The Way Of The PCB Artist: How To Make Truly Beautiful Circuit Boards

Getting your own PCBs made is a rite of passage for the hardware hacker. Oftentimes, it’s a proud moment, and many of us choose to immortalise the achievement with a self-aggrandizing credit on the silk screen, or perhaps a joke or personal logo. However, as far as artistically customized PCBs go, the sky really is the limit, and this is the specialty of [TwinkleTwinkie], whose Supercon talk covers some of the pitfalls you can run into when working at the edges of conventional PCB processes. 

[TwinkleTwinkie]’s creations are usually badges of one type or other — they’re meant to be worn on a lanyard around your neck, as a pin, or as a decoration added to another badge. The whole point is the aesthetic, and style is just as important as functionality. With diverse inspirations like Futurama, Alice in Wonderland and the shenanigans of the GIF community, his badges blend brightly colored boards with a big helping of LEDs and artistic silkscreening to create electronic works of art.

Keeping PCB Fab Houses from Upsetting the Artwork

These days, PCB fab houses offer more choice than ever, in terms of silkscreens, soldermask colors, and other options.  However, fundamentally, their primary concern is to produce reliable, accurate, electronically functional boards — and it’s something that can cause problems for #badgelife hackers designing for more aesthetic reasons.
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Hackaday Superconference: Nick Poole On Boggling The Boardhouse

By now we are all used to the role of the printed circuit board in artwork, because of the burgeoning creativity in the conference and unofficial #BadgeLife electronic badge scenes. When the masters of electronic design tools turn their hand to producing for aesthetic rather than technical reasons, the results were always going to be something rather special.

Nick Poole is an ace wrangler of electrons working for SparkFun, and as such is someone with an impressive pedigree when it comes to PCB design. Coming on stage sporting a beret with an awesome cap badge, his talk at the recent Hackaday Superconference concerned his experience in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in PCB manufacture. It was a primer in the techniques required to create special work in the medium of printed circuit boards, and it should be essential viewing for anybody with an interest in this field.

Though he starts with the basics of importing graphics into a PCB design package, the meat of his talk lies in going beyond the mere two dimensions of a single PCB into the third dimension either by creating PCBs that interlock, or by stacking boards.

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Finally, A Usable Rotary Phone From A Conference Badge

A few weeks ago we featured a project from [Dan], a work-in-progress in which he was attaching an EMF 2018 electronic conference badge to a rotary phone. At the time we looked forward to his progress, expecting maybe to see it in our travels round the field at EMF 2021. We have to say we did him a disservice then, because he’s made excellent progress and has now turned it into a fully functional cellular rotary phone.

When we left him he’d interfaced the dial to the badge and not a lot else, but it was enough to spark our interest because we think there should be more re-use of old electronic conference badges. Since then he’s reverse engineered the original bell with the help of a motor driver and a cheap DC-to-DC converter, and the handset with the guts of a Bluetooth headset because in experimenting he managed to kill the badge’s audio circuitry.

The result can be seen in the video below the break, and we have to admit it looks pretty good. Depending where you are in the world you’ll either love or hate the ringing sound, but that is of little consequence to the utility of the device. If you have a drawer full of conference badges gathering dust, perhaps it’s time to give them a second look.

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Tiny SAO, Tough CTF Challenge!

Over the year or two since the SAO connector specification was published, otherwise known as the Shitty Addon, we’ve seen a huge variety of these daughter boards for our favourite electronic badges. Many of them are works of art, but there’s another subset that’s far less about show and more about clever functionality. [Uri Shaked]’s little SAO is rather unprepossessing to look at, being a small round PCB with only an ATtiny microcontroller, reset button, and solitary LED, but its interest lies not in its looks but its software. It contains a series of CTF puzzles within, and despite its apparent simplicity should contain enough to detain even the hardiest puzzle-solving hackers.

It’s a puzzle of three parts, at the simplest level merely flashing the LED is enough, while the next level involves retrieving a buried string from the firmware and the last requires replacing the string with one of your own. You are only allowed to do so through the SAO connector, but fortunately you do have the benefit of access to the source code to trawl for vulnerabilities. There is a hefty hint that the data sheet for the microcontroller might also be useful.

[Uri] has appeared many times on these pages, most recently when he added a microscope to his 3D printer.

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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Eth0 Autumn 2019: Tiny Camp, Creative Badge

The Dutch organisation eth0 has run a series of informal small camps over the years, never with an attendance too far into three figures, and without pre-planned events or entertainment. What happens is at the instigation of the attendees, and the result is a weekend of much closer socialising and working together on projects than the large camps where you spend your time running around to catch everything.

The largest of hacker camps offer all the lights, robots, tschunk, and techno music you can stomach; they can be a blast but also overwhelming. I made my way eth0 over the past week weekend, enjoying the more intimate size and coming away having made friendships from spending time with great people at a large private camping hostel near Lichtenvoorde. This is in the far east of the country near the German border, to which in the company of a British hardware hacker friend I traveled in the tiny European hatchback. Netherlands roads are so easy to navigate!

A prototype tensegrity structure. Image: Igor Nikolic.
A prototype tensegrity structure. Image: Igor Nikolic.

At the event was the usual array of activities, though since it was a restricted photography affair I’m short on wider shots that would include people. This year’s hit came from surplus flipdot displays from retired German buses, with plenty of glitches as their quirks were figured out by our friends Nilkas Fauth and Jan Henrik. Something tells me I’ll be seeing a lot of those fluorescent circles in the future.

I’d brought along the nucleus of a textile village, and RevSpace in the Hague had added their embroidery machine to my overlocker and sewing machines. Its operator was Boekenwuurm from Hackalot in Eindhoven who was kind enough to embroider a Wrencher for me, and now I want one of these 600-Euro machines even if I can’t afford one. She and RevSpace’s Igor Nikolic were experimenting with inflatables and tensegrity structures, creating prototypes with an eye to more impressive installations at future camps.

An entertaining tale of a couple of days hanging out with friends in the Netherlands countryside could probably be spun into a reasonable tale, but there was something more interesting still at this camp. It had a badge, courtesy of the prolific badge.team Dutch badge crew. It didn’t come with their trademark ESP32 firmware though, instead in keeping with the budget of the event it was a prototyping board on which attendees could create their own badges. What came forth from that was extremely impressive, and continued after the event.

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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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