Hackaday Prize Entry: Messing Around With New Vacuum Tubes

Vacuum tubes have been around for ages, and for better or worse, they have their advocates for use in amplifiers and preamps. However, tubes are simply inconvenient devices. Even a 12AX7 preamp tube is huge relative to a handful of transistors, tubes require weird voltages, and each and every one of them is a through-hole device that doesn’t lend itself to machine assembly.

This changed recently with the introduction a strange new tube from Japan. Noritake and Korg recently introduced a triode that uses the same packaging as VFD displays. The Korg Nutube is a vacuum tube that operates at lower voltages, is smaller than the usual preamp tubes, and still has the vacuum tube sound.

For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Kodera] is building a headphone amp with this new tube. Is a tube-based headphone amp particularly novel? No. But this is the first we’ve seen anyone playing around with this new, interesting piece of technology.

The requirements for this Nutube are simple enough, and the minimum anode voltage of this tube is just 8 V. [Kodera]’s circuit is running the tube at 12 V, and the only other circuitry in this preamp are a few coupling caps and an op-amp just before the power stage.

[Kodera] has crammed this circuit into a proper amplifier using a 2 x 15 W class-D chip from TI. It’s really a phenomenally simple circuit that’s also remarkably tiny. These kits are actually available on Tindie. Time will tell if the Nutube is picked up by some big-time manufacturers, but we’re happy to see someone is playing around with the latest advances in tube amp technology.

MEMS: The Biggest Word in Small

What’s tiny and on track to be worth $22 billion dollars by 2018? MEMS (Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems). That’s a catch-all phrase for microscopic devices that have moving parts. Usually, the component sizes range from 0.1 mm to 0.001 mm, which is tiny, indeed. There are some researchers working with even smaller components, sometimes referenced as NEMS (Nano Electrical Mechanical Systems).

Resonant Cantilever by [Pcflet01], CC BY-SA 3.0
MEMS have a wide range of applications including ink jet printers, accelerometers, gyroscopes, microphones, pressure sensors, displays, and more. Many of the sensors in a typical cell phone would not be possible without MEMS. There are many ways that MEMS devices are built, but just to get a flavor, consider the cantilever (see right), one of the most common MEMS constructions.

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A Switched Game Boy Advance SP

After Nintendo’s wild success with the Wii U, Nintendo released it’s Nintendo Switch. The switch functions primarily as a home console, stagnantly connected to a display. However, Nintendo switched things up a bit: the Switch can be removed from its dock for standalone tablet-like use. But there’s a slight problem: when the Switch is in portable mode, it leaves behind a bleak and black box. What’s one to do? Worry not: [Alexander Blake] is here to save the day with a Game Boy Advance SP and an X-Acto knife.

After casually noting that the main control board of the Switch was roughly Game Boy Advance SP sized, [Alexander Blake], aka [cptnalex], knew it was meant to be. After retrieving his broken Game Boy Advance SP from his closet, [cptnalex] set to work turning his Game Boy into a Nintendo Switch dock. When he was done, the results were stunning, especially considering the fact that this is his first console mod. Moreover, the very fact that he did it all with an X-Acto knife rather than a Dremel is astounding.

With the screen providing support to the Switch, [cptnalex’s] design leaves some to be desired for long term use. But we know for sure that [cptnalex’s] design does, in fact, work. Due to naysayers of the internetTM, [cptnalex] filmed a video of his dock in uses (embedded after the break). But, what the design lacks in structural stability, it more than makes up for in aesthetics. On the device itself, [cptnalex’s] history with controller painting shines through.

If you want to see more of [cptnalex’s] work, you can follow him on Instagram. For more console mods that will take your breath away, look no farther than [Bungle’s] vacuum formed portable N64.

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Hacking an Inspection Microscope

Sometimes I need to be able to take photographs of very small things, and the so-called macro mode on my point-and-shoot camera just won’t cut it. And it never hurts to have an inspection scope on hand for tiny soldering jobs, either, though I prefer a simple jeweler’s loupe in one eye for most tasks. So I sent just over $40 off to my close friend Alibaba, and a few weeks later was the proud owner of a halfway usable inspection scope that records stills or video to an SD card.

