These Are Our 10 Favorite Projects From Bruce Land’s ECE Class This Semester

A POV lightsaber, a DIY pinball machine, and an auto card dealer are among the projects from this semester's Cornell ECE 4760 course.

Every semester, students around the world complete innovative projects with technology. Often, however, the only people who get to see those projects are those student’s professors and classmates. Cornell University students who take Dr. Bruce Land’s ECE 4760 are the exception, as Land posts their work publicly for everyone to enjoy. The course is part of Cornell’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and currently focuses on Microchip’s PIC32 series of 32-bit microcontrollers. These are our 10 favorite student projects from this semester, in no particular order.


Authors: Diane Sutyak, Tara van Nieuwstadt, and Laasya Renganathan

This impressive device listens to music being played, which was demonstrated with a flute, and then automatically composes sheet music to match. The PIC32 microcontroller detects the peak sound frequency, and then uses that to determine which note is being played. That information, along with the amount of time each note is played, is sent to a computer as a MIDI file. That file is then loaded into MuseScore running on an external computer, which can generate sheet music from MIDI files. This lets musicians compose music simply by playing it.

Capacitive Sensing Robot Arm

Authors: Ximeng Zhang and Matt Daniel

Safety in robotics is extremely important, particularly in industrial settings where the robots are very powerful and equipped with dangerous tools. It’s imperative that workers follow the proper safety protocols in those environments, but mistakes still happen. This technology is affordable, easy to add to just about any robot, and can prevent dangerous collisions. It essentially wraps the entire robot in a capacitive touch sensor monitored by the PIC32. The moment it detects a touch, the robot will immediately stop moving. Robots in the real world should have additional safety features, but this would be a great addition.


Authors: Caitlin Stanton, Peter Cook, and Jackson Kopitz

This digital bass guitar is played in a very novel way. Instead of plucking away at physical strings, the musician simply squeezes one of their four fingers. Flex sensors in the wearable glove detect that movement and trigger the corresponding string. The fret board has four pairs of infrared emitters and receivers. When an infrared beam is broken, the PIC32 knows which string the player is “holding.” Finally, an ultrasonic distance sensor is used to where on the fret board the player is holding their hand. With those three pieces of information, it knows which note to play through a synthesizer.

Skywriter Lightsaber

Authors: Alexander Li and Kranthi Kumar M

The lightsaber, as made famous by the original StarWars movie, the multitude of sequels and prequels, the dozens of novels set in the same universe, and many video games, is probably the most well-known fictional weapon of all time. But for this project, it’s being used for creation inside of destruction. With the help of a gyroscope the detect motion, LEDs along the length of the Skywriter’s “blade” are modulated as it is swung through the air. When timed carefully, messages and graphics can be displayed in the air and are visible with long-exposure photography techniques that are commonly used for light painting.

A Two-Degree-of-Freedom Ball Balancing PID Controller

Authors: Gregory Hideo Kaiser and Samuel Oscar Feibel

Various styles of self-balancing robots and vehicles have been popular projects for decades now, but this build still manages to stand out. It’s able to balance a 1” diameter steel ball on top of a flat platform that is tilted using just two servo motors. That platform is actually an Adafruit touchscreen display. As the steel ball rolls towards an edge, the touchscreen registers its coordinates and actuates the servo motors to compensate. This method for tracking the ball’s position is very novel, and seems to work quite well.

Automatic Card Shuffler and Dealer

Authors: Eric Ma, Vaishnavi Dhulkhed, and Joy Thean

A decent automatic playing card shuffler is practically a necessity if you take your card games seriously. This machine takes that one step further and also deals the cards to players. Essentially, it combines a shuffling box with a pinch wheel-driven dispenser. The entire machine can rotate in order to dispense the cards to specific players that are sitting around a table. Instead of dispensing a single card at a time to each player, it mixes up the quantity and order to improve randomness of the card distribution. Serious poker players in Vegas might not trust it, but it would be convenient for friendly games at home.

Latte Art Machine

Authors: Linda Alexander, Julia Hesterbrink, and Nathan Zimmerberg

Latte art has been in vogue recently, and adds a nice personal touch to your order of caffeine juice. This machine is able to create latte art automatically. It was built using a repurposed Houston Instrument Omnigraphic 2000 X-Y plotter and a peristaltic pump. The plotter moves a flexible tube over the cup, and the pump dispenses foam into the cup. The plotter then moves the tube from the darker liquid at the edge towards the white foam in the center to create the art.

Persistence of Vision Dino Game

Authors: Zesun Yang and John Ly

Persistence of Vision (PoV) displays work by modulating lights very quickly as they’re moved in order to create messages or images. For this project, a PoV display has been created by mounting LEDs on the spinning blades of a box fan. The display is used to show a game inspired by the T-Rex game that appears in the Chrome browser when there isn’t an internet connection available. Players make the dinosaur jump over obstacles by simply jerking the entire fan upwards, which is detected by an accelerometer.

Happy Little Color Mixer

Authors: Henri Clarke, Michael Rivera, and Priya Kattappurath

Imagine doing some watercolor painting and having a machine that could automatically create the exact color you want to use. That’s exactly what the Happy Little Color Mixer does. Four bottles of ink—cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black)—are positioned at the top of the machine. The user can use a color picker to choose the exact hex color code they want, and the machine will then dispense the proper amounts of ink into a cup of water. If desired, the user can use a color sensor to check a swatch of that mix to see if it matches the color code accurately. If it doesn’t, the mixture can be modified to improve the color accuracy.

PICBall Machine

Authors: Sujith Naapa Ramesh, Julia Ng, and Andrew Tsai

This is a good ol’ fashioned pinball machine that is controlled by the PIC32 microcontroller. It was constructed using a combination of wood and 3D-printed mechanical parts. Like every good pinball machine, it has a spring-loaded ball launcher, a pair of flaps, and obstacles. The obstacles have switches to detect when they’re hit by the ball in order to add to the player’s score. It may not do anything that hasn’t been done with pinball machines before, but it is a great use of the PIC32.

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