C.H.I.P. is a Linux Trojan Horse for Nine Bucks

I’m sure you’ve already heard about C.H.I.P, the $9 Linux computer. It is certainly sexy to say nine-bucks but there should really be an asterisk next to that number. If you want things like VGA or HDMI you need an adapter board which adds cost (natively the board only supports composite video output). I also have questions about MSRP once the Kickstarter is fulfilled. But what’s on my mind isn’t cost; this is still going to be in the realm of extremely-inexpensive no matter what shakes out. Instead, I’d like to look at this being the delivery device for wider Linux acceptance.

chip-single-board-computer

The gist of the hardware is a small board with a SoC boasting a 1GHz clock, half a gig of ram, four gigs of flash, one USB, WiFi and Bluetooth. It also has add-ons that make it a handheld and is being promoted as a gaming console. It’s amazing what you get out of these SoC’s for the cost these days, isn’t it?

For at least a decade people have claimed that this is the year of the Linux desktop. That’s not the right way to think. Adults are brand-loyal and business will stick to things that just work. Trying to convert those two examples is a sisyphean effort. But C.H.I.P. is picking up on a movement that started with Raspberry Pi.

These are entry-level computers and a large portion of the user-base will be kids. I haven’t had a hands-on with this new board, but the marketing certainly makes an effort to show how familiar the GUI will be. This is selling Linux and popular packages like LibreOffice without even tell people they’ll be adopting Linux. If the youngest Raspberry Pi users are maturing into their adolescence with C.H.I.P, what will their early adult years look like? At the least, they will not have an ingrained disposition against Open Source Software (unless experiences with Rasbperry Pi, C.H.I.P., and others is negative). At best they’ll fully embrace FOSS, becoming the next generation of code contributors and concept evangelists. Then every year will be the year of the Linux desktop.

TechCrunch Disrupt: Charging A Phone With Its Own Transmitter

TechCrunch Disrupt is on this week, and that means we get to see which members of tech media don’t understand basic physics. So far, it’s writers from Engadget, The Mirror, Business Insider, TechCrunch, and four judges on the TC Disrupt stage. What is the consequence of not understanding the implications of the conservation of energy? Glowing support for a cell phone that can charge itself.

The offending Disrupt startup is Nikola Labs, and they’re gearing up to launch a Kickstarter for a very special iPhone 6 case. This case uses small, energy-harvesting antennas to gather RF energy from the cellphone tucked away in this case. This energy is then sent to a rectifier where it is converted into something the Apple Lightning connector can sip power from. According to Nikola Labs, this RF harvesting antenna takes energy from the transmissions of the iPhone 6 entombed in this case, converts it to about 5 Volts, and uses that to charge the iPhone battery.

I know that seems difficult to understand, so here’s a simple analogy: you have a flashlight with a battery and a solar cell. The solar cell recharges the battery. If this were a Nikola Labs flashlight, you would recharge it by shining the flashlight onto the solar cell.

That is the simplest explanation of what the Nikola Labs cellphone case does, and illuminates the limitations of what it can do. If the ‘energy harvesting circuit’ collects power from the device it is recharging, it will reduce the transmission power of whatever is transmitting. With the cellphone case, you’re spending transmission power (plus efficiency losses) to recharge the battery. That means poorer reception and fewer bars. In the solar-recharging flashlight analogy, the flashlight would either be dimmer, or you could only use it part of the time.

It’s also why Nikola Labs claims their case will only recover 30% of the battery life of an iPhone 6; the battery isn’t solely dedicated to a transmitter – there’s a display and a CPU to account for in the power budget.

To Nikola Labs’ credit, this is at least a novel application of the RF energy harvesting trope that has been making its way around Kickstarter and tech blogs for a few years. Nearly every other RF harvesting idea that has been pitched in recent memory decouples the transmitter (or ‘generator’, I guess) with the product or receiver. The square cube law is an evil mistress, and if you’re wondering why these devices don’t work, [ch00f], a guy with an actual engineering degree, has a great writeup of one of these products over on Drop Kicker.

The Nikola Labs cellphone case bucks this trend by looking at the shortcomings of these devices; an RF rechargeable Bluetooth tag won’t work if you place it a foot away from a WiFi router, but it just might if you tape it to the antenna. This is the idea behind Nikola Labs’ invention: harvest energy from a few millimeters away from the cell phone’s antenna. According to Nikola Labs, their engineer, [Chi-Chih Chen] has a patent in the works for this. This patent application has not been published yet.

In theory, the Nikola Labs cellphone case will actually recharge your battery, but at a price: you’d be wasting your transmission power on recharging the battery. It’s a false economy that you’ll be able to fund on Kickstarter next month for $100 USD. If you’re only looking for more battery life, walk into any gas station, buy a $10 USB power bank/battery, and have enough portable power to recharge your iPhone battery to 100%. That’s not a sexy solution, it doesn’t reference [Nikola Tesla], and it’s not snake oil that tech media is lapping up like dogs. Pity.

The Digistump Oak; An ESP8266 On Kickstarter

When it was first released, the ESP8266 was a marvel; a complete WiFi solution for any project that cost about $5. A few weeks later, and people were hard at work putting code on the tiny little microcontroller in the ESP8266 and it was clear that this module would be the future of WiFi-enabled Things for the Internet.

Now it’s a Kickstarter Project. It’s called the Digistump Oak, and it’s exactly what anyone following the ESP8266 development scene would expect: WiFi, a few GPIOs, and cheap – just $13 for a shipped, fully functional dev board.

