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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

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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.

Arduino-compatible, quad-core ARM dev board

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The Advent of the Raspberry Pi has seen an explosion in the market for ARM dev boards, sometimes even with pinouts for Arduino shields. The UDOO, though, takes those boards and ramps up the processing power for some very, very interesting builds.

The UDOO comes equipped with a dual or quad-core ARM CPU running at 1GHz with 1 GB of RAM. Also on board is the Atmel SAM3X8E – the same chip in the new Arduino DUE - and has pinouts for all those Arduino shields you have lying around.

In addition to serving your next project as a souped-up Raspberry Pi, UDOO also includes 78 (!) GPIO pins, Gigabit Ethernet, a camera connector, one SATA port (on the quad-core version), and an LVDS header for attaching LCD monitors. Basically, the UDOO is the motherboard of an ARM-powered laptop with the pinouts to handle Arduino shields. It’s just like [Bunnie]‘s laptop, only this time you can actually buy it.

The UDOO doesn’t come cheap, though: on the UDOO Kickstarter, the dual-core version is going for $150 while the quad-core is priced at $170. Still, if you need the power to run a pair of Kinects or want to build an awesome torrent box, you’d be hard pressed to find a more powerful board.

Hand placing flash die to make USB drives

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It’s a stretch to call this one a hack, but USB thumb drives are around us constantly and we always assumed that the boards inside were machine populated (like with a pick and place machine). [Bunnie] tells us otherwise. He recently had the chance to tour a factory where USB flash drives are made.

The image above shows a worker populating a set of boards with the flash memory dies. The waffle-grid to the right holds the dies. Each is a tiny glint of a component. The worker is not in a clean room, and is using a bamboo tool to pick up the pieces. [Bunnie] explains that he’s seen the tools before but doesn’t fully comprehend how they work. He figures that the hand-cut manipulator has just the right amount of grab to pick up the die, but will also release it when it touches down on the dot of glue applied to the landing zone on the board.

If you’re into this sort of thing you should check out the PCB factory tour we saw a couple of years back. The article link is dead but the embedded tour video still works.

[Thanks pl]