Side project – Mallards Fast Pitch

June 20, 2015 Posted by bob in Building | Personal Projects - (Comments Off on Side project – Mallards Fast Pitch)

My hackerspace Sector67 was approached this winter with a problem; the local minor league baseball stadium (Madison Mallards) fast pitch sign was old and no longer working, and they wanted some help fixing it up. In exchange for our expertise, they promised significant advertising and publicity, and they would have us be special guests at a ‘maker’ day during the season.

For the impatient, here’s the finished product:


We took them up on the offer and had a field trip to the stadium to see what was already there. There are two main parts to this project. First, there’s the sign itself. Second, there’s the press box, where the radar gun and the sign controller sit. The previous method was to have the person running the scoreboard watch the radar gun and type the speed onto a controller. There was no accounting for the angle of the radar gun, and it required a person to act as the middle man. They wanted to automate this part of the process. With the sign, they wanted it to work again. After seeing their existing setup, it didn’t take long for us to decide they needed an upgrade and we would start from scratch.

The sign in right field. Doesn't look very big from this shot, but it's legible from the far side of the stands.

The sign in right field. Doesn’t look very big from this shot, but it’s legible from the far side of the stands.

Up close you can see it's a bunch of incandescent bulbs. They're not even covered! I wouldn't want to run into that sign while catching a ball.

Up close you can see it’s a bunch of incandescent bulbs. They’re not even covered! I wouldn’t want to run into that sign while catching a ball.

The electronics controlling the sign. This is basic and ancient stuff here.

The electronics controlling the sign. This is basic and ancient stuff here.

Up in the press box, this is what controls the sign.

Up in the press box, this is what controls the sign.

This is the radar gun. They have to charge up the battery (the handle) before every game. This is a pain.

This is the radar gun. They have to charge up the battery (the handle) before every game. This is a pain.

The stadium let us borrow the radar gun, the only part of the process we intended to keep. Reverse engineering it wasn’t too bad. We were able to find a manual and figure out that the three pins coming out into the handle were two for the battery and one for a serial signal. Once we connected to this signal, it was trivial to decipher it (9600 baud ASCII text). We designed a 3D printed part that would take the place of the handle and supply power to the radar gun as well as grab the serial signal.


Yes, those are nails. They worked perfect.

After that was the box to replace the controller. This box would read in the serial signal, compensate for the angle, and send out a signal to the sign. At first we played with XBee for a wireless transfer. This ended up being so unreliable and so difficult to get set up that we decided to give up. Besides, long term support is important for this kind of a project, and something wireless is a lot more difficult to diagnose and debug than wired. So we went with RS485, which is perfect for long distances, and there was already a pre-existing cable from the previous sign. I threw in a screen and some buttons for good measure (to let the user adjust the angle), and a switch to turn it all on, and we were good to go. Now the only thing a user has to do is flip the switch to turn it on, then push the power button on the radar gun, and it works.

The view from the press box. The radar gun captures every pitch, the controller box is mounted on the wall, and the previous controller is wrapped up on the desk.

The view from the press box. The radar gun captures every pitch, the controller box is mounted on the wall, and the previous controller is wrapped up on the desk.

The controller box. There's a screen, buttons, and power switch. The cables are for power in, power/serial to the radar gun, and RS485 out to the sign.

The controller box. There’s a screen, buttons, and power switch. The cables are for power in, power/serial to the radar gun, and RS485 out to the sign.

Inside the controller. An arduino with LCD/button shield, a RS485 breakout, and wires.

Inside the controller. An arduino with LCD/button shield, a RS485 breakout, and wires.

Next was coming up with a sign. We’ve used the P10 red LED modules before on the bar bike, so we had some experience. For this one we purchased the outdoor waterproof ones. We also got power supplies and a controller card. There is some code on the web for controlling these guys directly, but it’s a lot of work and I didn’t have the time or inclination to figure it out. So we went with the controller card. I should note that the prices for these parts is ridiculously cheap. The LED modules are $6.50, the power supplies are $8, and the controller card was $50. So we had all the major components for the sign for just a few hundred dollars, and that’s because we ordered extras of everything in case of failures. We designed and cut an enclosure and attached the modules to the frame, then wired everything up. The wiring is simple; power up each column, data across each row. Two power supplies power two columns each.

Behind the sign. Two power supplies, one laptop, a controller card and hub, and a laptop. The sign is 6 rows and 4 columns, giving us a resolution of 128x96

Behind the sign. Two power supplies, one laptop, a controller card and hub, and a laptop. The sign is 6 rows and 4 columns, giving us a resolution of 128×96

Getting the controller card working was tricky, though. There is no documentation on the protocol, so I tried sniffing the packets being sent to it, but couldn’t make sense of them. There was no API, and after repeatedly pressing the Chinese company for resources, they sent some sample code and a dll, but it would only work on windows. We were trying to avoid Windows and go with a cheap (and low power) linux PC or Raspberry Pi, but in the interest of time, we ended up bailing on that and just getting a very old and cheap Windows XP laptop. Fortunately, it had a serial port, so we could hook a RS485 to RS232 converter to it and we were able to communicate quickly with the press box.

