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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Hackaday Prize Entry: Selfie Bot Let’s You Vlog Hands Free

[Sergey Mironov] sent in his SelfieBot project. His company, Endurance Robots, sells a commercial version of the bot, which leads us to believe that in a strange and maybe brilliant move he decided to just sell the prototype stage of the product development as a kit. Since he also gave away the firmware, STLs, BOM, and made a guide so anyone can build it, we’re not complaining.

The bot is simple enough. Nicely housed hobby servos in a 3D printed case take care of the pan and tilt of the camera. The base of the bot encloses the electronics, which are an Arduino nano, a Bluetooth module, and the support electronics for power and motor driving.

To perform the face tracking, the build assumes you have a second phone. This is silly, but isn’t so unreasonable. Most people who’ve had a smart phone for a few years have a spare one living in a drawer as back-up. One phone runs the face tracking software and points the bot, via Bluetooth, towards the user. The other phone records the video.

The bot is pretty jumpy in the example video, but this can be taken care of with better motors. For a proof-of-concept, it works. A video of it in action after the break.

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Dry Ice is Nice for Separating Broken Phone Screens

Smartphones are the opium of the people. If you need proof, just watch the average person’s reaction when they break “their precious”. Repairing smartphones has become a huge business. The most often broken item on phones is of course the front glass. In most cases, the screen itself doesn’t break. On newer smartphones, even the touchscreen is safe. The front glass is only a protective lens.

The easiest way to repair a broken front glass is to swap the entire LCD assembly. For an iPhone 6 plus, this will run upwards of $120 USD. However, the glass lens alone is just $10. The problem is that the LCD, digitizer and front glass are a laminated package. Removing them without breaking the wafer thin LCD glass requires great care. The hardest part is breaking down the optical glue securing the glass to the LCD. In the past that has been done with heat. More recently, companies from China have been selling liquid-nitrogen-based machines that cool the assembly. Now immersing a phone screen in -196° C liquid nitrogen would probably destroy the LCD. However, these machines use a temperature controller to keep a surface at -140° C. Just enough to cause the glue to become brittle, but not kill the LCD.

[JerryRigEverything] doesn’t have several thousand dollars for a liquid nitrogen machine, but he does have a $5 block of dry ice. Dry ice runs at -78.5°C. Balmy compared to liquid nitrogen, but still plenty cold. After laying the phone screens down on the ice for a few minutes, [Jerry] was able to chip away the glass. It definitely takes more work than the nitrogen method. Still, if you’re not opening your own phone repair shop, we think this is the way to go.

Broken phones are a cheap and easy way to get high-resolution LCD screens for your projects. The problem is driving them. [Twl] has an awesome project on for driving phone screens using an FPGA. We haven’t seen it done with iPhone 6 yet though. Anyone up for the challenge?

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Hack Mobile with a Bus Pirate GUI for Your Phone

You need to get an SPI bus on something right now, but you left your laptop at home. No problems, because you’ve got your Bus Pirate and cellphone in your pocket. And a USB OTG cable, because you’re going to need one of those. And some probes. And maybe a soldering iron for tacking magnet wire onto those really small traces. And maybe a good magnifying glass. And…

OK, our fantasy of stepping away from the party for a quick JTAG debugging session is absurd, but what’s not at all absurd is the idea of driving your Bus Pirate from a nice GUI app on your Android phone. [James Newton] wrote DroidScriptBusPirate so that he wouldn’t have to hassle with the Bus Pirate’s nested single-character menu system, and could easily save complete scripts to do common jobs from pleasant menus on his phone.

The setup depends on downloading DroidScript, a free Javascript and HTML5 IDE, and then pasting and saving [James]’ code. He’s written up full instructions to help you with the install. It’s not so hard, and once you’re done you’ll be ready to drive the Pirate from the comfort of your phone.

In fact, now that we think of it, we’re missing a Bus Pirate GUI for our desktop as well. Whenever we have complex tasks, we end up scripting something in Python, but there ought to be something more user-friendly. Anyone know of a good GUI solution?

Free Cell Data Transfer with Slowest Morse Code Ever

Readers of a certain age will remember the payphone trick of letting the phone ring once and then hanging up to get your quarter back. This technique was used with a pre-planned call time to let someone know you made it or you were okay without accruing the cost of a telephone call. As long as nobody answered you didn’t have to pay for the call, and that continues to be the case with some pay-per-minute cellphone plans.

This is the concept behind [Antonio Ospite’s] ringtone data transfer project called SaveMySugar. Don’t judge him, this work has been ongoing for around ten years and started back when cellphone minutes were a concern. We’re just excited to see that he got the excruciatingly slow thing to work.

Those wanting to dig down to the nitty-gritty of the protocol (and you should be one of them) will want to read through the main project page. The system works by dialing the cellphone, letting it ring once, then hanging up. The time between redials determines a Morse code dot, dash, or separation between characters. Because you can’t precisely determine how long it will take each connection to read, [Antonio] built ‘noise’ measurement into the system to normalize variations. The resulting data transfer works quite well. He was able to transfer the word “CODEX” in just six minutes and thirty seconds. But it is automatic, so what do you care? See the edge-of-your-seat-action play out in the video below.

If you can’t stomach that baud, here’s a faster Morse code data transmitter but it doesn’t use the phone.

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NFC Tags Add Old-School Functionality to New Phone

Back in the day, we had smartphones with physical buttons. Not just power, volume, and maybe another button on the front. Whole, slide-out QWERTY keyboards right on the underside of the phone. It was a lawless wasteland, but for those who yearn for the wild-west days of the late 2000s, [Liviu] has recreated the shortcut buttons that used to exist on the tops of these keyboards for modern-day smartphones.

There were lots of phones that had shortcut keys on their keyboards, but [Liviu] enjoyed using the ones that allowed him to switch between applications (or “apps” as the kids are saying these days) such as the calendar, the browser, or the mail client. To recreate this, he went with a few NFC tags. These devices are easily programmed via a number of apps from your app store of choice, and can be placed essentially anywhere. In order to make them visible to the phone at any time, though, he placed the tags inside a clear plastic case for his phone and can now use them anytime.

If you’ve never used or programmed an NFC tag, this would be a great project to get yourself acquainted with how they operate. Plus, you could easily upgrade this project to allow the tags to do any number of other things. You can take projects like this as far as you want.

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Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: An Open Smartphone

One of the biggest trends in DIY electronics, both now and fifty years ago, is creating at home what is usually made in a factory. Fifty years ago, this meant radios and amplifiers. Today, this means smartphones. It used to be the case that you could pull out a Heathkit catalog and find kits for every electronic gadget imaginable. There are no kits for DIY smartphones.

For [Gerard]’s entry for The Hackaday Prize, he’s tapping into the spirit of the decades-old DIY movement and building his own cell phone. He’s calling it the libresmartphone, and it’s able to make calls and send emails, just like any other portable, pocketable computer.

The libresmartphone is built around a Raspberry Pi, with a large battery, HDMI display with touchscreen, and a GSM and GPS module rounding out the build. He’s also rolling his own software to make calls, read SMS, and take a peek into some of the phone’s hardware, like the charge state of the battery.

[Gerard]’s libresmartphone is one of the purest examples of modern DIY electronics you’ll find; it’s not about building something from a kit, but instead building something that’s needed out of the parts he has on hand. That’s the purest example of the DIY movement, and a great entry to this year’s Hackaday Prize.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by: