Non-Nefarious Raspberry Pi Only Looks Like a Hack

We’re going to warn you right up front that this is not a hack. Or at least that’s how it turned out after [LiveOverflow] did some digital forensics on a mysterious device found lurking in a college library. The path he took to come to the conclusion that nothing untoward was going on was interesting and informative, though, as is the ultimate purpose of the unknown artifacts.

As [LiveOverflow] tells us in the video below, he came upon a Reddit thread – of which we can now find no trace – describing a bunch of odd-looking devices stashed behind garbage cans, vending machines, and desks in a college library. [LiveOverflow] recognized the posted pictures as Raspberry Pi Zeroes with USB WiFi dongles attached; curiosity piqued, he reached out to the OP and offered to help solve the mystery.

The video below tells the tale of the forensic fun that ensued, including some questionable practices like sticking the device’s SD card into the finder’s PC. What looked very “hackerish” to the finder turned out to be quite innocuous after [LiveOverflow] went down a remote-diagnosis rabbit hole to discern the purpose of these devices. We won’t spoil the reveal, but suffice it to say they’re part of a pretty clever system with an entirely non-nefarious purpose.

We thought this was a fun infosec romp, and instructive on a couple of levels, not least of which is keeping in mind how “civilians” might see gear like this in the wild. Hardware and software that we deal with every day might look threatening to the general public. Maybe the university should spring for some labels describing the gear next time.

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Lightsaber Uses Pogo Pins to Make Assembly a Breeze

There was an endless supply of fantastic projects at Supercon this year, but one whose fit and finish really stood out was [Scott]’s lightsaber. If you were walking around and saw someone with a very bright RGB device with a chromed-out handle hanging off their belt it was probably this, though it may have been hard to look at directly. On the outside, the saber looks like a well-polished cosplay prop, and it is! But when Scott quickly broke down the device into component pieces it was apparent that extra care had been put into the assembly of the electronics.

Like any good lightsaber replica the blade is lit, and wow is it bright. The construction is fairly simple, it’s a triplet of WS2812B LED strips back to back on a triangular core, mounted inside a translucent polycarbonate tube with a diffuser. Not especially unusual. But the blade can be popped off the hilt at a moments notice for easy transport and storage, so the strips can’t be soldered in. Connectors would have worked, but who wants flying wires when they’re disconnecting their lightsaber blade. The answer? Pogo pins! Scott runs the power, ground, and data lines out of the strips and into a small board with slip ring-style plated rings. On the hilt, there is a matching array of pogo pins to pass along power and data. The data lines from all the strips are tied together minimizing the number of connections to make, and the outer two power rings have more than one pin for better current-carrying capacity. A handy side effect is that there is nowhere on the blade where there aren’t LEDs; the strips go down to the very end of the blade where it meets the main board inside the hilt.

The hilt is filled with an assembly of 18650’s and a Teensy mounted with a custom shield, all fit inside a printed midframe. The whole build is all about robust design that’s easy to assemble. The main board is book-ended by perpendicular PCBs mounted to the ends, one at the top to connect to the blade and one at the bottom to connect to a speaker. Towards the bottom there is space for an optional Bluetooth radio to allow remote RGB control.

Scott is selling this as a product but also provides detailed instructions and parts lists for each component. Assembly instructions for the blade are here. The hilt is here. And pogo adapters are on OSH Park here. An overview of the firmware with links to GitHub is here. Check out a walkthrough of the handle assembly and blade attachment after the break!

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A Bluetooth Upgrade For An Unusual Set Of Headphones

We will have all picked up something from a junk pile or swap meet in our time that caught our eye not because we needed it but because it looked cool. [Quinn Dunki] did just that with an irresistible set of 1980s air traffic control headphones. What did she do with them? Turn them into a set of Bluetooth headphones of course!

The ‘phones in question are particularly interesting, as they turned out upon inspection to be a two-way radio in disguise. Cracking them open revealed a radio board and a logic board, and what makes them particularly interesting to this Hackaday scribe’s eye is their choice of frequency. She finds a crystal with a VHF airband frequency multiplier and concludes that they must operate there, but a look at the photos reveals all the ingredients of a classic AM or low HF receiver. There is a ferrite rod antenna and a variable capacitor, if we didn’t know that these were very high-end professional ‘phones we’d almost suspect they were a novelty AM radio from Radio Shack. If any readers can shed any light on the frequency and purpose of this device, we’re all ears.

The conversion involved a Sparkfun Bluetooth module breakout board paired with a little audio power amplifier. The original drivers were high-impedance and one of them had died, so she replaced them with a modern pair of identical size. The control buttons were mounted in the headphone’s external housing, after a wrong turn into attempting to create a custom enclosure. The result is a rather novel but high-quality set of ‘phones, and one we rather wish we’d found ourselves.

Which Wireless is Right Wireless?

Back in the early days of Arduino proliferation (and before you ask, yes we realize there was a time before that too), wireless was a strange and foreign beast. IR communication was definitely a thing. And if you had the funds there was this cool technology called ZigBee that was available, often in funny blue house-shaped XBee boards. With even more funds and a stomach for AT commands you could even bolt on a 2G cell radio for unlimited range. WiFi existed too, but connecting it to a hobbyist ecosystem of boards was a little hairier (though maybe not for our readership).

But as cell phones pushed demand for low power wireless forward and the progression of what would become the Internet of marking Terms (the IoT, of course) began, a proliferation of options appeared for wireless communication. Earlier this week we came across a great primer on some of the major wireless technologies which was put together by Digikey earlier in the year. Let’s not bury the lede. This table is the crux of the piece:

There are some neat entries here that are a little less common (and our old friend, the oft-maligned and never market-penetrating ZigBee). It’s actually even missing some entries. Let’s break it down:

  • Extremely short range: Just NFC. Very useful for transferring small amount of sensitive information slowly, or things with high location-relevance (like between phones that are touching).
  • Short range: BLE, Zigbee, Z-Wave, etc. Handy for so-called Personal Area Networks and home-scale systems.
  • Medium/long range: Wifi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave, LoRaWAN: Sometimes stretching for a kilometer or more in open spaces. Useful for everything from emitting tweets to stitching together a mesh network across a forrest, as long as there are enough nodes. Some of these are also useful at shorter range.
  • Very Long range/rangeless: Sigfox, NB-IoT, LTE Category-0. Connect anywhere, usually with some sort of subscription for network access. Rangeless in the sense that range is so long you use infrastructure instead of hooking a radio up to a Raspberry Pi under your desk. Though LoRa can be a fun exception to that.

You’re unlikely to go from zero to custom wireless solution without getting down into the mud with the available dev boards for a few different common protocols, but which ones? The landscape has changed so rapidly over the years, it’s easy to get stuck in one comfortable technology and miss the appearance of the next big thing (like how LoRaWAN is becoming new cool kid these days). This guide is a good overview to help catch you up and help decide which dev kits are worth a further look. But of course we still want to hear from you below about your favorite wireless gems — past, present, and future — that didn’t make it into the list (we’re looking at you 433 MHz).

Adding Bluetooth to Original SNES Controllers

There’s a bunch of companies selling wireless Super Nintendo style controllers out there. You can go on Amazon and get any number of modern pads that at least kinda-sorta look like what came with Nintendo’s legendary 1990’s game console. They’ve got all kinds of bells and whistles, Bluetooth, USB-C, analog sticks, etc. But none of them are legitimate SNES controllers, and for some people that’s just not good enough.

[sjm4306] is one of those people. He wanted to add Bluetooth and some other modern niceties to a legitimate first-party SNES controller, so he picked up a broken one off of eBay and got to work grafting in his custom hardware. The final result works with Nintendo’s “Classic Edition” consoles, but the concept could also work with the original consoles as well as the computer if you prefer your classic games emulated.

A custom ATMEGA328P-powered board polls the controller’s SPI serial shift register in much the same way the original SNES would have. It then takes those button states and sends them out over UART with a HC-05 Bluetooth module. The controller is powered by a 330 mAh 3.7V battery, and a charging circuit allows for easily topping the controller off with a standard USB cable.

A particularly nice touch on the controller is the use of custom light pipes for the status LEDs. [sjm4306] made them by taking pieces of transparent PLA 3D printer filament, heating and flattening the end, and then sanding it smooth. This provides a diffusing effect on the light, and we’ve got to say it looks very good. Definitely a tip to file away for the future.

