Hack Anything Into A Phone

If you’ve spent much time tinkering with electronics, you’ve probably heard of [Seeedstudio] from their development boards, tools, and their PCB fabrication service. Their latest Kickstarter venture is the RePhone, an open source and modular cell phone that will allow hackers to put together a phone by blending GSM modules, batteries, screens, and other stock units, including an Arduino-based processing core, GPS, NFC, and other building blocks.

The funding campaign has already exceeded its goal and delivery is scheduled for next year with a basic kit weighing in at a projected $59, according to [Seeed]. Presumably, the core phone module will have regulatory acceptance, but the other ancillary modules won’t require as rigorous testing and certification.

What would you do with an inexpensive, embeddable cell phone? The modules are tiny, so you could implant them in lots of places. Some of [Seeed’s] more interesting ideas include building a phone into a walking stick, a dog collar, or a kite (although we were thinking quadcopters).

Of course, we’ve seen GSM and cell phone shields for Arduino before. Difficult to imagine sticking those in a dog collar, though, unless you have a fairly large dog. If you are a fan of 1960’s TV, it is easy to imagine a better shoe phone or a working Star Trek communicator.

21 thoughts on “Hack Anything Into A Phone

    1. That’s the constant compromise you’re always struggling with in electronics. Same problem shows up with WiFi modules like the ESP8266. Sure an ESP-12E is cheap as dirt but you won’t find anywhere near the same documentation and support as a TI CC3000 series or GaineSpan module. I think if there was a cheap, US-made, reliable, well-documented 3G modem board on the market, it would have exploded into the mainstream by now.

  1. About damn time. This looks like a better setup than that ridiculous 1980’s Atari reject from a couple of years ago. Not exactly friendly to the general population but far more interesting.

  2. Why is it that so many kickstarters selling what are basically dev boards seem to try to hide what type of MCU is on the board as soon as they start selling kits of plug-in modules alongside it? Is it to promote some sort of exclusive “ecosystem”, or do they think model numbers will scare off beginners and go with the blackbox approach to appear more friendly? It’s almost a bare circuit board, I think your customers might be ok with the knowledge that it has some sort of CPU mounted to it.

    Anyway, it looks like someone asked about it in the comments and it got added to the FAQ, it’s a Mediatek MT2502A, and they promise an SDK will be made available.

    1. If you really really need a cheapo phone for embedding into a project why not simply get one of these?

      It is a complete working phone, not a kit and much cheaper than whatever these guys are offering in the Kickstarter. There are different versions available, all using the same Mediatek SOC. And they are all available today. It is the same device as the “Gongkai” Phone described by Bunnie here:


      BTW, I am highly dubious about the “open sourceness” of this project – the Mediatek SOC *does not* have SDK available without NDA. Bunnie wanted to make a clean-room reverse engineered SDK in order to avoid getting sued by Mediatek for distributing any of the grey market documentation available for this device in China, but I don’t think it is available yet. The Kickstarter delivering another proprietary black-box SDK allowing you to run few things on this device in a sandbox is not exactly what I would call “open source”.

      1. The MT2502 is also used in the LinkIt series of development kits from Mediatek Labs, which has hardware designed by Seeed. It seems that the original LinkIt ONE shipped with an “SDK” which was a port of the arduino IDE that linked in a big binary blob and ran on top of a closed source firmware. They now have a LinkIt Assist kit coming out in October that promises a pure C, eclipse based “SDK”, but it appears it just generates “applications” that run as a thread on top of the closed firmware. I imagine that’s the same SDK this kit will provide. Disappointing.

        “the LinkIt Assist 2502 API is used to create a LinkIt Assist 2502 application in the LinkIt Assist 2502 SDK. Coding is undertaken using the C programming language based API functions, as well as third party libraries and device drivers. The application is compiled into a LinkIt Assist 2502 executable file (VXP file) and executes in the runtime environment provided by the firmware of the LinkIt Assist 2502 development board.”

  3. What I’d do is put physical switches on the cameras and microphones and battery.

    And do away with the cellular radio part probably. but then you might not classify it as a phone of course.
    Maybe have a proxy system and connect the networking part only through that to the main system would work.

    1. On the Gongkai thing, Bunnie mentions a physical switch connected to the battery. Because the battery isn’t removable for shipping, as it should be. Just one of those paper-packet ones soldered in. I dunno that even a switch would pass safety regulations, and I’d bet it’s the crappiest switch they could get hold of.

    2. For the USPS, the International shipping requirement for small rechargeable lithium battery, see below. I would assume that the requirements are going to be similar for most countries if they allow shipping at all.

      >135.63 Secondary Lithium-ion (Rechargeable) Cells and Batteries
      >Small consumer-type lithium-ion cells and batteries like those used to power cell phones and laptop computers are mailable in a single shipment with the following restrictions:
      >a. The batteries must be installed in the equipment be­ing shipped.
      >b. Each shipment may contain a maximum of only four lithium-ion cells or two lithium-ion batteries.
      >c. The lithium content must not exceed 20 Watt-hour rating (Wh) per cell.
      >d. The total aggregate lithium content must not exceed 100 Wh per battery.
      >e. Each battery must bear the Wh marking on the bat­tery to determine if it is within the limits defined in 123.63c and 123.63d.
      >f. The batteries installed in the equipment must be pro­tected from damage and short circuit.
      >g. The equipment must be equipped with an effective means of preventing it from being turned on or activated.
      >h. The equipment must be contained in a strong sealed package and cushioned to prevent movement or damage.

      1. “a. The batteries must be installed in the equipment be­ing shipped.”

        That’s a weird one, normally cameras and such have the battery separately in a plastic bag. And why not? In fact for air travel you are encouraged to not have batteries in devices, since that makes issues more likely and makes timed bombs possible. And packages also go in planes.
        I think they screwed up on that one, or get bribes from apple :)

      2. Putting it inside a case might provide a bit more mechanical protection during shipping.
        As for air travel, I have been asked to turn on the device in some airports on their conveyor during security check and told to turn it off for others in the same international trip. I have also been told that Lithium batteries should be carry on. I haven’t traveled for the past 5 years though, so some of those rules might be changed again.

        1. If you ran a transport company or did cargo planes, what would you have people rather do though? Have them out of a device or in it? I myself would prefer them out of the device, in a nice safe cushioning container though, since you don’t want them knocked about or pierced.

          And all I know about batteries in planes from my experience is that when they go into the cargo area they want them to not be in devices, for AA’s at least.
          But obviously in carry-on everybody has them in phones and tablets so that seems to be fine (or impossible to halt and therefore fine).

          But even the discussion is odd, why have a specification at all, if USPS does not mind them in the device then why not out of the device too? You can just specify them to be in a proper container in the rules..

    1. Not sure what shipping options Seed is using. If I have a choice, I would pick Hong Kong Post. One thing I learnt tracking my packages is that packages coming out of China have to pass through China customs on the way out.
      For epackages and other cheap “free shipping” options, it takes 5-7 days just getting out of China. For air packages, the flying part takes 1 day. Unfortunately the customs in my country is even slower and they take 2 weeks for packages to pass even if they are below the duty thresholds. It takes another 4-6 days just to ship it locally. So all together that accounts for the usual 3-4 weeks of shipping time for my “free” shipping stuff.

      Using DHL, the same trip takes 3 days to ship from China to here.

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