Scotty Allen Visits Strange Parts, Builds an iPhone

Scotty Allen has a YouTube blog called Strange Parts; maybe you’ve seen his super-popular video about building his own iPhone “from scratch”. It’s a great story, and it’s also a pretext for a slightly deeper dive into the electronics hardware manufacturing, assembly, and repair capital of the world: Shenzhen, China. After his talk at the 2017 Superconference, we got a chance to sit down with Scotty and ask about cellphones and his other travels. Check it out:

The Story of the Phone

Scotty was sitting around with friends, drinking in one of Shenzhen’s night markets, and talking about how bizarre some things seem to outsiders. There are people sitting on street corners, shucking cellphones like you’d shuck oysters, and harvesting the good parts inside. Electronics parts, new and used, don’t come from somewhere far away and there’s no mail-ordering. A ten-minute walk over to the markets will get you everything you need. The desire to explain some small part of this alternate reality to outsiders was what drove Scotty to dig into China’s cellphone ecosystem.

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Can Open-source Hardware Be Like Open-source Software?

Hardware and software are certainly different beasts. Software is really just information, and the storing, modification, duplication, and transmission of information is essentially free. Hardware is expensive, or so we think, because it’s made out of physical stuff which is costly to ship or copy. So when we talk about open-source software (OSS) or open-source hardware (OSHW), we’re talking about different things — OSS is itself the end product, while OSHW is just the information to fabricate the end product, or have it fabricated.

The fabrication step makes OSHW essentially different from OSS, at least for now, but I think there’s something even more fundamentally different between the current state of OSHW and OSS: the pull request and the community. The success or failure of an OSS project depends on the community of people developing it, and for smaller projects that can hinge on the ease of a motivated individual digging in and contributing. This is the main virtue of OSS in my opinion: open-source software is most interesting when people are reading and writing that source.

With pure information, it’s essentially free to copy, modify, and push your changes upstream so that others can benefit. The open hardware world is just finding its feet in this respect, but that’s changing as we speak, and I have great hopes. Costs of fabrication are falling all around, open and useful tools are being actively developed to facilitate interchange of the design information. I think there are lessons that OSHW can learn from the OSS community’s pull-request culture, and that will help push the hardware hacker’s art forward.

What would it take to get you to build someone else’s OSHW project, improve on it, and contribute back? That’s a question worth a thoughtful deep dive.

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2017: As The Hardware World Turns

The year is almost over, and now it’s time to look back on the last fifty-odd weeks. What happened in this year in hacking? 2017 will go down as the beginning of another AI renaissance, although we’re not going to call it that; this year was all about neural nets and machine learning and advancements resulting from the development of self-driving cars and very beefy GPUs. Not since the 80s have we seen more work in ‘AI’ fields. What will it amount to this time around the hype cycle? Find out in a few years.

Biohacking was big this year, and not just because people are installing RFID tags and magnets in their hands. CRISPR is allowing for Star Trek-style genome hacking, and this year saw in vivo experiments to enable and disable individual genes in rat models. Eventually, someone is going to get a Nobel for CRISPR.

We’re going to Mars, and soon — very soon — a SpaceX Falcon Heavy is going to either lob a Tesla Roadster into solar orbit or the Atlantic Ocean. We learned about the BFR that will take dozens of people to Mars in a single launch. Boeing and Lockheed think they can compete with the Elon Musk PR powerhouse. The Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module passed its in-flight test on the ISS, giving the space station a new storage closet. Even in space, amazing stuff is happening this year.

Is that it? Not by a long shot. This year has seen some of the coolest hacks we’ve ever seen, and some of the dumbest security breaches ever. Hackaday is doing awesome. What else did 2017 have? Read on to find out.

