No, we’ve not genetically spliced a polar bear and a giraffe. Although, we’d be interested to see what that looked like…

Regardless, I present, for your consideration, the Polar Giraffe!


Ah yes, the name. Well I had a typo in the main project folder on my NAS device, so the project is known to the file system as “../PolarGRaph”. My mind can be a silly place sometimes, and upon seeing the typo, I exclaimed “Polar-G-Raph!”, and the Polar Giraffe was born.

In short, it is a drawing robot. The pen gondola is suspended between two stepper motors with some lengths of mono-filament line. With some clever maths, the pen can be moved about the drawing area based on how much each motor reels in or lets out. It’s not a precision drawing device, but it’s not intended to be. Theoretically, you can have a canvas of any size, all the way up to the stupidly large. I’m content with a nice chunk of wall for the time being.

Pen Gondola

This is a side project I’ve been working on for a little bit. There have been several variants of this device from people much more clever than myself. One of the best examples being the Polargraph. In fact, I purchased the pen gondola kit from Sandy, who has all of the bits you’d need to build your own Polargraph available for purchase. I have to say, it’s a change for me to have something of such elegance and precision on one of my projects, which tend to have pretty high kludge factors. My particular implementation is firmly based on a bit of awesome work done by Brandon with help from the Dallas Makerspace. Major, major kudos to the work they did in realizing this concept initially. I only hope to have a worthy tribute at the end of all this.

His drawing robot has at it’s core a Raspberry Pi sending commands to an Arduino, which in turn drives the stepper motors (I’m using Sparkfun Big Easy drivers). The Pi software is all in the Go language. One of the fun parts of this project will be going through the code to better understand how it all works. My first goal was to see if I could get his code working on my hardware. Tracking down all the dependencies was a bit of a chore, but I probably was going about it the hard way, hehe. After a bit of work, the code was not crashing when I tried to run it. Success. On to the hardware!

Testing the Stepper Motors

I had previously acquired a pair of hefty steppers from Sparkfun. These are probably way more then this project really needs, but I had already bought them soooo lets make them work! The motors are rated at 1.7A/Phase, so the EasyDrivers Brandon used wouldn’t cut the mustard. Fortunately, Sparkfun sells Big Easy drivers. Like you do. Same drive signals, but able to handle motors of up to 2A/Phase. Perfect. In the interest of not burning out the driver chips, I adjusted the driver output to a little under an amp, and added heat sinks to the chips. Since the load isn’t very heavy, the 1A is plenty for these motors to be able to hold and move the gondola with ease. With a bit of 3D print-ery, I had a pair of spools and was ready to start winding fishing line!

As you can see from the top picture, this project is still in the testing phase. I’m learning a lot of new tricks with the Pi, and this is the first time I’ve heavily used stepper motors in a project, so there’s been some education there. And that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do this project. I get to learn about new stuff, and I (hopefully) end up with a cool thing at the end. And I’m obviously not trying to pass of this as an original idea, or to say that I’ve done any of the “hard” work, hehe. This is just a thing I’m doing for me. I encourage the interested to take a look at Brandon’s write-up and to pay a visit to Sandy over at

I fully plan on providing updates and lessons learned as I go. So stay tuned for all that!


Hello World!

Realizing that Halloween was only a few days away, I thought to myself “Self, your house has no Halloween decorations, and thus, is Lame.” Being the crafty (and cheap) electrical engineer that I am, I took stock of my…stock…of electronic widgets and bits. After some thought, I decided on a couple of beady little red eyes peeking out of various windows would be appropriately festive, somewhat creepy, and very easy to through together.

Each pair of eyes uses an ATTiny85 chip and two 10mm red LEDs. Since Halloween decorations displayed year-round are frowned upon by my homeowner’s association, I also wanted these to be temporary. Luckily, I had a few protoboards that I could tie up for a few days.


Since this is a simple, temporary project, I made use of the awesome Arduino-Tiny set of “cores” for the Arduino IDE. Arduino-Tiny allows for a variety of ATTiny chips to be programmed directly form the Arduino IDE. There may not be 100% functionality, but it’s darn close. But of course the ability to blink lights is there, hehe. All I had to do was throw together the code and upload using my USBTinyISP.


Speaking of the code, here it is:

int led = 2;
int led2 = 3;

int randblink = 0;

void setup() {
  pinMode(led, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(led2, OUTPUT);  

void loop() {  
  digitalWrite(led, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(led2, HIGH);  
  digitalWrite(led, LOW);
  digitalWrite(led2, LOW);

Note: In the Arduino IDE, under ‘Board’, I selected ‘ATTiny85 @ 1MHz (internal oscillator; BOD disabled)’

Using a little bit of ‘random’ allowed for a little bit of variety in the “blinking.” The effect is simple, but pretty neat. And now my house is less Lame.


A few days ago, I saw this kit from Evil Mad Scientist (by way of Adafruit). My first reaction was more or less “… That’s brilliant!” I love projects that have a healthy dose of wackiness as part of the recipe. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate projects that are purpose-built to accomplish a goal. But this kit in particular jumped out at me for two reasons.

But before that, the ‘What.’ This kit takes the internal workings of a 555 IC and, with resistors and transistors, re-creates all the functionality of the humble little chip. Plastic “legs” complete the IC persona, and screw terminals allow for easy hook-up connections to protoboards or “dead bug” style circuits. The PCB is quite hefty, and the silk screening divides the different block components of the 555 circuit. It’s a great piece to look at, and it just happens to be completely functional. Bonus points.

