SOAP Drama: An Interview With The SOAP Creators

SOAP

A few days ago, we caught wind of SOAP, a Kickstarter project for an Android-based home automation router. With a quad-core ARM, quad gigabit Ethernet ports, 802.11ac, SATA, and every radio under the sun – all for $100 (sans display, $170 with display), it seemed too good to be true. At the time, it probably was: the images from the PCB prototype were taken from [Bunnie Huang]‘s open source laptop, there weren’t enough Ethernet ports for a router, and the hardware just seemed all wrong.

The guys behind SOAP have decided to respond to these accusations by posting a huge update on their Kickstarter page and answering a few questions from me. Interview follows below.


HaD: There’s a BOM/cost analysis breakdown for the Essentials package (the SOAP sans display) that puts the total cost at about $130. This is the reward for pledging at the $100 level. How accurate is this cost analysis, and how do you plan on meeting that reward level?

SOAP: This cost analysis that you mention is very accurate. We will not profit on the early release pricing of $60.00 we have taken the loss leader pricing to attract backers and press (and we think we have done a good job). We are working with a large router manufacturer and this is really the link that makes the pricing possible without them we couldn’t do this.

HaD: You’re using a Quad Core Freescale i.MX processor for SOAP, and putting a four port Gigabit router in there. The Quad core i.MX chips only have one Gigabit port, and that’s limited to 470 Mbps. How are you solving this problem, and what are you using as a MAC/PHY?

SOAP: First off let me state that we are very aware of the CPU limitations and we have done a lot of work on finding a solution and we do have a unique solution. We have support from a big player in the router industry that has offered us a unique solution that we have been working on to bypass this issue. We will post more on this after our trip to San Jose. This is our fallback method and yes its benchmarks are not as pretty as we want them but they are getting there and we feel with enough tweaks we can get this to decent level.

This is from our layout guy: We are planning I.mx processor’s gigabit port will be connected to external IC working as a switch. 1Gb ethernet -> 1 to 4 switch -> 4x Gb Ethernet ports. Possible  http://www.ti.com/lit/ds/symlink/tnetx4090.pdf. Use 4 ports from there plus put RGMII Ethernet transceiver from Marvell  for each ETH port and we will have on board Ethernet switch.

HaD: What WiFi chipset/chipsets are you using? Will that/they be able to do 802.11ac at full speed, and how are you doing this with (I think) only one antenna on the updated board images?

SOAP: The speeds have varied greatly on the chipset and how buggy the software was for the day but we have clocked speeds over 1 gigabyte per second and we will continue to develop this further to achieve maximize speeds this is where our new Union with the guys over at Droidifi will help.

In our prototype we tested Avastar 88W8864, Broadcom 4360 , and a couple more that failed to actually work.  We didn’t get those all functioning like we would have wanted as there is little support for android and router chipsets to date. We demo with a Broadcom chipset.

We want to use Quantenna QAC2300 but at current funding we will be using the Broadcom we have received a lot of suggestions from our backers and a new big player behind us that thinks they have the right match we are waiting to announce this after our meeting in San Jose.

We have one antenna on the most current design but we are planning on adding two more for the final design. We didn’t place them on the most recent design because we are waiting to see how much funding we get to finalize the wifi chipset. We didn’t want antenna design that worked best with a Broadcom when we switch to Marvel or Quantenna.

HaD: What is the status of the software? Do you have a repo somewhere that people could look over?

SOAP: We have been working with a new player from the older kickstarter project called Droidifi. We will be working with them on the software. This is a something we haven’t been able to announce till we lock it down but you are the first to know about this union. Check out our update later today.

HaD: Finally, do you have a functional prototype with the quad-core i.MX, four Ethernet ports, and WiFi? Can we see a video?

SOAP:  If you mean a mass production ready device that can be used by an end user then no. We have a solid functioning proof of concept prototype. We have a lot of Demo videos of our POC that show  what we have developed so far.  We  have to have the current PCB design manufactured to get down to the more rigorous testing and qualifying. All the specs listed on our kickstarter are what we currently are planning and we hope to fulfill the tech specs.

