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2017 April 29

Santa Cruz Mini Maker Faire 2017

Today I spent about 10 hours on the 2017 Santa Cruz Mini Maker Faire.  The hours for the Faire were 10–5, but I spent some time setting up and tearing down afterwards, so I left the house around 8:30 a.m. and had the bike trailer unpacked and everything back in the house by about 6:30 p.m.  I figure that I spent only about 10 hours earlier on setup for this Faire: applying for the Faire, setting out all the displays and testing them at home, preparing new blurbs for my book and blog, making table signs telling people how to use the interactive parts of the display, blogging about the Faire, and doing load-in last night.  That is a lot less than last year, as I was able to reuse a lot of the design from last year.

Here is the table display I ended up with:

The bare corner at the front left was reserved for the students in my freshman design course who were coming to display their muscle-controlled robot arm, but they decided to set up in back (you can see one of the lead students in the background).

I had four interactive displays (from left to right):

  • A pair of function generators and an oscilloscope showing Lissajous figures.  I changed this from last year, as I did not use the FG085 function generator this year, but one of the function generators from the Analog Discovery 2.  I still used the Elenco FG500, despite the very low quality of its waveforms, because it has a knob that is easy for kids to turn, and is easy to reset if they mess it up (unlike the jamming buttons on the FG085).  I did not use the second function generator on the Analog Discovery 2, as I did not want kids playing with just a software interface (and a rather complicated one at that).  It might even be worthwhile for me to build a simple audio sine-wave oscillator with a single big knob over the summer, so that I can have something for kids to play with that is fairly robust and that can’t be easily set into a weird state.  I could even do two, just for Lissajous figures, though having one fixed oscillator worked well this time.  I had the Analog Discovery 2 oscilloscope showing on the laptop next to the old Kikusui CRT oscilloscope, showing both the waveforms and the XY plot, so that I could explain to adults what was happening with the Lissajous figures and about the differences between classic oscilloscopes and modern USB-based ones.
    A lot of people asked me about the Analog Discovery 2, which I was very enthusiastic about—Digilent should be giving me a commission! (They aren’t, although I’m sure I’m responsible for at least half a dozen sales for them, and a lot more if we go ahead with our plan to use them in place of bench equipment in my class next year.)
  • In front of the laptop showing the Lissajous figures, I had a standalone optical pulse monitor using the log-transimpedance amplifier and the TFT LCD display.  Using the log-transimpedance amplifier worked well, as did using a lego brick to block light to the sides and back of the phototransistor.  A lot of people have trouble holding their hands still enough to get good readings (particularly children), so it would be good to have some sort of clip instead of resting a finger over the phototransistor.  I’ve tried making clips in the past, but I’m not good at mechanical design, and I’ve always ended up with either a clamp that is too tight (cutting off circulation and getting no reading) or too loose (falling off).  Ideally, I’d want a pressure between systolic and diastolic pressure, so about 12kPa (90mmHg).  People did like the use of Lego as a support, though—it provided a familiar element in the strange world of electronics.
  • To the right of the pulse monitor was a pressure sensor.  I had a mechanical gauge and the electronic sensor both connected to a piece of soft silicone tubing taped to the table top.  Kids pressed on the tubing to get an increase in pressure, visible on the gauge (about 20–60 mmHg) and on graph PteroDAQ was running on the little laptop (which we refer to as the “Barbie” laptop, because of its color and small size).  I explained to kids that the tubing was like the tubing stretched across roads sometimes to count cars, with a pressure sensor that recorded each pulse as wheels compressed the tubing.  (For some of the old-timers, I reminded them of when gas stations used to use a similar system.)
    PteroDAQ worked well for this setup, running all day at 20 samples per second without a glitch.  The only problem was occasional display sleep from the laptop, fixable by touching the touch pad.
  • At the far right end of the table, I had a phototransistor which kids could shadow with their hands, with the result visible on another channel on PteroDAQ.  This was a last-minute change, as I was getting very unreliable results from the capacitive touch sensor when I tested it out last night.  The capacitive touch sensor worked fine at my house, but in the kindergarten room at Gateway I has a different electrical environment, and it would not work unless I grounded myself. Rather than fuss with the touch sensor, I made a new table sign and put in a light sensor instead.
    I might want to experiment this summer with different ways of making touch plates—trying to get one that doesn’t rely on the toucher being grounded.  My initial thought is that if I have two conductors that are not too close together, but which would both be close to a finger if the touch plate is touched, then I may be able to get more reliable sensing.  I could try some wire-and-tape prototypes and maybe make PC boards with different conductor layouts.  (OSH Park‘s pricing scheme would be good for such tiny boards).

