Pointr – Our #opendatahack Hackathon Entry


On 21st and 22nd of October we participated in the Microsoft Open Government Data Hackathon. The theme around this hackathon is that you build/develop something over these two days that make use of the openly available government data. There has been numerous hackathons like these all over the world. The prize was R50000! That is the kind of money that could mean a lot for BinarySpace in terms of getting tools and equipment for the space.

While we were a bit uncertain about what exactly we were going to do, we decided to form a team and enter the hackathon (this required some emails and a few leave forms).

Before the hackathon we started looking at various open data sources to see what is out there and what we can do. After lots of discussions on our local telegram group we decided on an idea. The requirements for this hackathon was basically; build something over the two days that use the government data to give it a better meaning and make it available to everybody. There was also a mention to make it fun!

The Idea

From the beginning we knew that most of the open data hackathons ended up in various cool websites and apps. We wanted to do something more physical and different. We got the inspiration from the Points Sign, which is essentially a smart street sign. The hack was to build something like that from scratch over a period of 2 days, and using government data in a meaningful way. From the beginning this was a very ambitious hack in the timeline we had. We settled on a more basic government data set which was the positions of every public government facility in the country. This includes Hospitals, Home Affairs offices and even schools.

So the plan was to create a smart street sign. It would have a control panel so that you can select which government facilities you are looking for and also have some emergency feature. Press the button for the facility you wanted and the signs would point to the 3 closest facilities while showing how far each one is from the sign.

We are calling it Pointr! The smart logo you see above was designed by our Isobar assigned team member and new friend of BinarySpace Rico Smith.

The Mechanics

The biggest challenge in this project is the mechanical side of things. Making 1 sign rotate is easy, add 2 more on top of that and it becomes more difficult. Each sign needs a motor, power and communication lines for the sign. That is a lot of wires that need to go through the same pipe with the rotation mechanism. Granted we could have left the wires hanging on the outside (it’s a hack after all), but we wanted it to look nice.

Andre and Chris handled the mechanical side in terms of design and printing. Andre made a very cool design that involved a pvc pipe, a steel pipe welded onto a base and some 3d printed parts

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The motor is essentially offset on the inner side of the pipe, a belt/pully mechanism used in 3d printers is used to do the rotation. This leaves space to bring through the wiring for the next rotation mechanism. Our sign can do a full 360 degrees, but not continuously.  This means that if the sign is pointing at 340 degrees and needed to go to 10 degrees, it would basically move counter clockwise to 10 degrees instead of just moving forward over 360 to 10 degrees. For our purpose this wasn’t an issue at all.

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The sign was cut from 6mm acrylic, and the plastic parts were printed with PLA.




On day 1 we had the first movement up and running, and we were very happy with how smoothly it went :)


Unfortunately on day 2 we decided to spray paint the pole. The not-fully-cured paint messed that up and we spent a while scratching off paint where the rotational parts go. Lesson learned 😉


For the main control panel, we had originally planned on just drilling a few holes in the pipe and mounting buttons with a printed piece of paper indicating which buttons to press. We are however suckers for a challenge so we decided to 3d print panels, and while we were it 3d print the icons as well



Rico designed the icons, which Andre converted into something printable, which Chris then printed … good teamwork 😉

Since there are lots of various government departments we decided to only take a few for our prototype. We decided on 4 emergency buttons; panic button, police, hospital and fire department. For the information side we chose Home Affairs, Libraries, Child Services and Courts. Press the panic button and police would be notified that someone needs help close to the sign. Press any of the other buttons and it would point the 3 signs to where you want to go.


All in all our mechanical side worked and looked beautifully :)

 The Electronics

For this hack the electronics were relatively simple. Michael and myself (Tom) tackled that part of the challenge.

The electronics side basically have to decode the location data and then depending on which button was pressed it needs to to calculate the rotation of the motors (ie. the location of the destination) and send a message to the led displays.


Our biggest problem was the led displays. For our size we needed a lot and the few places that had them at an affordable price didn’t have enough. The suppliers that had enough were not cheap.

After some searching Andre came across a place that sold these car displays. They were on special (leftover stock from a previous bigger order). At R200 these were a bargain so we cleared out their stock.


