Tangible Programming Brings Code into The Real World

We love the idea of [Amos]’s Tangible Programming project. It reminds us of those great old Radioshack electronics labs where the circuitry concepts took on a physical aspect that made them way easier to digest than abstractions in an engineering textbook.

MIT Scratch teaches many programming concepts in an easy to understand visual way. However, fundamentally people are tactile creatures and being able to literally feel and see the code laid out in front could be groundbreaking for many young learners. Especially those with brains that favor physical touch and interaction such as ADHD or Asperger’s minds.

The boards are color-coded and communicate via an I2C bus. Each board’s logic and communication is handled by an ATTiny or ATMega. The current processing is visible through LEDs or even an OLED display. Numbers are input either through thumbwheel switches or jumpers.

The code concepts will, of course, be simple and focused due to the physical nature of the blocks. Integer arithmetic, simple loops, and if/else conditionals. Quite a lot of concepts can be built around this and it could be a natural diving board into the aforementioned Scratch and eventually an easy to learn language like python.

Posted in The Hackaday Prize, The Hackaday Prize 2019 | Leave a comment

Arduino Does Multitouch

A lot of consumer gadgets use touch sensors now. It is a cheap and reliable way to replace a variety of knobs and switches on everything from headphones to automobiles. However, creating a custom touch controller for a one-off project can be daunting. A recent ACM paper shows how just about any capacitive sensor can work as a multitouch sensor with nothing more than an Arduino although a PC running processing interprets the data for higher-level functions.

The key is that the Arduino excites the grid using PWM and then examines the signal coming out of the grid. Finger poking changes the response quite a bit and the Arduino can sense it using the analog to digital converters onboard. You can find the actual software kit online. The tutorial document is probably more interesting than the ACM paper if you only want to use the kit.

The optimum drive frequency is 10 MHz. The examples rely on harmonics of a lower frequency PWM signal to get there. The analog conversion, of course, isn’t that fast but since your finger touch rate is relatively slow, they treat the signal as an amplitude-modulated input which is very easy to decode.

The sensors can be conductive ink, thread, or copper strips. There are several example applications, including a 3D printed bunny you can pet, a control panel on a sleeve, and an interactive greeting card.

The sensor forms an image and OpenCV detects the actual touch configuration. It appears you can use the raw data from the Arduino, too, but it might be a little harder.

We imagine aluminum foil would work with this technique. If you get to the point of laying out a PCB, this might come in handy.

Posted in arduino, Arduino Hacks, capacitive keyboard, capacitive sensing, processing | Leave a comment

UNIX Version 0, Running On A PDP-7, In 2019

WIth the 50th birthday of the UNIX operating system being in the news of late, there has been a bit of a spotlight shone upon its earliest origins. At the Living Computers museum in Seattle though they’ve gone well beyond a bit of historical inquiry though, because they’ve had UNIX (or should we in this context say unix instead?) version 0 running on a DEC PDP-7 minicomputer. This primordial version on the original hardware is all the more remarkable because unlike its younger siblings very few PDP-7s have survived.

The machine running UNIX version 0 belongs to [Fred Yearian], a former Boeing engineer who bought his machine from the company’s surplus channel at the end of the 1970s. He restored it to working order and it sat in his basement for decades, while the vintage computing world labored under the impression that including the museum’s existing machine only four had survived — of which only one worked. [Fred’s] unexpected appearance with a potentially working fifth machine, therefore, came as something of a surprise.

To load the OS a disk emulator was connected to the machine, and for possibly the first time in many decades a new UNIX version 0 device driver was written to enable it to be used. The first login was the user “dmr”, a homage to UNIX co-creator Dennis M. Ritchie.

With so few surviving machines it’s no surprise that we’ve not featured a PDP-7 before. You can, however, entertain yourself reading our coverage of UNIX at 50,

Via Hacker News.

