What’s The Deal With Chromium On Linux? Google At Odds With Package Maintainers

Linux users are more likely than most to be familiar with Chromium, Google’s the free and open source web project that serves as the basis for their wildly popular Chrome. Since the project’s inception over a decade ago, users have been able to compile the BSD licensed code into a browser that’s almost the same as the closed-source Chrome. As such, most distributions offer their own package for the browser and some even include it in the base install. Unfortunately, that may be changing soon.

A post made earlier this month to the official Chromium Blog explained that an audit had determined “third-party Chromium based browsers” were using APIs that were intended only for Google’s internal use. In response, any browser attempting to access features such as Chrome Sync with an unofficial API key would be prevented from doing so after March 15th.

To the average Chromium user, this doesn’t sound like much of a problem. In fact, you might even assume it doesn’t apply to you. The language used in the post makes it sound like Google is referring to browsers which are spun off of the Chromium codebase, and at least in part, they are. But the search giant is also using this opportunity to codify their belief that the only official Chromium builds are the ones that they provide themselves. With that simple change, anyone using a distribution-specific build of Chromium just became persona non grata.

Unhappy with the idea of giving users a semi-functional browser, the Chromium maintainers for several distributions such as Arch Linux and Fedora have said they’re considering pulling the package from their respective repositories altogether. With a Google representative confirming the change is coming regardless of community feedback, it seems likely more distributions will follow suit.

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Careful Drilling Keeps Stadia From Listening In

Google’s fledgling Stadia service leverages the Chrome ecosystem to deliver streamed PC games on mobile devices, web browsers, and TVs. While not strictly required, the company even offers a dedicated Stadia controller that connects directly to the streaming servers over its own WiFi connection to reduce overall system latency. Of course, being a Google product, the controller has a tiny microphone that’s always listening in for interacting with the voice assistant.

[Heikki Juva] didn’t like the privacy implications of this, but unfortunately, there appears to be no way to turn off this “feature” in software. He decided the most expedient solution would be to simply remove the microphone from the controller, but it turns out there was a problem. By researching previous teardowns, he found out that it’s nearly impossible to take the controller apart without damaging it.

Getting close to the target.

So [Heikki] came up with a bold idea. Knowing roughly the position of the microphone, he would simply drill through the controller’s case to expose and ultimately remove the device. The operation was complicated by the fact that, from the teardown video he saw, he knew he’d also have to drill through the PCB to get to the microphone mounted to the opposite side. The only bright spot was that the microphone was on its own separate PCB, so physically destroying it probably wouldn’t take the whole controller out with it.

Now we don’t have to explain why drilling into a gadget powered by an internal lithium-ion battery is dangerous, and we’re not necessarily vouching for the technique [Heikki] used here. But when presented with a sealed unit like this, we admit there weren’t a lot of good options. The fact that the user should have to go to such ridiculous lengths to disable the microphone in a game controller is a perfect example of why we should try to avoid these adversarially designed devices, but that’s a discussion for another time.

In the end, with a steady and and increasingly larger bits, [Heikki] was able to put a 7 mm hole in the back of the Stadia controller that allowed him to extract the microphone in one piece. Removing the microphone seems to have had no adverse effect on the device as, surprisingly enough, it turns out that a game controller doesn’t actually need to listen to the player. Who knew?

As our devices get smarter, hidden microphones and cameras are unfortunately becoming more common. Thankfully a few manufacturers out there are taking the hint and including hardware kill switches for these intrusive features, but until that becomes the norm, hackers will have to come up with their own solutions.

Update 1/10/21: This article originally indicated that the microphone is always listening. While there is no hardware switch to disable the mic, there is a button which must be pressed to trigger the voice assistant functions. We have used strike through above to indicate the change to what was originally published.

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The Google Chrome Dinosaur Game, In Real Life

[Ryan] wanted to hack the Google Chrome Dinosaur Game so he could control the dinosaur with his own movements. The game only requires two keyboard presses (up and down arrow keys), so controlling the game with the Arduino Keyboard library only requires a few simple function calls.

He uses the Arduino MKR board in his build, but notes any number of other boards would work as well. A force sensor detects his jumps and a stretch sensor detects him ducking. Both the stretch and force sensors are resistive transducers, so two simple voltage divider circuits (one for each sensor) are needed to convert changes in force to a voltage. You may need to adjust the sensor threshold to ensure the code responds to your movements, but [Ryan] makes that pretty easy to do in software as both thresholds are stored as global variables.