I also had my laptop displaying my book; some quarter-page blurbs with URLs for my book, PteroDAQ, and this blog; my 20-LED strobe; my desk lamp; and a PanaVise displaying one of the amplifier prototyping boards.

I’d like to think of a more exciting project for kids to play with next year—perhaps something I could build over the summer.  Readers, any suggestions?

In addition to my display, some of the freshmen from my freshman design seminar class demonstrated their EMG-controlled robot arm (which uses the MeArm kit):

The students built a MeArm from a kit, then programmed a Teensy board to respond to muscle signals amplified by amplifiers designed by other students in the class. The combined project had two channels: one for controlling the forward-backward position of the arm (using the biceps), the other for controlling the gripper (using muscles in the forearm). With practice, people could pick up a light object with the robot arm.

The scheduling of the Mini Maker Faire was not ideal this year, as it conflicted with the Tech Challenge, Santa Cruz County Math contest, the California Invention Convention, and the Gem and Mineral Show, all of which draw from the same audience as the Mini Maker Faire.

The Faire seemed to be reasonably well attended (rather slow for the first hour and half, but picking up considerably in the afternoon).  There was plenty of room for more exhibitors, so I think that organizers need to do a bit more outreach to encourage people to apply.  It would probably help if they were quicker responding to applicants (it took them over three months to respond to my application, and then only after I nudged them).

Some obvious holes in the lineup: The Museum of Art and History did not have a display, but I saw Nina Simons there, and she said that MAH definitely plans to do it next year, but the Abbott Square renovation is taking up all their time this year.   The fashionTEENS fashion show was April 21, just over a week ago, so it would have been good to get some of them to show their fashions again: either on mannequins or as a mini-show on the stage.  It might be good to get some of Santa Cruz’s luthiers or fine woodworkers to show—we have a lot of top-notch ones, and many do show stuff at Open Studios. The only displays from UCSC were mine and the Formula Slug electric race car team.

Of the local fab labs, Cabrillo College Fab Lab and Idea Fab Labs were present, but The Fábrica and the Bike Church were not.  I thought that Cabrillo did a great job of exhibiting, but Idea Fab Labs was a little too static—only the sand table was interactive.

It might be good to have Zun Zun present their Basura Batucada show (entirely on instruments made from recycled materials) and have a booth on making such instruments.  It might be hard to get Zun Zun to volunteer, but they used to be very cheap to hire (I hired them to give a show at my son’s kindergarten class 15 years ago—they were very cheap then, but I don’t know what their prices are now).

One problem my wife noted was the lack of signs on the outside of classrooms, so that people would know what was inside.  The tiny signs that the Faire provided (I think—I didn’t get one) were too small to be of any use.  It may be enough to tell makers to bring a poster-sized sign to mount.  I had my cloth banner behind my table, but a lot of the displays were hard to identify.  Instructions or information mounted on tables would also have been good—again these would have to be provided by the makers.  I did not see people carrying maps this year—they can also be helpful in getting people to find things that were tucked away in odd corners.  Not many people made it back to the second kindergarten room where FabMo and the Lace Museum activities were.


2017 April 11

Maybe eliminate bench equipment next year

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:40
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One of the BELS (Baskin Engineering Lab Support) staff had an interesting proposal for next year: maybe, instead of tying up a lab with $200,000 worth of bench equipment next year, the applied electronics course could have students rent a box containing an Analog Discovery 2 (with USB cable and power supply).  Each box would cost about $200, and students could rent them for about $30 a quarter (there is precedent for this approach—it is used in the first programming course for Computer Engineering).  As long as the failure rate for the USB oscilloscopes is low enough, the rental would cover replacement about every three years.  Furthermore, students could purchase the boxes at the end of the course for cost minus the rental rate.  Given the attractiveness of the instrument to bioelectronics students and to hobbyists, I suspect that about 1/3 of the boxes would get bought each year.

The initial investment is relatively modest (about $20,000 for 100 boxes) and the change would make it much easier to schedule the labs next year—all that is needed is a room with enough electrical outlets and enough tables and chairs (not even fancy lab benches).  We’d also need to have soldering irons and fume extractors, but those have already been purchased (though we may need to get more, as they keep getting used for other courses and other needs.

