Here, put this on.

Some time back I made some LARP props that did GPS tracking and relayed that info to players in a diegetic fashion. They were for a game set in the Supernatural setting and they were a replica of the canon 'EMF Meter' and a 'magic compass' that always pointed towards a currently possessed character.

Now I'm back on this nonsense again but this time it's for a sci-fi game at Dropzone 2023.

The Supernatural props were great at the time but they had a couple of inherent problems.

  • They used some proprietary wireless data radios that are no longer made. So while I could have made more things that work similarly with some spare items I bought from the manufacturer, it's a 'dead end'.
  • Being themed for Supernatural specifically they're not great for other games that aren't that. The compass could have been used in some other game with magic in the setting but almost all of my LARP is modern/sci-fi so it's just not happened.

With the need to make another tracker, I opted for a canon prop replica, but one that doesn't inherently tie it to anything: the PDT locator from Aliens.

A lot of UKLTA games happen in our High Frontier game setting, which is broadly Aliens/Predator/Outland/Space Above & Beyond grungy evil corporations and monsters in space sci-fi.

Which makes an Aliens prop work nicely but the PDT locator is also very generic, it's just a dull tube that shows the distance to something on a display and beeps. So it won't stick out in any modern/sci-fi game. It could function to find a person wearing a tracker or equally be a geiger counter or locator for a stash of equipment.

Since I built the Supernatural props, LoRa has emerged as a cheap and viable long range data radio technology. It's also standards based so not likely to disappear any time soon. I've used an RFM95W module in this, which is the default cheap LoRa module used by 'makers'. It's connected over SPI and handles all the basic LoRa Tx/Rx stuff while also feeding back information about received signal strength etc. Sending data from one device to another is really quite simple but you have to be a good citizen and not transmit too frequently. LoRa comes with rules about duty cycle/spreading factor/power that you should stick to. I've tried to minimise my transmissions but haven't yet actually checked if what I've written complies.

We've also had an explosion in more powerful microcontrollers, I've used an ESP32-C3, which means I can configure the device with a little web interface over WiFi. Should I get around to writing the software using the ESP32-C3 would also allow it to detect Bluetooth tracking beacons and I've got a stash of these, so I intend to have a go at that.

I think the ESP32-C3 is becoming my go-to microcontroller even if something doesn't explicitly need WiFi connectivity. It has a great mix of features and just enough GPIO to get stuff done. With WiFi switched off it still uses more power than some microcontrollers but clocked down to 10Mhz is about the same as a traditional AVR Arduino. Then when you need to configure something you can temporarily turn up the clock, connect to WiFi and have a proper user interface from your phone or PC.

Despite the enclosure being oversize in comparison to the movie prop, mostly to accommodate the display and keep the proportions looking OK, the electronics were still going to be a tight fit.

This led me to order a custom PCB from JLCPCB that combined most of the modules together in a compact manner.

This shrunk everything down an awful lot, with the heart of it squeezing directly behind the display.

With the bulk of the space inside the tube free I easily managed to fit a decent size recovered LiPo cell from a discarded vape, a TP4056 protect/charge board and USB socket for programming.

The end result has come out pretty much exactly how I'd hoped. Minimum order quantity for the PCBs was five, so I may build a second PDT locator on principle.

The only thing I'm unhappy with is how the colour OLED display is not massively bright. In sunlight the glare on the acrylic used to prevent damage means you need to shade it to read it. So it's better for night games, but that's fine as it's getting a first run out in a night game.

I used a colour OLED instead of a fixed 7-segment LED display from the original prop specifically to make it more flexible long term. I plan to find some larger, 'digital clock' style fonts to make it look more like the original. The currents fonts and UI are just a bit of a placeholder to allow me to test with.

So far I've tested it out to 150m from a beacon and it's fine, which is all the range I need for it. With LoRa, even with the slightly compromised wire antenna inside the case I'm expecting it to hit 200m+.

The user interface only needs to be very basic for end users, as I've written a little web configuration page to set it up more fully for games. The step up from traditional Arduino AVR dev boards in these projects to ESP32 boards really opens up so many capabilities while not increasing the cost.

For now I'm testing using beacons assembled on breadboards, but I will probably assemble the other tracker PCBs I ordered to function as beacons in our game next month. This doesn't preclude later turning them into more trackers by soldering on a display.

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