Scotty Allen Visits Strange Parts, Builds an iPhone

Scotty Allen has a YouTube blog called Strange Parts; maybe you’ve seen his super-popular video about building his own iPhone “from scratch”. It’s a great story, and it’s also a pretext for a slightly deeper dive into the electronics hardware manufacturing, assembly, and repair capital of the world: Shenzhen, China. After his talk at the 2017 Superconference, we got a chance to sit down with Scotty and ask about cellphones and his other travels. Check it out:

The Story of the Phone

Scotty was sitting around with friends, drinking in one of Shenzhen’s night markets, and talking about how bizarre some things seem to outsiders. There are people sitting on street corners, shucking cellphones like you’d shuck oysters, and harvesting the good parts inside. Electronics parts, new and used, don’t come from somewhere far away and there’s no mail-ordering. A ten-minute walk over to the markets will get you everything you need. The desire to explain some small part of this alternate reality to outsiders was what drove Scotty to dig into China’s cellphone ecosystem.

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Evolution of the Worlds Oldest Computer Festival

The Trenton Computer Festival (TCF) doesn’t have the name recognition of big technology conferences like DEF CON or HOPE. It’s not even as well known as smaller more localized conferences like DerbyCon, ShmooCon, or the Hackaday Superconference. In fact, there’s a good chance that most readers have never even heard of TCF. But despite not holding a place in the hacker lexicon, TCF has plenty to boast about. Its played host to technology luminaries from Bill Gates to Richard Stallman, and now in its 43rd year, holds the title as the longest continually running technology festival in the world.

Bill Gates giving the keynote at TCF in 1989

When originally conceived in 1976, the show was devoted to the dawning age of the personal computer, but since then has evolved into a celebration of technology as a whole. When TCF kicks off on March 17th, there won’t be a media blitz or huge corporate sponsorship. There won’t be a simultaneous online stream of the event, and the only badges worn by speakers or attendees will be of the paper variety.

What you will find at TCF is a full schedule of talks given by people who are passionate about technology in its varied forms. These run the gamut from quantum computing to lock picking, from Arduino to Space Shuttle avionics.

At the heart of TCF is co-founder and current Chair Dr Allen Katz. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr Katz about the challenges of running a conference of this type, and the secret to keeping relevant in a wildly changing technology landscape.

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3D Printing The Final Frontier

While down here there’s room for debate about the suitability of 3D printing for anything more serious than rapid prototyping, few would say the same once you’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth. With 3D printing, astronauts would have the ability to produce objects and tools on-demand from a supply of inert raw building materials. Instead of trying to pack every conceivable spare part for a mission to Mars, replacements (assuming a little forward thinking on the part of the spacecraft designers) can be made to order out of the stock of raw plastic or metal kept on-board. The implications of such technology for deep space travel or off-world settlement simply cannot be overstated.

In the more immediate future, 3D printing can be used to rapidly develop and deploy unmanned spacecraft. Tiny satellites (referred to as CubeSats) could be printed, assembled, and deployed by astronauts already in orbit. Innovations such as these could allow science missions to be planned and executed in months instead of years, and at a vastly reduced cost.

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Mike Ossmann and Dominic Spill: IR, Pirates!

Mike Ossmann and Dominic Spill have been at the forefront of the recent wave of software-defined radio (SDR) hacking. Mike is the hardware guy, and his radio designs helped bring Bluetooth and ISM-band to the masses. Dominic is the software guy who makes sure that all this gear is actually usable. The HackRF SDR is still one of the best cheap choices if you need an SDR that can transmit and receive.

So what are these two doing on stage giving a talk about IR communication? Can you really turn traffic lights green by blinking lights? And can you spoof a TV remote with a cardboard cutout, a bicycle wheel, and a sparkler? What does IR have to do with pirates, and why are these two dressed up as buccaneers? Watch our video interview and find out, or watch the full talk for all of the juicy details.

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Superconference Interview: Alan Yates

In 2015, virtual reality was the future, which means we should all have it right now. One of the most technologically impressive VR sets is the HTC Vive, an amazing piece of kit that’s jam-packed with sensors and has some really cool tech going on inside it.