Upon arrival I opened one up to see how easy it would be to hack it to our purpose. Luckily the electronics were pretty simple. Basically a micro controller with some shift registers. We desoldered the micro, soldered some wires onto the pads to connect it to an arduino. A bit of code later the led display was working.


We did however have some issues with getting the scrolling and font characters to work properly so for our demo we pre-programmed a few messages for the demo.

For driving the stepper motors we settled on a ramps 1.4 shield with an arduino mega (the exact same electronics you find in most 3d printers). Our original idea was to use a raspberry pi that would decode the data and control the ramps board. Michael wrote python code that would handle all that. Again, we ran out of time and decided to hard-code the data and process directly on the arduino mega.

Most of the other teams did a mostly software project (Except the Bushveld Labs/Isobar Team) and I think we scared them with our impromptu makerspace table.

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I’m very proud of what we as a team managed to accomplish in those two days. And even though we didn’t win the prize money we had loads of fun, learned a lot and made some new friends. We have a nice project and we are taking it back to the space to make improvements and finish the parts we couldn’t at the hackathon. It will be a nice project to show off at the space and future events :)

Congratulations to #TeamBaby who won the Hackathon. We’ll see you guys next time!


Thanks to Kerry and the other peeps from Isobar and to Microsoft for the grand prize sponsor. Hope to see more hackathons with this kind of prize money 😉

Additional Notes

  • The hackathon was held at the same building where the Diz MakerSpace is located. This place is awesome! If you in the area go say hi to Rick, Jarred, Daniel and all the others at the Space (111 Smit Street, Johannesburg)


  • A few days before the hackathon I put together a little event cam that would allow the other BinarySpace members to join in the fun. It’s basically a raspberry pi with webcam. On it was a modified version of our BinaryBot. All the members in our Telegram group could request a picture from it at anytime. There are some improvements to be made but this was a good test for it and you can expect to see our event cam at future hackathons and events.eventcam_physical eventcam_physical2
  • eventcam

Our near space experiment 11 April 2015 – High Altitude Balloon

It’s been three months since we originally decided to take part in the Global Space Balloon Challenge 2015.  I got up at 4am on Saturday morning… even with a 3 year old I’m still not used to getting up that early. Took a quick shower and headed over to BinarySpace hoping … nay praying that I loaded everything we would need today. Today was the coming together of our HAB launch. How hard can it be? You take a balloon, fill it with helium, add a camera and let it go somewhere…

In the past months we learned about ‘Flexible use of airspace’ approval, helium calculations, ham radio, APRS trackers, flight predictions, etc. Launching a high altitude balloon is by no means an original idea so we spent quite a few hours researching the internet, on articles documenting other successful and failed launches. We also got advice from various groups in South Africa, that do this on a regular basis (HABEX, Habspace).

We were at our launch date. The goal: to launch a helium filled balloon, that should reach an altitude of 30000m and to then successfully recover it.

We used a 600g weather balloon, a parachute and a polystyrene cooler box for our payload. Inside the payload we had a GoPro camera, donated by Wayne Gemmel, a Trackuino aprs tracker that we built at the space, some batteries and a mintyboost kit to supply some extra power to the GoPro. We also threw in a hand warmer to keep the electronics functioning at the very low temperatures, found at high altitudes.


All the guys from Vanderbijlpark met together at BinarySpace and from there we left for our destination (which is about a 2 hours drive). Other members from the team came from Johannesburg and Witbank and we met them on site. We arrived at 7:15am and there was a group of people already waiting for us. Originally we were under the impression that the airfield was abandoned, but we found it closed off with security. A quick chat with them, explaining what we wanted to do, and we got in.

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Since we wanted to launch as early as possible we immediately setup a spot and started getting everything ready. Wolff came prepared with a nice ground sheet for inflating the balloon and a table for preparing the payload. I started finishing up the payload while Wolff and Hanno took charge of inflating the balloon (with a few helping hands to make sure the balloon was handled carefully).

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I started finishing up the payload while Wolff and Hanno took charge of inflating the balloon (with a few helping hands to make sure the balloon was handled carefully.

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Preparing the payload involved, sticking down all our electronics with duct-tape, connecting the lithium batteries and starting the recording on the GoPro camera.


We also had to make sure that our space commander is secured on the payload.

