Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Up Periscope

Wow, it's been a while.

I think I got intimidated by having to finish off what I was documenting before doing anything new. After a few months passed my enthusiasm about writing up something complicated that was well in the past faded. I may go back to it but don't hold your breath. So here I am with a really quick and dirty tool/prop.
I was away this weekend for a Sci-Fi LARP where I was playing an engineer investigating the return of a mysterious lifepod.

Amongst the players there was a fair chunk of tech kicking around even if it wasn't desperately necessary for the game. I dragged along a mountain of tools including a tablet with endoscope camera.

There were a few hours to kill on the day before the game and I decided to make a 'periscope camera' to complement the endoscope. The ubiquitous cheap USB endoscopes work OK but are fisheye devices focused at a very short distance for working in very small spaces.

This is the guts of a conventional webcam stuck on the end of a cannibalised Poundland selfie stick. It works great for looking over, under or behind things that are a pain in the arse to get over under or behind.

The webcam was one of 'XBox Live Vision' cameras I bought in bulk for a pound each a while back. These are basic but use the standard UVC webcam driver so work with almost anything.

I removed the IR-cut filter and with no casing in front of the board the green LED telltale lights provide some illumination so it's not too terrible in very dark spots. If I feel enthusiastic I'll make another with IR illumination, but this was a quick and dirty, no soldering allowed hack.

I think it will be useful. Tomorrow I'm taking it to work so I can use it inside a congested ceiling space and have a look round for a cable route.

£2 well spent.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Using a different tool for each job and linking them together with MQTT - part 3

Things you have to think about when putting a Raspberry Pi inside a prop include things you don't normally have to worry about like graceful startup and shutdown. Also, getting enough power out of a battery for a Pi 3 and a 5" display is not totally inconsequential.

I'll deal with the latter first. I luckily had a 5V/3A Turnigy branded battery eliminator (BEC) kicking around in a parts drawer. These are designed for RC vehicles and nicely self-contained in a shrink-wrapped module with inline inductor to smooth things out. I paired this up with a big chunk of 12 AA NiMH cells wired series/parallel to give me ~7.2V which is about right to run the BEC. The more modern solution would be some LiPo cells but then you need to build a balance charger into the device or expose the connectors so you can charge the cells individually. I've got a bunch of stuff that runs off NiMH cells and a nice high current smart charger that automatically selects voltage/current and this also influenced my decision to go this way.

Then there's the switch. People expect things to just turn on/off at the flick or press of a switch but you can't give them easy direct access to the power or they'll switch things off when they aren't ready. The Raspberry Pi really doesn't like that. There are workarounds you can do with mostly read-only filesystems but at the end of the day the Pi really should be shut down cleanly.

Luckily I had some Polulu solid state power switches lurking from a temporarily shelved project. My house may be overflowing with stuff but sometimes it comes in useful. I wired this so the power switch was connected to the 'on only' contact. That gets everything powered up. When you flick the switch to off, the alternate contact takes a pin on the Arduino low and the Arduino initiates a shutdown sequence. You saw the code for that in part 2. Here's the Python script for the shutdown of the Pi, which is just a variant on the old chestnut about fitting a shutdown switch to the case of a Pi.

import time
import os
while 1:
  if os.path.isfile('/tmp/reboot'):
    os.system("sudo reboot")
  elif os.path.isfile('/tmp/poweroff'):
    os.system("sudo poweroff")
Not much to say about this, it just looks for files in '/tmp/' and reboots or shuts down depending on which file it sees. Stick it in /etc/rc.local again and the job's a goodun.

Things I didn't get right are I used a latching switch for on/off and I should have fitted a way to both charge the batteries and power the device externally.

The batteries lasted a couple of hours but then it had to be charged before it could be used again. We had mains power in the end so being able to use a PSU would have been good. Connecting the smart charger with it powered up made the charger shut down, otherwise that would have been an option.

The latching switch prevented me from making the box shut down when inactive. It would try to shut down (the Pi would shut down) but if the switch was physically in the 'on' position the power would stay on until you flicked the switch. I picked this up in time to fix it but couldn't find a nice momentary switch without resorting to mail order. Which would have come too late. It's a lesson learned for next time.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Using a different tool for each job and linking them together with MQTT - part 2

Now we have a working MQTT server, it's time to start making use of it.

As I was planning to use MQTT to broker messages between Web server CGI scripts, Javascript in Chrome web browser and an Arduino the obvious way to do this is push data at the USB serial port of the Arduino.

Normally this port is used for uploading the Arduino sketch to the board and sometimes people end up filling it with debug/status messages once the sketch is running. However there's a long history of it being used as an actual way to control stuff.

