Ask Hackaday: Is Anyone Sad Phone VR Is Dead?

It’s official: smartphone-based VR is dead. The two big players in this space were Samsung Gear VR (powered by Oculus, which is owned by Facebook) and Google Daydream. Both have called it quits, with Google omitting support from their newer phones and Oculus confirming that the Gear VR has reached the end of its road. Things aren’t entirely shut down quite yet, but when it does it will sure leave a lot of empty headsets laying around. These things exist in the millions, but did anyone really use phone-based VR? Are any of you sad to see it go?

Google Cardboard, lowering cost and barrier to entry about as low as it could go.

In case you’re unfamiliar with phone-based VR, this is how it works: the user drops their smartphone into a headset, puts it on their head, and optionally uses a wireless controller to interact with things. The smartphone takes care of tracking motion and displaying 3D content while the headset itself takes care of the optics and holds everything in front of the user’s eyeballs. On the low end was Google Cardboard and on the higher end was Daydream and Gear VR. It works, and is both cheap and portable, so what happened?

In short, phone-based VR had constraints that limited just how far it could go when it came to delivering a VR experience, and these constraints kept it from being viable in the long run. Here are some of the reasons smartphone-based VR hit the end of the road: Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: Is Anyone Sad Phone VR Is Dead?”

Adding LoRa Long Range Radio To Smartphones And Connected Devices

Would you add another radio to your smartphone? No, not another WiFi or cellular radio; a smartphone already has that. I’m talking about something that provides connectivity through ISM bands, either 433 or 915 MHz. This can be used where you don’t have cell phone coverage, and it has a longer range than WiFi. This is the idea behind Skrypt, a messaging system that allows you to send off-the-grid messages.

Skrypt is an ESP32-based hardware modem that can communicate with a smartphone, or any other device for that matter, over Bluetooth or USB. Inside, there are two modules, an ESP32 WROOM module that provides the Bluetooth, WiFi, USB connectivity, and all of the important software configuration and web-based GUI. The LoRa module is the ubiquitous RFM95W that’s ready to drop into any circuit. Other than that, the entire circuit is just a battery and some power management ICs.

While LoRa is certinaly not the protocol you would use for forwarding pics up to Instagram, it is a remarkable protocol for short messages carried over a long range. That’s exactly what you want when you’re out of range of cell phone towers — those pics can wait, but you might really want to send a few words to your friends. That’s invaluable, and LoRa makes a lot of sense in that case.

Add Scroll Wheels And Buttons To Smartphones With 3D-Printed Widgets Read By Accelerometer

The first LED digital wristwatches hit the market in the 1970s. They required a button push to turn the display on, prompting one comedian to quip that giving one to a one-armed man would be in poor taste. While the UIs of watches and other wearables have improved since then, smartphones still present some usability challenges. Some of the touch screen gestures needed to operate a phone, like pinching, are nigh impossible when one-handing the phone, and woe unto those with stubby thumbs when trying to take a selfie.

You’d think that the fleet of sensors and the raw computing power on board would afford better ways to control phones. And you’d be right, if the modular mechanical input widgets described in a paper from Columbia University catch on. Dubbed “Vidgets” by [Chang Xiao] et al, the haptic devices are designed to create characteristic acceleration profiles on a phone’s inertial measurement unit (IMU) when actuated. Vidgets take various forms, from push buttons to scroll wheels, each of a similar size and shape and designed to dock into one of eight positions on the back of a 3D-printed phone case. Once trained, the algorithm watches for the acceleration signature caused by actuating a Vidget, and sends commands to the phone to mimic the corresponding gestures. The video below demonstrates a couple of use cases, of which the virtual saxophone is our favorite.

This is really clever stuff, and ventures deep into “Why didn’t I think of that?” territory. Need to get ahead of the curve on IMUs to capitalize on what they can do? You could start with [Al Williams]’ primer on micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS.

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CNC Mill Repairs IPhone 7

Modern smartphones are highly integrated devices, bringing immense computing power into the palm of one’s hand. This portable computing power and connectivity has both changed society in innumerable ways, and also tends to lead to said powerful computers ending up dropped on the ground or into toilets. Repairs are often limited to screen replacement or exchanging broken modules, but it’s possible to go much further.

The phone is an iPhone 7, which a service center reported had issues with the CPU, and the only fix was a full mainboard replacement. [The Kardi Lab] weren’t fussed, however, and got to work. The mainboard is installed in a CNC fixture, and the A10 CPU is delicately milled away, layer by layer. A scalpel and hot air gun are then used for some further cleanup of the solder pads. Some conductivity testing to various pads is then carried out, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

At this point, a spare A10 CPU is sourced, and a stencil is used to apply solder paste or balls – it is not immediately obvious which. The new chip is then reflowed on to the mainboard, and the phone reassembled. The device is then powered on and shown to be functional.

It’s an impressive repair, and shows that modern electronics isn’t so impossible to fix – as long as you have the right tools to hand. The smart thing is, by using the CNC machine with a pre-baked program, it greatly reduces the labor required in the removal stage, making the repair much more cost-effective. The team are particularly helpful, linking to the tools used to pull off the repair in the video description. We’ve seen similar hacks, too – such as upgrading an iPhone’s memory.  Video after the break.

[Thanks to Nikolai for the tip!]

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Does Library Bloat Make Your Smartphone App Look Fat?

While earlier smartphones seemed to manage well enough with individual applications that only weighed in at a few megabytes, a perusal of the modern smartphone software store uncovers some positively monstrous file sizes. The fact that we’ve become accustomed to mobile applications requiring 100+ MB downloads on what’s often a metered Internet connection in only a few short years is pretty crazy if you stop to think about it.