The controller card comes with some windows software for setting up the sign and displaying content, but it was difficult to get it to show real time data. What we ended up doing was writing a python script which would monitor the serial port and upon receiving a speed would write that speed to a file. One of the options in the other software for controlling the sign (called LEDSHOWT9), was to display the contents of a file, and update every N seconds. So we picked that option. Now every few seconds LEDSHOWT9 will look at the file, and take the contents (either the speed or a blank), and show that on the sign. Tada! It’s a hack, but it works. If inclined, maybe I’ll write up something better and do animations or something. But probably not.

Here’s the final product.

Clearly visible during the day from the stands. Pretty font, works automatically. Complete success.

Clearly visible during the day from the stands. Pretty font, works automatically. Complete success.

My ONE post on gun control

March 17, 2013 Posted by bob in Personal Projects - (Comments Off on My ONE post on gun control)

This post is about my attempt at a technological solution to gun problems. I built a working prototype, but ultimately I believe that this is not a solution to the problem of mass shootings. There is no technological solution that will prevent someone who is sufficiently motivated from doing significant harm yet still afford us the freedoms that make us human. However, what I built can help prevent people from harming others with knives sometimes, check the best knife sharpeners for the money . It has some legitimate circumstances in which it could be very effective.


I was approached by a guy who recognized my wireless communications skills and proposed an idea to me. He had been thinking since the Sandy Hook shooting about how guns could be made safer, and thought that some kind of token that people wore that could disable weapons would be a great solution. Essentially he wanted to create a movement where people carried these tokens that emitted a disable signal, and he thought that governments could be convinced to mandate that all guns listen for this signal and refuse to fire when the disable signal is detected. That was where we started.

Evolution of the idea

Clearly this idea had problems. First was socio-political. Getting a government to mandate this would be impossible, getting people to trade in their guns would be impossible, preventing gun smuggling would be impossible, and establishing exceptions for military and police would be a loophole filled nightmare that would render the system useless. The next problem was technological. A token that’s always emitting a signal would run out of batteries quickly. A weapon that could automatically disable itself would be tricky. And a system that only deactivates if it hears a deactivate signal can easily be foiled by… aluminum foil. Wrapping the gun in aluminum foil would prevent the signal from reaching the antenna.

It took a lot of back and forth to come to a final solution, and it still has flaws. But we’ll get to that later. And I have no way to address the political or social problems; I’m a technical guy and that is a job for someone else. Here’s what we ended up with:



The four parts: the weapon, enable token, disable token, and plugin disable token.

The four parts: the weapon, enable token, disable token, and plugin disable token.

1) An enable token with a button that emits an ‘enable signal’ repeatedly while it’s turned on. We’re using Bluetooth Low Energy because this is exactly the sort of thing BLE was designed for. Low energy wireless communications. The enable token is paired with the weapon so that only that enable token can enable that particular weapon. This means the weapon will not enable unless the enable token is on, and within range. This prevents people from using stolen weapons, or getting into their parents’ guns, or accidentally firing, and can also prevent a gun from being used against its owner. This enable token alone is what makes this system great. There are far more accidental shootings, shootings with stolen weapons, and attacks against the owner than there are mass shootings, and an enable token paired to a gun would prevent a lot of those. But the enable token also serves another important purpose. Remember how you could just wrap a gun in aluminum foil so it doesn’t get any disable signals? Well if the gun needs to hear an enable signal, it can’t do that while covered in aluminum foil. So the fact that the gun has to hear a signal to enable means it must be capable of hearing a signal to disable.

2) The weapon with a receiver (and optionally a transmitter). The weapon has an electromechanical device that is connected between the safety and the firing mechanism. When the safety is diesngaged, this module is powered on, and when it hears the right enable signal, and no disable signals, it will allow the gun to fire. As soon as it hears a disable signal or stops hearing the enable signal, it will disengage and the weapon will not fire.

3) A disable token that emits a ‘disable signal’ every few seconds. Essentially this beacon says to any specially equipped guns “please don’t fire near me.” Any weapon or enable token within range will immediately disable itself. Another advantage of using Bluetooth Low Energy is that many cell phones are now coming with BLE capability built in, which means eventually a cell phone could be emitting this disable beacon. So people wouldn’t need to carry an additional piece of electronics; it would be an app they could download and run in the background.

4) Finally, a fourth device can plug into a wall and emit a disable signal regularly. It could also be listening for enable signals that would indicate someone is trying to enable a gun. And if the gun were emitting a signal saying “hey, I’m a gun and someone is trying to fire me” it could listen for that as well. It would have a siren and possibly other ways to indicate authorities that a gun was trying to be used in a certain area.


I ordered some fake guns from Amazon, some Bluetooth modules from BlueGiga, and designed some parts for the enclosures. Writing the software for the Bluetooth modules, building the circuits, 3D printing the parts, assembling it all, and testing it, took a relatively short amount of time. A few weeks, really, and that was just in my spare time. It’s only prototypes, so I wouldn’t want to mass produce them the way I built them, but for a working prototype, it works and looks acceptable.

One thing I skipped was designing the electromechanical part that would prevent a gun from firing. I justified this by saying that many guns would be different in their implementation, and I don’t have a real weapon to develop for, and we were trying to prove the wireless concept.


