Building Beautiful Cell Phones Out Of FR4

Over on Hackaday.io, [bobricius] took this technology and designed something great. It’s a GSM cell phone with a case made out of FR4. It’s beautiful, and if you’re ever in need of a beautifully crafted burner phone, this is the one to build.

The components, libraries, and toolchains to build a cellphone from scratch have been around for a very long time. Several years ago, the MIT Media Lab prototyped a very simple cellphone on a single piece of FR4. It made calls, but not much else. It was ugly, but it worked. [Bobricius] took the idea and ran with it.

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Phone-To-Phone Power Thievery

Once again, [Rulof]’s putting his considerable hacking abilities to good use, his good use that is. By modding a few simple parts he’s put together something that he can carry around on his keychain that’ll allow him to steal power from his friend’s phones to charge his own phone.

He starts by cutting away the motor from an iPhone fan to isolate the Micro USB connector. He then removes the charging circuit board from a cheap Chinese USB power bank, and solders wires from the Micro USB connector to one side of the board. Lastly, he cuts away the Lightning connector from a Lightning-to-USB cable and solders that connector to the other side of the circuit board. For longevity and cosmetics, he puts it all in a small wood block and connects a key ring. The result is a small, neat looking box with a Micro USB connector on one side and a Lightning connector on the other. You can see him make it, and then use it to steal power from his friends in the video after the break.

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Retrotechtacular: Whatever Happened To The Paper Mobile Phone

It was one of the more interesting consumer tech stories floating around at the turn of the century, a disposable cell phone manufactured using a multi-layer folded paper circuit board with tracks printed in conductive ink. Its feature set was basic even by the standards of the day in that it had no display and its only function was to make calls, but with a target price of only $10 that didn’t matter. It was the brainchild of a prolific New Jersey based inventor, and it was intended to be the first in a series of paper electronic devices using the same technology including phones with built-in credit card payment ability and a basic laptop model.

The idea of a $10 mobile phone does not seem remarkable today, it’s possible that sum might now secure you something with features far in excess of the Nokias and similar that were the order of the day at that time. But when you consider that those Nokias could have prices well into three figures without a contract, and that the new features people considered exciting were things like integrated antennas or swappable coloured plastic covers rather than the multicore processors or high-res cameras we’re used to today, a phone so cheap as to be disposable promised to be very disruptive.

The web site publicity shot for the disposable paper phone.
The web site publicity shot for the disposable paper phone.

The product’s wonderfully dated website (Wayback Machine link, we’ve skipped the Flash intro for you) has pictures of the device, and the video below the break features shots of it in use as its inventor is interviewed. But by the end of 2002 the Wayback Machine was retrieving 404 errors from the server, and little more was heard of the product. No sign of one ever came our way; did any make it to market, and did you have one?

With the benefit of fifteen years hindsight, why did we not have paper mobile phones as part of the ephemera of the early years of the last decade? It was not a product without promise; a ten-dollar phone might have been a great success. And the description of a cheap laptop that talks to a remote server for its software sounds not unlike today’s Chromebooks.

Some of you might claim the product was vapourware, but given that they demonstrated a working prototype we’d hesitate to go that far. The likelihood is that it did not find the required combination of component price and manufacturing ease to exploit its intended market segment before its competition improved to the point that it could no longer compete. If you have ever taken apart a typical mobile phone of the period you’ll have some idea of why they were not cheap devices, for example the RF filter modules of the day were individually adjusted precision components. And paper-and-ink printed circuit boards are still a technology with a way to go even now, perhaps the idea was simply too far ahead of its time. Meanwhile within a relatively short period of time the price of simple candybar phones dropped to the point at which they would tempt the $10 buyer to spend more for a better product, so the window of opportunity had passed.

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Amazon Dash Button Finds Your Phone

This scene replays quite often in our house: my wife has misplaced her cell phone so she asks me to call her. But where did I leave my cell phone? And the race is on! Who will find their phone first to call the other?

[Zapta] solves this problem with his Phone Finder. The system comes in two parts: a base station with WiFi that’s also connected to the house’s phone line, and an arbitrary number of Amazon Dash buttons that trigger dialing commands.

[Zapta] presses a Dash button, which connects over WiFi to the base station. The base station recognizes the MAC address of the button, looks up and dials the corresponding missing cell phone. This solves the need-a-phone-to-find-a-phone problem very neatly, and since Dash buttons are dirt cheap they can be scattered liberally around the house. They’re clearly marked “his” and “hers” suggesting a similar domestic dynamic.

