Author Archives: Lori Crotser

Expecto Patronum!

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Anyone with littles knows that nightmares are a thing. And when littles don’t sleep, parents don’t sleep. I like my sleep. Therefore, in keeping with the Harry Potter theme we have going, I made nightlights that will protect and hopefully allow everyone to sleep through the night. Muggles, read no further. Everyone else…

Expecto Patronum!

Songbird Patronus

If you don’t know what a patronus is, go read Harry Potter. Seriously. But to make a long story short, a patronus is a protective guardian (usually an animal) that is conjured to repel depression, sadness and soul-sucking misery. And hopefully nightmares. When I asked my littles what they thought their patronuses were, I got a songbird and an eagle. I can work with that!

My first step was to raster an image onto acrylic that would light up and look like a patronus. My initial attempts failed miserably. We have an Epilog 75W laser and Adobe Illustrator and after multiple iterations, I found that raster quality really begins with image quality. After some fun Gimp editing, I retried my rastering with Floyd Steinberg dithering, 600 dpi, 100 percent speed and 40 percent power.


Rastered Songbird Patronus and the Patronus Mist

Our rastered songbird patronus and the patronus mist

The next step was to play with LEDs. I had a 5V ProMini laying around, with an FTDI breakout and a strand of high-density LEDs sitting in a drawer. Let’s use up those supplies, eh?

I wanted the “mist” background to fade in and out, so I set up groups of pins in different structs and assigned those pins to various colors using HSV with the FastLED library. Then it was just a matter of setting up the groups to fade in and out at different rates, times and within specific brightness parameters. I soldered a junction to the LED strip and set the next set of LEDs for the patronus itself, so the bird would have a higher brightness range.

Static image of bird and patronus mist lit up in blues

The box was designed using MakerCase, and I added slots for the acrylic panels as well as cutouts for the power cable and the On/Off switch. Since I wanted the LEDs to sit right underneath the acrylic panels, I also designed an interior box for them to sit on (the adhesive tape on the back of the LED strips is awesome).


Assembled Hardware

All in all, a fun, quick little project. I have yet to try this out in its natural habitat - stay tuned to find out if this actually helps the kiddos sleep through the night. When I have more time, I’d like to pull the Mini and use an ESP32Thing instead. I’d like to integrate this with my previous post and make the Harry Potter room run entirely off “magic.”

Have you done any fun kiddo projects? Show us in the comments (bonus points for anything Harry Potter-themed)!

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Making Magic with EasyVR

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Magic has taken over my house. We have been reading the Harry Potter series, watching the movies, and my children have been repeatedly banished to their bedrooms for dueling with inappropriate curses.

Enter the holiday season and Enginursday. I wanted a quick project I could build for my kiddos and make it seem like the magic is actually happening. Since we needed new bedside lamps for reading, I decided we needed them to turn on and off with wands.

While I foresee potential issues with giving them wands, my children definitely need a better way to battle (instead of using rulers, pencils, knives, or heirloom candlesticks) and really, I just want a reason to yell “You’ll shoot your eye out!”. Ahhh, holiday spirit.

Back to business. We have a lovely little shield in our catalog called the Easy VR3 which is a voice recognition module that has a fair number of built-in commands as well as the ability to program your own. It does require some assembly, but once you get through all the soldering, you can pop that sucker on an Arduino Uno and start coding.

The EasyVR3 has quite a bit of functionality, so the documentation is… comprehensive. I actually read through the manual, hunted down a few YouTube videos, and then re-read the manual. To make a rather long story short, I used EasyVR Commander to program in the sounds and commands I wanted, used a handy dandy button in EasyVR Commander to create an Arduino sketch (SO EASY), modified the Arduino sketch to do what I wanted when certain commands were uttered, and then uploaded the code to my Uno. Voila prototype:

single LED turning on, turning off

Okay, so one LED isn’t all that exciting. I need to attach this to a bedside lamp and make it work with the magic commands! In our catalog, we also have the IoT Power Relay, which is a great way to control 120V outlets from microcontrollers without zapping yourself into oblivion.

