Articles in the toys category

Acurite 02032CAUDI Weather Station

I found an Acurite Weather Center 02032CAUDI at Costco for $99, which seemed like a pretty good deal.

It includes the "colour" display panel and a 5-in-1 remote sensor that includes temperature, wind-speed and direction, humidity and rain gauge.

The colour in the diplay is really just a fancy background sticker with the usual calculator-style liquid-crystal display in front. It does seem that for whatever reason the viewing angle is extremely limited; even off centre a little and it becomes very dim. It has an inbuilt backlight that is quite bright; it is either off or on (3-levels) or in "auto" mode, which dims it to the lowest level at certain hours. Hacking in a proximity sensor might be a fun project. The UI is OK; it shows indoor and outdoor temperature/humidity, wind-speed/rain and with is able to show you highs and lows with a bit of scrolling.

I was mostly interested in its USB output features. After a bit of fiddling I can confirm I've got it connected up to Meteobridge that is running on a Dlink DIR-505 and reporting to Weather Underground. One caveat is that you do need to plug the weather-station into a powered USB hub, rather than directly into the DIR-505; I believe because the DIR-505 can only talk directly to USB2.0 devices and not older 1.5 devices like the weather station. Another small issue is that the Meteobridge license is €65 which is not insignificant. Of course with some effort you can roll-your-own such as described in this series which is fun if you're looking for a project.

Luckily I had a mounting place that backed onto my small server cupboard, so I could easily run the cables through the wall to power and the DIR-505. Without this the cables might end up a bit of a mess. Combined with the fairly limited viewing angle afforded, finding somewhere practical to put the indoor unit might be one of the hardest problems.

Mounting the outdoor unit was fine, but mine is a little close to the roof-line so I'm not sure the wind-speed and direction are as accurate as if it were completely free-standing (I think official directions for wind-speed are something like free-standing 10m in the air). It needs to face north; both for the wind-direction and so the included solar-panel that draws air into the temp/humidity sensor is running as much as possible (it works without this, but it's more accurate with the fan). One thing is that it needs to mounted fairly level for the rain-gauge; it includes a small bubble-level on the top to confirm this. Firstly you'll probably find that most mount points you thought were straight actually aren't! Since the bubble is on the top, if you want to actually see it you need to be above it (obviously) which may not be possible if you're standing on a ladder and mounting it over your head. This may be a situation that inspires a very legitimate use of a selfie-stick.

It's a fun little device and fairly hackable for an overall reasonable price; I recommend.

Gyro Wheel Battery Pack

Several years ago I bought a Gyro Wheel for my daughter, who probably couldn't even walk at the time. The idea seemed really good; a heavy cast-iron wheel is spun up and the angular momentum keeps the new-rider upright while they learn to ride.

I don't suppose it revolutionised bike-riding, as it seems that the company has disappeared. Now my daughter can reach the pedals, when I finally dug it out the other day it was sad to find it wouldn't charge. Googling seems to show that it's a fairly common problem.

After pulling it apart, I found that it was fairly straight-forward to replace the battery-pack. Getting in requires a torx screwdriver but is otherwise straight-forward.

The battery looks like a bit of a custom job, with two-halves of a 9.6V battery-pack split into two. You won't be able to buy anything that directly replaces this, but you should be able to find individual AA-sized NiMH rechargable batteries with welded-tabs that you can use to create a new battery-pack (don't buy batteries without tabs and try to solder directly onto the battery terminals, it won't work). Unwrap the plastic from the existing packs and just follow the polarity; if you carefully de-solder the existing wires you can save yourself a lot of work making new ones. Wrap it up securely and put everything back together.

Below are some photos just to give you an idea of what to expect.

Tenvis IP391W meta-page

Recently I purchased a Tenvis IP391W-HD camera.

I would be unlikely to recommend it. The price is certainly right and the picture quality is quite good. The Android and iPhone apps do work to watch the stream live.

However, the interface is terrible and almost useless without Internet Explorer. There is a RTSP stream (rtsp://admin:password@ip) which VLC can seem to handle, but not mplayer. The recording format (.h264) is not viewable by VLC or mplayer and all I could find is a Windows .exe to convert them to an .avi.

The motion detection gets troubled by the dark. It would really only be useful for something permanently well-lit. It did send me emails via gmail.

