Design and Hacking Drilldown: SuperCon Badge

One can imagine a political or business conference without an interactive badge — but not a hacker conference. Does this make the case for hackers being a special breed of people, always having something creative to show for their work? Yes, I think it does.

Following the Hackaday Belgrade conference in April of this year, we met at the Supplyframe offices to discuss the badge for the Hackaday SuperConference that will happen in Pasadena on 5+6th of November. The Belgrade conference badge (which was fully documented if you’re curious) was surprisingly popular, and I was asked to design the new one as well.

I was prepared to come up with something completely new, but [Mike Szczys] suggested keeping with the same basic concept for the project: “No reason to change anything, we have a badge that works”. To which I responded: “Well, the next one will also work”. But then I realized that “works” does not stand for “being functional”. The key is that it was embraced by visitors who played with it, coded on it, and solved a crypto challenge with it.

The World Doesn’t Have Enough LEDs

led-modules-versus-smdFast forward six months — here are the modifications made to the basic concept. First, the existing LED matrix, which was composed of two compact 8×8 blocks, was replaced by 128 discrete SMD LEDs. It was a much needed change to help scale down the dimensions and clunkiness, but also to avoid another painful experience of trying to purchase and have the matrix displays shipped, which seriously threatened the production of the previous badge.

It’s a long story which I discussed in my Belgrade talk — it turned out we did not manage to get enough common anode (CA) displays from all distributors in the whole world. We had a plan B, which also fizzled, leaving us with the plan C which actually included two “C”s: Common Cathode. We cleaned up all the supplies at five distributors, and managed to get 122 CA red, 340 CC red and 78 CA green displays (enough for only 270 badges) — the entire world supply. After that, you couldn’t get any 38 mm Kingbright’s display for months! The only problem was that there were two different versions of PCBs, one for CA and the other for CC displays, but luckily only one version of software, as it could autodetect the display type.

accelerometer-on-the-boardMotion and Expansion

So, what else was new in the concept? In the Belgrade version, the badge supported an accelerometer module and included an unpopulated footprint in case you decided to install it, but now the badge has the MEMS chip LIS3 as an integral part. There are nine pads (with five I/O ports, driven directly from the MCU) to which you can add a 9-pin expansion connector. There will be a number of these connectors at the Design Lab, so that anyone can expand their badge for their convenience, on the spot.

The Visual Design

The biggest change was in the visual design. What we came up with ended up being a fair bit smaller, lighter, with a more convenient shape, and less than half the thickness of the previous one. After we had scrapped quite a few ideas during the development process (including stylized skull, frog, etc), we were left with a couple of options which you can see on the image below. The wireframe drawing on the left hand side is the Belgrade badge, shown here for a size comparison. At this point the locale and date of the conference weren’t yet definitive, which is why you see San Francisco written on the images.

design-options-2016-supercon-badge

Design number 4 prevailed, so the PCB layout could begin. I don’t like autorouted PCBs, so I was in for quite a rough time trying to solve the routing manually having only 2 layers on the board at my disposal.

Routing a Compact LED Matrix

The LED matrix is so dense that there was virtually no room on the LED layer, so most of the tracks on the component layer had to be routed as if it was a single layer PCB. To make matters worse, the LED layer is routed as a matrix, with a bunch of horizontal and vertical tracks, otherwise a good reason to use a 4-layer PCB. To stay inside the budget, everything had to be placed on 2 layers, and that’s why the final result seems so confusing at the populated area between batteries:

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That’s Life…on a Hackaday Badge

Our Hackaday Chief [Mike] sent me an e-mail the other day with a link to the Belgrade Hackaday Badge simulator. He clearly wanted me to enter something into the demo scene competition. The good news is that because of the simulator, you didn’t have to leave your desk to participate. The bad news is that I had very little time left at the end of the month, so I wanted to do something appealing but it had to be fairly easy to roll out. I wound up doing a very quick project but it had a few fine points that I thought I’d share. The end goal was to have an interesting display of Conway’s game of life on the badge.

By the way, there was a completely different project with the same goal by [Jeremias] on Hackaday.io. As far as I know, this was just the result of two people setting out to do the same thing. You’ll see the user interface is a good bit different, so you might see which you prefer.

If you haven’t seen it, the real badge is below. The emulator, of course, just runs as a window on your PC. For those that will be at the conference, or just want to program closer to the actual hardware, there is now a preconfigured MPLABX framework  for the PIC18LF25K50 and the bootloader/kernel running on this badge.

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It’s Alive! — Badge for Hackaday Belgrade

Hackaday Belgrade — our first ever conference in Europe — is coming up fast. One of the really exciting things for me is the hardware badge which [Voja Antonic] designed for the conference. He’s done a great job with hardware choices and I think we’ve hit the sweet spot for badge hacking. Let’s jump into the hardware and firmware details after the break.

Get your ticket now for ten hours of talks and workshops, evening concerts, and of course badge hacking the entire time. Earlybird sales close Monday. We’re still in the process of going through talk proposals but we’ll publish a post next week announcing all of the speakers.

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Microchip Unveils Online MPLAB IDE and $10 Board

Today, Microchip released a few interesting tools for embedded development. The first is a free online IDE called MPLAB Xpress, the second is a $10 dev board with a built-in programmer. This pair is aimed at getting people up and running quickly with PIC development. They gave us an account before release, and sent over a sample board. Let’s take a look!

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