The Solarbotics Marble Machine (Battery Edition) Announcement

May 15, 2015

Posted By Yana

We are happy to announce the arrival of the Battery Edition Marble Machine. Starting today it is available at our website for backorder, and will be fully available for purchase starting tomorrow May 16.

You are probably familiar with its older cousin, the Solar Marble Machine that has a clever circuit that delivers short bursts of energy collected by the solar cell to the gear wheel.  And while the Solar Marble Machine runs on pure and natural solar energy and is a lot of fun of fun to watch, the Battery Version doesn’t depend on the external lighting conditions and will faithfully deliver mesmerizing marble run action in complete darkness if necessary, with just a flip of a switch. On top of that, it is solder-free. In fact, it is so easy to assemble, your cat could build it.

The kit comes to you complete with all the components you need to build your own Marble Machine. The assembly is straightforward and well-documented, and you will only need a few hand tools (no hot melting solder spewing around, expensive tools or motor skills required). The wooden parts come in handy panels with additional instructions, and if you snap a piece during assembly, we’ll send you out a replacement part (email for details). We also have spent a good chunk of engineering time improving the initial layout to make the machine’s assembly and performance smoother.

So here you have – you can now populate your desk with a self-sufficient wooden distraction and watch the marbles roll down automagically.

Check out the Marble Machine in action:

We also created a handy assembly video for your cat to refer to:


Make Something Useless Useful Update

May 14, 2015

Posted By Yana

We’ve been trying to Make Something Useless Useful since 2012. In order to do that we’ve been donating a percentage of past sales of the Useless Box to Plan Canada. In year 2013 $5,000 went to Plan Canada’ Gift of Hope School Construction in Honduras. Here’s what the $5,000 we donated in December 2013 was able to accomplish:

  • 16 new classrooms have been constructed across six schools; classrooms are equipped with furniture and learning materials to create a nurturing school environment for children.
  • Six solar panel systems have been installed to provide consistent electricity to each school.
  • Two libraries have been built and equipped with child-friendly furniture, computers, and a wide selection of books to strengthen children’s comprehensive development.

This year we are hoping to donate $10,000, so with every Useless Box purchase you are supporting this goal!


Rainbow Brite Dress Project

May 7, 2015

Posted By Yana

Cosplay at Solarbotics

We have a bit of a rule here. If there’s a project we want to do, somebody has to have the passion for it. The drive, the dedication, the “kick-the-right-people-in-the-butt-to-get-it-done” drive. In this case, the project is a Rainbow Brite Dress, as spear-headed by our warehouse chief-elf Lyn Janelle (costume concept, design and modeling). She dragged R&D pixel-pusher Dan Damron (electronics and programming) to assist. The finished project made it’s brilliant appearance at the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo, receiving many positive reviews.

Here’s what Lyn and Dan said about their respective parts of the project:

