Massive Microsoft Machinations For Makers

If you’re not stuck in the tech news filter bubble, you may not have heard the Microsoft Build Developers Conference is going on right now. Among the topics covered in the keynotes are a new Office API and a goal to have Windows 10 running on a Billion devices in a few years.

There are, however, some interesting things coming out of the Build conference. Windows 10 is designed for hackers, with everything from virtual Arduino shields running on phones, Windows 10 running on Raspberry Pis, and Visual Code Studio running on OS X and Linux.

This is not the first time in recent memory Microsoft has courted the maker market. Microsoft begrudgingly supported the hardware dev scene with the PC version of the Microsoft Kinect, and a year or two ago, Microsoft rolled out drivers for 3D printers that were much more capable than the usual serial interface (read: the ability for printer manufacturers to add DRM). To the true, tie-die wearing, rollerblade-skating, acoustic coupler-sporting, Superman III-watching hackers out there, these efforts appear laughable – the product of managers completely out of touch with their audience.

Depending on your perspective, the new releases for the Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and other ‘maker-themed’ hardware could go one way or the other.

As far as educational efforts go, the Windows Remote Arduino and Windows Virtual Shields for Arduino are especially interesting. Instead of filling a computer lab up with dozens of Arduinos and the related shields, the WVSA uses the sensors on a Windows 10 smartphone with an Arduino. Windows Remote Arduino allows makers to control an Arduino not through the standard USB port, but a Bluetooth module.

If Arduinos aren’t your thing, the Windows 10 IoT preview for the Raspberry Pi 2 and Minnowboard Max is out now. The Win10 IoT distribution does not yet have working WiFi or Bluetooth, making it the single most useless operating system for Internet of Things devices. It was, however, released at the Build conference.

Also announced was a partnership with a fabulous hardware project hosting site, Microsoft and will be collaborating with hackathons and other events focused on Windows technology. I get why they wouldn’t want another, vastly more popular project hosting site doing this, but I’m a little confused at why Instructables wasn’t the top Microsoft pick.

As always, you may express your infinite derision in the comments below. Spelling Microsoft with a dollar sign will result in a ban.

Keystroke Sniffer Hides as a Wall Wart, is Scary

For those of us who worry about the security of our wireless devices, every now and then something comes along that scares even the already-paranoid. The latest is a device from [Samy] that is able to log the keystrokes from Microsoft keyboards by sniffing and decrypting the RF signals used in the keyboard’s wireless protocol. Oh, and the entire device is camouflaged as a USB wall wart-style power adapter.

The device is made possible by an Arduino or Teensy hooked up to an NRF24L01+ 2.4GHz RF chip that does the sniffing. Once the firmware for the Arduino is loaded, the two chips plus a USB charging circuit (for charging USB devices and maintaining the camouflage) are stuffed with a lithium battery into a plastic shell from a larger USB charger. The options for retrieving the sniffed data are either an SPI Serial Flash chip or a GSM module for sending the data automatically via SMS.

The scary thing here isn’t so much that this device exists, but that encryption for Microsoft keyboards was less than stellar and provides little more than a false sense of security. This also serves as a wake-up call that the things we don’t even give a passing glance at might be exactly where a less-honorable person might look to exploit whatever information they can get their hands on. Continue past the break for a video of this device in action, and be sure to check out the project in more detail, including source code and schematics, on [Samy]’s webpage.

Thanks to [Juddy] for the tip!

Continue reading “Keystroke Sniffer Hides as a Wall Wart, is Scary”

FTDI Screws Up, Backs Down

A few days ago we learned chip maker FTDI was doing some rather shady things with a new driver released on Windows Update. The new driver worked perfectly for real FTDI chips, but for counterfeit chips – and there are a lot of them – the USB PID was set to 0, rendering them inoperable with any computer. Now, a few days later, we know exactly what happened, and FTDI is backing down; the driver has been removed from Windows Update, and an updated driver will be released next week. A PC won’t be able to communicate with a counterfeit chip with the new driver, but at least it won’t soft-brick the chip.

Microsoft has since released a statement and rolled back two versions of the FTDI driver to prevent counterfeit chips from being bricked. The affected versions of the FTDI driver are 2.11.0 and 2.12.0, released on August 26, 2014. The latest version of the driver that does not have this chip bricking functionality is, released on January 27th. If you’re affected by the latest driver, rolling back the driver through the Device Manager to will prevent counterfeit chips from being bricked. You might want to find a copy of the 2.10.0 driver; this will likely be the last version of the FTDI driver to work with counterfeit chips.

