What Makes the Perfect Hardware Badge

There are only a handful of people who can say they’ve built several successful electronic badges for conferences. Voja Antonic is not just on that list, he’s among the leaders in the field. There are a lot of pressures in this type of design challenge: aesthetics, functionality, and of course manufacturability. If you want to know how to make an exposed-PCB product that will be loved by the user, you need to study Voja’s work on the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference Badge. The badge is completely open, with all the design files, firmware, and a manual on the badge project page.

Between travelling from Belgrade to Pasadena and guiding production of 300 badges across the finish line before the conference deadline Voja took ill. He made it to the conference but without a voice he asked me to give his badge design talk for him. You can check that talk out below but let’s touch briefly on why Voja’s design is so spectacular.

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Solving Hackaday’s Crypto Challenge

Although I’ve been to several DEF CONs over the past few years, I’ve never found time to devote to solving the badge. The legendary status of all the puzzles within are somewhat daunting to me. Likewise, I haven’t yet given DefCon DarkNet a try either — a real shame as the solder-your-own-badge nature of that challenge is right up my alley.

But finally, at the Hackaday SuperCon I finally got my feet wet with the crypto challenge created by [Voja Antonic]. He developed a secondary firmware which anyone could easily flash to their conference badge (it enumerates as a USB thumb drive so just copy it over). This turned it into a five-puzzle challenge meant to take two days to solve, and it worked perfectly.

If you were at the con and didn’t try it out, now’s the time (you won’t be the only one late to the game). But even if you weren’t there’s still fun to be had.

Thar’ be spoilers below. I won’t explicitly spill the answers, but I will be discussing how each puzzle is presented and the different methods people were using to finish the quest. Choose now if you want to continue or wait until you’ve solved the challenge on your own.

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Design and Hacking Drilldown: SuperCon Badge

One can imagine a political or business conference without an interactive badge — but not a hacker conference. Does this make the case for hackers being a special breed of people, always having something creative to show for their work? Yes, I think it does.

Following the Hackaday Belgrade conference in April of this year, we met at the Supplyframe offices to discuss the badge for the Hackaday SuperConference that will happen in Pasadena on 5+6th of November. The Belgrade conference badge (which was fully documented if you’re curious) was surprisingly popular, and I was asked to design the new one as well.

I was prepared to come up with something completely new, but [Mike Szczys] suggested keeping with the same basic concept for the project: “No reason to change anything, we have a badge that works”. To which I responded: “Well, the next one will also work”. But then I realized that “works” does not stand for “being functional”. The key is that it was embraced by visitors who played with it, coded on it, and solved a crypto challenge with it.

The World Doesn’t Have Enough LEDs

led-modules-versus-smdFast forward six months — here are the modifications made to the basic concept. First, the existing LED matrix, which was composed of two compact 8×8 blocks, was replaced by 128 discrete SMD LEDs. It was a much needed change to help scale down the dimensions and clunkiness, but also to avoid another painful experience of trying to purchase and have the matrix displays shipped, which seriously threatened the production of the previous badge.

It’s a long story which I discussed in my Belgrade talk — it turned out we did not manage to get enough common anode (CA) displays from all distributors in the whole world. We had a plan B, which also fizzled, leaving us with the plan C which actually included two “C”s: Common Cathode. We cleaned up all the supplies at five distributors, and managed to get 122 CA red, 340 CC red and 78 CA green displays (enough for only 270 badges) — the entire world supply. After that, you couldn’t get any 38 mm Kingbright’s display for months! The only problem was that there were two different versions of PCBs, one for CA and the other for CC displays, but luckily only one version of software, as it could autodetect the display type.

accelerometer-on-the-boardMotion and Expansion

So, what else was new in the concept? In the Belgrade version, the badge supported an accelerometer module and included an unpopulated footprint in case you decided to install it, but now the badge has the MEMS chip LIS3 as an integral part. There are nine pads (with five I/O ports, driven directly from the MCU) to which you can add a 9-pin expansion connector. There will be a number of these connectors at the Design Lab, so that anyone can expand their badge for their convenience, on the spot.

