Conference Badges are the Newest Form of Hardware Art

About four decades ago, many European truck drivers started placing electronic LED badges in their windshields. Most of them were simple; nothing more than an animated heart pierced by an arrow. It became a common distraction in the highway night panorama of that time, at least until it became illegal. Most motorists became accustomed to seeing them, and the idea of the truck drivers making a statement with electronics always stuck with me. Now I have the chance to help people make a similar statement. Conference badges are not just a way to identify those who have registered, but a fashion statement and a mark of pride for conference organizers. They’ve become an art form, and engineers always want to stretch the limits of what is possible.

Every September, we have BalCCon, an international hacker’s conference at Novi Sad, Serbia. I was asked to design a badge for the 2016 event, and this is the first (well, the second) release. It is based on the PIC18LF24K50 and consists of a circle of LEDs which randomly displays pre-defined patterns. Every badge has its own infrared transceiver (LED-receiver pair), so the fun begins when two or more badges spot each other: they go from Adagio to full on Rondo, losing their default, dull visual pattern for a more dynamic, attention grabbing one, but most importantly – they synchronize. This means that, in a group of people, all badges will play the same pattern in unison. Every badge can spread the pattern code, so the whole group, however large, soon becomes synchronized. But if one of them “gets lost” somehow, it will try to learn it back from a neighbor or it might even launch into its own, randomly generated one. Sometimes it manages to spread it further and you get to witness a battle for light show domination.

This isn’t merely a story of designing badges, but of design choices that come in on budget while achieving a look that will delight those who end up wearing the hardware.

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Sex and Blinky LEDs At Burning Man

[Bunnie] was at Burning Man this year, and to illuminate his camp members in the dark and dusty nights of the playa, he created a blinky badge. This isn’t just any badge stuffed with RGB LEDs; each of the badges were unique by the end of Burning Man. These badges were made unique not by twiddling dials or pressing buttons; all the color patterns were bred with badge sex.

This social experiment to replicate nature’s most popular means of creating more nature is built around a peer to peer radio. Each badge is equipped with a radio, a circle of RGB LEDs, and a bit of code that expresses the pattern of lights on the badge as a sequence of genes. When one badge gives consent to another badge, they ‘breed’, creating a new pattern of lights. If you’re wondering about the specifics of the act, each badge is a hermaphrodite, and each badge transmits a ‘sperm’ to fertilize the other plant’s ‘egg’. There’s even a rare trait included in the genome of the badge; each badge has a 3% chance of having a white pixel that moves around the circle of LEDs. [Bunnie] found this trait was more common after a few days, suggesting that people were selectively breeding their badges.

Of course, finding potential mates is a paramount concern for any sexual organism, and the sex badge has this covered, too. The 900MHz radio listens for other badges in close proximity, and when any are found their owners are displayed on an OLED display. This came in handy for [Bunnie] more than a few times – there’s no phones out there, and simply knowing your friends are within a hundred meters or so is a big help.

The entire badge platform is documented online, along with the code and spec for badge genes. Badges with some sort of wireless communication have been around for a while, but this is the first time that communication has been used for something more than sharing contact information or implementing a chat room. It’s a great idea, and something we hope to see more of in future con badges.

Becoming A Zombie with the Hackable Electronic Badge

Last week, Parallax released an open hackable electronic badge that will eventually be used at dozens of conferences. It’s a great idea that allows badge hacks developed during one conference to be used at a later conference.

[Mark] was at the Hackable Electronics Badge premier at the 2015 Open Hardware Summit last weekend, and he just finished up the first interactive hack for this badge. It’s the zombie apocalypse in badge form, pitting humans and zombies against each other at your next con.

The zombie survival game works with the IR transmitter and receiver on the badge normally used to exchange contact information. Upon receiving the badge, the user chooses to be either a zombie or survivor. Pressing the resistive buttons attacks, heals, or infects others over IR. The game is your standard zombie apocalypse affair: zombies infect survivors, survivors attack zombies and heal the infected, and the infected turn into zombies.

Yes, a zombie apocalypse is a simple game for a wearable with IR communications, but for the Hackable Electronics Badge, it’s a great development. There will eventually be tens of thousands of these badges floating around at cons, and having this game available on day-one of a conference will make for a lot of fun.

