The Evolution of Wireless Game Controllers

The story goes that Atari was developing a premium model of their popular home video game console, the Atari 2600, for the 1981 fiscal year. Internally known as the Stella RC, this model revision promised touch sensitive game selection toggles, LED indicators, and onboard storage for the controllers. The focus of the project, however, was the “RC” in Stella RC which stood for remote control. Atari engineers wanted to free players from the constraints of the wires that fettered them to their televisions.

Problem with the prototypes was that the RF transmitters in the controllers were powerful enough to send a signal over a 1000 ft. radius, and they interfered with a number of the remote garage door openers on the market. Not to mention that if there were another Stella RC console on the same channel in an apartment building, or simply across the street, you could be playing somebody else’s Pitfall run. The mounting tower of challenges to making a product that the FCC would stamp their approval on were too great. So Atari decided to abandon the pioneering Stella RC project. Physical proof of the first wireless game controllers would have been eliminated at that point if it were created by any other company… but prototypes mysteriously left the office in some peculiar ways.

“Atari had abandoned the project at the time…[an Atari engineer] thought it would be a great idea to give his girlfriend’s son a videogame system to play with…I can’t [comment] about the relationship itself or what happened after 1981, but that’s how this system left Atari…and why it still exists today.”

Joe Cody, Atari2600.com

Atari did eventually get around to releasing some wireless RF 2600 joysticks that the FCC would approve. A couple years after abandoning the Stella RC project they released the Atari 2600 Remote Control Joysticks at a $69.95 MSRP (roughly $180 adjusted for inflation). The gigantic price tag mixed with the video game market “dropping off the cliff” in 1983 saw few ever getting to know the bliss of wire-free video game action. It was obvious that RF game controllers were simply ahead of their time, but there had to be cheaper alternatives on the horizon.

Out of Sight, Out of Control with IR Schemes

Nintendo AVS 1985 Display
Nintendo AVS console deck and IR controller on display.

Video games were a dirty word in America in 1985. While games themselves were still happening on the microcomputer platforms, the home console business was virtually non-existent. Over in Japan, Nintendo was raking in money hand over fist selling video games on their Famicom console. They sought to replicate that success in North America by introducing a revised model of the Famicom, but it had to impress the tech journos that would be attending its reveal at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

The prototype system was called the Nintendo Advanced Video System (AVS). It would feature a keyboard, a cassette tape drive, and most importantly two wireless controllers. The controllers used infrared (IR) communication and the receiver was built-into the console deck itself. Each controller featured a square metallic directional pad and four action buttons that gave the impression of brushed aluminum. The advancement in video game controller technology was too good to be true though, because the entire system received a makeover before releasing as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that Christmas. The NES lacked the keyboard, the tape drive, and the IR controllers and its change in materials hardly captured the high-end flash of the AVS. The removal of IR meant the device was cheaper to manufacture. A decision that ultimately helped the NES to become a breakout success that in turn brought back dedicated video game consoles single-handedly.

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Weaponized Networked Printing is Now a Thing

It’s a fairly safe bet that a Venn diagram of Hackaday readers and those who closely follow the careers of YouTube megastars doesn’t have a whole lot of overlap, so you’re perhaps blissfully unaware of the man who calls himself PewDiePie. As such, you might not know that a battle between himself and another YouTube channel which uploads Bollywood music videos has reached such a fever pitch that his fans have resorted to guerrilla hacking to try to sway public opinion towards their side. It’s perhaps not the dystopian future we imagined, but it just might be the one we deserve.

To briefly summarize the situation, a hacker known only by the handle TheHackerGiraffe decided to help out Dear Leader by launching an automated attack against 50,000 Internet connected printers. When the hack was successful, the printer would spit out a page of digital propaganda (complete with fist ASCII art) that urged the recipient to go on YouTube and pledge their support for PewDiePie. There’s some debate about how many of the printers TheHackerGiraffe targeted actually delivered their payload, but judging by reactions throughout social media, it was enough to get the message out.

While the stunt itself may have come as a surprise, the methodology wasn’t. In fact, the only surprising element to the security researchers who’ve weighed in on the situation is that this hasn’t happened more often. It certainly isn’t the first time somebody’s done it, but the fact that this time its been connected to such a high profile Internet celebrity is putting more eyes on the problem then there have been in the past. Now that the proverbial cat is out of the bag, there are even websites springing up which claim to be purveyors of “Printer Advertising”. Odds are good this won’t be the last time somebody’s printer starts running off more than TPS reports.

We here at Hackaday don’t have much interest in the battle for YouTube supremacy. We’re just pulling for Dave Jones’s EEVBlog channel to join AvE in breaking a million subscribers. But we’re very interested in the technology which made this attack possible, how likely it is we’re going to see more people exploit it, and what are we supposed to do now that even our own printers can be turned against us?

