Teardown: “The Oregon Trail” Handheld

If you were a school-age child in the 1980’s or 1990’s, you almost certainly played The Oregon Trail. Thanks to its vaguely educational nature, it was a staple of school computers until the early 2000’s, creating generations of fans. Now that those fans are old enough to have disposable incomes, we are naturally seeing a resurgence of The Oregon Trail merchandise to capitalize on one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses: nostalgia.

Enter the Target-exclusive The Oregon Trail handheld game. Priced at $24.99 USD and designed to look like the classic beige-box computers that everyone of a certain age remembers from “Computer Class”, it allows you to experience all the thrills of dying from dysentery on the go. Naturally there have been versions of the game for mobile devices in the past, but how is that going to help you when you want to make your peers at the coffee shop jealous?

But we’re not here to pass judgement on those who hold a special place for The Oregon Trail in their hearts. Surely, there’s worse things you could geek-out on than interactive early American history. No, you’re reading this post because somebody has put out a handheld PC-looking game system, complete with a simplified keyboard and you want to know what’s inside it. If there was ever a cheap game system that was begging to be infused with a Raspberry Pi and some retro PC games, this thing is it. Continue reading “Teardown: “The Oregon Trail” Handheld”

What’s Inside A Neonode Laser Sensor?

Every once in a while, you get your hands on a cool piece of hardware, and of course, it’s your first instinct to open it up and see how it works, right? Maybe see if it can be coaxed into doing just a little bit more than it says on the box? And so it was last Wednesday, when I was at the Embedded World trade fair, and stumbled on a cool touch display floating apparently in mid-air.

The display itself was a sort of focused Pepper’s Ghost illusion, reflected off of an expensive mirror made by Aska3D. I don’t know much more — I didn’t get to bring home one of the fancy glass plates — but it looked pretty good. But this display was interactive: you could touch the floating 2D projection as if it were actually there, and the software would respond. What was doing the touch response in mid-air? I’m a sucker for sensors, so I started asking questions and left with a small box of prototype Neonode zForce AIR sensor sticks to take apart.

The zForce sensors are essentially an array of IR lasers and photodiodes with some lenses that limit their field of view. The IR light hits your finger and bounces back to the photodiodes on the bar. Because the photodiodes have a limited angle over which they respond, they can be used to triangulate the distance of the finger above the display. Scanning quickly among the IR lasers and noting which photodiodes receive a reflection can locate a few fingertips in a 2D space, which explained the interactive part of the floating display. With one of these sensors, you can add a 2D touch surface to anything. It’s like an invisible laser harp that can also sense distance.

The intended purpose is fingertip detection, and that’s what the firmware is good at, but it must also be the case that it could detect the shape of arbitrary (concave) objects within its range, and that was going to be my hack. I got 90% of the way there in one night, thanks to affordable tools and free software that every hardware hacker should have in their toolbox. So read on for the unfortunate destruction of nice hardware, a tour through some useful command-line hardware-hacking tools, and gratuitous creation of animations from sniffed SPI-like data pulled off of some test points.

Continue reading “What’s Inside A Neonode Laser Sensor?”

One Man’s Quest for a Desktop Spherical Display

[Nirav Patel] is a man on a mission. Since 2011 he has been obsessed with owning a spherical display, the kind of thing you see in museums and science centers, but on a desktop scale. Unfortunately for him, there hasn’t been much commercial interest in this sort of thing as of yet. Up to this point, he’s been forced to hack up his own versions of his dream display.

That is until he heard about the Gakken Worldeye from Japan. This device promised to be exactly what he’s been looking for all these years, and he quickly snapped up two of them: one to use, and one to tear apart. We like this guy’s style. But as is often the case with cheap overseas imports, the device didn’t quite live up to his expectations. Undaunted by the out of the box performance of the Worldeye, [Nirav] has started documenting his attempts to improve on the product.

These displays work by projecting an image on the inside of a frosted glass or plastic sphere, and [Nirav] notes that the projection sphere on the Worldeye is actually pretty decent. The problem is the electronics, namely the anemic VGA resolution projector that’s further cropped down to a 480 pixel circle by the optics. Combined with the low-quality downsampling that squashes down the HDMI input, the final image on the Worldeye is underwhelming to say the least.

[Nirav] decided to rip the original projector out of the Worldeye and replace it with a Sony MP-CL1 model capable of a much more respectable 1280×720. He came up with a 3D printed bracket to hold the MP-CL1 in place, and has put the files up on Thingiverse for anyone who might want to play along at home. The results are better, but unfortunately still not great. [Nirav] thinks the sphere is physically too small to support the higher resolution of the MP-CL1, plus the optics aren’t exactly of the highest quality to begin with. But he’s just glad he didn’t have to build this one from scratch.

Going back to our first coverage of his DIY spherical display in 2012, we have to say his earliest attempts are still very impressive. It looks like this is a case of the commercial market struggling to keep up with the work of independent hackers.

Teardown Of An UWB Location Beacon

Outdoor navigation is a problem that can be considered solved for decades or maybe even centuries, depending on the levels of accuracy, speed and accessibility required. Indoor navigation and location, on the other hand, is a relatively new field and we are still figuring it out. Currently there are at least four competing technologies pushed by different manufacturers. One is ultra wide band radio and [Marco van Nieuwenhoven] shows us what a beacon using this technology is made of.

