Framing an #IOT thing of beauty

A picture can tell a thousand words. That’s just what I wanted to achieve by placing my Raspberry Pi into a picture frame. This all started with a long trip to IKEA over the weekend. One of those trips where you get to the car and realise you have way too much to fit it all in the car. During this long trip, I spotted a thick picture frame. My mind jumped at the thought of placing a working Raspberry Pi within it. Well, this evening I decided to give it a try and went about trying to house a Raspberry Pi in the picture frame and succeeded.

I researched how others might have tackled this. My searches returned examples where people have made a digital picture frame as opposed to housing or framing a Raspberry Pi in a traditional picture frame. Bizarrely the one example I did find, Digital PI-cture Frame by David Park, was from IKEA Hackers. Great minds! This, although some years old was what I had pictured in my head.

IKEA Ribba picture frame

I love my tech and whilst I appreciate the clean, tidy and organised side of life. Sometimes I hate hiding things away too. This isn’t just any Raspberry Pi, this is one that is the hub of our home automation. One that should be out on display for everyone to see.

I was really torn whether I should house a Raspberry Pi 3b or a Raspberry Pi Zero within the picture frame. They are both absolutely beautiful and remarkable devices. In the end, I decided on the Raspberry Pi (RPi) 3b as it is such a significant device to our home. I may add another frame to house a RPi Zero for another project in a few months. For now, the frame currently sits on my desk but I plan to hang this on a significant wall in the house and make a feature of it including some internal lighting.

A picture frame as a Raspberry Pi case

The list below is a summary of bits I used:

  • Picture Ribba frame – IKEA £3.50
  • Black backboard – cut from a recycled notepad
  • Mounting nuts/bolts – taken from a spare Raspberry Pi case

OpenHab

For those wanting to know what that other bit is that is included in the picture frame. It’s a RF transmitter (315MHz). This RPi runs OpenHab where I have some rules that trigger my projector blind to come down or go back up when using my Logitech Harmony remote. Personally I think the picture frame looks better for having something alongside the RPi rather than having it sat there by itself. I’ll have some more posts on this topic very soon!

My Raspberry Pi at work sending RF codes

Battery powered portable Sonos Play:1

Well my Sonos Play:1 warranty is now void less than 24 hours after being delivered. This isn’t going to be one of those sexy extreme unboxing  it instead my personal experience in making my first Sonos speaker more portable and more accessible by powering it via USB. In short I stripped apart a new Sonos Play:1 speaker and added the circuitry to power the unit using USB.

I love music and listening to a few stations on the radio. We have radios scattered throughout house. This tends to result in me not listening to any of my music or playlists because of the convenience of having a radio in almost every room in the house. I’d say I listen to music or the radio far more than I watch TV. Sonos speakers have always been a ‘thing’ on my ‘for the house’ list and after experiencing them while visiting some friends recently (who highly recommended them mind) I decided to buy a Play:1 and give Sonos a try!

Battery powered Sonos Play:1
A Sonos Play:1 you can move anywhere you like using a portable battery.

I’m now in love with Sonos speakers and question why it has taken me so long to buy one. They’re amazing!

The build quality is great (inside and out!) and more importantly the sound quality is superb (okay so maybe the bass is a bit over driven on the Play:1 which causes excess bass driven vibrations at times). They kick the ass out of any of my other Bluetooth speakers. I will no doubt buy more Sonos speakers to have throughout the house but until then, I just have the one Play:1 to play with. Which is why I wanted more flexibly to move this Sonos Play:1 around the house – from the study to the kitchen to the bathroom, garden and bed room. This is the reason for this post.

I have plenty of sockets I could power the Sonos Play:1 from both inside the house and out, but I felt USB powered comments would give me the greatest flexibility to move it around. We even have those power outlets with USB included in them which this was another reason to add USB power. Plus I just love tearing things apart I guess.

Struggling with power with volume above 80%

So what gives, nothing other than volume at the top end. I have the same issue with the power consumption of the Play:1, if the volume is above 80% the unit requires more power than what can be supplied. This causes sound distortion and is demonstrated in one of the videos that inspired me to do this hack in the first place (Sonos PLAY:1 USB powered, how-to!!). Anything above 80% volume is really kicking it in the first place so I’m not troubled by this compromise.

The wireless performance of a portable Play:1 is really impressive. I moved it throughout the house and garden and I’ve yet to experience the Play:1 stop streaming due to connectivity issues. This in part is down to the quality of my home network but credit where credit is due Sonos have done a great job here. When I travel, I travel with my trusted MiFi device. It replicates my home SSID. This means any of my devices connect just like they would at home and don’t need any more config. I could therefore take my Sonos speaker with me when on the road, staying away or travelling, assuming you have an amazing data plan or a music library accessible by the Sonos speaker!

