Ask Hackaday: Can you Hack an Appliance into a Spy Device?

crackinGoodTeapot

A story surfaced a few days before Halloween on Russian news site Rosbalt (yep, that’s in Russian), claiming Russian authorities intercepted Chinese-made electric irons and kettles: each equipped with microphones and WiFi. You can read a summary in English on the BBC’s website. The “threat” imposed by these “spy appliances” is likely the result of gross exaggeration if not downright fear mongering against Chinese-made products. It’s not worth our (or your) effort to speculate on what’s really happening here, but the situation does present a fun exercise.

Say you wanted to spice up your pen testing by altering a small home appliance: how easily could you build it? Let us know in the comments which appliance would serve as the best “host” for the modifications and what features you would include. Could you manage all the components listed in the article–a microphone, WiFi (any chance of cracking unsecured networks?), plus some vague indication that it “spreads viruses?” There’s a video below with a few glimpses of the electronics in question, but unless you speak Russian it probably won’t offer much insight.

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Ask Hackaday: Does Project Ara Solve the Phonebloks’ Problems?

motorolaProjectAra

Our tips line is blowing up again, this time directing us to Motorola’s Project Ara: a phone with modular components that plug into a base “endoskeleton.” If you missed the news coverage strewn across the web and you are doing a double-take, that’s because Project Ara is frighteningly similar to the (presumed vaporware) Phonebloks concept from a few weeks ago. Phonebloks was the subject of our last “Ask Hackaday” article, generating hundreds of comments ranging from those defending the concept to those furiously opposed to it.

There’s a conspiracy theory circulating that suggests Motorola released the Phonebloks concept as a viral marketing scheme to generate hype before revealing the official product line. We suspect it’s a bit less conniving. As [jorde] explained on Hacker News, an Israeli startup, Modu, had developed a similar modular cell phone several years ago, and Google bought the patents in May of 2011. A few months later, Google bought something else: Motorola. It seems likely that Project Ara is merely a resurrected and revised Modu, and Motorola conveniently announced it in the wake of Phonebloks’ popularity. Regardless, Motorola has announced that they have partnered with Phonebloks’ creator Dave Hakkens .

So what’s different? Phonebloks was met with cries of “vaporware!” and fervent arguments raising concerns about unavoidable hardware limitations. Motorola claims their goal is:

to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.

Unlike Project Ara, Phonebloks didn’t consider open-source hardware (Wayback Machine link), and Motorola makes an interesting argument here: that advances in 3D printing indicate an evolving “open hardware ecosystem,” and the next era of phone development may rest in the hands of your average hacker or a small startup company. Some speculate that the Ara will be similar to the relationship between a PC and its peripherals: Motorola provides the essential guts while giving you some slots for attaching additional components. Let us know in the comments what you think about Project Ara: is it just more vaporware, or a watered-down but plausible alternative to Phonebloks?  And, perhaps most important: do you, as a hacker, want a phone that supports open hardware and lets you plug in “peripherals?” The Phonebloks website has since changed to reflect the partnership with Motorola, and includes a new video that you can watch below.

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How Do You Build a Relay CPU?

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The Hackaday tips line is always full of the coolest completed projects, but only rarely do we see people reaching out for help on their latest build. We’ll help when we can, but [Tim]’s relay-based CPU has us stumped.

[Tim] already has the design of his relay CPU completed with a 12-bit program counter, sequencer, ALU, and a transistor-based ROM. The problem he’s having deals with the mechanics and layout of his homebuilt CPU. Right now, all the relays (PC pin, we guess) are glued top-down to a piece of cardboard. This allows him to easily solder the wires up and change out the inevitable mistakes. This comes with a drawback, though: he’s dealing with a lot of ‘cable salad’ and it’s not exactly the prettiest project ever.

The ideal solution, [Tim] says, would be a PCB with through-hole plating, but this isn’t easy or cheap for the home fab lab. We’d suggest some sort of wire wrap setup, but proper wire wrap sockets and protoboards are for some reason unreasonably expensive.

If you have an idea on how to do the mechanical layout and connections of a relay-based computer, drop a note in the comments. [Tim] has a very cool project here, and it would be a shame if he were to give up on it due to a lack of tools.

Video below, and if you’re having a problem with a project, feel free to send it in.

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Ask Hackaday: What is “Home Automation”?

homeAutomationCollage

We’re not entirely sure what’s become of the term “home automation.” The definition seems to have settled for any user interface in the home—via tablets, phones, handheld remote controls, etc. Some of these devices lack any form of automation and instead require manual input. Even Wikipedia’s home automation article suggests a move toward this trend, offering the following definition (emphasis ours):

It is automation of the home, housework or household activity. Home automation may include centralized control of lighting, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), appliances, security locks of gates and doors and other systems, to provide improved convenience, comfort, energy efficiency and security.

Though “automation” is clearly included in the first sentence, one could interpret the bolded potion as meaning either:

  • Truly automated systems may also include centralized control (as a feature).
  • The category of home automation also includes systems that merely provide centralized controls.

So, are automated components optional? Judging by the phrasing of projects submitted to our tips line: yes sir. Truly automated systems exist, but if you browse through any home improvement store’s “home automation” section, you’ll be pummeled by a string of remote-controlled light dimmers and outlets. How many of these are designed to interact with sensors as feedback systems or otherwise function unattended?