So I threw together a piece of 'middleware' that shuffles data between some MQTT topics and the USB serial port.

import time
import os
import mosquitto
import serial
# commands to the arduino are as follow...
# R red LEDs
# G green LEDs
# B blue LEDs
# N no LEDs
# O open/go
# P power off
arduinoBootupTime = 5
arduinoIsBooted = 0
debug = True
# Define the various MQTT callback functions as this is an event driven model
def on_connect(mosq, obj, rc):
if debug:
print("rc: "+str(rc))
def on_message(mosq, obj, msg):
if debug:
print(msg.topic+" "+str(msg.payload))
def on_publish(mosq, obj, mid):
if debug:
print("mid: "+str(mid))
def on_subscribe(mosq, obj, mid, granted_qos):
if debug:
print("Subscribed: "+str(mid)+" "+str(granted_qos))
def on_log(mosq, obj, level, string):
if debug:
# Connect to the local MQTT server to pass stuff to/from a browser
mqttc = mosquitto.Mosquitto()
mqttc.connect("localhost", 1883, 60)
mqttc.on_message = on_message
mqttc.on_connect = on_connect
mqttc.on_publish = on_publish
mqttc.on_subscribe = on_subscribe
# Subscribe to the topic that sends commands TO the Arduino
mqttc.subscribe("arduino/in", 0)
while 1:
if debug:
print "Trying to connect to Arduino\n"
arduino = serial.Serial('/dev/ttyUSB0',115200,timeout=1)
while arduino.isOpen():
if arduinoIsBooted == 0:
if debug:
print( + " connected - Giving " + str(arduinoBootupTime) + "s for it to bootstrap"
arduinoIsBooted = 1
arduinoOut = arduino.readline()
if len(arduinoOut) > 0:
if debug:
print "Received " + arduinoOut.rstrip() + " from the Arduino"
if arduinoOut.rstrip() == 'powerDown':
powerOffFile = open('/tmp/poweroff', 'a')
mqttc.publish("arduino/out", arduinoOut.rstrip())

This is about as simple as things can be and mostly cribbed from example scripts. It waits a while to give the Arduino time to boot as the USB port attaching to Raspberry Pi will cause it to reset. Then it tries to connect and loops round forever passing messages back and forth.

The meat of this is in two functions, the first of which gets triggered as a callback when an MQTT message arrives...

def on_message(mosq, obj, msg):
This simply sends the message straight to the Arduino. Coming the other way is almost an exact reverse except we're using newlines to mark the end of messages so we can read them with 'readline'. This means we need to strip them off before publishing to MQTT. Python has a handy function for this in 'rstrip'.

arduinoOut = arduino.readline()
if len(arduinoOut) > 0:
if arduinoOut.rstrip() == 'powerDown':
powerOffFile = open('/tmp/poweroff', 'a')
mqttc.publish("arduino/out", arduinoOut.rstrip())
There's another little if/else in here to handle the shutdown sequence. I used the VERY simple method of writing a file to /tmp/ if the Raspberry Pi needs to shut down, which is controlled by the Arduino. I could have had a second script subscribed to the topic for this, but this keeps all the MQTT code in one place. Because the Pi uses memory for /tmp/ instead of saving to its SD card, this safely disappears once the machine is shut down.

That's about it, things coming out of the Arduino USB serial port end up in the topic '/arduino/out/' and stuff in the topic '/arduino/in/' get sent to the serial port. The test for the existence of the Arduino serial port '/dev/ttyUSB0' means it loops round forever trying to reconnect if the Arduino get unplugged or resets.

To make this run at startup I put it into /etc/rc.local which is another quick and dirty 'make it work' solution. It works. This is not a server it's a prop, so I'm being cavalier with scalable/secure ways of doing things.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Using a different tool for each job and linking them together with MQTT - part 1

I've recently finished a quite complicated prop that needed to have a 'user interface' and thought I'd put down my thoughts on how I built it.

At a high level what we've got is a Raspberry Pi doing the user interface using Chromium web browser in kiosk mode, an Arduino Nano doing the 'physical computing' and a Teensy microcontroller acting as a custom keyboard for interaction with the Raspberry Pi.

What I've done is in principle inefficient as I could have done it all with the Raspberry Pi. However using different technologies like this is a way to compartmentalise bits of the project and use the technology you're most comfortable with for each part.

