Building One Thing In China

Conventional wisdom dictates that if you need to make a million of something, you go to China. China is all about manufacturing, and there aren’t many other places on the planet that have the industry and government-subsidized shipping that will bring your product from China to people around the world. Building a million things in China is one thing, but what about building one thing? How do you create a working prototype of your latest product, and how do you make that prototype look like something that isn’t held together with zip ties and hot glue? The folks at Hatch Manufacturing have a guide for doing just that, and lucky for us, it’s a process that’s easy to replicate in any well-equipped shop.

In this tutorial/case study/PR blitz, Hatch Manufacturing takes on constructing a one-off smartphone. The Huaqiangbei markets in Shenzhen are filled with vendors selling smartphones of all shapes and sizes. If you want a miniature iPhone running Android, that’s no problem. If you want a phone that looks like a 1969 Dodge Charger with the Stars and Bars on top, you can find it in China. But how are all these phones made, and how do you show off a prototype to factories begging for business?

The answer, as is always the case, comes from one-off manufacturing. Building, assembling and reworking PCBs is a well-trodden path whose process could fill several volumes, but for this post, Hatch Manufacturing decided to focus on the plastics that go into a smartphone or tablet.

Once the case or enclosure is designed with a few CAD tools, a block of plastic is run through a mill. After that, it’s a matter of painting and finishing the latest smartphone that will show up in the Chinese market. Putting a professional finish on a block of plastic is something that will look familiar to anyone who has ever assembled a miniature plastic model. There’s priming, airbrushing, sanding, more painting, sanding, wet sanding, and still more sanding. After that comes polishing the plastic part to a fine finish. It is extraordinarily labor intensive work even for a skilled hand with the right equipment.

Once the plastics are done, the PCB, display, battery, and everything else comes together in a completely custom one-off prototype. It’s very similar to how this would be done in any small shop with a benchtop mill and a dozen grades of wet/dry sandpaper. It’s also something anyone can do, provided they have enough practice and patience.

Snooping on SIM Cards

[Nils Pipenbrinck] has been working on a very interesting problem. The SIM card in your cellphone talks to the contactless near-field communication (NFC) chip through a cool protocol that we’d never hear of until reading his blog: single wire protocol (SWP).

The SIM card in your cellphone has only a limited number of physical connections — and by the time NFC technology came on the scene all but one of them was in use. But the NFC controller and the SIM need full-duplex communications. So the SWP works bi-directionally on just one wire; one device modulates the voltage on the line, while the other modulates the current, essentially by switching a load in and out.

This signalling protocol makes snooping on this data line tricky. So to start off his explorations with SWP, [Nils] built his own transceiver. That lead [Nils] to some very sensitive analog sniffer circuit design that he’s just come up with.

If you get interested in SWP, you’ll find the slides from this fantastic presentation (PDF) helpful, and they propose a solution very similar to the one that [Nils] ended up implementing. That’s not taking anything away from [Nils]’s amazing work: with tricky high-speed analog circuitry like this, the implementation can be more than half of the battle! And we’ll surely be following [Nils]’s blog to see where he takes this.

Banner image: An old version and a new version of the transceiver prototype.

Thanks to [Tim Riemann] for the tip!

Free Cell Data Transfer with Slowest Morse Code Ever

Readers of a certain age will remember the payphone trick of letting the phone ring once and then hanging up to get your quarter back. This technique was used with a pre-planned call time to let someone know you made it or you were okay without accruing the cost of a telephone call. As long as nobody answered you didn’t have to pay for the call, and that continues to be the case with some pay-per-minute cellphone plans.

This is the concept behind [Antonio Ospite’s] ringtone data transfer project called SaveMySugar. Don’t judge him, this work has been ongoing for around ten years and started back when cellphone minutes were a concern. We’re just excited to see that he got the excruciatingly slow thing to work.