The Open, Hackable Electronic Conference Badge

Electronic conference badges have been around for at least a decade now, and they all have the same faults. They’re really only meant to be used for a few days, conference organizers and attendees expect the badge to be cheap, and because of the nature of a conference badge, the code just works, and documentation is sparse.  Surely there’s a better way.

Enter the Hackable Electronic Badge. Ever since Parallax started building electronic conference badges for DEF CON, they’ve gotten a lot of requests to build badges for other conventions. Producing tens of thousands of badges makes Parallax the go-to people for your conference badge needs, but the requests for badges are always constrained by schedules that are too short, price expectations that are too low, and volumes that are unknown.

There’s a market out there for electronic conference badges, and this is Parallax’s solution to a recurring problem. They’re building a badge for all conferences, and a platform that can be (relatively) easily modified while still retaining all its core functionality.

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Developed on Hackaday: Let’s build an Electronic Hackaday Badge

We’re going to build an electronic Hackaday Badge, and by “we”, I mean Hackaday community members who are passionate about the project.

I’ll be leading the charge. I had a great learning experience the last time I helped design the e-paper badge for the 2013 Open Hardware Summit, and hope to learn a lot along the way this time too. Since then, Badges have come a long way – at cons like DEFCON, LayerONE, Shmoocon, The Next Hope, Open Hardware Summit, The EMF, SAINTCON, SXSW Create, The Last Hope, TROOPERS11, ZaCon V and of course the rad1o from this year’s CCCamp. Word is that this year’s Open Hardware Summit badge is going to be pretty kickass too. So, we have some very big shoes to fill. But this doesn’t have to be about “my badge is better than yours”. And this badge isn’t meant to be specific to any single con or event. So what does the Badge do, then? “It’s a physical extension of the community, made specifically for hacker gatherings of all types and sizes.”

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All the Unofficial Electronic Badges of DEF CON

2015 was the year of the unofficial hardware badge at DEF CON 23. There were a ton of different hardware badges designed for the love of custom electronics and I tried to catch up with the designer of each different badge. Here is the collection of images, video demos, and build details for each one I saw this weekend.

Whiskey Pirates

[TrueControl] did a great job with his badge design this year for the Whiskey Pirate Crew. This is a great update from the badge he designed last year, keeping the skull and bones outline. It uses a PSOC4 chip to control a ton of LEDs. The eyes are RGB pixels which are each on their own PCB that is soldered onto the back of the badge, with openings for the LED to show through. Two AA batteries power the board which has a surface-mount LED matrix. The user controls are all capacitive touch. There is a spinner around one eye, and pads for select and back. The NRF24L01 radio operates at 2.4GHz. This badge is slave to commands from last year’s badge. When the two are in the same area the 2015 badges will scroll the nickname of the 2014 badge it “sees”. The piezo element also chirps many different sounds based on the interactions with different badges.

[True] makes design an art form. The matte black solder mask looks fantastic, and he took great care in use of font, size, alignment, and things like letting copper show through for a really stunning piece of hardware art.

Keep reading for ten more great badges seen over the weekend.

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Help Decipher the DEFCON Badge

The 23rd DEFCON — the Western Hemisphere’s largest hacker conference — doesn’t start until tomorrow but Thursday has become the de facto start for regulars. [Brian] and I rolled into town this afternoon and are working on gathering as much information as possible about the badge challenge.

This year the badge is a 7″ vinyl record. Traditionally the badge alternates years of electronic badges and ones that aren’t. Spend your weekend pulling your hair our trying to solve the puzzles. Check out all the pictures and information (updated as we gather it) and work together collaboratively for a solution by requesting to join the crew on the Badge Hacking page.

Hackaday Breakfast on Sunday

Iocn of Coffee CupIf you’re in town Sunday morning, come nurse your hangover with [Brian], [Eric], and me. We’re headed to Va Bene Caffè at 10:30am on 8/9/15. It’s just across the street in the Cosmopolitan. Request to join this event and I’ll send you a reminder so you don’t forget. You can also hit me up on Twitter for a reminder. See you then (and don’t forget to bring hardware to show off if you have some!).

PS- The Hackaday WiFi Hat is in play. Anyone have the chops to hack it this year?