Author Archives: Brian Benchoff

Old Fluorescent Fixtures Turned Into Fill Lights

via Hackaday » hardware

The Tymkrs are hard at work setting up their home studio, and since they’ll be shooting a few videos, they need some lights. The lights themselves aren’t very special; for YouTube videos, anything bright enough will work. The real challenge is making a mount and putting them in the right place, With a shop full of tools, making some video lights isn’t that hard and easily translates into a neat video project.

The lights began their lives as large fluorescent fixtures, the kind that would normally house long fluorescent tubes. The Tymkrs cut he metal reflector of this fixture in half, capped the ends with wood, and installed normal incandescent sockets in one end.

The inside of this reflector was coated with a reflective material, and a beautiful rice paper diffuser was glued on. The Tymkrs attached a metal bracket to these lights and screwed the bracket to the ceiling. There’s enough friction to keep the lights in one spot, but there’s also enough play in the joints to position them at just the right angle.

Filed under: hardware

CastAR Teardown

via Hackaday » hardware

A little more than a year ago, castAR, the augmented reality glasses with projectors and retro-reflective surfaces made it to Kickstarter. Since then we’ve seen it at Maker Faire, seen it used for visualizing 3D prints, and sat down with the latest version of the hardware. Now, one of the two people we trust to do a proper teardown finally got his developer version of the castAR.

Before [Mike] digs into the hardware, a quick refresher of how the castAR works: inside the glasses are two 720p projectors that shine an image on a piece of retroreflective fabric. This image reflects directly back to the glasses, where a pair of polarized glasses (like the kind you’ll find from a 3D TV), separate the image into left and right for each eye. Add some head tracking capabilities to the glasses, and you have a castAR.

The glasses come with a small bodypack that powers the glasses, adds two jacks for the accessory sockets, and switches the HDMI signal coming from the computer. The glasses are where the real fun starts with two cameras, two projectors, and a few very big chips. The projector itself is a huge innovation; [Jeri] is on record as saying the lens manufacturers told her the optical setup shouldn’t work.

As far as chips go, there’s an HDMI receiver and an Altera Cyclone FPGA. There’s also a neat little graphic from Asteroids on the board. Video below.

Filed under: hardware

Using The Red Pitaya As An SDR

via Hackaday » hardware

The Red Pitaya is a credit-card sized board that runs Linux, has Ethernet, and a good bit of RAM. This sounds a lot like a Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black, but the similarities end there. The Red Pitaya also has two RF inputs, two RF outputs, and a load of digital IOs, all connected to an Xilinx SoC that includes an FPGA. [Pavel] realized the Pitaya had all the components of a software-defined radio, and built an implementation to prove it.

The input for the SDR taps directly into one of the high impedance inputs with a simple loop antenna made out of telephone cable. The actual software-defined part of this radio borrows heavily from an Xilinx application note, while everything is controlled by either SDR# or HDSDR.

[Pavel] included a pre-built SD card image with all his software, so cloning this project is simply a matter of copying an SD card and building an antenna. The full source is also available, interesting if you would like to muck about with FPGAs and SDRs.

Filed under: FPGA, hardware, radio hacks

Reverse Engineering Wireless Temperature Probes

via Hackaday » hardware

[bhunting] lives right up against the Rockies, and for a while he’s wanted to measure the temperature variations against the inside of his hour against the temperature swings outside. The sensible way to do this would be to put a few wireless temperature-logging probes around the house, and log all that data with a computer. A temperature sensor, microcontroller, wireless module, battery, case, and miscellaneous parts meant each node in the sensor grid would cost about $10. The other day, [bhunting] came across the exact same thing in the clearance bin of Walmart – $10 for a wireless temperature sensor, and the only thing he would have to do is reverse engineer the protocol.

These wireless temperature sensors are exactly what you would expect for a cheap piece of Chinese electronics found in the clearance bin at Walmart. There’s a small radio operating at 433MHz, a temperature sensor, and a microcontroller under a blob of epoxy. The microcontroller and transmitter board in the temperature sensor were only attached by a ribbon cable, and each of the lines were labeled. After finding power and ground, [bhunting] took a scope to the wires that provided the data to the radio and took a look at it with a logic analyzer.

