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Celebrating the Chinese New Year with a Ham Robot

Gareth Halfacree

Red Envelope Robot

Happy new year, from all of us at oomlout!

What? No, our calendar's fine, thank you: today marks the start of the Chinese New Year, known to electronics companies worldwide as "the time of year when your suppliers and hardware partners stop answering emails for a week or two." It's also the time of year when it's traditional to give each other gifts in the form of money sealed in lucky red envelopes. More recently, the tradition has shifted into the 21st century: popular chat platforms, such as WeChat, have begun to support the sending of digital envelopes of money to friends further afield. It's even possible to send one envelope to a group of friends, and the first to tap on the message gets the cash.

Naturally, it wasn't long after this feature was added that people began to game the system. Initially, this took the form of writing software 'bots' to sniff out the messages and quickly claim the electronic envelopes. With maker and hacker culture very much alive in China, though, it wasn't long before people started trying somewhat more cumbersome and intriguing methods. Methods like building an Arduino-powered robot to claim the envelopes on your behalf.

The device, built around the popular Arduino Mega2560, is relatively simple: a standard smartphone is positioned beneath a webcam linked to a laptop, which is programmed to recognise the appearance of a lucky red envelope. Each appearance triggers the Arduino-powered robot, which swings a fake finger down to grab the envelope and tape to confirm its receipt. When complete, the robot rests until the next envelope appears. Oh, and the fake finger? a ham sausage, chosen because its capacitance and conductivity mirrors a human finger closely enough to trigger the smartphone's conductive touch-screen display.

Featuring laser-cut parts and an expensive laptop, the project is extremely unlikely to break even any time soon - but it gives a great indication of the inventiveness and humour behind China's maker scene, which is rapidly growing to eclipse Japan in terms of producing innovative and frequently wacky solutions to problems both common and unusual.


Seeing the Chinese New Year is coming, trying to become the big boss again in the group-sent red envelopes, it can make you pull out thousands of thousands of strands of hair. A script to grab a red envelope into the phone? That's too boring, little creativity at all. What does a real Maker do to grab a red envelope? Of course, it is a self-made robot! Not only to be able to grab a red envelope, you can see it like a crazy dream, and in time to grab a red envelope for you to add a bit of fun and a sense of accomplishment!

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