Add A Bit Of PCB Badge Glamour To Your Boring ID Badge

When we talk about badges and printed circuit boards, it is usually in the context of the infinite creativity of the Badgelife scene, our community’s own art form of electronic conference badges. It’s easy to forget when homing in on those badges that there are other types of badge, and thus [Saimon]’s PCB badge holder is an entertaining deviation from our norm. His workplace requires employees to carry their credit-card-sized ID pass with them at all times, but the plastic holder that came with his had broken. So he did what any self-respecting engineer would do, and designed his own holder using PCBs.

It’s a three-way sandwich with identical front and back PCBs featuring a nice design, but the clever bit is the middle PCB. It is U-shaped to slide the card in from the side, but to retain the card it has a couple of springy milled PCB arms each with a small retaining tooth on the end. This is an ingenious solution, with just enough give to bend, but not so much as to break.

The three boards are glued together, it seems his original aim was to reflow solder them but this was not successful. The result is an attractive and functional badge holder, which if Hackaday required us to have a corporate ID you can be sure we’d be eyeing up for ourselves.

Behind The Scenes Of The 2019 Superconference Badge

If you count yourself among the several hundred of our closest friends that have joined us at Supplyframe HQ for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, then by now you’ll have your hands on one of this year’s incredible FPGA badges. It should come as no surprise that an incredible amount of time and effort went into developing and manufacturing this exceptionally unique piece of hardware; the slick gadget in your hands today took nearly an entire year to develop, and work continued on it until very literally the last possible moment.

Badge designer Jeroen Domburg (aka Sprite_TM), Hackaday staff, and a team of dedicated volunteers were still putting the final touches on these ambitious devices less than 24 hours before they were distributed to the first wave of Superconference attendees. Naturally, that’s not exactly how things were supposed to go. But when you’ve got a group of people that want to push the envelope and build something truly incredible, convincing them to actually stop working can be a challenge in itself.

In fact, development of the badge is still ongoing. Fixes and improvements are being made to the software even as you read this, and if you haven’t already, you should upgrade your badge to make sure you’ve got the latest and greatest from our international team of wizards. We all know that conference badges have an unfortunate habit of languishing on the shelf and collecting dust, but the 2019 Superconference badge was built to challenge you for longer than just one weekend. Consider yourself warned: for every Supercon badge that gets tossed in a drawer come Monday, Sprite_TM will shed a single tear.

After the break, come along as we turn back the clock and take a look at the last minute dash to get 500+ badges programmed and ready to go before the doors opened for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

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Gigantic FPGA In A Game Boy Form Factor, 2019 Supercon Badge Is A Hardware Siren Song

Look upon this conference badge and kiss your free time goodbye. The 2019 Hackaday Superconference badge is an ECP5 FPGA running a RISC-V core in a Game Boy form factor complete with cartridge slot that is more open than anything we’ve ever seen before: multiple open-source CPU designs were embedded in an open system, developed using the cutting-edge in open-source FPGA tools, and running (naturally) open-source software on top. It’s a 3,000-in-one activity kit for hardware people, software people, and everyone in between.

The brainchild of Jeroen Domburg (aka Sprite_TM), this design has been in the works since the beginning of this year. For more than 500 people headed to Supercon next week, this is a source of both geeky entertainment and learning for three action-packed days and well beyond. Let’s take a look at what’s on the badge, what you need to know to hack it, and how the design serves as a powerful development tool long after the badge hacking ceremonies have wrapped up.

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Saintcon Badge Is An Enigma No More

Through the weekend Twitter has been a-titter with news coming out of Saintcon, the annual security conference in Provo, Utah. Now that the weekend is over we can finally get our hands on full hardware and software sources for the curvy, LED-covered badge we’ve been salivating over and a write up by its creators [compukidmike] and [bashNinja]. Let’s dive in and see what’s waiting!

Design

This year’s badge is designed to represent a single tooth on a single rotor of an Enigma machine. The full function of an Enigma machine is quite complex, but an individual device has three rotors with 26 teeth each (one for each letter) as well as a keypad for input and a character display to show each enciphered letter. For reference, the back of the badge has a handy diagram of a badge’s place in the Enigma system.

Reminiscent of the WWII device which the badge design recalls, each unit includes a full QWERTZ keyboard (with labeled keys!) and RGB “lampboard” for individual character output, but unlike the original there’s also a curved 16 x 64 RGB LED display made from those beguiling little ~1mm x 1mm LEDs. All in, the device includes 1051 LEDs! Combined with the unusually non-rectilinear shape of the badge and the Enigma-style Saintcon logo it makes for an attractive, cohesive look.

