Whether it’s distance, pandemics, or both that separate you from your elderly loved ones, what’s the best idea for communicating with them so they don’t suffer from loneliness on top of issues like dementia? We’d say it’s probably something like [Stefan Baur]’s Grannophone.
Back in late 2020, a Twitter user named [Nitek] asked the Internet what could be done in the way of a grandma-friendly video-conferencing solution, provided Grandma has a TV and a broadband internet connection. At first, [Stefan] was like, just get her an old iPad and FaceTime with her. But the question got him thinking. And prototyping.
Grannophones are essentially Linux machines with a video-capable SIP client connected over a VPN for privacy reasons. In simple mode, picking up the handset of one Grannophone will call the other, but more complicated configurations are possible. We particularly like that replacing the handset automatically obscures the camera. That’s a nice touch.
At this point, the Grannophone is a work in progress. The idea is that they be extremely easy to build at the kitchen table, like on the order of disposable Swedish furniture. If you can contribute to the project, please do. Be sure to check out the demonstration video after the break.
Working from home with regular video meetings has its challenges, especially if you add kids to the mix. To help avoid embarrassing situations, [Charitha Jayaweera] created Present!, a USB device to automatically turn of your camera and microphone if you suddenly need to leave your computer to maintain domestic order.
Present consists of just a PIR sensor and Arduino in a 3D printed enclosure to snap onto your monitor. When the PIR sensor no longer detects someone in range, it sends a notification over serial to a python script running on the PC to switch off the camera and microphone on Zoom (or another app). It can optionally turn these back on when you are seated again. The cheap HC-SR501 PIR module’s range can also be adjusted with a trimpot for your specific scenario. It should also be possible to shrink the device to the size of the PIR module, with a small custom PCB or one of the many tiny Arduino compatible dev boards.
Issac Asimov wrote Caves of Steel in 1953. In it, he mentions something called trimensional personification. In an age before WebEx and Zoom, imagining that people would have remote meetings replete with 3D holograms was pretty far-sighted. We don’t know if any Google engineers read the book, but they are trying to create a very similar experience with project Starline.
The system is one of those that seems simple on the face of it, but we are sure the implementation isn’t easy. You sit facing something that looks like a window. The other person shows up in 3D as though they were on the other side of the window. Think prison visitation without the phone handset. The camera is mounted such that you look naturally at the other person through your virtual window.
Like any other video call, if you had the link you could enter the meeting. So when Netherlands Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld Tweeted a photo of a video call last Friday, the address bar of the browser gave away the secret to anyone with a keen eye. Dutch journalist Daniël Verlaan working for the broadcaster RTL saw the URL on the screen and deduced the login credentials for the meeting.
We say “deduced”, but in fact there were five of the six digits in the PIN in the clear in the URL, leaving him with the difficult task of performing a one-digit brute-force attack and joining with the username “admin”. He joined and revealed his presence, then was admonished for committing a criminal offence before he left.
On one level it’s an opportunity for a good laugh at the expense of the defence ministers, and we certainly wouldn’t want to be Ank Bijleveld or probably the EU’s online security people once the inevitable investigation into this gets under way. It seems scarcely credible that the secrecy on such a high-security meeting could have sat upon such a shaky foundation without for example some form of two-factor authentication using the kind of hardware available only to governments.
EU policy is decided not by individual ministries but by delicate round-table summits of all 27 countries. In a pandemic these have shifted to being half-online and half in-real-life, so this EU defence ministers’ meeting had the usual mosaic video feed of politicians and national flags. And one Zoom-bombing journalist.
For many people, the biggest change of 2020 has been adjusting to a glut of online teleconferences as a part of daily working life. [p_leriche] has had to adjust the way church services are conducted, and found managing a complicated streaming meeting setup to be complicated at best. To ease the workload on the presenter, he created a simple Zoom control box.
At its heart, the box is little more than a fancy keyboard. An Arduino Pro Micro is hooked up to a series of brightly colored pushbuttons, each labelled with regularly used Zoom functions. The Pro Micro is programmed to fire off the corresponding keyboard shortcuts when the buttons are pressed, activating the relevant function.
WiFi is an ubiquitous feature of the modern landscape, but due to power restrictions on most hardware alongside the high-frequency signal it’s typically fairly limited in range. This of course leads to frustration where a WiFi signal can be seen, but the connection is unreliable or slow. While most would reach for a range extender or other hardware bridge, [tak786] was able to roll out a better solution for his workplace by using a high-gain antenna and a single-board computer which gets him an amazing kilometer-wide WiFi network.
The build uses a 10 dBi antenna from TP-Link that’s rated for outdoor use and a single-board computer which acts as a sort of router. The antenna is placed at the top of a building which certainly helps with the extreme range as well. This setup doesn’t actually broadcast an open Internet connection, though. [tak786]’s employer needed a teleconferencing solution for their building, and he also created a fully open-source video conferencing solution called trango that can run on any LAN and doesn’t require an Internet connection. The WiFi setup in this build is effectively just a bonus to make the conferencing system more effective.
Hang up your car phone and toss that fax machine in the garbage. Even back in the late 80s it was possible to do away with these primitive technologies in favor of video conferencing, even though this technology didn’t catch on en masse until recently. In fact, Mitsubishi released a piece of video conferencing equipment called the VisiTel that can be put to use today, provided you can do a bit of work to get it to play along nicely with modern technology.
[Alex] was lucky enough to have one of these on hand, as soon as it was powered up he was able to get to work deciphering the messaging protocol of the device. To do this he showed the camera certain pictures with known properties and measured the output waveforms coming from the device, which were AM modulated over an RJ9 connection which he had changed to a 3.5 mm headphone jack.
It communicates in a series of pictures instead of sending an actual video signal, so [Alex] had a lot of work to do to properly encode and decode the stream. He goes into incredible detail on his project page about this process and is worth a read for anyone interested in signal processing. Ultimately, [Alex] was able to patch this classic piece of technology into a Zoom call and the picture quality is excellent when viewed through the lens of $399 80s technology.