Lyn: How I became Rainbow Brite

We all have characters we grew up with that we adore and for me, Rainbow Brite was one of them. I admired her positivity, her charm and of course her COLOUR. So it’s not a great surprise that I wanted to cosplay her. Not one to ever do things simply, I didn’t just want to sew a costume like I usually do, I wanted to delve into the world of electronic wearables (I’m also a crazy raver, so the more glow the better) and build the brightest glowing costume possible, and Rainbow Brite seemed like the perfect vehicle for what seems like an unreasonable amount of glow.
So this is the image I took inspiration from as its my favorite and the one I grew up with.
I merged it a bit with the one below as I wanted to make my version a little more adult.
I designed my pattern and built the dress in what I felt was a nice combination of the original concept and a slight update for comfort.
The boots were one of the most entertaining builds I’ve done. As anyone who knows the character will tell you, she has enormous boots, so I had to think outside of the box. I used a cheap pair of slip on sneakers, and some sheets of packing foam and proceeded to glue it to the shoe to create this wonderful moon boot silhouette. The ankle joint was a little tricky, as the foam didn’t have a lot of flex to it but I didn’t want to rip all my hard work with the first step. I decided to glue on fabric joints on each side of my ankles so that the sleeve of the boot was kept firmly in place, but still had enough give to rock back and forth with each step. To give the boot a more finished look and have a place to anchor the LEDs to I covered the whole foam boot with black broadcloth.
Then came the tough part. Other than some basic wiring and a brief encounter with soldering, I have never done this kind of work before, but I had the wonderful R&D team at Solarbotics to walk me through it. They taught me some basic principles, how to install the LEDs in the correct fashion (I seriously had no idea the led strips were directional: live and learn!), I got an update on how to solder, joint relief, why using the correct coloured wire is so important and so many more details!
After the LEDs were stitched in place, wired and checked, the programming started. Dan (he’s the newest member of our team, welcome to Solarbotics Dan!) took point on this project and began programming the various lighting modes and animations for the project. This was a huge amount of work, and he did it brilliantly, especially since we were down to the wire (many puns intended) and the Comic Expo was right around the corner.
Here is the video the boot running rainbow animation:
I took the dress home to do the last few details. I needed to finish boot covers, shoulder covers and a hem cover. The purpose of these is to diffuse the light in the effort to give it a seamless glow where all the colours blend instead of tiny points of colour. Also, it hides the guts of the project and provides some protection to the components.
Early Saturday morning I arrive at the Expo for my shift, some final hand sewing and to do the final test run before I put the costume. We set it all up, put in new batteries and flick the switch and… nothing. The boots turn on but the dress is dark. My disappointment is palpable and I’m convinced I must have wired something wrong.
Thankfully, the guys who were manning the Protospace table were very eager to help check all my wiring to see what went wrong. Even after a few hours of checking they couldn’t find anything wrong, so we had to wait for Dan to come in to see if he could figure it out. Dan spent a good few hours on the dress and fixed it! I had already gone home at this point though so it was left at the booth for me to wear on Sunday.
Sunday I arrived, ogled my dress and I couldn’t wait until my shift was over so I could wear it. When the time came I was so nervous! This was my first real cosplay and already so much work had gone into it. I got dressed, put my makeup and wig on and went back to the booth to get hooked up to my battery pack and controller. Once again the dress didn’t work! I was crushed.
Dan was gone for the day, but our Chief-Geek Dave came to the rescue. After about another hour of fiddling with it, it finally turned on!
We got me ready and I finally headed out. I have never had people stop me for my picture so much in my life. And the looks on people’s faces when they recognized me was just amazing. My favourite comment was “You’re just like my childhood but brighter!”
I loved this project. I learned a lot, and though  there are a number of changes we want to do to make it better, I can’t wait to wear it again.

Dan’s Technical Details (Written like a Techie…):

The outfit is designed to be wirelessly syncronized so all the elements of the blouse and individual boots would run the same program, as stand-alone elements. Although being wireless meant three sets of batteries and 3 controllers, it also meant there were no were wires to mess up the visual appeal of the costume.

We used Synapse radio modules for the robust mesh networking it has, but it is unable to drive the precise timing the WS2812-style LEDs  require (perhaps the WS2801 / APA0102 would work). We used Arduino Pro Mini modules to do the heavy lifting for the LED animations.

Dress and Boots Schematic:

Rainbow Brite Dress Parts List:
1 x 12mm Momentary Push Button
1 x Synapse RF200P81
1 x Solarbotics Synapse Breakout Board Kit
1 x Arduino Pro Mini
1  x SPDT Slide Switch
1 x 330 Ohm Resistor

Rainbow Brite Boots Parts List:
2 x Synapse RF200P81
2 x Solarbotics Synapse Breakout Board K it
2 x Arduino Pro Mini
2  x SPDT Slide Switch

Theory of Operation of the Rainbow Brite Dress:

The user controls the costume using a single momentary push button switch.  With each successive activation, the dress is programmed to display different colors and patterns.  The Switch is connected to the Synapse Breakout Board. The synapse module SnapPy script processes the button press, increments a counter, and sends that value to the boots via a Multicast RPC call.  Once sent, it also sends the same command to the local Arduino Pro Mini via the serial port.