I have got it recording to a NFS server, but I don't have a lot of confidence in the reliability of it. I think I have it configured to record in 3600-second blocks (given the interface, it's hard to tell if I've set it up to the network, or to the internal flash, etc), but it seems to intersperse 60 minute recordings with random small recordings. Given the whole idea of a security camera is to record the unexpected, you want a lot of confidence you're actually recording, which you don't get with this. You can see below it recorded 3 hour blocks, then started going a little crazy...

-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup  69M Mar 11 01:25 0-003035.v264
-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup  69M Mar 11 02:25 0-013049.v264
-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup  69M Mar 11 03:26 0-023103.v264
-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup 5.9M Mar 11 03:31 0-033117.v264
-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup 1.5M Mar 11 03:40 0-034350.v264
-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup  17M Mar 11 04:02 0-035259.v264
-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup 306K Mar 11 04:10 0-041548.v264
-rw-r--r-- 1 nobody nogroup 4.9M Mar 11 04:23 0-042457.v264

There is a support forum, where I found the following files scattered in various posts. From what I can tell, they are the latest as of this writing. I can confirm they work with my IP391W-HD, which the system tells me is GM8126 hardware and came with firmware 1.2.8.3.

  • 1.3.3.3.pk2 - firmware (b56f211a569fb03a37d13b706c660dcb)
  • web.pk2 - a UI update that includes dropbox support. This is really for the model that has pan and tilt, so those buttons don't work. (0e42e42bd6f8034e87dcd443dcc3594d)
  • V264ToAVIen.exe - converts the output to an AVI file that mplayer will play (with some complaints) (9c5a858aa454fed4a0186cf244c0d234)

www.modern.ie offers free limited-time Windows VM's which will work to upload this firmware. Just make sure you use a bridged network in the VM; I'm guessing the firmware ActiveX control tells the camera to TFTP the data from it, which doesn't work via NAT.

Somewhat worryingly, you can telnet to it and get a login prompt (TASTECH login). So it has a built-in backdoor you can't disable.

There have been some efforts to hack the device. leecher@dose.0wnz.at did an excellent job reverse engineering the .pk2 format and writing tenvis_pack.c (no license, I'm generously assuming public domain). I used this to recreate the firmware above with a telnet daemon listening with a shell on port 2525 (no password, just telnet to it)

It's interesting to poke around, but it seems like the whole thing is really driven by a binary called ipc8126

/ # ipc8126 --help
*** TAS-Tech IPCAM/DVS
*** Version: 1.3.3.3
*** Release date: 2013-08-05 15:48:32

In general, I'd say hackability is quite low.

Warning : any of the above might turn your camera into a paperweight. It worked for me, but that's all I can say...

Streaming various radio streams to FStream on the iPhone

FStream is a really neat streaming radio program for the iPhone. Although it supports various WMA streams, I found that it did not successfully work with some of the Australian ABC WMA streaming radio services.

The most reliable method seems to simply use a low-bandwidth MP3 stream over HTTP (24 kbps sounds fine and works great even over Edge). I could find a number of other blogs, etc. with static methods for streaming, but nothing that reliably did on-the-fly conversion of an incoming stream.

My solution is simple Python HTTP server I'm calling stream2mp3. It uses mplayer, lame and a few pipes to take the incoming stream (which is pretty much anything mplayer can handle, which is pretty much anything unencrypted) and spit it out as a low-bandwidth MP3 stream over HTTP.

It seems to reliably handle dropped and closed connections, and clean-up after itself. I'd certainly be interested in any bug fixes or suggestions. I guess the major disadvantages is you need a dedicated server (get yourself a linode!), it only handles one connection at a time, and if you want multiple stations I guess you run multiple instances on different ports.

With this, you can be sitting in traffic on the 101 heading to San Francisco and, with some local radio, it's just like you're sitting in traffic on the M2 in Sydney! Here's a screenshot:

~/bin$ python stream2mp3.py
Creating WAV fifo /tmp/incoming.wav
Creating MP3 fifo /tmp/output.mp3
Serving <mms://media3.abc.net.au/702Sydney> on port XXXX
mplayer running as 8524
lame running as 8525
mobile-XXX-XXX-130-107.mycingular.net - - [23/Dec/2008 18:59:22] "GET / HTTP/1.1" 200 -
[radio plays until I stop it...]
connection lost
cleanup complete, ready

Grace Wifi Radio Review

I recently purchased a Grace ITC-IR1000 Wifi Radio from Beach Audio.

