I designed these boards to be integrated into 12VDC track lighting fixtures with MR16 LED lamps in the Media Lab atrium. They are based on the Atmel XMega A4 series (originally designed for the ATxmega32A4 and that’s what’s in the atrium lighting installation, but forwards-compatible with the A4U series chips; most of my current uses for this board use the ATxmega128A4U) and the AT86RF231 radio (though the RF230 and newer variants like the RF233 should also be usable.)

a 3D rendering of a circuit board with a bridge rectifier, MOSFET,
        SMA connector, radio chip, and microcontroller
a 3D printed microphone clip in clear resin, holding a custom-made
        microphone stuffed into the body of an XLR connector
3D-printed microphone clip and custom-built microphone. Please excuse the messy desk in the background.

The idea of starting with a digital model of a 3D object and having a physical representation in your hands a few hours later is certainly kind of magical. I remember when my department at UW got its first 3D printer (which cost about as much as a nice car and was the size of a refrigerator) I spent hours staring through its window, watching it build up objects a layer at a time. Amazingly, just a few years later, there are now several desktop-sized printers available at a fraction of the cost. With the recent availability of these “personal” 3D printers, it’s been interesting to see the resulting models that people have printed. I’ve yet to see one that doesn’t have a few chess pieces and an Eiffel Tower or two sitting next to it, showing off its capabilities.

While these intricate models are definitely cool, 3D printing isn’t just about models that look nice. To me, the real value of 3D printing is being able to print out physical models that are functional, that wouldn’t otherwise be easy to obtain. I’ve recently been working with the Form 1, which is a recent desktop-sized 3D printer capable of some pretty impressive prints. While I’ve certainly printed a few things that are just for looking at, I’ve also been using it to make functional objects. And so far, I’ve been pretty happy.

3D rendering of a circuit board with microcontroller, radio, and PCB
        trace antenna
Computer rendering of prototype board. Created with Altium Designer 6.9; components modeled in SolidWorks 2009

Many small projects seem like they would benefit from low-power, low-bandwidth wireless connectivity. Commercial modules such as the excellent XBee series of devices exist, but are relatively large, expensive, and seem better suited to tinkering with the technology than integration into a finished project. Single-chip RF transceiver solutions are small and inexpensive, but require a fabricated PCB for every design. My goal with this project is to develop an inexpensive and small RF transceiver module that is flexible enough to use in the prototyping stages of a project while not being so general and large that it’s wasteful to use in a finished work.

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