Thanks to the efforts of [marcan] over on the EEVblog forums, we know exactly how the earlier FTDI driver worked to brick counterfeit devices:


[marcan] disassembled the FTDI driver and found the source of the brick and some clever coding. The coding exploits  differences found in the silicon of counterfeit chips compared to the legit ones. In the small snippet of code decompiled by [marcan], the FTDI driver does nothing for legit chips, but writes 0 and value to make the EEPROM checksum match to counterfeit chips. It’s an extremely clever bit of code, but also clear evidence FTDI is intentionally bricking counterfeit devices.

A new FTDI driver, presumably one that will tell you a chip is fake without bricking it, will be released next week. While not an ideal outcome for everyone, at least the problem of drivers intentionally bricking devices is behind us.

Focus Your Ears with The Visual Microphone


A Group of MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe researchers have managed to reproduce sound using video alone. The sounds we make bounce off every object in the room, causing microscopic vibrations.  The Visual Microphone utilizes a high-speed video camera and some clever signal processing to extract an audio signal from these vibrations. Using video of everyday objects such as snack bags, plants, Styrofoam cups, and water, the team was able to reproduce tones, music and speech. Capturing audio from light isn’t exactly new. Laser microphones have been around for years. The difference here is the fact that the visual microphone is a completely passive device. No laser or special illumination is required.

The secret is in the signal processing, which the team explains in their SIGGRAPH paper (pdf link). They used a complex steerable pyramid along with wavelet filters to obtain local pixel motion values. These local values are averaged into a global motion value. From this global motion value the team is able to measure movement down to 1/1000 of a pixel. Plenty of resolution to decode audio data.

Most of the research is performed with high-speed video cameras, which are well outside the budget of the average hacker. Don’t despair though, the team did prove out that the same magic can be performed with consumer cameras, albeit with lower quality results. The team took advantage of the rolling shutter found in most of today’s CMOS imager based consumer cameras. Rolling shutter CMOS sensors capture images one row at a time. Each row can be processed in a similar fashion to the frames of the high-speed camera. There are some inter-frame gaps when the camera isn’t recording anything though. Even with the reduced resolution, it’s easy to pick out “Mary had a little lamb” in the video below.

We’re blown away by this research, and we’re sure certain organizations will be looking into it for their own use. Don’t pull out your tin foil hats yet though. Foil containers proved to be one of the best sound reflectors.

Continue reading “Focus Your Ears with The Visual Microphone”

Microsoft IllumiRoom breaks your video game out of its television prison


We see a lot of video game tech coming out of the three console giants (Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo). With one look we can usually predict what is going to be a flop. Case and point is the Wii U whose sales have been less than extraordinary and Sony Move which is motion control directed as hardcore games who we believe are perfectly happy with the current evolution of their dual shock controllers. But this time around we think Microsoft has it nailed. They’re showing off technology they call IllumiRoom which uses a projector to bring your entire gaming room into the experience.

The image above is not doctored. This is a picture of IllumiRoom in action. A projector on the coffee table automatically calibrates to the room (using Kinect 3D data for mapping) in order to show realistic graphic rendering on the non-flat projection surfaces. In our mind, this comes straight out of Kinect hacking projects like the Hadouken projector. With this in place, the game designers are given free rein to come up with all kinds of different ways to use the feature. Stick with us after the break to see what they’ve developed.

Continue reading “Microsoft IllumiRoom breaks your video game out of its television prison”

Kinetic Space: software for your Kinect projects

For all of you that  found yourselves wanting to use Kinect to control something but had no idea what to do with it, or how to get the data from it, you’re in luck. Kineticspace is a tool available for Linux/mac/windows that gives you the tools necessary to set up gesture controls quickly and easily. As you can see in the video below, it is fairly simple to set up. You do you action, set the amount of influence from each body part (basically telling it what to ignore), and save the gesture. This system has already been used for tons of projects and has now hit version 2.0.

Continue reading “Kinetic Space: software for your Kinect projects”

Microsoft shows off their transparent 3D desktop prototype

We think most would agree that the Microsoft Kinect is a miraculous piece of hardware. The affordable availability of a high-quality depth camera was the genesis of a myriad of hacks. And now it seems that type of data is making an intriguing 3D display possible.

What you see above is a 3D monitor concept that Microsoft developed. It starts off looking much like a tablet PC, but the screen can be lifted up toward the user whose arms reach around it to get at the keyboard underneath. There is as depth camera that can see the hands and fingers of the user to allow manipulation of the virtual environment. But that’s only part of the problem. You need some way to align the user’s eyes with what’s on the screen. They seem to have solved that problem too, using another depth camera to track the location of the user’s head. This means that you can lean from one side to the other and the perspective of the virtual 3D desktop will change to preserve the apparent distance of each object.

Don’t miss the show-and-tell video after the break. As long as there’s only one viewer this looks like a perfect non-glasses alternative to current 3D hardware offerings. Continue reading “Microsoft shows off their transparent 3D desktop prototype”