Snooping around in the iclicker hardware and firmware

[Arko] was compelled to purchase an iclicker to use in some of his college courses. It’s similar in size to a television remote control except it only has six buttons and it communicates via radio frequency instead of infrared light. The idea is that classrooms have a base station that the instructor uses, and he or she can ask questions of the class and have instant feedback. Results are often projected on a screen for all to see but only the instructor can get at the breakdown of who answered in what way. In [Arko's] case, the class awards participation points that you can only get by using this device. He decided to actually learn something from the expenditure by reverse engineering the device.

Preliminary hardware inspection told him that it uses an ATmega8 microcontroller and there’s a standard 6-pin ISP footprint just waiting to be populated with a surface mount pin header. Once he soldered on that header, he tried to read out the firmware but the iClicker reset itself. He guessed that there was something going on with the power and ground lines so he soldered directly to them and was able to dump the data–the security fuses are not set. He goes on to snoop in the EEPROM to find where the device ID is stored, and then to watch some of the SPI communications to see what the microcontroller is sending to the radio chip. But there’s a lot left to discover and he’s planning at least two follow-up post to share what he finds.

Just looking to repair your dead device? Check out this tip on battery problems with the iclicker.

Comments

  1. phisrow says:

    Does anybody else get the sneaking suspicion that $40(the manufacturer’s asking price) seems pretty optimistic, given the circuitry provided?

    • Mike says:

      There’s really no motivation to cut the price down any further if the schools are making students purchase these things to receive “participation points”.

      I only graduated 6 years ago and I’m already feeling grumpy-old-man-ish for thinking that ‘back in my day, we raised our hands’. Sigh, where’s Macluhan when you need him?

  2. Since the iClicker is a 900Mhz device, I would love to see someone write code for the TI chronos so we could just abandon those stupid iClickers. $50 for a TI chronos is better than $40 for an iClicker that just sits in the closet once the class is done.

  3. Limey says:

    Haha,wow. That picture on the guys site were it shows him opening it up mid lecture and has a load of lecture notes underneath it I recognised all of them xD. Just from the sketches I could see he was in some sore of materials engineering lecture doing face centred cubic structures of metals XD. I was doing the exact same thing a week ago just thought it was wierd that I recognised it haha :P

  4. Drew says:

    One of my classes used the iClicker for a ‘reading quiz’ at the beginning, and then a bunch of ‘participation questions’ throughout the rest of the lecture. The participation questions weren’t graded for accuracy.

    I’ve always wanted to hook one of the button contacts up to a 555, so I could doze off in class and have it answer “B.. B.. B” for me.

    • Arko says:

      One idea I had was to make it so it listens to all the other students then picks the most voted answer.

    • Matt says:

      You could just as well wait for someone to do the reverse engineering (or help them out) and then make one that waits for somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the class to answer. At that point it could just take the one that most students chose and emulate you hitting that button as well ;)

  5. truthspew says:

    Or if you really wanted to have some fun and force them to revert to the grumpy old man’s time, just build a 900MHz jammer. A watt or two would be enough.

    • SuperNuRd says:

      LOL my Highschool uses a thing called smart response so I bought a used one off line trolled around and made a seperate reciever! It is a lot easier to pass a test when you get all the peoples answers displayed on your wrist and you just pick the one with the most!

  6. N0LKK says:

    While I’m not really that old, I have achieved grey beard status in the opinion of some. As in so many things one is purchasing the function, as much as they are purchasing not a pile of parts. I can see where many teachers would like this, and why some student will hate it. A usable tool for a teacher, but one that will demand students knuckle under. All the same it’s a it’s a cost should be born by the school district, otherwise it’s like requiring the student to purchase their desk for participation points. Respectfully the decision to do a tear down of a device needed to be use in class during class showed a lack of critical forethought. Deciding to snap pictures, rather than immediately putting it away shows that the thinking process was in not in gear yet. Teachers don’t need high tech to make note of that. Having said all that, I’m looking forward to the results discovered, preferably out of class

  7. Drone says:

    Man, these iClickers are $40 – Really? That’s insane for such a simple device. Universities are ripping-of the students big-time (again). Hack this thing right away and post an Open Source version.

    I’m really surprised Apple has sued them for putting an ‘i’ in front of the word ‘Clicker’. Or maybe iClicker is owned Apple? (If so, that would explain the outrageous price.)

    It seems you can re-register used iClickers though, even if the registration number has rubbed off (you need some sort of software I think).

  8. smoker_dave says:

    Protection fuses not set? Man that is just school boy errors…

  9. tk421 says:

    These clicker things are absolutely abominable. The only thing worse is when the teacher’s misuse them. 1 minute to answer, and we don’t check to see if it’s right… just to see if you’re here.

    Since the poor little under powered receiver is bombarded with over a lecture hall full of students trying to get in their answers, if you answered any later than 10 seconds, you’d risk not getting in. As a result, nobody really tried to get the right answer. They just mashed the button to log their attendance for the day.

    Can you believe these people advocate using them to take TESTS!? Never the less… clever hack. Now that I know a few things, I might try to take a part my old one…

  10. uzerzero says:

    My physics professor used these in my undergrad course, but in a different way. Each student was given an iClicker at the beginning of the semester and they would sit in a storage bin in the classroom, so we didn’t have to buy them. Periodically in the lecture, he would project some quiz-like questions and after a few minutes, he would show the percentage of answers (anonymously of course). He did this to see how well the class understood the material without that one kiss-butt student answering all the questions. If 50% or so of the class got it wrong, he would show why that answer choice was wrong. It was a good learning tool in my opinion.

    As for hacking the device, I wanted to do the same thing, like flooding the receiver with the same answer, or 100 of all the answers, but since I didn’t own the device, I never got around to it. My professor had a good sense of humor, so I don’t think he would have minded. Kudos at peeking around :)

    • R0b0t1 says:

      I’m glad to say your teacher was a good teacher. Not only did he save people money, he intelligently integrated them into the curriculum (well, at least better than some teachers…)

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