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If 3D Printer, Then Custom Aluminum Extrusion Brackets

Aluminum extrusions are a boon for mechanical assemblies, but they require a stock of brackets and other hardware to be kept on hand. [mightynozzle] has decided to make things a little easier for prototyping and low-stress assemblies by creating a collection of 3D printable brackets for aluminum extrusions. 3D printing your own bracket hardware means faster prototyping, and if the assemblies don’t need the extra strength and rigidity of metal brackets you can just stick with the 3D printed versions.

The files are on Thingiverse, and include STL files of common brackets as well as an OpenSCAD script for customizing. Not familiar with OpenSCAD? No problem, we have a quick primer with examples.

This project showcases two things well. The first is that while brackets are not particularly expensive or hard to obtain, it can still be worth 3D printing them to reduce the overall amount of hardware one needs to keep on hand to make prototyping faster. The other is that 3D printing can shine when it comes to the creation of things like brackets: a few dimes’ worth of plastic can be turned into precise yet geometrically simple objects that would be a pain to make by other means. It certainly beats sitting on one’s hands waiting for parts to be delivered.

My Kingdom for a Capacitor

While working on a project recently, I required a capacitor of around 1000 μF and went rummaging through my collection of parts. No luck there. At that point I’d usually go through my collection of junk electronics and computer motherboards, but I had recently gone through and tossed the stuff that had been laying around for as long as I could remember. No matter, I thought. I’ll just head over to RadioShack and…

Now, I have been accused of many things over the years, but “deep” is certainly not one of them. Yet, at this moment I had what could only be described as an existential crisis. There is no RadioShack, not in my state at least. I don’t live in an area that’s blessed with a maker “scene”, so no independent shop or even a hackerspace within reasonable driving distance of me either. I could order it online of course, but everyone’s trying to sell them in bulk and shipping will take a few days at least. A few days? Who knows where my interests will be in a few days. How can I get anything done under these conditions?

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I got in the car and took a ride to the only place I knew where I could by electronic components for cheap: Goodwill. Continue reading “My Kingdom for a Capacitor”

Opening the Door to Functional Prints

If you are going to do something as a joke, there is nothing to say that you can’t do a nice job of it. If you’re like [Michael], a whimsical statement like “Wouldn’t it be funny to put Gründerzeit-style doors on the server cabinet?” might lead down a slippery slope. True to his word, [Michael] not only installed the promised doors, but he did a darn nice job of it.

Buying new doors was the easy part because the door frame and hinges were not standardized back then, so there was nothing on the server cabinet to his mount doors. He walks us through all the steps but the most interesting point was the 3D printed door hinges which [Michael] modeled himself and printed in steel. His new hinges feature his personal flair, with some Voronoi patterning while matching the shape of the originals. We love seeing 3D printed parts used as functional hardware, and hinges are certainly a piece of hardware meant to hold up under pressure.

This is not the first 3D printed door hardware we’ve seen. Check out this innovative latch printed as a single piece and here’s the skinny on making flexible objects yourself.

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An Old Video Game Controller on Even Older Computer

For those of us not old enough to remember, and also probably living in the States, there was a relatively obscure computer built by Microsoft in the early 80s that had the strong Commodore/Atari vibe of computers that were produced before PCs took over. It was known as the MSX and only saw limited release in the US, although was popular in Japan and elsewhere. If you happen to have one of these and you’d like to play some video games on it, though, there’s now a driver (of sorts) for SNES controllers.

While the usefulness of this hack for others may not help too many people, the simplicity of the project is elegant for such “ancient” technology. The project takes advantage of some quirks in BASIC for reading a touch-pad digitizer connected to the joystick port using the SPI protocol. This is similar enough to the protocol used by NES/SNES controllers that it’s about as plug-and-play as 80s and 90s hardware can get. From there, the old game pad can be used for anything that the MSX joystick could be used for.

We’ve seen a handful of projects involving the MSX, so while it’s not as popular as Apple or Commodore, it’s not entirely forgotten, either. In fact, this isn’t even the first time someone has retrofitted a newer gaming controller to an MSX: the Wii Nunchuck already works for these machines.