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The Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog

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Internet Order Frustrations

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

I received my PIC programming kit and my EEPROM programming kit in the mail yesterday, and unfortunately I was disappointed by what I opened. Even though they weren't the cheapest source of DIY Electronics kits around, I ordered from Electronics123.com because they promised that they had the very latest version of the DIY Electronics K149 USB/ Serial PIC programmer, the K149 version E. They were the only electronic kit supplier that promised to have the brand new version E kit, and I wanted to make sure that I got the best kit available that could program the most PICMicro microcontroller chips. When I received and opened my package from Electronics123.com and looked at its contents however, I saw that they had sent me an older version D model of the kit, despite the fact that my invoice showed that I had ordered a version E.

Before getting all upset and using Electronic123.com's toll-free number to jump down their throats, I decided that I would go to the DIY Electronics website, www.kitsrus.com, and see what the difference was between the version D and E kits. After spending over an hour scouring the website and several different versions of the kit's documentation PDF files, I learned what the difference was between the version A, B, and C kits, but they did not list the differences between the version D and E kits. So maybe it was something major, or maybe it was something insignificant. I just didn't know.

I decided that since the only reason why I chose Electronics123.com in the first place was because they promised to have the newest "E" version of the kit that I was going to demand either a new kit or a refund on principal. I was extremely aggravated that they dumped older inventory on me, and I wasn't about to let them get away with it. I called them up using their toll-free number, and got a very surprised sounding employee on the phone. I explained my situation, and he claimed that they must have accidentally sent me some older inventory by mistake. After some prodding, I was able to make the employee agree to mail an E version of the kit to me and to refund the shipping that I was going to have to pay to send their D version kit back to them. It was good that I was able to get them to exchange my kit, but now I am going to have to go through all of the hassle of repackaging it and sending it back to them, which is an extra activity that I didn't need. It would have been nice if they had just sent me the right kit in the first place!

Last night I was able to get ahold of the person who has the ASCII keyboard I need for my "Replica I" Apple I microcomputer clone, but I have not found this person to be the most comfortable person to deal with. Here I am, offering to pay top dollar for a 30 year old piece of computer junk, and he is not willing to take the time to test it. Instead he said to me, "It is untested and I don't have any time to set up a Apple II and try it out. It is sold 'as is' and untested. If you would rather look elsewhere that is fine by me." His take it or leave it attitude makes me kind of nervous. Unlike on eBay where you can check a seller's reputation, I found this guy through an online classified ad, so I have no way of checking how honest of a seller he is. Unfortunately, despite the high cost that he wants for the unit, it is the correct part that I need, and I have little choice but to buy it from him unless I want to delay my whole electronics project schedule by yet another month to locate another part. And since I only have 3 months time to go to build a working, talking, singing, and laughing cartoon fox, any further delay is not an option!

On a brighter note, the other day I also heard back from the scientist at Fermilab who is going to sell me an old Heathkit oscilloscope that I can use with my electronics projects. Since Fermilab is only about a mile away or so from my beloved American Science & Surplus store, the scientist and I plan to meet there sometime next week. It will be fantastic to finally be able to kit my hands on that oscilloscope, and I can't wait to start experimenting with it! I am sure that it will help me out a lot in my work!

Lastly, a couple nights ago I ordered the General Class and Extra Class FCC Amateur Radio License Exam preparation books written by Gordon West from Amazon.com. I am currently a Technician Plus-class amateur radio operator, and my license expires later this year. Since my license class doesn't even exist anymore since the FCC changed the amateur radio license structure a few years ago, I decided that instead of just trying to re-new my license that I would take all of the exams I needed to get the highest license class there is-- the Extra class. I am already 5-WPM Morse Code certified, so all I have to do is take the written exams, and if I was able to become a Technician Plus operator back in junior high school I am sure that I can pass both the General and the Extra class license exams now. Once I get those exam preparation books I am going to knuckle down and study my rear end off with them, and hopefully I will be an Extra class amateur radio operator by either September or October! And since amateur radio has a heavy emphasis on learning electronics, I am sure that studying for these exams will help me become a much better electronics designer and robot builder as well!

In any case, hopefully all of my Internet order woes will work out for the better in the end, and that I will still be able to build Foxee on time for her tentative Midwest Furfest debut. This will definitely prove to be a great challenge to me, and hopefully it will prove to be an even greater triumph! As always, comments are welcome-- I always love to hear what others think about my work!