It’s a pretty simple hack, but could make for some good socially-distanced fun. What other hackable Google Chrome extensions do you like?

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Ewon Is An Expressive Robot With Google Assistant

Had too much self-quarantine? [Sharathnaik] had, so he decided to build a robot companion named Ewon. Using a Raspberry Pi, Ewon isn’t a robot that moves around, but rather an expressive Google assistant. Using some servo-driven ears and a display, Ewon reacts to you based on keywords you use in your queries. For example, it might perk up and smile at the mention of ice cream. Or look unhappy if you mention sadness.

The project is simple because of the Google Assistant API. However, we liked the 3D printed body and some of the additional features the robot adds.

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Offline Dinosaur-Jumping Becomes A Real Workout

It’s great to see people are out there trying to find fun ways to exercise amid the current crisis. Although jumping up and down isn’t great for the knees, it does give decent cardio. But if you don’t have a rope or a puddle, we admit that jumping can lose its bounce pretty fast.

Quarantine has been a game-filled time for [fridaay]. Somewhere between a handful of FPS games, he decided to try to play Google’s offline dinosaur-based side scroller game by making the dinosaur spring over the saguaros whenever he physically jumps in the air. (Video, embedded below.)

Here’s how it works: [fridaay] holds a transmit circuit that consists of an Arduino UNO, an accelerometer module, and an nRF24L01 transceiver, all running on a 9 V battery. Whenever [fridaay] jumps, the accelerometer reads the change in Z and sends it to the receiving circuit, which is just another UNO and nRF. The receiving UNO is connected to a laptop and configured to press the space bar so the dinosaur canters over the cacti.

We’ve never been able to stay alive long enough in the game to see this happen, but apparently you need to crouch at some point in the game. [fridaay] has yet to implement a control for that, but we’re sure he’ll think of something. Jump past the break to see the video, and hit him up if you need the code.

If you have a lot of parts at your disposal, why not make a physical version?

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A Farewell To YouTube Sub Counters Set To Break With API Change

Of all the things you never would have guessed you’d need just ten years ago, a YouTube subscriber counter would probably rank highly. You would have guessed that the little hits of dopamine accompanying each tick upward of a number would be so addictive?

As it turns out, lots of people wanted to keep a running total of their online fans, and a bewilderingly varied ecosystem of subscriber counters has cropped up. All of them rely on the API that YouTube exposes for such purposes, which as [Brian Lough] points out is about to change and break every subscription counter ever made. In the YouTube sub counter space, [Brian] is both an enabler – he built an Arduino wrapper to fetch YT sub counts easily – and a serial builder of displays for other YouTubers. The video below shows a collection of his work, many based on RGB LED matrix display, like the one used in his Tetris-themed sub counter. They’re all well-built, nice to look at, and sadly, destined for obsolescence sometime in August when the API changes.

The details of the API changes were made public in April, and for the subs count it amounts to rounding the count and displaying large counts as, for instance, 510k as opposed to 510,023. We’re confident that [Brian] and other display builders will be able to salvage some of their counters with code changes, but others will probably require hardware changes. Thanks, YouTube.

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Microcontroller And IMU Team Up For Simple Flight Sim Controls

Classes are over at Cornell, and that means one thing: the students in [Bruce Land]’s microcontroller design course have submitted their final projects, many of which, like this flight control system for Google Earth’s flight simulator, find their way to the Hackaday tips line.

We actually got this tip several days ago, but since it revealed to us the previously unknown fact that Google Earth has a flight simulator mode, we’ve been somewhat distracted. Normally controlled by mouse and keyboard, [Sheila Balu] decided to give the sim a full set of flight controls to make it more realistic. The controls consist of a joystick with throttle, rudder pedals, and a small control panel with random switches. The whole thing is built of cardboard to keep costs down and to make the system easy to replicate. Interestingly, the joystick does not have the usual gimbals-mounted potentiometers to detect pitch and roll; rather, an IMU mounted on the top of the stick provides data on the stick position. All the controls talk to a PIC32, which sends the inputs over a serial cable to a Python script on the PC running Google Earth; the script simulates the mouse and keyboard commands needed to fly the sim. The video below shows [Sheila] taking an F-16 out for a spin, but despite being a pilot herself since age 16, she was curiously unable to land the fighter jet safely in a suburban neighborhood.

[Bruce]’s course looks like a blast, and [Sheila] clearly enjoyed it. We’re looking forward to the project dump, which last year included this billy-goat balancing Stewart platform, and a robotic ice cream topping applicator.

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