Project Starline Realizes Asimov’s 3D Vision

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.

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Zoombombing The EU Foreign Affairs Council

Those with security clearance are capable of making foolish mistakes, just like the rest of us. So is the story of how a Dutch journalist made an appearance on video meeting of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council (Dutch language, Google Translate link).

Ank Bijleveld's Tweeted picture, with the access details blacked out by Daniël Verlaan.
Netherlands Defence MInister Ank Bijleveld’s Tweeted picture, with the access details blacked out by Daniël Verlaan.

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.

Zoom Control Box Helps Keep Meetings On Track

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.

It might be a simple build, but it greatly reduces the hand gymnastics required mid-presentation, and we’re sure the users greatly appreciate the new hardware. While this is a quick-and-dirty build thrown together in a basic enclosure, macro keyboards can be both useful and attractive if you so desire. If you’ve built your own time-saving control console, be sure to let us know!

Long Range WiFi Broadcasts Open-Source Video Conferencing

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.

[tak786] is planning on releasing a whitepaper about this build shortly, but for now you can access the source code for the video conferencing system at his GitHub page. And, before anyone jumps to conclusions, apparently this is well within FCC rules as well. Some of the comments in the linked Reddit post suggest that with an amateur radio license this system could be pushed much further, too. If you need more range than a kilometer, though, it’s not too much more difficult to do once you have all the right hardware.

Teleconferencing Like It’s 1988: Connecting Vintage Hardware To Zoom

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.

We have been seeing a lot of other hacks around video conferencing in the past six months as well, such as physical mute buttons and a mirror that improves eye contact through the webcam.

Mirror Turns Webcam Into Document Camera

This is one of those so-simple-I-wish-I-invented-it hacks. Professor [Michael Peshkin] is teaching his engineering students remotely. While he has a nice second camera that he can use to transmit whatever he doodles on paper, most of his students just have the single webcam built into their laptops.

The solution is to put a mirror in front of the laptop cam, and flip the image left-to-right in software. They use Zoom, which has a mirror mode. Done.

The trick is making a nice frame. [Michael] has bent one out of wire, but suggests that a mirror compact works about as well in a pinch. It’s super important that his students can ask him questions backed up by drawings, and this reduces the startup cost to nearly nothing, making it universally useful.

[Prof. Peshkin] is not a stranger to mirror-based pedagogical hacks. Seven years ago, he showed us how to make a transparent whiteboard for video lectures, and it blew up on Hackaday. Since then, there are hundreds or thousands of Lightboards in the wild. We hope this idea catches on as well!

$5 Lets Your Documents Go Virtual

Video conferencing is nothing new, but the recent world events have made it much more mainstream than it has been in the past. Luckily, web camera technology is nothing new and most software can also show your screen. But what about your paper documents? Turns out that [John Nelson] can show you how to spend $5 for an old laptop camera module and put your documents center stage on your next Zoom, Skype or other video conferences.

This is especially good for things that would be hard to draw in real time during a conference like a quick sketch, a schematic, or as you can see in the post and the video demo below, chemical molecule diagrams.

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