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Tiny Cube Hosts A Hearty Tube

Tiny PCBAs and glowy VFD tubes are like catnip to a Hackaday writer, so when we saw [hamster]’s TubeCube tube segment driver we had to dig in to learn more. We won’t bury the lede here; let’s enjoy a video of glowing tubes before we go further:

The TubeCube is built to fit the MiniBadge badge addon standard, which is primarily used to host modules on the SAINTCON conference badge. A single TubeCube hosts a VFD tube, hardware to provide a 70 V supply, and a microcontroller for communication and control. Each TubeCube is designed to accept ASCII characters via UART to display on it’s display, but they can also be chained together for even more excitement. We’re not sure how [hamster] would be able to physically wear the beast in the video above, but if he can find a way, they all work together. If you’re interested in seeing the dead simple UART communication scheme take a look at this file.

We think it’s also worth pointing about the high voltage supply. To the software or mechanically minded among us it’s easy to get trapped thinking about switching power supplies as a magical construct which can only be built using all-in-one control ICs. But [hamster]’s supply is a great reminder that a switching supply, even a high voltage one, isn’t as complex as all that. His design (which he says was cribbed from Adafruit’s lovely Ice Tube Clock) is essentially composed of the standard primitives. A big low voltage capacitor C1 to source the burst of energy which will be boosted, the necessary inductor/high voltage cap C2 which ends up at the target voltage, and a smoothing cap C3 to make the output a little nicer. It’s controlled by the microcontroller toggling Q1 to control the current flow through L1. The side effect is that by controlling the PWM frequency [hamster] can vary the brightness of the tubes.

Right now it looks like the repository has a schematic and sources, which should be enough to build a small tube driver of your own. If you can’t get enough TubeCubes, there’s one more video (of a single module) after the break.

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Hands-On: BornHack’s Light Sabre Badge

A badge modelled after the handle of a light sabre? Yes Please! This Star Wars themed hardware is the work of hardware designer Thomas Flummer for the 2019 BornHack conference held in Denmark last month. (Check out my roundup of the event if this is the first you’ve heard of it.)

It's not a badge but a light sabre! The front of the BornHack 2019 badge.
It’s not a badge but a light sabre! The front of the BornHack 2019 badge.

It fits the hand nicely, and with clever side-on placement of the two AA battery holders (a trick we first saw with the 2016 Hackday Superconference badge) it also keeps any protruding solder joints away from clothing. In the centre of the badge is the 240×240 pixel colour display that also hides the Silicon Labs Happy Gecko processor and its surrounding components. Three buttons at the edge of the board to the left of the screen are a nice fit for your thumb when holding it in your left hand — a good choice if you happen to leave your right hand behind on a visit to the Cloud City of Bespin.

Between the battery holders lies a four-way joystick, two buttons, and a 6-pin add-on connector. Above it is a micro SD card socket and a micro USB socket, and above them are an IR emitter and receiver. All of the hardware is on the front of the PCB, with no components on the reverse (other than the solder joints for the batteries). But it is there you will find a set of exposed pads for serial and I2C interfaces. Continue reading “Hands-On: BornHack’s Light Sabre Badge”

These Tips Make Assembling A Few Hundred PCBs Easier

There are a few common lessons that get repeated by anyone who takes on the task of assembling a few hundred PCBs, but there are also unique insights to be had. [DominoTree] shared his takeaways after making a couple hundred electronic badges for DEFCON 26 (that’s the one before the one that just wrapped up, if anyone’s keeping track.) [DominoTree] assembled over 200 Telephreak badges and by the end of it he had quite a list of improvements he wished he had made during the design phase.

Some tips are clearly sensible, such as adding proper debug and programming interfaces, or baking an efficient test cycle into the firmware. Others are not quite so obvious, for example “add a few holes to your board.” Holes can be useful in unexpected ways and cost essentially zero. Even if the board isn’t going to be mounted to anything, a few holes can provide a way to attach jigs or other hardware like test fixtures.

[DominoTree] ended up having to attach multiple jumper wires to reprogram boards after assembly, and assures us that “doing this a bunch of times really sucked.”
Other advice is more generic but no less important, as with “eliminate as many steps as possible.” Almost anything adds up to a significant chunk of time when repeated hundreds of times. To the basement hacker, something such as pre-cut and pre-tinned wires might seem like a shameful indulgence. But cutting, stripping, tinning, then hand-soldering a wire adds up to significant time and effort by iteration number four hundred (that’s two power wires per badge) even if one isn’t staring down a looming deadline.

[DominoTree] also followed up with additional advice on making assembly easier. Our own [Brian Benchoff] has also shared his observations on the experience of developing and assembling a large number of Hackaday Superconference badges, including what it took to keep things moving along when inevitable problems surfaced.

You don’t need to be making batches of hundreds for these lessons to pay off, so keep them in mind and practice them on your next project.