Reverse engineering challenge starts off simple

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We love seeing hard-core firmware reverse engineering projects, but the number of hackers who can pull those off is relatively small. It’s possible to grow the ranks of the hacker elite though. A hackerspace is a great place to have a little challenge like this one. [Nicolas Oberli] put together a capture the flag game that requires the contestants to reverse engineer Teensy 3.0 firmware.

He developed this piece of hardware for the Insomni’hack 2013 event. It uses the Teensy 3.0 capacitive touch capabilities to form a nine-digit keypad with a character LCD screen for feedback. When the correct code is entered the screen will display instructions on how to retrieve the ‘flag’.

To the right you can see the disassembly of the .elf file generated by the Arduino IDE. This is what [Nicolas] gave to the contestants, which gets them past the barrier of figuring out how to dump the code from the chip itself. But it does get them thinking in assembly and eventually leads to figuring out what the secret code is for the device. This may be just enough of a shove in the right direction that one needs to get elbow deep into picking apart embedded hardware as a hobby.

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Hammond Organ sends messages which can be decoded by a Spectrogram

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Here’s an interesting use for an old organ. Let it get in on your Ham radio action. [Forrest Cook]  is showing off his project which uses a Hammond Organ to encode messages which can be displayed by a Spectrogram. We’ve seen this type of message encoding before (just not involving a musical instrument). It’s rather popular with Hams in the form of the fldigi program.

An Arduino was connected to the organ via a UNL2003 darlington array chip. This chip is driving some reed relays which make the organ connections to create the sine wave tones. With that hardware in place it’s a matter of formatting data to generate the target audio. [Forrest] wrote his own Arduino sketch which takes characters from the serial port (pushed over USB by the laptop), maps then to a stored 5×7 character font set, then drives the pins to produce the tones. As you can see in the clip after the break the resulting audio can be turned into quite readable text.

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Hacking VM for peak performance

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[Cyber Explorer] recently ditched his collection of physical computers acting as servers by virtualizing the lot of them. But with every change there’s a drawback. Although it wasn’t too hard for him to set up the virtual machines, he did end up spending quite a bit of time trying to improve the bandwidth. Luckily he posted an article chronicling all of the VM tweaks he used to improve the system.

The experience involves both a Windows 8 machine, as well as a some Linux boxes meaning there’s something here for everybody. At each step in the process he performs some throughput tests to see how the boxes are performing. Tweaks are numerous, but include trying out different Ethernet drivers, making sure all modules are up to date, squashing at least one bug, and giving jumbo-frames a try.

[Thanks Omri]

Top 10 hacking failures in movies

It had been requested that we make a short video covering the top worst hacks in movies. Being the community that we are, it seemed like an interesting request. We asked for your input, and you were happy to deliver! However, the proposition of creating a “top 10″ list turned out to be quite difficult. There were just SO MANY horrible scenes that I started thinking about how to even categorize them. We could probably to a “top 10″ in any of the following categories without even having to dig too deeply:

  • hacker lingo
  • mocked up interfaces
  • fake input devices
  • virus screen-takeover moments
  • access denied messages
  • hardware taped together

Honestly, after breaking it down in such a manner, making the top 10 movie hacking failures, felt painfully general. It is like making a list of “top 10 animals that ever existed”. The state of technology portrayal in movies is frankly abysmal. It is obvious that the only people who know less about tech than “hollywood” are the people making laws about it.

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Automatic Closet Lightswitch

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[Dillon] wrote in to tell us about his latest project, an automatic light switch for a the hallway closet in his house. Although this project could probably be done very simply, [Dillon] accomplished everything in a way that actually looks professionally done and has some neat features. Check out his site for more pictures of the build.

Not that we at [HAD] mind a bit of messy wiring, but if it’s going inside a house, neater is always better. On the other hand, this project took nearly a year to go from idea to implementation, so please keep submitting your spaghetti-wired projects.  We understand.

As an electrical engineering major, [Dillon] didn’t skimp on basic electrical components, and has schematics available on his site. A MSP430 microcontroller provides the “brains” for everything, turning the light off after 5 minutes if the doors are not shut. Be sure to check out his video overview after the break with footage of it in action. [Read more...]

Ikea Dioder ambilight hack

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There are a lot of hacks out there for Ikea’s Dioder LED light set. [Lambertus] wanted to create an easy and affordable ambilight while keeping the hardware modifications to a minimum. He also wanted anyone to be able to easily duplicate his work. He recently wrote in to share his successful solution.

The customizations boil down to three main steps: solder the ICSP connector wires to the test points on the Dioder PCB, connect a PIC programmer to the ICSP port (and reprogram), and attach a 5V RS-232 device to the ICSP port. The software was the most difficult part of the procedure for [Lambertus]. The PIC16F684 didn’t contain the required UART and PWM controllers, so he had to get crafty. Fortunately he’s done all the work for us, and lists the necessary .hex file he created on his site.

By adding support to boblight, his new ambilight is working with his media center very nicely. There’s a little demo video after the break.

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Making it Easier to Build Firmware

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Most microcontroller manufacturers give you some kind of free development toolchain or IDE with their silicon products. Often it’s crippled, closed source, and a large download. This is pretty inconvenient when you want to have firmware that’s easy to build and distribute. I’ve found many of these toolchains to be annoying to use, and requiring closed source software to build open source firmware seems less than desirable.

It’s possible to build code for most microcontrollers using command line tools. You’ll need a compiler, the device manufacturer’s libraries and header files, and some method of flashing the device. A lot of these tools are open source, which lets you have an open source toolchain that builds your project.

Setting up these tools can be a bit tricky, so I’m building a set of templates to make it easier. Each template has instructions on setting up the toolchain, a Makefile to build the firmware, and sample code to get up and running quickly. It’s all public domain, so you can use it for whatever you’d like.

Currently there’s support for AVR, MSP430, Stellaris ARM, and STM32L1. More devices are in the works, and suggestions are welcome. Hopefully this helps people get started building firmware that’s easy to build and distribute with projects.