HaD: There are some other questions in the Kickstarter comments section, but honestly I don’t care about how many Twitter followers you have.

SOAP: Twitter was our marketing company. We thought people actually were following us but we have  since found out that half of them are not real. Check this out though.

All in all we understand how ambitious this project looks and we also know that it technology development can run into roadblocks and things but we want to be clear we are not a scam and we are quite aware where these attacks have originated. We will continue to work hard on this project, we will not be running off to Costa Rica and we plan on seeing everyone at CES next year.


The TL;DR for everyone without an attention span:

Yes, the $100/$170 price is too good to be true. It’s called a loss leader to generate interest. This part was a success. The SOAP guys are partnering with the DroidFi guys for the operating system. The Gigabit Ethernet will probably work, and the WiFi is limited by *nix chipset support. No complete functional prototypes yet.

So there you go. It’s not the ideal update with the SOAP crew showing off a shipping container of units ready to be shipped, but the project isn’t in as bad a shape as I originally thought.

SOAP: The Home Automation Router And Kickstarter Scam

SOAP

How would you like a 7″ tablet with a Quad-core ARM Cortex A9 processor, USB 3.0, 32 GB of storage, 802.11ac, four ports of Gigabit LAN, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, SATA, HDMI, built-in Zigbee and RFID modules, a camera, speaker and microphone, all for $170? Sound too good to be true? That’s because it probably is. Meet SOAP, the home automation router with a touchscreen, that’s shaping up to be one of the largest scams Kickstarter has ever seen.

There have been a few threads scattered over the web going over some of the… “inconsistencies” about the SOAP kickstarter, mainly focusing on the possibility of fake Facebook likes and Twitter followers. There’s also the question of their development process: they started building a router with an Arduino, then moved on to a Raspberry Pi, a Beaglebone, Intel Atom-powered Minnowboard, the Gizmo Board, PandaBoard, and Wandboard. If you’re keeping track, that’s at least six completely different architectures used in their development iterations. Anyone who has ever tried to build something – not even build a product, mind you – will realize there’s something off here. This isn’t even considering a reasonably accurate BOM breakdown that puts the total cost of production at $131.

The most damning evidence comes from screenshots of the final board design. These pics have since been removed from the Kickstarter page, but they’re still available on the Google cache. The SOAP team claims they’re putting USB 3.0 ports on their board, but the pics clearly show only four pins on each of the USB ports. USB 3.0 requires nine pins. A closer inspection reveals these screenshots are from the files for Novena, [Bunnie Huang]‘s open source laptop.

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Hacking SD Card & Flash Memory Controllers

We hope that some of our readers are currently at this year’s Chaos Communication Congress (schedule can be found here and live streams here), as many interesting talks are happening. One of them addressed hacking the memory controllers embedded in all memory cards that you may have. As memory storage density increases, it’s more likely that some sectors inside the embedded flash are defective. Therefore, all manufacturers add a small microcontroller to their cards (along with extra memory) to invisibly ‘replace’ the defective sectors to the operating system.

[Bunnie] and [xobs] went around buying many different microSD cards in order to find a hackable one. In their talk at 30C3 (slides here), they reported their findings on a particular microcontroller brand, Appotech, and its AX211/AX215. By reverse engineering the firmware code they found online, they discovered a simple “knock” sequence transmitted over manufacturer-reserved commands that dropped the controller into a firmware loading mode. From there, they were able to reverse engineer most of the 8051 microcontroller function-specific registers, allowing them to develop novel applications for it. Some of the initial work was done using a FPGA/i.MX6-based platform that the team developed named Novena, which we hope may be available for purchase some day. It was, among others, used to simulate the FLASH memory chip that the team had previously removed. A video of the talk is embedded below.

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Circuit Stickers

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One of our tipsters just sent an interesting crowd funding project our way. They’re called Circuit Stickers and are a very creative way to get basic electronics into children’s hands through arts and crafts.

