Make A Badge When There Is No Badge Yet

What do you do when your keenly anticipated hacker camp releases details of its upcoming badge and you really want to have a go at coding for it, but there are no badges for you to try yet? If you are [Artdanion], this is not a problem, you simply build your own.

He found his requirement to interface with genuine hardware exceeded the abilities of the emulator that the SHACamp 2017 badge team had thoughtfully provided, so he reached for breakout boards for the ESP32, the MPR121 touch sensor, and the e-ink display, and assembled his own clone on a piece of stripboard. Not only did it provide him with enough to develop his own apps, he found when he brought it to the event that the public release of the official firmware ran on it with only a few configuration tweaks. He had an official event badge, that wasn’t the event badge. Is this the first time this has been done? We think it might be.

The home-made badge is an impressive piece of work, but it ties into an observation we made at the end of our review of the official version of the SHA2017 badge. The use of an ESP32 with well-designed peripherals and a solid firmware means that this is a design that is likely to form the bedrock upon which some future badges are built. [Artdanion] has proved how straightforward it is to clone, we’d like to be so bold as to make the prediction that we’ll see more developments of this platform at future events. Meanwhile this home-made badge is a neat achievement, and we can only imagine the surprise of the SHA2017 badge team on being presented with a clone of their work for reflashing.

The Latest Hacker Camp Badge Comes From BornHack

If you’re a fan of outdoor hacker camps, or if you’re a SHACamp attendee who’s still coming down from the event high, you may already know about the upcoming BornHack 2017 hacker camp on the Danish island of Bornholm, from the 22nd to the 29th of this month. It’s a smaller camp than many of the others on the calendar, but it makes up for that with a quite reasonable ticket price, a much longer duration, and a location that is a destination in itself.

Today we have news of the BornHack badge announcement, and though the details are a little sketchy it’s safe to say that there should be plenty there to keep attendees occupied. The irregularly-shaped PCB contains a Silicon Labs “Happy Gecko” EFM32 ARM Cortex M0 microcontroller, a 128×64 pixel OLED display, and the usual array of I/O lines. There is no information about its connectivity as it seems the BornHack folks prefer to run a teaser campaign, but we’d be surprised if there wasn’t some kind of wireless module on the reverse.

Barring a transportation miracle it’s unlikely that any of the Hackaday team will be making it to BornHack, but that’s our loss. It may not be one of the larger camps, but it looks to offer no less of the atmosphere you’d expect from a European hacker camp. At the time of writing there are still BornHack tickets to be had, so head on over to their website if you fancy a week at a hacker camp on a Danish island.

Hands On With The SHACamp 2017 Badge

The badge has become one of the defining features of a modern hacker camp, a wearable electronic device that serves as both event computer and platform for some mild software and hardware hacking. Some events have had astoundingly sophisticated badges while others are more simple affairs, and the phenomenon has even spawned an ecosystem of unofficial badges which have nothing to do with the event in question.

The SHACamp 2017 badge is the latest to come the way of a Hackaday writer, and certainly contains enough to be taken as representative of the state of hacker camp badges in 2017. It doesn’t have a star turn like CCCCamp 2015’s software defined radio, instead it’s an extremely handy little computer in its own right.

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Retro DEF CON Badge Made From ’80s Parts

DEF CON 25’s theme was retro-tech, and [xres0nance] wasn’t kidding around in the retro badge he built for the convention. The badge was mostly built out of actual parts from the ’80s and ’90s, including the perfboard from Radio Shack—even the wire and solder. Of the whole project just the resistors and 555 were modern parts, and that’s only because [xres0nance] ran out of time.

[xres0nance]  delayed working on the badge until his flight, throwing the parts in a box, and staggering to the airport in the midst of a “three-alarm hangover”. He designed the badge on the plane, downloading datasheets over in-flight WiFi and sketching out circuits in his notebook.

The display is from an old cell phone, and it uses a matrix of diodes to spell out DEFCON without the help of a microcontroller. Each letter is powered by a transistor, with specific pins blocked out to selectively power the segments. He used a shift register timed by a 555 to trigger each letter in turn, with the display scrolling the resulting message.

We publish a lot of posts about con badges. See our DEF CON 2015 badge summary for a bunch of badges that we encountered at in Vegas.

Inside This Year’s Queercon Badge

At this point, it’s not really correct to describe DEF CON as a single, gigantic conference for security, tech, and other ‘hacky’ activities. DEF CON is more of a collection of groups hosting villages, get-togethers, meetups, and parties where like-minded individuals share their time, company, electronic war stories, and whiskey. One of the largest groups measured by the number of rideable, inflatable unicorns is Queercon, a ‘conference within a conference’ dedicated to LGBT causes, a rager of a party, and a killer conference badge.

The Queercon badge is always a work of art, and this year is no exception. Last year, we took a look at an immaculate squid/cuttlefish badge, and a few years before that, the Queercon badge was a beautiful 3.5″ floppy embedded with far too many RGB LEDs. This year’s Queercon badge was equally as amazing, quite literally pushing badgecraft into another dimension. The folks behind the Queercon badge just wrote up their postmortem on the badge, and it’s an excellent example of how to push PCBs into the space of human interaction.

The development of the 2017 Queercon badge had a really tough act to follow. Last year’s Blooper squid/cuttlefish badge is a high point in the world of functional PCB art, and by January of this year, the team didn’t know where to take badgecraft next.