Here are a few of the problems I ran into.

  • Range: Of course, you’re preventing guns that are within range, not bullets. A gun that is sufficiently far that it doesn’t get a disable signal will still be able to fire INTO an area.
  • Aluminum Foil: It’s still entirely possible to put the enable token INSIDE the aluminum foil surrounding the weapon so that it gets the enable signal and not a disable signal.
  • Timing: A disable signal should be sent infrequently to conserve battery life, prevent collisions, and keep the airwaves mostly clear. But the longer it is the more opportunity to not hear it. A weapon could be enabled and fired in between disable signals. We tried to get around this by disabling for at least five seconds after hearing a disable signal, but if the weapon is turned on, enabled, and fired before the first disable signal reaches it, there’s at least one bullet getting shot. Yes it prevents further shots, but one is enough to do damage. You can see in the video that the gun is enabled briefly before it receives a disable signal.
  • Safety: Usually when a gun is being fired, timing is critical, and having to wait for your gun to enable before you can fire it could mean life or death. That’s why it’s critical that the enable happens immediately every time.
  • Bad guy has a regular gun and a disable token: So he can prevent you from firing, but he is unaffected. Unless the world has 100% adoption of this system, there will be guns that have an edge over other guns, and that makes this system undesirable.
  • Batteries: Yes, it has batteries. Batteries run out. Then you’re in trouble.
  • Gunk: When weapons fire, there’s an explosion, and then powder gets all over the place. On guns it’s really hard to keep this powder from getting all over. Further, there’s not a lot of room in a lot of guns for the firing mechanism to attach to the trigger since it has to wrap around the magazine, so it’s a tiny space that could easily get filled with stuff that could prevent it from working.


  • Safety: Guns can only be fired if the enable token is on, which means fewer accidental firings.
  • Theft deterrence: A gun without its enable token is useless, so the owner (who should still be responsible about protecting his gun), can add protection by keeping his enable token separate from his guns.
  • More difficult to misuse guns: It’s not a failsafe system, but it adds a layer of security and challenge that may deter some people.


This is my contribution to the conversation. I built something that has the potential to solve some problems for some people. But after developing and considering the situations in which this might not work, and the motivations behind the gun makers, legislators, gun owners, and gun shooters, this system, and any other like it, has too many holes and challenges to make it a cure-all for gun control. We shouldn’t be applying technology like this to guns because it defeats their purpose and doesn’t solve the real problem that exists with the person holding a weapon.

A Kalahari Christmas

December 28, 2011 Posted by bob in Building | Personal Projects - (Comments Off on A Kalahari Christmas)

After Erin took me on a ski trip to Salt Lake City for Christmas 2010, I was far behind in the Christmas Karma. For 2011 I planned to take her to a resort in Wisconsin Dells, which is sort of like the Las Vegas of Wisconsin, except with water parks instead of casinos.  Of the many resorts, I decided on Kalahari based on recommendations of others and some research on the web. But just telling her wasn’t a great way to do the presentation. I wanted her to unwrap something.

I’ve been working for a while on a portable electronic scoreboard, so I had all the materials to make a good LED sign with the name. The day before we were to leave for Kansas, I started the project. The idea was to make a big LED sign that said Kalahari on it. It would be battery powered, and a switch would turn it on when the box was opened so that it wasn’t on the entire time and running out of battery. That was as far as I got in planning before I started building.

I borrowed a rechargeable battery from Sector67 to use as the power supply, then laid out the LEDs on a prototyping perf board covered with sticky black nylon paper. It took a couple tries to get it all to fit on the available board with legible letters and decent spacing. Then I found a switch that would work. The circuit was simple. The switch connected the + voltage to the board and the ground went directly to the board. The LEDs were connected with a resistor and two LEDs in series, and all those strings were in parallel. This meant a huge current drain, but I was limited to a power supply with only 6 volts, so I didn’t have much choice. This also meant a LOT of soldering and a lot of current limiting resistors. There was an odd number of LEDs, so I put an extra one on the back side so that the circuits were all the same.


With all these LEDs packed into a small space, it was very bright, so I struggled with a few different ways to do the presentation. I ended up taping the board behind a piece of paper so that the paper would diffuse the light a little. It ended up working great. The paper covered everything, including the switch. When the box was closed it was off, and when it was opened the switch was triggered, turning on the sign.

The girlfriend was happy, so the project was a success.

The next time I do something like this I’ll use less LEDs and instead of doing a sign of LEDs I think it would be better to have a piece that had letters cut out and was backlit by only a few LEDs. I also would have spent a lot more time on what was surrounding the sign. Using regular paper and crayon to draw was the best I could do with the limited time and resources I had, but it wasn’t enough for me. Construction took far longer than I expected, and I was a little disappointed with the results. I was working late into the night to solder it all together, and I barely had any time to work on the rest of the package. I can do better.