The Arduino Pro Mini uses SoftSerial as a serial port for the Synapse module to send it commands.  The commands I send are simple: 1 displays the first pattern, 2-7 cycle colors, 8 displays a rainbow animation, and 9 was reserved for another animation, which we fell short of time, and did not implement.  0 is used to turn the dress off.

WS2812 Addressable LED strips were attached to the Pro Mini via Pin 2.  The Pro mini sent the needed data to the strip using the awesome Library.

Theory of Operation or the Rainbow Brite Boots:

Each Boot had a Synapse Module, a Synapse Breakout Board, and a Pro Mini all sandwiched together.  Commands are sent from the dress to the boots, thereby making the boots extremely simple.  The only control on the boots is a power switch to turn them on and off.

Once a command is received from the dress, the synapse script in the boot sends the message to the Pro Mini.  The Arduino Pro Mini then processes very similar code as the dress.  Rinse and Repeat for the second boot.

Power was a concern for this projects as Lyn “Want to BLIND PEOPLE with her Rainbow-briteness!”, so running these strips “throttled-down” was not an option. Usually, we’d reach for some Lipoly cells, but we had a distinct lack of them on-hand at that moment.

Each boot ran approximately 3M of LED strips (72 LEDs per meter), with the dress taking approximately 4M. We ran the dress on two sets of 4xAA Duracell battery packs, and each boot featured a pair of 3xAA battery packs. Although the boots ran fine at the lower 4.5V, we wanted the dress portion to POP, so it was ran at closer to 5.5~6V. This gave us a battery run time of approximately 40 minutes in full dazzle mode. Battery swaps showed very high discharge rates, as the cells were almost too hot to handle. Better batteries will be re-introduced!

Here is Dan talking about the project:

Friday New Product: Grove, Charger, Strobe LEDs

May 1, 2015

Posted By Yana

We are going to continue with some nice Grove products and mix it up with other bits and pieces:

Grove – Moisture Sensor

This simple Grove moisture sensor is ideal for measuring soil dampness.
Grove – I2C Touch Sensor
This advanced Grove sensor breaks out into 4 touch sensor pads for finger proximity detection.
Grove – Light Sensor

Inexpensive and well designed, it’s handy for general light intensity measurements.
Grove – Water Sensor
A simple but effective Grove water sensor. Expose the electrodes to a drop of water, and the signal drops very low. Can be used with both analog and digital ports.
SparkFun LiPo Charger Basic – Mini-USB

Simple, no-brainer method to charge up a single cell Li-Ion / LiPoly battery.
5mm RGB strobe LEDs

Quick and simple way to add cycling Red/Green/Blue LEDs to a project.
44mm Piezo Speaker

For making a LOUD beep, this piezo suits your need. Comes mounted in a plastic case with mounting tabs.

The Arc Reactor Project

April 24, 2015

Posted By Yana

We needed all our superpowers for the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo this past weekend, so we decided to create our version of Arc Reactor for the team to wear at the show in order to augment the intelligence and add superhuman-level multitasking and learning capabilities (imagination is key at the Comic Expo).

Not happy with just a blinky light, we added connectivity to our setup, which consists of:

  1. The arc reactor pendants. These are worn around the neck and under the shirts, shining through the light fabric, each containing a Synapse mesh-networking radio and control electronics.
  2. The activation box. This contains a Synapse module in an acrylic box. The button initiates a “synchronize to THIS color” signal to all modules on the network.


The pendant case is consists of a 3D printed housing made in-house on our Kossel (we’ll be selling units shortly), with a laser engraved semi translucent acrylic diffuser on top.