I've already used MQTT to tie things together before so it was an obvious thing to use again. It is implemented with a very simple protocol that many things are capable of understanding, including diminutive memory-constrained microcontrollers like an Arduino or ESP8266. Also, the idea of bringing data into MQTT from a hodgepodge of sources to tie things together is not a foreign concept at all, it's pretty much designed for this.

What is MQTT?

In principle the MQTT Wiki is a good point to start but like a lot of documentation in the open source community assumes a chunk of pre-knowledge and is full of gaps. So I'm going to re-invent the wheel here and describe it again in fairly plain language...

MQTT is just a way to send and receive messages. These messages can be pretty much anything you want, text, images, sounds, any arbitrary binary data. In principle they can be as large as you like but if something listening on the other end doesn't have enough memory to receive it then it'll definitely fail and probably crash or lock up.

For MQTT to work it needs a server (called a broker) that everything connects to. The broker makes sure that messages get where they need to go. A commonly used server is Mosquitto and it's what I've used. Be aware that the version which installs by default on a Raspberry Pi (probably other Linux distributions too) is old and compiled without Websockets support. You should use the current version from the Mosquitto developers or you will be limited in which clients you can use. More on that in a bit.

Topics, subscribe, publish, LWT and QoS

There are a load of clients available, Python, Javascript, Arduino, NodeMCU/Lua etc. etc. and they all use the same terminology when you want to do something with them.


A topic is a 'channel' for messages. There can be an aribtrary number of these on a broker. Unless you do specific configuration on the broker to lock things down you can create/destroy these arbitrarily by sending to or listening for data on a topic. In my application I've got topics called 'arduino/in' and 'arduino/out' for sending to and receiving from the Arduino respectively. All topics can be 'bidirectional' ie. you send and receive on the same topic from a client, but that can complicate your code as you need to process your own messages coming back at you. Which is why I'm using topics in a 'unidirectional' manner.

The broker normally handles creating topics and tidying up afterwards automatically, again unless you want to control this.


When you want to receive messages from a topic, you 'subscribe' to it. Depending on the programming language you use it is likely this happens as a 'callback'. This means that when you subscribe you create a function that gets run every time a message comes in on the topic. Your code needs to be able to deal with being arbitrarily interrupted when this happens.


When you want to send a message to a topic you 'publish' it. There's very little more to be said, you publish and it appears.


The broker periodically checks to make sure any clients it has are contactable. You can optionally set a 'Last Will and Testament' when you connect the client, which publishes a message to the topic of your choice if the client is no longer contactable. This is a very simple way to check if a particular client is online. I did not use this in my application.


When you publish or subscribe to a topic you can specify the 'quality of service' on the connection. This comes as...
  • QoS 0: At most once, which is unreliable and the client should receive it but this is not guaranteed
  • QoS 1: At least once, which is reliable. However the client may receive duplicates
  • QoS 2: Exactly once, which is reliable.
Given I was dealing with two clients running on the same device as the broker I left things as QoS 0 for my application. Some clients such as the NodeMCU one only support QoS 0.

Installing Mosquitto on a Raspberry Pi

Do not be tempted to install it from the standard Raspbian repository with 'apt-get install mosquitto'. This will work but some clients will fail with unhelpful errors, particularly the NodeMCU and Javascript ones. The Javascript client requires Websockets support and NodeMCU needs MQTT v3.1.1 both of which are missing in the standard build.

There's a handy guide to installing a newer version with Websockets support here, but in case this goes away here's the potted recipe for the current version of Raspbian (Jessie) at time of writing.

sudo apt-key add mosquitto-repo.gpg.key
cd /etc/apt/sources.list.d/
sudo wget
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
sudo apt-get install mosquitto
Once this is installed, have a look in the file  /etc/mosquitto/mosquitto.conf and add the following line below the default 'listener'. We don't need Websockets yet, but we will later.
listener 1883

listener 9001
protocol websockets
Then restart the service with...
 sudo service mosquitto restart

Testing Mosquitto works

This is fairly easy, but first you need to install some Mosquitto clients...
sudo apt-get install mosquitto-clients
Start one session to your server and run the following command. It'll sit there waiting for messages to come in on the topic called "test".
mosquitto_sub -t 'test'
In another session, run the following command to send a message to the same topic.
mosquitto_pub -t "test" -m "Hello world!"
You should get "Hello world!" come up in the first window. It really is that simple to send messages back and forth, the client defaults to connecting to the local machine.

There was a lot of work to achieve this, but now you've done this you could have two wirelessly connected NodeMCU microcontrollers sending messages to each other via the broker and make things happen remotely. Or as we'll see in the next part, by clicking a button on a web page you can make things move that aren't directly connected to the web server.

