Bluetooth Development Board Goes The Distance

Have you ever come across an interesting chip or component that you wanted to experiment with, only to find that there doesn’t seem to be a development board for it? Spinning up your own board is a lot easier today than it has been in the past, but it’s still a bit of a hassle to do it just for your own personal use. This is why [Nikolaj Andersson Nielsen] has decided to release RFCat, his custom long-range Bluetooth development board, onto the community.

The board is based around a module from MeshTek that’s essentially an amplified version of the Nordic nRF52832. According to [Nikolaj], this gives the module 30 times the transmit power of the base model chip.

RFCat is compatible with the Arduino IDE and uses the Adafruit nRF52 bootloader, making it easy to write your own code to take advantage of all this new-found power. Primarily you’d be programming the board over USB-C, but it also supports Serial Wire Debug (SWD) and over-the-air updates that can be triggered with a physical push button on the device.

If you want to get an RFCat of your own, it’s available on Tindie now. The amplified modules were originally intended for building Bluetooth mesh networks, but we’re sure there are other interesting applications out there just waiting to be discovered.

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Cheap Smartwatch Hacking, To Run Your Own Code

[Aaron Christophel] has been busy, he picked up a P8 smartwatch of the type that many of you will no doubt have seen. They cost almost nothing and do almost… nothing. In all fairness, they do connect to your phone using Bluetooth LE courtesy of a chip from Nordic (the NRF52832), and they can do several simple tasks. But they don’t run applications in the way an Android or Apple watch does. [Aaron] wants to run his own applications, so his YouTube channel has a lot of information about hacking the P8 and other watches with similar chips. In one video you can watch below, he demonstrates how he’s written support for Arduino programming to the devices. What we were really excited about was the second video below where he shows his Android app that can flash the devices via Bluetooth. That means you can potentially hack these devices without opening them up.

The app that normally runs these watches is called Da Fit, so [Aaron] called his utility DaFlasher. This is all early stuff so we expect some coaxing to get everything working, but it has great promise.

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Pavlok Gets A Literally Shocking Teardown

Apparently, there is a wrist-mounted device that delivers electric shocks to the wearer when it receives the appropriate command over Bluetooth. No, it’s not part of some kind of house arrest program. If you can believe it, the gadget is actually intended to help break bad habits or wake up exceptionally deep sleepers. We don’t know which of those problems [Becky Stern] has, but we’re glad to see she decided to take hers apart before the 21st century self-flagellation started.

Called the Pavlok and available for $180 USD from various online retailers, the device looks like a chunky fitness tracker. But in place of the screen that would show you how many steps you’ve taken or your current heart rate, there’s a lighting bolt button that you can press when you want to shock yourself. With the smartphone application, you can control the device remotely with a handy desktop widget that allows you to select the intensity of the shock. No, we aren’t making any of this up. Check out the video after the break to see it in action.

When [Becky] tried to take the Pavlok apart, she found that it was nearly impossible to handle it without inadvertently triggering a shock. So until she could get the case open and physically disconnect the battery, all she could do was turn the intensity down in the application and work through the occasional jolts from the device. We can only hope that more devices don’t adopt a similar sense of self-preservation.

Once inside she found mainly the same kind of hardware you’d expect in a standard, non-masochistic, fitness wearable. There’s a nRF52832 Bluetooth SoC, a MMA8451Q accelerometer, a PCF85063A I2C RTC, and a FXAS21002C gyroscope. What you’re somewhat less likely to find inside your FitBit however is the LPR6235 coupled inductor and beefy capacitors which are used to build up a high-voltage charge from the standard 3.7 V LiPo battery.

We’ve been very interested in the recent projects which are creating custom firmwares for commercially available fitness wearables, as it could be an express route to a hacker-friendly smartwatch. While the Pavlok has some compelling hardware, and the programming header [Becky] identified looks interesting, we don’t like the idea of being one misplaced if statement away from riding the lightning.

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SMA-Q2 Smart Watch Is Completely Hackable

The search for the ultimate hacker’s smart watch probably won’t end any time soon. [emeryth] has nominated another possible candidate in the form of the SMA-Q2, and has made a lot of progress in making it accessible.

Also known as the SMA-TIME, the watch is based around the popular NRF52832 Bluetooth SoC, with a colour memory LCD, accelerometer, and a heart rate sensor on the back. The main feature that makes it so easy to hack is the stock bootloader on the NRF52832 that works with generic Nordic upload tool, making firmware upgrades a breeze via a smart phone. Unfortunately the bootloader itself is locked, so it must be completely wiped to gain debugging access. The hardware configuration has also been well reverse engineered with all the details available.

Custom main board with a NRF52840 module

[emeryth] has most of the basic features working with his custom firmware, although it’s still in the early stages. He designed a new watch face that includes weather updates and basic audio controls. The 3-bit display’s power consumption has also been reduced by only refreshing the necessary parts. The heart rate sensor outputs the raw waveforms, and it’s pretty accurate after a bit of FFT and filtering magic. Built-in tap and tilt detection is available on the accelerometer, which works well, but strangely doesn’t appear to have been used in the stock firmware.

