“Hello Barbie” Under the Knife

In February, Google and Mattel introduced their Hello Barbie Internet-connected toy. This Barbie has an internal microphone, a WiFi connection to Google’s voice recognition services, and a speaker to carry on a “conversation” with the targeted child.

Like the folks at Somerset Recon, we’d say that this is an Internet of Things (IoT) device that’s just begging for a teardown, and we’re totally looking forward to their next installment when they pore through the firmware.

BarbieTeardown2On the hardware front, Barbie looks exactly like what you’d expect on the inside. A Marvell 88MW300 WiFi SoC talks to a 24-bit (!) audio codec chip, and runs code from a 16Mbit flash ROM. There’s some battery management, and what totally looks like a JTAG port. There’s not much else, because all the brains are “in the cloud” as you kids say these days.

From day to day we alternate between the promise of IoT and being anti-IoT curmudgeons, so it should come as no surprise that we’re of two minds about Hello Barbie. First, there’s the creepy-factor of having your child’s every word overheard by a faceless corporation with “evil” in their mission statement (see what we did there?). Next, we’re not sure that it’s OK to record everything your child says to a toy and listen to it later, even if you are the parent. Hackaday’s [Sarah Petkus] summarized this neatly in this article.

But mostly, we’re curious about how well the thing actually works and what it will do with naughty words. And who will take on the task of reviving the Barbie Liberation Organization? Now we totally want to go out and buy one of these things.

Hackaday Links: November 15, 2015

There are a surprising number of Raspberry Pis being used in industrial equipment. This means the Arduino is left behind, but no longer. There’s your PLCs that use Arduinos.

A few weeks ago, Google introduced a machine intelligence and computer vision technique that made the world look psychedelic. Now, this library is available. On another note, head mounted displays exist, and a sufficiently creative person could mash these two things together into a very, very cool project.

Welcome to Kickstarter! Kickstarter is an uphill battle. People will doubt you because you don’t have a ‘target audience’ or ‘the rights to this franchise’ or ‘any talent whatsoever’, but that’s what crowdfunding is for!

Several years ago, Apple shipped a few million 17″ iMacs with defective displays. They’re still useful computers, though, especially if you can find a replacement LCD. Apple, in all its wisdom, used a weird connector for this LCD. Here’s the adapter board, and this adapter will allow displays running up to 1920×1200.

[Jan] has earned a reputation of building some very cool synths out of single ARM chips. His previous build was a Drumulator and now he’s shrinkified it. He’s put four drum sounds, pitch CV, and audio out on an 8-pin DIP ARM.

YouTube gives you cadmium! [AvE], recently got 100,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel. Apparently, YouTube sends you a terrible belt buckle when you manage to do that. At least he did it without playing video games and screaming.

Gmail One Step Closer to Human Enslavement

Apply some lessons learned in Sci-Fi literature and you’ll come to the same realization I have: Google is going to unknowingly enslave humanity to an artificial intelligence.

I read a lot of science fiction. Generally, the future of technology can be found in great novels if you read between the lines. One of my favorites in this regard is, of course, [Neal Stephenson] who writes cripplingly long books that are totally worth the read due to his brand of fact-backed forward thinking. Look back on my posts here at Hackaday and you’ll see that I frequently apply concepts from his book The Diamond Age to what we see in emerging technology.

Last year my friend [Nils] suggested I give [William Hertling] a try, specifically his Singularity Series which starts with the novel Avogadro Corp. The fictional company is the world leader in free email and data storage. Sound like someone we know? One of the research projects within the company is an email plugin called ELOPe that will parse all past communications and choose topics and phrases that have the highest probability of eliciting a positive response from the recipient. When funding for the project is threatened, the system is turned on. I’d like to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say this puts the system on a path toward enslaving society.