If we were implementing the base station from scratch, we’d probably try to figure out how a single ESP8266 could do all of the heavy lifting, but browsing through [Zapta]’s GitHub and the included circuit diagram (PDF) demystifies the phone-line interface.

In the early days of cordless phones, we used to joke that a solution to losing them would be to attach a string and tie them to the wall. (Luddites!) We’re glad to see [Zapta] take this project in the opposite direction — using technological overkill to solve the unintended problems that arise from technological progress.

Bunnie and Snowden Explore iPhone’s Hackability

[Bunnie Huang] and [Edward Snowden] have teamed up to publish a paper exploring the possibility of introspection on the iPhone.

A rendering of the proposed introspection device attached to an iPhone6
A rendering of the proposed introspection device attached to an iPhone6

The idea is that phones are increasingly complex and potentially vulnerable to all kinds of digital surveillance. Even airplane mode is insufficient for knowing that your phone isn’t somehow transmitting information. The paper looks at the various radios on the iPhone, going so far as opening up the device and reading signals at each of the chips for cell, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, and NFC to determine whether the chip itself is doing anything, regardless of what the screen says. This introspection can then be used to be confident that the phone is not communicating when it shouldn’t be.

The paper goes on to propose a device that they will prototype in the coming year which uses an FPC that goes into the phone through the SIM card port. It would contain a battery, display, buttons, multiple SIM cards, and an FPGA to monitor the various buses and chips and report on activity.

Significant hacking of an iPhone will still be required, but the idea is to increase transparency and be certain that your device is only doing what you want it to.

Hackaday Prize Entry: MyComm Handheld Satellite Messenger

We live in a connected world, but that world ends not far beyond the outermost cell phone tower. [John Grant] wants to be connected everywhere, even in regions where no mobile network is available, so he is building a solar powered, handheld satellite messenger: The MyComm – his entry for the Hackaday Prize.

The MyComm is a handheld touch-screen device, much like a smartphone, that connects to the Iridium satellite network to send and receive text messages. At the heart of his build, [John] uses a RockBLOCK Mk2 Iridium SatComm Module hooked up to a Teensy 3.1. The firmware is built upon a FreeRTOS port for proper task management. Project contributor [Jack] crafted an intuitive GUI that includes an on-screen keyboard to write, send and receive messages. A micro SD card stores all messages and contact list entries. Eventually, the system will be equipped with a solar cell, charging regulator and LiPo battery for worldwide, unconditional connectivity.

2016 will be an interesting year for the Iridium network since the first satellites for the improved (and backward-compatible) “Iridium NEXT” network are expected to launch soon. At times the 66 Iridium satellites currently covering the entire globe were considered a $5B heap of space junk due to deficiencies in reliability and security. Yet, it’s still there, with maker-friendly modems being available at $250 and pay-per-use rates of about 7 ct/kB (free downstream for SDR-Hackers). Enjoy the video of [Jack] explaining the MyComm user interface:

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Free Radio On My Phone

If you have owned Android phones, there’s a reasonable chance that as the kind of person who reads Hackaday you will at some time have rooted one of them, and even applied a new community ROM to it. When you booted the phone into its new environment it’s not impossible you would have been surprised to find your phone now sported an FM radio. How had the ROM seemingly delivered a hardware upgrade?

It’s something your cellphone carrier would probably prefer not to talk about, a significant number of phones have the required hardware to receive FM radio, but lack the software to enable it. The carriers would prefer you to pay for their data to stream your entertainment rather than listen to it for free through a broadcaster. If you are someone capable of upgrading a ROM you can fix that, but every other phone owner is left holding a device they own, but seemingly don’t own.

Across North America there is a group campaigning to do something about this situation. Free Radio On My Phone and their Canadian sister organization are lobbying the phone companies and manufacturers to make the FM radio available, and in the USA at least they have scored some successes.

We have covered numerous attempts to use the DMCA to restrict people’s access to the hardware they own, but this story is a little different. There is no question of intellectual property being involved here, it is simply that the carriers would rather their customers didn’t even know that they had bought an FM radio along with their phone. If this bothers you, thanks to Free Radio On My Phone you can now join with others and find a voice on the matter.

It’s interesting to note that many FM radio chips also support a wider bandwidth than the North American and European 88 to 108MHz or thereabouts. In parts of Asia the broadcast band extends significantly lower than this, and the chipset manufacturers make products to support these frequencies. This opens up the interesting possibility that given a suitable app a cellphone could be used to receive other services on these frequencies. Probably more of a bonus for European radio amateurs with their 70MHz allocation than for North American residents.

Via CBC News. Cellphone image: By Rob Brown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.