Hackaday Links: December 8, 2019

Now that November of 2019 has passed, it’s a shame that some of the predictions made in Blade Runner for this future haven’t yet come true. Oh sure, 109 million people living in Los Angeles would be fun and all, but until we get our flying cars, we’ll just have to console ourselves with the ability to “Enhance!” photographs. While the new service, AI Image Enlarger, can’t tease out three-dimensional information, the app is intended to sharpen enlargements of low-resolution images, improving the focus and bringing up details in the darker parts of the image. The marketing material claims that the app uses machine learning, and is looking for volunteers to upload high-resolution images to improve its training set.

We’ve been on a bit of a nano-satellite bender around here lately, with last week’s Hack Chat discussing simulators for CubeSats, and next week’s focusing on open-source thrusters for PocketQube satellites. So we appreciated the timing of a video announcing the launch of the first public LoRa relay satellite. The PocketCube-format satellite, dubbed FossaSat-1, went for a ride to space along with six other small payloads on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched from New Zealand. Andreas Spiess has a short video preview of the FossaSat-1 mission, which was designed to test the capabilities of a space-based IoT link that almost anyone can access with cheap and readily available parts; a ground station should only cost a couple of bucks, but you will need an amateur radio license to uplink.

We know GitHub has become the de facto standard for source control and has morphed into a collaboration and project management platform used by everybody who’s anybody in the hacking community. But have you ever wished for a collaboration platform that was a little more in tune with the needs of hardware designers? Then InventHub might be of interest to you. Currently in a limited beta – we tried to sign up for the early access program but seem to have been put on a waiting list – it seems like this will be a platform that brings versioning directly to the ECAD package of your choice. Through plugins to KiCad, Eagle, and all the major ECAD players you’ll be able to collaborate with other designers and see their changes marked up on the schematic — sort of a visual diff. It seems interesting, and we’ll be keeping an eye on developments.

Amazon is now offering a stripped-down version of their Echo smart speaker called Input, which teams up with speakers that you already own to satisfy all your privacy invasion needs on the super cheap — only $10. At that price, it’s hard to resist buying one just to pop it open, which is what Brian Dorey did with his. The teardown is pretty standard, and the innards are pretty much what you’d expect from a modern piece of surveillance apparatus, but the neat trick here involved the flash memory chip on the main board. Brian accidentally overheated it while trying to free up the metal shield over it, and the BGA chip came loose. So naturally, he looked up the pinout and soldered it to a micro-SD card adapter with fine magnet wire. He was able to slip it into a USB SD card reader and see the whole file system for the Input. It was a nice hack, and a good teardown.

Echo And Reverb In A Pretty Little Box

These days, if there’s a chip worth using, there will be a cheap pre-built module on eBay to make using it even easier. It’s a great time saver, and projects that used to take a couple of weekends can now be completed in a rainy afternoon. [lonesoulsurfer] knows how it is, and took advantage of this very approach to build this tidy echo & reverb effects box.

The build starts with a PT2399 echo/delay line module sourced of eBay, a part that we’ve learned much about thanks to the hard work of others. A resistor is cut off the board, enabling echo as well as reverb functionality. It’s laced up in a box with a couple of pots and a switch to control the effect, and hooked up with 6.5mm audio jacks to enable it to be easily used with guitars, synths, or karaoke machines.

It’s a fun build, and one that could serve as as a useful component in a larger setup. Adding a 3PDT switch could make it more useful as a guitar pedal, or it could be integrated into a Eurorack module, too. We’d particularly love to see the results possible from stuffing five of the modules in a single box and routing them into each other in new and exciting ways. If you pull that off, drop us a line.

Uncovering The Echo Dot’s Hidden USB Port

If you upgraded to Amazon’s latest Echo Dot, you might have been surprised to find that the diminutive voice assistant had shed its USB port. Earlier models of the Dot used a garden variety micro USB port for power, which hackers eventually figured out also provided a helpful way to snoop around inside the device’s firmware. The fact that the USB port was deleted on the latest Echo Dot in favor of a simple barrel connector for power was seen by some as a sign that Amazon was trying to keep curious owners out of their hardware.

But as [Brian Dorey] shows, all they did was put a bump in the road. While they removed the external USB connector, the traces for it are still on the board waiting to be accessed. Even better, it turns out the USB data lines are connected to the test points located on the bottom of the Dot. All you need is a simple breakout that will connect through the existing opening in the device’s case, and you’ve got your USB port back.

So what can you do with USB on the Echo Dot? Well, not much right now. [Brian] found that the Dot shows up as a Mediatek device under Linux using lsusb, and fastboot can see it and even confirms the presence of a locked bootloader. It’s going to take some work from the community to see how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.

Even if you’re not interested in restoring its USB port, [Brian] has uncovered a wealth of fascinating hardware information about the Echo Dot during his deep-dive. He’s mapped out many of the test points located throughout the device’s PCBs, and found a few interesting points that might be worth further investigation. For example, he found that driving one of the pins high would trigger the Dot to mute its microphones; which could be useful for anyone looking to cover Alexa’s ears.

[Brian] first cracked open the Echo Dot last month, after scoring one for cheap during Amazon’s Prime Day sale. It looks like he’s making fairly rapid progress on unraveling the mysteries of this popular gadget, and we’re very interested in seeing where this research takes us.

Taking A Peek Inside Amazon’s Latest Dot

Like a million or so other people, [Brian Dorey] picked up a third generation Echo Dot during Amazon’s big sale a couple weeks ago. Going for less than half its normal retail price, he figured it was the perfect time to explore Amazon’s voice assistant offerings. But the low price also meant that he didn’t feel so bad tearing into the thing for our viewing pleasure.

By pretty much all accounts, the Echo Dot line has been a pretty solid performer as far as corporate subsidized home espionage devices go. They’re small, fairly cheap, and offer the baseline functionality that most people expect. While there was nothing precisely wrong with the earlier versions of the Dot, Amazon has used this latest revision of the device to give the gadget a more “premium” look and feel. They’ve also tried to squeeze a bit better audio out of the roughly hockey puck sized device. But of course, some undocumented changes managed to sneak in there as well.

For one thing, the latest version of the Dot deletes the USB port. Hackers had used the USB port on earlier versions of the hardware to try and gain access to the Android (or at least, Amazon’s flavor of Android) operating system hiding inside, so that’s an unfortunate development. On the flip side, [Brian] reports there’s some type of debug header on the bottom of the device. A similar feature allowed hackers to gain access to some of Amazon’s other voice assistants, so we’d recommend hopeful optimism until told otherwise.

The Echo Dot is powered by a quad-core Mediatek MT8516BAAA 64-bit ARM Cortex-A35 processor and the OS lives on an 8GB Samsung KMFN60012M-B214 eMMC. A pair of Texas Instruments LV320ADC3101 ADCs are used to process the incoming audio from the four microphones arranged around the edge of the PCB, and [Brian] says there appears to be a Fairchild 74LCX74 flip-flop in place to cut the audio feed when the user wants a bit of privacy.

Of course, the biggest change is on the outside. The new Dot is much larger than the previous versions, which means all the awesome enclosures we’ve seen for its predecessor will need to be reworked if they want to be compatible with Amazon’s latest and greatest.

A Sneak Peek At Anechoic Chamber Testing

[Mathieu Stephan] has something new in the works, and while he isn’t ready to take the wraps off of it yet, he was kind enough to document his experience putting the mysterious new gadget through its paces inside an anechoic chamber. Considering the majority of us will never get inside of one of these rooms, much less have the opportunity to test our own hardware in one, he figured it was the least he could do.

If you’re not familiar with an anechoic chamber, don’t feel bad. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you’ll have at the local makerspace. Put simply it’s a room designed to not only to remove echos on the inside, but also be completely isolated from the outside. But we aren’t just talking about sound deadening, the principle can also be adapted to work for electromagnetic waves. So not only is in the inside of the anechoic chamber audibly silent, it can also be radio silent.

This is important if you want to test the performance of things like antennas, as it allows you to remove outside interference. As [Mathieu] explains, both the receiver and transmitter can be placed in the chamber and connected to a vector network analyzer (VNA). The device is able to quantify how much energy is being transferred between the two devices, but the results will only be accurate if that’s the only thing the VNA sees on its input port.

