Where Are They Now? CNC Mill Edition


Like 3D printers, CNC mills have migrated to the desktop. A handful of the little guys have sprung up, making routing more accessible for schools and home use. They may not be seeing the explosion in popularity of their additive brethren, but the landscape is vibrant and the tools are continually improving. Here are five of the most popular, with details on how they have updated their hardware, software, business plans, or personnel.


MTM Snap The MTM Snap — so named because it’s part of the Machines that Make project and it snaps together — hasn’t changed much lately, but it’s important as the progenitor of Other Lab’s Othermill. Originally a project out of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, MTM Snap’s designer, Jonathan Ward, went to Otherlab to help found its hardware division, Other Machine Co.

81af4ec286d6fa65177399fc93ced8b3_largeOthermill Backers of Other Machine Co.‘s Kickstarter, which cruised past its goal last year, have begun receiving their Othermills. Meanwhile, its creators have introduced tutorials for milling printed circuit boards, and launched computer-aided manufacturing software called Otherplan to use design files to directly control the mill.

PocketNC PocketNC introduced its 5-axis desktop mill just last September at World Maker Faire, and prospective buyers are still awaiting a Kickstarter for the P5, but a lucky few are beta testing the device.

Shapeoko 21395246_10151615158545997_2040692157_n There’s a new Shapeoko in town. The second iteration of the low-cost mill, available on Inventables, is bigger, badder, and can be run with Inventables’ still-in-beta Easel CAM software.


Mebotics Microfactory Mebiotics is showing new signs of life after its Microfactory 3D printer/CNC mill combo failed to reach its Kickstarter goal. The startup has been accepted into — and begun — Betaspring’s 13-week accelerator program.

TrackR: Crowdfunded Bluetooth Wafer Helps You Find Misplaced Wallet, etc.

The $19 TrackR is a like a leash between your wallet and your mobile phone. It’s a Bluetooth-enabled wafer of plastic that fits in your wallet or pocket. You pair it with your phone, and whenever the TrackR and your phone get separated both your phone and the TrackR start beeping.

The app also takes a GPS snapshot of where your wallet was at the moment of separation in case you didn’t hear the alert. Tap a button within the app to make your wallet “ring” in case your looking for it around the house or in the dark. The technology works both ways, which means your wallet can beep to alert you that you’re leaving your phone behind. Works with your iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, new iPad, iPad mini and the new iPod Touch.

Yesterday, I met with Scott Hawthorne (left) and Chris Herbert (right) of Phone Halo, the 5-person company that designed the TrackR. They demoed the TrackR and I was impressed with how well it works. At $19, it seems like a good deal. They said the battery life is 1.5 years.

Scott and Chris kindly left a sample unit with me, which I plan to start using. I’ll review it after I’ve had it for a week or two.

The TrackR will be available in the US and internationally as soon as the FCC and CE approve it (it uses low-power Bluetooth). You can pre-order one on Indiegogo for an estimated April delivery.

AirHarp for Leap Controller


The Leap Motion 3D controller is gearing up for general availability, but some developers have already started creating interesting interactive apps for the device. Check out developer Andy Summers’ AirHarp app that takes advantage of the Leap’s accuracy to produce an expressive music app. [via Synthtopia]

Peek Inside the Microsoft Surface Tablet

The folks over at iFixit go the extra mile to bring you the Microsoft Surface Tablet Teardown. Not your average piece of hardware, the Microsoft Surface is a slim entry into the already bloated tablet market — though a release that was eagerly anticipated and met with great enthusiasm. Getting inside the svelte confines of Surface enclosure proved to be an arduous task deftly performed by iFixIt’s crack team of teardown experts. Though it was noted that there were many modular components and an accessible battery, the case itself proved to be tricky to access, and the optically bonded display unit took some babysitting with a heat gun. Join the iFixit team as they dive into the guts of Microsofts latest foray into personal computing.

Magnetic Appcessories with Andrea Bianchi

Tangible interface designer and inventor Andrea Bianchi, along with his colleague, Ian Oakley (University of Madeira / Carnegie Mellon Europe), have come with a novel approach to interacting with a mobile device. Using the magnetometer built into most modern smartphones, Bianchi and Oakley have created a series of tangible user interface demonstrations that go beyond what’s achievable with capacitive touch displays.