Our articles often favor an “automation-optional” categorization. Should we, however, reserve the “automation” label for projects like the light switch based on room occupancy and deny other builds, like the voice-activated lights/outlets system or the RasPi lighting and audio control via web interface? Hit up the comments and help shed some light on how to properly use the terminology.

3D Printering: The Problem of Thingiverse

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Most makers, I’m sure, enter into the 3D printing world with a goal in mind. Whether that’s printing enclosures for projects, Warhammer figurines, robot chassis, or even a mechanical computer, there is usually some obvious utility in having a 3D printer at home. 3D printers are a machine tool, though, and any time it’s not being used means it’s an investment with a lower return, or at the very least a really cool toy gathering dust.

Where then do you find new stuff to print that you don’t design yourself?

For the longest time now, Thingiverse has been the largest repository to share, browse, and download object other people have made. Even I have some very stupid stuff up on Thingiverse and have made use of a few random objects I found on there. This does not mean the 3D printer community particularly likes Thingiverse, however: Last year, Makerbot, the people behind Thingiverse, changed the terms of use so (allegedly) Thingiverse owns everything uploaded to their service. Couple this with completely unsubstantiated rumors of things being removed from Thingiverse that compete with Makerbot products, and you have a perfect storm of people unsatisfied with an online repository of 3D objects.

There is a huge market for an online repository of user-submitted 3D objects that isn’t controlled by Makerbot, and many have attempted to enter the fray. Defense Distributed, the guys behind the 3D printed AR lowers and all-plastic handguns launched DEFCAD, a Thingiverse clone, made an attempt by mirroring thousands of Thingiverse objects, removing the attribution in violation of these object’s licenses. Shady, yes, but at least it’s an option. There are other repos such as Cubehero and the newly launched YouMagine, a repo developed by Ultimaker. the Luke Skywalker to Makerbot’s Darth Vader.

But here is the problem with Thingiverse: even if you would like to get away from using this Makerbot service, it’s still the largest collection of 3D printed objects on the Internet. It has the most users, and is growing more each day than any of its competitors. Putting your objects anywhere else only means fewer people will see them, and fewer still will incorporate your designs into their new designs.

There are a few tools for you to ‘roll your own’ object repository. Github has a great new tool for viewing diffs between different versions of objects. There’s even a lot of work in making the Github landing page more like a Thingiverse page. This doesn’t address the core value of Thingiverse – if all the objects aren’t catalogued in one database, searchable by anyone, it’s just not as useful a site as Thingiverse.

I’m simply not smart enough to offer up a solution to this problem. Therefore, I’m turning it on to you: how should the 3D printer community retain the great value Thingiverse offers while still making something as usable as the now-malagined site? Should any new site mirror objects already on Thingiverse a la DEFCAD, only with proper attribution? Who should control the portal to all the objects, if anyone?

If you have any ideas on how to solve the problem of Thingiverse, drop a note in the comments.

Ask Hackaday: Can we do better than Phonebloks?

Our tips line is on fire with suggestions for us to cover the modular cell phone concept named Phonebloks. The phone’s designer states the problem as follows:

A phone only lasts a couple of years before it breaks or becomes obsolete. Although it’s often just one part which killed it we throw everything away since it’s almost impossible to repair or upgrade.

His solution is the above pictured phone, with modular components for each feature: wifi, camera, battery, etc. Rather than upgrade your entire phone, upgrade just the parts you need. A wave of followers have thrown their support behind this concept, and perhaps their hearts are in the right place hoping to reduce waste and cost. Behind the scenes here at Hackaday, however, the response has been a unanimous facepalm. The primary objection (other than design implausibilities) should be obvious: dividing the phone into exchangeable bits does not inherently reduce waste. Those bits have to go somewhere.

Now, don’t rush to the comments section to identify additional problems; there’s a juicy Reddit thread for that. Instead, we want to take the high road: Can we do better? Can we make a phone for the future that is less wasteful to produce, more easily recycled, and possibly upgradable? What would be included in its features, and how would we do it? Check out a video of the concept phone and tell us your alternatives after the break.

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Ask Hackaday: Can you steal a car with a mini tesla coil?

Last week we caught wind of a piece from the Today Show that shows very technically minded thieves stealing cars with a small device. Cops don’t know how they’re doing it, and of course the Today show (and the Hackaday comments) were full of speculation. The top three theories for how these thieves are unlocking car doors are jamming a keyless entry’s ‘lock signal’, a radio transmitter to send an ‘unlock’ code, or a small EMP device touched to the passenger side door to make it unlock.

That last theory – using a small EMP device to unlock a car’s door – got the attention of someone who builds mini EMP devices and has used them to get credits on slot machines. He emailed us under a condition of anonymity, but he says it’s highly unlikely a mini EMP device would be able to activate the solenoid on a car door.

This anonymous electromagnetic wizard would like to open up a challenge to Hackaday readers, though: demonstrate a miniature EMP device able to unlock an unmodified car door, and you’ll earn the respect of high voltage tinkerers the world over. If you’re successful you could always sell your device to a few criminal interests, but let’s keep things above board here.