After a bit of work, [bhunting] was able to figure out how the temperature sensor sent data back to the base station, and with a bit of surgery to one of these base stations, he had a way to read the temperature data with an Arduino. From there, it’s just a data logging problem that’s easily solved with Excel, and [bhunting] has exactly what he originally wanted, thanks to a find in the Walmart clearance bin.

Filed under: hardware, home hacks

RISC, Tagged Memory, and Minion Cores

via Hackaday » hardware

Buy a computing device nowadays, and you’re probably getting something that knows x86 or an ARM. There’s more than one architecture out there for general purpose computing with dual-core MIPS boards available and some very strange silicon that’s making its way into dev boards. lowRISC is the latest endeavour from a few notable silicon designers, able to run Linux ‘well’ and adding a few novel security features that haven’t yet been put together this way before.

There are two interesting features that make the lowRISC notable. The first is tagged memory. This has been used before in older, weirder computers as a sort of metadata for memory. Basically, a few bits of each memory address tag each memory address as executable/non-executable, serve as memory watchpoints, garbage collection, and a lock on every word. New instructions are added to the ISA, allowing these tags to be manipulated, watched, and monitored to prevent the most common single security problem: buffer overflows. It’s an extremely interesting application of tagged memory, and something that isn’t really found in a modern architecture.

The second neat feature of the lowRISC are the minions. These are programmable devices tied to the processor’s I/O that work a lot like a Zynq SOC or the PRU inside the BeagleBone. Basically, they’re used for programmable I/O, implementing SPI/I2C/I2S/SDIO in software, offloading work from the main core, and devices that require very precise timing.

The current goal of the lowRISC team is to develop the hardware on an FPGA, releasing some beta silicon in a year’s time. The first complete chip will be an embedded SOC, hopefully release sometime around late 2016 or early 2017. The ultimate goal is an SOC with a GPU that would be used in mobile phones, set-top boxes, and Raspi and BeagleBone-like dev boards. There are enough people on the team, including [Robert Mullins] and [Alex Bradbury] of the University of Cambridge and the Raspberry Pi, researchers at UC Berkeley, and [Bunnie Huang].

It’s a project still in its infancy, but the features these people are going after are very interesting, and something that just isn’t being done with other platforms.

[Alex Bardbury] gave a talk on lowRISC at ORConf last October. You can check out the presentation here.

Filed under: hardware, news

ESP Gets FCC and CE

via Hackaday » hardware

The ESP8266 Internet of Things module is the latest and greatest thing to come out of China. It’s ideal for turning plastic Minecraft blocks into Minecraft servers, making your toilet tweet, or for some bizarre home automation scheme. This WiFi module is not, however, certified by the FCC. The chipset, on the other hand, is.

Having a single module that’s able to run code, act as a UART to WiFi transceiver, peek and poke a few GPIOs, all priced at about $4 is a game changer, and all your favorite silicon companies are freaking out wondering how they’re going to beat the ESP8266. Now the chipset is FCC certified, the first step to turning these modules into products.

This announcement does come with a few caveats: the chipset is certified, not the module. Each version of the module must be certified by itself, and there are versions that will never be certified by the FCC. Right now, we’re looking at the ESP8266-06, -07, -08, and -12 modules – the ones with a metal shield – as being the only ones that could potentially pass an FCC cert. Yes, those modules already have an FCC logo on them, but you’re looking at something sold for under $5 in China, here.

Anyone wanting to build a product with the ESP will, of course, also need to certify it with the FCC. This announcement hasn’t broken down any walls, but it has cracked a window.

Filed under: hardware

Clap On! A Breadboard

via Hackaday » hardware

The Clapper™ is a miracle of the 1980s, turning lights and TVs on and off with the simple clap of the hands, and engraving itself into the collective human unconsciousness with a little jingle that implores – nay, commands – you to Clap On! and Clap Off! [Rutuvij] and [Ayush] bought a clap switch kit, but like so many kits, this one was impossible to understand; building the circuit was out of the question, let alone understanding the circuit. They made their own version of the circuit, and figured out a way to explain how the circuit works.

While not the most important component, the most obvious component inside a Clapper is a microphone. [Rutuvij] and [Ayush] are using a small electret microphone connected to an amplifier block, in this case a single transistor.