[Mathieu] can’t reveal images of the hardware or the results of the analysis because that would give too much away at this point, but he does provide the cleverly edited video after the break as well as some generic information on antenna analysis and the type of results one receives from this sort of testing. Our very own [Jenny List] has a bit more information on the subject if you’d like to continue to live vicariously through the accounts of others. For the rest of us, we’ll just have to settle for some chicken wire and a wooden crate.

Continue reading “A Sneak Peek At Anechoic Chamber Testing”

The PT2399 Delay/Echo Chip Data Sheet You Never Had

If you are fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to play with an analogue-reel-to-reel tape recorder in a well-equipped studio, you probably looped the tape around to create an echo, or a delay in the audio. It was a desirable effect to have, but not a practical one for a guitar pedal or similar portable accessory. Silicon alternatives for creating delays have been in production since the 1960s, first the so-called bucket brigade delay lines that used a switched chain of on-chip capacitors, and more recently all-digital chips that process the delay by storing samples in RAM. One of the more popular of those is the Princeton Technology PT2399, but it comes with something of a snag for the experimenter in the form of a sparse data sheet. Thankfully the folks at [Electrosmash] have come to the rescue on that front with a thorough technical examination of the chip that should fill in any gaps in the official documentation.

After a brief examination of the range of chips of which the 2399 is a part, they dive right into the chip’s internals by rearranging the internal circuit diagram from the data sheet to the point at which it makes more sense. At which point the difference between the chip’s delay and echo functions becomes obvious, through the inclusion of a feedback path.

We then are taken through the pins, examining what lies behind the power supply and analog inputs and outputs. We are somewhere between a data sheet and an app note here, as some of this is information rarely present even in really good data sheets. Finally, we are taken through the chip’s performance, with real-world distortion and noise measurements. Armed with this page, the would-be PT2399 designer really can say they know what they are working with.

Surprisingly few PT2399s have appeared on these pages, however one did pop up in the Synthbike.

Cloning The Echo Show With A Fabric Wrapped Pi

After seeing an Echo Show in the flesh plastic, [anonteapot] was inspired to create his own take on Amazon’s latest on-ramp to their ecosystem. He had the Raspberry Pi and a touch screen, but not much else. He doesn’t even have a dedicated work area at home, much less something as exotic as a 3D printer to run off a custom case. For this decidedly low-tech build, all that was required tool-wise was a razor blade knife and a screwdriver.

The majority of the device, which he refers to as the PiShow, is made of hand-cut pieces of MDF. In fact, the whole build relied on his ability to neatly cut pieces of MDF with hand tools on his bedroom floor. We wouldn’t suggest such a setup as a general rule, but respect for pushing ahead without so much as a table to work on.

To connect the pieces of MDF, he used angle brackets from the hardware store. These were originally 90 degrees, but he bent them by hand to achieve the angles seen in the final device. He notes that there was no specific angles he was aiming for when putting the box together; he simply wanted something that looked cool and was large enough internally to hold his electronics.

Covering the PiShow is some jersey material that [anonteapot] bought at a local fabric store. It has a little stretch to it so he was able to pull it tight over the MDF frame and keep the wrinkles out. As a general rule we don’t see many projects here at Hackaday that are wrapped in fabric, but we’ve got to admit, it makes for a nice final look.

The trickiest part of the build ended up being the side panels. While the rest of the frame was relatively simple, the sides needed to precisely conform to some fairly complex geometry. Luckily the side panels aren’t actually holding any weight, so he decided to just cut them out of cardboard. There’s a bit of a gap at the top, but he’s going to try and rectify that with a visit from his glue gun soon.

Internally things are sort of just hanging around inside the case, but since this device is never going to move off of the nightstand, it probably doesn’t need to be terribly secure. In truth, getting all the hardware mounted up cleanly with the construction methods available to [anonteapot] would have been a bit tricky anyway.

This is the first time we’ve seen somebody take a swing at replicating the Echo Show, usually we just see people trying to cram the Echo Dot into something else. If the software side is more your thing, be sure to check out this excellent guide on Alexa Skills development by our very own [Al Williams].