So all assembled:

Assembled IoT Relay with VR Shield and lit up wand

And it works!

Now for the wands… I seriously considered just using driftwood or sticks for the wands, but to quote my kids' favorite TV show, “Anything worth doing is worth over-doing” (I’m looking at you Steve Spangler). So I 3D printed the wands.

I found a sturdy design on Thingiverse and printed one up, but then decided they needed to be super extra. I modified the design on TinkerCad (yay free CAD) to have more space internally and added an LED, an accelerometer, and a small LiPo battery.

3D printed wand with super bright LED at tip

Every time the boys pick up their wands (from their also 3D printed wand stands) the light at the tip of the wand comes on and with a “Magic! Lumos!” their reading lamps come on as well. Yay magic!

I fully expect there will be multiple iterations of “magic” happening in our house but I’m pretty happy with the prototype. There have been great strides in voice recognition software since the Easy VR Shield and I’d love to dig into the Alexa or Google Home APIs. I’d also love to play with edge lighting (as Feldi does here) and have the design be a patronus. The kiddos have even more ideas - so many fun options!

Are there any other Harry Potter fans out there? Have you created projects with SparkFun parts? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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Enginursday: Disembodied Doll-Head Lamp

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While working with a board a while back, I noticed I was having trouble seeing what I was soldering. Once I had more light, it was smooth sailing, so the need for a lamp has been in the back of my mind for a while. I made myself a quick and dirty “lamp,” which was essentially our ultra-bright LEDs on the end of wires I could position in any direction I needed. As I used those lights more and more, I figured it was time to make something that would be less of a fire hazard.

One of the benefits/side effects/anomalies of working here at SparkFun is that we often have quite a few strange things just hanging around. On my desk I had some super-bright LEDs, a bunch of solid core wire and some doll heads. Doll heads? Yup. Doll heads. Stolen from small dolls. It’s a long story, but the nice thing about these doll heads is that they fit perfectly over the ultra-bright LEDs such that when I only need a couple of the LEDs, the others don’t blind me. With Halloween fast approaching, a project was born.

Tree lamp on the desk

Every single person who has seen this says, “creepy.” I think they’re adorable. Maybe a little creepy. But perfect for Halloween, no? The tree is 3D-printed ABS from a design on Thingiverse - I figured the Tree of the Dead from Sleepy Hollow was perfect for disembodied doll heads. I modified it on TinkerCad to have a hole through the center of it for the “branches” (we have a GREAT tutorial on editing in Tinkercad here). The base was then measured and I used MakerCase to download an SVG I could cut an acrylic box from.

Solderable breadboard with jumpers and resistors inside acrylic box

Just using the wires didn’t give me the positionability I wanted, so I wrapped the wires helically around armature wire for support; these were then colored and shrink wrapped. I used our Solderable Breadboard for the wiring with a rocker switch between the two power rails, and the jumper wire kit made the connections all pretty. (Seriously, can I just give a shout out to this jumper kit? It makes my little OCD heart happy.)

Individual LED lit up

Once I had everything soldered together, the tree went onto the box and I flipped the switch…

Lamp on, off gif

Soooooo… it’s an art project, but it is a useful one – the best kind. I can freak out my co-workers AND see what I’m doing when I’m soldering teeny tiny things together. Win! Many thanks to Feldi, Maya and Gella for their creative input!

What are your Halloween projects? How are you creeping out your neighbors and co-workers? Let us know in the comments!

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Enginursday: Unicornium

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So… let’s talk about the dearth of women in engineering. Generally speaking, there really aren’t a lot of us. Being one of that minority, I feel it incumbent upon me to get someone inspired, set a good example - that sort of thing. Alas, I have no daughters of my own but I have three amazingly beautiful and intelligent nieces that I am constantly trying to get involved in electronics. Perhaps I am a bit overenthusiastic, but with a little know-how and a lot of SparkFun you can make SO MANY COOL THINGS (cue evil laugh).