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Half an hour later Wolff and Hanno were ready with the balloon and we attached the payload to the balloon. At this point we were ready to launch, but had to wait while Michael phoned Air Traffic Control to get final permission to launch.

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Once we received permission we did a quick countdown and let the balloon go. It was almost anti-climatic after all the work. We all watched it go up and disappear into the skies…

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Minutes later someone told us that the signal is coming through properly and that even the guys in Johannesburg were getting the signal on their radio’s. We packed up and started the chase :)

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Every minute a new APRS packet was received telling us that our balloon is going higher and higher but also heading into its own direction.  It was moving fast.

40 minutes after our launch the signal fell silent. No pings received by any of the digi-repeaters. We kept driving in the same direction for a while waiting for the next position, but nothing came. We decided to stop for a bit, contact the other HAM guys and hear if anybody was receiving something. You could see on the faces of everybody that they thought this was the end. At least we launched it successfully…

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15 minutes later we suddenly got a new position message. The balloon was still alive, but has flown quite the distance and it also went up another 10km in the time we didn’t receive anything. Time to move!  We jumped into the cars and headed to the current position received. Unfortunately, our happiness was short lived and the signal fell silent again. We decided to head to the last position and then again would decide what to do once we get there.

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This time it took about 30 minutes before we received a new message, but it also changed direction. We joked that it was probably heading back to the launch site.

The updates came more consistent and we watched our screens as the balloon went higher and higher. At around an altitude of about 30000m we were waiting for an indication that it had burst and was coming down, yet it still went up to 31338m and then to 32507m and then it started dropping … fast. It had burst and it was time to move again. The next 40 minutes consisted of driving fast over dirt roads, changing direction a few times and some cursing (mostly because balloons don’t have to follow the roads).

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Eventually we ended up outside a farm. From the data it seemed that the balloon stopped descending. We stopped at an intersection, pulled out a different antenna and after a few received signals, we knew it was on the ground and somewhere on that farm.

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10 minutes later the payload was found…

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Apart from a few stickers that started peeling off the payload was in perfect condition, even our space commander survived the trip :)



Balloon Footage


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The Team

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From left to right:

Wolff, Sebastian, Matthew, Michael, Tom, Hanno, Wayne

Some Stats

Final payload weight was 630g
Final Nett lift was 960g
Final Neck Lift was 1590g

Launched 08:08
Lost Signal 08:44 at 11992.05m
Single Ping at 09:01 at 16510.71m (internal temp -3)
Proper Signal again at 09:30 at 24954.59
Highest Altitude: 32507.22m
Balloon Burst at 09:51
Landed 10:40
Flight Time ~ 2 hours 32 min

Predicted Flight vs. Actual Flight:

We would like to thank everybody who was involved, including the ham radio teams who helped with tracking, the various parties we pestered with questions and many more. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Ham Radio Operators who helped tracking on the Day

Matthew – ZS6MDV
Christo – ZR6LJK
Gert – ZS6GC
Willie – ZS6WBT
Francois – ZS6COI
Chris – ZS6COG
Judy – ZS6JDY


For the more technical details please see the project page on our wiki. We are busy updating it with all the details. We also started working on our next balloon project. If you would like to join us and/or sponsor our next HAB adventure then please contact us.

Update 15/04: Our next launch is in planning stages. We are currently applying for approval for the 15 of August 2015

Ham,Pi and a 3d printed Lawnmower… (Meetups February 2015)

I’m long overdue on a meetup update so here is a nice big post with things you might have missed the past month at BinarySpace:

Gary Immelman came to the space to give as an introduction into Amateur Ham Radio. It doesn’t take long to see that Gary is a very successful and passionate Ham Radio operator. He told us some very cool stories of his electronic and radio adventures. The people he has communicated with (even the Astronaut that came to dinner after a chat they had over the airwaves).

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Amateur Radio covers so many aspects and there is lots of toys to play and experiment with.DSC_5088 (Large)


It was a very interesting talk and inspired a few of the members (including myself and Michael) to start studying for the Amateur radio license exams happening in May.

We had a 3d printer themed evening with local ‘large scale’ 3d printing guru Hans Fouche as a guest. He brought along lots of 3d printed goodies including printed shoes, a vacuum cleaner and a 3d printed lawn mower.