Grace ITC-IR1000 Wifi Radio

There seem to be a number of competing products available at the moment, and it seems they are all based on the Reciva internet radio platform. This appears to be an ARM based system running Linux (checkout the GPL compliance area).

It has built-in wireless, so connects up directly to your 802.11 network. It supports WEP and WPA; entering the WPA key is a little like entering your high score on an arcade game with a built-in scrolling alphabet. It supports all sorts of codecs, including the most important Real, WMA and MP3.

Once on the network, it contacts Reciva service (free) to update and download channel lists. Once there, you can select stations filtered by region (Europe, Oceania, etc) then country. There are literally thousands to choose from, and users can contribute streams which are filtered by Reciva and added to the database periodically. An excellent feature is the ability to log-in to the website and both build favourite lists and add your own personal streams. You then register your radio's serial number with the website and on the next channel update you get access to your lists.

It also offers you the opportunity to connect to a local PC to stream music from folders there; I haven't looked into this feature at all.

Overall, it's a great device. The audio quality is great, and it seems to have at least a little sub-woofer built in. It has some nice features; 5 of the buttons on the front are quick access preset buttons, just hold it down when you are listening to the station and it remembers it. It supports a wide range of streams, the interface is simple to understand, it keeps the clock via NTP and directly connecting to the wireless is great.

My ideal application is for a bedside clock radio, so I can listen to .au radio as I go to sleep and wake up. It has an inbuilt back-lit clock, sleep timer and alarm system, but they all take a bit of fiddling. The buttons are small and black, which doesn't help in the dark, and most access is done via the big scroll wheel which you press to make a selection (think iPod). However, the resistance of the rubber pads is less than that the pressure required to push the button in, so it really takes two hands. This means when you want to setup an alarm and put on the sleep timer as you go to bed there is a bit of fiddling through menus, etc. Also, as it is playing the clock seems to go away. Initially I had a problem with firewall ports, but it doesn't seem a big issue on the forums so it must have just been me.

I also wonder what happens when Reciva go out of business, because all the tuning happens via their website. Something similar happened when 3com Audrey support was dropped; it then became a matter of faking DNS replies. Sniffing the protocol might be fun :)

All in all, although it sounds a little silly, if you know what you want it for this is a great little system. I imagine any expat will get their money's worth listening to home radio stations. If you're only interested in local radio, I'd still suggest the best thing is still probably (surprise, surprise) a radio. It leaves a little to be desired as a bedside radio but is otherwise a very nice toy!

2009-02-20 This has turned out to be one of the more popular things I have ever posted, so I should provide an update. There have been several firmware updates released with a range of new features, the most notable being able to hook up to Pandora and Sirius.

Other than that, there have been some nice updates such as allowing the wireless to stay connected in the background, reducing the time between turning on and getting radio sounds out, and a few display updates like displaying the time while radio is playing.

I have played around a bit more with the local media streaming; I found it quite unintuitive and difficult to use. I set up my entire MP3 collection as a Samaba share and pointed the radio at it, but it choked scanning the directory and the few thousand files. I found the only practical way was to setup a separate share with just a few things in it and create a .m3u playlist. Trying to navigate through many songs on the little screen just isn't great.

Setting up an iPhone via prepay

Just a quick note for Google on setting up a newly purchased iPhone on an AT&T GoPhone pre-pay plan, rather than the contract plan. Although the plans kind of suck, you might like to do this if you don't have a social security number or credit history.

Several forums mention using an all-9's SSN or an all 1's SSN in the signup field. As of 4th March, 2008, these are not working. You need a different SSN which can be provided by AT&T (a hint, it has a lot of 1's and a 4, although I get the feeling they change this as too many people discover it). This will have the effect of failing the credit check, and even though you have to go through and agree to all the contract terms it will then present you with prepay options.

Hopefully that saves some people time setting up their new iPhone!

2007 Honda Civic Hybrid Review

We recently picked up our new Honda Civic Hybrid, to replace our out-of-lease Audi A3. The short answer is, it seems to be a great car.

When you first get in it feels quite spacious, although the front dash is kind of large and imposing. At first I thought this was to accommodate batteries, but they are actually behind the rear seat (meaning in the hybrid you can not lay the seats down). It has plenty of hidey-holes to store stuff, most of which have a pull-over cover.

The drivers position is quite fine, although visibility probably isn't as good as in the older Audi. The steering wheel seems a little small, but the built-in controls are good. One thing I miss from the Audi is a space on the right of the accelerator to rest your foot, which is especially good for long periods on cruise control. The digital speedo is above the other controls and quite large, and is very visible to all your passengers (maybe this is an added safety feature!).

