Hardware Tribes Growing Up Around Artisanal Electronics

Consumer electronics are design beasts that must serve many masters. There’s a price point for the product itself, a ceiling for the feature set (lest it not be ‘user friendly’), and to take the risk of actually manufacturing something there needs to be proof of the market. A lot of great things make it through this process, but some really unique and special gear goes completely around it.

So is the story of this AND!XOR hardware badge being built for DEF CON 25. This is not the official conference badge, but the latest in a growing trend of hardware/firmware engineers and hackers who design their own custom gear for the conference, trying to one-up not just the official badge, but the other hardware tribes doing the same. This unique hardware excitement is a big reason that Hackaday has developed electronic badges for our conferences.

The new badge is a mashup of Bender from Futurama and Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, presents something of monstrosity to hang around your neck. That has certainly never stopped us from having one of these bouncing around our necks as we pound the cattle paths from talk to talk (and the DC23 vinyl record was way more unwieldy anyway).

Bender’s forehead display has now been upgraded from a diminutive OLED to a generous color LCD display. The 433 MHz which used the spring antenna on the previous badge has given way to a Bluetooth Low Energy. The BLE is built into the Rigado BMD-300 SOC that is now in conrol of the badge. We can’t wait to see the shenanigans unlocked with this new hardware — they’re already showing of crazy animations, retro gaming, and teasing a huge multiplayer game with all the badges. Finally, the “Secret Component” at the bottom of their components list delivers the je ne sais quoi to the whole project.

Fans of AND!XOR have already thrown their weight behind it. Unofficial badges have been unavailable to a wider group or only offered in flash-sales that pop up during the con. Last year the team was met with a huge mob throwing money at their supply of 175 badges. Now the AND!XOR team has grown to five people toiling away to make the design, the easter-egg laden firmware, and the manufacturing process better than the amazing work of last year. They just launched a crowd funding campaign on Tuesday and immediately blew past their goal about five times over.

We’re hoping to get our mitts on one of these ahead of DEF CON to give you an early look at what these hardware artists have accomplished. If you’re part of another hardware tribe building custom electronics for the love of it, we’d really like to hear from you. This goes for any conference — we know of at least one other in progress.

How To Add More Games to the NES Classic

The hype around the NES Classic in 2016 was huge, and as expected, units are already selling for excessively high prices on eBay. The console shipped with 30 games pre-installed, primarily first-party releases from Nintendo. But worry not — there’s now a way to add more games to your NES Classic!

Like many a good hack, this one spawned from a forum community. [madmonkey] posted on GBX.ru about their attempts to load extra games into the console. The first step is using the FEL subroutine of the Allwinner SOC’s boot ROM to dump the unit’s flash memory. From there, it’s a matter of using custom tools to inject extra game ROMs before reburning the modified image to the console. The original tool used, named hakchi, requires a Super Mario savegame placed into a particular slot to work properly, though new versions have already surfaced eliminating this requirement.

While this is only a software modification, it does come with several risks. In addition to bricking your console, virus scanners are reporting the tools as potentially dangerous. There is confusion in the community as to whether these are false positives or not. As with anything you find lurking on a forum, your mileage may vary. But if you just have to beat Battletoads for the umpteenth time, load up a VM for the install process and have at it. This Reddit thread (an expansion from the original pastebin instructions) acts as a good starting point for the brave.

Only months after release, the NES Classic is already a fertile breeding ground for hacks — last year we reported on this controller mod and how to install Linux. Video of this ROM injection hack after the break.

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Rust Running on the Realtek RTL8710: ESP8266 Alternative?

For simply getting your project connected to WiFi, a least among hacker circles, nothing beats the ESP8266. But it’s not the only player out there, and we love to see diversity in the parts and languages that we use. One of the big shortcomings of the ESP8266 is the slightly-oddball Xtensa CPU. It’s just not as widely supported by various toolchains as its ARM-based brethren.

And so, when [Zach] wanted to do some embedded work in Rust, the ESP8266 was out of the picture. He turned to the RTL8710, a very similar WiFi module made by Realtek. Documentation for the RTL8710 is, at the moment, crappy, much as the ESP8266 documentation was before the hacker community had at it. But in trade for this shortcoming, [Zach] got to use the LLVM compiler, which supports the ARM architecture, and that means he can code in Rust.

In the end, the setup that [Zach] describes is a mix of FreeRTOS and some of the mbed libraries, which should be more than enough to get you up and running fairly painlessly on the chip. We’ve actually ordered a couple of these modules ourselves, and were looking to get started in straight C, but having Rust examples working doesn’t hurt, and doesn’t look all that different.

Is anyone else using the RTL8710? An ARM-based, cheap WiFi chip should be interesting.

Simple Clock from Tiny Chip

If you haven’t jumped on the ESP8266 bandwagon yet, it might be a good time to get started. If you can program an Arduino you have pretty much all of the skills you’ll need to get an ESP8266 up and running. And, if you need a good idea for a project to build with one of these WiFi miracle chips, look no further than [Ben Buxton]’s dated, but awesome, NTP clock.

