Hacker Heroism: Building Your Way Out of AV Hell

Many years ago, in a rainy concrete jungle on the west coast of Australia, I worked for a medium-sized enterprise doing a variety of office-based tasks. Somehow, I found myself caught up in planning a product launch event outside the official remit of my position. We got through it, but not before the audiovisual (AV) setup of the event turned into one giant hack.

The initial planning stages went remarkably smoothly until less than a month out from the big day when three weeks of frantic changes and revisions to the presentation rained down. These were some of the hardest days of my working life to date, as it seemed that we would lock in a new arrangement, only to tear it up days later as some new vital criteria came to light, throwing everything back into disarray.

Things came to a head on the night before the event. Working with two different AV teams we had planned for four projection screens and five flat screen televisions spread throughout the venue and controlled from the central AV desk. But somewhere in all those changes the televisions were set up to all display a still image, or nothing at all. I needed to show different videos on each and have the ability to black them all out.

It was at this point I realized we were screwed. The production team simply didn’t have the hardware to drive another five screens, but they could source it — for the sum of $5000. Management were furious, and were under the impression, like myself that this was what we had asked and paid for already. I was at an impasse, and beginning to wonder if I’d have a job come Monday. I wandered off to a corner to curse, and more importantly, think. After all, I’m a hacker — I can get through this.

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Networking: Pin the Tail on the Headless Raspberry Pi

Eager to get deeper into robotics after dipping my toe in the water with my BB-8 droid, I purchased a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. The first step was to connect to it. But while it has built-in 802.11n wireless, I at first didn’t have a wireless access point, though I eventually did get one. That meant I went through different ways of finding it and connecting to it with my desktop computer. Surely there are others seeking to do the same so let’s take a look at the secret incantations used to connect a Pi to a computer directly, and indirectly.

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Control Alexa Echo from anywhere in the World

If you are not within ear-shot of your Alexa Echo, Dot or Tap device and need to command it from anywhere in the world, you’d most likely use the handy mobile app or web interface to control it. For some strange reason, if you’d rather use voice commands from anywhere in the world, you can still do it using apps such as Alexa Listens or Reverb, among many others. We’d be the first ones to call these out and say “It’s not a hack”. But [pat dhens] approach is above reproach! He has posted details on how to Remote Control the Alexa Echo from Anywhere in the World. Short version of the hack — he’s using a Raspberry Pi with a speaker attached to it which commands his Alexa Tap using a text-to-speech converter program.

The long version is short as well. The user uses a VPN, such as OpenVPN, to log in to their home network where the Alexa device is located. Then, use VNC to connect to the Raspberry Pi to access its shell. Finally, the user issues a text command which is converted to speech by the ‘festival‘ program on the Raspberry Pi. The output goes to an external speaker via the Raspberry Pi’s 3.5 mm audio out jack. And that’s all there is to it. You’ve just issued a voice command to your Alexa from across the world.

Maybe it will save your vocal chords from damage due to excessive hollering, we guess. He’s even made a short video to prove that it works. Now all it needs is a microphone to listen to Alexa, convert speech-to-text, and then transmit it back to you across the world to complete the cycle.

We’re not sure, but he thinks this hack will lead him to world domination. Good Luck with that.

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When Your Screen Breaks In The Himalayas

If you’ve ever had the screen break on your laptop, you’ll know it can be rather annoying to have to use an external monitor for a while as you either wait for a replacement panel to arrive from the other side of the world, or wait for that new laptop you were just desperate for an excuse to upgrade to.

Spare a thought, then, for [tom bh] whose laptop screen broke while he was in Ladakh, Northern India. Two days bus ride from the nearest city in which he could hope to source a replacement part, he had to make do with the resources in front of him. A laptop with a broken screen, and his Android phone.

He was fortunate in that a few lines at the top of the screen still worked intermittently. So after logging in blind and finding himself in a shell, he could execute commands and then scroll the results up to the point at which they were visible. He first enabled an SSH server, then connected his phone via USB. A bit of work to find the laptop’s IP address, and he could get himself a laptop shell on his phone with an Android SSH client. He goes into detail about how he was able to use the laptop’s keyboard to emulate a Bluetooth device which he connected to the phone. He could then run a VNC server on the laptop and connect to it with a VNC client on the phone, resulting in a phone-sized laptop display using the laptop’s keyboard as input. Not a perfect physical terminal by any means, but enough for him to continue working.

His writeup is an especially interesting read for its side-by-side evaluation of the various different application choices he made, and contains some useful suggestions as to how anyone might prepare themselves for a dead screen related emergency.