More Microcontrollers and Another Trip to Sci Plus

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

This weekend the American Science & Surplus store, a store that is like a mad scientist's and hardware hacker's paradise, had its annual outdoor tent sale. With prices on the store items in the tent reduced by 50% or more, this sale attracts bargain hunters, scientists, and do-it-yourselfers from miles around to feast on the store's assorted electronic and mechanical oddities as well as lab equipment, tools, and toys. My chemistry student friend and I are no exception, and we try to make it to the American Science & Surplus Store's annual tent sale every year.

I found many things at the tent sale that will be useful for my Foxee animatronics project at bargain prices. The first item of interest was a pair of Coby CS-P31 2-watt dynamic sound system portable speakers. They don't exactly sound the greatest when compared to my deluxe set of stereo speakers that I have hooked up to my computer, but their small size (3.5-inches wide, 4.5-inches tall, 2.5-inches deep) and the fact that they are self-powered through their headphone mini-jack connector may make them very desirable to mount inside Foxee and become her "voice box." Originally I had bought a set of SOYO Dragon PC speakers for this task, but these Coby speakers consume a lot less space and may be better suited for the task. I will have to compare the two for both space consumption, power consumption, and performance after I have Foxee's frame constructed.

The next interesting piece of equipment that I picked up for my robotics project was a pair of elbow-length heavy rubber electrical lineman's gloves-- the same kind that the electrical utility workers use to repair power lines! As one of my earlier blog entries states, the skit that I am planning to perform at Midwest Furfest this year could possibly involve the use of high voltage electrical devices such as a Jacob's Ladder to produce special effects. Having a pair of rubber linemans gloves on hand while building, testing, and operating such devices might prove to be a very good idea! In any case, the gloves will make an excellent addition to my mad scientist costume for the skit, and make me look even more creepy and authentic!

Some other items that I picked up at the American Science & Surplus store that deal directly with my Foxee animatronics project include yet another set of electronic guts from the inside of a Worlds of Wonder Teddy Ruxpin stuffed doll, and another bag of stuffed animal eyes that I can use to make stuffed animals with when I am practicing my sewing and fox sewing pattern making.

Along with going to the American Science & Surplus store this weekend, I also purchased the DIY Electronics K149E Serial/USB PICMicro Programmer and the DIY Electronics K151 EEPROM Programmer. The K149E is the same PIC microcontroller programmer recommended to me by Dwayne Forsyth of 2DKits, who used it to program the PIC16F688 microcontroller found on their advanced blinkie kits that they had at the Duckon 14 Science Fiction convention "Build-A-Blinkie" workshop. I plan to use the K149E programmer for future animatronics projects and certainly other electronics projects if I don't end up using microcontrollers with Foxee herself.

I bought the K151 EEPROM programmer because the kit itself was fairly inexpensive and because the 24xx and 93xx series of EEPROMS that it can program are very inexpensive as well. While I don't have any particular projects demanding the use of EEPROMS at the moment, it seemed like a useful device to have, and with how cheap EEPROMS are I am sure that I will find a use for them in the future. Since these two programmers that I ordered are kits, I will have to assemble them before I can use them.

One of the other recent developments that are related to my Foxee animatronics project are that I have located a source of a Apple II keyboard and ASCII encoder board that will be compatible with my Replica I Apple I microcomputer clone. This is extremely important because I my practice project that is going to teach me how to use a jigsaw and a circular saw was building a authentic Apple I wood case for my Replica I, and I can't build the case without first having that keyboard and encoder board. The reason why this practice project is so important is because I will need to use a lot of fancy jigsaw cutting to build Foxee's main wood support frame, and I needed an easy beginner's project to hone my skills on.

While finding this Apple II keyboard and encoder board may solve my ASCII keyboard dilemma which was holding up my all-important Replica I wood case practice project, it is not without its downsides. First of all, I was really looking forward to building my own ASCII keyboard encoder board, but unfortunately, the scarcity and expense of some of the components that I needed made this approach not very feasible. The other huge downside is that this Apple II keyboard and encoder board are also extremely expensive, and are really killing my extremely small and ever-shrinking budget. The only reason why I am going ahead with this solution is because building my own ASCII keyboard encoder board will likely cost just as much if not a little more than just buying the Apple II components, that I have already wasted way too much time finding these components anyway and I can't let this drag down my progress any longer, and that this Apple II keyboard and encoder is guaranteed to work with my Replica I while my homebrew Frankenstein keyboard and encoder design that I was planning to build, which would have used a replacement keyboard originally meant for a Tandy-Radioshack TI-99/4 microcomputer, may not have actually worked with my Replica I at all. I guess this is the first case of me "throwing money at a problem" to solve it, and hopefully it is the last time since I can't really afford to solve my problems this way if I am going to have any money at all to even start building the frame of Foxee little alone complete her construction!