Posted in dmr, pdp-7, retrocomputing, unix | Leave a comment

The ESP32, Laid Bare

Most readers will be familiar with the ESP32, Espressif’s dual-core processor with integrated WiFi and Bluetooth. Few of us though will have explored all of its features, including its built-in encryption facilities and secure booting capability. With these, a developer can protect and secure their code, and keep their devices secure.

That sense of security may now be illusory though, thanks to [LimitedResults] who has developed a series of attacks on the chip that compromise its crypto core, secure boot, and flash encryption. This enables both the chance of arbitrary code execution and firmware extraction on locked-down ESP32 devices.

To achieve all this he used a glitching technique on the device’s power supply, inserting a carefully timed glitch in the rail to coincide with a particular instruction being executed. For those of us who are not experts in this technique, he provides a basic primer with a description of his home-made glitcher made using a CMOS switch chip.

It appears that there is no solution to this attack short of new silicon, however, it should be borne in mind that it’s something that depends upon a specialist hacker with a well-equipped bench, and is thus only likely to be a significant headache to manufacturers. But it undermines a key feature of a major line of microcontrollers, and as such it remains a significant piece of work.

Posted in ESP32, glitching, Microcontrollers, news, security, security hacks | Leave a comment

Harmonic Analyzer Does It With Cranks And Gears

Before graphic calculators and microcomputers, plotting functions were generally achieved by hand. However, there were mechanical graphing tools, too. With the help of a laser cutter, it’s even possible to make your own!

The build in question is nicknamed the Harmonic Analyzer. It can be used to draw functions created by adding sine waves, a la the Fourier series. While a true Fourier series is the sum of an infinite number of sine waves, this mechanical contraption settles on just 5.

This is achieved through the use of a crank driving a series of gears. The x-axis gearing pans the notepad from left to right. The function gearing has a series of gears for each of the 5 sinewaves, which work with levers to set the magnitude of the coefficients for each component of the function. These levers are then hooked up to a spring system, which adds the outputs of each sine wave together. This spring adder then controls the y-axis motion of the pen, which draws the function on paper.

It’s a great example of the capabilities of mechanical computing, even if it’s unlikely to ever run Quake. Other DIY mechanical computers we’ve seen include the Digi-Comp I and a wildly complex Differential Analyzer. Video after the break.

Posted in gears, harmonic, laser cutter, mechanical computer, misc hacks, wood | Leave a comment

The Ultimate Hacker’s Compact 4WD!

If you’ve spent any time at one of the larger European hacker camps over the last few years you’ll have seen the invasion of little electric vehicles sporting hoverboard motors as an all-in-one propulsion system. German hackers, in particular, have incorporated them into the iconic Bobby Car children’s toy, and ca be seen whizzing around looking slightly incongruous as adults perched on transport designed for five-year-olds.

[Peter Pötzi] has created just such an electric Bobby Car, and his one is particularly well-executed with a 3D-printed steering column extender and four motors for full 4WD rather than the usual two. A steering wheel-mounted display has a neat enclosure, and is fed SPI from the ESP32 that runs the show via an RJ45 patch cable. Many of these builds use hoverboard motor controllers with hacked firmware, but this one instead takes a set of off-the-shelf VESCs. Control comes via a set of Xbox 360 trigger buttons mounted to the underside of the steering wheel.

The result is typically self-contained as are all the Bobby Car builds, with the added bonus of the extra power of four motors rather than two. We’re not so sure that 4WD gives it off-road capabilities though, but having seen these vehicles perform some nifty maneuvers in the past perhaps it’ll lend extra traction on corners.

Posted in 2019 Hackaday Prize, bobby car, electric vehicle, hoverboard, The Hackaday Prize, The Hackaday Prize 2019, transportation hacks | Leave a comment

2019 Superconference is Streaming Live Right Now!

Perhaps Pasadena is a bit too far from home, or maybe you waited a few milliseconds longer than you should have and missed the tickets when they went on sale. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the vast majority of Hackaday readers won’t be able to join us at the 2019 Superconference. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, you’ll still be able to see the incredible talks we’ve got lined up.