I’m now trying to decide between two options:

  • Stick with the conventional bench equipment we have.
  • Switch to using the Analog Discovery 2 exclusively (with maybe a handheld DMM for use as an ohmmeter)

The conventional bench equipment approach has the advantage of teaching the students how to use equipment that they are likely to see again in other courses or in research labs. The Analog Discovery 2 is not suitable for high-frequency work, so students going into work that need higher bandwidth will have to learn conventional bench equipment—the current course is the best training available to the students and helps them considerably in the EE lab courses, where they are expected to figure out the rather complicated bench equipment on their own. The bench equipment approach also requires no extra expenses for the students.

The Analog Discovery 2 approach has the advantage of allowing the students to do almost all the labs anywhere.  With the lab time for 5 sections coming to 16 hours a week, not having to share a lab with another course would be a welcome relief, both for us and for them.  (Also, we wouldn’t have to deal with all the damage that the untrained, unsupervised students in the first EE class do to the equipment.)  The Analog Discovery 2 provides an easier-to-use interface for all the equipment than the rather clunky old interfaces of the bench equipment in the lab—some of the labs that now take hours could be done in a few minutes, because of the better integration of the instrumentation. Furthermore, the students would be able to buy at very low cost a piece of equipment that would serve them very well in other courses and as hobbyists.

If we did go with the Analog Discovery 2, I would have to rewrite big chunks of the book to adapt the labs and remove (or separate to different sections) references to the bench equipment. I’m already planning to do a fairly major overhaul of the book this summer and fall, so that’s not a major argument one way or the other.

Faithful readers, advise me! Should I stick with the bench equipment or should I move to BELS renting out Analog Discovery 2 boxes next year?  What other factors should I consider in making the decision?

2017 April 10

Electret microphone hysteresis

Filed under: Circuits course,Data acquisition — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:05
Tags: , , , ,

In attempting to determine the I-vs-V characteristics of an electret microphone, I stumbled across a phenomenon that I’m still having difficulty explaining.  What I was looking for was a plot like this one:

I-vs-V DC characteristics for an electret microphone. The linear and saturation regions are nicely distinguished and there is little noise.

In previous years I had collected the data with PteroDAQ, but this plot was done with my Analog Discovery 2, which combines both the function generator and the data acquisition. Because I was in a bit of a hurry, the first time I tried doing the characterization, I used a shorter period for the function generator, and got a somewhat different plot:

The hysteresis observed here was unexpected. The loop is traced clockwise, with the upper curve for increasing voltage and the lower curve for decreasing voltage.

At first I thought that the effect was a thermal one, like I saw when characterizing power MOSFETs, but a thermal phenomenon would get more pronounced at slower sweep rates (more time to heat up and cool down), while the hysteresis here could be reduced by sweeping very slowly. Also, the hysteresis did not rely on running large currents—the mic was dissipating less than 1mW at the most, and changing the voltage range did not change the hysteresis much.

My next conjecture was a capacitive effect, which I tentatively confirmed by either adding a capacitor in parallel with mic (increasing the hysteresis) or a capacitor in parallel with the 5.1kΩ sense resistor (which reduced the hysteresis or even reversed it).

I tried playing with the frequency of the excitation waveform, to see what happened to the hysteresis:

This pretty plot shows the transition from nearly DC (the curve that looks like the first one of the post) to something that looks almost like a resistor, with current going up linearly with voltage, as the frequency is increased.

Because the hysteresis did not seem to depend on the amount of the sweep, I picked a voltage well into the saturation region (4V), and tried doing a Bode plot of impedance for the mic for a relatively small signal (±1V). I then fit the Bode plot with an (R1+C)||R2 model:

The parallel resistor corresponds to the slope of the DC I-vs-V curve around a bias of 4V. The model fits the data so well that the curve for the data is hidden by the model curve.

I also tried a Bode plot for a DC offset of 2V and an amplitude of ±300mV:

Like with the 4V DC bias, I got an extremely good fit with the (R1+C)||R2 model. The parallel resistance is different, because the slope of the I-vs-V plot is a little higher (so smaller resistance) at 2V than at 4V.

Because the network tool in WaveForms 2015 provides phase information as well as magnitude information, I did my fit first on magnitude, then on phase. The phase fitting was also extremely good:

I show only the 2V phase plot here—the 4V one is similar, though the biggest phase shift is -56.5° at 3.5V, rather than -45.1° at 4.6 Hz.

