

    Data Terminal Ready is just one pin, but with it and the RxD / TxD pins you can build a simple lock-step electronic coms project on a serial port -- So you don't have to implement the whole RS232 chipset just to do a little manual IO. Parallel ports have many more such pins to play with, and don't require serialization either. That's why I teach kids to make robotics with DOS like OSs on my spare "junk" -- Because it's so much faster, cheaper, and easier than with USB, or even RS232 serializing and deserializing state -- Save that for when they get a bit more skilled. There's something almost magical to watching bits flip in memory by making and breaking electrical contacts; Folks immediately start thinking up ways to use such a thing. It's fun watching the scales fall from their eyes as kids realize computers aren't impenetrable black boxes full of voodoo. It's kind of funny that you have to buy a kit with ICs to make more transparent the interface provided by making and breaking pins on older hardware.

    In my experience, once you get past a couple of LEDs or controlling higher voltage switches via contactors, etc. the next stop usually isn't a notification app for your system -- It's a breadboard full of gizmos, or using your PC to control your other gadgets.

    Eg: Readers who liked TFA also liked LIRC. [lirc.org]
    (swap the LED with IR-LED, and control your home theater setup)

    • You can also use a serial/parallel port USB adapter to achieve this on a modern PC.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Agreed to the title and the first paragraph.

      I once needed a way to create a sound that would not go thru the soundcard (and the attached headphone).

      The solution was to connect a piezo-buzzer in series with a capacitor to the TXD of a serial port. Set the baudrate to twice the desired frequency, send a couple of 0x55s and presto.

      Yep, having "dumb" hardware available does make life easier.

  • by pubwvj (1045960) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @06:49PM (#45614257)

    Is this a Windoze problem?

    Macs already have this functionality built in to notifications.

  • When watching science fiction made a few decades ago, one thing that bothered me was that the technology had a lot of fancy LEDs/bulbs that flashed but apparently did nothing else.

    See any console on the original Star Trek, or Al's handheld during the first season of Quantum Leap.

    But now it makes total sense. They were notification LEDs! Notifying about EVERYTHING!

    • by istartedi (132515) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @08:39PM (#45614993) Journal

      That's my thought. If I've got time and money to burn, and I'm going to fire up the soldering iron, I want a wall full of blinking lights that signify... ummm... that the FUTURE has arrived. Yes, see? That green one there? It means we're in the future. The red one? When it starts blinking, you're time is running out...

      It's funny that this should come up because just now I was in a fast food Chinese place by myself. I was watching people, and there were these two middle-school aged kids with smart phone splaying games or something. I was thinking, these kids have never known a time when tiny little computers were not everywhere. When I was a kid, we thought a home computer would be a wall full of blinking lights.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I've used inexpensive USB email notification devices for applications like this. They're cheap, have a bright RGB LED inside, and the protocol has been reverse-engineered already. Here's a $8 device with free shipping that includes both a controllable LED and a USB hub. That's tough to beat for the money.

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/4-Port-HUB-USB2-0-Webmail-E-mail-Notifier-for-PC-Laptop-/360683701882?pt=US_USB_Cables_Hubs_Adapters&hash=item53fa6c867a

    These are easy to setup under Linux to indicate whatever y

  • by grouchomarxist (127479) on Friday December 06, 2013 @01:29AM (#45616465)

    Thingm [thingm.com] has a similar series of products called blink(1) [thingm.com]. It runs for about $30, but it is not widely available now. They recently finished . [kickstarter.com]

  • Considering how small Bluetooth [amazon.co.uk] adapters can be, this is a little on the chunky side.

  • And the transformation of your desktop into a dumb "smart" phone is complete!

    Now that your screen is dominated by huge "apps", I guess you need someplace for notifications ...

  • by bobjr94 (1120555) on Friday December 06, 2013 @10:53AM (#45619001) Homepage
    I remember back in the old days, maybe before 1996 or so, hard drives each had their own led header pins. I had 3 or 4 drives in my computer with 3 or 4 hdd led's in my front panel. No real purpose, just liked them, much like these. By the late 90's none of the drives came with them anymore, sad days, just one motherboard driven light for all the drives.

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