The signal from the microphone is then sent to the part of the circuit that will turn a load on and off. For this, [Rutuvij] and [Ayush] are using a bistable multivibrator, or as it’s called in the world of digital logic and Minecraft circuits, an S-R flip-flop. This flip-flop needs two inputs; one to store the value and another to erase the stored value. For that, the guys are using two more transistors. The first time the circuit senses a clap, it stores the value in the flip-flop. The next time a clap is sensed, the circuit is reset.

Output is as simple as a LED and a buzzer, but one you have that, connecting a relay is a piece of cake. That’s the complete circuit of a clapper using five transistors, something that just can’t be done with other builds centered around a 555 timer chip.

Filed under: hardware

Using Cell Phone Screens with any HDMI Interface

via Hackaday » » hardware


Thanks to the worldwide proliferation of smartphones, tiny high-resolution displays are common and cheap. Interfacing these displays with anything besides a phone has been a problem. [twl] has a board that does just that, converting HDMI to something these displays can understand, and providing a framebuffer so these displays can be written to through small microcontrollers.

[twl] is using a rather large FPGA to handle all the conversion from HDMI to the DSI the display understands. He’s using an Xilinx Spartan-6-SLX9, one of the most hobbyist friendly devices that is able to be hand soldered. Also on the board is a little bit of SDRAM for a framebuffer, HDMI input, and a power supply for the LCD and its backlight.

On the things [twl] has in his ‘to-do’ list, porting Doom to run on a cellphone display is obviously right at the top. He also wants to test the drawing commands for the Arduino side of his board, allowing any board with the suffix ~’ino to paint graphics and text on small, cheap, high-resolution displays. That’s a capability that just doesn’t exist with products twice [twl]‘s projected BOM, and we can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

You can check out the demo video of [twl]‘s board displaying the output of a Raspberry Pi below. If you look very closely, you’ll notice the boot/default screen for the display adapter is the Hackaday Jolly Wrencher.

Filed under: FPGA, hardware

Reverse Engineering a Blu-ray Drive for Laser Graffiti

via Hackaday » » hardware


There’s a whole lot of interesting mechanics, optics, and electronics inside a Blu-ray drive, and [scanlime] a.k.a. [Micah Scott] thinks those bits can be reused for some interesting project. [Micah] is reverse engineering one of these drives, with the goal of turning it into a source of cheap, open source holograms and laser installations – something these devices were never meant to do. This means reverse engineering the 3 CPUs inside an external Blu-ray drive, making sense of the firmware, and making this drive do whatever [Micah] wants.

When the idea of reverse engineering a Blu-ray drive struck [Micah], she hopped on Amazon and found the most popular drive out there. It turns out, this is an excellent drive to reverse engineer – there are multiple firmware updates for this drive, an excellent source for the raw data that would be required to reverse engineer it.

[Micah]‘s first effort to reverse engineer the drive seems a little bit odd; she turned the firmware image into a black and white graphic. Figuring out exactly what’s happening in the firmware with that is a fool’s errand, but by looking at the pure black and pure white parts of the graphic, [Micah] was able guess where the bootloader was, and how the firmware image is segmented. In other parts of the code, [Micah] saw thing vertical lines she recognized as ARM code. In another section, thin horizontal black bands revealed code for an 8051. These lines are only a product of how each architecture accesses code, and really only something [Micah] recognizes from doing this a few times before.

The current state of the project is a backdoor that is able to upload new firmware to the drive. It’s in no way a complete project; only the memory for the ARM processor is running new code, and [Micah] still has no idea what’s going on inside some of the other chips. Still, it’s a start, and the beginning of an open source firmware for a Blu-ray drive.

While [Micah] want’s to use these Blu-ray drives for laser graffiti, there are a number of other slightly more useful reasons for the build. With a DVD drive, you can hold a red blood cell in suspension, or use the laser inside to make graphene. Video below.

Filed under: hardware

An SDK for the ESP8266 WiFi Chip

via Hackaday » » hardware

ESP The ESP8266 is a chip that turned a lot of heads recently, stuffing a WiFi radio, TCP/IP stack, and all the required bits to get a microcontroller on the Internet into a tiny, $5 module. It’s an interesting chip, not only because it’s a UART to WiFi module, allowing nearly anything to get on the Internet for $5, but because there’s a user-programmable microcontroller in this board. If only we had an SDK or a few libraries…

The ESP8266 SDK is finally here. A complete SDK for the ESP8266 was just posted to the Expressif forums, along with a VirtualBox image with Ubuntu that includes GCC for the LX106 core used in this module.