Starting at 10 AM Pacific on both Saturday and Sunday, the live stream will allow you to virtually attend the ultimate hardware conference in glorious high definition. Many of the talks this year have a specific focus on FPGAs (and we’ve got an incredible badge to match), but you’ll also see presentations on subjects such as hacking quantum key distribution systems, the creation of free-form circuit sculptures, debugging PCBs with augmented reality, and using Peltier coolers for fermentation. Saturday evening we’ll reveal the winner of the Hackaday Prize live on stage, and come Sunday you can unwind with a look at the best and brightest badge hacks from the weekend.

We won’t lie to you, there’s more going on at Supercon than we can possibly fit into a live video stream. At an event where nearly every flat surface will be playing host to somebody fiddling with a piece of interesting hardware, there’s only so much you can do vicariously. If anyone knows how you can take part in the SMD Soldering Challenge over the Internet, we’re all ears. Whether you’ll be with us in corporeal form or otherwise, don’t forget to join the official 2019 Hackaday Superconference Chat and use the #supercon hashtag on your social media time sink of choice.

Posted in 2019 Hackaday Superconference, cons, events, Featured, live steam, livestream, slider | Leave a comment

The Book Of Dreams Brings Back All Your Memories

The retro-facing side of British social media has been abuzz for the last few days with a very neat piece of marketing form the catalogue retailer Argos: they’ve digitised all their catalogues since 1975 and put them online. While this contains a cross-section of over four decades’ styles, fads, and ephemera, it also gives the browser a fascinating look at a host of retrotechnology from a contemporary viewpoint rather than through the rose-tinted glasses of 2019. It may not be a hack, but we guarantee you’ll spend a while browsing it!

The 1975 edition as you might expect doesn’t have any computers, as the Altair 8800 probably wasn’t intended for the British retail market. There’s a feeling of a byegone era about to implode as we see typewriters, though the few calculators do give a hint of what is to come even if they do include slide rules and a couple of Olivetti mechanical models. Even the electronic digital watch is too much of a novelty to yet grace these pages. Entertainment is all analogue, with plenty of vinyl and cassette, plus the very 8-track player we did a teardown on a while back.

It's difficult to explain in 2019 how mind-blowing seeing one of these for the first time was.It’s difficult to explain in 2019 how mind-blowing seeing one of these for the first time was.

By 1977 not much has changed as for the most part we’re still in the analogue world of 1970s Britain, but a few hints are there of what is to come. TV games have made an appearance, though only as single-game Pong style consoles rather than what we’d recognise as a console. That would wait until 1979, with the Atari 2600 appearing alongside the Texas Instruments Speak and Spell in the toy section rather than alongside the televisions. There they are again in 1980, joined by the Milton Bradley BigTrak for fans of programmable toys, and in 1981 by the Mattel Intellivision.

Surprisingly 1982 is not all about the Sinclair ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, instead we see the first computer with a keyboard and it may be a name you’ve never heard of. The Philips G7000 was the European name for the Magnavox Odyssey, which was a relatively venerable four years old by the time Argos had it. If this is unexpected then perhaps it relates to how home computers were sold in the early 1980s, with more traditional retail outlets such as the WH Smiths newsagent having exclusive deals with manufacturers and selling them to parents as an education aid rather than to children as a toy. While we’re in 1982, it’s worth noting the brief appearance of CB radios as the CB boom was on a definite downslope.

For 1983 the home computer cat is well and truly out of the bag. Mattel, Commodore, and Texas Instruments are all there alongside the earlier consoles, which have melted away in 1984 as the ZX Spectrum and Atari 600 join the line-up. We are a world away from the first catalogue nearly a decade earlier, and the world will never be the same again. Succeeding years bring us through the history of home computers and consoles, dive into any of the catalogues and you’ll find them alongside the VHS video recorders and Eternal Beau breadbins.

