The Custom Clicky Shortcut Keypad

You’re not cool unless you have a mechanical keyboard. Case in point: if you were to somehow acquire an identical keyboard to the one I used to type this, it would set you back at least seven hundred dollars. Yes, it’s mechanical (Topre), and yes, I’m cooler than you. Of course, you can’t be as cool as me, but you can build your own mechanical keyboard. [Robin] is, I presume, a pretty cool dude so he built his own keyboard. It’s the amazing shortcut keyboard, and it can be programmed graphically.

The idea for this keyboard came when [Robin] was studying as an engineer. We assume this is code for wearing out the Escape key on AutoCAD, but many other software packages have the same problem. The solution to [Robin]’s problem was a shortcut keypad, a 3 by 4 matrix of Cherry switches that could be programmed for any task.

The design of this keyboard started out as an Adafruit Trellis matrix keypad. This was combined with some software written in Processing that assigned macros to each button. This was a sufficient solution, but the switches in the Adafruit trellis look squishy. These are not the right switches for someone who craves a soft snap under every fingertip. It’s not the keyboard of someone who desires the subtle thickness of laser etched PBT keycaps. The Adafruit keypad doesn’t have the graceful lines of a fully sculpted set of keycaps. Oh my god, it’s doubleshot.

[Robin]’s completed keyboard has gone through a few revisions, but in the end, he settled on PCB-mounted switches and a very clever 3D printed standoff system to hold an Arduino Pro Micro in place. The enclosure, too, is 3D printed, and the end result is a completely custom keyboard that’s perfect for mashing key combos.

You can check out a video of this keyboard in action below.

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This WAV File Can Confuse Your Fitbit

As the devices with which we surround ourselves become ever more connected to the rest of the world, a lot more thought is being given to their security with respect to the internet. It’s important to remember though that this is not the only possible attack vector through which they could be compromised. All devices that incorporate sensors or indicators have the potential to be exploited in some way, whether that is as simple as sniffing the data stream expressed through a flashing LED, or a more complex attack.

Researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of South Carolina have demonstrated a successful attack against MEMS accelerometers such as you might find in a smartphone. They are using carefully crafted sound waves, and can replicate at will any output the device should be capable of returning.

MEMS accelerometers have a microscopic sprung weight with protruding plates that form part of a set of capacitors. The displacement of the weight due to acceleration is measured by looking at the difference between the capacitance on either side of the plates.

The team describe their work in the video we’ve put below the break, though frustratingly they don’t go into quite enough detail other than mentioning anti-aliasing. We suspect that they vibrate the weight such that it matches the sampling frequency of the sensor, and constantly registers a reading at a point on its travel they can dial in through the phase of their applied sound. They demonstrate interference with a model car controlled by a smartphone, and spurious steps added to a Fitbit. The whole thing is enough for the New York Times to worry about hacking a phone with sound waves, which is rather a predictable overreaction that is not shared by the researchers themselves.

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Das Fix

There was a time when the desktop peripherals such as your keyboard and mouse were expensive items that you hung on to and cared for. But several decades of PC commoditization and ever-cheaper manufacturing have rendered each of them to an almost throwaway level, they are so cheap that when one breaks you can simply reach for another without thought.

This is not to say that there is no longer a space for a more costly specialist keyboard. You’ll find enthusiasts still clinging to their treasured vintage IBM Model Ms and Model Fs, or typing on a range of competing high end ‘boards. You might say that a cheap keyboard is pretty high quality these days, but for some people only the feel of a quality switch will do.

[Mac2612] was given a particularly nice example of this class of peripheral, a Das Keyboard 4C complete with trademark missing key decals. There was a snag though, it has suffered a spill at some time in its life, and would issue random keypresses which rendered it useless. His marathon investigation and repair of the fault makes for an interesting read, and gives us some insight into why these keyboards cost the extra money.

“To my dismay, I quickly realized that this was probably an unnecessary endeavor…”

At first it seemed as though corrosion on the board might be the issue, so he gave it a clean with IPA. All to no avail, and so began a succession of further dismantlings and cleanups which culminated in the desoldering of all the key switches. This lengthy task shows us in detail the construction of a high-end ‘board, but sadly it didn’t reveal the fault, and phantom keypresses kept appearing.

Following the board traces back to the microcontroller, he eventually found that moisture had corroded the end of a 10K surface mount resistor, leaving it with a resistance in the MOhms. Since it was a pulldown for one of the keyboard rows, he’d found the source of the problem. Having spent a long time fault-finding a board with an SMD part with a mechanical failure, we feel his pain.

Replacing the SMD parts and reassembly gave him a rather sweet keyboard, albeit for a lot of work.

This is the first Das Keyboard teardown we’ve brought you, but not the first keyboard hack. There are the people remanufacturing the Model F, for example, or the most minimalist keyboard possible.

[Thanks Graham Heath, via /r/MechanicalKeyboards]

Good USB – Protecting Your Ports With Two Microcontrollers

If you’ve ever needed an example of why you should not plug random USB peripherals into your computer, you need only look at BadUSB. The BadUSB attack relies on the fact that the microcontroller inside every USB device is a black box. If you plug a USB thumb drive into your computer, the microcontroller could quickly set up an additional network interface, forward all your traffic to the attacker’s server, and still keep serving up all those files and documents on the drive. Do you want a thumb drive that attaches a virus to every file? Bad USB can do that.

Until now, there is no cure or fix for a device using an implementation of BadUSB. [Robert Fisk] just came up with the first prophylactic USB device, designed to keep BadUSB off your computer. He’s calling it USG, and it’s basically a hardware firewall for USB devices.

The basic design of the system goes something like this: take an ARM microcontroller with a USB host port, take another microcontroller with a USB device port, and have these devices talk to each other over SPI. The command protocol between these two microcontrollers is very simple, and thus decreases the attack surface.

