Can Open-source Hardware Be Like Open-source Software?

Hardware and software are certainly different beasts. Software is really just information, and the storing, modification, duplication, and transmission of information is essentially free. Hardware is expensive, or so we think, because it’s made out of physical stuff which is costly to ship or copy. So when we talk about open-source software (OSS) or open-source hardware (OSHW), we’re talking about different things — OSS is itself the end product, while OSHW is just the information to fabricate the end product, or have it fabricated.

The fabrication step makes OSHW essentially different from OSS, at least for now, but I think there’s something even more fundamentally different between the current state of OSHW and OSS: the pull request and the community. The success or failure of an OSS project depends on the community of people developing it, and for smaller projects that can hinge on the ease of a motivated individual digging in and contributing. This is the main virtue of OSS in my opinion: open-source software is most interesting when people are reading and writing that source.

With pure information, it’s essentially free to copy, modify, and push your changes upstream so that others can benefit. The open hardware world is just finding its feet in this respect, but that’s changing as we speak, and I have great hopes. Costs of fabrication are falling all around, open and useful tools are being actively developed to facilitate interchange of the design information. I think there are lessons that OSHW can learn from the OSS community’s pull-request culture, and that will help push the hardware hacker’s art forward.

What would it take to get you to build someone else’s OSHW project, improve on it, and contribute back? That’s a question worth a thoughtful deep dive.

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Investigating The World’s Rarest Game Boy

Early last year, a very unique Game Boy Color showed up on Chinese shopping site Taobao. Rather than the rather anemic-looking display of the original GBC, this version was modified with a modern IPS LCD. Even in the pictures shown on the product page, it was clear the display on this unit was far more advanced than anything Nintendo ever packed into a Game Boy. The retro gaming community went wild, and soon the site was overwhelmed with orders. The majority of the sales were canceled by the seller, and it’s believed as few as 75 of these hacked GBCs were actually shipped out.

Thanks to one of his viewers, [Colin] was able to get his hands on one of these extremely rare customized handhelds. Clearly a man after our own heart, his first inclination was to tear the thing apart and see how they built it. While he had a fairly good idea of how they managed this hybrid of modern and classic technology, there were a couple of surprises inside.

The device has a completely stock main board, and as such works and plays like a normal GBC. But upon flipping the main board over, [Colin] found a nest of thin magnet wire connecting the new display controller to individual buttons on the front panel. As he later confirmed when he reassembled the system, this allows the user to adjust the display’s brightness by holding “Select” and using the directional pad.

As for the screen itself, the big surprise was that it’s clearly pulled out of a relatively recent smartphone. The screen is physically much larger than the opening in the GBC’s front panel, but through some software trickery the image is displayed only in the area that’s visible to the player. [Colin] managed to get a hold of a few contacts “in the know” who confirmed to him that both the hardware and software for the display controller were specifically created for this application, and are unlikely to be duplicated by anyone else.

Considering most of the Game Boy hacks we cover are about somebody jamming modern hardware into them, it’s an interesting change of pace to see a group that was so adamant about retaining as much original hardware as possible while still managing to improve the user experience.

[Thanks to Doc Oct for the tip]

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One Week Left For Hackaday Belgrade Proposals

Do you have your tickets for Hackaday Belgrade? Our premiere European conference is on 26 May and tickets are on a rapid trajectory to sell out.

Those of you weighing the idea of presenting a talk, you now have less than one week to get your proposal to us. While we have already accepted several exemplary talks, final decisions won’t be made until after the submission deadline passes on Sunday, March 4th.

Mike Harrison showing off his demo work on the 2016 Hackaday Belgrade badge. If you have stories of the demoscene, consider sending in a talk proposal.

What kind of talks are we looking for? We’d love to have a few talks about the demoscene. The conference badge this year is a full-blown retrocomputer, and we’re working on a BASIC for it. If you can push pixels on a Comodore 64, we’d love to hear you talk about it. We’re also suckers for the lesser known stories of tech history (Mike Harrison’s talk on the Eidophor projector tech all but forgotten to history was a delight).

We’re always interested in creative design; think circuit boards that aren’t square and enclosures that go beyond just putting something in a simple box. And of course we’re forever in search of the rare gems that share a glimpse of the research world, like this computing cluster built to get around limited supercomputer time when calculating quantum effect simulations.

These are great talks presented to an audience hungry to share your excitement. Get those proposals in by the end of this weekend!

Reverse Engineering Opens Up The Samsung Gear VR Controller

We love a bit of reverse engineering here at Hackaday, figuring out how a device works from the way it communicates with the world. This project from [Jim Yang] is a great example of this: he reverse-engineered the Samsung Gear VR controller that accompanies the Gear VR add-on for their phones. By digging into the APK that links the device to the phone, he was able to figure out the details of the Bluetooth connection that the app uses to connect to the device. Specifically, he was able to find the commands that were used to get the device to send data, and was able to read this data to determine the state of the device. He was then able to use this to create his own web app to use this data.

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