Membership Ring of the Electronic Illuminati

When the cabal of electronic design gurus that pull the invisible strings of the hardware world get together, we imagine they have to show this ring to prove their identity. This is the work of [Zach Fredin], and you’re going to be shocked by the construction and execution of what he calls Cyborg Ring.

The most obvious feature of the Cyborg Ring is the collection of addressable LEDs that occupy the area where gems would be found on a ring. What might not be so obvious is that this is constructed completely of electronic components, and doesn’t use any traditional mechanical parts like standoffs. Quite literally, the surface mount devices are structural in this ring.

They are also electrical. Here you can see a detail of how [Zach] pulled this off. We are looking at the underside of the ring, the part that goes below your knuckle. One of the two PCBs that are sized to fit your finger has been placed in a Stick Vise while the QFN processor is soldered on end, and the pairs of SMD resistors are put in place.

The precise measurements of each part make it possible to choose components that will perfectly span the gap between the two boards. In the background of the image you can see SMD resistors on their long ends — a technique he used to allow the LEDs themselves to span between one resistor on each of the two PDBs to complete the circuit. Incredible, right?

But it gets better. [Zach] ended up with a working prototype, but has continued to forge ahead with new design iterations. These updates are a delight to read! Make sure you follow his project and check in regularly; if you’ve already looked at this now’s the time to go back and see the new work. The gold pads for the minuscule coin cells which power the ring are being reselected as the batteries didn’t fit well on the original. Some layout problems are being tweaked. And the new spin of boards should be back from fab in a week or so.

Don’t miss the demo video found below. We really like seeing projects that build within the wearble ring form factor. It’s an impressive constraint which [Zach] seems to have mastered. Another favorite of ours is [Kevin’s] Arduboy ring.

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Making the Case for Open Source Medical Devices

Engineering for medical, automotive, and aerospace is highly regulated. It’s not difficult to see why: lives are often at stake when devices in these fields fail. The cost of certifying and working within established regulations is not insignificant and this is likely the main reason we don’t see a lot of work on Open Hardware in these areas.

Ashwin K. Whitchurch wants to change this and see the introduction of simple but important Open Source medical devices for those who will benefit the most from them. His talk at the Hackaday Superconference explores the possible benefits of Open Medical devices and the challenges that need to be solved for success.

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Shah Selbe: Science in the World’s Wildest Places

When we think of building research hardware, lab coats and pristine workbenches come to mind. Shah Selbe used to do something kind of like that when he was engineering satellite propulsion systems. But after putting twelve of them into space, he ditched the office gig and took his gear to some of the wildest places on earth. He’s an explorer and fellow with the National Geographic Society, and at the Hackaday Superconference he shared his experiences building research hardware that gathers data in incredibly remote places.

Shah makes a really good point about two very different trends in our world over the past several decades. While we’ve had unparalleled technological growth, we’ve also seen horrifying wildlife trends to the point that some scientists believe we’re currently in a sixth mass extinction event. But to know that for sure, and look for ways to prevent and reverse it, we need reliable data. This is a fascinating problem because the world is huge, and we simply can’t monitor everything.

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Hackaday Belgrade Call For Proposals Now Open!

Prepare yourself for the return of Hackaday Belgrade! Our premier European conference — Hackaday Belgrade — is on 26 May and we want to hear what you’ve been working on. The Call for Proposals is now open. We seek talks and workshops exploring the most interesting uses of technology and the culture that goes along with it. This includes design, prototyping, research, manufacturing, and the stories of people and progress that move hardware hacking forward.

We’ve booked Dom Omladine for the event because it was perfect for our previous Belgrade conference in 2016. The sold-out conference became a living organism of excitement when the Hackaday community from across Europe came together. A spectacular slate of speakers presented topics like designing computing clusters for use in University research programs, combining projection mapping with high powered lasers, building hardware for advertising campaigns, uncovering forgotten projector technology called Eidophor, fully embracing Open Hardware during product development, and so much more. All of this while hundreds in attendance joined forces for some of the best hardware badge hacking we’ve ever seen.

Hackaday Belgrade is the rare kind of opportunity that is worth reorganizing your life to attend. Want to guarantee yourself a ticket? They’re not available yet, but you can hack your way into the conference: submit a proposal! In addition to the adoration of the Hackaday community, accepted speakers will receive free admission. Everyone who submits a quality talk proposal will be given priority when tickets do go on sale. This event will sell out!

For updates, keep an eye on the conference page and pop into the chat on the project page by clicking “Join this project’s team”. Do you know someone who should be a speaker at this conference? Reach out to them personally, share this CFP on social media, or let us know in the comments below so we can make it happen.

Coin Cell Hacks That Won the Coin Cell Challenge

It’s amazing what creative projects show up if you give one simple constraint. In this case, we asked what cool things can be done if powered by one coin cell battery and we had about one hundred answers come back. Today we’re happy to announce the winners of the Coin Cell Challenge.

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Let’s Talk Intel, Meltdown, and Spectre

This week we’ve seen a tsunami of news stories about a vulnerability in Intel processors. We’re certain that by now you’ve heard of (and are maybe tired of hearing about) Meltdown and Spectre. However, as a Hackaday reader, you are likely the person who others turn to when they need to get the gist of news like this. Since this has bubbled up in watered-down versions to the highest levels of mass media, let’s take a look at what Meltdown and Spectre are, and also see what’s happening in the other two rings of this three-ring circus.

