Sunday, March 20, 2011

Open Make Session 3

"You learn how to do things by screwing up—so don't be afraid. If you've got something you want to make and you don't really know what you're doing, just do it; you learn by making mistakes." 
 ~Jay Broemmel, art bike creator
It was again a rainy day driving in to San Francisco for the Open Make Session on metal, but it was well worth the drive. One of the first things we encountered walking through the Exploratorium was this reindeer bicycle:
The same artist, Jay Broemmel, had also made the Golden Gate—
—and a red fiberglass dragon with rotating light-up eyes.
You can see more of Jay's bike creations at the Meet the Makers talk webcast here. Other speakers included Tim Hunkin, David Cole, and experienced Young Makers Sam and Alex. All of these speakers are hard to define in a phrase, as they are each and every one people of diverse interests and abilities.

The theme of how everyone began to make things was particularly strong this month, as Jay showed his childhood model of an Imperial Walker from Star Wars and Tim demonstrated Gladys, the Burglar Catcher, a robot he made at age 11 (the first machine shown in the video link). Sam and Alex showed a number of their previous projects, which they expressly chose with the aim of learning a new skill each year.

A few common themes have evolved from all the speakers over the last three months: Just start, even if you're not sure what you're doing. Expect to make mistakes and learn from them. And have fun. Good advice for almost any endeavor, really.

Back at the plussing session, projects were in various stages:
marshmallow gun
plans for scale model house
a go kart
drawings for the Rubens' Tube
homemade vacuum former to make pieces for the Metroid costume
Tony emphasized that projects should be more or less display-ready at next month's Open Make. He talked about the lull that one experiences after the initial excitement of starting something new. Tony's advice? Expect it, and keep going. Tell yourself you'll only work for 10 minutes. Michelle also emphasized that a project can be modified or scaled down if it helps you to finish it.

I know that all the projects in Young Makers Yolo are still at the beginning stages, so imagine there will be a pretty big push over the next few weeks. In our house at this moment one child is programming his Arduino boards and another is building a new circuit prototype.
At our next meeting, we'll talk about the projects and what is needed to bring them to completion.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Digging into an Xbox controller

We're trying to add a rapid-fire button to a Xbox controller, and the first step is taking it apart. This isn’t quick and easy, as it requires a special tool, a T8 Torx security driver. Some people have been able to use normal T8 drivers if they break off a little tiny post inside the screw head. We didn't have much luck and ordered the special tool online.

Once we had the tool, we spent a morning working on the controllers. After removing a bunch of screws, they separate into halves along with a lot of buttons, rubber pads and small trim pieces to sort and store in a safe place. We also removed the 'rumble packs', which are motors with off-center weights that vibrate during play.

The rapid-fire modification adds a new button that works as if you're pressing the fire trigger many times. We had to drill a hole in the base of the controller to mount it. We first started with a smaller pilot hole, and then carefully expanded to 1/4" to match the button. The plastic is soft and may twist and tear easily, so we used a hand drill and went slow.

The holes were not perfect but the button retaining nut covers up the imperfections. We made sure this was good and secure, as it's tough to tighten these once the whole thing is re-assembled.

Next we soldered two wires to the button.

One wire goes to a contact that's part of the trigger itself. The second goes to a small Light Emitting Diode (LED) that lights up to indicate "player 1" is using the controller. Soldering the wire here was trouble … the LED is a very small component, so the copper pad to solder and attach the wire is tiny. We struggled a bit getting this to attach and remain fixed as we re-assembled the controller, but using a fleck of flux helped. 

The wires on the board have to be carefully positioned between all the buttons, rubber pads and joysticks. We nibbled away a little bit of plastic near the new rapid-fire button to make a space it could fit into. This plastic used to hold the rumble pack on the right side, but that can't be re-installed because we need the space for the button. The second rumble pack went back in normally.

Finally, we managed to get everything back together and could test it out.

Our results were mixed at best. Both controllers still worked, with the exception of the "Player One" LED which did not light up any more. I think the LED or the tiny copper traces on the circuit board may have been damaged trying to attach the wire. The original triggers and other controls are OK, so we didn't destroy anything major. The new rapid-fire button, however, doesn't do rapid-fire. It behaves just like a single-shot trigger, firing once.

Some of the blog posts and information on the web talks about this problem, so we're going to have to dig deeper. Games may be programmed to ignore rapid fire, or more likely, our circuit isn't working or doing what it needs. We'll have to look more carefully at what is going on and how to trigger it faster.