Vampire Charger is a Rugged Anything-to-5VDC Converter

USB sockets providing 5 VDC are so ubiquitous as a power source that just about any piece of modern portable technology can use them to run or charge. USB power is so common, in fact, that it’s easy to take for granted. But in an emergency or in the wake of a disaster, a working cell phone or GPS can be a life saver and it would be wise not to count on the availability of a clean, reliable USB power supply.

That’s where the Vampire Charger by [Matteo Borri] and [Lisa Rein] comes in. It is a piece of hardware focused on turning just about any source or power one might possibly have access to into a reliable source of 5 VDC for anything that can plug in by USB. This is much more than a DC-DC converter with a wide input range; when they say it is made to accept just about anything as an input, they mean it. Found a working power source but don’t know what voltage it is? Don’t know which wire is positive and which is negative? Don’t even know whether it’s AC or DC? Just hook up the alligator clips and let the Vampire Charger figure it out; when the light is green, the power’s clean.

The Vampire Charger was recently selected to move on to the final round of The Hackaday Prize, netting $1000 cash in the process. The next challenge (which will have another twenty finalists receiving $1000 each) is the Human-Computer Interface challenge. All you need to enter is an idea and some documentation, so dust off that project that’s been waiting for an opportunity, because here it is.

Chromebook Trades Camera for WiFi Freedom

There are a number of companies now providing turn-key computers that meet the Free Software Foundation’s criteria for their “Respects Your Freedom” certification. This means, in a general sense, that the computer is guaranteed not to spy on you or otherwise do anything else you didn’t explicitly ask it to. Unfortunately these machines often have a hefty premium tacked on, making it an unpleasant decision between privacy and performance.

Freedom-loving hacker [SolidHal] writes in to tell us about his quest to create a FSF-compliant laptop without breaking the bank. Based on a cheap Asus C201 Chromebook, his custom machine checks off all the appropriate boxes. The operating system was easy enough with an install of Debian, and the bootloader was rid of any Intel Management Engine shenanigans with a healthy dose of Libreboot. But there was one problem: the permanently installed WiFi hardware that required proprietary firmware. To remedy the issue, he decided to install an internal USB Wi-Fi adapter that has the FSF seal of approval.

As the Chromebook obviously doesn’t have an internal USB port, this was easier said than done. But as [SolidHal] is not the kind of guy who would want his laptop taking pictures of him in the first place, he had the idea to take the internal USB connection used by the integrated webcam and use that. He pulled the webcam out, studied the wiring, and determined which wires corresponded to the normal USB pinout.

The FSF approved ThinkPenguin Wi-Fi adapter he chose is exceptionally small, so it was easy enough to tuck it inside some empty space inside of the Chromebook. [SolidHal] just needed to solder it to the old webcam connection, and wrap it up in Kapton tape to prevent any possible shorts. The signal probably isn’t great considering the antenna is stuck inside the machine with all the noisy components, but it’s a trade-off for having a fully free and open source driver. But as already established, sometimes these are the kind of tough choices you have to make when walking in the righteous footsteps of Saint Ignucius.

Internal laptop modifications like this one remind us of the Ye Olden Days of Hackaday, when Eee PC modifications were all the rage and we still ran black and white pictures “taped” to the screen. Ah, the memories.

USB Reverse Engineering: A Universal Guide

Every hacker knows what it is to venture down a rabbit hole. Whether it lasts an afternoon, a month, or decades, finding a new niche topic and exploring where it leads is a familiar experience for Hackaday readers.

[Glenn ‘devalias’ Grant] is a self-proclaimed regular rabbit hole diver and is conscious that, between forays into specific topics, short-term knowledge and state of mind can be lost. This time, whilst exploring reverse engineering USB devices, [Glenn] captured the best resources, information and tools – for his future self as well as others.

His guide is impressively comprehensive, and covers all the necessary areas in hardware and software. After formally defining a USB system, [Glenn] refers us to [LinuxVoice], for a nifty tutorial on writing a linux USB driver for an RC car, in Python. Moving on to hardware, a number of open-source and commercial options are discussed, including GoodFET, FaceDancer, and Daisho – an FPGA based monitoring tool for analysing USB 3.0, HDMI and Gigabit Ethernet. If you only need to sniff low speed USB, here’s a beautifully small packet snooper from last year’s Hackaday prize.

This is a guide which is well-informed, clearly structured, and includes TL;DR sections in the perfect places. It gives due credit to LibUSB and PyUSB, and even includes resources for USB over IP.

If you’re worried about USB hacks like BadUSB, perhaps you should checkout GoodUSB – a hardware firewall for USB devices.

Header image: Ed g2s (CC-SA 3.0).


Stylish Business Card with a Stylophone Built In

If you’re in the electronics business, PCB business cards seem like a natural fit. They may be impractical and expensive, but they can really set you apart from that boring paper card from Vistaprint crowd. But they need to make sense for what you do, so for a musician and MIDI pro, this MIDI-controller stylophone business card is a real eye- and ear-catcher.

