Samsung Releases Minimum Viable Galaxy Upcycling

It’s a tragedy every time a modern smartphone is tossed into e-waste. We prefer to find another life for these bundles of useful hardware. But given all the on-board barriers erected by manufacturers, it’s impractical to repurpose smartphones without their support. A bit of good news on this front is Samsung testing the waters with a public beta of their “Galaxy Upcycling at Home” program, turning a few select devices into SmartThings sensor nodes.

More devices and functionality are promised, but this initial release is barely a shadow of what Samsung promised in 2017. Missed the announcement back then? Head over to a “How it started/How it’s going” comparison from iFixit, who minced no words starting with their title Galaxy Upcycling: How Samsung Ruined Their Best Idea in Years. They saw a bunch of Samsung engineers at Bay Area Maker Faire 2017, showing off a bunch of fun projects reusing old phones as open hardware. The placeholder GitHub repository left from that announcement still has a vision of a community of makers dreaming up novel uses. This is our jam! But sadly it has remained a placeholder for four years and, given what we see today, it is more likely to be taken down than to become reality.

The stark difference between original promise and actual results feel like an amateur Kickstarter, not something from a giant international conglomerate. Possibly for the same reason: lack of resources and expertise for execution. It’s hard to find support in a large corporate bureaucracy when there is no obvious contribution to the bottom line. Even today’s limited form has only a tenuous link of possibly helping to sell other SmartThings-enabled smart home devices.

Ars Technica was similarly unimpressed with launch functionality, but was more diplomatic describing the beta as “a very modest starting point”. XDA-Developers likewise pinned their hopes on the “more devices will be supported in the future” part of Samsung’s announcement. Until Samsung delivers on more of the original promise, we’ll continue to be hampered by all the existing reasons hacking our old cell phones are harder than they should be. Sometimes an idea can be fulfilled by helpful apps but other times will require hacking into our devices the old-fashioned way.

Make Android’s New Power Menu Work On Your Terms

Introduced in Android 11, the power menu is a way to quickly interact with smart home gadgets without having to open their corresponding applications. Just hold the power button for a beat, and you’ll be presented with an array of interactive tiles for all the gadgets you own. Well that’s the idea, anyway.

[Mat] of “NotEnoughTech” wasn’t exactly thrilled with how this system worked out of the box, so he decided to figure out how he could create his own power menu tiles. His method naturally requires quite a bit more manual work than Google’s automatic solution, but it also offers some compelling advantages. For one thing, you can make tiles for your own DIY devices that wouldn’t be supported otherwise. It also allows you to sidestep the cloud infrastructure normally required by commercial home automation products. After all, does some server halfway across the planet really need to be consulted every time you want to turn on the kitchen light?

Adding tiles in Tasker.

The first piece of the puzzle is Tasker, a popular automation framework for Android. It allows you to create custom tiles that will show up on Android’s power menu, complete with their own icons and brief descriptions. If you just wanted to perform tasks on the local device itself, this would be the end of the story. But assuming that you want to control devices on your network, Tasker can be configured to fire off a command to a Node-RED instance when you interact with the tiles.

In his post, [Mat] gives a few examples of how this combination can be used to control smart devices and retrieve sensor data, but the exact implementation will depend on what you’re trying to do. If you need a bit of help getting started, our own [Mike Szczys] put together a Node-RED primer last year that can help you put this flow-based visual programming tool to work for you.

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Do Androids Search For Cosmic Rays?

We always like citizen science projects, so we were very interested in DECO, the Distributed Electronic Cosmic-ray Observatory. That sounds like a physical location, but it is actually a network of cell phones that can detect cosmic rays using an ordinary Android phone’s camera sensor.

There may be some privacy concerns as the phone camera will take a picture and upload it every so often, and it probably also taxes the battery a bit. However, if you really want to do citizen science, maybe dedicate an old phone, put electrical tape over the lens and keep it plugged in. In fact, they encourage you to cover the lens to reduce background light and keep the phone plugged in.

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Giving Blind Runners Independence With AI

Being able to see, move, and exercise independently is something most of us take for granted. [Thomas Panek] was an avid runner before losing his sight due to a genetic condition, and had to rely on other humans and guide dogs to run again. After challenging attendants at a Google hackathon, Project Guideline was established to give blind runners (or walkers) independence from a cane, dog or another human, while exercising outdoors. Using a smartphone with line following AI software, and bone conduction headphones, users can be guided along a path with a line painted on it. You need to watch the video below to get a taste of just how incredible it is for the users.

Getting a wheeled robot to follow a line is relatively simple, but a running human is by no means a stable sensor platform. At the previously mentioned hackathon, developers put together a rough proof of concept with a smartphone, using its camera to recognize a painted line on the ground and provide left/right audio cues.  As the project developed, the smartphone was attached to a waist belt and bone conduction headphones were used,  which don’t affect audio situational awareness as much as normal headphones.