Fast Scanner

May 15, 2011 Posted by bob in Building - (Comments Off on Fast Scanner)

Since I’m moving in a few months to an apartment of significantly reduced size, I am starting to reduce the size of my collection of stuff. One thing I’ve been carrying around is everything from my college career. I have every syllabus, paper, homework assignment, handout, midterm… in total it was three boxes full of binders. This represents tens of thousands of dollars of education, though, and I wasn’t entirely willing to part with it. I started scanning pages with a scanner. I had a process that was giving me up to 6 scans per minute. The quality of the scans was good, but the speed was not fast enough, and there were too many manual parts to the process. I needed something faster.

I realized that a photo of a piece of paper would be faster than having a scanner do it, and if lit well enough and with a good enough lens, it would be just as good as a scanner. I rigged up a tripod with an extended arm to hold my camera, and I put a white background on the desk and marked some lines where the paper needed to be to be in the shot. Since I don’t have a fancy DSLR with a remote, and pressing the button manually was way too much effort and moved the camera around too much, I rigged up a piece of twine so that by pulling down on the twine I could get the camera to take a shot. I tried pulling the string for a while, which was pretty fast, but still not as efficient as possible. I tied the twine to a ruler and used the ruler as a foot pedal, giving me both hands to move the pieces of paper as quickly as possible. The light sources were just regular white compact fluorescent bulbs, placed to put as much light on the paper as evenly as possible.

The resulting contraption bumped my speed up to 15 pages per minute on average. Sometimes it was higher depending on if I was dealing with loose notes or stapled sheets. Having the shutter controlled by my feet gave me a huge advantage, and I was able to fly through all 3 boxes of papers in a few evenings much faster than I expected. Now I have it all on my computer, which should probably still be sorted, but at least it’s not taking up any physical space, and I don’t have to feel any sense of loss when I recycle my stacks of papers.

Mouse Modding

October 22, 2010 Posted by bob in Building | Computers - (Comments Off on Mouse Modding)

Last night I made some changes to my mouse; we’ll see if they’re improvements or not. Originally I was dismantling it to clean it. Something had gotten inside the wheel and was causing it to scroll inconsistently. Once I got inside, though, I saw an opportunity to tune it.

First was the clicking on the wheel. This is accomplished with a spring, and is sometimes annoying, especially since I like to give my scroll wheel big long spins to quickly move around on a page. Removing the spring was pretty easy.

Second, I noticed a weight added to the inside. I’m not entirely sure what the weight accomplishes, other than making the mouse that much harder to move, so I took it out, too.

If I need, I can easily put the parts back in, but at the moment I’m rocking a lighter, smoother mouse.


Laser Pointer Interface

May 21, 2009 Posted by bob in Computers - (Comments Off on Laser Pointer Interface)

A while ago I built a computer input device using a laser pointer and regular usb web camera.

It was a pretty simple setup, and I used a lot of existing tools as a jumping off point. Here’s a writeup of my work and details for how to replicate it and what I learned.

First, a video overview:


At a minimum:

  • A web camera
  • A laser pointer


  • A projector

Technically speaking, the laser is completely optional. In fact, during testing I just had a desktop computer with the camera pointed at a sheet of paper taped to a wall, and I drew with the laser pointer on that sheet of paper and used that as an input device. With the projector, you can turn the setup into a more direct input, as your point translates directly to a point on a screen. But that’s just a bonus. This can be done without the projector.

Physical Setup

Take the camera, point it at something. Shine the laser inside the area where the camera can see. That’s it in a nutshell. However, there are some additional considerations.

First, the more direct the camera, the more accurate it will be. If the camera is off to the side, it will see a skewed wall, and because one side is closer than the other, it’s impossible to focus perfectly, and one side of the wall will be more precise than the far side of the wall. Having the camera point as directly as possible at the surface is the best option.

Second, the distance to the surface matters. A camera that is too far from the surface may not be able to see a really small laser point. A camera that is too close will see a very large laser point and will not have great resolution. It’s a tradeoff, and you just have to experiment to find the best distance.

Third, if using a projector, the camera should be able to see slightly more than the projected area. A border of a few inches up to a foot is preferable, as this space can actually be used for input even if it’s not in the projected space.

Fourth, it’s important to control light levels. If there are sources of light in the view of the camera, such as a lamp or window, then it is very likely the algorithm will see those points as above the threshold, and will try to consider them part of the laser pointer (remember white light is made up of red, green, and blue, so it will still be above the red threshold). Also, if using a projector, the laser pointer has to be brighter than the brightest the projector can get, and the threshold has to be set so that the projector itself isn’t bright enough to go over the threshold. And the ambient light in the room can’t be so bright that the threshold has to be really high and thus the laser pointer isn’t recognized. Again, there are a lot of tradeoffs with the light levels in a room.

Software Packages

I wrote my software in Java. There are two libraries that I depended on heavily:

The JAI library is not entirely essential, as you could decide not to translate your coordinates, or you could perform your affine transform math to do it and eschew the large library that will go mostly unused. The neat thing about this transform, though, is that it allows for the camera to be anywhere, and as long as it can see the desired area, it will take care of transforming to the correct coordinates. This is very convenient.

The JMF library exists for Windows, Linux, and Mac. I was able to get it working in Windows, but wasn’t able to get it completely working in Linux (Ubuntu Jaunty as of this writing), and I don’t have a Mac to test on.I hope i can get an ipage host soon and then i can test for all of them.