So I have an excellent electrical model of the behavior of the electret mic at a couple of different bias voltages, with a simple explanation for one of the parameters of the model. I’m still mystified where the capacitance (about 1.7µF) and the other resistance (about 8kΩ) come from. I suppose, theoretically, that they could be tiny surface mount components inside the can of the mic, but I see no reason for the manufacturer to go to the trouble and expense of doing that. The pictures of a disassembled mic at suggest a rather low-tech, price-sensitive manufacturing process.

Incidentally, until I looked at those pictures, I had a rather different mental model of how the electret mic was assembled, envisioning one with a simple membrane and the electret on the gate of a MOSFET. It seems that the electret is put on the surface of the membrane and a jFET is used rather than a MOSFET. After thinking about it for a while, I believe that a jFET is used in order to take advantage of the slight leakage current to the gate—the gate will be properly biased as a result of the leakage. The OpenMusicLabs post showed a 2SK596 jFET (an obsolete part), which has an input resistance of only 25—35MΩ, easily low enough to provide bias due to leakage currents. If the gate is biased to be about 0V relative to the source, then the jFET is on by default,

The 1.7µF capacitance is huge—many orders of magnitude larger than I could explain by a Miller effect (unless I’ve screwed up my computations totally) as all the capacitances for the jFET are in the pF range, and the multiplier for the Miller effect should only be around 5–50 (1–10mS times the 5.1kΩ load), so I’m still at a loss to explain the hysteresis. I checked to see whether the effect was something in my test setup, by replacing the mic with a 10kΩ resistor, but it behaved like a 10kΩ resistor across the full range of frequencies that I used for testing the mic—this is not some weird artifact of the test setup, but a phenomenon of the microphone (and probably just of the jFET in the mic).

I suppose I should buy a jFET (maybe a J113, that has a 2mA saturation current with a 0V Vgs) to see if other jFETS have similar properties, connecting the gate to the source with a small capacitor to imitate the electret biasing.

Incidentally, while doing this experimenting, I found a bug in the Waveforms 2015 code: if you sweep the frequencies downward in the network analyzer (which works), on output to a file the frequencies are misreported (as if they had been swept upward). I reported this on the Digilent Forum, and they claim it will be fixed in the next release. The time between the report and the acknowledgement was only a few hours, which is one of the fastest responses I’ve seen for a software bug report. (They didn’t say when the next release will be, but they’ve had several since I bought my Analog Discovery 2 four months ago, so they seem to be releasing bug fix versions rapidly.)

2017 February 18

Digilent’s OpenScope

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:08
Tags: , , , ,


Digilent, which makes the excellent Analog Discovery 2 USB oscilloscope, which I have praised in several previous post, is running a Kickstarter campaign for a lower-cost oscilloscope: OpenScope: Instrumentation for Everyone by Digilent — Kickstarter.

I’m a little confused about this design, though, as is it is a much lower-quality instrument without a much lower price tag (they’re looking at $100 instead of the $180 or $280 price of the Analog Discovery 2, so it is cheaper, but the specs are much, much worse). The OpenScope looks like a hobbyist attempt at an oscilloscope, unlike the very professional work of the Analog Discovery 2—it is a real step backwards for Digilent.

Hardware Limitations:

  • only a 2MHz bandwidth and 6.25MHz sampling rate (much lower than the 30MHz bandwidth and 100MHz sampling of the Analog Discovery 2)
  • 2 analog channels with shared ground (instead of differential channels)
  • 12-bit resolution (instead of 14-bit)
  • 1 function generator with 1MHz bandwidth and 10MHz sampling (instead of 2 channels 14MHz bandwidth, 100MHz sampling)
  • ±4V programmable power supply up to 50mA (instead of ±5V up to 700mA)
  • no case (you have to 3D print one, or buy one separately)

On the plus side, it looks like they’ll be basing their interface on the Waveforms software that they use for their real USB oscilloscope, which is a decent user interface (unlike many other USB oscilloscopes).  They’ll be doing it all in web browsers though, which makes cross-platform compatibility easier, at the expense of really messy programming and possibly difficulty in handling files well.  The capabilities they list for the software are much more limited than Waveforms 2015, so this may be a somewhat crippled interface.

I would certainly recommend to students and educators that the $180 for the Analog Discovery 2 is a much, much better investment than the rather limited capabilities of the OpenScope.  For a hobbyist who can’t get the academic discount, $280 for the Analog Discovery 2 is probably still a better deal than $100 for the OpenScope. The Analog Discovery 2 and a laptop can replace most of an electronics bench for audio and low-frequency RF work, but the OpenScope is much less capable.

