Geek Beacon
Greg Abbas

One of the things that I learned during my time at the MIT Media Lab is that computers are more interesting if you make them interact with us in our world, instead of demanding that humans do things that are convenient for computers, like using mice and keyboards. That's what I like about the idea of so-called "eXtreme Feedback" (XF)... if your team is developing software and there's a metric that the team should pay attention to (like whether the build is broken, whether unit tests are passing, etc) then make a device that reports that metric in some way that's more "real" than a web page on a computer monitor. Instead of just sending out an automated email that says "the build is broken!", put a device in the real world that shows whether the build is currently in good shape or not. Such a device is called an "Extreme Feedback Device" (or "XFD" for short) and people have thought of some creative ones, including lava lamps, bears, and orbs.

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If the software your team is building is compiling correctly, then the green lava lamp turns on. If there's an error, then the red one turns on instead. I wanted to give an XFD to my team, but like so many engineers, I had the strong desire to build it myself instead of buying one off-the-shelf. I decided to try a more "steam punk" aesthetic, to see if I could give a device a less modern look. The result is the Geek Beacon.

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The base is made from an antique wooden coffee grinder, and the shade is a vintage ceiling light from a 1939 Sears & Roebuck catalog. But despite the old-fashioned appearance, it has a microcontroller with an embedded TCP/IP server that can make the lamp shine any color of the rainbow, including animations. If you look carefully at the photo, you'll see two cables coming out the back: one is for power, and the other one is ethernet. Here's what it looks like when it's turned on (showing blue):


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I'm not as good with hardware as I am with software, so a few years ago this would've been an extremely challenging project for me. But around the time I learned about XFDs, I also discovered the Arduino Project. Arduino is an "open-source electronics prototyping platform", which basically means they've already done the hard work developing a well-designed microcontroller that has excellent input/output support. You can combine several circuit boards together by stacking them on top of each other, so that's what I did and it was great fun. I started with an Arduino Diecimila that I got for my birthday (thanks Mom & Dad!), added an "Ethernet Shield" to handle the network interface, and finally a "Proto Shield" to hold the LED driver circuits that I wanted to build. Here's what the boards look like (ethernet on the left, LED driver in the middle, and Diecimila on the right):

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They fit together using the headers on the sides of each board. When stacked up, they fit inside the drawer in the coffee grinder.

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For output, on top I hooked up four "Super Flux" RGB LEDs:

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Getting all sixteen LED leads soldered just right was probably the most challenging part of the whole project, so if I had to do it over again I think I would probably use something that required a little less assembly, like maybe the BlinkM RGB Blaster.

For the enclosure (all the non-electronic stuff) I scoured several local antique shops trying to find stuff that struck the right chord. But I didn't find anything I loved, so I ended turning to the internet. Got the coffee grinder on Craigslist in Louisville Kentucky, and the lamp shade on Ebay. And then I needed a few bits of obscure lamp hardware that I bought from a company in Connecticut (through a series of tubes).

I can sketch the circuit if anyone's really interested, but it's pretty simple... just a transistor per LED to give the PWM output lines a little more kick.

Right now this gizmo is still in my home office, but stay tuned for part 2, "Geek Beacon goes to Apple!"