Author Archives: Lori Crotser

Enginursday: A Raspberry Pi-based Magic Mirror

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

I don't know about anyone else, but after however many weeks in quarantine, I started losing track of time. We missed trash day, online class meetings and grocery pickups, because none of us knew what day it was. My husband made an off-hand comment that we needed a "battle station," I happened to have a Raspberry Pi in my hand, and...


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We love us some open source here at SparkFun, and I wanted this project to fit into our ethos. Enter Magic Mirror, an open source, Raspberry Pi-based smart mirror platform perfect for what I have in mind. It has a bunch of ready-made modules, and an ongoing list of third-party modules you can incorporate.

Phase one encompasses getting set up and the basics displayed. To get started, I plugged in my Raspberry Pi 3B+, added a screen and a wireless keyboard and mouse, and updated my Raspbian image to the latest via this tutorial.

Once I had Raspbian installed, I brought up a terminal on the Pi desktop and installed Magic Mirror. Their website has some great documentation for walking you through the process.

Right off the bat I had a date and the weather. After some futzing about, I was able to install a third-party module for my Google calendars and set those up front and center. I also found modules for the Word of the Day (because learning) and drink recipes (because it's five o'clock somewhere).

So this is the screen that now greets me when I sit down to drink my morning coffee:

phase 1

Getting this up and running was actually fairly simple. I had to poke through the forums a bit on a couple of things, but otherwise I am quite pleased with this initial pass. Phase two will likely involve a more complicated layout with calendar customization, Google to-do tasks listed, and possibly the "mirror" part of the Magic Mirror.

What projects are you doing to keep yourself on top of things? Let us know in the comments!

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Learning Outside the Box

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I started out at the front desk here at SparkFun. It was a much-needed break from my traditional job, and I actually really enjoyed talking to customers and finding out what they do with our products.

I once had an extensive conversation with a fellow who was using our pressure-sensing fabric to identify pressure points for leg amputees to try to help alleviate "phantom limb" aches and pains. When I asked him who he worked for, he leaned down for a sec, and then put his prosthetic leg on the counter and said, "ME!" That encounter stuck with me - not only was the subject fascinating, but it also made me really think about human ingenuity and how we learn.

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Another encounter that stuck with me was a phone call I got - a high school senior called in and asked me what his college major should be if he wanted to work at SparkFun. That gave me pause. The obvious answer is electrical engineering, but thinking about my compatriots here - we have degrees and experiences that run the gamut.

Personally, my degree is in molecular biology/biochemistry, but I worked in software and dev-ops for the majority of my career. We have a guy who has a degree in psychology and was a mental health worker, a beekeeper and a social worker before coming to SparkFun. We have degrees in Physics, English Literature, Mechanical Engineering, Communications and Welding.

The point (which is what I told the kid on the phone) is that it really doesn't matter what you go to school for. What matters is that you know how to learn and have the self-discipline to teach yourself whatever it is that fascinates you.

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With all of us socially distancing ourselves and many of us trying to homeschool our kids while still doing our own jobs, it occurred to me that now is an ideal time for my kids (and myself) to learn things a bit more outside of our usual routines.

If you're on the same page, have a look at some of our educational content. Our pillar pages have topics like What is Electricity? in our Engineering Essentials section, All About LEDs (because seriously, who doesn't like to light things up), and Building a GPS System.

We also have a bunch of fun tutorials and ideas, both in our blog posts and our actual tutorials. Check out the Lego Wall-E Hack, Bobby's super fun LED and light painting posts, the newly updated micro:bot, and Pete's super awesome Secure DIY Garage Door Opener, which IEEE just published!

Have fun, learn something new, and happy hacking!

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Get your Kiddos Programming with Minecraft, Python and the Raspberry Pi

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Ever heard of Minecraft? It is ALL the rage with the youth of today. My boys discovered the game while playing with a Raspberry Pi about three years ago and they were hooked. Who would've thought with all the advances in graphics displays, it would be the 8-bit-ish block building game that would capture my children's imagination so completely?

Knowing our love of the game, the talented and lovely Angela Sheehan gave me a book titled Learn to Program with Minecraft. I gave it to my boys, fully expecting to see it sitting dusty on a shelf. I was SO wrong.

