Etch-A-Snap camera puts a modern spin on one of your favorite childhood toys

Imagine a Raspberry Pi Zero camera, 3D printed parts, some computer code and a serious dose of childhood nostalgia concocted together and you have the Etch-A-Snap, a camera that swaps out the usual LCD screen with an Etch A Sketch. Designed by Martin Fitzpatrick, the digital camera sketches real-life scenes using the two dials of the longstanding childhood toy that’s notoriously difficult to draw with.

The probably practically useless but nonetheless cool camera was designed from a Raspberry Pi Zero camera, part of the Raspberry Pi family of tools designed to teach code. Of course, the back of the device is an Etch A Sketch. Two stepping motors control the toy’s horizontal and vertical drawing dials and the entire rig sits inside a custom 3D-printed case.

But how are pixels translated into a drawing made with a series of connected lines? The Etch-A-Snap is programmed first to reduce the image to 240 by 144 pixels since the tiny drawing toy at the back doesn’t need all that data. Of course, the Etch A Sketch doesn’t need color either, so the image is further downgraded to black and white (not grayscale, but an image with only black and only white).

The built-in computer chip then translates what’s left into plotter printer data, an old-school type of printer that created line drawings. Using that line drawing, the Etch-A-Snap then controls the Etch A Sketch knobs to recreate the same line drawing.

Fitzpatrick says the image takes between 15 minutes and an hour to “develop” the image, depending on just how many elaborate lines are needed to recreate the photograph. Much of that time is spent computing to translate the image, and the camera tends to perform the slowest right after the image is snapped.

While made using a toy invented in the 1950s, the unique camera still has a few advanced surprises. A light on the front of the camera will warn users if the Etch-A-sketch needs to be erased via a quick shake. 

While the practical applications are limited, that doesn’t stop the Etch-A-Snap from drawing people and scenes better than you can using two knobs and a continuous line — not to mention the cool factor. Fitzpatrick shared detailed instructions and files for the tech-savvy that want to build their own.

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