Google is now boasting “Machine Intelligence for You”. It’s a research project based around Gmail which is called Inbox. Inbox has been around for a while but the newly announced feature is an algorithm that reads the email for you and suggests a set of responses. Compared to Avogadro Corp this is only missing two things: the ability to respond automatically, and the directive to protect itself at all costs.

One of the things I liked best about [William Hertling’s] take on an Artificial Intelligence was the low-key nature of the entity. It wasn’t a super-high-level thinker that interacts just like a human would. It was a poor choice by one programmer that led to horrible and far-reaching unintended consequences. No, I don’t really think Google’s Inbox will enslave us. But I appreciate the irony of life imitating art.

[via PopSci]

Google’s OnHub Goes Toe to Toe with Amazon Echo

Yesterday Google announced preorders for a new device called OnHub. Their marketing, and most of the coverage I’ve seen so far, touts OnHub as a better WiFi router than you are used to including improved signal, ease of setup, and a better system to get your friends onto your AP (using the ultrasonic communication technique we’ve also seen on the Amazon Dash buttons). Why would Google care about this? I don’t think they do, at least not enough to develop and manufacture a $199.99 cylindrical monolith. Nope, this is all about the Internet of Things, as much as it pains me to use the term.

google-onhub-iot-router-thumbOnHub boasts an array of “smart antennas” connected to its various radios. It has the 2.4 and 5 Gigahertz WiFi bands in all the flavors you would expect. The specs also show an AUX Wireless for 802.11 whose purpose is not entirely clear to me but may be the network congestion sensing built into the system (leave a comment if you think otherwise). Rounding out the communications array is support for ZigBee and Bluetooth 4.0.

I have long looked at Google’s acquisition of Nest and assumed that at some point Nest would become the Router for your Internet of Things, collecting data from your exercise equipment and bathroom scale which would then be sold to your health insurance provider so they may adjust your rates. I know, that’s a juicy piece of Orwellian hyperbole but it gets the point across rather quickly. The OnHub is a much more eloquent attempt at the same thing. Some people were turned off by the Nest because it “watches” you to learn your heating preferences. The same issue has arisen with the Amazon Echo which is “always listening”.

Google has foregone those built-in futuristic features and chosen a device to which almost  everyone has already grown accustom: the WiFi router. They promise better WiFi and I’m sure it will deliver. What’s the average age of a home WiFi AP at this point anyway? Any new hardware would be an improvement. Oh, and when you start buying those smart bulbs, fridges, bathroom scales, egg trays, and whatever else it’ll work for them as well.

As far as hacking and home automation, it’s hard to beat the voice-activated commands we’ve seen with Echo lately, like forcing it to control Nest or operate your Roku. Who wants to bet that we’ll see a Google-Now based IoT standalone device quickly following the shipment of OnHub?

Continue reading “Google’s OnHub Goes Toe to Toe with Amazon Echo”

NES Reborn as Nexus Player and NES

Anyone who has a Raspberry Pi and an old Nintendo has had the same thought. “Maybe I could shove the Pi in here?” This ran through [Adam’s] head, but instead of doing the same old Raspberry Pi build he decided to put a Nexus Player inside of this old video game console, with great success. Not only does it bring the power of a modern media player, it still works as an NES.

If you haven’t seen the Nexus Player yet, it’s Google’s venture into the low-cost home media center craze. It has some of the same features of the original Chromecast, but runs Android and is generally much more powerful. Knowing this, [Adam] realized it would surpass the capabilities of the Pi and would even be able to run NES emulators.

[Adam] went a little beyond a simple case mod. He used a custom PCB and an Arduino Pro Micro to interface the original controllers to the Nexus Player. 3D printed brackets make sure everything fits inside the NES case perfectly, rather than using zip ties and hot glue. He then details how to install all of the peripherals and how to set up the Player to run your favorite game ROMs. The end result is exceptionally professional, and brings to mind some other classic case mods we’ve seen before.