A static Arc Reactor just isn’t very visually appealing, so we spiced it up with a flicker, with a “power pulse” on color-mode change.

Component Layout:

The Activation Box

Parts List:

1 x Synapse-to-FTDI Adapter Kit
1 x Synapse RF200P81
1 x Concave Button  (Arcade button)
1 x 5 x AA Holder
1 x DPDT Slide Switch
1 x 330 Ohm Resistor

Principles of Operation:

The box features only 2 input, the main power switch, and the big red button. The button pulls the Synapse module Pin 3 high, which then causes it to transmit a single ascii character (1 through 8 ) to all the receivers.

Synapse modules have an embedded python interpreter, which is called “SNAPpy”. We use this to create “Remote Procedure Calls” (“RPC”) that are routines we can call either local or wirelessly from up the network. The script in the transmitter has a global variable which increments each time the button is pressed, and is multicast out to all the Arc Reactor receivers. The auto-mesh-networking of the Synapse modules means that these calls will be aut0-relayed down the chain to all nodes in the network, even if the Activation box is out of range from the furthest Arc Reactor. With an outdoor range of nearly a kilometer, we didn’t any signalling problems inside the event hall.


The Arc Reactor Modules

Parts List:

1 x Adafruit Neopixel Ring 24
1 x Synapse RF200P81
1 x Solarbotics Synapse Breakout Board Kit
1 x Arduino Pro Mini
1 x Flora RGB Neo Pixel v2
1 x Polymer Lithium Ion Battery
1 x Vibrating Disk Motor
1 x NPN Transistor
1 x JST-PH-2.0 2 Pin Connector Plug w/Wire
1 x 330 Ohm Resistor

Principles of Operation:

The Synapse radio in each Arc Reactor takes the received value and turns it into binary number output on 3 pins.  (1 = 001, 8=111). Time was tight, and we went with a robust, simple method to send this information to the Arduino controlling the LEDs.

The Arduino Pro Mini monitors these pins, and changes the color palette as required. We selected the 24 element Adafruit Neopixel ring to provide illumination connected to the Pro Mini Pin 2.  The awesome Library was used to communicate the data to the pixels.

Initial experiments proved power consumption to be a problem. Rather than powering all LEDs to some level of power, we rewrote the code to turn on only 4 adjacent segments at a time, with the first element at 100% power, the second at 50%, the third at 25%, and the fourth at 12%. This created a really nice flicker effect when rapidly cycled through the ring.


Thoughts, and Conclusions

At one point during the first day of the event, we discussed how funny it would be if we could feel when the reactor is activated, so we could all “JUMP” in unison when somebody hit the switch. A quick on-the-site hack later with a transistor and vibrating disk motor, with a quick code-update (on the fly through the wireless mesh!), we were all buzzing.  Unfortunately, when kids and evil co-workers discovered how nasty it felt to have simulated mild heart palpitations available on-demand, we had to snip the wires on most of the reactors. Haptic feedback, especially mid-chest, can be disturbing.

The technique we outlined here was used in a very similar way on the movie “Tron: Legacy” where similar hardware was used to control the costumes. We found it a very quick and robust way to add group-control to our project.

The Arc Reactor itself was well received by the Cosplay community in attendance. Although not for sale at the time, we’ve been strongly encouraged to make the visual aspect of the Arc Reactor available as a kit. Stay tuned…



Arc Reactor – Synapse code for the Button

Arc Reactor Pendant Synapse – Synapse code for the Pendant

Arc_Reactor_Pendant.ino – Arduino code for the Pendant

Friday New Product: Grove and More

Posted By Yana

Since we haven’t announced new products for a while, we are bringing you a multitude of items, including Grove-compatibles, SD cards, and a lonesome piezo speaker:

Grove – Encoder

This grove unit is a simple way to add a rotation input device to your project.
Grove – PIR Motion Sensor
The Grove PIR sensor is specifically tuned to detect the moving heat signatures of human bodies.
Grove – Tilt Switch