Those wanting to dig down to the nitty-gritty of the protocol (and you should be one of them) will want to read through the main project page. The system works by dialing the cellphone, letting it ring once, then hanging up. The time between redials determines a Morse code dot, dash, or separation between characters. Because you can’t precisely determine how long it will take each connection to read, [Antonio] built ‘noise’ measurement into the system to normalize variations. The resulting data transfer works quite well. He was able to transfer the word “CODEX” in just six minutes and thirty seconds. But it is automatic, so what do you care? See the edge-of-your-seat-action play out in the video below.

If you can’t stomach that baud, here’s a faster Morse code data transmitter but it doesn’t use the phone.

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SprayPrinter Paints Your Wall, One Pixel At A Time

SprayPrinter is a neat idea. You download a cellphone app, point the camera at a wall, and sweep the wall with a spray can fitted with a (Bluetooth? WiFi?) remote-controlled valve. The phone knows where the nozzle is, and sprays a dot whenever it needs to “paint” the picture of your choosing on the wall.

sprayprinter-estonia-designboom-002-818x500While we’re not sure that we have the patience to paint our walls this way, it’s a cool effect. But even more, we love the idea of using the cellphone camera for location sensing. Many robotics applications do just this with an overhead camera.

Of course, we’d love more detail about how it’s done, but it’s not hard to guess that it’s either a bit of machine vision in the phone, or simpler still, that the spray-can housing has IR LEDs inside that the phone can lock onto. Indeed, the prototype version of the product shown here does look like it has an LED on the opposite side from the orange nozzle.

It wouldn’t be hard to take this to the next level, by adding enough IR LEDs that the camera in your phone can sense orientation as well as location. Heck, by measuring the distances between LEDs, you could probably even get a rough measure of depth. This could open up the use of different nozzles.

Thanks [Itay] for the tip! Some images courtesy SprayPrinter, via designboom.

 

The Key to Modular Smartphones

Cellphone startup Fairphone is now taking pre-orders for their modular smartphone, which is expected to start shipping in December of this year. Although I’m much more familiar with Google’s project Ara, this is the first modular concept to make it to market. It does lead me to a few questions though: is this actually a modular smartphone, and how widely will modular concepts be adopted?

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Bicycle Heads Down Display Shows you the Way

On a bicycle you’re typically looking ahead and slightly down to make sure you don’t ride over any potholes. While a speedometer is great on the handlebars, what if you could project your speed and other information onto the road ahead? Well, it turns out if you have a smartphone and a bit of ingenuity, you can do just that!

We’ve seen this hack done before with a pico projector, but that’s a pretty big investment for your bicycle. So [Peter] had another idea. What if you could just use your cellphone as is and a bit of optics? It turns out you can buy some pretty cheap “cell phone projectors” from China or Amazon — it’s basically a little cardboard box that your phone fits into, with a cheap plastic lens to project your image. Lumen output is pretty miserable, but if you’re riding at night, it is enough to see by!

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RF Attack Controls Nearby Smartphones Via “Okay Google” And “Hey Siri”

Screenshot_20151016-170014Most spy movies (at least the ones worth their salt) will include a few scenes that depict nerds in a van listening in on conversations remotely and causing the victims phones to do things like turn themselves or their cameras on. We have been made to believe that it takes an entire van of equipment and one or two MIT level hackers to pull this off. Turns out all it takes is about $2300, some know how, and an unsuspecting target with a set of microphone-equipped headphones attached to their phone.

The French Government’s information security research group ANSSI has been investigating this and published a paper with their findings. Unfortunately that paper is behind a paywall. Wired has a pretty good summation of the findings, which use a transmitter to induce a current in the headphone wires. This in itself isn’t surprising. But they’re able to do it with such accuracy that it can both trigger, and successfully interact with the hands-free features provided by Siri and Google Now.

We think this is a really cool proof-of-concept. It’s mentioned that an attacker could potentially use this to make calls or do other things that cost the victim money. We think it’s more likely to be implemented by resourceful young engineers as a practical joke. Rick Rolling is a poplar go-to. But if you can make the phone “hear” audio, you should also be able to make someone wearing headphones hear ghosts. This has a lot of potential. The first one to make this happen really needs to let us know about it.