Hybrid Technique Breaks Backscatter Distance Barrier

Low cost, long range, or low power — when it comes to wireless connectivity, historically you’ve only been able to pick two. But a group at the University of Washington appears to have made a breakthrough in backscatter communications that allows reliable data transfer over 2.8 kilometers using only microwatts, and for pennies apiece.

For those unfamiliar with backscatter, it’s a very cool technology that modulates data onto RF energy incident from some local source, like an FM broadcast station or nearby WiFi router. Since the backscatter device doesn’t need to power local oscillators or other hungry components, it has negligible power requirements. Traditionally, though, that has given backscatter devices a range of a few hundred meters at most. The UW team, led by [Shyamnath Gollokota], describe a new backscatter technique (PDF link) that blows away previous records. By combining the spread-spectrum modulation of LoRa with the switched attenuation of incident RF energy that forms the basis for backscatter, the UW team was able to cover 2800 meters for under 10 microwatts. What’s more, with printable batteries or cheap button cells, the backscatter tags can be made for as little as 10 cents a piece. The possibilities for cheap agricultural sensors, ultracompact and low power wearable sensors, or even just deploy-and-forget IoT devices are endless.

We’ve covered backscatter before, both for agricultural uses and for pirate broadcasting stations. Backscatter also has also seen more cloak and dagger duty.

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Quick and Easy IoT Prototyping with Involt

IoT, web apps, and connected devices are all becoming increasingly popular. But, the market still resembles a wild west apothecary, and no single IoT ecosystem or architecture seems to be the one bottle of snake oil we’ll all end up using. As such, we hackers are keen to build our own devices, instead of risking being locked into an IoT system that could become obsolete at any time. But, building an IoT device and interface takes a wide range of skills, and those who are lacking skill in the dark art of programming might have trouble creating a control app for their shiny new connected-thing.

Enter Involt, which is a framework for building hardware control interfaces using HTML and CSS. The framework is built on Node-Webkit, which means the conventions should be familiar to those with a bit of web development background. Hardware interactions (on Arduinos) are handled with simple CSS classes. For example, a button might contain a CSS class which changes an Arduino pin from high to low.

Involt can take that CSS and convert it into a function, which is then sent to the Arduino via serial or Bluetooth communication. For more advanced functionality, Javascript (or really any other language) can be used to define what functions are generated — and, in turn, sent to the Arduino. But, all that is needed for the basic functionality necessary for many IoT devices (which might only need to be turned on and off, or set to a certain value) is a bit of HTML and CSS knowledge. You’ll create both the interface and the underlying hardware interactions all within an HTML layout with CSS styling and functionality.

While Involt isn’t the only framework to simplify hardware interaction (it’s not even the only Node.js based method), the simplicity is definitely laudable. For those who are just getting started with these sorts of devices, Involt can absolutely make the process faster and less painful. And, even for those who are experienced in this arena, the speed and efficiency of prototyping with Involt is sure to be useful.

Rendering Fractals With Just HTML and CSS

What’s better than spending hours and hours with CSS
trying to get images and text to center properly? Not [Jim], but he did notice that
CSS3 was a very powerful language. He wondered about building Tetris, a Turing Machine, or rendering fractals purely in CSS and HTML. The jury is still out if a Turing machine is possible, but he did manage to generate some simple fractals using just CSS and HTML, no JavaScript required.

Most fractals are recursive, and CSS rules can be applied to HTML objects that have already have rules applied to them. It’s not quite recursion, because there’s no way to dynamically generate HTML with CSS. However, with just a few tags, [Jim] can generate one level of a Pythagoras Tree. This method requires placing tags in the HTML for every level of the tree, greatly limiting the cool factor. That’s easily remedied by a few CTRL+Cs and CTRL+Vs.

The same technique can be used to render a Koch snowflake – seen on this page. Yes, it’s all HTML and CSS, without JavaScript. Why? Because he can, and that’s good enough for us.

Web scraping tutorial

Web scraping is the act of programmatically harvesting data from a webpage. It consists of finding a way to format the URLs to pages containing useful information, and then parsing the DOM tree to get at the data. It’s a bit finicky, but our experience is that this is easier than it sounds. That’s especially true if you take some of the tips from this web scraping tutorial.

It is more of an intermediate tutorial as it doesn’t feature any code. But if you can bring yourself up to speed on using BeautifulSoup and Python the rest is not hard to implement by trial and error. [Hartley Brody] discusses investigating how the GET requests are formed on your webpage of choice. Once that URL syntax has been figured out just look through the source code for tags (css or otherwise) that can be used as hooks to get at your target data.

So what can this be used for? A lot of things. We’d suggest reading the Reddit comments as there are several real world uses discussed there. But one that immediately pops to mind is the picture harvesting [Mark Zuckerburg] used when he created Facemash.

Hacking Hack a Day with Greasemonkey

had-script

Ever since Hack a Day first emerged on the scene in 2004, the site’s design has been pretty consistent. The black background with its green and white text, while a bit dubious looking at work, is fine by me. For others however, the site’s design is a constant eyesore both figuratively and literally. [James Litton] is one of those readers, and he wrote in to share a tip that helps him read up on the latest hacks without killing his eyes.

[James] uses Firefox to browse the web, so he whipped up a small Greasemonkey script that tweaks Hack a Day’s style sheet once it reaches his browser. His script inverts the background while changing a few other items, making for a much more comfortable read. Overall we found the change to be pretty reasonable, but go ahead and judge for yourself – you can see the before and after screen shots in greater detail on his site.

[James] also points out that the script should work just fine in Chrome, for those of you who prefer that browser instead.

So if your eyes are a bit on the sensitive side, feel free to grab his script and customize away – I don’t think we’ll be changing the theme any time soon.