There is annoyingly little actual information about the "Integrated Motor Assist" system, other than it assists the motor and charges when you brake. There is a little indicator that tells you how much assistance it is giving, and conversely how much it is charing when you coast or brake. When you brake to a halt it goes into "auto stop" mode, where everything is off. The electric motor seems to take you from standing for about 2 seconds, presumably whilst the petrol engine starts up. It is quite smart about keeping the engine ticking on hills, but it does roll backwards just slightly.

When coasting, it seems that the engine goes idle, or at least the current fuel consumption gauge goes to zero. When the engine flicks back to charge mode there is a little whirring noise from somewhere under the dash, and when starting on electric the car does have a sort of subtle shudder; other than you wouldn't really notice.

The CV transmission is fantastic, and makes for a very smooth ride, especially on cruise control which doesn't have to hunt for gears. It is quite strange putting your foot down and just having the car accelerate with no noticeable gear changes. It has plenty of power for getting around town, and goes OK in the above 100km/h range. Even carrying 5 people it didn't seem to struggle. It gets around car parks just fine, and the steering is very, very smooth (new tyres probably help, however).

For some reason you can't shut of the two innermost air-conditioning vents, but otherwise the climate control works great. At least in Australia the interior has a touch of the Henry Ford about it: you can have it in any colour as long at is it beige. The rims are standard too, but look quite nice and modern.

Minor annoyances are lack of a switch-blade style key (they take up less pocket room) and, more annoyingly, lack of a remote boot unlock feature. This is something that comes in very handy when you have hands full of shopping, or a trombone and related paraphernalia. I also like the Audi hydraulic arm that kept the bonnet open, not that I plan to be under there much. Not that you'd want to touch anything, the two large red cables from the 158V batteries look like they could pack quite a punch.

It has a few less flashy features than the Prius, but it by no means feels like like a cheaper car. And the satisfaction you get from sitting in traffic (a fact of life in Sydney) using zero petrol is pretty good!

Update : We've just returned from a road trip from Sydney to Melbourne and back, covering 2170km. This was essentially all highway driving on cruise control at around 100-110km/h, with full boot of luggage. The trip computer tells us we averaged 5.8L/100km, which is a fair way off the 4.6L/100km claimed in the Green Vehicle Guide. A new 1.4L petrol Fiat Punto travelling with us on the way down also was running at under 6L/100km. In normal inner-Sydney driving we average 6.8L/100km, and the lowest we have achieved is 5.4L/100km whilst driving around the M2-M7-M5 loop when the new Lane Cove tunnel opened, which was often at lower speeds (80-90km/h) than open highway driving.

Review of Brother HL-2040

Dick Smith are selling the Brother HL-2040 laser printer for what seems like a very cheap price of $89. It even says on the box it comes with a toner good for 2500 pages, so it doesn't seem to be the usual trick of a cartridge just full enough to print a test page before requiring an expensive purchase.

I fully expected to have to learn how CUPS worked, since previously I'd only ever printed to already setup printers. However, all I had to do was install the Debian packages for the LPR and CUPS drivers from the support page and plug it in (via USB) and, somehow, it magically worked. Big marks for shipping working packages for a range of distributions.

However, a big negative is that the LPR bit is proprietary. Unsurprising, since I assume the printer has almost no in-bulit logic, but disappointing none the less. Thus you of course can't use it on anything but your standard 32bit x86, which probably sucks if you want to hook it up to a printer sharing box or something (of course CUPS can network share it). And although it works now, there is always the chance it will break horribly in the future.

I think it is fairly low resolution compared with more expensive models, but it looks fine to me. The only annoyance is that the paper comes out extremely curled. This has a number of disadvantages; firstly your output doesn't sit right, secondly you need to keep a careful eye on the output tray because eventually pages will go everywhere and thirdly, I would be very worried about running it back through a second time to print on the back, since it looks like it would jam it up easily.

For someone on a budget who occasionally prints out a few things from their x86 Linux box, this printer is fine. If you were using it on a daily basis I think it would get very annoying, and I'd probably look for a more expensive model that doesn't curl the pages as much and has less chance of breaking in the future due to software bit-rot. Also, don't forget that printers don't come with a cable. I would highly recommend one such as pictured below, which as you can see has the "Proprietary look and feel of unsurpassed quality"!

Proprietary look and feel of unsurpassed quality