Browsing this archive will provide a lot of readers with a chance to look again at the tech they had in their youth or wished they’d had in their youth. As a writer it’s been a particularly interesting journey not only through products once lusted after, but those from a decade earlier which arrived for repair or teardown by a teenaged hardware hacker. This has taken an hour of browsing through the pages to compile, don’t blame us if they occupy a similar proportion of your time too!

Posted in console, retrocomputer, retrocomputing, retrotechnology, shop | Leave a comment

Sow Your Seed Efficiently With This Multi-Way Drop Seeder

Anyone who has ever had to propagate small plants from seed will know that efficiently sowing seed can be a difficult process. Getting a consistent number of seed in each point while achieving any sort of speed is almost impossible, and as a result it becomes a tedious process. If only there were some means by which it could be automated, perhaps a way to do a whole tray at once!

Fortunately [Michael Ratcliffe] is at hand, with his tray-sized drop seeder. It consists of two sheets of acrylic each with a grid of holes, offset from each other by able to be brought into alignment with a lever. Seed is shaken over the upper surface until all the holes contain some, and then the lever is operated allowing it to drop through into the soil below. There is a matching dibber if required to push the required grid of holes in the soil.

It’s a simple yet ingenious gadget that genuinely will make the lives of horticulturalists a lot easier, even though it might not be perfect for all types of seed. He’s created a video which we’ve placed below the break, and should you wish to create the dibber we’ve already covered it.

Posted in gardening, green hacks, planting, seed, seed sowing, sowing | Leave a comment

Speeding Up IOTA Proof Of Work Using FPGAs

Blockchain has existed as a concept since the early 1990s, but keeping a distributed ledger for IoT transactions wasn’t widely implemented until IOTA developed Tangle. The blockchain company was initially founded as a hardware startup and pivoted to work on transactional settlement for IoT. The Tangle, their distributed ledger architecture based on a directed acyclic graph (DAG) works as a “blockchain without the blocks and the chain”.

As its name implies, the Tangle is a web of transactions that references its past two transactions and a subsection of other transactions. Rather than miners and stakers being responsible for overall consensus, all active participants are involved in the approval of transactions. The transaction process requires the client to sign with their private keys, select two random unconfirmed transactions to be referenced, and perform proof-of-work.

The proof-of-work has an unfortunately high difficulty as you might expect. The process is similar to finding a nonce in Bitcoin mining, although the difficulty is set at a lower threshold due to the transactions running on lower-power nodes. Even so, since IOTA transactions commonly occur on small embedded platforms this can take several minutes to complete, a relatively long time considering these are mere transactions.

Since Curl-P81 hashes should be computed in parallel, they can’t be computed efficiently on general purpose CPUs. The PiDiver 1.3, [Thomas Pototschnig]’s port of the IOTA Reference Implementation (IRI) PearlDiver, performs searches for nonces. Because it runs on FPGAs, it is able to speed up the proof-of-work by a factor of more than 140 when compared to a Raspberry Pi. The FPGA is able to calculate one round of the hash in a single clock cycle, and a complete hash in 85 cycles (as well as testing for a valid nonce). Seven parallel hashes can be calculated at once, giving 15.8MHash/s at a frequency of 188MHz. The proof-of-work takes ~300ms on the FPGA when compared to 90s on a Raspberry Pi, so this is a significant improvement in speed.

Since the project is open source, the core can be used by IRI for creating a modified version of their PearlDiver.  The board can be used as a Raspberry Pi HAT, although it can also be connected via USB to work without the Pi.

While this doesn’t address the security concerns of using IOTA with personal IoT devices, it is certainly a significant improvement on the speed of their proof-of-work process, and the software speedup is incredibly satisfying to watch.

Posted in cryptocurrency, fpga, iota | Leave a comment