Making A Birthday Party Magical With Smart Wands

Visitors to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios are able to cast “spells” by waving special interactive wands in the air. Hackers like us understand that there must be some unknown machinations happening behind the scenes to detect how the wands are moving, but for the kids wielding them, it might as well be real magic. So when his son asked to have a Harry Potter themed birthday party, [Adam Thole] decided to try recreating the system used at Universal Studios in his own home.

Components used in the IR streaming camera

The basic idea is that each wand has a reflector in the tip, which coupled with strong IR illumination makes them glow on camera. This allows for easy gesture recognition using computer vision techniques, all without any active components in the wand itself.

[Adam] notes that you can actually buy the official interactive wands from the Universal Studios online store, and they’d even work with his system, but at $50 USD each they were too expensive to distribute to the guests at the birthday party. His solution was to simply 3D print the wands and put a bit of white prismatic reflective tape on the ends.

With the wands out of the way, he turned his attention to the IR imaging side of the system. His final design is a very impressive 3D printed unit which includes four IR illuminators, a Raspberry Pi Zero with the NoIR camera module. [Adam] notes that his software setup specifically locks the camera at 41 FPS, as that triggers it to use a reduced field of view by essentially “zooming in” on the image. If you don’t request a FPS higher than 40, the camera will deliver a wider image which didn’t have any advantage in this particular project.

The last part of the project was taking the video stream from his IR camera and processing it to detect the bright glow of a wand’s tip. For each frame of the video the background is first removed and then any remaining pixel that doesn’t exceed a set brightness level if ignored. The end result is an isolated point of light representing the tip of the wand, which can be fed into Open CV’s optical flow function to show [Adam] what shape the user was trying to make. From there, his software just needs to match the shape with one of the stock “spells”, and execute the appropriate function (such as changing the color of the lights in the room) with Home Assistant.

Overall, it’s an exceptionally well designed system considering the goal was simply to entertain a group of children for a few hours. We almost feel bad for the other parents in the neighborhood; it’s going to take more than a piƱata to impress these kids after [Adam] had them conjuring the Dark Arts at his son’s party.

It turns out there’s considerable overlap between hacker types and those who would like to have magic powers (go figure). [Jennifer Wang] presented her IMU-based magic wand research at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference, and in the past we’ve even seen other wand controlled light systems. If you go all the way back to 2009, we even saw some Disney-funded research into interactive wand attractions for their parks, which seems particularly prescient today.

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Transcending the Stack with the Right Network Protocol

The increase in network-connected devices the past years has been something of a dual-edged sword. While on one hand it’s really nice to have an easy and straight-forward method to have devices talk with each other, this also comes with a whole host of complications, mostly related to reliability and security.

With WiFi, integrating new devices into the network is much trickier than with Ethernet or CAN, and security (e.g. WPA and TLS) isn’t optional any more, because physical access to the network fabric can no longer be restricted. Add to this reliability issues due to interference from nearby competing WiFi networks and other sources of electromagnetic noise, and things get fairly complicated already before considering which top-layer communication protocol one should use. Continue reading “Transcending the Stack with the Right Network Protocol”

Talking Telegram with the ESP8266

At this point it’s something of a given that a member of the ESP8266 family is likely your best bet if you want to cobble together a small Internet-connected gadget. Costing as little as $3 USD, this well documented all-in-one solution really can’t be beat. But of course, the hardware is only one half of the equation. Deciding how to handle the software side of your homebrew Internet of Things device is another story entirely.

A simple Telegram ESP8266 switch

It would be fair to say that there’s no clear-cut “right” way to approach the software, and it really depends on the needs or limitations of your particular project. For example [Brian Lough] finds that building Telegram support into his ESP8266 allows him to accomplish his goals with the minimum amount of fuss while at the same time using an environment he’s already comfortable with. He recently wrote in to share one of his Telegram projects with us, and in the video after the break, takes the time to explain some of the things he likes best about controlling his hardware through the encrypted chat platform.

But you don’t have to take his word for it, you can try it yourself. Thanks to the software library that [Brian] has developed to connect his projects to Telegram, the aptly named “Universal Telegram Bot Library”, anyone can easily follow in his footsteps. Adding his Telegram library to your next ESP8266 project is as easy as selecting it in the Arduino IDE. From there the video explains the process for getting a bot ID from Telegram, and ultimately how you use it to receive messages from the service. What you do with those messages is entirely up to you.

According to [Brian], the main downside is that you are beholden to a web service to control your local devices; not ideal if the Internet goes down or you would rather your little hacker projects not talk to the big scary Internet in the first place. If you’d rather keep all your smart things talking within the confines of your own network, perhaps your next project could be setting up a private MQTT server.

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Hack My House: Garage Door Cryptography Meets Raspberry Pi

Today’s story is one of victory and defeat, of mystery and adventure… It’s time to automate the garage door. Connecting the garage door to the internet was a must on my list of smart home features. Our opener has internet connection capabilities built-in. As you might guess, I’m very skeptical of connecting a device to the internet when I have no control over the software running on it.