The only hobbyist advantage I can see for the OpenScope (other than the slightly lower price) is that they are opening up the software and firmware, so that hobbyists can hack it.  The hardware is so much more limited, though, that this is not as enticing as it might be.

Some people might be attracted by the WiFi capability, but since power has to be supplied by either USB or a wall wart, I don’t see this as being a huge win.  I suppose there are some battery-powered applications for which not being tethered could make a difference (an oscilloscope built into a mobile robot, for example).

Going from a high-quality professional USB scope to a merely adequate hobbyist scope for not much less money makes no sense to me. It would have made more sense to me if they had come out with OpenScope 5 years ago, and later developed the Analog Discovery 2 as a greatly improved upgrade.

2017 February 6

Hysteresis oscillator is voltage-dependent

Filed under: Circuits course,Data acquisition — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:42
Tags: , , ,

Today in class I did a demo where I tested the dependence of the frequency of my relaxation oscillator board on the power supply voltage.

The demo I did in class had to be debugged on the fly (it turns out that if you configure the power supplies of the Analog Discovery 2 to be low-speed waveform channels, then you can’t set them with the “Supplies” tool, but there is no warning that you can’t when you do the setting), but otherwise went well.

One surprising result (i.e., something else that hadn’t happened when I tested the demo at home on Sunday) was that the frequency appeared to go up instead of down when I touched the capacitive touch sensor.  This I managed to quickly debug by changing my sampling rate to 600Hz, and observing that the 60Hz frequency modulation was extreme at the podium, taking the oscillation frequency from 0Hz to 3MHz on each cycle.  Grounding myself against the laptop removed this interference and produced the smooth expected signal.

Anyway, when I got home I was much too tired to grade the lab reports turned in today (I’ve got a cold that is wiping me out), so after a nap and dinner, I decided to make a clean plot of frequency vs. power-supply voltage for my relaxation oscillator.  I stuck the board into a breadboard, with no touch sensor, so that the capacitance would be fairly stable and not too much 60Hz interference would be picked up.  I powered the board from the Analog Discovery 2 power supply, sweeping the voltage from 0V to 5V (triangle wave, 50mHz, for a 20-second period).

I used the Teensy LC board with PteroDAQ to record both the frequency of the output and the voltage of the power supply.  To protect the Teensy board inputs, I used a 74AC04 inverter with 3.3V power to buffer the output of the hysteresis board, and I used a voltage divider made of two 180kΩ resistors to divide the power-supply voltage in half.

When I recorded a few cycles of the triangle waveform, using 1/60-second counting times for the frequency measurements, I got a clean plot:

At low voltages, the oscillator doesn't oscillate. The frequency then goes up with voltage, but peaks around 4.2V, then drops again at higher voltages.

At low voltages, the oscillator doesn’t oscillate. The frequency then goes up with voltage, but peaks around 4.2V, then drops again at higher voltages.

I expected the loss of oscillation at low voltage, but I did not expect the oscillator to be so sensitive to power-supply voltage, and I certainly did not expect it to be non-monotone.  I need to heed my class motto (“Try it and see!”) more often.

Sampling at a higher frequency reveals that the hysteresis oscillator is far from holding a steady frequency:

Using 1/600 second counting intervals for the frequency counter reveals substantial modulation of the frequency.

Using 1/600 second counting intervals for the frequency counter reveals substantial modulation of the frequency.

This plot of frequency vs. time shows the pattern of frequency modulation, which varies substantially as the voltage changes, but seems to be repeatable for a given voltage. (One period of the triangle wave is shown.)

This plot of frequency vs. time shows the pattern of frequency modulation, which varies substantially as the voltage changes, but seems to be repeatable for a given voltage. (One period of the triangle wave is shown.)

Zooming in on a region where the frequency modulation is large, we can see that there are components of both 60Hz and 120Hz.

Zooming in on a region where the frequency modulation is large, we can see that there are components of both 60Hz and 120Hz.

I could reduce the 60Hz interference a lot by using a larger C and smaller R for the RC time constant. That would make the touch sensor less sensitive (since the change in capacitance due to touching would be the same, but would be a much smaller fraction of the total capacitance). The sensor is currently excessively sensitive, though, so this might be a good idea anyway.

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