Hacking apart the Sonos Play:1

I won’t detail the specific steps involved, in part I don’t want to be hit with the bill for replacement Sonos speakers. But also because I managed perfectly by watching two YouTube videos – Sonos PLAY:1 USB powered, how-to!! and Howto open Sonos PLAY:1 – Part 1. Happy for you to reach out to me for any questions or help if you’re trying this out yourself.

Basically I took the Sonos Play:1 apart, carefully pulled the circuitry out. I then added a micro USB socket and step up convertor that takes the 5.5V current from a USB input and increases it to 24V to power the Sonos speaker. The only thing I did differently from these videos was that I included the micro USB socket. This makes the cable detachable like most other devices. I intend to use the Play:1 in various locations and didn’t want to lose the figure eight mains power lead nor have a USB cable attached all the time. Win, win!

Inside a Sonos Play:1
Step up convertor fixed inside a Sonos Play:1

What I used to pull this off.

  1. Micro USB PCB board (remember power out from a USB requires pin VCC to Positive and GND to GND)
  2. Dremal used to drill and shape the hole used for the micro USB socket on both the speak enclosure and the speaker cage cover
  3. Power step up convertor to increase the USB power from 5V to 24V
  4. 5.5mm USB to power socket for testing power from a USB power source
  5. Solderless 5.5mm female socket, again for testing with the above lead
  6. Glue gun – the cables and terminals inside the Sonos Play:1 are very well insulated with what appears to be a PVA like glue gun insulation – I did similar with my soldering joints and used the glue gun to secure the step up convertor
  7. Soldiering skills
  8. Good set of Torx screw drivers
  9. A jenga like mind to work out the best place for the extra step up convertor component and micro USB socket while still being able to put it all back together again
  10. Dappy looking zip bag to enclose the speaker and battery and make it even more transportable and big buggy pram clip – for example hanging the Sonos under the garden parasol
  11. USB power source or a USB battery and micro USB lead to make your Sonos speaker portable – my current battery is a Repower PB19 a 4.5amp 17000MaH
  12. Heavy duty Velcro to stick the battery to the speaker
Portable Sonos Play:1
Portable Sonos Play:1 powered with a USB battery pack in front of my fire place.
Sono Play:1 with battery attached using velcro
Sono Play:1 with battery attached using Velcro

My portable Play:1 will live on.

I completely get why you would have a Sonos in almost every room. Until a time when I have do, this solution will suffice perfectly thank you. Once I am fully Sonos’ed in every room, my Portable Sonos Play:1 will live on with its dappy looking pull string bag.

Philips Hue LED kit extension lead hack

With most of the house HUE’d up, I thought I would add Hue lighting under the cupboards in our kitchen. I love cooking but am often frustrated because of the poor lighting on the work surface in the kitchen. The trouble is the Philips Hue LED kit is only available in two sizes, the 2m main kit and in 1m extensions. Our kitchen cupboards are split in two by our cooker hob extractor. This leaves me with cupboard lengths of 1.4m and 1.6m. I did some research but could not find an extension lead for the Philips Hue lightstrips so rather than shedding out on two kits, I decided to hack together a solution to create my own extension lead.

Philips Hue lightstrip extension lead hack
Philips Hue lightstrip extension lead hack

Appreciating the risks and potential cost of replacement involved if I failed, I took off and carefully hacked my own extension lead together. Below is a list of what you’ll need to do this yourself and the steps involved to make your own extension lead for your Hue lightstrips.

What you’ll need to hack your own Hue lightstrip extension lead together

  • Philips Hue Personal Wireless Lighting 2 m Lightstrip Plus
  • Philips Hue Personal Wireless Lighting 1 m Lightstrip Plus Extension
  • Wire cutters and a good wire stripper
  • Heat shrink to protect any exposed cables once we finish
  • Soldering iron and solder to join the extension lead wires onto the Philips Hue lightstrip
  • Desired length of cable (this will be your extension) – I couldn’t find a wire with six cores so used two five metre lengths of four core wire. Far less attractive but good enough for the hack this time round
  • Optional connector terminals and a crimp tool (male/female spade terminals) – these allowed me to pass the extension lead through backs of my cupboards more easily
  • Optional staple gun to tack the leads to the cupboards.
The tools you'll need to create the extension lead.
The tools you’ll need to create the extension lead.