[Robert] is building USG dongles, but in the spirit of Open Hardware and verifiable hardware, he’s also released a design based on two dev boards wired together. This DIY version is basically two STM32F4 dev boards smashed together with bodge wires. The total cost – less solder and a JTAG programmer – is about $50 USD. No, it doesn’t look as pretty as [Robert]’s commercial version of USG, but it does the same job of keeping your computer safe from BadUSB devices.

60 Watt USB Soldering Iron Does it with Type-C

Some time back we ran a post on those cheap USB soldering irons which appeared to be surprisingly capable considering they were really under powered, literally. But USB Type-C is slated to change that. Although it has been around for a while, we are only now beginning to see USB-C capable devices and chargers gain traction. USB-C chargers featuring the USB-PD option (for power delivery) can act as high power sources allowing fast charging of laptops, phones and other devices capable of negotiating the higher currents and voltages it is capable of sourcing. [Julien Goodwin] shows us how he built a USB-C powered soldering iron that doesn’t suck.

He is able to drive a regular Hakko iron at 20 V and 3 Amps, providing it with 60 W of input power from a USB-C charger. The Hakko is rated for 24 V operating voltage, so it is running about 16% lower power voltage. But even so, 60 W is plenty for most cases. The USB-C specification allows up to 5 A of current output in special cases, so there’s almost 100 W available when using this capability.

It all started while he was trying to consolidate his power brick collection for his various computers in order to reduce the many types and configurations of plugs. Looking around, he stumbled on the USB-PD protocol. After doing his homework, he decided to build a USB Type-C charger board with the PD feature based on the TI TPS65986 chip – a very capable USB Type-C and USB PD Controller and Power Switch. The TI chip is a BGA package, so he had to outsource board assembly, and with day job work constantly getting in the way, it took a fair bit of time before he could finally test it. Luckily, none of the magic smoke escaped from the board and it worked flawlessly the first time around. Here is his deck of slides about USB-C & USB-PD [PDF] that he presented at linux.conf.au 2017 Open Hardware Miniconf early this year. It provides a nice insight to this standard, including a look at the schematic for his driver board.

Being such a versatile system, we are likely to see USB-C being used in more devices in the future. Which means we ought to see high power USB Soldering Irons appearing soon. But at the moment, there is a bit of a “power” struggle between USB-C and Qualcomm’s competing “Quick Charge” (QC) technology. It’s a bit like VHS and Betamax, and this time we are hoping the better technology wins.

What Does a Hacker Do With A Photocopier?

The year is 2016. Driving home from a day’s work in the engineering office, I am greeted with a sight familiar to any suburban dwelling Australian — hard rubbish. It’s a time when local councils arrange a pickup service for anything large you don’t want anymore — think sofas, old computers, televisions, and the like. It’s a great way to make any residential area temporarily look like a garbage dump, but there are often diamonds in the rough. That day, I found mine: the Ricoh Aficio 2027 photocopier.

It had spent its days in a local primary school, and had survived fairly well. It looked largely intact with no obvious major damage, and still had its plug attached. Now I needed to get it home. This is where the problems began.

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A Guide For Building Rubber Dome Keyboards

Let’s talk about computer keyboards for a second. The worst keyboards in the world are the cheap ‘rubber dome’ keyboards shipped with every Dell, HP, and whatever OEM your company has a purchasing agreement with. These ‘rubber dome’ keyboards use a resistive touchpad to activate a circuit, and the springiness of the key comes from a flexible rubber membrane. Mechanical keyboards are far superior to these rubber dome switches, using real leaf springs and bits of metal for the click clack happiness that is the sole respite of a soul-crushing existence. MX blues get bonus points for annoying your coworkers.

Mechanical key switches like the Cherry MX, Gateron, or whatever Razer is using aren’t the be-all, end-all mechanical keyswitch. History repeats, horseshoe theory exists, and for the best mechanical keyswitch you need to go back to rubber domes. Torpre switches are surprisingly similar to the crappy keyboards shipped out by OEMs, but these switches have actual springs, turning your key presses into letters through a capacitive touchpad. Is this a superior switch? Well, a keyboard with Torpre switches costs more than a keyboard with Cherry MX switches, so yeah, it’s a better switch.

It seems everyone is building their own mechanical keyboards these days, and the recipe is always the same: get a few dozen Cherry MX (or clone) switches, build a PCB, grab a Teensy 2, and use the tmk keyboard firmware. There’s not much to it. DIY Torpre boards are rare because of the considerations of building a capacitive switching PCB, but now there’s a DIY guide to making the perfect rubber dome keyboard.

[tomsmalley] put together this guide after reviewing a few amazing projects scattered around the web. Over on Deskthority, [attheicearcade] is building a custom, sculpted, split Torpre board and a split Happy Hacking Keyboard. These are projects worthy of a typing god, but so far there has been no real beginner’s guide for interfacing with these weird capacitive switches.

As far as circuitry goes on these capacitive boards, the PCB is the thing. Each key has a pair of semi-circular pads on the PCB to serve as plates on a capacitor. These pads are connected to a microcontroller through an analog mux, with a little opamp magic thrown into the mix.

With a relatively decent guide to the hardware, [tomsmalley] has also been working on his own firmware for capacitive switches. Shockingly, this firmware is compatible with the Teensy 3.0, which will provide enough horsepower to read a bunch of analog values and spit out USB.

Mechanical keyboards are great, and we really like to see all these hardware creators pushing the state of the art. You can only see so many custom sculpted keycaps or DIY MX boards, though, and we’re really eager to see where the efforts to create a custom Torpre board take us. If you’re building one of these fantastic keyboards, send it in on the tip line.