Basic Theory

The basic theory behind the project is the following; a laser pointer shines on a surface. The web camera is looking at that surface. Software running on a computer is analyzing each frame of that camera image and looking for the laser pointer. Once it finds that pointer, it converts the camera coordinates of that point into screen coordinates and fires an event to any piece of software that is listening. That listening software can then do something with that event. The simplest example is a mouse emulator, which merely moves the mouse to the correct coordinates based on the location of the laser.

Implementation Theory

To implement this, I have the JMF library looking at each frame. I used this example code as a starting point. When looking at each frame, I only look at the 320×240 frame, and specifically only at the red value. Each pixel has a value for red, green, and blue, but since this is a red laser I’m looking at, I don’t really care about anything but red. I traverse the entire frame and create a list of any pixels above a certain threshold value. These are the brightest pixels in the frame and very likely a laser pointer. Then I average the locations of these points and come up with a single number. This is very important, and I’ll describe some of the effects that this has later. I take this point and perform the affine transform to convert it to screen coordinates. Then I have certain events that get fired depending on some specific things:

  • Laser On: the laser is now visible but wasn’t before.
  • Laser Off: the laser is no longer visible.
  • Laser Stable: the laser is on but hasn’t moved.
  • Laser Moved: the laser has changed location.
  • Laser Entered Space: the laser has entered the coordinate space (I’ll explain this later)
  • Laser Exited Space: the laser is still visible, but it no longer maps inside the coordinate space.

For most of these events, the raw camera coordinates and the transformed coordinates are passed to the listeners. The listeners then do whatever they want with this information.


Calibration is really only necessary if you are using the coordinate transforms. Essentially, the calibration process consists of identifying four points and mapping camera coordinates to the other coordinates. I wrote a small application that shows a blank screen and prompts the user to put the laser point at each of the prompted circles, giving the system a mapping at known locations. This writes the data to a configuration file which is used by all other applications. As long as the camera and projector don’t move, calibration does not need to be done again.

Here is a video of the calibration process.

The Code

Here is the (3.7mb). It includes the JAI library, the base laser application, the calibrator, and an example application that just acts as a mouse emulator.

Below are a couple snippets of the important stuff.

This first part is the code used to parse each frame and find the laser point, then fire the appropriate events.

* Callback to access individual video frames. This is where almost all of the work is done.
void accessFrame(Buffer frame) {
/********************************Begin Laser Detection Code*****************************/
// Go through all the points and set them to an impossible number
for (int i = 0;i<points.length;i++){
points[i].x = -1;
points[i].y = -1;
int inc = 0; //set our incrementer to 0
byte[] data = (byte[])frame.getData(); //grab the frame data
for (int i = 0;i<data.length;i+=3){//go through the whole buffer (jumping by three because we only want the red out of the RGB
//if(unsignedByteToInt(data[i+2])>THRESHOLD && unsignedByteToInt(data[i+1])<LOWERTHRESHOLD && unsignedByteToInt(data[i+0])<LOWERTHRESHOLD && inc<points.length){//if we are above the threshold and our incrementer is below the maximum number of points
if(unsignedByteToInt(data[i+2])>THRESHOLD && inc<points.length){//if we are above the threshold and our incrementer is below the maximum number of points
points[inc].x = (i%(3*CAMERASIZEX))/3; //set the x value to that coordinate
points[inc].y = i/(3*CAMERASIZEX); //set the y value to the right line
//calculate the average of the points we found
ave.x = 0;
ave.y = 0;
for (int i=0;i<inc;i++){
if (points[i].x!=-1){
if (points[i].y!=-1){
//System.out.println(points[i].x + "," + points[i].y);
if (inc>3){//if we found enough points that we probably have a laser pointer on the screen
ave.x/=inc;//finish calculating the average
PerspectiveTransform mytransform = PerspectiveTransform.getQuadToQuad(mapping[0].getX(), mapping[0].getY(),
mapping[1].getX(), mapping[1].getY(), mapping[2].getX(), mapping[2].getY(), mapping[3].getX(), mapping[3].getY(),
correct[0].getX(), correct[0].getY(), correct[1].getX(), correct[1].getY(), correct[2].getX(), correct[2].getY(), correct[3].getX(), correct[3].getY());
Point2D result = mytransform.transform(new Point(ave.x,ave.y),null);
in_space = !(result.getX()<0 || result.getY() < 0 || result.getX() > SCREENSIZEX || result.getY() > SCREENSIZEY);
if (!on){
fireLaserOn(new LaserEvent(result, new Point(ave.x, ave.y), last_point, last_raw_point,in_space));
on = true;
if (in_space && !last_in_space){
fireLaserEntered(new LaserEvent(result, new Point(ave.x, ave.y), last_point, last_raw_point,true));
//                System.out.println(result.getX() + "," + result.getY());
//                System.out.println(last_point.getX() + "," + last_point.getY());
//                System.out.println("----------------------");
if (result.getX()!=last_point.getX() || result.getY()!=last_point.getY()){
fireLaserMoved(new LaserEvent(result, new Point(ave.x, ave.y), last_point, last_raw_point,in_space));
fireLaserStable(new LaserEvent(result, new Point(ave.x, ave.y), last_point, last_raw_point,in_space));
if (!in_space && last_in_space){
fireLaserExited(new LaserEvent(result, new Point(ave.x, ave.y), last_point, last_raw_point,false));
last_time = 0;
last_point = new Point2D.Double(result.getX(), result.getY());
else if (last_time==5){//if it's been five frames since we last saw the pointer, then it must have disappeared
if (in_space){
fireLaserExited(new LaserEvent(-1,-1, ave.x, ave.y, (int)last_point.getX(), (int)last_point.getY(), (int)last_raw_point.getX(), (int)last_raw_point.getY(),in_space));
fireLaserOff(new LaserEvent(-1,-1, ave.x, ave.y, (int)last_point.getX(), (int)last_point.getY(), (int)last_raw_point.getX(), (int)last_raw_point.getY(),in_space));
on = false;
in_space = false;
if (ave.x>0 || ave.y>0 && ave.x<CAMERASIZEX && ave.y<CAMERASIZEY)
fireLaserRaw(new LaserEvent(-1,-1, ave.x, ave.y, -1,-1, (int)last_raw_point.getX(), (int)last_raw_point.getY(),in_space));
last_time++;//increment the last_time. usually it gets set to 0 every frame if the laser is there
last_raw_point = new Point(ave.x,ave.y);//set the last_point no matter what
last_in_space = in_space;
/********************************End Laser Detection Code*****************************/
public int unsignedByteToInt(byte b) {
return (int) b & 0xFF;