The guy behind the Oak, [Erik Kettenburg], has seen a lot of success with his crowdfunded dev boards. He created the Digispark, a tiny, USB-enabled development board that’s hardly larger than a USB plug itself. The Digispark Pro followed, getting even more extremely small AVR dev boards out in the wild.

The Digistump Oak moves away from the AVR platform and puts everything on an ESP8266. Actually, this isn’t exactly the ESP8266 you can buy from hundreds of unnamed Chinese retailers; while it still uses the ESP8266 chip, there’s a larger SPI Flash, and the Oak is FCC certified.

Yes, if you’re thinking about building a product with the ESP8266, you’ll want to watch [Erik]’s campaign closely. He’s doing the legwork to repackage the ESP into something the FCC can certify. Until someone else does it, it’s a license to print money.

The FCC-certified ESP8266 derived module, cleverly called the Acorn, will be available in large quantities, packaged in JEDEC trays sometime after the campaign is finished. It’s an interesting board, and we’re sure more than one teardown of the Acorn will hit YouTube when these things start shipping.

Crowdfunding Follies: $100 To Disprove Isaac Newton

Are satellites fake? Nobody knows, because no one has done an experiment to determine if rocket engines will produce thrust in a vacuum. At least that’s what this Kickstarter says, and it’s asking for $100 to test multiple types of rocket engines in an enclosed, evacuated chamber.

Anyone who has thought about this problem for half a second will tell you yes, rocket engines will work in a vacuum. It’s an application of Newton’s Third Law of Motion; if you explode fuel and dump it out the back of a rocket, the rocket will go forward. Rocket engines don’t push against air.

Strap in, because this one gets better. In a video linked to from the Kickstarter Campaign, satellites do not exist. This is because gas molecules in the thermosphere can reach 2,500 °C, hot enough to melt the metal satellites are made of. Never mind that the 2,500 °C figure is only for individual gas molecules; the atmosphere at these altitudes is so rarefied, there isn’t much contact with matter. Oh, second point: have you ever realized that a Google image search of the word ‘satellite’ mostly shows illustrations and renders? It’s not because to take a picture of a satellite in orbit would require two satellites flying in formation; no, it must be because satellites don’t exist. It gets better from there.

Kickstarting Even More Router-Based Dev Boards

The latest and greatest thing makers and IoT solutions is apparently router hacking. While most Hackaday readers lived through this interesting phase where Linksys routers were used to connect sensors and other such digital bits and bobs to the Internet a few years ago, SOCs have improved, and now there are router-based dev boards.

The latest is the Onion Omega, an exceptionally tiny board just under two inches square. Onboard is an Atheros AR9331 chipset – the same found in a number of cheap WiFi routers – attached to 32 pins breaking out GPIOs, SPI, I2C, and USB. With WiFi and Ethernet, this is a board designed to connect sensors, motors, actuators, and devices to the Internet.

This is not the only recent router-based dev board to make it to the crowdfunding sites. A week or so ago, the Domino hit Kickstarter, featuring the same AR9331 chipset found in the Onion Omega. The Onion does have a few things going for it – cloud integration, a web-based console, and an app store that make the Onion vastly more useful for the ‘maker’ market. The Domino has a boatload of pins available, and competition is always good, right?

Kickstarting Router-Based Development Boards

[Squonk] is rather famous in the world of repurposed routers, having reverse engineered the TL-WR703N wireless router from TP-Link a few years ago. With that knowledge, he’s developed an open platform for Things on the Internet called Domino. It’s pretty much exactly what you would get by cracking open a router bought on AliBaba, only in a much more convenient package with many more pins broken out.

The Domino builds on [Squonk]’s reverse engineering efforts of the TP-Link TL-WR703N wireless router, the router that has stolen the thunder from the Linksys WRT54G for all those sweet, sweet, embedded hacks. Both the 703N and the Domino are built around the Atheros AR9331. While the router version of this chipset only breaks out a few GPIOs and other interesting pins, the Domino breaks out just about everything – GPIO, JTAG, I2S, UART, SPI, USB, and Ethernet can be found on the device.

The basic Domino can hopefully be had with a $25 pledge to the Kickstarter campaign. That’s a little less than the normal price for a WR-703N, and if you’re putting a router in a hat it might be worth your while. There are a few advanced versions that include an ATMega32u4 microcontroller, making it compatible with the Arduino Yun as well.

Advanced Not-Reading Technology

Yesterday, there was a Hackaday post for a Kickstarter campaign. Because we force everyone to read every Hackaday post, there were some complaints and suggestions that we flag posts about Kickstarter campaigns. The most obvious solution to this problem of forcing people to read what they don’t want to read would be a UserScript or browser extension that automatically removes posts with objectionable tags.

It took 12 hours for [Daniel Ward] to lift you up to salvation, ending the inexorable toil you have all suffered under the thumb of idiotic and incompetent Hackaday editors.

[Daniel] wrote a UserScript for GreaseMonkey or TamperMonkey that looks at the tags for each and every Hackaday post. If a tag matches, “crowd-funding”, “crowdfunding”, or “kickstarter”, the post is removed from your browser.

It’s an astonishing advancement in state of the art, “not reading what you don’t want to read” technology. Bards and troubadours will sing of this day for years. Philosophers and theologians are citing this as evidence of something they’re calling, ‘free will.’ We don’t know who [Will] is, but at least he’s free now.

If that’s not enough, [RoGeorge] came up with an astonishing twist on this life-changing technology. By adding, ‘Arduino’ to the blacklisted tags, all posts tagged ‘Arduino’ are also removed. This can, of course, be extended to any tag. Imagine; a world where you don’t have to read what you don’t want to read. A futuristic utopia. Astounding.