This is all without having to create your own protocol to do this because MQTT is widely supported. I've done that kind of thing in the past and it was significantly time consuming.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Rapid prototyping

 Another piece of making for College of Wizardry. I was asked if I could make some badges from the logo on the IC website.

This neatly demonstrates how good a 3D printer is for 'rapid prototyping' even with a simple thing like this.

The first step was to take the source logo and put some spacing between the various element with a bitmap editor. This was so they would come out as separate objects once traced.

Then I used Inkscape to trace it into a series of paths. There are several ways to do it but I got the best results from choosing to trace on two different levels of brightness then selected the resulting objects one by one and tidied up/removed them manually.

Do not underestimate how long this takes, I spent something like four hours doing this. Then I turned this into an OpenScad file using an export filter I found on Thingiverse.

With an OpenScad file I was then free to hack the design around, altering which bits got printed or not, relative heights and so on. This is where the fast prototyping came in, as I could print it quickly and have a look at the result as a physical object. Although with hand editing of the OpenScad file it was still a slow process.

Eventually we settled on just the lion's head part of the logo and played with the size a bit.

Even with a decent looking design, it was still always going to look a bit plastic, but a quick dab of coloured varnish sorted them out. I wiped it off the highlights to create some basic shading and bring through the base colour. Then it was a case of sticking badge pins on the back of each one with hot glue and they're done.

The design process took a while but then I could batch produce them easily. So we ended up with one each for most of one of the player factions, limited only by running out of filament after one of the print runs went bad. Which still happens very occasionally, my 3D printer is definitely an enthusiast/hobby device rather than a consumer item.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Kiosk setup on a Raspberry Pi running Jessie and the Pixel Desktop

I've started playing around with embedding a Pi with a little 2.4" screen into a prop and I've noticed all the howtos for this kind of thing are old and don't apply circa March 2017.

Now we have the Pixel desktop it's very similar but you need to edit the following file...


#@lxpanel --profile LXDE-pi
@pcmanfm --desktop --profile LXDE-pi
#@xscreensaver -no-splash
@xset s off
@xset -dpms
@xset s noblank
@chromium-browser --kiosk --incognito

Make it look like this by commenting out the lines for lxpanel and xscreensaver then add an entry to start Chromium at the end opening whatever page you'd like Chromium to start with.


Thursday, 16 March 2017

Magic Wand

Elina is off to the very high profile LARP College of Wizardry at the end of March and there's been a lot of gathering of costume and props for it. She suggested a wand with a bare LED that lights with a push / push switch but I decided to have a go at adding some more interactivity to it.

What's ensued is a lengthy exercise in making a prop from scratch using my 3D printer and trying to do as little hand crafting as possible, apart from final finishing. This is to keep it compact and fit all the components, especially the batteries and wiring, into as small a space as I can.

It's nothing spectacular on the tech front, an Arduino Nano, GY-521 6DOF accelerometer breakout board and 21 Neopixels. On that front it's very much blinkenlights project:101.

The entire thing ended up being scaled around getting four alkaline cells in the body and being able to print this on my printer which has a build volume of 20x20x20. In principle I could have done something with a single 18650 Li-ion cell but these are very chunky and a step-up PSU to drive the Neopixels would be a pain as they're hungry beasts that need 5V. Smaller cylindrical Li-ion cells seem to be unusual and I like the idea of easily swapped disposable cells.

The obvious starting point is making the shaft the place to hold the cells but AAs are too chunky and AAA cells make for a very long thin wand so I settled on N cells. These are easily available and a good compromise on size that matches up with the space I needed for the Neopixels in the tip. This has meant the wand ended up about 35cm long in total, pretty much exactly what I wanted from it. It's still a little chunky but short of swapping to alternative lighting, maybe the 3030 rather than 5050 Neopixels this is about as small as I can get it.

The Neopixels are beautifully bright, so much so that the translucent 'natural' PLA I used to print the tip doesn't really manage to diffuse them very well but as it's going to do very occasional effects I'm not worried about this.

I've used the accelerometer to do very basic gesture detection. Once the wand is awake, holding it level and twisting it changes the colours. Raise it up and you get a flame-like flickering up the tip, swipe it down and the effect rushes forwards and fades out. Leave it pointing down and it goes to sleep.

For finishing I hacked at the printed article with a Dremel, sandpaper and knife then covered it with some coloured varnish. The result is pretty wood-like from a distance.

She's off to the event soon, let's see how well it is received. I've done a very basic demo video of the working code, but given it's easy to reprogram and I'm barely using the features of the gyro I reckon there's scope to improve on this significantly.