The steps involved…

  1. Plan and test the placement of your lightstrip and where you will attach the extension lead.
  2. Work out the route of your extension lead – in my case I went through the backs of the cupboards and then up and over the top of my extraction fan. This required few holes to be drilled into the cupboards.
  3. Prepare your extension lead. Strip and tin each of the with with the soldering iron.
  4. Decide if you will include a connector to allow you to separate the extension lead from the lightstrip. If you are going to add one, cut, strip and crimp the wires with your connector – in my case I used a set of spade terminals.
  5. Grandad always said measure twice cut once – so run through your placement and cabling route once more.
  6. And don’t be silly – remember to power off the lightstrip before the next step!
  7. Cut the lightstrip at the nearest cut joint because this is where we will solder our extension lead wires onto.
  8. Carefully cut back some of the outer plastic on the lightstrip so that you can solder your wires onto the terminals. Make sure you don’t forget to include some heat shrink to protect these joints once you have terminated the wires.
  9. Test the lights work correctly before fitting in your desired place.
  10. Tip! If placing under cupboards, place the lightstrip at the back for the best effect.
  11. Optionally use a cable staple gun to tack the extension lead throughout its route to make it extra secure.

Grandad always said, measure twice cut once.

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Product improvement idea

Philips could avoid this problem altogether and avoid any hacking at all. Firstly they should offer an official 6 core extension lead. Secondly, they could alter the cut joint they include at various points throughout the lightstrip. Making each cut joint made up of a male and female connector under the plastic. To extend the lightstrip you would then simply cut over the joint and use the official Philips Hue lightstrip extension lead. The extension lead would have a male and female connector at each end, allowing you to simple connect it to the section you have just cut.

extensionlead

That aside, kudos to the Philips team for creating amazing lights and for placing cut joints throughout the lightstrip. This made my hack so much easier to pull off.

The Philips Hue light strip at it's brightest.
The Philips Hue light strip at it’s brightest.

I’m really impressed with the outcome of the Philips Hue LED lightstrips and my custom extension lead hack. I hope you find this article helpful and it inspires others to extend Hue lightstrips more easily. This post is part of my home automation series. If you liked this hack, be sure to check out some of my other home automation hacks.

How to daisy chain multiple monitors on a Surface Pro 3 running Windows 10

I finally decided to create my dream home office setup however it wasn’t without complications due to a strange limitation with the new Windows 10 display settings. I thought the idea of daisy chaining multiple displays on my Surface Pro 3 dock using the single DisplayPort was not going to be possible.

Let’s step back a few months. I recently upgraded to a Surface Pro 3 (SP3) and a dock to use when I’m working in my home office. I read from a few online sources that it was possible to connect multiple monitors to the SP3 through a single DisplayPort. This I thought was great, as I really dislike seeing lots of cables! While researching this subject I didn’t fund any specific reference any Dell U2913WM monitors and the SP3 happily working together. This post on the Surface blog was particular helpful as it outlines the different ways multiple displays can be connected to the SP3. With this all this in mind, I filed DisplayPort Daisy Chaining to the back of my head to accompany my home office setup. Jump forward a couple of months and there’s no unboxing video of two 29″Dell (U2913WM) monitors but instead a post to describe how I managed to setup two external displays with my Surface Pro 3 running Windows 10 via single DisplayPort and DisplayPort daisy chaining.

Here’s a summary and sketch of how I’ve wired my Surface Pro 3 with two monitors:
– SP3 dock (mini DisplayPort out)
– Dell U2913WM #1 (DisplayPort in)
– Dell U2913WM #2 (Mini DisplayPort out from Primary to DisplayPort in)

Sketch of my Surface Pro 3 with two external displays
Sketch of my Surface Pro 3 with two external displays

I was pretty confident this would all be straight forward to setup, so much so I fixed the two monitors onto a vesa desk mount (more on this later) and carefully squirreled all the cabling out of sight, before I’d even switched them on, but who am I kidding! I docked the Surface Pro 3 only to find that two monitors would only allow me to duplicate them. For some reason I just couldn’t get the new display settings menu on Windows 10 to allow me to run these as two separate displays even though it recognised them both.

Windows 10 Display Settings recognising three displays but only displaying two.
Windows 10 Display Settings recognising three displays but only displaying two.

After a little poking around, I discovered a setting (DisplayPort 1.2) in the control panel of the monitors. After enabling this, the displays all went blank for a moment while they reconfigured. But still no luck, I now had just one of the two external displays working, the other had no input.

Enabling Display Port 1.2 through the Dell U2913WM setting.
Enabling Display Port 1.2 through the Dell U2913WM setting.

