Andon’s Digital Communications Badge

At BronyCon last year, they had these wonderful color communication badges, letting people know what sort of socialization mood you were in. I thought the idea was cool, but then I didn’t think much about it.

Until a few months later, when I started playing around with an Arduino I picked up. And then what seems like half a dozen other Arduino boards I picked up as well. After running through some ideas for gadgets, I thought “Why not make a digital color communication badge like they had at BronyCon?”

Initially, the thing was an Arduino Pro Mini soldered onto a prototyping PCB with a header for plugging in a 1.8″ TFT screen I had acquired. Plenty of wires were involved, and more than one burnt finger from my soldering iron. But it worked! It wasn’t exactly cheap, though. The Pro Mini runs at $10 on Sparkfun, and the screen was a SainSmart one that cost $15. Add in various wires and the prototype board, plus the fact that the screen had annoyingly-placed headers, and it was expensive and fragile.

A few months later, I find this wonderful program called PCBWeb – And I was hooked on designing circuit boards. A weird thing to enjoy, but oh well! It’s fun. Then I looked around and found the same TFT screen, with a screen dimmer option, for significantly less. A quick look at components and I thought “Hey, I can do this for under $20!”

It turned out that the microcontroller I had tried out, the ATTiny85, was just a wee bit too underpowered for what I wanted. Not being a very good programmer, I couldn’t get the one way of working the screen I found to, well, work. So I turned to my desk and saw the Arduino Uno sitting there, with its wonderful little ATMega328 processor. The 328 is a little expensive, but its little brother, the 168, was a little more affordable. And the components to get it to work were fairly cheap as well.

After a few nights of plotting traces on the circuit board, finding an even cheaper version of the screen, and some experimentation with a boatload of wires later, I had a “final” product. The ATMega168 powered the screen just fine, taking a button to change the badge and another button to change the brightness.

Along the way I had shared my experiences and prototypes on Twitter, and the response was fairly positive. When I realized the board could be sold for $15, I decided I’d run a kickstarter. I just launched that about half an hour ago, and considering the way my twitter promptly exploded with notifications, I think it’ll do just fine.

If you haven’t come here from said kickstarter, you can find that here: