Kindle, EPUB, And Amazon’s Love Of Reinventing Wheels

Last last month, a post from the relatively obscure Good e-Reader claimed that Amazon would finally allow the Kindle to read EPUB files. The story was picked up by all the major tech sites, and for a time, there was much rejoicing. After all, it was a feature that owners have been asking for since the Kindle was first released in 2007. But rather than supporting the open eBook format, Amazon had always insisted in coming up with their own proprietary formats to use on their readers. Accordingly, many users have turned to third party programs which can reliably convert their personal libraries over to whatever Amazon format their particular Kindle is most compatible with.

Native support for EPUB would make using the Kindle a lot less of a hassle for many folks, but alas, it was not to be. It wasn’t long before the original post was updated to clarify that Amazon had simply added support for EPUB to their Send to Kindle service. Granted this is still an improvement, as it represents a relatively low-effort way to get the open format files on your personal device; but in sending the files through the service they would be converted to Amazon’s KF8/AZW3 format, the result of which may not always be what you expected. At the same time the Send to Kindle documentation noted that support for AZW and MOBI files would be removed later on this year, as the older formats weren’t compatible with all the features of the latest Kindle models.

If you think this is a lot of unnecessary confusion just to get plain-text files to display on the world’s most popular ereader, you aren’t alone. Users shouldn’t have to wade through an alphabet soup of oddball file formats when there’s already an accepted industry standard in EPUB. But given that it’s the reality when using one of Amazon’s readers, this seems a good a time as any for a brief rundown of the different ebook formats, and a look at how we got into this mess in the first place.

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Hands-Free Page Turning

For people who can’t lift a finger to turn the page on their ebooks, a solution is at hand. Seoul based technology company Visual Camp has adapted their eye tracking algorithms to an ebook reader. (Video, embedded below.) Reportedly this is the first time an ebook reader has been so equipped.

If your eye lingers on the page turn button, it will turn the page. While this particular application seems innocuous, some of the other applications being touted seem a little contrived if not invasive. For example, applying gaze analysis while you are reading a book, they claim to be able to make targeted recommendations for other books.

We’ve discussed eye tracking devices before, but they have utilized hardware. Visual Camp claims their AI-based technology only requires a color camera and can be integrated into existing camera-equipped devices, such an this ebook reader. They also offer a SDK for developers who want to add eye tracking control into their apps. Eye tracking is hard, though, and the devil is in the details. It’d be neat to see what they’re up to.

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Hackaday Links: April 19, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic at least seems to be on a downward track, the dystopian aspects of the response to the disease appear to be on the rise. As if there weren’t enough busybodies and bluenoses shaming their neighbors for real or imagined quarantine violations on social media, now we have the rise of social-distancing enforcement drones. These have been in use in hot zones around the world, of course, but have only recently arrived in the US. From New Jersey to Florida, drones are buzzing about in search of people not cowering in fear in their homes and blaring messages about how they face fines and arrest for seeking a little fresh air and sunshine. We’re all in favor of minimizing contact with potentially infected people, but it seems like these methods might be taking things a bit too far.

If you somehow find yourself with some spare time and want to increase your knowledge, or at least expand your virtual library, Springer Publishing has some exciting news for you. The journal and textbook publisher has made over 400 ebook titles available for free download. We had a quick scan over the list, and while the books run the gamut from social sciences to astrophysics, there are plenty of titles that are right in the wheelhouse of most Hackaday readers. There are books on power electronics, semiconductor physics, and artificial intelligence, as well as tons more. They all seem to be recent titles, so the information isn’t likely to be too dated. Give the list a once-over and happy downloading.

Out of all the people on this planet, the three with the least chance of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 blasted off from Kazakhstan this week on Soyuz MS-16 to meet up with the ISS. The long-quarantined crew of Anatoly Ivanishin, Ivan Vagner, and Chris Cassidy swapped places with the Expedition 62 crew, who returned to Earth safely in the Soyuz MS-15 vehicle. It’s a strange new world they return to, and we wish them and their ISS colleagues all the best. What struck us most about this mission, though, was some apparently surreptitiously obtained footage of the launch from a remarkably dangerous position. We saw some analysis of the footage, and based on the sound delay the camera was perhaps as close as 150 meters to the launchpad. It’s hard to say if the astronauts or the camera operator was braver.

And finally, because neatness counts, we got this great tip on making your breadboard jumpers perfectly straight. There’s something satisfying about breadboard circuits where the jumpers are straight and exactly the length the need to be, and John Martin’s method is so simple you can’t help but use it. He just rolls the stripped jumpers between his bench and something flat; he uses a Post-it note pad but just about anything will do. The result is satisfyingly straight jumpers, ready to be bent and inserted. We bet this method could be modified to work with the stiffer wire normally used in circuit sculptures like those of Mohit Bhoite; he went into some depth about his methods during his Supercon talk last year, and it’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet.

Building An Open Hardware EBook Reader

On the whole, hackers aren’t overly fond of other people telling them what they can and cannot do with the hardware or software they’ve purchased. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid DRM and other Draconian rules and limitations as time goes on. Digital “eBooks” and the devices that are used to view them are often the subject of such scrutiny, which is why [Joey Castillo] has made it his mission to develop a open hardware eReader that truly belongs to the user.

[Joey] has been working on what he calls the “The Open Book Project” for a few months now, and he’s just recently announced that the first reader has been successfully assembled and powered up. As is usually the case, a few hardware issues were identified with this initial prototype. But it sounds like the device was largely functional, and only a few relatively minor tweaks to the board layout and components should be necessary before the hardware is ready for the masses.

An earlier prototype, using the Adafruit Feather

If you’re feeling a bit of déjà vu seeing this, don’t worry. The Open Book Project has taken a somewhat circuitous path to get to this first prototype, and [Joey] had previously developed and built the “eBook Feather Wing”. While they look very similar, that earlier incarnation required an Adafruit Feather to operate and was used to help refine the firmware and design concepts that would go into the final hardware.

The Open Book is powered by a ATSAMD51N19A processor with a GD25Q16 2MB flash chip to hold the CircuitPython code, and a microSD slot to store the actual book files. It also features support for audio output via a standard 3.5 mm headset jack, an RGB status LED, and expansion ports that tap into the I2C interface for adding whatever other hardware you can dream up.

One of the most interesting aspects of this Creative Commons licensed reader is the extensive self documentation [Joey] has included on the silkscreen. Every major component on the back of the PCB has a small description of its purpose and in some cases even a breakdown of the pin assignments. The idea being that it not only makes the device easier to assemble and debug, but that it can also explain to the curious user what everything on the board does and why it’s necessary. It’s a concept that makes perfect sense given the goals of the Open Book Project, and something that we frankly would love to see more of.

[Marc Juul] presented his work on a FOSS operating system for older-model Kindles at HOPE XII as a way to avoid Orwellian monitoring of the user’s reading habits, so it’s interesting to see somebody take this idea to the next level with completely libre reader hardware. Unfortunately none of this addresses the limited availability of DRM-free eBooks, but one step at a time.

Replacing A Failed Ebook Reader Battery

Resurrecting a beloved piece of tech can be a trying process when fighting through the mild heartbreak — doubly so if the product has been discontinued. When their old Sony PRS-T1 e-book reader refused to charge after leaving it on their dashboard during a hot day, [Andrea Gangemi] decided to leverage a little techno-necromancy and hack together a fix.

[Gangemi] found the problem to be a battery failure, but there was nary a replacement to be found. An old Motorola mobile phone battery ended up fitting the purpose nicely. Cracking open the e-book reader, de-soldering the old battery and — after deciphering which pins were which — installing the new one was simply done with a fine, high temperature soldering iron tip and Kapton tape to avoid short-circuiting. But hold on — the new battery wouldn’t charge, and the reader displayed a message saying that the battery was over heating; irony, thou art cruel.

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Removing DRM From Aaron Swartz’s EBook

After his death, Aaron Swartz became one of the Internet’s most famous defenders of the free exchange of information, one of the most polarizing figures on the topic of intellectual property, and the most famous person that still held on to the ideals the Internet was founded on. Aaron was against DRM, fought for the users, and encouraged open access to information.

Early this year, Verso Books published the collected writings of Aaron Swartz. This eBook, according to Verso, contains ‘social DRM’, a watermarking technology that Verso estimates will, “contribute £200,000 to the publisher’s revenue in its first year.” This watermarking technology embeds uniquely identifiable personal information into individual copies of eBooks.

With a heavy sigh, you realize you do not live in the best of all possible worlds.

The Institute for Biblio-Immunology had a similar reaction to Verso Books’ watermarking technology applied to the collected writings of Aaron Swartz. In a communique released late last weekend, they cracked this watermarking scheme and released the code to remove this ‘social DRM’ from ePub files.

The watermarking technology in Aaron Swartz’s eBook comes courtesy of BooXtream, a security solution where every eBook sold is unique using advanced watermarking and personalization features. “A publication that has been BooXtreamed can be traced back to the shop and even the individual customer,” the BooXtream website claims, and stands in complete opposition to all of Aaron Swartz’s beliefs.

After analyzing several digital copies of Aaron Swartz’s eBook, the Institute for Biblio-Immunology is confident they have a tool that removes BooXtrem’s watermarks in EPUB eBooks. Several watermarks were found, including the very visible – Ex Libris images, disclaimer page watermarks, and footer watermarks – and the very hidden, including image metadata, filename watermarks, and timestamp fingerprints.

While the Institute believes this tool can be used to de-BooXtream all currently available ‘social DRM’ed’ eBooks, they do expect the watermarking techniques will be quickly modified. This communique from the Institute of Biblio-Immunology merely provides the background of what BooXtream does, not the prescription for the disease of ‘social DRM’. These techniques can be applied to further social DRM’ed eBooks, which, we think, is what Aaron would have done.

Turning A Page With Your Voice

[Justin]’s friend [Steve] injured his spine a while ago, and after asking what would make [Steve]’s life simpler, the answer was easy. [Steve] missed reading books. Sure, e-readers exist, but you still need to turn the page. Now [Steve] can do that with his voice thanks to some microcontrollers, Bluetooth modules, and a voice recognition module.

A voice-activated page turner wasn’t the first attempt at giving [Steve] the ability to turn a page on a Kindle. The first prototype was a big blue button that sent a keyboard code for ‘right arrow’ over Bluetooth, turning a book one page at a time. This worked well until multiple pages turned, and with no back button it was a major nuisance.

After playing with the voice recognition in an Amazon Echo, [Steve] and [Justin] wondered if the same voice recognition technology could be applied to page turns on a Kindle. With a voice recognition Arduino shield from SparkFun it was easy to detect a ‘page down’ command. A Bluetooth module sends HID commands to a Kindle, allowing [Steve] to read a book with only his voice.

[Justin] put all the design files for this build up on Github.