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Retrofit your old appliances with new controls

Arduino TeamMay 5th, 2016

Unfortunately, home appliances aren’t a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. What works for some may not always work so well for others. With this in mind, Raf Ramakers and the Autodesk Research team have developed a system that will enable you to retrofit your everyday devices with new controls that better suit your needs. RetroFab provides even the most non-tech-savvy users with a design and fabrication environment through which they can easily repurpose their existing physical interfaces with the help of 3D scanning, printing and basic electronics.

We present RetroFab, an end-to-end design and fabrication environment that allows non-experts to retrofit physical interfaces. Our approach allows for changing the layout and behavior of physical interfaces. Unlike customizing software interfaces, physical interfaces are often challenging to adapt because of their rigidity. With RetroFab, a new physical interface is designed that serves as a proxy interface for the legacy controls that are now operated using actuators. RetroFab makes this concept of retrofitting devices available to non-experts by automatically generating an enclosure structure from an annotated 3D scan. This enclosure structure holds together actuators, sensors as well as components for the redesigned interface. To allow retrofitting a wide variety of legacy devices, the RetroFab design tool comes with a toolkit of 12 components.

After loading the 3D scan, you can highlight and select the device’s controls on the model. The system then creates a 3D-printable rendering and offers redesign suggestions. From there, RetroFab automatically generates a housing that fits over the original interface and holds a series of actuators, motors, LEDs and other components, which are all connected to an Arduino.

The individual Arduino microcontrollers that control the enclosure structures run a generic firmware that handles the GPIO pins as well as the wireless communication. Even for retrofitted devices that do not intercommunicate, user input and sensor data from the retrofitted interface is first transmitted from the Arduino microcontroller to the central PC. This module then decides to turn on specific RetroFab actuators and sensors, controlled by the same or a different Arduino microcontroller. This approach makes it possible to change the behavior and interconnect retrofitted devices even after the design and fabrication is completed.

Using its accompanying mobile app, RetroFab also lets you easily interconnect and remotely control your gadgets — whether it’s setting the time on a retrofitted alarm clock or turning off a light switch right from your phone. You can read all about the project in its paper here, or watch the video below.