We caught up with Andrea over the weekend as he prepares to deliver a presentation at the upcoming ACM TEI 2013 conference in Barcelona to ask him a few questions about his technique.

MAKE: How does this differ from capacitive touch tokens?

Bianchi: First of all, capacitive tokens need to occupy (often relatively large) portions of the screen, while magnetic tokens can be located anywhere around the screen. In the video many tokens are located on the screen to simplify the calibration process: since the location of the token is know in advance (there is a “put the token here” marker on the GUI), then it is trivial to detect the position/orientation of the magnet. However, all the techniques shown in the video can work equally well off screen (for example assuming that we put all the tokens on the left or right of the screen).

Moreover, the capacitive tokens cannot be passively sensed, requiring either human contact or active electrical components to simulate finger touches (here an example). However, magnetic tokens do not require the user to keep touching them, nor they are active components (not batteries, just magnets…)

MAKE: Assuming you don’t have to touch the device for this technique to work, what is the practical distance it can be used?

Bianchi: It depends on the strength of the magnets and the interferences of other magnetic fields. Assuming there are not other strong magnets around, usually the device will sense the Earth magnetic field (0.25 to 0.65 gauss). The 3 magnets we used were very strong in comparison (Small: thickness 2mm, diameter 0.5 cm, 400 gauss; Medium: thickness 2mm, diameter 1 cm, 1000 gauss; Large: thickness 2mm, diameter 2 cm, 1500 gauss) so we had no problem detecting them, and you can imagine that we could have used a much richer set of identifiable magnets. To avoid noise and keep detection reliable, I would say that empirically we found that 10cm from the device border is about as much as you want to get, but this can be probably improved.

MAKE: What is the smallest magnet you have used? How about the largest? Does physical size matter?

Bianchi: Magnetic fields have two properties: strength and direction. Strength is the intensity of a magnetic field and it varies from magnet to magnet and with distance. Direction reflects the fact that magnets have a north and south pole. Flipping a magnet inverts the poles, causing substantial changes to the magnetic field. Both strength and direction can be measured with a gauss-meter or via magneto-meters and compass sensors. Hence, the magnet physical size (see previous question) matters. The strength of a magnetic field is affected by the size of a magnet. Our software simply sense measurable changes on the magnetic field and try to use them to build novel interactions for exploring the design space. We could have used more than three magnets, but we just adopted a simple approach for the demo.

MAKE: How many magnets can you use at once?

Bianchi: Our techniques leverage on the detection of the magnetic field strength (e.g., detecting position, or size, linear movement), or orientation (e.g, flipping, rotational movement), or both (e.g., orientation). Since the software only reads a cumulative value of the magnetic field strength and direction, it cannot know if for instance a “small intensity” is due to a small magnet or a strong magnet that is far away. Generally though you can use multiple magnets if you measure different (orthogonal) properties (e.g., one magnet will be used for the strength, one for the direction) or if they are used together to achieve a combined effect (e.g, snapping two magnets together makes a stronger field, so we can identify this action). I attach a table that show you how these techniques can be combined together. So for instance, “flipping and position” or “flipping and identification” leverages on orthogonal properties, so we can use 2 magnets at the same time. “Position and identification” leverages both on the magnetic strenghts so only one token at a time can be used. This problem can be solved either introducing a more complex calibration, or constraints on the movement (e.g., only few targets) or using actively powered magnets (e.g, solenoid) which could pulse at different identifiable frequencies.

MAKE: Can this break my device?

Bianchi: It is usually good to keep (strong) magnets away from electronic devices. In practice though, I did not find any damage or malfunctioning of my devices (phone and tablets) during or after the usage of magnetic appcessories. 

MAKE: Are you using a particular platform to develop and if so, why?

Bianchi: We used Android on a Samsung Galaxy Tab simply because developing a prototype for Android is extremely simple. All this work was basically built in few days.

MAKE: How can I get started using this in my app? 

Bianchi: We have not released an app yet, but we are considering working on a open source toolbox to help other developers working with magnets. This work is however still very young and require some few iterations. Extensions of this work will investigate better ways to calibrate magnets, tokens that snap together (creating recognizably stronger magnets), explore the potential of active magnetic tokens (e.g., electromagnets pulsing at different frequencies) to create larger sets of uniquely identifiable tokens and combine magnetic sensing with capacitive sensing.