To end this blog entry on a positive note, I may have solved another of the obstacles to my Foxee Animatronics Project that I originally listed in my Foxee™ Animatronic Character 2005 Midwest Furfest Variety Show Act Proposal blog entry. In that entry, I reported that I required a IBM-compatible laptop computer to remotely control the Foxee robot on-site as well as perform other tasks for my company at conventions. It looks like my father may be getting a brand new state-of-the-art laptop computer for his work, and he said that I could have his old laptop if he does. This laptop happens to fall slightly below the requirements that I was looking for in a laptop machine, but its close enough to what I wanted and I definitely can't argue with the price tag! So hopefully I will be able to get my hands on it, because that would be an indescribably enormous boost to my operations!

As much as I would love to continue writing, it is about time for the first landing attempt of the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery, and I plan to watch that take place live on NASA TV! As always, I would very much appreciate to hear your comments about this blog entry, so don't be shy about posting them!

Microcontrollers, Light Pipes, and a Trip To Sci Plus!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

While laying in bed and trying to go to sleep a couple of nights ago, I let my mind begin to wander with thoughts of developing new vixen cartoon characters that could maybe one day also be turned into talking animatronic animal robots. All of a sudden inspiration hit me like a sledge hammer on the head, and I came up with a fantastic idea that made me so excited that I could barely fall asleep that night! This idea for a new animatronic robot character was so exciting (at least to me) that I had a mini-obsession about it and have spent the last two weeks researching the technology behind it! What is this great fantastic idea do you ask? I would love to tell you, since it will probable be a year or two before I can turn this great new idea into a reality, I will have to keep this a secret project for now. I will tell you this about my new project however-- it involves fiber optics-- lots of fiber optics! I will most likely discuss the new character in more detail when I have the new character's design on paper and copyrighted, but until then I will be keeping this character under wraps.

As if to feed my obsession, as it so happened, the mad scientist equivalent of a candy store, American Science & Surplus, was having a sale on large fiber optic lamps. These lamps have a round base and a fountain-shaped formation of .75mm end-glow optic fibers coming out of the top that glow in different colors, and they usually cost between $20.00 and $50.00 apiece, but American Science & Surplus had them on sale for only $5.95 each! These lamps struck me as the absolute most perfect things to take apart and reverse engineer to figure out how fiber optic cables were illuminated, so I had to get my hands on some!

That afternoon I gathered up my chemist friend and we headed down to the American Science & Surplus store to go and check it out! Not only did I stock up on a couple of the fiber optic lamps while I was there, but I also picked up some other neat oddities including: heat-shrink tape to use with my electronics projects, a bright 4-color LED light stand with fading effects to use as an alternate fiber optic illumination source, a 3.5mm mono mini-jack plug to hook up to a audio pick-up inductor coil that I was building a novelty, and a magnifying visor to help me with soldering!

Also in the past couple weeks I have been looking for an alternative to the overly expensive General Semiconductor AY5-2376 ASCII Keyboard Encoder IC for the ASCII keyboard encoding board that I am building for my Replica I computer. So far the best alternative I have come across is the KR2376 developed by Standard Microsystems, but that too isn't exactly cheap-- just cheaper. The other day I may have found a source that has authentic Apple II keyboards and ASCII keyboard encoder boards that are compatible with my Replica I system, but those have their own pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the Apple II keyboard and encoder are guaranteed to work with each other and my Replica I system, but on the downside the combo is very expensive and I will be out of the fun of building my own keyboard and encoder board. I will have to weigh in the cost of all the parts to build my own encoder board based on the KR2376 IC, but building my own my turn out to be cheaper, and since I don't have a big budget for my projects, anything that I can get for cheaper is a good thing!

Lastly, I have been doing a lot of research on PIC microcontroller programming lately so that I can used custom controlled PIC microcontrollers in my projects, and thanks to a lot of help from Dwayne Forsyth from the company 2D Kits, I now know the model PIC microcontroller programmer that I am going to use as well as which development software. After I purchase and build the PIC programmer board and practice programming the chips, I should be able to start making custom chips that can add to the functionality of my robots!

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