Hackaday Links: October 19, 2014

Introducing the Hayes Smartmodem 1200. The era of the single station microcomputer…. is over. The Hayes Smartmodem offers advanced features like auto answer and auto dial. Now if we could only find an ‘RS-232 Computer.’

Have a 3D printer and an old router? How about controlling your printer with Octoprint? For some cases, it might be better than using a Raspberry Pi and OctoPi, but you won’t get a camera for streaming pics of your builds to the web.

Last year, [CNLohr] built a microscope slide Minecraft thing and in the process created the smallest Minecraft server ever. The record has now been bested with the Intel Edison. There’s a bit of work to install Java, but the performance is pretty good for one player. Bonus: Minecraft is a single threaded app, so you have another core for garbage collection.

Remember the Scribble pen, that showed just how gullible people are and how crappy tech journalism is? They’re back with a beta program. A mere $15 guarantees you a scribble pen for their beta program. I wouldn’t give these guys $15 of someone else’s money, but lucky for us [ch00f] bit the bullet. He’ll be updating everyone on the status of his fifteen dollars, I’m sure.

Hey, guess what will eventually be in the Hackaday store? Keycaps for your mechanical keyboard. Yes, we actually figured out a way to do this that makes sense and won’t lose money. Pick your favorite, or suggest new ones in the comments:


Scribble and the Failings of Tech Journalism

The Scribble Pen, you may remember, is a project by bay area startup Scribble Technology that puts a color sensor and multiple ink reservoirs in a pen. We’ve talked about it before, right after they cancelled their Kickstarter campaign after netting 366% of their original goal.

Yes, they cancelled their campaign after being successfully funded. To Kickstarter’s credit, the Scribble team was asked to provide a better video of the pen demonstrating its capabilities. The team pulled the plug on the campaign, saying they’ll be back soon.

Here is the new campaign. The attentive reader will notice the new campaign is not a Kickstarter project; instead, it is a Tilt campaign. What is Tilt? It’s a platform that allows for crowdfunding, fundraising, pooling, and other ‘many wallets into one’ Internet-based projects. It’s actually not a bad idea if you’re raising funds for a charity or the Jamaican bobsled team. For crowdfunded product development, caveat emptor doesn’t quite cover it.

With more than $200,000 in the bank, you would think the questions asked in many comments on the old Kickstarter would be answered. They were. Scribble put up a new video showing the pen drawing different colors of ink on a piece of paper. This video was faked. [Ch00f] at Drop Kicker took apart the new video frame by frame and found these – ahem – scribbles were inserted in post production. The video has since been replaced on the Tilt campaign page, but evidence of Scribble deleting comments questioning this exists.

Any idea of the Scribble pen being real has been put to bed. Kickstarter threatened to remove the campaign if a better video could not be produced within 24 hours. The Scribble team cancelled their campaign to regroup and put together a better video. In two weeks, the team was only able to produce a faked video. The Scribble pen does not exist.

Case closed, you might think. Digging into videos frame by frame will tell you a lot, but it won’t give you the full picture. We know what happened with the Scribble pen, but very little about the who, why, and how this huge, glaringly obvious fraud occurred. Before we get to that, hold on to your hats – it only gets shadier from here on out.

Continue reading “Scribble and the Failings of Tech Journalism”

Gutenberg Clock Keeps Time by Reading Books

Gutenberg clock displaying text from a book

We’ve seen a wide variety of hacks that keep time, but [ch00f]’s latest build takes a new spin on counting the seconds. The Gutenberg Clock keeps time by reading books on a scrolling LED screen.

The content for the clock is sourced from the Project Gutenberg, which releases books with expired copyright for free. The library on the clock consists of around twenty thousand such books. Read at eighty words per minute, the clock won’t repeat a passage for the next thirty-three years.

While the clock doesn’t display time itself, it is synchronized to time. Two identical clocks should display the same text at the same time. To get the time, [ch00f] first tried hacking apart a cheap radio clock, which is synchronized to NIST’s 60 kHz broadcast. After reverse engineering the protocol with great success, stray RF energy from the display turned out to cause too much interference.

With the cheap solution out the window, [ch00f] built a custom breakout for an Adafruit GPS module and used it to get the time. This was his first RF board, but it worked out fine.

Books are loaded onto a FAT filesystem on an SD card, and [ChaN]’s FatFS is used to interpret the filesystem. A microcontroller then sends the text out at a constant rate to a serial port on the display which he hacked his way into.

The project is a neat mix of art and electronics. Stick around for a video overview after the break.