This next part is pretty standard code for adding event listeners. You can see which laser events are getting passed. I intentionally made it similar to how mouse listeners are used.

Vector<LaserListener> laserListeners = new Vector<LaserListener>();
public void addLaserListener(LaserListener l){
public void removeLaserListener(LaserListener l){
private void fireLaserOn(LaserEvent e){
Enumeration<LaserListener> en = laserListeners.elements();
LaserListener l = (LaserListener)en.nextElement();
private void fireLaserOff(LaserEvent e){
Enumeration<LaserListener> en = laserListeners.elements();
LaserListener l = (LaserListener)en.nextElement();
private void fireLaserMoved(LaserEvent e){
Enumeration<LaserListener> en = laserListeners.elements();
LaserListener l = (LaserListener)en.nextElement();
private void fireLaserStable(LaserEvent e){
Enumeration<LaserListener> en = laserListeners.elements();
LaserListener l = (LaserListener)en.nextElement();
private void fireLaserEntered(LaserEvent e){
Enumeration<LaserListener> en = laserListeners.elements();
LaserListener l = (LaserListener)en.nextElement();
private void fireLaserExited(LaserEvent e){
Enumeration<LaserListener> en = laserListeners.elements();
LaserListener l = (LaserListener)en.nextElement();
private void fireLaserRaw(LaserEvent e){
Enumeration<LaserListener> en = laserListeners.elements();
LaserListener l = (LaserListener)en.nextElement();
  • This algorithm is extremely basic and not robust at all. By just averaging the points above the threshold, I don’t take into consideration if there are multiple lasers on the screen. I also don’t filter out errant pixels that are above the threshold by accident, and I don’t filter out light sources that aren’t moving. A more robust algorithm would do a better job and possibly identify multiple laser pointers.
  • I’m not the first person that has done this, though from what I can tell this is the first post that goes into so much detail and provides code. I have seen other people do this using other platforms, and I have seen other people try to sell this sort of thing. In fact, this post is sort of a response to some people who think they can get away with charging thousands of dollars for something that amounts to a few lines of code and less than $40 in hardware.
  • Something I’d like to see in the future is a projector with a built in camera that is capable of doing this sort of thing natively, perhaps even using the same lens system so that calibration would be moot.
  • You may have seen references to it in this post already, but one thing I mention is having the camera see outside the projected area and how that can be used for additional input. Because the laser pointer doesn’t have buttons, its input abilities are limited. One way to get around this is to take advantage of the space outside the projected area. For example, you could have the laser act as a mouse while inside the projector area, but if the laser moves up and down the side next to the projected area it could act as a scroll wheel. In a simple paint application, I had the space above and below the area change the brush color, and the sides changed the brush thickness or changed input modes. This turns out to be extremely useful as a way of adding interactivity to the system without requiring new hardware or covering up the projected area. As far as I can tell, I haven’t seen anyone else do this.
  • I have seen laser pointers with buttons that go forward and backward in a slideshow and have a dongle that plugs into the computer. These are much more expensive than generic laser pointers but could be reused to make the laser pointer much more useful.
  • Just like a new mouse takes practice, the laser pointer takes a lot of practice. Not just smooth and accurate movement, but turning it on and off where you want to. Typically releasing the power button on the laser pointer will cause the point to move a slight amount, so if you’re trying to release the laser over a small button, that has to be considered so that the laser pointer goes off while over the right spot.
  • This was a cool project. It took some time to get everything working, and I’m throwing it out there. Please don’t use this as a school project without adding to it. I’ve had people ask me to give them my source code so they could just use it and not do anything on their own. That’s weak and you won’t learn anything, and professors are just as good at searching the web.
  • If you do use this, please send me a note at It’s always neat to see other people using my stuff.
  • If you plan to sell this, naturally I’d like a cut. Kharma behooves you to contact me to work something out, but one of the reasons I put this out there is I don’t think it has a lot of commercial promise. There are already people trying to, and there are also people like me putting out open source applications.
  • If you try to patent any of the concepts described in this post, I will put up a fight. I have youtube videos, code, and witnesses dating back a few years, and there is plenty of prior art from other people as well.