Hans shared a few of his successes and failures (not a lot really) in his 3d printing adventures. If you haven’t heard or seen the 3d printed lawn mower in action then surely your living underneath a rock. It’s all over the interwebs!
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Also  check out the 3d printer that Hans built, it’s called the Cheetah, it’s fast, large and it’s awesome!
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I’ve also showed off my scaled up 3d printed 3d racers.

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Between all the meetups and hacking we have also been hard at work at improving the space. It recently got painted, were adding more work space, shelves for various hacks, projects and our beer glass collection. A new keg system is up and running. It’s still a work in progress but it’s getting better and better every week. Thanks to everyone who helped out and all the donations we have received.DSC_5190 (Large) DSC_5191 (Large) DSC_5197 (Large)


Between all of this we still found time to check out the new Raspberry PI 2, work on our HAB project and build some Arduino game goodness:DSC_5173 DSC_5201 (Large) DSC_5196 (Large)


We also have a few new regular members. Welcome and we hope you have fun!

Lots of other projects also happening, but sometimes I’m just having so much fun that I forget to take pictures, so sorry if I missed something. But then again, if you attend the meetups you won’t miss anything 😉 Also, check out the project page for all current and future projects.

Until next time :)



The wireless is the same, only without the cat (Meetup 2014/01/22)


The wireless telegraph is not difficult to understand. The ordinary telegraph is like a very long cat. You pull the tail in New York, and it meows in Los Angeles. The wireless is the same, only without the cat

Last night we had our “Internet of Things” project night. Internet of Things has been a pretty huge buzzword the past year and there are various projects around the internet and crowd funding campaigns. This is our take on an “Internet of Things” project.DSC_5059 (Medium)


The project basically consists of a very low power sensor that can take various sensors and then report the value of that sensor to a base station. Most IoT modules talk directly to wifi/gsm but while it does work easily and is standalone, the problem is that most of these aren’t really low power. I mean who wants to change/charge the battery every week.

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Our solution is to create a low power sensor node that reports back to a base station. The base station can then migrate the information onto the internet. The advantage of this way is that the rf module we are using uses less power than for example a wifi module. Currently the first sensor node that was built has been running for the past 5 months and it’s still going strong measure temperature at regular intervals.

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For the micro controller of the sensor node we used an msp430. Why not an arduino? While the arduino is very easy to use and has a lot of great support on the internet, it does not make for the best low power option.

So how does the msp430 compare to the arduino in terms of programming? Well, actually almost as easy thanks to Energia. The Energia project is essentially an attempt to bring the Wiring and Arduino framework to the Texas Instruments MSP430 based LaunchPad. This means that most of your arduino sketches can be compiled directly for the msp430 without too much (if any change).


The other big difference is that the msp430 does not have a easy to use bootloader like the arduino so you do need some extra hardware to program it. Fortunately it comes in the form of a cheap development board called the Launchpad. It looks pretty much like a red arduino, except that it has the msp430 chip on with a programmer section. The programmer section can be used to program other boards with the msp430. Since we needed a launchpad to program the sensor node, it also made sense to use it as a simple base station connected to a pc.

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So last night everybody basically built a sensor node, connected another wireless module on the base station (aka, launchpad dev kit) and had information sending between them :)

Add a 3d printed battery holder into the mix and your have neat little sensor node ready for more sensors

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For more detailed information on the project, have a look at the project page.

We still have lots of plans to build on this project, including interfacing various sensors to it.

Thanks to everybody who attended our project night last night, including Philip and Michael that came from far far away 😉

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In other news, we now have a new keg system at the new space. The beer was sorely missed at our last two meetups.

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We had the guys from Trophy Robotics visit us, hope to see more of the stuff you guys do.

Wynand and Gys spent a while hacking away at some old motherboards removing components for a 3d printer ‘psu upgrade’

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All in all a fun evening. Thanks to everyone who joined us and hope to see everyone next week!

Color changing Wifi controlled light thingie devices (aka last meetup for 2014)

For our last meetup of 2014 we built our December project which was Wifi Controlled RGB Lamps. The wifi lamps basically consist of some laser cut parts, some 3d printed parts, a Nucleo, the wifi module (esp8266) and addressable rgb lamps.