On the receiving side, this project was inspired by a custom NES Classic Edition Advantage controller we featured last year, and borrows the work creator [bbtinkerer] did to get his receiver hardware talking to the Classic console over I2C.

We’ve seen a number of projects which have added wireless functionality to the classic Super Nintendo controller, but most tend to be more invasive than this one. We like the idea of reading the controller’s original hardware rather than completely gutting it.

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Maker Faire NY: Getting Physical with Minecraft

If you’ve been hanging around Hackaday for a while, you’ve likely seen a few attempts to bridge the real world with the voxel paradise that is Minecraft. In the past, projects have connected physical switches to virtual devices in the game, or took chunks of the game’s blocky landscape and turned it into a 3D printable file. These were interesting enough endeavors, but fairly limited in their scope. They assumed you had an existing world or creation in Minecraft that you wanted to fiddle with in a more natural way, but didn’t do much for actually playing the game.

But “Physical Minecraft” presented at the 2018 World Maker Faire in New York, offered a unique way to bring players a bit closer to their cubic counterparts. Created by [Manav Gagvani], the physical interface has players use a motion detecting wand in combination with an array of miniature Minecraft blocks to build in the virtual world.

The wand even detects various gestures to activate an array of “Spells”, which are effectively automated build commands. For example, pushing the wand forward while making a twisting motion will automatically create a tunnel out of the selected block type. This not only makes building faster in the game, but encourages the player to experiment with different gestures and motions.

A Raspberry Pi 3 runs the game and uses its onboard Bluetooth to communicate with the 3D printed wand, which itself contains a MetaWear wearable sensor board. By capturing his own moves and graphing the resulting data with a spreadsheet, [Manav] was able to boil down complex gestures into an array of integer values which he plugged into his Python code. When the script sees a sequence of values it recognizes, the relevant commands get passed onto the running instance of Minecraft.

You might assume the wand itself is detecting which material block is attached to it, but that bit of magic is actually happening in the base the blocks sit on. Rather than trying to uniquely identify each block with RFID or something along those lines, [Manav] embedded an array of reed switches into the base which are triggered by the presence of the magnet hidden in each block.

These switches are connected directly to the GPIO pins of the Raspberry Pi, and make for a very easy way to determine which block has been removed and installed on the tip of the wand. Things can get tricky if the blocks are put into the wrong positions or more than one block are removed at a time, but for the most part it’s an effective way to tackle the problem without making everything overly complex.

We’ve often talked about how kid’s love for Minecraft has been used as a way of getting them involved in STEM projects, and “Physical Minecraft” was a perfect example. There was a line of young players waiting for their turn on the wand, even though what they were effectively “playing” was the digital equivalent of tossing rocks. [Manav] would hand them the wand and explain the general idea behind his interface, reminding them that the blocks in the game are large and heavy: it’s not enough to just lower the wand, it needs to be flicked with the speed and force appropriate for the hefty objects their digital avatar is moving around.

Getting kids excited about hardware, software, and performing physically demanding activities at the same time is an exceptionally difficult task. Projects like “Physical Minecraft” show there can be more to playing games than mindless button mashing, and represent something of a paradigm shift for how we handle STEM education in an increasingly digital world.

Give Yourself A Sixth Sense With An Arduino

If you carry a smartphone around in your pocket, you have a GPS navigation system, a compass, an altimeter, and a very powerful computer at your fingertips. It’s the greatest navigational device ever created. To use this sextant of the modern era you’ve got to look down at a screen. You need to carry a phone around with you. It’s just not natural.

For this entry into the Hackaday Prize, [Vojtech Pavlovsky] has an innovative solution to direction finding that will give you a sixth sense. It’s a headband that turns your temples into the input for a clever way to find yourself around the city or a forest, and it does it with just an Arduino and a few other bits.

The idea behind the Ariadne Headband is to create a haptic navigation system for blind people, runners, bikers, or really anybody. It does this by mounting four vibration motors on a headband, connecting those motors to an Arduino, sniffing data from a digital compass, and getting data over Bluetooth from an Android app.

All of these parts come together to form a new sense — a sense of direction. By simply telling the app to make sure you’re always oriented North, or to guide you along the grid of city streets, this headband becomes an inconspicuous and extraordinarily useful way to get around.