One of my darling little relatives LOVES unicorns (for real, who doesn’t?!) - so we decided to make light-up unicorn slippers, because LEDs. And unicorns. And warm toes. It is also a really, really simple project, which means the munchkin can help me put this together.

unicorn slippers with rainbow led mohawks

It starts with a RedStick, a skinny LED strip, a LiPo battery, and some basic soldering skills. The addressable LED strips have a wonderful hookup guide that we followed to make this happen. I soldered JST connectors onto our RedSticks, and attached silicone wire to pin 2 and the LED power supply pins. After that, the kiddo helped me out. We determined the “Rainbow Cycle” code was the prettiest (rainbows, YAY!) so we uploaded it to our RedStick. Then we attached wires and batteries to test!!

All together now: OOOOOH! AAAAAH!

gif of prototyped pretty rainbow LEDs

Once we decided we liked our setup, we went to work attaching the LED strips to the unicorns' mohawks and creating “saddle bags” for them to carry the LiPo batteries and RedSticks.

plush matching saddle bags that contain redstick and lipo battery

The back of the LED strips is peel-and-stick, so we attached them briefly that way and used fishing line to sew and secure. We cut the wires to fit the pockets with minimal overlay and then spliced the correct lines together and shrink-wrapped the connections to prevent shorts. We then plugged in the LiPo batteries and VOILA!

gif of dancing shoes

I love watching little faces light up when they complete a project! Have you done projects with your kiddos? Let us know in the comments!

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Enginursday: The Dug Collar

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It’s no secret that SparkFun loves dogs. Well-behaved mavens of the canine variety accompany us to our desks, force us to take healthy breaks from sitting, and inspire us to create ridiculous projects like this.

Like many people (maybe), I have often wished that our dogs could talk. As I was watching Disney’s Up for the umpteenth time, I thought, “I work at SparkFun and we can MAKE THIS HAPPEN.” So I put together a “Dug Collar.” It’s not the same as giving our pooches a true voice, but it’s pretty close. And it’s funny.

Meet Lucy. She is not my dog, but I wish she was. She is a therapy dog in training who visits SparkFun with me every Thursday, and has her own fan club. She may be the best dog ever. She is certainly patient.

Lucy the Golden Retriever

I originally prototyped this thing with a SparkFun FTDI Basic Breakout to program an Arduino 3.3V mini, a SparkX Qwiic MP3 trigger board, a couple of buttons, and our RFM69 radio modules. Easy enough but oh my gosh, the WIRES, y'all. Even without power it was unruly.

So many wires!

BUT THEN! SparkX to the rescue!

If you haven’t heard of SparkX, it is basically a tinkerer’s heaven. They get an idea, make it work, and then send it to market on a short run. It’s not polished and has little to no SparkFun support (i.e., don’t call tech support), but they make some seriously cool stuff. This time they created the SparkX Pro RF - RFM69 915MHz, which is basically a Pro Micro and an RFM69 module built into one, with a Qwiic connector port! And a JST connector for my LiPo battery! And a charging circuit! I need more exclamation points!

Look at the difference. SO much better.

Pro RF has so many fewer wires

Programming was straight forward. I mashed up the code examples for the Qwiic MP3 and the SparkX Pro RF and added a couple buttons to increment an internal counter to determine which track would play. I recorded and uploaded a few tracks that would be similar to what Dug/Lucy would say.

I think in future iterations I would make this shinier - probably add an OLED to see what increment I’m at and/or add hardware so I could talk to people (as Lucy) in real time instead of using pre-recorded clips. But for a quick (Qwiic, ha ha) and dirty project, this was good.

A note on safety: While this is a fun project, I would not recommend leaving a LiPo battery attached to a pet for any length of time. Lucy had great fun wearing this for short periods of time, but I immediately removed the collar when we were done. Keep your furry friend safe!