They read it in the bathroom. They read it LONG after their "lights out" bedtime. A month or so ago, they woke me up at 5 a.m. hurling Python commands at each other. I hadn't paid much attention until the 5 a.m. wakeup call, but this gave me pause: my nine-year-old children are coding. Even better, they taught themselves and they're having a blast doing it. Wanna get your kiddos into programming? This is the way to do it.

image of minecraft book and screen and keyboard next to it

My current setup includes the TouchScreen, SmartPi Touch Case, and the Wireless Keyboard. Look how fancy!

The Raspberry Pi is almost plug-and-play. If you have an old monitor, keyboard and mouse lying around, you can get the Noobs card and it will walk you through the steps of getting your Pi's operating system set up. Minecraft comes with Raspbian, which is the operating system you'll install. We have some great tutorials on getting set up with the Raspberry Pi - check out the How to Use Remote Desktop on the Raspberry Pi with VNC tutorial and/or the Headless Raspberry Pi Setup.

The "Learn to Program with Minecraft" book also has step-by-step instructions for getting your Windows/Mac/Raspberry Pi set up. The first couple chapters of this book get you up to speed and coding almost right away. One of the first things you do in this game is create a house, especially if you're playing in Survival Mode (the Pi version is Creative Mode) - because once night falls in Minecraft, the creepers come out and they can GET you. Chapter one gets you set up to play, and chapter two teaches you syntax, variables, and helps you create a quick structure with a script. Check it out...

image of basic house

Click the image for a closer view

It doesn't look like much, but it is the basis for a whole world of opportunity. Go a little further with that basic script and you've got a CASTLE. With moats! And turrets! Check out Matt Hawkins' post here that provides a script to build yourself a castle.

Image of Castle

Click the image for a closer view

Here's a bit of the Python code that built this castle. It looks intense, but most of this type of thing is covered in the book. Also - LOTS of comments. So great.

A bit of the python code to build a castle

I love the reference material, as well as the way coding is explained - straightforward, colorful and fun. Aside from a few "how do you say this" and "what does this mean" questions, the kids were able to follow along no problem.

Block ID cheat appendix

while-else statements and a game

This is just the tip of the iceberg. As my kiddos like to tell me, what you can build in Minecraft is really only limited by your imagination and the amount of time your parents allow you to play. I like that they are being creative AND learning to code at the same time. Win-win.

Do you have a Pi? How do you get your littles coding? Let us know!

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3D Printed Harry Potter Talking Head

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Have you looked at our new product carousel lately? We have so much going on, it would be easy to miss all the LulzBot loveliness that we just added. We here at SparkFun lurrrrrv our 3D printers AND we get to test out all the new fangled filaments and printers before we ship them off to you.

It was recently made clear to me that I needed a new car. My kids initially asked me if I could get the double-decker purple Knight Bus like the one in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But... no. Then they asked if we could at least get the talking shrunken head that drives around with Ernie and Stan in the Knight Bus.

And so, project time! If you've seen my posts in the past, you know that my house is ALL the Harry Potter things. My children are obsessed and thanks to SparkFun, I get to beta test the new LulzBot filaments and printers, AND I get to be "best Mom evarrrrrrr" when I do projects like this.

So I set off to test some of the new LulzBot filaments we carry.

image of LulzBot filaments and 3D heads

The first and third are new filaments that we now carry (nGen and Chromastrand). The second and fourth I just happened to already have in my arsenal. For this project, I ended up using the farthest one on the right - the print turned out the best and the internal supports were the easiest to remove. We tried to paint him up to match the little dude in the movie, but as it turns out, rotting flesh is a really hard color scheme to match. Nonetheless, VOILA!

Dre Head Photo 1

How to make him talk when we drive? I Qwiic-lined the SamD51 Thing Plus, the Qwiic MMA8452Q Triple Axis Accelerometer and the SparkFun Qwiic MP3 Trigger, and popped on our 0.5 Watt Speaker. It's run off an 850mAh LiPo that's been split with a SPST button so that I have an on/off switch.

Dre Head with Boards

The 3D model is from Thingiverse - I printed it on our LulzBot Taz 6 with ABS filament in high detail with minimal supports. It took me a while to clear those supports out to my satisfaction, but when I was done, I had a nice empty shrunken head to shove electronics into. I also drilled a few holes to mount the accelerometer, since that part needed to be calibrated. The rest is arts and crafts.

Accelerometer mounted inside the head

I used the MMA8452Q Hookup Guide examples to get started. Calibration took a little sorting out - I found that with the way I mounted the accelerometer in the head, I really only had to deal with two axes instead of three, which was nice. When the accelerometer detected coordinates within a specific range, we'd kick over to the MP3 trigger code and call playFile(fileNumber). All the MP3s are based on the movie - except when we stop too fast he yells, "I hope you step on a Lego!" So fun.