The garage door is controlled by a button hung on the garage wall. There is only a pair of wires, so a simple relay should be all that is needed to simulate the button press from a Raspberry Pi. I wired a relay module to a GPIO on the Pi mounted in the garage ceiling, and wrote a quick and dirty test program in Python. Sure enough, the little relay was clicking happily– but the garage door wasn’t budging. Time to troubleshoot. Does the push button still work? *raises the garage door* yep. How about the relay now? *click…click* nope.

You may have figured out by now, but this garage door opener isn’t just a simple momentary contact push button. Yes, that’s a microcontroller, in a garage door button. This sort of scenario calls for forensic equipment more capable than a simple multimeter, and so I turned to Amazon for a USB oscilloscope that could do some limited signal analysis. A device with Linux support was a must, and Pico Technology fit the bill nicely.

Searching for a Secret We Don’t Actually Need

My 2 channel Picotech oscilloscope, the 2204A, finally arrived, and it was time to see what sort of alien technology was in this garage door opener. There are two leads to the button, a ground and a five volt line. When the button is pressed, the microcontroller sends data back over that line by pulling the 5 V line to ground. If this isn’t an implementation of Dallas 1-wire, it’s a very similar concept.

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Automate Your Home From the Clearance Rack

The month or so after the holidays have always been a great time to pick up some interesting gadgets on steep clearance, but with decorations and lights becoming increasingly complex over the last few years, the “Christmas Clearance” rack is an absolute must see for enterprising hackers. You might just luck out like [ModernHam] and find a couple packs of these dirt cheap wireless light controllers, which can fairly easily be hacked into the start of a home automation system with little more than the Raspberry Pi and a short length of wire.

In the video after the break, [ModernHam] walks the viewer through the start to finish process of commanding these cheap remote plugs. Starting with finding which frequencies the remotes use thanks to the FCC database and ending with using cron to schedule the transmission of control signals from the Pi, his video really is a wealth of information. Even if you don’t have this particular model of remote plug, or don’t necessarily want to setup a home automation system, there’s probably some element of this video that you could still adapt to your own projects.

The first step of the process is figuring out how the remote is communicating to the plugs. [ModernHam] noticed there was no frequency listed on the devices, but using their FCC IDs he was able to find the relevant information. In the United States, devices like these must have their FCC IDs visible (though they could be behind a battery door) by law, so the searchable database is an invaluable tool to do some basic reconnaissance on a poorly documented gadget.

An RTL-SDR receiver is then used to fine tune the information gleaned from the FCC filing. [ModernHam] found that the signals for all four of the remote plugs were being broadcast on the same frequency, which makes controlling them all the easier. Using the rtl-sdr command, he was able to capture the various signals from the transmitter and save them to separate files. Then it’s just a matter of replaying the appropriate file to get the plugs to do your bidding.

Of course, the RTL-SDR can’t transmit so you’ll have to leave your dongle behind for this last step. Luckily all you need to transmit is the rpitx package created by [F5OEO], along with a supported Raspberry Pi and a small length of wire attached to the appropriate GPIO pin. This package contains the tool sendiq which can be used to replay the raw captures made in the previous step. With some scripting, it’s fairly straightforward to automate these transmissions to control the remote plugs however you wish from the Pi.

The RTL-SDR Blog put together their own guide for “brute forcing” simple remote control devices like this as well, and we’ve even seen similar techniques used against automotive key fobs in the past. Amazing what a piece of wire and some clever code can pull off.

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DIY Clapper is 1980s Style With Raspberry Pi Twist

Home automation isn’t all that new. It is just more evolved. Many years ago, a TV product appeared called the Clapper. If you haven’t heard of it, it was basically a sound-operated AC switch. You plug, say, a lamp into the device and the clapper into the wall and you can then turn the lamp on or off by clapping. If you somehow missed these — and you can still get them, apparently — have a look at the 1984 commercial in the video below. [Ash] decided to forego ordering one on Amazon and instead built her own using a Raspberry Pi.

[Ash’s] prototype uses an LED and could — in theory — drive anything. If you wanted to make a real Clapper replacement you’d need a relay or some other kind of AC switch suitable for the load. The actual clap detection software is from [nikhiljohn10] and simply waits for two loud noises. No fancy machine learning to differentiate between a clap and a cat knocking over a vase. Just a threshold and some timing.

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State Machine Controls Garage Door Over The Internet

Home automation has been a hot-button topic time and again since the dawn of the personal computer age. These days, thanks to modern communications technology, it’s possible to do some pretty cool stuff. [Brad Harbert] decided to automate his garage door, controlling it over the Internet.

The build relies on a Particle Photon to do the heavy lifting of connecting the door to the Internet. Particle offer a cloud service that makes setting up such a project easy for the first timer, and [Brad] was able to get things working quickly. A relay is used to activate the garage door remote button, as it was desired to leave the main control board of the garage door opener untouched. Reed switches are used to sense the position of the door, and [Brad] coded a state machine to ensure the door’s current state is always known.

It’s a simple project, but [Brad]’s use of state machine techniques and position sensing mean it’s less likely he’ll get home to find his garage open and his possessions missing. If you’re new to programming simple physical devices, you could take a page out of his logbook. Of course we’ve seen similar builds before, like this one from parts from the scrapbin.