Design and Hacking Drilldown: SuperCon Badge

One can imagine a political or business conference without an interactive badge — but not a hacker conference. Does this make the case for hackers being a special breed of people, always having something creative to show for their work? Yes, I think it does.

Following the Hackaday Belgrade conference in April of this year, we met at the Supplyframe offices to discuss the badge for the Hackaday SuperConference that will happen in Pasadena on 5+6th of November. The Belgrade conference badge (which was fully documented if you’re curious) was surprisingly popular, and I was asked to design the new one as well.

I was prepared to come up with something completely new, but [Mike Szczys] suggested keeping with the same basic concept for the project: “No reason to change anything, we have a badge that works”. To which I responded: “Well, the next one will also work”. But then I realized that “works” does not stand for “being functional”. The key is that it was embraced by visitors who played with it, coded on it, and solved a crypto challenge with it.

The World Doesn’t Have Enough LEDs

led-modules-versus-smdFast forward six months — here are the modifications made to the basic concept. First, the existing LED matrix, which was composed of two compact 8×8 blocks, was replaced by 128 discrete SMD LEDs. It was a much needed change to help scale down the dimensions and clunkiness, but also to avoid another painful experience of trying to purchase and have the matrix displays shipped, which seriously threatened the production of the previous badge.

It’s a long story which I discussed in my Belgrade talk — it turned out we did not manage to get enough common anode (CA) displays from all distributors in the whole world. We had a plan B, which also fizzled, leaving us with the plan C which actually included two “C”s: Common Cathode. We cleaned up all the supplies at five distributors, and managed to get 122 CA red, 340 CC red and 78 CA green displays (enough for only 270 badges) — the entire world supply. After that, you couldn’t get any 38 mm Kingbright’s display for months! The only problem was that there were two different versions of PCBs, one for CA and the other for CC displays, but luckily only one version of software, as it could autodetect the display type.

accelerometer-on-the-boardMotion and Expansion

So, what else was new in the concept? In the Belgrade version, the badge supported an accelerometer module and included an unpopulated footprint in case you decided to install it, but now the badge has the MEMS chip LIS3 as an integral part. There are nine pads (with five I/O ports, driven directly from the MCU) to which you can add a 9-pin expansion connector. There will be a number of these connectors at the Design Lab, so that anyone can expand their badge for their convenience, on the spot.

The Visual Design

The biggest change was in the visual design. What we came up with ended up being a fair bit smaller, lighter, with a more convenient shape, and less than half the thickness of the previous one. After we had scrapped quite a few ideas during the development process (including stylized skull, frog, etc), we were left with a couple of options which you can see on the image below. The wireframe drawing on the left hand side is the Belgrade badge, shown here for a size comparison. At this point the locale and date of the conference weren’t yet definitive, which is why you see San Francisco written on the images.


Design number 4 prevailed, so the PCB layout could begin. I don’t like autorouted PCBs, so I was in for quite a rough time trying to solve the routing manually having only 2 layers on the board at my disposal.

Routing a Compact LED Matrix

The LED matrix is so dense that there was virtually no room on the LED layer, so most of the tracks on the component layer had to be routed as if it was a single layer PCB. To make matters worse, the LED layer is routed as a matrix, with a bunch of horizontal and vertical tracks, otherwise a good reason to use a 4-layer PCB. To stay inside the budget, everything had to be placed on 2 layers, and that’s why the final result seems so confusing at the populated area between batteries:

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New SuperCon Badge is 40% Lighter and a Work of Art

The 2016 Hackaday SuperConference is just around the corner and today we get a good look at the hardware badge. It was designed by [Voja Antonic] — a legend of hardware creation who will be at the conference. I like to think of him as the Woz of the Eastern Bloc, having designed the Galaksija computer. This badge is a beautiful example of embedded design. We’ll dive into all of the details after the break.

Get your ticket now for 48-hours of talks, workshops, the Hackaday Prize party, badge hacking,  and so much more.

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What We Learned from the 2016 Queercon Badge

DEF CON has become known for the creative electronic badges, and now we get to see a variety of them dangling from lanyards every year. This year, the Queercon badge stood out as the one that got the most people asking “where did you get that?!” Once again, [Evan Mackay], [George Louthan], [Jonathan Nelson], and [Jason Painter] delivered an awesome badge for this con-within-a-con for LGBT hackers and their friends.

The badge is a squid shape, with a nifty clear solder mask, printed on black FR4, and routed with natural curved traces. The squid eyes consist of sixty cyan LEDs, with RGB LEDs on the tentacles. The eyes make expressions, and the tentacles light up with a selectable pattern. Hitting the “ink” button shoots your pattern out to all nearby devices using the 2.4 GHz radio on board, and a set of small connectors can be used to “mate” with other badges to learn patterns. Yes, the Queercon badge always has suggestive undertones.

After playing with it for the whole con, we think this badge has some good lessons for electronic badge designers:

Variable Brightness

The 2016 Queercon Badge with two hats
The Queercon Badge with Two Hats

This badge used a phototransistor as a light sensor to measure ambient light and set the brightness accordingly. With over 60 LEDs, this helped the two AA batteries last for nearly the entire conference.

Power Switches

This badge has a power switch. That switch turns the badge off. This probably sounds very obvious, but it’s also unfortunately uncommon on electronic badges. The switch means people turn the badge off at night, and don’t have to yank batteries when firmware glitches.


The badge had two expansion ports on the squid’s head for adding hats. These were given power, and the connector spec was published before the event. Our favourite? A unicorn horn with a rainbow LED inside.