Included in the SDK are sources for an SSL, JSON, and lwIP library, making this a solution for pretty much everything you would need to do with an Internet of Things thing. As far as LX106 core is concerned, there’s example code for using the spare pins on this board as GPIOs, I2C and SPI busses, and a UART.

This turns the ESP8266 into something much better than a UART to WiFi module; now you can create a Internet of Things thing with just $5 in hardware. We’d love to see some examples, so put those up on and send them in to the tip line.

Filed under: hardware

FTDI Screws Up, Backs Down

via Hackaday » » hardware


A few days ago we learned chip maker FTDI was doing some rather shady things with a new driver released on Windows Update. The new driver worked perfectly for real FTDI chips, but for counterfeit chips – and there are a lot of them – the USB PID was set to 0, rendering them inoperable with any computer. Now, a few days later, we know exactly what happened, and FTDI is backing down; the driver has been removed from Windows Update, and an updated driver will be released next week. A PC won’t be able to communicate with a counterfeit chip with the new driver, but at least it won’t soft-brick the chip.

Microsoft has since released a statement and rolled back two versions of the FTDI driver to prevent counterfeit chips from being bricked. The affected versions of the FTDI driver are 2.11.0 and 2.12.0, released on August 26, 2014. The latest version of the driver that does not have this chip bricking functionality is, released on January 27th. If you’re affected by the latest driver, rolling back the driver through the Device Manager to will prevent counterfeit chips from being bricked. You might want to find a copy of the 2.10.0 driver; this will likely be the last version of the FTDI driver to work with counterfeit chips.

Thanks to the efforts of [marcan] over on the EEVblog forums, we know exactly how the earlier FTDI driver worked to brick counterfeit devices:


[marcan] disassembled the FTDI driver and found the source of the brick and some clever coding. The coding exploits  differences found in the silicon of counterfeit chips compared to the legit ones. In the small snippet of code decompiled by [marcan], the FTDI driver does nothing for legit chips, but writes 0 and value to make the EEPROM checksum match to counterfeit chips. It’s an extremely clever bit of code, but also clear evidence FTDI is intentionally bricking counterfeit devices.

A new FTDI driver, presumably one that will tell you a chip is fake without bricking it, will be released next week. While not an ideal outcome for everyone, at least the problem of drivers intentionally bricking devices is behind us.

Filed under: hardware, news

Watch That Windows Update: FTDI Drivers Are Killing Fake Chips

via Hackaday » » hardware


The FTDI FT232 chip is found in thousands of electronic baubles, from Arduinos to test equipment, and more than a few bits of consumer electronics. It’s a simple chip, converting USB to a serial port, but very useful and probably one of the most cloned pieces of silicon on Earth. Thanks to a recent Windows update, all those fake FTDI chips are at risk of being bricked. This isn’t a case where fake FTDI chips won’t work if plugged into a machine running the newest FTDI driver; the latest driver bricks the fake chips, rendering them inoperable with any computer.

Reports of problems with FTDI chips surfaced early this month, with an explanation of the behavior showing up in an EEVblog forum thread. The new driver for these chips from FTDI, delivered through a recent Windows update, reprograms the USB PID to 0, something Windows, Linux, and OS X don’t like. This renders the chip inaccessible from any OS, effectively bricking any device that happens to have one of these fake FTDI serial chips.

Because the FTDI USB to UART chip is so incredibly common,  the market is flooded with clones and counterfeits. it’s very hard to tell the difference between the real and fake versions by looking at the package, but a look at the silicon reveals vast differences. The new driver for the FT232 exploits these differences, reprogramming it so it won’t work with existing drivers. It’s a bold strategy to cut down on silicon counterfeiters on the part of FTDI. A reasonable company would go after the manufacturers of fake chips, not the consumers who are most likely unaware they have a fake chip.

The workaround for this driver update is to download the FT232 config tool from the FTDI website on a WinXP or Linux box, change the PID of the fake chip, and never using the new driver on a modern Windows system. There will surely be an automated tool to fix these chips automatically, but until then, take a good look at what Windows Update is installing – it’s very hard to tell if your devices have a fake FTDI chip by just looking at them.

