Queercon is a conference within a conference. Taking place within DEF CON, Queercon is a social network of LGBT hackers that gathers each year to host events, talks, and a kickin’ pool party. Since 2012 they have also been building electronic badges as part of the fun and I can vouch that they’re contenders for most creative badge design every single year.
A total of 450 electronic badges were made this year, and the aesthetic is as close to a polished consumer product as I have ever seen in a badge, yet they also retain the charm and feel of unique electronics built for hardware geeks. With wireless communication that delivers a complex and clever game to the badges, the designers are encouraging interaction between people (not just between badges). I had the chance to do a teardown of one of these glorious badges, and also gathered quite a bit of info on the puzzles within during Friday’s badge talk in the QC suite.
At this point, it’s not really correct to describe DEF CON as a single, gigantic conference for security, tech, and other ‘hacky’ activities. DEF CON is more of a collection of groups hosting villages, get-togethers, meetups, and parties where like-minded individuals share their time, company, electronic war stories, and whiskey. One of the largest groups measured by the number of rideable, inflatable unicorns is Queercon, a ‘conference within a conference’ dedicated to LGBT causes, a rager of a party, and a killer conference badge.
The development of the 2017 Queercon badge had a really tough act to follow. Last year’s Blooper squid/cuttlefish badge is a high point in the world of functional PCB art, and by January of this year, the team didn’t know where to take badgecraft next.
In the end, the QC badge team decided on a ‘failsafe’ design — it wasn’t necessarily going to be the best idea, but the design would minimize risk and development time.
The two obvious features of this badge are an incredible number of tiny RGB LEDs, and very strange hermaphroditic edge connectors, allowing these badges to be plugged together into a panel of badges or a cube. What does this badge do? It blinks. If you have five friends, you can make something that looks like the Companion Cube from Portal.
The killer feature for this badge is a vast array of RGB LEDs. Instead of going with WS2812s or APA101s, the Queercon badge team found simple, 0604 RGB LEDs, priced at about $0.026 a piece. There are 73 LEDs in total, all driven by the same TI LED driver used in previous years, combined with two shift registers and 15 FETs to control the LED commons. Although the LED driver is able to address all 219, and even though the badge is powered by a 32-bit ARM Cortex M3 microcontroller, this is pretty much the limit of how many LEDs can be controlled with this setup.
The Queercon badge always has a bit of interconnectedness built in, and this year is no exception. This year the badge uses a strange universal connector mounted along the four sides of the badge. When one badge is plugged into the other, they mate producing a ‘fabric’ of glowing badges. The range of motion on this connector allows for 180 degrees of rotation, but surprisingly most Queercon badge holders only assembled single planes of badges. It took a bit of cajoling from the badgemakers to get people to assemble a cube, and no other weird shapes were constructed out of multiple badges. If anyone likes this idea of interconnected badges, I would like to personally suggest equilateral triangles — this would allow for icosahedrons or hexagon-based solids.
A badge wouldn’t be complete without a game, and the Queercon badge has it in spades. The UI/UX/graphics designer [Jonathan] came up with a game loosely based on a game called ‘Alchemy’. Every badge comes loaded with a set of basic elements (air, fire, water, earth), represented as pixel art on the 7×7 RGB LED matrix. Combining these elements leads to even more elements — water plus fire equals beer, for example. Think of it as crafting in Minecraft, but with badges.
Starbucks was responsible for sponsoring a portion of Queercon this year, so ten special badges were loaded up with a fifth element: coffee. Elements derived from the coffee element required a Starbucks sponsor badge.
When the badges came back from the fab house, the failure rate for this year’s Queercon badge was 0.7%. That’s an amazing yield for any independent hardware badge, and is honestly one of the most impressive aspects of this year’s Queercon. Failure modes during the con were probably related to spilling a drink on a badge, although there was a rash of failed CPUs. This is probably related to ESD, and during the con rework of failed badges was basically impossible because of drunk soldering in a dimly lit hotel room.
If there’s one failure of this year’s Queercon, it’s simply that it’s becoming too popular. From last year, Queercon saw 200% growth for the main party, which meant not everyone got a badge. That’s unfortunate, but plans are in the works for more inventory next year, providing DEF CON 26 isn’t cancelled, which it is. A shame, really.
DEF CON has become known for the creative electronic badges, and now we get to see a variety of them dangling from lanyards every year. This year, the Queercon badge stood out as the one that got the most people asking “where did you get that?!” Once again, [Evan Mackay], [George Louthan], [Jonathan Nelson], and [Jason Painter] delivered an awesome badge for this con-within-a-con for LGBT hackers and their friends.
The badge is a squid shape, with a nifty clear solder mask, printed on black FR4, and routed with natural curved traces. The squid eyes consist of sixty cyan LEDs, with RGB LEDs on the tentacles. The eyes make expressions, and the tentacles light up with a selectable pattern. Hitting the “ink” button shoots your pattern out to all nearby devices using the 2.4 GHz radio on board, and a set of small connectors can be used to “mate” with other badges to learn patterns. Yes, the Queercon badge always has suggestive undertones.
After playing with it for the whole con, we think this badge has some good lessons for electronic badge designers:
This badge used a phototransistor as a light sensor to measure ambient light and set the brightness accordingly. With over 60 LEDs, this helped the two AA batteries last for nearly the entire conference.
This badge has a power switch. That switch turns the badge off. This probably sounds very obvious, but it’s also unfortunately uncommon on electronic badges. The switch means people turn the badge off at night, and don’t have to yank batteries when firmware glitches.
The badge had two expansion ports on the squid’s head for adding hats. These were given power, and the connector spec was published before the event. Our favourite? A unicorn horn with a rainbow LED inside.
Social Badges are Fun
This has been the fourth Queercon badge in a row that communicated with other badges to unlock things. This is actually a neat way to get people to interact, and leads to a whole host of suggestive puns. Badginal intercourse, anyone?
We’ve heard that next year’s badge is already in the works, and we look forward to seeing what these folks come up with next. For now, you can grab all the hardware design files and get inspired for your own electronic badge build.
2015 was the year of the unofficial hardware badge at DEF CON 23. There were a ton of different hardware badges designed for the love of custom electronics and I tried to catch up with the designer of each different badge. Here is the collection of images, video demos, and build details for each one I saw this weekend.
Gorgeous text treatment on back of this badge is indicative of [True’s] mastery
[TrueControl] did a great job with his badge design this year for the Whiskey Pirate Crew. This is a great update from the badge he designed last year, keeping the skull and bones outline. It uses a PSOC4 chip to control a ton of LEDs. The eyes are RGB pixels which are each on their own PCB that is soldered onto the back of the badge, with openings for the LED to show through. Two AA batteries power the board which has a surface-mount LED matrix. The user controls are all capacitive touch. There is a spinner around one eye, and pads for select and back. The NRF24L01 radio operates at 2.4GHz. This badge is slave to commands from last year’s badge. When the two are in the same area the 2015 badges will scroll the nickname of the 2014 badge it “sees”. The piezo element also chirps many different sounds based on the interactions with different badges.
[True] makes design an art form. The matte black solder mask looks fantastic, and he took great care in use of font, size, alignment, and things like letting copper show through for a really stunning piece of hardware art.
Keep reading for ten more great badges seen over the weekend.