Broken Car Lock

Posted by bob in Building - (Comments Off on Broken Car Lock)

It’s no secret that I love my car. It’s been extremely dependable, has treated me very well, has a good personality and an adventurous attitude, and doesn’t ask for much (it’s a 2000 Chrysler Neon, and yes, I mean Chrysler). I’ve had it for almost 10 years and put over 100,000 miles on it myself in addition to the 20,000 that were on it when I got it used. If I were to get another car, I’d look for something exactly like the one I have.

But once in a great while it will have small issues. Once a wiring harness broke loose and cause the rear lights to go out. Other than that, it’s worked very well and could probably go for another hundred thousand miles without problem.

About a week ago I put my key in the door to unlock it and found that it turned freely. I had to unlock the passenger side and then unlock the driver side from the inside. For a few days I drove around without locking the door. Monday I finally got an opportunity to examine the problem. I was able to disassemble the door relatively easily. It was fairly straightforward except for the part where the window handle was connected, but I managed to find the service manual online and pop the handle off. Then I could get in to the Romford Locks mechanism and see where the problem was. It didn’t take long to discover the problem. The rod that connects the lock mechanism to the key had slipped off. The piece that held it on was missing. Figuring it was probably at the bottom of the door frame, I felt around and identified it. Yep, there was the problem.

That piece should be symmetrical. The piece that had broken was about 2 millimeters wide and because of that the thing slipped off the lock and was no longer holding the rod in place. It didn’t take much jostling for the rod to fall out.

I didn’t have any parts exactly like that, and I was up to the challenge of fixing it with parts that I had around the house. I made a crude washer out of a piece of scrap tin from a can. Then I made a springy curl of stiff wire that would take the place of the part that broke. I installed onto the lock mechanism and played with it a little to make sure it was stuck pretty well. I tried to take it off to adjust it a little, but couldn’t even get it off without some serious effort, so I just left it on there. I tested it thoroughly before putting the door back together. With the door completely reassembled, I tested it out some more, and it worked exactly like it had originally worked.

I’m kind of glad that my car is mostly mechanical and doesn’t have a lot of electronic parts. Electronic locks or windows would have made this a much more difficult operation. I’m also happy that I was able to build the parts that I needed from scratch and basic tools. Plus, I always enjoy doing things with my hands and seeing the results and saving money in the process.

Partially Failed Cheesecake

May 12, 2009 Posted by bob in Cooking - (Comments Off on Partially Failed Cheesecake)

Saturday I had a party for work, so I thought I’d throw together a cheesecake. I used the recipe I’ve used a few times in the past. Better Homes and Garden, by the way. Rather than melt some semi-sweet chocolate, I went instead with a bottle of Hershey chocolate sauce. I was getting to the bottom of the bottle, and I noticed that as I squeezed it would spatter out in neat randomness. So on top of the swirled cheesecake filling I sprayed the sauce, not realizing that it would ultimately be the cause of a huge problem.

The cake cooked fine, and after I took it out of the oven it still looked good, but the spots where there was sauce looked a little weak and were starting to crack. When the top of a cheesecake begins to crack, the cracks turn to crevasses as it cools down, and that’s exactly what happened. There were three pretty big cracks as it cooled. I looked around for something to fix it and found a block of milk chocolate that Erin had given me. I thought I’d shave chocolate onto the top to see if it would cover up the cracks. But the chocolate shavings weren’t as silky smooth as I thought, and they broke up into smaller pieces than I expected. It was time to go to the party, so I made the decision not to bring the cheesecake. That turned out to be ok, though, because there was already a lot of food there.

Aesthetically, the cheesecake was mediocre. It tasted great, though. Here’s a picture, but remember, it only looks average; it’s too bad I can’t make the web lick-able.

Camera Troubles

May 5, 2009 Posted by bob in Building - (Comments Off on Camera Troubles)

Erin handed me a camera a week ago that had gone through some tough times. It had been dropped while on, and the lens assembly was broken and askew. The camera couldn’t recover from it on its own, and so I was brought in to see if I could fix it. Having been able to revive Erin’s camera, which had the misfortune of a drop into sand, and having removed dust from my own camera many times, I took on the job. Since it was already broken, the owner of the camera didn’t have any expectations of getting it back anyway, so it was a riskless job. The first image is of the camera, though the lens problem is not visible.

Taking the camera apart was not difficult. There were lots of tiny screws, but for the most part the pieces separated fairly easily. Of course, as I did it I learned little bits about the assembly that made taking it apart easier. The second picture shows the partially disassembled camera. The lens assembly came out without any screws.