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Reverse Engineering HitClips


After a quick review of the Hackaday viewer demographics, we need to say the late 90s were weird. Even portable audio players were downright bizarre: MP3 players existed, but you loaded up your songs (all eight of them) over your PC’s parallel port.  While helping a cousin move some furniture, [Ch00f] found a huge collection of one of the oddest music formats ever: HitClips, a tiny plastic encapsulated bit of circuitry that stores 60 seconds of terrible-sounding mono audio. Yes, this was a thing, but so was the pet rock. With no HitClips player, [Ch00f] decided he would take a swing at reverse engineering these tiny, tinny songs.

After taking apart the plastic enclosure, [Ch00f] found a very simple circuit: a few resistors, a cap, and an epoxy blob that enclosed an die with the musical data. On the back of the clip, there are eight pads for connecting to the player. With nothing to go on, [Ch00f] started poking around and found connecting one of these pins to ground caused circuit to draw 300uA of current for about 60 seconds – the same length of time as the recorded sample.

[Ch00f] originally thought the HitClip would provide audio data over an SPI or other digital protocol. What he found was much more interesting: two of the pins on the HitClip correspond to the push and pull FETs of a class D amplifier. The audio on the HitClip is digital audio, but it’s encoded so it can directly drive an analog circuit. Pretty clever engineering for a happy meal toy, if you ask us.

After dumping this data with a logic analyzer, [Ch00f] turned all the values in to .WAV file. It was, amazingly, music. A little refinement to the process to nail down the timing resulted in a 60-second clip seen (heard?) after the break.

Since [Ch00f] doesn’t want to spend $40 on eBay for a vintage HitClips player, he’s right about at the limit of what he can reverse engineer out of these cheap, crappy music chips. He has put up all his documentation, though, so if you’re up for improving on [Ch00f]’s methods, have a go.

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Serializing Dickens to LEDs


[ch00f] managed to capture some holiday spirit this year by translating all of A Christmas Carol to scrolling text. Dickens’s work has long since entered public domain, which led [ch00f] to wire up a GeekCatch programmable display from Amazon. It has a low refresh rate, which means videos look a bit goofy, but it’s perfectly acceptable for text. [ch00f] ditched the remote control and instead used the display’s serial connection to program in the novella. Unfortunately, he could not find any documentation for the serial protocol, but he was able to reverse engineer it with some freeware applications found online.

It takes over six hours for the sign to spit out the entirety of A Christmas Carol, which easily surpassed the display’s limited text buffer. [ch00f] instead had to send text to the display one paragraph at a time via a custom Python script. This solution takes advantage of the sign’s fixed-width font to estimate the time it takes for each character to scroll by, then immediately feeds the sign a new line.

Check out the blog post for a quick teardown of the display itself and for a detailed description of the protocol in case you decide to use this display for a project. Stick around for a video below!

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Aluminum Bitcoin Keychain


Here’s a cool way to bring a physical presence to your Bitcoins: a custom CNC milled QR code Bitcoin address!

[ch00f], one of our occasional writers here at Hack a Day, has just finished this slick aluminum Bitcoin QR code keychain. He started by creating a vanity Bitcoin address using a program called OCLVanitygen, consisting of his dad’s first initial and last name at the beginning, followed by a random string of numbers. It only took his Radeon HD6790 6 hours to solve, which amounted to approximately half a trillion guesses in order to find the address! 

He then took his shiny new Bitcoin address and created a QR code from it using an web-based generator. [ch00f] then increased the resolution of the image in Photoshop and imported it into a CNC program called CamBam. A converted CNC Taig mill got to work tracing out the code with a 0.049″ carbide end. The total milling time was just over 2 hours. A bit of black spray paint, some sanding, and a few layers of clear coat later and the keychain is done!

[via Reddit]

Mains Frequency Display

mains frequency

[James] lives in the UK where the frequency of electricity is suppose to be 50Hz, but it tends to fluctuate based on supply and demand. He decided he wanted a display to track this.

Now, the National Grid Website shows a real-time graph of the last 60 minutes. But that’s way too easy. Time to bust out the soldering iron!

Armed with pencil and paper [James] scribbled down some ideas on how to count the frequency — he settled on counting 200 cycles, which means that at 50.000Hz, it would take exactly 4 seconds. The next problem was getting a timing source that was accurate enough for the job. An ATtiny84 wouldn’t do the trick (too inaccurate), nor would an external crystal (too expensive) — But a real-time clock? That’s the ticket! He’s using a DS3231 RTC chip, which at +/- 2ppm 32.768kHz is more than precise enough.

Some math, programming, and soldering later and the display is complete! He’s even added an up/down arrow to show the most recent trend of the electricity.

Nice one [James]! Last year [Ch00f] did a similar project, where he tore down a 194 discrete transistor clock kit to see how it worked — as an aside, he needed to know how accurate the 60Hz coming out of his wall was!