The project is the brainchild of [Bunnie] and [Jie Qi]. [Bunnie] is a hacker, and a Director of Studio Kosagi, a small manufacturing outfit in Singapore. [Jie] on the other hand is a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, who focuses her research on combining electronics and programming with arts and crafts. They came up with this idea to bridge the gap that exists between electronics and the arts, and the stickers are a great start. They allow anyone to learn basic electronics in a very easy and friendly way, using skills we all learned as children, drawing and sticking stickers on everything.

The current offering includes LED stickers, effects stickers (to control the LEDs), sensors, microcontrollers, and even breakout boards. They are all in sticker form, and can be connected together using  conductive fabric, thread, carbon-based paint, copper tape, pencil graphite, and really, anything conductive. They have already manufactured thousands of the stickers and everything is working as designed, so the crowdfunding campaign isn’t to raise funds to continue research, or even to start their company. It’s more of getting it out there, and getting these stickers into children’s hands to raise the next generation of hackers from a young age.

The video after the break gives a great overview of the project, and if anything we think it’ll give you some great ideas on children’s electronics projects.

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An Open Source GPU

FPGA

Unless you’re bit-banging a CRT interface or using a bunch of resistors to connect a VGA monitor to your project, odds are you’re using proprietary hardware as a graphics engine. The GPU on the Raspberry Pi is locked up under an NDA, and the dream of an open source graphics processor has yet to be realized. [Frank Bruno] at Silicon Spectrum thinks he has the solution to that: a completely open source GPU implemented on an FPGA.

Right now, [Frank] has a very lightweight 2D and 3D engine well-suited for everything from servers to embedded devices. If their Kickstarter meets its goal, they’ll release their project to the world, giving every developer and hardware hacker out there a complete, fully functional, open source GPU.

Given the difficulties [Bunnie] had finding a GPU that doesn’t require an NDA to develop for, we’re thinking this is an awesome project that gets away from the closed-source binary blobs found on the Raspberry Pi and other ARM dev boards.

Hackaday Links: August 18, 2013

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Let’s start off with some lock picking. Can you be prosecuted if it was your bird that broke into something? Here’s video of a Cockatoo breaking into a puzzle box as part of an Oxford University study. [Thanks Ferdinand via Endandit]

[Augybendogy] needed a vacuum pump. He headed off to his local TechShop and machined a fitting for his air compressor. It uses the Venturi Effect to generate a vacuum.

Build your own Arduino cluster using this shield designed by [Bertus Kruger]. Each shield has its own ATmega328. Many can be stacked on top of an Arduino board, using I2C for communications.

[Bunnie Huang] has been publishing articles a few articles on Medium called “Exit Reviews”. As a treasured piece of personal electronics is retired he pulls it apart to see what kind of abuse it stood up to over its life. We found his recent article on his Galaxy S II quite interesting. There’s chips in the glass, scuffs on the bezel, cracks on the case, and pervasive gunk on the internals.

We’d love to see how this this paper airplane folder and launcher is put together. If you know of a post that shares more details please let us know.

Squeezing the most out of a tiny microcontroller was a challenge. But [Jacques] reports that he managed to get a PIC 10F322 to play a game of Pong (translated). It even generates an NTSC composite video signal! Watch the demo video here.

Hackaday Links: Sunday, July 14th, 2013

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Wanting to repair his much-used NES controllers [Michael Moffitt] sourced a replacement for the rubber button pads. They didn’t work all that well but he fixed that by using angle clippers on the part that contacts the PCB traces.

Here’s a neat Claw Game project show-and-tell video. [Thanks David]

We already know that [Bunnie] is building a laptop. Here’s an update on the project.

Hackaday alum [Caleb Kraft] continues his helpful hacking by adding an alternative to clicking an Xbox 360 stick.

[Blackbird] added a camera to the entry door of his house. He didn’t want to forget to shut it off (wasting power) so he built an automatic shutoff.

We’re not really sure what this computational photography project is all about. It takes pictures with the subject illuminated in different colors then combines individual color channels with a MATLAB script.

Finally, [Dave Jones] tears down a Nintendo 64 console on a recent EEVblog  episode.