In his thorough tear down of an Estimote location beacon, he comes up with a complete parts list and schematics for each of the four PCB layers. The beacons are controlled by a Cortex M4 and feature Bluetooth radio in addition to the UWB part. They also come with a three-axis accelerometer, temperature, ambient light and pressure sensors and NFC capability. These boards combine a lot of functionality in a compact package and [Marco]’s stated intent is to create an open source firmware for them.

Hacking proprietary hardware, especially when doing so in public may get you in legal trouble, but in this case [Marco] has contacted the manufacturer, and the relationship seems to be friendly so far. Let’s hope it stays that way; these things look like a promising platform and may become a lower cost alternative to the evaluation kit running the same UWB radio we featured earlier. Alternatively you could ditch the UWB and use WiFi for indoor location.

Milspec Teardown: CP-142 Range Computer

As some of my previous work here at Hackaday will attest to, I’m a big fan of World War II technology. Something about going in with wooden airplanes and leaving with jet fighters and space capable rockets has always captivated me. So when one of my lovingly crafted eBay alerts was triggered by something claiming to be a “Navy WWII Range Computer”, it’s safe to say I was interested.

Not to say I had any idea of what the thing was, mind you. I only knew it looked old and I had to have it. While I eagerly awaited the device to arrive at my doorstep, I tried to do some research on it and came up pretty much empty-handed. As you might imagine, a lot of the technical information for hardware that was developed in the 1940’s hasn’t quite made it to the Internet. Somebody was selling a technical manual that potentially would have covered the function of this device for $100 on another site, but I thought that might be a bit excessive. Besides, where’s the fun in that?

I decided to try to decipher what this device does by a careful examination of the hardware, consultation of what little technical data I could pull up on its individual components, and some modern gear. In the end I think I have a good idea of how it works, but I’d certainly love to hear if there’s anyone out there who might have actually worked with hardware like this and could fill in any blanks.

Continue reading “Milspec Teardown: CP-142 Range Computer”

Tearing Down a $1000 E-Ink Display

Back in 2016, Chinese company Dasung blew past their Indiegogo goal to fund the Paperlike: the world’s first general purpose E-Ink display. Rather than being stuck in a reader from your favorite purveyor of DRM like previous displays, the Paperlike could be used with whatever device you wanted; albeit in black and white and at a relatively low refresh rate. It promised to allow reading and writing on your computer or tablet without needing a backlight. The price was steep at $800 USD for a 13″ display, but clearly enough people were interested to make the device a reality.

At least they have a sense of humor about it.

You can count [Kev Zettler] among the Paperlike devotees. He’s such a fan of the technology that he’s on the road to building a DIY E-Ink laptop using the latest generation Paperlike Pro. But before he can do that, he’s got to take the thing apart and see how it ticks. While a lot of the proprietary magic that makes the display work is still a mystery, he does his best to document the internals for those of us who are a bit to shy to take a screwdriver to a display that costs $1,000.

It looks like the Paperlike Pro is designed (either intentionally or otherwise) to look a bit like the Amazon Kindle, and the construction method is unfortunately the same. The front panel is glued on, and needs to be peeled off by getting under it with something sharp and prying it off carefully. For a $100 e-reader we can deal with that, but for as much as the Paperlike Pro costs that kind of disassembly gives us the chills.

He’s identified the bare display module as a 13.3 inch ED133UT2, which led him down an interesting path investigating other displays in the same family. It turns out the one Dasung went with is essentially the low end of the spectrum. The display has glare issues and is permanently bonded to a piece of glass, whereas other models in the same family boast not only flexibility but anti-glare coatings. There’s even one with integrated touch screen. [Kev] mentions that one of those displays would be much better for his E-Ink laptop project, but we’re assuming he’s not going to toss this thing in the bin just because there’s better options out there.

Beyond the display itself there’s a custom Dasung control board that [Kev] says is a bit too complex for him to decipher, made especially difficult thanks to the fact that the chips have had their labels removed. One interesting discovery though was the USB port which is officially supposed to be just for power has all four wires connected to the main board, raising the possibility of some future software hacking.

You might not know this, but hackers absolutely love E-Ink. We’ve covered some very impressive projects utilizing this paper-like tech in the past, from an entry in our 2017 Hackaday Prize to the chemistry involved in homebrewing your own displays.

Teardown: What’s Inside a Christmas Laser Projector?

In the world of big-box retail, December 26th is a very special day. The Christmas music playing on the overhead speakers switches back to the family friendly Top 40, the store’s decorations get tossed in the compactor, and everything that’s even remotely related to the holiday is put on steep clearance. No more money to be made on the most commercialized of all holidays, so back to business as usual.

It’s in this narrow corridor of time, between the Great Holiday Unloading and the new spring products coming in, that you can find some fantastic deals on Christmas decorations. Not that long ago, this would hardly be exciting news for the readers of Hackaday. But Christmas lights and decorations have really started pushing the envelope in terms of technology: addressable RGB LED strands, Bluetooth controlled effects, and as of the last couple years, friggin’ lasers.

That’s right, you’ve seen them all over the neighborhood, probably took a few stray beams to the eye, you might even own your own. Laser projectors have been one of the most popular Christmas decorations for the last couple of years, and it’s not hard to see why. Just set the projector up in front of your house, and you’re done. No need to get on a ladder and string lights on the roof when you can just blast some directed energy up there instead.

Given how popular they are, I was surprised to see a lone Home Accents Holiday Multi-Color Light Projector on the clearance rack at Home Depot for around $14 a few days after Christmas. This was a 75% price reduction from normal MSRP, and right in that sweet impulse-buy price range. Let’s see what’s hiding inside!

Continue reading “Teardown: What’s Inside a Christmas Laser Projector?”