What has 256 full-colour LEDs, everyone’s favorite Lithium battery form factor, wireless connectivity, and hangs around your neck? It’s the CampZone 2019 badge that turns all attendees into a really fun billboard — but can the attendees hack themselves into one massive display?
One of Europe’s larger events for the gaming community, CampZone is hosted in Netherlands and runs from July 26th to August 5th. It’s a typical large summer camp, and caters for those who intersect gaming and hacking with HackZone, a decent sized hacker camp within a camp. I’ve been fortunate enough to get my hands on a CampZone 2019 badge, dubbed the I-Pane, let’s take a look at what they managed to pack into this electronic conference badge.
A Blinky Matrix For You To Command
The package arrived in the UK sheathed in UK Border Force tape, evidently it had been flagged as suspicious and subjected to manual inspection. Nothing nefarious here, inside was a neatly bagged up badge with an information sheet, lanyard, and a couple of optional extra components; one is a capacitor for power supply smoothing when driving the LEDs from a USB source, and the other a six-way Shitty Addon connector for a footprint on the back of the board.
The badge PCB itself is a wide rectangle about 190x50mm (7.5″x2″) in size, and its party trick is that its entire front surface is an 8×32 matrix of 5mm multi-colour LEDs that make a bright full-colour pixel display. The trend has been for badges to cover their designs with as many LEDs as they possibly can, and the CampZone badge takes this to its logical conclusion. The display is driven by a brace of SM16106SC LED driver chips
The 18650 cell holder is located on the back of the back, along with a TP4056 lithium-ion charger and associated power supply components. It’s nice to see a common form-factor Lithum battery used as you hope it may find an alternative use after the con.
User interaction on the badge itself is provided by a set of buttons. There’s a 4-way direction pad on one end, and A and B buttons on the other. The interesting aspect here is that the buttons are on the opposite side of the board from the display itself.
A CH340C USB-to-serial chip was chosen for its low price, allowing the user to interface with the ESP32 WROOM module that is both running the show, and providing connectivity. When powered on, the badge first first tries to connect to the Campzone wireless network, then drops into a short menu including a Snake game and a Wi-Fi configuration application. Adding a network password is a slightly fiddly process of cycling through the alphabet. Once connected it automatically downloaded a firmware update which is a clever feature for last-minute bug fixes.
We can see why it’s called the I-Pane at this point as those LEDs are very bright, fortunately the brightness can be reduced to less searing levels via the Left and Right keys.
Talking To Your Badge, Made Easy
The really interesting part that should open up new possibilities to any others wishing to adapt it for their own badge is how they have managed to make a usable interface with such a low-resolution display. It has a menu that can be navigated and read if you don’t mind waiting for scrolling text, but the clever stuff comes once you connect it via USB and fire up a terminal. It drops straight into a menu, from which you can easily access all app-related functions for running and installing apps, as well as perform an update or drop into a MicroPython prompt. Here you can very quickly paste and test entire apps as MicroPython code, and of course there are plenty of functions available to put graphics on those LEDs.
I’m told that there’s an online graphics editor in the works to will be released by the start of the event. This makes it easy to create pixel art for the LED matrix. All this makes the badge one of the the easiest on which to test software that we’ve seen, and once a piece of code has been perfected it becomes a simple task to share it with the world by creating it as a project in their “hatchery” app repository.
Though the LED matrix is impressive and a lot of fun to play with, this badge lacks a stand-out hardware feature such as EMF2018’s phone or CCCamp 2015’s SDR. It does score hugely though on two key points, in that it works out of the box and doesn’t require the user to wait for any patches, and the ease of getting software onto it is a level higher than so many others. There are as yet only a few apps for it in the hatchery but as always a lot more will appear over the course of the event and we look forward to seeing what people do with it.
A Hackaday colleague wondered whether anyone will succeed at hacking multiple badges to form a much larger screen. A huge billboard would be fun, but I’d be more excited to see it given multi-badge multiplayer games in which game objects are thrown between badges like the “Shoot My Valentine” hack from 2018 Hackaday Belgrade. Whatever is produced we can see it having a life beyond the event, if only as a very bright programmable display and wearable accessory.
You can find out more about CampZone and HackZone on the website. At the time of writing it appears that there are still tickets available, should you wish to attend.