The shaking and side to side movement of running, and varying light conditions and visual obstructions in the outdoors made the problem more difficult to solve, but within a year the developers had completed successful running tests with [Thomas] on a well-lit indoor track and an outdoor pedestrian path with a temporary line. For the first time in 25 years, [Thomas] was able to run independently.

While guide dogs have proven effective for both daily life and running, they cost approximately $60000 over an average working life of 8 years, putting them out of reach of many sight-impaired people around the world. Project Guideline is still in the early stages, and real-world problems like obstacles and traffic still need to be addressed, but there is massive potential.

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Giving Recalled Fitness Trackers A Second Chance

When it was released back in 2012, the Basis B1 fitness tracker was in many ways ahead of its time. In fact, the early smartwatch was so impressive that Intel quickly snapped up the company and made it the cornerstone of their wearable division. Unfortunately a flaw in their next watch, the Basis Peak, ended up literally burning some wearers. Intel was forced to recall the whole product line, and a year later dissolved their entire wearable division.

Given their rocky history, it’s probably no surprise that these gadgets can be had quite cheaply on the second hand market. But can you do anything with them? That’s what [Ben Jabituya] recently decided to find out, and the results of his experiments certainly look very promising. So far he hasn’t found a way to activate a brand-new Basis watch, but assuming you can get your hands on one that was actively being used when Intel pulled the plug, his hacks can be used to get it back up and running.

Examining the downloaded sensor logs.

The Basis Android application has long since been removed from the Play Store, but [Ben] said it wasn’t too hard to find an old version floating around on the web. After decompiling the application he discovered the developers included a backdoor that lets you configure advanced options that would normally be hidden.

How do you access it? As a reminder of the era in which the product was developed, you simply need to log into the application using Jersey and Shore as the username and password, respectively.

Between the developer options and API information he gleaned from the decompiled code, [Ben] was able to create a faux Basis authentication server and point the application to it. That let him get past the login screen, after which he was able to sync with the watch and download its stored data. Between examinations with a hex editor and some open source code that was already available online, he was able to write a Python script for parsing the data which he’s been kind enough to share with the world.

We’re very pleased to see an open source solution that not only gets these “bricked” smartwatches back online, but allows the user to keep all of the generated data under their own control. If you’d like to do something similar with a device that doesn’t have a history of releasing the Magic Smoke, the development of an open source firmware for more modern fitness trackers might be of interest.

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Does Your Phone Need A RAM Drive?

Phones used to be phones. Then we got cordless phones which were part phone and part radio. Then we got cell phones. But with smartphones, we have a phone that is both a radio and a computer. Tiny battery operated computers are typically a bit anemic, but as technology marches forward, those tiny computers grew to the point that they outpace desktop machines from a few years ago. That means more and more phones are incorporating technology we used to reserve for desktop computers and servers. Case in point: Xiaomi now has a smartphone that sports a RAM drive. Is this really necessary?

While people like to say you can never be too rich or too thin, memory can never be too big or too fast. Unfortunately, that’s always been a zero-sum game. Fast memory tends to be lower-density while large capacity memory tends to be slower. The fastest common memory is static RAM, but that requires a lot of area on a chip per bit and also consumes a lot of power. That’s why most computers and devices use dynamic RAM for main storage. Since each bit is little more than a capacitor, the density is good and power requirements are reasonable. The downside? Internally, the memory needs a rewrite when read or periodically before the tiny capacitors discharge.

Although dynamic RAM density is high, flash memory still serves as the “disk drive” for most phones. It is dense, cheap, and — unlike RAM — holds data with no power. The downside is the interface to it is cumbersome and relatively slow despite new standards to improve throughput. There’s virtually no way the type of flash memory used in a typical phone will ever match the access speeds you can get with RAM.

So, are our phones held back by the speed of the flash? Are they calling out for a new paradigm that taps the speed of RAM whenever possible? Let’s unpack this issue.

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Linux Fu: The Linux Android Convergence

The Android phone that you carry in your pocket is basically a small computer running Linux. So why is it so hard to get to a usable Linux environment on your phone? If you could run Linux, you could turn your cell phone into an ultra-portable laptop replacement.

Of course, the obvious approach is just to root the phone and clean-slate install a Linux distribution on it. That’s pretty extreme and, honestly, you would probably lose a lot of phone function unless you go with a Linux-specific phone like the PinePhone. However, using an installer called AnLinux, along with a terminal program and a VNC client, you can get a workable setup without nuking your phone’s OS, or even having root access. Let’s see what we can do. Continue reading “Linux Fu: The Linux Android Convergence”