Social Badges are Fun

This has been the fourth Queercon badge in a row that communicated with other badges to unlock things. This is actually a neat way to get people to interact, and leads to a whole host of suggestive puns. Badginal intercourse, anyone?

We’ve heard that next year’s badge is already in the works, and we look forward to seeing what these folks come up with next. For now, you can grab all the hardware design files and get inspired for your own electronic badge build.

DEF CON’s X86 Badge

This year’s DEF CON badge is electronic, and there was much celebrating. This year’s DEF CON badge has an x86 processor, and there was much confusion.

These vias are connected to something.
These vias are connected to something.

The badge this year, and every year, except badges for 18, 17, 16, 15, and 14, designed by [Joe Grand], and badges from pre-history designed by [Dark Tangent] and [Ping], was designed by [1057], and is built around an x86 processor. Specifically, this badge features an Intel Quark D2000 microcontroller, a microcontroller running at 32MHz, with 32kB of Flash and 8kB of RAM. Yes, an x86 badge, but I think an AT motherboard badge would better fulfill that requirement.

As far as buttons, sensors, peripherals, and LEDs go, this badge is exceptionally minimal. There are eight buttons, laid out as two directional pads, five LEDs, and a battery. There’s not much here, but with a close inspection of the ‘chin’ area of the badge, you can see how this badge was programmed.

As with any [1057] joint, this badge features puzzles galore. One of these puzzles is exceptionally hard to photograph as it is in the bottom copper layer. It reads, “nonpareil bimil: Icnwc lsrbcx kc htr-yudnv ifz xdgm yduxnw yc iisto-cypzk”. Another bottom copper text reads, “10000100001 ΣA120215”. Get crackin’.

A gallery of the Human and Goon badges follows, click through for the best resolution we have.

This post has been updated to correct the record of who designed badges for previous cons.

Hands-on the AND!XOR Unofficial DEF CON Badge

DEF CON 24 is still about two weeks away but we managed to get our hands on a hardware badge early. This is not the official hardware — there’s no way they’d let us leak that early. Although it may be unofficial in the sense that it won’t get you into the con, I’m declaring the AND!XOR badge to be officially awesome. I’ll walk you through it. There’s also a video below.

Over the past several years, building your own electronic badge has become an impromptu event. People who met at DEF CON and have been returning year after year spend the time in between coming up with great ideas and building as many badges as they can leading up to the event. This is how I met the trio who built this badge — AND!XORAndrew Riley, and Jorge Lacoste — last year they invited me up to their room where they were assembling the last of the Crypto Badges. Go check out my guide to 2015 Unofficial DEF CON badges for more on that story (and a video of the AM transmissions that badge was capable of).

The outline is this year’s badge is of course Bender from Futurama. Both eyes are RGB LEDs, with another half dozen located at different points around his head. The microcontroller, an STM32F103 ARM Cortex-M0 Cortex-M3, sits in a diamond pattern between his eyes. Above the eyes you’ll find 16 Mbit of flash, a 128×64 OLED screen, and a reset button. The user inputs are five switches and the badge is powered by three AA batteries found on the flip side.


That alone makes an interesting piece of hardware, but the RFM69W module makes all of the badges interactive. The spring coming off the top of Bender’s dome is a coil antenna for the 433 MHz communications. I only have the one badge on hand so I couldn’t delve too deeply what interactive tricks a large pool of badges will perform, but the menu hints at a structure in place for some very fun and interesting applications.

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“I Can Reflow” Merit Badge

[Nick Sayer] can reflow, and he can prove it. He designed a simple blinking-LED circuit that uses SMD parts to, well, blink LEDs. That’s not the point, though. It’s designed to be a test platform for reflow soldering, and to use a minimum number of valuable parts. Plus, it says “I can reflow!” in exposed copper. What else do you want?

OK, as far as “proving it” goes, the badge isn’t 100% reliable — we hand-solder 0805 components all day long. But still, if you want to try your hand at reflowing a circuit board, and you don’t want to ruin a lot of expensive parts if you fail, something like this is a good idea.

The design is open, and it’s really the idea that’s the point here anyway. How about something that would be really onerous to hand-solder, but still cheap? We’re thinking a matrix of tiny LEDs and a shift register or something.

We just ran an article on a hand-soldering challenge board, this seems the perfect complement. Display both proudly on your desk and confound and amaze your coworkers!

Electromagnetic Field’s Badge Hanging in the Balance

Making conference badges is a tough job. Unless you’re sitting on a gold mine, you have to contact a whole bunch of sponsors for help, work the parts that you can get into a coherent design, and do it all on the quick for a large audience. The EMF team is this close to getting it done, but they need some sponsorship for the assembly. If you know anyone, help them out! If they can’t line something up in the next two weeks, they’ll have to pull the plug on the badge entirely.

Electromagnetic Field is a summer-camp hacker convention / festival that takes place in England and is now in its third iteration. As with other big cons, the badge is a good part of the fun.

The 2016 EMF badge looks to be amazing. It’s powered by an ST STM32L4 low-power micro, a color LCD screen, a TI CC3100 WiFi radio module onboard, and a ridiculous number of other features including a gyro and magnetometer, and a giant battery. It’s also a testbed for the brand-new MicroPython, which aims to bring everyone’s favorite scripting language to embedded processors. In fact, they’ve largely built the MicroPython WiFi drivers for the badge.

If they can’t get a sponsor, all is not lost because everything is open source. We’ll all reap the benefits of their hard work. But that’s not the point. The point is that hundreds of hackers will be standing around in a field outside of London without the most audacious badge that we’ve seen designed dangling from their necks.
If you know anyone who can help, get in touch?

Thanks [schneider] for the tip!