MAKE: What are some of your favorite examples of this technique in practice?

Bianchi: When I was designing these tokens I was thinking to use them for DJing. So, that’s the inspiration for sliders (faders) and wheels (volume and gain controllers) or even menu selections. The main idea is that we could use tangible interaction with commonplaces devices for some activities (e.g., DJing) that seem to work much better with physical widgets than not “beyond-the-glass” graphical interfaces. I also can imagine how magnetic appcessories could be used for making toys.

Finger-mounted Device Creates Its Own Touch Interface

Flipping the touch screen paradigm on its ear, a group from Autodesk Research, the University of Toronto, and the University of Alberta have created a new method and apparatus for user interaction. Dubbed Magic Finger, the system consists of a micro NanEye RGB camera, an optical mouse sensor, and an LED attached to the index finger with hook and loop. It’s all very beta at the moment, but such a device, if developed further, could turn any flat surface into a touch interface. [via Gizmag]

Mind-powered Animal Ears

Yesterday I went to check out Burning Man Decompression in San Francisco. While it doesn’t have nearly the scope of art and sound projects as the main event, there was still a lot of impressive sculpture, good music, and fun to be had. And as always, there were incredible costumes. There were a pair of giant cardboard robots interacting with passersby, a gentleman dressed as a walking gold lamé shower, and my personal favorite, brainwave-controlled animal ears.

Yes, you read that right.

This is without a doubt the next best thing to actually being a colorful furry animal (for those who’d be interested in that sort of thing). I got chatting with the guy who was wearing these fuzzy orange fox ears, which move in accordance with your emotional state (triggered by alpha and beta brainwaves). Turned out that Nick Hoffman, the guy under the ears, was also the guy behind the ears: his company EMOKI created these anthropomorphic accessories. He was really excited to tell me all about them and show off the range of emotion they can convey. For example, they perk up when you see somebody cute, they droop down when you feel relaxed, and they wiggle when you get excited.

This blissed out lady will show you the science behind the EEG headset

Here’s how they work (from EMOKI’s website):

  1. The forehead sensor listens to the body’s electrical signal, like a microphone.
  2. The ear clip acts as a ground and reference, listening to non-brainwave body electricity.
  3. The brainwave chip takes both signals and filters out all the electrical noise from the body and the ambient environment, honing in on brainwaves from 3-100 Hz.
  4. The chip’s internal algorithms convert the brainwave data to attention and meditation scores.
  5. Depending on one’s attention and relaxation scores, the servo motors rotate and wiggle.

Teague Labs 13:30 Printable Headphones

Over at Teague Labs maker John Mabry has been having a bit of fun creating printable consumer electronics. Named after its elapsed print time, the 13:30 is a pair of working stereo headphones. The idea for these stylish ear goggles centered around the notion of printed prototypes as actual products. Even though printed on a professional-grade soluble support printer, John was nice enough to place his design files on Thingiverse for those interested in making their own. He’s also working on a variant capable of working on a MakerBot Replicator. [via Core77]

Glove Based Sign-to-Speech System

The EnableTalk system uses a glove-mounted microcontroller to collate information from a passel of onboard sensors—11 flex sensors, 8 touch sensors, 2 accelerometers, a compass, and a gyroscope—and transmit it wirelessly to a nearby computer or smartphone for translation into machine generated speech. The Ukrainian development team—Posternikov Anton, Maxim Osika, Anton Stepanov, and Valera Yasakov—recently won the 2012 Microsoft Imagine Cup’s 1st place “Software Design” award, and took home $25K. Their prototype includes solar panels to help prolong battery life. [Thanks, Tim!]

EnableTalk project page


Android Sign Language Interpreting Glove

AudioPail Portable iPhone Speakers in a Lunch Box

If you’re looking for a nice portable speaker for your iPhone or iPod Touch and are into the retro look of an old lunch box, then you’ll dig AudioPail, a portable speaker solution from Eureka Springs, Arkansas maker Brian Wood.

This unit works on a very high efficiency amplifier powering two MB Quart 3.5″ full range coaxial speakers. The battery on this unit is a rechargeable 7200mAh Lithium Ion battery, this piece can run for a very, very long time on a single charge.