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Hardware Hacking United Kingdom

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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  • Design (Score:5, Interesting)

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

  • by GrangerX (1959200) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @06:45PM (#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.

  • by istartedi (132515) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @09:39PM (#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.

  • Re:Design (Score:4, Interesting)

    by viperidaenz (2515578) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @10:40PM (#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.

  • Re:Design (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Hal_Porter (817932) on Friday December 06, 2013 @08:24AM (#45617571)

    Actually if you fig a bit deeper there is something interesting about this project. Look at the USB stack - it's all done in software using GPIO pins! Very clever. There's a company that wrote the USB stack. You can get it GPL licensed for free or you can pay for a BSD license, but they start real cheap

    http://www.obdev.at/products/vusb/license.html [obdev.at]

    They've got a load of projects too

    http://www.obdev.at/products/vusb/prjobdev.html [obdev.at]

    If you go above 10,000 units you probably pay more but by that point you can afford it.

    Very interesting mix of clever code and a well thought out business model I think.

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