This is the point I thought it just wasn’t going to work. I’d checked drivers. Restarted my SP3. Changed cables. Toggled Display Port 1.2 off and back on. As all techies would, I clicked round a fair bit. I found that from the new Windows 10 Display Settings screen, there were hits back to the old Control Panel. It was on this screen I noticed the winning link – Adjust resolution!

Enabling monitors on Windows 10.
Enabling monitors on Windows 10.

It was here I noticed that the third display was disabled. After enabling display, my SP3 was using all three displays! Excitement levels peaked at this point! It seems the new Windows 10 Display Settings screen does not display disconnected displays nor does it make it obvious to that you should use the Control Panel method. This is something I’ve shared with the Windows team via #WindowsInsider feedback and I hope is made easier in the future.

All three displays available.
All three displays available.

About that mount. I’m using a triple monitor vesa mount due to the sheer width of two 29″ monitors. The trick is not to use the middle mount that attaches to the upright bar but instead use the two side arms. The two monitors sit together perfectly with this mount! They’re sitting about 40cm high off the desk which gives me plenty of clearance underneath to use the physical desk space I have and at this height I get support from the headrest on my high-backed chair.

One thing to note with this setup is that once DisplayPort 1.2 (DP 1.2) is enabled on either of the two monitors, the Dell Display Manager willl not detect that display. The only way I’ve been able to get the tool working is to disable DisplayPort 1.2 on the secondary display. It’s a shame I can’t get the Display Manager tool to work as it is a really helpful tool to maximise on all the space the Dell U2913WM gives you. It allows you to easily snap windows to different areas of the display. I spent a short time researching the issue and it seems to be on Dell’s radar – not sure if this is specific to Windows 10 or DisplayPort 1.2 daisy chained monitors or how soon it will be fixed but there was some guidance on the Dell Support forum .

Believe in your dreams

Almost ten years ago I was lucky enough to be invited by my college to attend a Microsoft conference called “A Glimpse into the world of a computer scientist”. It was held at the Microsoft Research building in Cambridge. Can you remember something you were doing ten years ago?

My certificate of attendance to "A glimpse into the world as a computer scientist", a Microsoft Research Cambridge conference
My certificate of attendance to “A glimpse into the world as a computer scientist”, a conference held at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

The conference gave me grant insight into Microsoft and the world of computer science. Frankly it was rocket fuel and really kick started my career off in IT! I volunteered to participate in a research project discussed during the conference. My family and I were selected a help test a product called the Whereabouts Clock (pictures below) – imagine the Harry Potter clock! A few months later we were working with a Microsoft Research Employee called Alex Taylor –  a researcher in the Socio-Digital Systems team. The clock was designed to display the whereabouts of everyone in the family. This was achieved through location data transmitted from smartphones and shared with an application. Each member in the family were then placed in a pre-defined segment of the clock, Home, Work or School. You can read more about the Whereabouts Clock on the Microsoft Research website.

The Microsoft Research Whereabouts Clock, 2006
The Microsoft Research Whereabouts Clock, 2006
Find my Friends iOS App ten years on from The Whereabouts Clock
Find my Friends iOS App ten years on from The Whereabouts Clock

Scarily ten years have passed. While Microsoft never released “The Whereabouts Clock”, their work directly or indirectly can be seen on the smartphones in our pockets today. Google launched their Latitude app, although this has now been retired, Apple have their Find my iPhone and Find my Friends apps (picture above) and Microsoft have their Find my Windows Phone. Other applications exist to manage scenarios similar to those of the “Whereabouts Clock”, one such example is Life360 Family Locator. Ten years on, I also still have my bright orange Microsoft Research bag (picture below) – you know how much I like my bags!

I still have my Microsoft Research conference bag ten years on!
I still have my Microsoft Research conference bag ten years on!

Back in February I got my dream blue badge and started my new job with Microsoft. working in the Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS) group. I emailed Alex a few days ago, ten years on he still remembered me and my family and the research we did with him. He was so happy to discover I’m now working for Microsoft! Alex still works for the Microsoft Research in Cambridge. I hope to meet him in person soon as he has kindly offered to give me a tour of the labs in Cambridge.

I’d like to leave you with one last message, inspired by a wonderful article published by Scott Hanselman when he was hired by Microsoft. I was particularly lucky to attend the Microsoft Research conference in 2005 and to be involved with “The Whereabouts Clock” research. But all that aside, I worked very hard at college and spent the last ten years working equally as hard developing my career, doing something I thoroughly enjoy and am passionate about (see Scott’s dream job Venn diagram in his post). All this enabled me to achieve my dream to work for Microsoft – thank you to all those who have helped me along the way – massive kudos to those who have helped me along the way such as Marshall Aerospace and ClearPeople. If you have dreams – don’t stop believing in them!