Microsoft Kinect Episode IV: A New Hope

The history of Microsoft Kinect has been of a technological marvel in search of the perfect market niche. Coming out of Microsoft’s Build 2018 developer conference, we learn Kinect is making another run. This time it’s taking on the Internet of Things mantle as Project Kinect for Azure.

Kinect was revolutionary in making a quality depth camera system available at a consumer price point. The first and second generation Kinect were peripherals for Microsoft’s Xbox gaming consoles. They wowed the world with possibilities and, thanks in large part to an open source driver bounty spearheaded by Adafruit, Kinect found an appreciative audience in robotics, interactive art, and other hacking communities. Sadly its novelty never translated to great success in its core gaming market and Kinect as a gaming peripheral was eventually discontinued.

For its third-generation, Kinect retreated from gaming and found a role in Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset running “backwards”: tracking user’s environment instead of user’s movement. The high cost of a HoloLens put it out of reach of most people, but as a head-mounted battery-powered device, it pushed Kinect technology to shrink in physical size and power consumption.

This upcoming fourth generation takes advantage of that evolution and the launch picture is worth a thousand words all on its own: instead of a slick end-user commercial product, we see a populated PCB awaiting integration. The quoted power draw of 225-950mW is high by modern battery-powered device standards but undeniably a huge reduction from previous generations’ household AC power requirement.

Microsoft’s announcement heavily emphasized how this module will work with their cloud services, but we hope it can be persuaded to run independently from Microsoft’s cloud just as its predecessors could run independent of game consoles. This will be a big factor for adoption by our community, second only to the obvious consideration of price.

[via Engadget]

Windows Notepad Now Supports Unix Line Endings

In what is probably this century’s greatest advancement in technology, Windows Notepad now supports Unix line endings. This is it, people. Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? Where were you when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon? Where were you when Challenger blew up? Where are you now?

Previously, Windows Notepad only supported Windows End of Line Characters — a Carriage Return (CR) and Line Feed (LF). Unix text documents use LF for line endings, and Macs use CR for line endings. The end result of this toppling of the Tower of Babel for End of Line characters is a horrific mess; Windows users can’t read Unix text files in Notepad, and everything is just terrible. Opening a Unix text file in Windows produces a solid block of text without any whitespace. Opening a Windows text file in anything else puts little rectangles at the end of each line.

Starting with the current Window 10 Insider build, Notepad now supports Unix line endings, Macintosh line endings, and Windows line endings. Rejoice, the greatest problem in technology has now been solved.

Harmony Hub Hacked and Patched

When we say “hack” here we most often mean either modifying something to do something different or building something out of parts. But as we build more Internet-connected things, it is worthwhile to think about the other kind of hack where people gain unauthorized access to a system. For example, you wouldn’t think a remote control would be a big deal for hackers. But the Logitech Harmony Hub connects to the Internet and runs Linux. What’s more is it can control smart devices like door locks and thermostats, so hacking it could cause problems. FireEye’s Mandian Red Team set out to hack the Harmony and found it had a lot of huge security problems.

The remote didn’t check Logitech’s SSL certificate for validity. It didn’t have a secure update process. There were developer tools (an SSH server) left inactive in the production firmware and — surprisingly — the root password was blank! The team shared their findings with Logitech before publishing the report and the latest patch from the company fixes these problems. But it is instructive to think about how your Raspberry Pi project would fare under the same scrutiny.

In fact, that’s the most interesting part of the story is the blow-by-blow description of the attack. We won’t spoil the details, but the approach was to feed the device a fake update package that turned on a dormant ssh server. Although they started by trying to solder wires to a serial port, that wasn’t productive and the final attack didn’t require any of that.

We’ve looked at some ways to harden Linux systems like the Raspberry Pi before, but honestly, it is an ongoing battle. We’ve seen plenty of devices with cybersecurity holes in them — some not found by good guy hackers first.

