Using electric field sensing hardware that I designed, I enabled Marvin, Intel Labs Seattle’s mobile manipulation research platform, to plug itself in to ordinary, unmodified electrical outlets. The robot only needs to know the approximate location of an outlet on its 2D map to drive up to it and precisely align the prongs with the holes in the socket by sensing the emitted 60Hz electric field.

Pretouch is a sense that is longer range than touch, but shorter than vision. Using electric field sensing hardware that I designed to fit inside a robot’s fingers, several robotic manipulation tasks are made easier or possible.

Having a small character LCD hooked up to a computer isn’t really a novel idea. They became popular on servers, which often run without monitors attached, to convey vital system status information to technicians. In more recent years, they have become popular in custom-built PCs. I wanted one on my desk because there are often small notifications that I want to be accessible at all times, but not the center of my attention. On-screen notifications, such as icons in the GNOME panel, the Windows system tray, or Growl on Mac OS X work fairly well, but only if I’m sitting at my computer and have the monitors turned on. An external notification device is able to convey this information without a large display.

I could have purchased a pre-built unit; they exist both as displays that fit into an empty expansion bay on the front of a PC, or separate desktop units. However, my aesthetics don’t always match up with the PC-modding community (I tend to prefer things simple and understated rather than bright and flashy; I don’t want my PC to look like the typical “gaming rig”).

Building things yourself is great because you get to decide exactly how it’s going to look and work. I also chose to add 3 RGB LEDs to the device—many small bits of information are binary, such as having a new e-mail message. The LEDs provide a great way to convey information like this, and they’re meaningful from across the room. Using RGB LEDs makes them customizable, or allows information to be encoded in the color of the indicators.

Clear plastic box with a circuit board with an LCD module and a couple of LEDs in it
The message box.
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