The lens assembly out, I was able to partially disassemble it as well. There were two main lenses. The first was the big one in the picture below. The second was the small one in the picture below that. Both were capable of moving.

In fact, it was the plastic on the smaller lens that had broken, and was sticking out, preventing the lens assembly from closing back up. This little piece of plastic, which is the part closest to the camera, turned out to be extremely important. I tried at first to just remove it and reassemble the camera, but it turned out that it wouldn’t focus without it. The piece was essential for guiding the lens forward and back and without it a small spring was pulling it in a direction it shouldn’t have gone. I was able to super glue it back together, but then had to take a small file to remove small jutting slivers that were adding too much friction to the assembly. The hardest part was putting the whole lens assembly together and back apart over and over, which took many minutes each time, and put wear and tear on some components that were only ever meant to be assembled once. In fact, a great deal of time was spent maintaining and guiding parts back together, and resetting springs that had to be unset.

I thought that I had been successful and had fixed the camera, but there was a problem. When I took a photo, the iris would stay closed, and it wasn’t until I would dismantle the whole thing that I could reopen the iris. Clearly this would not work in the field. I had to dismantle the assembly further to discover another unfortunate break.

The iris is controlled by two extremely small electromagnets, which apply torque to two magnets, which have small arms at the end of them. Those arms push and pull the thin pieces of plastic over the lens to adjust the light levels. Unfortunately, one of the arms was broken on the small magnet.

This was the deal breaker. Without the arm, the iris wouldn’t function properly, and the images would be overexposed (or possibly underexposed). The magnet wouldn’t take to super glue, and even the process of gluing was made more difficult by the fact that all my tools were metallic and would move the magnets as soon as they got near. For a sense of scale, the pic below is of an object that’s 4mm long at its longest

It took a lot of time to work on the camera and figure out how it all fit together. There were a lot of little pieces that had to be assembled just so, and it’s such a shame that the camera is perfectly good except for a few misplaced atoms, and because I won’t be able to find a replacement will now likely be discarded in its entirety.

My Empty Cupboards Project

April 9, 2009 Posted by bob in Cooking - (Comments Off on My Empty Cupboards Project)

For about a month leading up to my move, I stopped shopping for food. I was trying to clean out the cupboards and start over fresh. It was surprisingly easy. For a long time I was fine with meat from the fridge or freezer, for a few weeks I had fresh vegetables, and I had plenty of snackish food for between meals.

During the week or so that I moved my stuff, I had a hard time finding the motivation or the time or even the utensils to take care of too many meals, so I had fast food a couple days and pizza or sushi from Safeway a couple days.

Now I’m in the new apartment, and the project continues. I haven’t filled the cupboards yet. With the exception of a single cupboard that has baking stuff like sugar, flour, baking soda, etc., ALL of the food is in the fridge or on the counter. Having it on the counter has given me incentive to eat it, as it’s in my face and in my way. But it’s been about three weeks since I’ve moved and I’m still working away at the pile. In fact, I think I could continue this experiment for about another two weeks and still be ok.

A while ago I ran out of milk and eggs, and that had a huge impact on what I could do. Without those basic ingredients, a lot of the food became impossible. I couldn’t make bread or bake or do any kinds of desserts. A few days ago I broke down and got just milk and eggs, and that’s helped me along quite a bit.

Some of the things I’ve been making have been… interesting. There was an omelet made with mizithra cheese and diced prunes (it was actually pretty good), homemade tortillas with beans and salsa, beer bread with tuna salad, and other dishes. One of my favorite discoveries was that raw Ramen is an excellent substitute for rice cakes. Just open the bag, split the Ramen in half flat-ways (it’s easy to do), and spread jelly or peanut butter on it.

I’ve been craving a lot of meat, though, lately. I’d love to tear into a hamburger or a steak. And some of the food that I have left is more of a side dish, not a main course. I think I may break down and get some meat or vegetables so I can have the side dishes in a decent meal.

Another of my discoveries in this endeavor has been the strangeness of expiration dates. Perhaps it’s because of the dry and mold-free climate of this area, but I’ve been eating food that’s expired sometimes years ago. According to – you’re not really supposed to keep your stored goods in moldy/damp areas, ie. basements and such, but I had corn tortillas that expired in February of 2008, and they were still perfectly fine. They were a little dried out at the bottom of the bag, but I sliced them up and baked them to make chips. I haven’t really come across much that I felt uncomfortable about eating, and some of it was canned food over a year past it’s date. I think either we shouldn’t be so prudish about expiration dates on food, or we should be using a lot less preservatives.

Yet another realization was that food just seems to accumulate in the cupboards, and sometimes just never gets consumed. There’s no good reason for it, just entropy. I have a can of jellied cranberries that is a few Thanksgivings old, and I just haven’t done anything with it. I could easily have it as a side dish with pork chops, but instead other foods have a much higher turnover in my kitchen. I need to be better about keeping the cupboards tight. The good news, though, is that the average family could probably survive a lot longer than they think if they had to.

The experiment will continue until all the food is gone. Then we’ll go shopping and stock the cupboards more wisely. As I scrape the bottom of the barrel in the coming days, I’ll probably buy one or two things to supplement the meals, but this has been an interesting and difficult challenge.