Friday Hack Chat: Building Robotics With The MeArm

Somewhere, in a storage closet used by every computer science or engineering program, is a robot arm. It’s there, you’ve probably never seen it, but it’s there. Originally, this hugely expensive robotic arm was intended to be a truly remarkable pedagogical tool, allowing students to learn about reverse kinematics and control systems. Now, most likely, that robotic arm is covered in dust, either because the arm itself is broken or because the only instructor that used it retired.

These days, robotic arms are within nearly everyone’s reach. Ben Gray’s MeArm is a popular robotic arm made out of laser cut acrylic and powered by hobby servos that anyone can put together. It’s the minimum viable robotic arm, and for this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about robot arms, what they can do, and how they can be used in education.

During this Hack Chat, we’ll be discussing the ins and outs of reverse kinematics and manufacturing robot kits with Ben. We’ll also be talking about Ben’s current efforts to get people of various backgrounds in on robotics education. Topics that will be covered include:

  • designing and manufacturing the MeArm
  • robotic arms
  • robotics kits
  • robots made for hacking

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, May 4th.  Here’s a clock counting down the time until the Hack Chat starts.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

3D Printing Electronics Direct to Body

Some argue that the original Star Trek series predicted the flip phone. Later installments of the franchise used little badges. But Babylon 5 had people talking into a link that stuck mysteriously to the back of their hand. This might turn out to be true if researchers at the University of Minnesota have their way. They’ve modified a common 3D printer to print electronic circuits directly to the skin, including the back of the hand, as you can see in the video below. There’s also a preview of an academic paper available, but you’ll have to pay for access to that, for now, unless you can find it on the gray market.

In addition, the techniques also allowed printing biologically compatible material directly on the skin wound of a mouse. The base printer was inexpensive, an Anycubic Delta Rostock that sells for about $300.

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A Low Cost, Dead Tree Touch Screen

Remember the “paperless office”? Neither do we, because despite the hype of end-to-end digital documents, it never really happened. The workplace is still a death-trap for trees, and with good reason: paper is cheap, literally growing on trees, and it’s the quickest and easiest medium for universal communication and collaboration. Trouble is, once you’re done scribbling your notes on a legal pad or designing the Next Big Thing on a napkin, what do you do with it?

If you’re anything like us, the answer to that question is misplacing or destroying the paper before getting a chance to procrastinate transcribing it into some useful digital form. Wouldn’t paper that automatically digitizes what you draw or write on it be so much better? That’s where this low-cost touch-sensitive paper (PDF link) is headed, and it looks like it has a lot of promise. Carnegie-Mellon researchers [Chris Harrison] and [Yang Zhang] have come up with cheap and easy methods of applying conductive elements to sheets of ordinary paper, and importantly, the methods can scale well to the paper mill to take advantage of economies of scale at the point of production. Based on silk-screened conductive paints, the digitizer uses electrical field tomography to locate touches and quantify their pressure through a connected microcontroller. The video below shows a prototype in action.

Current cost is 30 cents a sheet, and if it can be made even cheaper, the potential applications range from interactive educational worksheets to IoT newspapers. And maybe if it gets really cheap, you can make a touch-sensitive paper airplane when you’re done with it.

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Microsoft Secures IoT from the Microcontroller Up

Frustrated by the glut of unsecured IoT devices? So are Microsoft. And they’re using custom Linux and hardware to do something about it.

Microsoft have announced a new ecosystem for secure IoT devices called “Azure Sphere.” This system is threefold: Hardware, Software, and Cloud. The hardware component is a Microsoft-certified microcontroller which contains Microsoft Pluton, a hardware security subsystem. The first Microsoft-certified Azure Sphere chip will be the MediaTek MT3620, launching this year. The software layer is a custom Linux-based Operating System (OS) that is more capable than the average Real-Time OS (RTOS) common to low-powered IoT devices. Yes, that’s right. Microsoft is shipping a product with Linux built-in by default (as opposed to Windows Subsystem for Linux). Finally, the cloud layer is billed as a “turnkey” solution, which makes cloud-based functions such as updating, failure reporting, and authentication simpler.

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