Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Maker Journey, Father and Daughter: Critter Cam Part 2

We had a motivated kid and a willing parent. We had a project picked out. Now all we needed was to get some parts and follow the easy set of 5 or 6 steps in the ad in the magazine. What could possibly go wrong?


We went to the local Radio Shack and the kind person at the counter wrote down all the part numbers, checked the inventory, and then informed us that they had all but two pieces in stock and that no store within 30 miles had both of the remaining parts. So we would have to visit three stores or order the parts online. We wanted to do the project that weekend (Memorial Day) so we opted to do some extra driving.

(Note to Radio Shack employees - when you hand someone a list of part numbers and you know that several of them are "locked" items that require you to unlock the display in order to retrieve them, why not help out the customer instead of making them come and get you for each of the parts?)

Mistake 1: Not getting the parts ahead of time.

By the time we got the parts home, it was time to head to the neighborhood block party, so we shelved the project for the night. We would start fresh the next day.

We began by laying out all the parts and we just jumped right in with step 1. Soon, however, it was clear that there was a certain base level of knowledge assumed and that I was not at that level.

Mistake 2: Not reading ahead and preparing the software side of things.

We powered through step 1, eventually, though it took a while. We had to download and install the arduino IDE, the SD Fat library, and then get it all working together. I didn't know that you had to install the library in a specific place. I figured out enough to get by, thanks to some google searches and trial and error.

My daughter showed some great determination, but eventually she got bored while I fiddled with the computer.

NOW, finally, we were ready to start putting the thing together. My daughter was once again interested and we stared to work.

Only to discover that the instructions in the magazine ad were woefully inadequate! They only showed where 5 of the 7 wires/jumpers plugged in! What, oh what, had I gotten us into?

Mistake 3: Duh. You really, really have to read the instructions ahead of time. Sensing a theme here...

We struggled a bit more before my daughter saw the URL for the Radio Shack DIT site and she managed to find the Critter Cam project there ( Wow! The instructions were so much better! We finally started feeling confident as we figured out where the RX and TX wires from the camera card plugged in to the SD card shield.

The rest of the steps seemed manageable and we got the sketch from the github site uploaded with no problems. We plugged the rest of the stuff back in and took off the lens cap. There's no real way to tell if/when pictures are taken, so we just give it a few minutes and then removed the card and took a look. Sure enough, dozens of black photos (from when the cap was on) and then, there! Two blurry shots of our hands! It worked!


We struggled putting the project skeleton together but eventually we managed to get it all in place and secured. We used some zip ties to hold the case together and we took it outside where it sat all evening and night.

Now, we realized after we started that it would not take night photos. That was a bit of a letdown (again, what should I expect when I'm looking at an ad for a project?) but we figured we'd give it a shot and see what happens.

The next day we raced outside and retrieved the SD card. We put it in the reader and... Nothing! It took no pictures!

Long story short, we figured out that the power adapter was the culprit so we drove to RS and asked the guy there to test it. He took one look at it and (somewhat condescendingly) informed me that the I had the adapter tip set to "negative."

I stared at him. 

"Uh, these things have a negative and a positive, right? Polarity?"

"Okay, sure," I said, encouragingly.

"Well, it's set to negative. See that mark there?"

"Uh, now I do... So...?"

"So we'll pull it off, and turn it that way and then put it back on. There you go."

Yes, he tested the adapter too, just in case, and we seemed ready to go. 

Mistake #4 - #n: Really, really, read the instructions!

We took it home, reset everything, tested it via the outlet and were satisfied it would work.

And this time, it really did work!

(except it just took 500+ pictures in a row right when I plugged it in and didn't wait for any motion detection...)

That's something that I'm sure the camera card instructions cover -- something about a jumper setting (which I actually understand!). So, we'll fix that and be good to go...

Next time: Photo Results?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Maker Journey, Father and Daughter: Critter Cam Part 1 (Intro)

It's the middle of the day, Memorial Day 2014, and it's hot in the little room we use for an office. I'm staring at the screen, trying to understand where it all went wrong. I'm a fit frustrated. There's a little sweat.

"It says to upload the sketch, dad," says my 12-year-old daughter. "Is there an upload button?"

We're trying to figure out how to use the arduino IDE. But I've never even seen an arduino out of its box before this weekend and while I can find my way around a few different programming languages, I'm unprepared for this part of the exercise.

Actually, let me rephrase that: I'm not prepared for any of the parts of the build.

It all started at Maker Faire 2014 in San Mateo. For some reason, I've loved Maker Faire and the make movement for a while, but I don't do any "making" -- at least, not the electronic, or creative, or robotic kinds of making. But the stuff fascinates me and also my daughters. We went to the 2012 Maker Faire and the girls learned to pick locks and solder. They had a blast looking at all of the kinetic art, and they enjoyed the Mentos and soda fountain (I think it was Diet Coke that year).

I hated the crowds, which got so bad around 1pm that I began to try to steer the family to the exits.

In 2013 we returned, despite the huge crowds, and we saw more fire, life-sized mouse trap, and lots of electronic projects. My younger daughter mostly loves the art side of the Maker Faire, but she did linger at the tables where makers showed off their stuff. Meanwhile, everyone at the Maker Faire took their opportunity to bump into me, jostle me, or step on my feet. I was unhappy and vowed to not return in 2014.

Then we returned in 2014.

My daughters found out that Maker Faire was coming and begged me to get tickets. I did, we had fun, and even the crowds seemed nicer this year. I was bruise-free at the end of the 5+ hours we spent there.

The girls did the "Learn to Solder" thing again and then we started looking at fun projects to try. There was no real discussion or deliberate decision made, we just kept saying "Maybe we could do that one?" as we walked through.

Eventually my younger daughter and I decided we would look through the Make magazines at home to look for a simple first time project.

She saw the Radio Shack ad inside the front cover of Make 38 for the Critter Cam and we decided it looked possible. We live in the suburbs, but there's a creek nearby and we get raccoons, possums, owls, squirrels, and tons of neighborhood cats roaming through the yard. It might be interesting to see if we could capture any of them in pictures.

Next time: "It's a simple list of parts, I'm sure they'll have them all..." "Why oh why did we pick this one?" "Rivets???"