Meltdown and Spectre in a Nutshell

These two attacks are similar. Meltdown is specific to Intel processors and kernel fixes (basically workarounds implemented by operating systems) will result in a 5%-30% speed penalty depending on how the CPU is being used. Spectre is not limited to Intel, but also affects AMD and ARM processors and kernel fixes are not expected to come with a speed penalty.

Friend of Hackaday and security researcher extraordinaire Joe Fitz has written a superb layman’s explanation of these types of attacks. His use of the term “layman” may be a little more high level than normal — this is something you need to read.

The attack exploits something called branch prediction. To boost speed, these processors keep a cache of past branch behavior in memory and use that to predict future branching operations. Branch predictors load data into memory before checking to see if you have permissions to access that data. Obviously you don’t, so that memory will not be made available for you to read. The exploit uses a clever guessing game to look at other files also returned by the predictor to which you do have access. If you’re clever enough, you can reconstruct the restricted data by iterating on this trick many many times.

For the most comprehensive info, you can read the PDF whitepapers on Meltdown and Spectre.

Update: Check Alan Hightower’s explanation of the Meltdown exploit left as a comment below. Quite good for helping deliver better understanding of how this works.

Frustration from Kernel Developers

These vulnerabilities are in silicon — they can’t be easily fixed with a microcode update which is how CPU manufacturers usually workaround silicon errata (although this appears to be an architectural flaw and not errata per se). An Intel “fix” would amount to a product recall. They’ve already said they won’t be doing a recall, but how would that work anyway? What’s the lead time on spinning up the fabs to replace all the Intel chips in use — yikes!

So the fixes fall on the operating systems at the kernel level. Intel should be (and probably is behind the scenes) bowing down to the kernel developers who are saving their bacon. It is understandably frustrating to have to spend time and resources patching these vulnerabilities, which displaces planned feature updates and improvements. Linus Torvalds has been throwing shade at Intel — anecdotal evidence of this frustration:

“I think somebody inside of Intel needs to really take a long hard look at their CPU’s, and actually admit that they have issues instead of writing PR blurbs that say that everything works as designed.”

That’s the tamest part of his message posted on the Linux Kernel Mailing List.

Stock Sales Kerfuffle is Just a Distraction

The first thing I did on hearing about these vulnerabilities on Tuesday was to check Intel’s stock price and I was surprised it hadn’t fallen much. In fact, peak to peak it’s only seen about an 8% drop this week and has recovered some from that low.

Of course, it came out that back in November Intel’s CEO Bryan Krzanich sold off his Intel stock to the tune of $24 Million, bringing him down to his contractual minimum of shares. He likely knew about Meltdown when arranging that sale. Resist the urge to flame on this decision. Whether it’s legal or not, hating on this guy is just a distraction.

What’s more interesting to me is this: Intel is too big to fail. What are we all going to do, stop using Intel and start using something else? You can’t just pull the chip and put a new one in, in the case of desktop computers you need a new motherboard plus all the supporting stuff like memory. For servers, laptops, and mobile devices you need to replace the entire piece of equipment. Intel has a huge market share, and silicon has a long production cycle. Branch prediction has been commonplace in consumer CPUs going back to 1995 when the Pentium Pro brought it to the x86 architecture. This is a piece of the foundation that will be yanked out and replaced with new designs that provide the same speed benefits without the same risks — but that will take time to make it into the real world.

CPUs are infrastructure and this is the loudest bell to date tolling to signal how important their design is to society. It’s time to take a hard look at what open silicon design would bring to the table. You can’t say this would have been prevented with Open design. You can say that the path to new processors without these issues would be a shorter one if there were more than two companies producing all of the world’s processors — both of which have been affected by these vulnerabilities.

Remember When Scratch-Built Robots Were Hard?

Even simple robots used to require quite a bit of effort to pull together. This example shows how far we’ve come with the tools and techniques that make things move and interact. It’s a 3D printed rover controlled by the touchscreen on your phone. This achieves the most basic building block of wheeled robotics, and the process is easy on you and your pocketbook.

We just can’t stop loving the projects [Greg Zumwalt], aka[gzumwalt], is turning out. We just saw his air-powered airplane engine and now this little rover perks our ears up. The design uses the familiar trick of two powered wheels with a ball bearing to avoid problems with differential turning. But the simplicity is all in the implementation.

This bot is 3D printed using eight very simple pieces: four gears, two axles, a cap and a single tray to mount everything. The cap captures the ball bearing which pokes out a hole in the bottom of the tray to form an omnidirectional wheel. Two 9G servos modified for continuous rotation. The mating teeth of the gears are found on the wheel sections which have grooves for neoprene O-rings to provide traction. The entire thing is driven by an ESP8266 in the form of an Adafruit Feather Huzzah. This is programmed using the Arduino IDE and your phone can connect directly or through a WiFi router.

We’re not crazy, right? Robots didn’t used to be this easy to pull together? This goes for the power of 3D printing versus traditional basement fabrication methods, but in the availability of powerful yet inexpensive embedded systems and the available tools and libraries to program them. Kudos to you [Greg] for showing us how great the currently available building blocks are in the hands of anyone who wants to channel their engineering creativity. He certainly has… this chassis ultimately powers Santa’s sleigh.

Need a bigger printing challenge? Here’s a 3D printed rover that goes all-in with the suspension system.

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