First, the kit is most clever. Kit designer Eric Schlaepfer basically ripped the lid off of a 555 IC and blasted the thing with an Embiggening ray. Sure he could have just thrown the components onto a breadboard, but that’s no fun. The inclusion of the legs and the ‘notch’ on the silkscreen instantly inform anyone familiar with electronics what this is. Of course, the giant ‘555’ printed on it doesn’t hurt either. The giant terminals are a nice functional and aesthetic touch. So were I a judge on Iron Chef: Electronics Edition, I would award full points for creativity and originality.

Second, upon seeing the kit and instantly knowing that I wanted one, I knew that I would need to brush up on my 555 knowledge. I admit, I’ve played with 555s in the past, but I’ve never given much thought to the internal workings. So after having some fun putting the kit together and testing the included (astable configuration) test circuit, I took to the Tubes and sought out some diagrams and videos explaining the design and operation of the small but mighty 555 timer. I’ll include some of my findings below.

In a nutshell, the 555 timer works by using two voltage comparators and a flip-flip to generate pulses on the output pin. The two most common configuration modes are astable, in which the external circuitry causes the 555 to generate a constant pulse waveform, and monostable, where an external trigger causes the 555 to generate a single pulse. One of the key components to these common circuit configurations is the capacitor. When the capacitor reaches a certain fraction of the supply voltage, the flip-flop is “actuated”, the output pin goes high or low, and the capacitor will start discharging or re-charging. Obviously this is a very simplistic explanation, but the rate of capacitor charge and discharge (governed by capacitor and resistor values) are key to the timing applications of the 555 IC.

So to sum up, yay for creative kits that cause you to go out and (re)learn stuff! The cool thing about the 555 chip is that it is very much a building block to bigger things. There are plenty of resources out there for 555 applications and project ideas. I’d like to thank Eric Schlaepfer for his awesome kit idea and Evil Mad Scientist for helping make it available to the masses! I think it quite possible that you might see the 555 creep into future Maniacal Labs projects.


Here are some resources I found while brushing up on the subject:

Of course, Wikipedia has a good synopsis of the 555, as well as some of the more in-depth maths detailing the particulars of how the different configurations function.

The datasheet from Signetics, who developed the 555 in 1971:

From the Sparkfun series “According to Pete”, Pete walks through some 555 basics.

This video is long, but the link takes you to right where he demonstrates the inner workings of a monostable 555 circuit. The whole video is definitely worth a watch.

A few projects featuring one or more 555 timers:

And some more pics from my build:

Do you live in the Raleigh/Durham area? Are you a fan of the Open Source movement? You’re in luck! Check out RTP 180: Open Source All The Things on September 17th (for free!). The event features guest speakers from three schools you might have heard (NC State, Duke, and UNC), as well as local members of the Open Source community. In addition to basing our operation on the tenants of Open Source, we here at Maniacal Labs enjoy supporting local people and organizations who champion the cause.

The event is free, they just ask that you RSVP (“buy” a free ticket). See the Eventbrite page for more details. We’ll be there, and we look forward to seeing you there as well!

I had occasion to be out and about last night at one of Durham, NC’s fine local breweries, Fullsteam. While there, I was impressed by 3 things. First, how oppressively hot it was for late evening. This led to the next thing that impressed me, the big-ass fan they had set up to try and cool the place. I’m serious, it was a Big Ass Fan. It was huge (8′ diameter). Cranked to the max, I’m sure it could have easily blown down all three of the Little Pig’s houses. But these things were ancillary to the thing that most impressed me while there: The Bullitron.

The Bullitron is a Winitron arcade cabinet constructed by members of the local Durham hackerspace Splat Space. The Winitron arcade network is made up of what amount to MAME cabinets running a custom launcher that connects players to a network of free Indie arcade games. The founders of the Winitron network have mandated that in order to receive access to the software and the network, you are required to build your own cabinet and set it up in a place where as many people as possible can play (for free, of course). Obviously, next to a handful of pinball machines at a bar would be a perfect place for such a device. After a few minutes of playing Nidhogg, a two-player “fencing” game, and another Galaga-esque title, I was hooked on the idea.

There are a number of things that are really cool about this, but two in particular capture the experience pretty well. First, MAME cabinets are cool. I want one. I will build one at some point. Arcade machines are a huge nostalgia trip for me. I used to love going to arcades when I was a kid, and being able to build your own multi-function arcade machine is, to me, a pretty neat concept. The DIY nature of this is the second bit of awesome. And the Winitron concept is very much in keeping with the Maker spirit of “make cool stuff and share it.” The mechanics are pretty simple, just a few buttons and a joystick interfaced to a PC running some custom software. But throw it together in a stylish package and with very little effort, you can be whuppin’ on your friends in any one of a number of classic and modern arcade icons.

There’s a popular saying among the three of us: “When Maniacal Labs has an office…” Part optimism, part wishful thinking, and often met with a chuckle (for now at least). We’ll see. Who knows what’s in the cards for our little operation. But when Maniacal Labs has an office, there will be some manner of arcade machine therein.


*Maniacal Labs is not associated with, nor shills for, any of the above-mentioned entities. But hackerspaces are cool, so ‘what up’ to Splat Space!