Seeing reports that the Nest app for iOS tipped the scales at nearly 250 MB, [Alexandre Colucci] decided to investigate. On his blog he not only documents the process of taking the application apart piece by piece to find out just what’s eating up all that space, but lists some potential fixes which could shave a bit off the top. Even if you aren’t planning a spelunking expedition into your pocket supercomputer’s particular variant of the Netflix app, the methodology and tools he uses here are fascinating in their own right and might be something worth adding to your software bag of tricks.

By passing the application’s files through a disk usage visualizer called GrandPerspective, [Alexandre] immediately identified some rather large blocks of content. The bundled Apple Watch version of the app takes up 23 MB, video and audio used to walk the user through the device setup weigh in at 22 MB, and localization files for various languages consumes a surprising 33 MB. But the biggest single contributor to the application’s heft is the assorted libraries and frameworks which total up to an incredible 67 MB.

Of course the question is, how much of it is really necessary? It’s hard to be sure from an outsider’s perspective, but [Alexandre] notes that a few of the libraries used seem to be redundant or obsolete. In some cases this could be the result of old code still lurking in the project, but the four different libraries used for user tracking probably aren’t in there by accident. It also stands to reason that the instructional videos could be offloaded to something like YouTube, so that only users who need to view them have to expend their bandwidth on it.

Getting a little deeper into things, [Alexandre] notes that some of the localization images appear to be redundant. As a specific example, he points to the images of the Nest itself displaying Fahrenheit and Celsius temperatures. While logically this should only be two image files, there are actually eight copies of the Celsius image, each filed away as language-specific. These redundant localization images could easily be stripped out, but with gains measured in only a few hundred kilobytes, it probably wasn’t considered worth the effort during development.

In the end there’s really not as much bloat as we might like to believe. There were some redundant files, maybe a few questionable library inclusions, and the Apple Watch version of the app could surely be separated out. All together, it might get you a savings of 30 – 40%, but still not enough to bring it down under 100 MB.

All signs point to the fact that modern smartphone software development is just a lot more burdensome than us hackers might like. Save for projects looking to put control back into the hand’s of the users, it looks like mobile operating systems aren’t going to be slimming down anytime soon.

Hacker Makes A Flawless Booby Trap, Strikes Back Against Package Thieves

[Mark Rober] was fed up with packages going missing. He kept receiving notifications that his shipments had been delivered, but when checking his porch he found nothing there. Reviewing the CCTV footage revealed random passers-by sidling up to his porch and stealing his parcels. It was time to strike back. Over six months, [Mark] and his friends painstakingly designed, prototyped and iterated the perfect trap for package thieves, resulting in a small unit disguised as an Apple HomePod. The whole scheme is wonderfully over-engineered and we love it.

The main feature of the device is a spinning cup on the top which contains a large amount of glitter. When activated, it ejects glitter in every directions. You could say it’s harmless, as it’s just glitter. But then again, glitter has a way of staying with you for the rest of your life — turning up at the least expected times. It certainly leaves an emotional impression.

Activation is quite clever; the fake package sits on the porch until an accelerometer detects movement. At that point, GPS checks to see if the package has traveled outside a geo-fence around [Mark]’s house. A signal is then sent to the four smartphones to start recording — yes, that’s right, there are 4 phones inside, one on each side to capture the reaction of the thief.

How can [Mark] be so confident that he’ll be able to recover the four phones and their footage? That’s answered by GPS tracking and a can of fart spray actuated by a 3D printed cam and DC motor, ensuring the thief won’t want this package around for long. This actuator and the glitter motor are controlled by a custom PCB, which also triggers the phones to start recording through their headphone jacks and detects the opening of the package with some microswitches. This is truly a masterpiece that outsmarts the package thieves in a way that leaves an impression while still being playful.

(Editor’s Note 2: On 12/20/18 it was announced that two of the five thieves shown in the originally video were staged, apparently without [Mark Rober’s] knowledge. Here is his statement on the matter.)

(Editor’s Note 1: [Sean Hodgins] wrote in with bonus video on how the Glitter Bomb works and how it was made.)

If booby traps are your thing, we’ve got you covered. Check out this ticking bomb style puzzle, or this crate challenge which is rigged to blow.

Continue reading “Hacker Makes A Flawless Booby Trap, Strikes Back Against Package Thieves”

Improving Depth Of Field With Only 5 Phones

The hottest new trend in photography is manipulating Depth of Field, or DOF. It’s how you get those wonderful portraits with the subject in focus and the background ever so artfully blurred out. In years past, it was achieved with intelligent use of lenses and settings on an SLR film camera, but now, it’s all in the software.

The franken-camera rig, consisting of five Pixel 3 smartphones. The cameras are synchronised over WiFi.

For the Pixel 2 smartphone, Google had used some tricky phase-detection autofocus (PDAF) tricks to compute depth data in images, and used this to decide which parts of images to blur. Distant areas would be blurred more, while the subject in the foreground would be left sharp.

This was good, but for the Pixel 3, further development was in order. A 3D-printed phone case was developed to hold five phones in one giant brick. The idea was to take five photos of the same scene at the same time, from slightly different perspectives. This was then used to generate depth data which was fed into a neural network. This neural network was trained on how the individual photos relate to the real-world depth of the scene.

With a trained neural network, this could then be used to generate more realistic depth data from photos taken with a single camera. Now, machine learning is being used to help your phone decide which parts of an image to blur to make your beautiful subjects pop out from the background.

Comparison images show significant improvement of the “learned” depth data versus just the stereo-PDAF generated depth data. It’s yet another shot fired in the smartphone camera arms race, that shows no signs of abating. We just wonder when the Geiger counter mods are going to ship from factory.

[via AndroidPolice]