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Intel Releases The Tiny Joule Compute Module

At the keynote for the Intel Developers Forum, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich introduced the Intel Joule compute module, a ‘maker board’ targeted at Internet of Things developers. The high-end board in the lineup features a quad-core Intel Atom running at 2.4 GHz, 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, 16GB of eMMC, 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1, USB 3.1, CSI and DSI interfaces, and multiple GPIO, I2C, and UART interfaces. According to the keynote, the Joule module will be useful for drones, robotics, and with support for Intel’s RealSense technology, it may find a use in VR and AR applications. The relevant specs can be found on the Intel News Fact Sheet (PDF).

This is not Intel’s first offering to the Internet of Things. A few years ago, Intel partnered up with Arduino (the Massimo one) to produce the Intel Galileo. This board featured the Intel Quark SoC, a 400MHz, 32-bit Intel Pentium ISA processor. It was x86 in an Arduino format. This was quickly followed by the Intel Edison based on the same Quark SoC, which was followed by the Intel Curie, found in the Arduino 101 and this year’s DEF CON badge.

We’ve seen plenty of Intel’s ‘maker’ and Internet of Things offerings, but we haven’t seen these platforms succeed. You could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in market research to determine why these platforms haven’t seen much success, but the Hackaday comments will tell you the same thing for free: the documentation for these platforms is sparse, and nobody knows how to make these boards work.

Perhaps because of the failures of Intel’s IoT market, the Joule differs significantly from previous offerings. Although it can be easily compared to the Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone, and a hundred other tiny single board computers, the official literature for the Joule makes a comparison between it and the Nvidia Jetson easy. The Nvidia Jetson is a high-power, credit card-sized ‘supercomputer’ meant to be a building block for high-performance applications, such as drones and anything that requires video or a very fast processor. The Joule fits into this market splendidly, with demonstrated applications including augmented reality safety glasses for Airbus employees and highway patrol motorcycle helmet displays. Here, the Joule might just find a market. This might even be the main focus of the Joule – it can be integrated onto Gumstix carrier boards, providing a custom single board computer with configurable displays, connectors, and sensors.

The Intel Joule lineup consists of the Joule 570x and 550x, with the 550x being a bit slower, a Gig less RAM, and half as much storage. They will be available in Q4 2016 from Mouser, Newegg, and other Intel reseller partners.

Makerville Knit: Industrial-Strength WiFi Breakout

If you need an industrial-strength IoT product, you need an industrial-strength WiFi chipset. For our own household hacks, we’re totally happy with the ESP8266 chip. But if you need to connect to the big, scary Internet you’ll probably want state-of-the-art encryption. In particular, Amazon insists on TLS 1.2 for their Web Services (AWS), and we don’t know how to get that working on the ESP.

[Anuj] designed a breakout board called the knit which includes a Marvell MW300 WiFi SOC. This chip has an onboard ARM Cortex M4F running at 200 MHz, which means you’ve got a lot of everything to play with: flash memory, RAM, a floating-point unit, you name it. And Marvell’s got an SDK for using AWS that includes things like an operating system and peripheral support and other niceties. TLS 1.2 is included.

Cd_tjKoWwAApnU9_thumbnailBest of all, a MW300 breakout is reasonably affordable (though more expensive than the mass-produced ESP8266 modules, naturally) and it’s an entirely open design. [Anuj] also seems to be setting up for a production run, if you don’t feel like making it yourself.

The MW300 is in all sorts of commercial IoT designs, and it’s a battle-tested go-to for interfacing with “the cloud” securely. The only hobbyist-friendly board that’s similar is the Adafruit WICED WiFi Feather, but it’s more expensive, less powerful, and out of stock at the moment, which just shows the demand for something like this.

Of course, if you need more integrated peripherals, you could just hack up a “Hello Barbie” toy which has the same chip as well as sweet audio codecs and a nice fat flash ROM.

We think it’s neat that [Anuj] would make and test a breakout for this powerful little WiFi SOC. We don’t need one for our projects right now — we’re running in entirely insecure mode — but it’s good to know what your options are. (We’re also looking into esp-open-rtos for the ESP8266 — we know they’ve been working on TLS 1.2 encryption, but we don’t know what their status is at the moment. Anyone?)

ESP8266 Killer?

We’ve seen rumors floating around the Twittersphere about a new integrated microprocessor and WiFi SOC: the NL6621 from Nufront. Details are still scarce, but that doesn’t seem to be because the chip is vaporware: you could buy modules on Taobao.com and eBay right now for between two-and-a-half and three bucks, and Nufront’s website says they’ve produced a million modules since 2013.

The NL6621 WiFi SOC is powered by a 160 MHz ARM Cortex-M3 with 448 KB of RAM, and everything else is integrated in the SOC. The module has 32 GPIOs, SPI, I2C, I2S digital audio, and most of the peripherals that you’d expect. They say they have a completely open source SDK, but we can’t find a link to it anywhere. An English-language forum has sprung up in anticipation of the next new thing, and they say that they’ve contacted Nufront about the SDK, so that’s probably as good a place as any to lurk around if you’re interested. With an ARM core, it shouldn’t be long before someone gets GCC working on these things anyway.

It’s also worth noting that we’ve announced ESP8266 killers before, and it hasn’t come to pass. The mixture of community and official support that (eventually) came out of Espressif seems to be the main factor determining the ESP8266’s success, and we don’t see that yet with the NL6621. So take the question mark in the title seriously, but if this turns out to be the next big thing, remember where you heard it first, ok?

Thanks [David Hunt] for the tip!