DSC_7789It was designed so that it can be put together relatively easy with minimal soldering. Having a nucle development board in the lamp allows for lots of expansion. For example, adding a temperature sensor and have the color change when it gets too hot or too cold. DSC_7790 DSC_7784 DSC_7782

The enclosure consists of laser cut inner box in semi transparent white and then we cut a voronoi themed outer-box to make it look even more pretty.

DSC_7780The final result is a beautiful lamp that you can control from your smartphone :)

wifilamp1 wifilamp2Thanks to everybody who attended our last meetup for 2014. We are taking a break for the holidays and will back on the 8th of Jan 2015. Be safe out there and keep on making :)

Elections, New Space and Girl Power

Lots of new happenings the past two weeks. Last week we had our last meetup at the old space. It has served us well but it is time to move to something bigger (more on that later).

James and Brendan was in town for the MakerFaire Africa and decided to do the drive from Joburg to come visit us. We immediately put them to work to build a MeArm kit. They had lots of fun. You guys are welcome back any time :)


Misc projects were being worked on, including playing with esp8266 wifi module. It’s nice and cheap and we have a few projects planned around it.


Apart from our Maker Faire preparations we also managed to squeeze in our first management elections. As voted by our members our Management for 2015 is

Financial – Gerhard Nel
Public Relations – Tom Van den Bon
Chairman – Sebastian Schocke
QuarterMaster – Chris Venter

For more information on their duties check out the wiki page. We are still figuring out the whole process and welcome any suggestions to improve BinarySpace.

DSC_7682This week we started moving into our new space and we had our first meetup in the new space. Thanks to everyone who came out and enjoyed the evening with us (even if the space is still a bit rough)

newspaceLast night we started working on some space improvements as well as making lists (Geeks love lists) of things we need to do/buy or fix.

DSC_7764Chris and Wolff donated alarm systems which we started to cobble together.

DSC_7778Sebastian and Gerhard started working on the RFID access control system that we are installing for 24 hour access to the space for our members. We haven’t moved over the keg yet, but we managed to make do with some bottled craft beers.

DSC_7774The advantage of the new space became very obvious last night. While we were hacking away on the one side on space improvements, we had some new guests on the other side having a little Pocketsized Robot Arm (MeArm) workshop. Lindie (Aged 15, she is becoming a bit of a MeArm expert) was put in charge of an impromptu workshop for our guests. Sheila (Aged 12), Stefni (Aged 14), Nina and their guardians had loads of fun building their projects. I’m hoping to convince Lindie to run a few more workshops with fun projects for our new members. Here are some more pics of everybody in action:






DSC_7766As you can see the MeArm is quite a popular project at BinarySpace. htxt even added it to their htxt-mas festive buyers’ guide. For those of you who don’t know the MeArm was designed by Benjamin Gray and Jack Howard at Phenoptix Towers. For more info check out their project page.

And that iss it for this week, see everyone next week!

Making, Etching and Printing

We had some awesome meetups the past two weeks. Last week we had our ‘Etch your own Arduino workshop’ which went great. We used the Nanino design for the pcb and they turned out great!

For the toner layout we used the blue Press-n-Peel, its very easy to use and you get great results. For the etching we used ammonium persulfate which is not as nasty as the usual ferric chloride (although you still shouldn’t drink it!), we used gloves when handling the etchant.

DSC_7521We used a regular steam iron for the toner transfer onto the blank pcb. Not sure if the guys would appreciate it if their wives saw that they can actually handle a steam iron …

DSC_7529 DSC_7524DSC_7525DSC_7532DSC_7535DSC_7537DSC_7567After some successful etching the board just needs to be drilled, cleaned and the components can be soldered onto the board.

DSC_7553 DSC_7556 DSC_7549 DSC_7558Just about everybody is currently at this point and we’ll finish soldering up and testing the boards next week!

Last year we started working on our own Cyclone PCB Factory. We were missing some parts back then and the project got shelved for a while. Last night Gerhard and Romeo started working on it again. They managed to get all the mechanical stuff sorted and next week we are hooking up the electronics.

DSC_7547Sebastian showed off his Perspex entertainment pc which is coming nicely.


Myself and Sebastian are also currently working on a new monthly project for December which involves the new esp8266 wifi modules and some ws2811 LED’s. Sebastian gave a little demo of the code he has done so far. It’s going to be awesome … more info soon!

