Sparkfun’s Alternate Reality Hardware

SparkFun has a new wing of hardware mischief. It’s SparkX, the brainchild of SparkFun’s founder [Nate Seidle]. Over the past few months, SparkX has released breakout boards for weird sensors, and built a safe cracking robot that got all the hacker cred at DEF CON. Now, SparkX is going off on an even weirder tangent: they have released The Prototype. That’s actually the name of the product. What is it? It’s a HARP, a hardware alternate reality game. It’s gaming, puzzlecraft, and crypto all wrapped up in a weird electronic board.

The product page for The Prototype is exactly as illuminating as you would expect for a piece of puzzle electronics. There is literally zero information on the product page, but from the one clear picture, we can see a few bits and bobs that might be relevant. The Prototype features a microSD card socket, an LED that might be a WS2812, a DIP-8 socket, a USB port, what could be a power switch, a PCB antenna, and a strange black cylinder. Mysteries abound. There is good news: the only thing you need to decrypt The Prototype is a computer and an open mind. We’re assuming that means a serial terminal.

The Prototype hasn’t been out for long, and very few people have one in hand. That said, the idea of a piece of hardware sold as a puzzle is something we haven’t seen outside of conference badges. The more relaxed distribution of The Prototype is rather appealing, and we’re looking forward to a few communities popping up around HARP games.

Safe Cracking is [Nate’s] Latest R&D Project

We love taking on new and awesome builds, but finding that second part (the “awesome”) of each project is usually the challenge. Looks like [Nathan Seidle] is making awesome the focus of the R&D push he’s driving at Sparkfun. They just put up this safe cracking project which includes a little gamification.

The origin story of the safe itself is excellent. [Nate’s] wife picked it up on Craig’s List cheap since the previous owner had forgotten the combination. We’ve seen enough reddit/imgur threads to not care at all what’s inside of it, but we’re all about cracking the code.

The SparkX (the new rapid prototyping endeavor at Sparkfun) approach was to design an Arduino safe cracking shield. It has a motor driver for spinning the dial and can drive a servo that pulls the lever to open the door. There is a piezo buzzer to indicate success, and the board as a display header labeled but not in use, presumably to show the combination currently under test. We say “presumably” because they’re not publishing all the details until after it’s cracked, a process that will be live streamed starting Wednesday. This will keep us guessing on the use of that INA169 current sensor that plugs into the safecracking shield. There is what appears to be a reflectance sensor above the dial to keep precise track of the spinning dial.

Electrically this is what we’d expect, but mechanically we’re in love with the build. The dial and lever both have 3D printed adapters to interface with the rest of the system. The overall framework is built out of aluminum channel which is affixed to the safe with rare earth magnets — a very slick application of this gear.

The gamification of the project has to do with a pair of $100 giveaways they’re doing for the closest guess on how long it’ll take to crack (we hope it’s a fairly fast cracker) and what the actual combination may be. For now, we want to hear from you on two things. First, what is the role of that current sensor in the circuit? Second, is there a good trick for optimizing a brute force approach like this? We’ve seen mechanical peculiarities of Master locks exploited for fast cracking. But for this, we’re more interested in hearing any mathematical tricks to test likely combinations first. Sound off in the comments below

SparkFun Gets Back To Their Roots With SparkX

Way back in the before years when there were still interesting concepts for reality TV, Nate Seidle blew up a power supply in his dorm room. Instead of finding replacement parts, Nate decided to start a company. For the last decade and a half, SparkFun has grown immensely, been an incredible resource for makers and engineers alike, and shipped out hundreds of thousands of their iconic red boxes.

Being the CEO of a company means you need to do CEO stuff, and a few summers ago Nate the CEO became Nate the Engineer once again. SparkFun is still doing great, but now we know what Nate has been up to these last months. He’s getting back to SparkFun’s roots with SparkX. This is the newest stuff SparkFun has to offer, there is zero documentation or support, and they’re only developing products because Nate wants to.

In a series of blog posts on the SparkFun blog, Nate goes over what is involved in building a new brand for the latest and greatest SparkFun can produce. This involves setting up the SparkX lab, getting the OtherMills pumping out circuit boards, and  inevitably the occasional containment failure of the blue smoke.

The first product in the SparkX lineup, Product 0, is a breakout board for the MLX90393 magnetometer. This is a pretty nifty magnetometer that Ted Yapo over on has used to characterize magnets. Really, though, the SparkX Product 0 is exactly what it says on the tin: a breakout board that is just an experiment, comes with no guarantees or support. It is the heart of what Sparkfun set out to do twenty years ago.