Unfortunately, it’s only halfway useable because of chintzy interface design and a wobbly mount. So I spent an afternoon, took the microscope apart, and got it under microcontroller control, complete with WiFi and a scripting language. Much better! Now I can make microscope time-lapses, but much more importantly I can take blur-free photos without touching the wiggly rig. It was a fun hack, so I thought I’d share. Read on!

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Fidget-Spinning Robot Out-Uselesses Other Useless Machines

When the [Director of Legal Evil] at Louisville’s LVL1 Hackerspace decided to demonstrate the uselessness of a 3D printer by printing a fidget spinner, another member at the space’s Tuesday meeting rose to the challenge and built a machine that whose sole purpose is to spin fidget spinners.

[Gary Flispart] used an Arduino clone and what appears to be a motor driver in conjunction with a stepper motor. The motor moves a belt that turns a series of metal scraps serving as a four-bar linkage. The linkage moves the dowel that turns the spinner and then gets out of the way so it doesn’t inhibit the toy’s rotation. The Digital Fidget Digit, as [Gary] calls it, looks like it was built out of scrap metal and random pieces of wood in the glorious tradition of hackerspace projects.

We at Hackaday love crazy projects that come out of hackerspaces, like the iris porthole at i3Detroit, another space’s ultimate fume extractor, and LVL1’s doomcano.

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A Table From Beyond Infinity

Infinity mirrors are some far-out table mods and make a great centerpiece. Instructables user [bongoboy23] took a couple steps beyond infinity when designing this incredible table tailor-made for our modern age.

Poplar and pine wood make up the framing, and red oak — stained and engraved — make for a chic exterior. Programmed with Arduino and run on a Teensy 3.1, the tabletop has 960 LEDs in forty sections. There are, four USB ports hidden behind sliding panels, as well as a two-port AC outlet and an inductive charging pad and circuit.  A hidden Adafruit TFT touchscreen display allows the user to control the table’s functions. Control is limited to changing lighting functions, but Pac-Man, Snake, and text features are still to come!

Weighing in at $850, it’s not a cheap build, but it looks amazing.

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TEMPEST In A Software Defined Radio

In 1985, [Wim van Eck] published several technical reports on obtaining information the electromagnetic emissions of computer systems. In one analysis, [van Eck] reliably obtained data from a computer system over hundreds of meters using just a handful of components and a TV set. There were obvious security implications, and now computer systems handling highly classified data are TEMPEST shielded – an NSA specification for protection from this van Eck phreaking.

Methods of van Eck phreaking are as numerous as they are awesome. [Craig Ramsay] at Fox It has demonstrated a new method of this interesting side-channel analysis using readily available hardware (PDF warning) that includes the ubiquitous RTL-SDR USB dongle.

The experimental setup for this research involved implementing AES encryption on two FPGA boards, a SmartFusion 2 SOC and a Xilinx Pynq board. After signaling the board to run its encryption routine, analog measurement was performed on various SDRs, recorded, processed, and each byte of the key recovered.

The results from different tests show the AES key can be extracted reliably in any environment, provided the antenna is in direct contact with the device under test. Using an improvised Faraday cage constructed out of mylar space blankets, the key can be reliably extracted at a distance of 30 centimeters. In an anechoic chamber, the key can be extracted over a distance of one meter. While this is a proof of concept, if this attack requires direct, physical access to the device, the attacker is an idiot for using this method; physical access is root access.

However, this is a novel use of software defined radio. As far as the experiment itself is concerned, the same result could be obtained much more quickly with a more relevant side-channel analysis device. The ChipWhisperer, for example, can extract AES keys using power signal analysis. The ChipWhisperer does require a direct, physical access to a device, but if the alternative doesn’t work beyond one meter that shouldn’t be a problem.