The Visual Design

The biggest change was in the visual design. What we came up with ended up being a fair bit smaller, lighter, with a more convenient shape, and less than half the thickness of the previous one. After we had scrapped quite a few ideas during the development process (including stylized skull, frog, etc), we were left with a couple of options which you can see on the image below. The wireframe drawing on the left hand side is the Belgrade badge, shown here for a size comparison. At this point the locale and date of the conference weren’t yet definitive, which is why you see San Francisco written on the images.

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Design number 4 prevailed, so the PCB layout could begin. I don’t like autorouted PCBs, so I was in for quite a rough time trying to solve the routing manually having only 2 layers on the board at my disposal.

Routing a Compact LED Matrix

The LED matrix is so dense that there was virtually no room on the LED layer, so most of the tracks on the component layer had to be routed as if it was a single layer PCB. To make matters worse, the LED layer is routed as a matrix, with a bunch of horizontal and vertical tracks, otherwise a good reason to use a 4-layer PCB. To stay inside the budget, everything had to be placed on 2 layers, and that’s why the final result seems so confusing at the populated area between batteries:

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New SuperCon Badge is 40% Lighter and a Work of Art

The 2016 Hackaday SuperConference is just around the corner and today we get a good look at the hardware badge. It was designed by [Voja Antonic] — a legend of hardware creation who will be at the conference. I like to think of him as the Woz of the Eastern Bloc, having designed the Galaksija computer. This badge is a beautiful example of embedded design. We’ll dive into all of the details after the break.

Get your ticket now for 48-hours of talks, workshops, the Hackaday Prize party, badge hacking,  and so much more.

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Voja’s EEPROM Emulator From 1991

We’re glad we’re not the only hacker-packrats out there! [Voja Antonic] recently stumbled on an EPROM emulator that he’d made way back in 1991. It’s a sweet build, so take your mind back 25 years if you can. Put on “Nevermind” and dig into a nicely done retro project.

The emulator is basically a PIC 16C54 microcontroller and some memory, with some buffers for input and output. On one side, it’s a plug-in replacement for an EPROM — the flash memory of a bygone era. On the other side, it connects via serial port to a PC. Instead of going through the tedious process of pulling the EPROM, erasing and reprogramming it, this device uploads new code in a jiffy.

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No need to emulate ancient EPROMS? You should still check out this build — the mechanics are great! We love the serial-port backplane that is soldered on at a 90° angle. The joint is a card-edge connector electrically, but also into a nice little box, reminiscent of [Voja]’s other FR4 fabrication tricks. The drilled hole with the LED poking out is classy. We’re never going to make an EPROM emulator, but we’re absolutely going to steal some of the fabrication techniques.

[Voja] is a Hackaday contributor, badge-designer, mad hacker, inspired clock-builder, and developer of (then) Yugoslavia’s first DIY PC.

How to Design, Manufacture, and Document a Hardware Product

It’s pretty awesome to have a hardware design hero jump at the chance to work on a Hackaday conference badge. I am of course talking about Voja Antonic.

I’ve gotten to know him over the last two years when we were introduced and he agreed to work on some original articles. He’s long been a hacker and shared his story of technology despite politics and society changing around him. His Galaksija computer was the first personal computer available in Yugoslavia with over 8,000 kits sold. Since those days he never stopped refining his design and fabrication skills. For instance, his method of making cases from FR4 is beyond compare, and reading some of his wisdom from hardware design in the casino industry is the kind of fascinating stuff that rarely makes it out for others to enjoy.

But I digress — the point is Voja’s been around the block, he knows what he’s doing, and he does it at an amazingly high level. He did an incredible job with the Hackaday | Belgrade conference badge. It features a 16×8 LED display, IR comms hardware, 5 user buttons, USB programming, an option for an accelerometer module, and has spectacular life running on two AAA batteries. It was a hit at the conference, and so was his talk discussing the design and fabrication. Check it out below and then join me below the fold.

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It’s Alive! — Badge for Hackaday Belgrade

Hackaday Belgrade — our first ever conference in Europe — is coming up fast. One of the really exciting things for me is the hardware badge which [Voja Antonic] designed for the conference. He’s done a great job with hardware choices and I think we’ve hit the sweet spot for badge hacking. Let’s jump into the hardware and firmware details after the break.

Get your ticket now for ten hours of talks and workshops, evening concerts, and of course badge hacking the entire time. Earlybird sales close Monday. We’re still in the process of going through talk proposals but we’ll publish a post next week announcing all of the speakers.

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