Super simple – it’s a ball in a tube that plugs into the Grove system to detect tilt.
Grove – LED Bar
Another nice visual indicator for the Grove system, with a 10 segment display.
4GB MicroSD Card with Adapter
Name-brand memory cards are a safe bet for getting a quality memory card.
8GB MicroSD Card with Adapter
Name-brand memory cards are a safe bet for getting a quality memory card.
SparkFun Venus GPS with SMA Connector
GPS units continue to improve, and the SparkFun Venus is one of the smallest & versatile available.
44mm Piezo Speaker
For making a LOUD beep, this piezo suits your need. Comes mounted in a plastic case with mounting tabs.


Solarbotics and Art Hack II at ACAD

April 6, 2015

Posted By Yana

Solarbotics has supplied some tech bits and pieces for the recent ART HACK II, an intensive artistic boot camp led by Visiting Artist, Raul Nieves (Blablablab, Practipo Barcelona), where students were building open source the 3D printers. The work produced by students during the workshop will be available for viewing on Thursday April 9th, 2015 in the ACAD’s Lower Mall from 5pm to 7pm – come check out the filament creations if you are interested! This exhibition will be accompanied by a public lecture on state of the art creative applications (art, design, engineering etc.) using the 3D printers including the work created at ACAD.

New Product: EggBot Pro, Batteries, Raspi S.A.F.E., and Day Off

April 2, 2015

Posted By Yana

We are closed tomorrow April 3 for Good Friday, so we are bringing you the new product early:

Today we are happy to announce the addition to the EggBot family – the fully assembled Egg-Bot PRO! We have a few other odds and ends worth checking out, so have a look. There is  Pololu Gyro, a couple of e-textile batteries and a handy Raspberry Pi SAFE that we designed to fit the Pi V2 and B+ models.

Evil Mad Science EggBot Pro

Compact and easy to use with a variety of spherical and egg-shaped objects.
Pololu MinIMU-9 Gyro, Accelerometer, and Compass
You want to know where you are in space? The Pololu MinIMU-9 does it all – an L3G4200D 3-axis gyro and an LSM303DLM 3-axis accelerometer and 3-axis magnetometer onto a tiny 0.9″ × 0.6″ board.
3.7V 110mAh LiPoly battery for E-Textiles

What makes this battery special for E-textiles? Built-in current limiting for safety.
Lithium Ion (LiPoly) Battery – 110mAh 3.7V
Lithium polymer battery, but darn small!
Raspberry Pi S.A.F.E. (for B+ and V2)

The Raspberry Pi S.A.F.E. is upgraded to accommodate the Pi V2 and B+ models.

MakeFashion Tech Gala Photos

March 31, 2015

Posted By Yana

The MakeFashion Gala was a glowing show of glowing lights: new photos for your attention at our Flickr stream.

Photo courtesyGeorge Dimitrov Photography

Among all the other wonderful things we’ve seen and photographed, just wanted to mention that while there have been many uses of our string LEDs before, but nothing quite as intense - Olga Sem, Kat Leto and Marina Ortman did an amazing job of incorporating them into the outfits.

Look at this density! Part of the Joker outfit, photo courtesy Kat Leto.


Solarbotics at MakeFashion 2015

March 26, 2015

Posted By Yana

The Wearable Tech Gala MakeFashion 2015 at the Telus Spark Science Centre is fast approaching, but there is still some time to get your tickets. It’s been 3 years and the event is getting bigger and better, and we are looking forward to seeing the new creations, some of which are coming together with the help of our RnD team. So! Solarbotics is going to attend: on Saturday March 28 2015, come enjoy the parade of ephemeral creatures of light, hot glue, tulle, code and PCBs. And of course say hi to the tall guy in a black hat and the rest of us. By the way, sneak peek preview videos for this year’s show are available if you are interested, and here are some last year’s stunning tech dresses on Solarbotics Flickr.






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