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Fail of the Week: A Candle Caused Browns Ferry Nuclear Incident

A colleague of mine used to say he juggled a lot of balls; steel balls, plastic balls, glass balls, and paper balls. The trick was not to drop the glass balls. How do you know which is which? For example, suppose you were tasked with making sure a nuclear power plant was safe. What would be important? A fail-safe way to drop the control rods into the pile, maybe? A thick containment wall? Two loops of cooling so that only the inner loop gets radioactive? I’m not a nuclear engineer, so I don’t know, but ensuring electricians at a nuclear plant aren’t using open flames wouldn’t be high on my list of concerns. You might think that’s really obvious, but it turns out if you look at history that was a glass ball that got dropped.

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a lot of optimism in the United States about nuclear power. Browns Ferry — a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) nuclear plant — broke ground in 1966 on two plants. Unit 1 began operations in 1974, and Unit 2 the following year. By 1975, the two units were producing about 2,200 megawatts of electricity.

That same year, an electrical inspector and an electrician were checking for air leaks in the spreading room — a space where control cables split to go to the two different units from a single control room.  To find the air drafts they used a lit candle and would observe the flame as it was sucked in with the draft. In the process, they accidentally started a fire that nearly led to a massive nuclear disaster.

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Your BOM is not your COGS

“The prototype was $12 in parts, so I’ll sell it for $15.” That is your recipe for disaster, and why so many Kickstarter projects fail. The Bill of Materials (BOM) is just a subset of the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), and if you aren’t selling your product for more than your COGS, you will lose money and go out of business.

We’ve all been there; we throw together a project using parts we have laying around, and in our writeup we list the major components and their price. We ignore all the little bits of wire and screws and hot glue and time, and we aren’t shipping it, so there’s no packaging to consider. Someone asks how much it cost, and you throw out a ballpark number. They say “hey, that’s pretty reasonable” and now you’re imagining making it in volume and selling it for slightly higher than your BOM. Stop right there. Here’s how pricing really works, and how to avoid sinking time into an untenable business.

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Daphne Oram and the Birth of Electronic Music

For most of human history, musical instruments were strictly mechanical devices. The musician either plucked something, blew into or across something, or banged on something to produce the sounds the occasion called for. All musical instruments, the human voice included, worked by vibrating air more or less directly as a result of these mechanical manipulations.

But if one thing can be said of musicians at any point in history, it’s that they’ll use anything and everything to create just the right sound. The dawn of the electronic age presented opportunities galore for musicians by giving them new tools to create sounds that nobody had ever dreamed of before. No longer would musicians be constrained by the limitations of traditional instruments; sounds could now be synthesized, recorded, modified, filtered, and amplified to create something completely new.

Few composers took to the new opportunities offered by electronics like Daphne Oram. From earliest days, Daphne lived at the intersection of music and electronics, and her passion for pursuing “the sound” lead to one of the earliest and hackiest synthesizers, and a totally unique way of making music.

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Hackaday Visits the Electric City

Much to the chagrin of local historians, the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania is today best known as the setting for the American version of The Office. But while the exploits of Dunder Mifflin’s best and brightest might make for a good Netflix binge, there’s a lot more to the historic city than the fictional paper company. From its beginnings as a major supplier of anthracite coal to the introduction of America’s first electrically operated trolley system on its streets, Scranton earned its nickname “The Electric City” by being a major technological hub from the Industrial Revolution through to the Second World War.

Today, the mines and furnaces of Scranton lie silent but not forgotten. In the 1980’s, the city started turning what remained of their industrial sites into historic landmarks and museums with the help of State and Federal grants. I recently got a chance to tour some of these locations, and came away very impressed. They’re an exceptional look into the early technology and processes which helped turn America into an industrial juggernaut.

While no substitute for visiting these museums and parks for yourself, hopefully the following images and descriptions will give you an idea of what kind of attractions await visitors to the modern day Electric City.

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Why is Continuous Glucose Monitoring So Hard?

Everyone starts their day with a routine, and like most people these days, mine starts by checking my phone. But where most people look for the weather update, local traffic, or even check Twitter or Facebook, I use my phone to peer an inch inside my daughter’s abdomen. There, a tiny electrochemical sensor continuously samples the fluid between her cells, measuring the concentration of glucose so that we can control the amount of insulin she’s receiving through her insulin pump.

Type 1 diabetes is a nasty disease, usually sprung on the victim early in life and making every day a series of medical procedures – calculating the correct amount of insulin to use for each morsel of food consumed, dealing with the inevitable high and low blood glucose readings, and pinprick after pinprick to test the blood. Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) has been a godsend to us and millions of diabetic families, as it gives us the freedom to let our kids be kids and go on sleepovers and have one more slice of pizza without turning it into a major project. Plus, good control of blood glucose means less chance of the dire consequences of diabetes later in life, like blindness, heart disease, and amputations. And I have to say I think it’s pretty neat that I have telemetry on my child; we like to call her our “cyborg kid.”

But for all the benefits of CGM, it’s not without its downsides. It’s wickedly expensive in terms of consumables and electronics, it requires an invasive procedure to place sensors, and even in this age of tiny electronics, it’s still comparatively bulky. It seems like we should be a lot further along with the technology than we are, but as it turns out, CGM is actually pretty hard to do, and there are some pretty solid reasons why the technology seems stuck.

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