DSC_7546And lastly the 3d printer was running in the background printing another piece for our 3d printed chair project.

DSC_7565 DSC_7568 DSC_7572All in all, two great meetings. See everybody next time :)


BinarySpace V2.0

It’s been more than two years since I sent out an email to the House4Hack mailinglist to find out if there would be any interest in a hackerspace in the Vaal Triangle. It started small enough with just a few friends playing with 3d printers and enjoying some beer. We outgrew my computer room in a few months and now two years later we have outgrown my workshop.

It’s time to expand BinarySpace and move into a new chapter: BinarySpace V2.0

We have been very fortunate to be able to run a MakerSpace the past two years with minimal costs, but unfortunately expansion means a bigger space and better tools which cost money. I’ve been thinking about a membership option for months now and discussed it with various members from BinarySpace and other local hackerspaces. The general consensus is that it is the way to go, but lots of people expressed concern that it would chase new and existing members away. Also you have a bit of the chicken and egg problem: Makers/Hackers have no problem paying for a space with nice tools and workspace, but you need the income to create the space and get the tools. This means that your initial members will be paying fees for a space with minimal tools until the cashflow is there to improve tools and space.

The one thing everybody agrees on though is getting a bigger space (the last few meetups got a bit cramped). Myself and a few members have been looking at various options to get a new space with minimal risk (ie. somebody getting stuck with a huge rent bill and nobody is contributing). Chris came to the rescue with a space double the size, not far from our current space and rent agreement that works for both parties.

So we are going ahead and creating BinarySpace V2.0 with different membership options. This is new territory for us, but I guess if we don’t try, we won’t know.

Our new space becomes available on the 1st of December and the plan is to start fixing and organizing the new space on Saturday the 6th of December. We will also be having an election for a management team on the 4th of December 2014 (essentially the last meetup at our current space).

We added a new wiki with some starting information on the new space which will hopefully grow with information as we figure it out. I’m sure not everybody will agree with everything but instead of getting negative, please talk to us. BinarySpace is a member community owned and run by it’s members. This means that if you want to change things, then make it happen :)

Lets see what happens :)

Tom (BinarySpace Co-Founder)

To infinity and beyond! aka last night’s meetup – 24/10/2014

Even though the weather was not ideal, lots of people went through heavy rain and strong winds to attend our weekly meetup last night. The main topic of the evening was our Infinity Mirror project build. Whats an infinity mirror? The Wikipedia entry describes it as

… a set of mirrors, one fully reflective mirror and one one-way mirror, set up so that the one-way or partially reflective mirror reflects an image back onto the fully reflective mirror, in a recursive manner, creating a series of smaller and smaller reflections that recede into an infinite distance

Add some led strips to it and you get some awesome portal looking effects:



A total of 9 infinity mirrors were built last night and they looked awesome. We had blue/red or green strips available and while everybody were mostly interested in the blue leds originally (Bunch of Geeks!) they quickly conceded that the other colors looked awesome as well.

This was a relatively easy build and just about everybody had theirs finished before the end of the night (good thing too since we also emptied the keg early).

The parts of the mirror consisted of wooden rings that were cut with a cnc, a normal mirror, a 1-way mirror (sold by our glass supplier as ‘stopsil’ glass), the led strip with color of your choice and various screws and glue.

DSC_7491As usual with our projects there were no strict set of instructions and after explaining the basic idea everybody got to work on their mirrors. Some were assembled one way and others were assembled another way. Lots of discussions were had about how this effect can be used around the home (baby rooms, stepping stones, etc) and also about swopping out the fixed color led strips with some addressable RGB strips to create time keeping pieces (also known as clocks).

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Org and Kobus from House4Hack also took the long drive to the Vaal to join in the build :) You guys are always welcome!

Other projects that went on in the background was among other Bertrand working on a new raspberry pi project and Sebastian showing of his wifi controlled sumobot!

All in all it was a successful night and everybody left with a smile and an awesome display piece.


Thanks to everybody who attended last night!

P.S – For the last few weeks we have been having some serious space issues since we’ve gotten more regular hackers/meetups. We currently have a plan in motion for more space and we’ll be sharing those details soon :)