Ask Hackaday: Why Aren’t We Hacking Cellphones?

When a project has outgrown using a small microcontroller, almost everyone reaches for a single-board computer — with the Raspberry Pi being the poster child. But doing so leaves you stuck with essentially a headless Linux server: a brain in a jar when what you want is a Swiss Army knife.

It would be a lot more fun if it had a screen attached, and of course the market is filled with options on that front. Then there’s the issue of designing a human interface: touch screens are all the rage these days, so why not buy a screen with a touch interface too? Audio in and out would be great, as would other random peripherals like accelerometers, WiFi, and maybe even a cellular radio when out of WiFi range. Maybe Bluetooth? Oh heck, let’s throw in a video camera and high-powered LED just for fun. Sounds like a Raspberry Pi killer!

And this development platform should be cheap, or better yet, free. Free like any one of the old cell phones that sit piled up in my “hack me” box in the closet, instead of getting put to work in projects. While I cobble together projects out of Pi Zeros and lame TFT LCD screens, the advanced functionality of these phones sits gathering dust. And I’m not alone.

Why is this? Why don’t we see a lot more projects based around the use of old cellphones? They’re abundant, cheap, feature-rich, and powerful. For me, there’s two giant hurdles to overcome: the hardware and the software. I’m going to run down what I see as the problems with using cell phones as hacker tools, but I’d love to be proven wrong. Hence the “Ask Hackaday”: why don’t we see more projects that re-use smartphones?

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Ask Hackaday Answered: The Tale of the Top-Octave Generator

We got a question from [DC Darsen], who apparently has a broken electronic organ from the mid-70s that needs a new top-octave generator. A top-octave generator is essentially an IC with twelve or thirteen logic counters or dividers on-board that produces an octave’s worth of notes for the cheesy organ in question, and then a string of divide-by-two logic counters divide these down to cover the rest of the keyboard. With the sound board making every pitch all the time, the keyboard is just a simple set of switches that let the sound through or not. Easy-peasy, as long as you have a working TOG.

I bravely, and/or naïvely, said that I could whip one up on an AVR-based Arduino, tried, and failed. The timing requirements were just too tight for the obvious approach, so I turned it over to the Hackaday community because I had this nagging feeling that surely someone could rise to the challenge.

The community delivered! Or, particularly, [Ag Primatic]. With a clever approach to the problem, some assembly language programming, and an optional Arduino crystalectomy, [AP]’s solution is rock-solid and glitch-free, and you could build one right now if you wanted to. We expect a proliferation of cheesy synth sounds will result. This is some tight code. Hat tip!

Squeezing Cycles Out of a Microcontroller

Let’s take a look at [AP]’s code. The approach that [AP] used is tremendously useful whenever you have a microcontroller that has to do many things at once, on a rigid schedule, and there’s not enough CPU time between the smallest time increments to do much. Maybe you’d like to control twelve servo motors with no glitching? Or drive many LEDs with binary code modulation instead of primitive pulse-width modulation? Then you’re going to want to read on.

There are two additional tricks that [AP] uses: one to fake cycles with a non-integer number of counts, and one to make the AVR’s ISR timing absolutely jitter-free. Finally, [Ag] ended up writing everything in AVR assembly language to make the timing work out, but was nice enough to also include a C listing. So if you’d like to get your feet wet with assembly, this is a good start.

In short, if you’re doing anything with hard timing requirements on limited microcontroller resources, especially an AVR, read on!

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Ask Hackaday: Is There a Common Mechanical Parts Library?

Like many stories, this one started on the roof. This particular roof is located in Michigan and keeps the rain and snow off of the i3Detroit hackerspace. Being an old industrial building, things up on the roof can start getting creaky, and when an almighty screech started coming from one of the rooftop vents as it swiveled in the wind, Nate, one of the group’s coordinators, knew it was time to do something about it.

Previous attempts to silence the banshee with the usual libations had failed, so Nate climbed up to effect a proper repair with real bearings. He dug into the unit, measured for the bearing, and came down to order the correct items. That’s when it struck him: How many should I order? After all, bearings are useful devices, not just to repair a wonky vent but especially handy in a hackerspace, where they can be put to all sorts of uses. Would extra bearings be put to good use, or would they just sit on a shelf gathering dust?