Have you used SparkX products? Have you done any projects for your pets? Tell us about them in the comments!

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Enginursday: LilyPad and Minecraft Heads

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It is widely acknowledged that children love Minecraft. They also tend to love things that glow. So why not combine these into a super-mega-happy-awesome project? Behold, the Enderman head:

Enderman Costume

Spawned from an overabundance of cardboard boxes, a few extraneous Pixel Boards, and some spray paint and fancy sewing, we now have a glowy-eyed Enderman head that brings all the neighborhood kids to the yard.

To make this project, I used the following:

LilyPad Arduino USB - ATmega32U4 Board

Lithium Ion Battery - 850mAh

Conductive Thread Bobbin - 12m (Smooth, Stainless Steel)

LilyPad Pixel Board


The LilyPad line has some pretty amazing documentation - I followed the LilyPad Pixel Board Hookup Guide to get my board and pixel boards all hooked up. There’s also a wishlist in this hookup guide that has pretty much everything you need!

LilyPad Pixel Board Hookup Guide

If you’ve never worked with e-textiles or the LilyPad line, I recommend starting here:

Getting Started With LilyPad

In addition to the hookup guide wishlist, you will also need the following:

  • A box that fits your child’s head (SparkFun boxes are PERFECT)
  • Some black foam board
  • Black spray paint
  • Glue, tape, or a glue gun
  • Two opaque acrylic rectangles
  • A child

For the box, we glued the top flaps shut for the painting and left the bottom open for ease of assembly. Once we were all painted up, we cut an appropriately sized hole out of the bottom for the head to fit through. We also measured about halfway down the box and cut holes for the acrylic eye plates. Keep in mind that you will need to cut another hole above these eye plates so your kiddo can see out of the box. Also - don’t mount those acrylic plates yet!

Box and foam board cutouts

Now for the fun stuff! The Pixel Boards, Arduino and LiPo battery are all mounted on a foam board strip inside the box head.

I cut the foam board strip a little longer than the box width to help with mounting. I centered it on the box and folded the ends back as flaps. Once it was folded and in place, I marked where I wanted the glowing eyes from the front of the box.

Once I knew where the Pixel Board eyes would go, I set about sewing the Pixel Boards as well as the Arduino to the foam board strip. I mounted the Arduino controller on the backside of the strip so that the lithium battery could also be mounted on the back of the strip. This makes for easy access to the on/off switch and for battery charging. Again, refer back to the tutorials listed above if you have never worked with conductive thread.

Foam Strip with Arduino and Pixel boards

After verifying that the circuits were working and my Pixel Boards glowed a beautiful purple color, it was time to mount everything!

Start with the acrylic plates. I just used clear tape on the inside of the box to affix these guys into place. I also used spacers - three sets of them - to offset and stabilize the foam strip carrying the Pixel Boards. I used the same foam board (four thick) and my trusty glue gun to fix these into place. I then glued the Pixel Board flaps into place and switched it on.

Box Interior Lit up

A few notes:

  • Before sewing the circuits, I used a ballpoint pen to draw the connection lines on my foam strip to ensure connections would be made appropriately and that there would be no shorts. I also used the needle to poke holes along those circuit lines so that the actual sewing would be easier.

  • After sewing the circuits, I used a glue gun to seal the loose ends to the foam board. This prevents shorts from happening!

  • While I used clear packing tape to set both the acrylic eye plates as well as the battery in place, I used a glue gun to secure the foam board spacers as well as the Arduino and the flaps of the Pixel Board strip.

  • We ended up using black yarn to sew a baseball cap into the interior of the box (which was no small feat) to keep the box from sliding around on the kiddo’s head. We also ended up cutting an eye slot above the glowing eyes and putting a black mesh on the inside of it to keep his face obscured.

We had a great time making this project and it was a great way to get a kiddo involved and learning about circuits! What projects have you made with LilyPad? Let us know in the comments!

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