Always with the magic at our house. What magic have you created? Have you used SparkFun parts in projects with your kiddos? Let us know in the comments!

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Sparking the Fun

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

A year or so ago, we had a couple of guys from LEGO visit SparkFun. I'll admit, I fangirled a bit. Okay, maybe a lot. I have always loved LEGOs; I've always loved pulling things apart and rebuilding them to see how they work. LEGOs have that "new" factor - the fun of the build, the satisfaction when it's done - and the "Ooo - how can we hack this" is the cherry on top. Plus, the latest kits are SO COOL. My birthday is coming up, if anyone wants to buy me either that Hogwarts Castle or Great Hall kit... just sayin'.

I recently posted my hack of Wall-E - adding a serial controlled motor driver and our gamer:bit with a couple of micro:bits to drive him around. I struggled to find adapters that would fit between my hobby motors and my LEGO axles. I even tried 3D printing them but couldn't get the precision I wanted. Eventually, I had to go third-party to find the adapters I needed, and I complained bitterly to management about this.

What did SparkFun do? They went out and sourced a bunch of adapter samples and handed me a bunch of other cool stuff to play with. For real - check this out:

Photo of Kits

So now I am sitting at my desk, in the process of stress-testing LEGO adapters with a really goofy grin on my face. I'm also building a monster truck to test out some robotics wheels we've got coming up in a few weeks (they drive sideways)!

photo of adapters

I bring this up to point out that a) SparkFun is awesome (you all knew that), and b) we have some really neat things coming up in our catalog. If you've missed some of our recent changes, check out our Artemis SparkX line, which includes an RF module, voice recognition, BLE and a bunch of other functionality packed into a 10x15mm board.

We've incorporated the Artemis board into a number of familiar Arduino footprints (have a look at the BlackBoard, Nano or ATP), but it's also available on its own so you can incorporate it into your own project. We're also constantly expanding our Qwiic line, which are essentially plug-and-play sensors and boards that make project automation a breeze. We've got a bunch of other neat things in the works (hopefully even more LEGO and robotics fun) - and if I can swing it, you should see those LEGO axle adapters on our new product carousel.

I know I'm not the only LEGO nerd out there - tell us about your projects, your hacks and what you could use for your projects!

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Open Discussion: Puttin’ on the Fritz

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Show of hands - anyone use Fritzing? I do, and I have a feeling I'm about to open a can of worms. The discussion must be had, however, so let's dive in, shall we? If you aren't familiar with Fritzing, swing on by Fritzing.org and have a poke-see around. There's plenty of functionality - you can layout, prototype, teach and manufacture custom PCBs as well.

Like most applications, Fritzing has definitive pros and cons. At SparkFun, we use Fritzing diagrams in our SIK kits, tutorials, hookup guides and workshops - it's a great tool to show quickly and cleanly how we have hooked something up. Let's look at an example from the SparkFun Inventor's Kit:


Circuit 2B: Digital Trumpet Fritzing Diagram from Circuit 2B: Digital Trumpet

Easier, right? Basically, we use Fritzing as a "gateway drug" to get beginners and hobbyists involved in electronics. That said, it can be extremely non-intuitive to work with. For us, creation of new parts requires a fair amount of manual massage, and it's not easy to deliver our parts to the public at large.

While Fritzing is open source, not much has happened with application development in recent years. In the last couple months there has been discussion about reviving development on the Fritzing application, but I haven't been able to ascertain a clear direction for said development. If you have a bit, the video is worth a watch. Patrick Franken does a good job of acknowledging the benefits/scope of limitations, as well as discussing the current and future development (or lack thereof). On the upshot, it IS open source, so we can all contribute. If you want to have a look at or add to the development discussion, head on over to the Fritzing GitHub.

Since our use-case here at SparkFun is fairly specific, our view of Fritzing is naturally going to be somewhat myopic. We are always striving for better ways to get people involved and excited about electronics, and my goal in opening up this discussion is to find out what is most helpful to the community at large.

So now the real questions begin. How do you use Fritzing? Are there alternatives you find helpful when teaching others how to hook up their projects? What do you find most helpful about Fritzing, vs. what you would like to see changed in how we present hookup designs?

Constructive comments here are great (no flame wars please) and if you'd like to be further involved in the discussion, feel free to head on over to our newly revamped forums.

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