Fooling Google Search Console With Tricky PHP

When [Steve] received a notice from Google that a new owner had been added to his Google Search Console account, he knew something was wrong. He hadn’t added anyone to his account. At first he thought it might be a clever phishing tactic. Maybe the email was trying to get him to click a malicious link. Upon further investigation, he discovered that it was legitimate. Some strange email address had been added to his account. How did this happen?

When you want to add a website to Google’s services, they require that you prove that you own the actual website as a security precaution. One method to provide proof is by uploading or creating an HTML file to your website with some specific text inside. In this case, the file needed to be called “google1a74e5bf969ded17.html” and it needed to contain the string “google-site-verification: googlea174e5bf969ded17.html”.

[Steve] logged into his web server and looked in the website directory but he couldn’t find the verification file. Out of curiosity, he tried visiting the web page anyways and was surprised to find that it worked. After some experimentation, [Steve] learned that if he tried to load any web page that looked like “googleNNNNNNN.html”, he would be presented with the corresponding verification code of “google-site-verification: googleNNNNNNNN.html”. Something was automatically generating these pages.

After further investigation, [Steve] found that some malicious PHP code had been added to his website’s index.php page. Unfortunately the code was obfuscated, so he couldn’t determine exactly what was happening. After removing the new code from the index.php file, [Steve] was able to remove the hacker’s email address from [Steve’s] Google account.

This is a very interesting hack, because not only did it allow this one hacker to add himself to [Steve’s] Google account, but it would also have allowed anyone else to do the same thing. This is because each new hacker would have been able to fool Google’s servers into thinking that they had uploaded the verification file thanks to the malicious PHP code. It makes us think that perhaps Google’s verification system should use a separate randomized string inside of the verification file. Perhaps one that can’t be guessed or calculated based on known variables such as the file name.

Inceptionism: Mind Blown by What Neural Nets Think They See

Dr. Robert Hecht-Nielsen, inventor of one of the first neurocomputers, defines a neural network as:

“…a computing system made up of a number of simple, highly interconnected processing elements, which process information by their dynamic state response to external inputs.”

These ‘processing elements’ are generally arranged in layers – where you have an input layer, an output layer and a bunch of layers in between. Google has been doing a lot of research with neural networks for image processing. They start with a network 10 to 30 layers thick. One at a time, millions of training images are fed into the network. After a little tweaking, the output layer spits out what they want – an identification of what’s in a picture.

The layers have a hierarchical structure. The input layer will recognize simple line segments. The next layer might recognize basic shapes. The one after that might recognize simple objects, such as a wheel. The final layer will recognize whole structures, like a car for instance. As you climb the hierarchy, you transition from fast changing low level patterns to slow changing high level patterns. If this sounds familiar, we’ve talked out about it before.

Now, none of this is new and exciting. We all know what neural networks are and do. What is going to blow your knightmind, however, is a simple question Google asked, and the resulting answer. To better understand the process, they wanted to know what was going on in the inner layers. They feed the network a picture of a truck, and out comes the word “truck”. But they didn’t know exactly how the network came to its conclusion. To answer this question, they showed the network an image, and then extracted what the network was seeing at different layers in the hierarchy. Sort of like putting a serial.print in your code to see what it’s doing.

They then took the results and had the network enhance what it thought it detected. Lower levels would enhance low level features, such as lines and basic shapes. The higher levels would enhance actual structures, such as faces and trees. ibisThis technique gives them the level of abstraction for different layers in the hierarchy and reveals its primitive understanding of the image. They call this process inceptionism.


Be sure to check out the gallery of images produced by the process. Some have called the images dream like, hallucinogenic and even disturbing. Does this process reveal the inner workings of our mind? After all, our brains are indeed neural networks. Has Google unlocked the mind’s creative process?  Or is this just a neat way to make computer generated abstract art.

So here comes the big question: Is it the computer chosing these end-product photos or a google engineer pawing through thousands (or orders of magnitude more) to find the ones we will all drool over?