We’ve featured a dead-screen laptop connected as a serial terminal with an Arduino in the past, but unlike this one that only gave its owner a prompt.

Via Hacker News.

DTMF Robot Makes Rube Goldberg Proud

Sometimes you start building, and the project evolves. Layers upon layers of functionality accrue, accrete, and otherwise just pile up. Or at least we’re guessing that’s what happened with [Varun Kumar]’s sweet “Surveillance Car Controlled by DTMF“.

In case you haven’t ever dug into not-so-ancient telephony, Dual-tone, multi-frequency signalling is what made old touch-tone phones work. DTMF, as you’d guess, encodes data in audio by playing two pitches at once. Eight tones are mapped to sixteen numbers by using a matrix that looks not coincidentally like the old phone keypad (but with an extra column). One pitch corresponds to a column, and one to a row. Figure out which tones are playing, and you’ve decoded the signal.

Anyway, you can get DTMF decoder chips for pennies on eBay, and they make a great remote-control interface for a simple robot, which is presumably how [Varun] got started. And then he decided that he needed a cell phone on the robot to send back video over WiFi, and realized that he could also use the phone as a remote controller. So he downloaded a DTMF-tone-generator app to the phone, which he then controls over VNC. Details on GitHub.

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Pong on Industrial Controllers

Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) are a staple of control automation. Sometime in the 60s or 70s, they replaced a box full of relays to implement the kind of “if-this-then-that” logic that turns thermostats on or directs machinery. Sometime in the 90s or 2000s, some more computing power was added, giving us the Programmable Automation Controller (PAC). And if reading Hackaday has taught us anything, it’s that if you give people a little bit of computing power, they’ll implement Pong (or Snake or Doom!).

We were sent a link where [AbsolutelyAutomation] does just that: implements a remotely-playable Pong on a bit of industrial control. Even if you don’t have a PAC sitting around, the details are interesting.

The first step is to get graphics out of the thing. The PAC in question is already able to speak Ethernet, so it’s “just” a matter of sending the right packets. Perhaps the simplest way to go is to implement the remote framebuffer (RFB) protocol from VNC, and then use a VNC client on the PC to send the graphics. (As they point out [CNLohr] has done this quite nicely on the ESP8266 (YouTube) as well.) So an RFB library was written. [AbsolutelyAutomation] points out that this could be used to make boring things like user-friendly configuration and monitoring screens. (Yawn!)

Graphics done, it’s easy to add a Pong layer over the top, using the flowchart-based programming interface that makes homage to the PLC/PAC’s usual function as an industrial controller. (Oddly enough, it seems to compile to a Forth dialect to run on the PAC.) And then you’re playing. There’s code and a (PDF) writeup available if you want more info. If you don’t have a PAC to run it on, the manufacturers have a simulator for you.

We’ve never worked with a PLC/PAC, but we know the hacker spirit when we see it. And making something that’s usually located in the boiler room play video games is aces in our book. This sparks a memory of an industrial control hacking room at DEF CON a few years back. Maybe this is the inspiration needed to spend some time in that venue this year.

We know we’ve got controls engineers out there. What’s the strangest thing you’ve programmed into a PLC?

Streaming Video on an Apple IIc

Some of the projects we feature solve a problem. Others just demonstrate that they can be done. We’re guessing that it’s the latter that motivated [Joshua Bell] to write a VNC client for an Apple IIc. To fully appreciate how insane this is, have a look at the video below the break.

There’s more than one thing amazing about this hack. Somehow, [Joshua]’s VNC program runs entirely in the memory of an Apple IIc, as he demonstrates at the beginning of the video by downloading all of the code into the Apple over a serial cable. After the initial bootstrap, he runs the code and you see (in full four-color splendour!) a low-res Windows XP appear on the IIc.

2440964467_decb0daf10_oWhat’s more incredible, but is unfortunately not demonstrated in the video, is that he appears to have not just mirrored the PC’s screen on the Apple, but has actually managed to get a one-frame-per-second bi-directional VNC working at 115,200 baud. In this snapshot from his flickr gallery, he appears to be playing Karateka on the IIc and watching it on his laptop.

If you’ve got a IIc kicking around, and you want to show it yet more new tricks, don’t neglect this browser written for the Apple IIc. Or if you’ve only got an Apple IIc+ and you’re totally ticked off that the beep is different from that of the IIc, you can always go on an epic reverse-engineering quest to “repair” it.

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