Saturday, February 04, 2017

Alarm Clock Hacking by Blocks

A little over two years ago I built an alarm clock intended for hacking by kids, using a web-based Python IDE. When I tested the lessons, I found that kids didn't like messing with Python and only learned enough to get things barely working. Yet, when it came to Scratch Jr or the desktop version of Scratch, they would spend hours at a time. I needed to find a more approachable way to code.

Recently I discovered Blockly, a product from Google for Education. With that framework you can code by blocks and use its transcoder to output JavaScript, Python, Lua, Dart or (ugh) PHP. The transcoder runs entirely client-side, and the output is human-readable - well indented and even commented.

Writing custom blocks turned out to be an easy thing, so I created blocks to modify the LED display, send audio out to a speaker, or react to button presses. Now you can use blocks to program the clock, while retaining all the functionality present in the older Python interface.

If I was going to redo the Hack Clock, this time I wanted to have a presentable site with full hardware and software lessons, for both Python and Blockly. I revamped the Hack Clock website, completed the Python lessons that I left incomplete last time, wrote new Blockly lessons for the new IDE, and completely re-did the hardware how-tos. Lesson writing took up the lion's share of time, since they all needed new images and better testing.

Another bit o' feedback I had received was that installing the Hack Clock software was too much of a pain. I tried to make this a bit easier this time by offering releases within a Debian pkg, although you still needed to use apt to install dependencies. Still, this cuts down installation from over an hour to about ten minutes... and most of those ten minutes is spent twiddling your thumbs while you want for packages to download and install.

The hardware needed tweaking as well. It turns out the Raspberry Pi headphone jack is just a PWM pin hack and it seemed that GStreamer sometimes just couldn't grok it. The headphone jack was never a complete solution either - it required a discrete amplifier to power speakers, and soldering wires onto a 1/8" jack is a GIGANTIC pain. To make the audio hardware easier to cope with, I moved away from the headphone jack to Adafruit's I2S decoder and amplifier. It provided better audio and cleaner installation without increasing my part count or price. It has proven out to be easier for everyone so far.

The old Hack Clock had another embarrassing flaw: it could only handle one button input and couldn't manage output at all. That drove me nuts and was probably the second biggest thing I wanted to fix. With the latest release the Hack Clock can handle as many buttons as you have GPIO pins, and you can also drive output pins as "switches" in code. The code-by-blocks IDE could deal with buttons and switches as simple function blocks - which meant reacting to user input became much easier to code.

Once things were ready, I installed the Hack Clock software in a mission-critical environment: kids' rooms. So far things have gone well; audio has been more reliable than with the headphone jack, and they have been able to tweak the software more easily than with Python. One bit I noticed this round however: kids don't like looking down to read something, then looking back to code it. The next generation Hack Clock should have an interactive demo to guide through the lessons so they never have to glance away from the IDE.

I'd love to hear what other people experience when they try to get the Hack Clock running as well. A hardware list is posted on Hackaday, and all the instructions are at Let me know what you think!