One of the developers of the HTC Vive and the ever-important ‘Lighthouse’ position sensors is [Alan Yates]. He’s of Valve and gave a talk at last year’s Superconference on Why the Lighthouse Can’t Work. Being able to determine the absolute position of the Valve’s headset is hard, but absolutely necessary for VR. Anything else would be an incomplete VR experience at best, and give you nausea at worst.

We sat down with [Alan] after his talk last year, and now that interview is up. You can check that out below.

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Superconference Interview: Ben Krasnow

Ben Krasnow is a consummate prototyper. He’s built a machine that makes the perfect chocolate chip cookie, he has a ruby laser, and he produces his own liquid nitrogen in-house because simply filling up a dewar is too easy. If you need a prototype, Ben is the guy to talk to.

Ben gave a talk at last year’s Hackaday Superconference on prototyping quickly and verifying technical hypotheses. The philosophy can be summed up simply as, ‘Build First, and Ask Questions Later’. This philosophy served him well when he wanted to see if backscatter x-ray machines were actually more effective than metal detectors at TSA checkpoints. The usual bean-counter protocol for answering this question would be to find an x-ray expert, wait weeks, pay tens of thousands of dollars, and eventually get an answer. Ben simply built his own backscatter x-ray machine from parts sourced on eBay.

After the talk, we asked Ben about the limits of this philosophy of building first and asking questions later. With the physical and mental toolset Ben has, it’s actually easy to build something that can get in the ballpark of answering a question. The problem comes when Ben needs to prove something won’t work.

Answering this question is all a matter of mindset. In Ben’s view, if a prototype works, a hypothesis is verified. Even if it’s a complete accident, he’s totally okay with the results. Some of his other colleagues have an opposite mindset — if a quick and dirty prototype doesn’t work, a research hypothesis is verified.

This rapid-proof-of-concept mindset is something we see a lot in the Hackaday audience, and we know there are some of you out there who have a mind and garage that is at least as impressive as Ben’s. We’ve extended the Call for Proposals for the 2017 Hackaday Superconference. If you have a story about rapid prototyping or just making the perfect chocolate chip cookie with robots, we want to hear about it. Tickets are still available for the Superconference in Pasadena, California on November 11th and 12th.

Superconference Interview: Akiba

Akiba sits at a very interesting intersection of technology and culture. He is well known for his experience with manufacturing in Shenzhen — but he has a few other unique dimension I’ll get to in a minute. His experience manufacturing in China goes far beyond the electronics you might expect and covers, well, everything that could possibly be made. His talk, Shenzhen in 30 Minutes, at last year’s Hackaday Superconference is a crash course in the area, the culture, and the business side of things.

After his talk Sophi Kravtiz caught up with Akiba for an interview and it is surprising to learn that he was a bit nervous for the talk. Obviously he pulled it off without a hitch and we hope this inspires you to give a talk at the 2017 Hackaday Superconference in Pasadena on Nov 11 and 12. The call for proposals closes this Monday so spend some time this weekend and submit your proposal.

Now about those other dimensions. In the interview, Akiba and Sophi discuss two other areas where he has an incredibly unique viewpoint. The first is his founding of a hacker collective in the rural areas outside of Tokyo. Hacker Farm has been growing like crazy of the last three or four years. It seems that people come to visit and realize renting in the area is so cheap they can’t leave. This led to a culture boom around the camp; a self-feeding engine that attracts more visitors (and often visiting chefs who literally feed the group handsomely) and grows the collective.

They’re working on new applications of technology for farming in the area. One aspect of this is water level sensors for the rice farmers in the area which he wrote about at length for Hackaday. Wildlife turns out to be a huge challenge here — apparently spiders will exploit any hole or crevice to build a web which usually renders the sensor worthless. The group is also beginning experiments with the “three sisters” of gardening: corn, beans, and squash and plan to use this as a test bed for all kinds of agricultural automation.

Although touched on only briefly at the end of the interview, Akiba also works with wearable technology at an extreme level. He builds lighting and other interactivity into suits for the Wrecking Crew Orchestra. It’s always a treat to hear his experience dealing with wear and tear, communications latency, and a user interface for the dancers themselves.