In the end, the QC badge team decided on a ‘failsafe’ design — it wasn’t necessarily going to be the best idea, but the design would minimize risk and development time.

A single 2017 Queercon badge

The two obvious features of this badge are an incredible number of tiny RGB LEDs, and very strange hermaphroditic edge connectors, allowing these badges to be plugged together into a panel of badges or a cube. What does this badge do? It blinks. If you have five friends, you can make something that looks like the Companion Cube from Portal.


The killer feature for this badge is a vast array of RGB LEDs. Instead of going with WS2812s or APA101s, the Queercon badge team found simple, 0604 RGB LEDs, priced at about $0.026 a piece. There are 73 LEDs in total, all driven by the same TI LED driver used in previous years, combined with two shift registers and 15 FETs to control the LED commons. Although the LED driver is able to address all 219, and even though the badge is powered by a 32-bit ARM Cortex M3 microcontroller, this is pretty much the limit of how many LEDs can be controlled with this setup.

The Queercon badge always has a bit of interconnectedness built in, and this year is no exception. This year the badge uses a strange universal connector mounted along the four sides of the badge. When one badge is plugged into the other, they mate producing a ‘fabric’ of glowing badges. The range of motion on this connector allows for 180 degrees of rotation, but surprisingly most Queercon badge holders only assembled single planes of badges. It took a bit of cajoling from the badgemakers to get people to assemble a cube, and no other weird shapes were constructed out of multiple badges. If anyone likes this idea of interconnected badges, I would like to personally suggest equilateral triangles — this would allow for icosahedrons or hexagon-based solids.

A Game

A badge wouldn’t be complete without a game, and the Queercon badge has it in spades. The UI/UX/graphics designer [Jonathan] came up with a game loosely based on a game called ‘Alchemy’. Every badge comes loaded with a set of basic elements (air, fire, water, earth), represented as pixel art on the 7×7 RGB LED matrix. Combining these elements leads to even more elements — water plus fire equals beer, for example. Think of it as crafting in Minecraft, but with badges.

Starbucks was responsible for sponsoring a portion of Queercon this year, so ten special badges were loaded up with a fifth element: coffee. Elements derived from the coffee element required a Starbucks sponsor badge.

As we all expect from a DEF CON badge, there was a crypto challenge and contest. The full write up is available here, with the solution somewhat related to a cube of badges.

A Complete Success

When the badges came back from the fab house, the failure rate for this year’s Queercon badge was 0.7%. That’s an amazing yield for any independent hardware badge, and is honestly one of the most impressive aspects of this year’s Queercon. Failure modes during the con were probably related to spilling a drink on a badge, although there was a rash of failed CPUs. This is probably related to ESD, and during the con rework of failed badges was basically impossible because of drunk soldering in a dimly lit hotel room.

If there’s one failure of this year’s Queercon, it’s simply that it’s becoming too popular. From last year, Queercon saw 200% growth for the main party, which meant not everyone got a badge. That’s unfortunate, but plans are in the works for more inventory next year, providing DEF CON 26 isn’t cancelled, which it is. A shame, really.

Ink-Filled Machine Badges Score Respect for Your Gear

Remember the good old days when machines had a stout metal badge instead of cheap vinyl decals, and nameplates on motors were engraved in metal rather than printed on a label with a QR code? Neither do we, but these raised brass labels with color filled backgrounds look great, they’re surprisingly easy to make, and just the thing your gear needs to demand respect as a cherished piece of gear.

The ‘easy’ part of this only comes if you have access to a machine shop like [John] at NYC CNC does. To be fair, the only key machine for making these plates is a laser cutter, and even a guy like [John] needed to farm that out. The process is very straightforward — a brass plate is cleaned and coated with lacquer, which is then removed by the laser in the areas that are to be etched. The plate is dipped in an electrolyte solution for etching, cleaned, and powder coated. After curing the powder coat with a heat gun rather than an oven — a tip worth the price of admission by itself — the paint is sanded off the raised areas, the metal is polished, and a clear coat applied to protect the badge.

Plates like these would look great for a little retro-flair on a new build like this Nixie power meter, or allow you to restore a vintage machine like this classic forge blower.

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All the Hardware Badges of DEF CON 25

Hardware is the future. There is no better proof of this than the hardware clans that have grown up around DEF CON, which in recent years has become known as Badgelife. I was first drawn to the custom hardware badges of the Whiskey Pirates at DC22 back in 2014. Hardware badges were being made by several groups at that time but that was mainly happening in isolation while this year the badge makers are in constant contact with each other.

A slack channel just for those working on their own DEF CON badges sprung up. This served as tech support, social hour, and feature brainstorming for all on the channel. In the past badges were developed without much info getting out during the design process. This year, there was a huge leap forward thanks to a unified badgelife API: the badge makers colluded with each on a unified communcations protocol. In the multitude of images below you frequently see Rigado modules used. These, and some others using different hardware, adopted a unified API for command and control, both through makers’ “god mode” badges, and for wireless gaming between participant badges.

I was able to get into the badge makers meetup on Thursday of DEF CON. What follows is the result of a frantic few hours trying to get through the sheer volume of badges and people to share with you all the custom hardware on display. One thing is for sure — there were literally thousands of custom badges built and sold/distributed during DEF CON. I can’t wait to see what the artisanal hardware industry will look like in five years time.

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