This business card is an idea that [Mitxela] has been kicking around for a while, and he even built a prototype a couple of years ago. The homebrew card, made using the spray paint, laser etching, and ferric chloride method, worked well enough as a proof of concept, but it was a little rough around the edges and needed the professional touch of a PCB fabricator. We’ve got to say that the finished cards are pretty darn sexy, with the black resist contrasting nicely against the gold-immersion pads. He selected a 1-mm thick board and made the USB connector as a separate small board; snapped off of the main board and reflowed back on, it builds up the edge connector to the proper thickness. The parts count is low — just an ATtiny85 and a resistor ladder to encode each key, with a simple jumper used as the stylus. The device itself is just a MIDI controller and makes no music on its own, but we still think this is a pretty creative way to hang out a shingle.

[Mitxela] has quite a few interesting builds, and is no stranger to our pages. Check out his recent servo-plucked MIDI music box, or these amazing miniature LED earrings.

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Low-Cost Eye Tracking with Webcams and Open-Source Software

“What are you looking at?” Said the wrong way, those can be fighting words. But in fields as diverse as psychological research and user experience testing, knowing what people are looking at in real-time can be invaluable. Eye-tracking software does this, but generally at a cost that keeps it out of the hands of the home gamer.

Or it used to. With hacked $20 webcams, this open source eye tracker will let you watch how someone is processing what they see. But [John Evans]’ Hackaday Prize entry is more than that. Most of the detail is in the video below, a good chunk of which [John] uses to extol the virtues of the camera he uses for his eye tracker, a Logitech C270. And rightly so — the cheap and easily sourced camera has remarkable macro capabilities right out of the box, a key feature for a camera that’s going to be trained on an eyeball a few millimeters away. Still, [John] provides STL files for mounts that snap to the torn-down camera PCB, in case other focal lengths are needed.

The meat of the project is his Jevons Camera Viewer, an app he wrote to control and view two cameras at once. Originally for a pick and place, the software can be used to coordinate the views of two goggle-mounted cameras, one looking out and one focused on the user’s eye. Reflections from the camera LED are picked up and used to judge the angle of the eye, with an overlay applied to the other camera’s view to show where the user is looking. It seems quite accurate, and plenty fast to boot.

We think this is a great project, like so many others in the first round of the 2018 Hackaday Prize. Can you think of an awesome project based on eye tracking? Here’s your chance to get going on the cheap.

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Scotty Allen Builds A USB Drive From An iPhone

What happens when you come across a mysterious, partially populated circuit board in the Huaqiangbei electronics market in Shenzhen? If you’re [Scotty Allen], the only answer is to make your own USB drive from iPhone parts.

[Scotty] made a name for himself through his YouTube channel Strange Parts where he built his own iPhone from scratch, added a headphone jack to an iPhone, and other various exploits involving hot air in Shenzhen. This latest build is no different. It begins with a random PCB [Scotty] found at the electronics market. It has a USB port on one end, it has pads for an iPhone memory chip, and it has an IC that looks like a USB to Flash converter.

The build involved finding a few broken iPhones, desoldering and reballing their Flash chips, and when those didn’t work, finding the correct Flash chips for this tiny little USB adapter board. Here, [Scotty] ran into trouble. The first Flash chip didn’t have the right pins, there was blue smoke, and the toolchain for initializing the USB to Flash IC was a mess.

In the end, [Scotty] managed to create a USB Flash drive after five or six visits to the electronics market, two stencils to reball Flash chips, and finding the OEM software for the USB to Flash chip on this very special PCB. That, itself, required Windows (the horror!), and finding the right version of the software.

Is this technically building a Flash drive purely from disposed iPhone components? We’d quibble. But is it a cool build, regardless? Absolutely. And the real story here is how quickly [Scotty] could iterate on his engineering. When the greatest electronics market is right around the corner, you can do anything with a microscope and a hot air gun.

Spoofing Cell Networks with a USB to VGA Adapter

RTL-SDR brought cheap and ubiquitous Software Defined Radio (SDR) to the masses, opening up whole swaths of the RF spectrum which were simply unavailable to the average hacker previously. Because the RTL-SDR supported devices were designed as TV tuners, they had no capability to transmit. For the price they are still an absolutely fantastic deal, and deserve to be in any modern hacker’s toolkit, but sometimes you want to reach out and touch someone.

GSM network broadcast from a VGA adapter

Now you can. At OsmoDevCon [Steve Markgraf] released osmo-fl2k, a tool which allows transmit-only SDR through cheap USB 3.0 to VGA adapters based on the Fresco Logic FL2000 chip. Available through the usual overseas suppliers for as little has $5 USD, these devices can be used unmodified to transmit low-power FM, DAB, DVB-T, GSM, UMTS and GPS signals.

In a demonstration on the project page, one of these USB VGA adapters is used to broadcast a GSM cellular network which is picked up by the adjacent cell phones. Another example shows how it can be used to broadcast FM radio. A GitHub repository has been set up which includes more examples. The signals transmitted from the FL2000 chip are obviously quite weak, but the next step will logically be the hardware modifications necessary to boost transmission to more useful levels.

To say this is a big deal is something of an understatement. For a few bucks, you’ll be able to get a device to spoof cellular networks and GPS signals. This was possible before, of course, but took SDR hardware that was generally outside the budget of the casual experimenter. If you bought a HackRF or an Ettus Research rig, you were probably responsible enough not to get into trouble with it, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore. As exciting as this technology is, we would be wise to approach it with caution. In an increasingly automated world, GPS spoofing can have some pretty bad results.