Unfortunately the original enclosure design that used screws was dropped for glued version. It’s still possible to open without breaking anything, just a bit more difficult. [emeryth] Another hardware hacker named [BigCorvus] has even designed a completely new open-source main board with a NRF52840 module and heart rate sensor on a small flex PCB, with everything up on GitHub.

We really hope the community takes a liking to this watch, and look forward to seeing some awesome hacking. This is an excellent addition to the list of candidates for the perfect hacker’s smart watch that [Lewin Day] has already investigated . We also see a lot of DIY smart watches including one with a beautiful wood-filled 3D printed housing and another with LED matrix display.

A Stylish Solution For Bike Navigation

[André Biagioni] is developing an open hardware bicycle navigation device called Aurora that’s so gorgeous it just might be enough to get you pedaling your way to work. This slick frame-mounted device relays information to the user through a circular array of SK6812 RGB LEDs, allowing you to find out what you need to know with just a quick glance down. No screen to squint at or buttons to press.

The hardware has already gone through several revisions, which is exactly what we’d expect to see for an entry into the 2019 Hackaday Prize. The proof of concept that [André] zip-tied to the front of his bike might have worked, but it wasn’t exactly the epitome of industrial design. It was enough to let him see that the idea had merit, and from there he’s been working on miniaturizing the design.

So how does it work? The nRF52832-powered Aurora connects to your phone over Bluetooth, and relays turn-by-turn navigation information to you via the circular LED array. This prevents you from having to fumble with your phone, which [André] hopes will improve safety. When you’re not heading anywhere specific, Aurora can also function as a futuristic magnetic compass.

With what appears to be at least three revisions of the Aurora hardware already completed by the time [André] put the project up on, we’re very interested in seeing where it goes from here. The theme for this year’s Hackaday Prize is moving past the one-off prototype stage and designing something that’s suitable for production, and so far we’d say the Aurora project is definitely rising to the challenge.

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Teardown Of A Luxury Bluetooth Nightlight

If you had asked us yesterday what peak nightlight technology looked like, we might have said one of those LED panels that you stick in the outlet. At least it beats one of those little wimpy light bulbs behind the seashell, anyway. But after looking at a detailed teardown of the “Glow Light” from Casper, we’ve learned a lot about the modern nightlight. Such as the fact that there are adults who not only sleep with nightlights, but are willing to pay $89 USD for one.

But more importantly, as [Tyler Mincey] demonstrates in his excellent look inside one of these high-end nightlights, they are gorgeous pieces of engineering. Even if a nightlight next to the bed has long since gone the way of pajamas with feet on them for you personally, we think you’ll be impressed just how much technology has gone into these softly glowing gadgets.

On the outside they might look like marshmallows, but the insides look far more like what you’d expect from an expensive piece of consumer gear. It’s based on the Nordic nRF52832 Bluetooth SoC which is becoming an increasingly common sight in consumer gadgets, and uses an inertial measurement unit (IMU) to detect when it’s moved or twisted and adjusts the light output accordingly. If you’ve got the disposable income for two of these things, they’ll even synchronize so that twisting one will dim its counterpart.

The teardown that [Tyler] did on the Glow Light is quite frankly one of the best we’ve ever seen, and while it might be a bit light on the gritty technical details, it more than makes up for that with the fantastic pictures that are about as close to actual hardware porn as you can get. The only question we have now is, how long until a hacker replicates this design with a 3D printed enclosure and an ESP?

[Thanks to Adrian for the tip.]

Performing A Chip Transplant To Resurrect A Dead Board

[Uri Shaked] accidentally touched a GPIO pin on his 3.3 V board with a 12 V alligator clip, frying the board. Sound familiar? A replacement would have cost $60, which for him wasn’t cheap. Also, he needed it for an upcoming conference so time was of the essence. His only option was to try to fix it, which in the end involved a delicate chip transplant.

Removing the shield on the Bluetooth LE boardThe board was the Pixl.js, an LCD board with the nRF52832 SoC with its ARM Cortex M4, RAM, flash, and Bluetooth LE. It also has a pre-installed Espruino JavaScript interpreter and of course the GPIO pins through which the damage was done.

Fortunately, he had the good instinct to feel the metal shield over the nRF52832 immediately after the event. It was hot. Applying 3.3 V to the board now also heated up the chip, confirming for him that the chip was short-circuiting. All he had to do was replace it.

Digging around, he found another nRF52832 on a different board. To our surprise, transplanting it and getting the board up and running again took only an hour, including the time to document it. If that sounds simple, it was only in the way that a skilled person makes something seem simple. It included plenty of delicate heat gun work, some soldering iron microsurgery, and persistence with a JLink debugger. But we’ll leave the details of the operation and its complications to his blog. You can see one of the steps in the video below.

It’s no surprise that [Uri] was able to dig up another board with the same nRF52832 chip. It’s a popular SoC, being used in tiny, pocket-sized robots, conference badges, and the Primo Core board along with a variety of other sensors.

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