PCB badges have exploded in popularity in recent years. Starting out as a fun token of entry to a conference, they’re now being developed by all manner of independent groups, with DEFCON serving as the heart of the #badgelife movement. After DEFCON 26, Kate Morris and associates decided to undertake the development of their own badge, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing. Kate’s talk at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference serves to tell the tale of creating a retro game to run on a badge platform.
Of all the people I was looking forward to meeting at Supercon, aside from my Hackaday colleagues with whom I had worked for five years without ever meeting, was a fellow from Germany named Matthias Balwierz. The name might not ring a bell, but he’ll certainly be familiar to Hackaday readers as Bitluni, the sometimes goofy but always entertaining and enlightening face of “Bitluni’s Lab” on YouTube.
I’d been covering Bitluni’s many ESP32 hacks over the years, and had struck up a correspondence with him, swapping ideas and asking for advice on the many projects I start but somehow never finish. Luckily for us, Bitluni is far better on follow-through than I am, and he brought that breadth and depth of experience to the Design Lab stage for that venue’s last talk of the 2019 Superconference, before the party moved next door for the badge-hacking presentations.
Software defined radio has become a staple of the RF tinkerer, but it’s likely that very few of us have ever taken their software defined toolchain outside the bounds of radio. It’s an area explored by Mike Ossmann and Kate Temkin in their newly published Supercon talk as they use GNU Radio to do some things that you might find unexpected.
For most people, a software defined radio is a device. An RTL-SDR dongle perhaps, or the HackRF that a popular multi-tool for working in the radio frequency realm. But as they explain, the SDR hardware can be considered merely as the analogue front end, being just the minimal analogue circuitry coupled with a digitiser. The real software-defined part comes — as you might expect — in the software
Kate and Mike introduce GNU Radio Companion — the graphical UI for GNU Radio — as their tool of choice and praise it’s use as a general purpose digital signal processing system whether or not that includes radio. Taking their own Great Scott Gadgets GreatFET One USB hackers toolkit peripheral as an input device they demonstrate this by analysing the output from a light sensor. Instantly they can analyse the mains frequency in a frequency-domain plot, and the pulse frequency of the LEDs. But their bag of tricks goes much deeper, exploring multiple “atypical use cases” that unlock a whole new world through creative digital signal processing (DSP).
Kids of the 1990’s would call you a liar if you told them that within thirty years you’d go to a conference and be handed a Super Nintendo Entertainment System to wear around your neck. But that’s what happened with the badge Jeroen Domburg, aka [Sprite_TM], designed for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference. It’s built in the Game Boy form factor, complete with a cartridge slot, beautiful screen, and the familiar button layout. But there’s so much more here, like the HDMI port on the bottom and the ability to completely reconfigure the device by dropping a binary file onto it over USB.
Of course what makes this possible is the FPGA at the heart of the design. The story of how the badge was developed is shared in great detail during Sprite’s Supercon talk. The timeline, the hardware choices, and the oopses along the way make for a great story. But what you really don’t want to miss is how he built the machine inside of the FPGA — the collection of Verilog code known as “gateware” that brings together the System-on-a-Chip (SoC). From his delight at being able to spawn more processor cores by changing a single variable, to the fascinating SNES-inspired graphics subsystem, the inside story shared below is even more interesting than the physical device itself.
It’s a simple fact that, in this universe at least, energy is always conserved. For the typical electronic system, this means that the energy put into the system must eventually leave the system. Typically, much of this energy will leave a system as heat, and managing this properly is key to building devices that don’t melt under load. It can be a daunting subject for the uninitiated, but never fear — Adam Zeloof delivered a talk at Supercon 2019 that’s a perfect crash course for beginners in thermodynamics.
Adam’s talk begins by driving home that central rule, that energy in equals energy out. It’s good to keep in the back of one’s mind at all times when designing circuits to avoid nasty, burning surprises. But it’s only the first lesson in a series of many, which serve to give the budding engineer an intuitive understanding of the principles of heat transfer. The aim of the talk is to avoid getting deep into the heavy underlying math, and instead provide simple tools for doing quick, useful approximations.
Virtual reality holds the promise of an immersive experience that can satisfy our senses to a level comparable with… well, reality. The field has come a long way, but Sarah Vollmer makes a good point that many of the VR systems currently in use are bulky and difficult to transfer from person to person.
While headsets have become smaller and lighter and now feature improved motion tracking and resolution, their ability to affect the user’s other senses hasn’t seen nearly the same advancement. Haptic feedback systems need to catch up with headsets, and how to unobtrusively allow users feel simulated physical contact in VR is an area Sarah is researching as part of her PhD work. This is the topic of her 2019 Hackaday Superconference talk which you’ll find embedded below.
If you want to do something you’ve never done before, there are two broadly-defined ways of approaching it: either you learn everything you can about it and try to do it right the first time, or you get in there and get your hands dirty, and work out the details along the way. There’s a lot to be said for living life by the seat of your pants. Just ask anyone who found inspiration in the 11th hour of a deadline, simply because they had no other choice.
Ted Yapo didn’t have a lot of high-speed design knowledge when he set out to build an open-source multi-GHz sampling oscilloscope, but he didn’t let that stop him. Fast forward a year or so, and Ted’s ready to build his third prototype armed with all the hands-on practical knowledge he’s gained from building the first two.
At the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, Ted gave a talk about his journey into the high-stakes world of high-speed design. It’s an inspiring talk, and Ted gives a good look into everything he’s learned in trying to build a sampling ‘scope. We think you’ll appreciate not only Ted’s work, but also the ease with which he explains it all.