Mike Ossmann and Dominic Spill: IR, Pirates!

Mike Ossmann and Dominic Spill have been at the forefront of the recent wave of software-defined radio (SDR) hacking. Mike is the hardware guy, and his radio designs helped bring Bluetooth and ISM-band to the masses. Dominic is the software guy who makes sure that all this gear is actually usable. The HackRF SDR is still one of the best cheap choices if you need an SDR that can transmit and receive.

So what are these two doing on stage giving a talk about IR communication? Can you really turn traffic lights green by blinking lights? And can you spoof a TV remote with a cardboard cutout, a bicycle wheel, and a sparkler? What does IR have to do with pirates, and why are these two dressed up as buccaneers? Watch our video interview and find out, or watch the full talk for all of the juicy details.

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MIDISWAY Promises to Step Up Your Live Show

If you like to read with gentle music playing, do yourself a favor and start the video while you’re reading about [Hugo Swift]’s MIDISWAY. The song is Promises, also by [SWIFT], which has piano phrases modulated during the actual playing, not in post-production.

The MIDISWAY is a stage-worthy looking box to sit atop your keys and pulse a happy little LED. The pulsing corresponds to the amount of pitch bending being sent to your instrument over a MIDI DIN connector. This modulation is generated by an Arduino and meant to recreate the effect of analog recording devices like an off-center vinyl or a tape that wasn’t tracking perfectly.

While recording fidelity keeps inching closer to perfect recreation, it takes an engineer like [Hugo Swift] to decide that a step backward is worth a few days of hacking. Now that you know what the MIDISWAY is supposed to do, listen closely at 2:24 in the video when the piano starts. The effect is subtle but hard to miss when you know what to listen for.

MIDI projects abound at Hackaday like this MIDI → USB converter for getting MIDI out of your keyboard once you’ve modulated it with a MIDISWAY. Maybe you are more interested in a MIDI fighter for controlling your DAW. MIDI is a robust and time-tested protocol which started in the early 1980s and will be around for many more years.

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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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Phase Modulation With An FPGA

There are two radio modulation schemes everyone should know. Amplitude modulation changes the amplitude — or ‘volume’, if you will — of a carrier frequency and turns all radio into channels owned and operated by a church. Frequency modulation changes the pitch of a carrier frequency and is completely run by Clear Channel. Amateur radio operators are familiar with dozens of other modulation schemes, but there’s one hardly anyone touches. Phase modulation is weird and almost unheard of, but that doesn’t mean you can’t implement it on an FPGA. [nckm] is transmitting audio using phase modulation on an FPGA (Russian, here’s the Google Translatrix).

This hardware is just an Altera MAX10 board, with a single input used for serial data of the audio to be transmitted, and two outputs, each connected to a few bits of wire for a quarter-wave antenna. No, there’s no output filter or anything else except for a few bits of wire. It’s an experiment, chillax.

The Verilog for this project receives an audio signal as serial data in mono, 22050 BPS, 8-bit unsigned samples. These samples are fed into a dynamic PLL with phase shift in the FPGA. Shifting the phases also changes the frequency, so [nckm] can receive this audio signal with the FM transmitter on his phone.

Is this really phase modulation if it’s being received by an FM radio? Eh, maybe. PM and FM are closely related, but certainly distinguishable as modulation schemes in their own right. You can grab [nckm]’s code over on the gits, or check out the video demo below.

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Sending Music Long Distance Using A Laser

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen DIYers sending music over a laser beam but the brothers [Armand] and [Victor] are certainly in contention for sending the music the longest distance, 452 meter/1480 feet from their building, over the tops of a few houses, through a treetop and into a friend’s apartment. The received sound quality is pretty amazing too.

In case you’ve never encountered this before, the light of the laser is modulated with a signal directly from the audio source, making it an analog transmission. The laser is a 250mW diode laser bought from eBay. It’s powered through a 5 volt 7805 voltage regulator fed by a 12V battery. The signal from the sound source enters the circuit through a step-up transformer, isolating it so that no DC from the source enters. The laser’s side of the transformer feeds the base of a transistor. They included a switch so that the current from the regulator can either go through the collector and emitter of the transistor that’s controlled by the sound source, giving a strong modulation, or the current can go directly to the laser while modulation is provided through just the transistor’s base and emitter. The schematic for the circuit is given at the end of their video, which you can see after the break.

They receive the beam in their friend’s apartment using solar cells, which then feed a fairly big amplifier and speakers. From the video you can hear the surprisingly high quality sounds that results. So check it out. It also includes a little Benny Hill humor.

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Suddenly, 4G Feels Slow

Researchers at University College London successfully transferred data over an optical transmission system at a rate of 1.125 Tb/s. That’s over ten times as fast as typical commercial optical systems, and thousands of times faster than the standard broadband connection. The study appeared in Scientific Reports and takes advantage of encoding techniques usually seen in wireless systems.

The prototype system uses fifteen channels on different wavelengths. Each channel used 256QAM encoding (the same as you see on cable modems, among other things). A single receiver recovers all of the channels together. The technology isn’t commercially available yet. It is worth noting that the experiment used a transmitter and receiver very close to each other. Future tests will examine how the system performs when there are hundreds or thousands of feet of optical fiber between them.

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Hams Talk Digital

Morse code qualifies as a digital mode, although organic brains are somewhat better at copying it than electronic ones. Ham radio operators that did “phone” (ham-talk for voice) started out with AM modulation. Sometime after World War II, there was widespread adoption of single side band or SSB. SSB takes up less bandwidth and is more reliable than AM modulation. On the digital side, hams turned to different and more sophisticated digital transmission types with computers pushing bandwidth down and reliability up. However, a recent trend has been to encode voice over ham radio–sort of VoIP with radio instead of Ethernet–using an open source program called freedv.

[AA6E] made a very informative video where he carries on a QSO (a conversation) with a distant station using freedv. What makes it interesting, is towards the end when the two stations switch to regular SSB. The difference is dramatic and really points out how even with less bandwidth (roughly 3 kHz for SSB vs 1.25 kHz), the digital mode is superior. The freedv software (available for Windows or Linux) compresses audio to 700-1600 bits per second and spreads it over 16 QPSK signals.

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