Filed under: hardware, news

Apollo, the Everything Board

via Hackaday » » hardware

The best projects have a great story behind them, and the Apollo from Carbon Origins is no exception. A few years ago, the people at Carbon Origins were in school, working on a high power rocketry project.

Rocketry, of course, requires a ton of sensors in a very small and light package. The team built the precursor to Apollo, a board with a 9-axis IMU, GPS, temperature, pressure, humidity, light (UV and IR) sensors, WiFi, Bluetooth, SD card logging, a microphone, an OLED, and a trackball. This board understandably turned out to be really cool, and now it’s become the main focus of Carbon Origins.

There are more than a few ways to put together an ARM board with a bunch of sensors, and the Apollo is extremely well designed; all the LEDs are on PWM pins, as they should be, and there was a significant amount of time spent with thermal design. See that plated edge on the board? That’s for keeping the sensors cool.

The Apollo will eventually make its way to one of the crowdfunding sites, but we have no idea when that will happen. Carbon Origins is presenting at CES at the beginning of the year, so it’ll probably hit the Internet sometime around the beginning of next year. The retail price is expected to be somewhere around $200 – a little expensive, but not for what you’re getting.

Filed under: hardware, Microcontrollers

Bluetooth Thingies at Maker Faire

via Hackaday » » hardware

In case you haven’t noticed, one of the more popular themes for new dev boards is Bluetooth. Slap a Bluetooth 4.0 module on a board, and you really have something: just about every phone out there has it, and the Low Energy label is great for battery-powered Internets of Things.

Most of these boards fall a little short. It’s one thing to throw a Bluetooth module on a board, but building the software to interact with this board is another matter entirely. Revealing Hour Creations is bucking that trend with their Tah board. Basically, it’s your standard Arduino compatible board with a btle module. What they’ve done is add the software for iOS and Android that makes building stuff easy.

Putting Bluetooth on a single board is one thing, but how about putting Bluetooth on everything. SAM Labs showed off their system of things at Maker Faire with LEDs, buttons, fans, motors, sensors, and just about every electrical component you can imagine.

All of these little boards come with a Bluetooth module and a battery. The software for the system is a graphical interface that allows you to draw virtual wires between everything. Connect a button to a LED in the software, and the LED will light up when the button is pressed. Move your mouse around the computer, and the button will turn on a motor when it’s pressed.

There are a few APIs that also come packaged into the programming environment – at the booth, you could open a fridge (filled with cool drinks that didn’t cost five dollars, a surprise for the faire) and it would post a tweet.

Filed under: hardware

Freescale and Texas Instruments Goodies and World Maker Faire

via Hackaday » » hardware

Freescale was very kind to Hackaday at Maker Faire this weekend, showing off a few boards and answering a few questions about why old Motorola application notes aren’t available on the Internet.

The Hummingboard from SolidRun comes in an oddly familiar form factor to anyone who has ever handled a Raspberry Pi. It also has an interesting feature: the CPU is on a small module, allowing anyone to upgrade the chipset to something significantly more powerful. In the top of the line configuration, it has a two core iMX6 CPU with a Gig of RAM, LVDS output, and Gigabit Ethernet. All the complex bits for this board are on a single module, allowing anyone to take the module and put it in another project, a la the Intel Edison.

Also in the Freescale booth was the pcDuino, a dual core ARM Cortex A7 with Ethernet, WiFi, and a SATA, with Arduino form factor pinouts. It’s a somewhat niche product, but being able to stack shields on something comparable to a Raspi or BeagleBone is a nice feature.

[Trey German] from Texas Instruments showed off some very cool stuff, including a quadcopter board for a Launchpad microcontroller. This isn’t a board with an IMU and a few servo outputs; this is the whole shebang with a frame, motors, and props. The frame was cut from some odd composite that’s usually used for road signs, and even though it wasn’t flying at the Faire (nothing was flying, by the way), it’s pretty light for a quad made at a board house.

Also from TI was their CC3200 dev board. This is a single chip with an ARM Cortex M4 and a WiFi radio that we’ve seen before. The CC3200 runs TI’s Wiring/Arduino inspired development environment Energia, and at about $30 for the CC3200 Launchpad board, it’s an easy and cheap way to build an Internet of Things thing.

Filed under: Featured, hardware