That’s when Nate dropped us a line and asked a question that raises some interesting possibilities, and one which we couldn’t answer offhand: Is there a readily accessible online library of common mechanical parts?

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Ask Hackaday: What Color Are Your PCBs?

A decade ago, buying a custom-printed circuit board meant paying a fortune and possibly even using a board house’s proprietary software to design the PCB. Now, we all have powerful, independent tools to design circuit boards, and there are a hundred factories in China that will take your Gerbers and send you ten copies of your board for pennies per square inch. We are living in a golden age of printed circuit boards, and they come in a rainbow of colors. This raises the question: which color soldermask is most popular, which is most desirable, and why? Seeed Studio, a Chinese PCB house, recently ran a poll on the most popular colors of soldermask. This was compared to their actual sales data. Which PCB color is the most popular? It depends on who you ask, and how you ask it.
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Ask Hackaday: What Is The Future Of Implanted Electronics?

Biohacking is the new frontier. In just a few years, millions of people will have implanted RFID chips under the skin between their thumb and index finger. Already, thousands of people in Sweden have chipped themselves to make their daily lives easier. With a tiny electronic implant, Swedish rail passengers can pay their train ticket, and it goes without saying how convenient opening an RFID lock is without having to pull out your wallet.

That said, embedding RFID chips under the skin has been around for decades; my thirteen-year-old cat has had a chip since he was a kitten. Despite being around for a very, very long time, modern-day cyborgs are rare. The fact that only thousands of people are using chips on a train is a newsworthy event. There simply aren’t many people who would find the convenience of opening locks with a wave of a hand worth the effort of getting chipped.

Why hasn’t the most popular example of biohacking caught on? Why aren’t more people getting chipped? Is it because no one wants to be branded with the Mark of the Beast? Are the reasons for a dearth of biohacking more subtle? That’s what we’re here to find out, so we’re asking you: what is the future of implanted electronics?

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Ask Hackaday: Whatever Happened to Wire Wrapping?

Back in the 70s when I started getting interested in electronics, tons of magazines catered to the hobbyist market. Popular Electronics was my favorite, and I think I remember the advertisements more than anything, probably because they outnumbered articles by a large margin. Looking back, it seemed like a lot of ad space was sold to companies hawking the tools and materials needed for wire wrapping, which was very popular for prototyping in the days before solderless breadboards were readily available. I remember beauty shots of neat rows of small, gold posts, with stripped wires wrapped evenly around them.

To the budding hobbyist, wire wrapping looked like the skill to have. With a huge selection of posts, terminals, and sockets for ICs and discrete components, as well as a wide range of manual and powered wrapping tools, it seemed like you could build anything with wire wrapping. But fast forward just a decade or so, and wire wrapping seemed to drop out of favor. And today — well, does anyone even wire wrap anymore?

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Ask Hackaday: What’s in Your Digital Bugout Bag?

Your eyes pop open in the middle of the night, darting around the darkened bedroom as you wonder why you woke up. Had you heard something? Or was that a dream? The matter is settled with loud pounding on the front door. Heart racing as you see blue and red lights playing through the window, you open the door to see a grim-faced police officer standing there. “There’s been a hazardous materials accident on the highway,” he intones. “We need to completely evacuate this neighborhood. Gather what you need and be ready to leave in 15 minutes.”

Most people will live their entire lives without a scenario like this playing out, but such things happen all the time. Whether the disaster du jour is man-made or natural, the potential to need to leave in a big hurry is very real, and it pays to equip yourself to survive such an ordeal. The primary tool for this is the so-called “bugout bag,” a small backpack for each family member that contains the essentials — clothing, food, medications — to survive for 72 hours away from home.

A bugout bag can turn a forced evacuation from a personal emergency into a minor inconvenience, as those at greatest risk well know — looking at you, Tornado Alley. But in our connected world, perhaps it pays to consider updating the bugout bag to include the essentials of our online lives, those cyber-needs that we’d be hard-pressed to live without for very long. What would a digital bugout bag look like?

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