Q&A: Joe Grand – Engineer to the Core

From his grade-school Atari obsession and his teenage involvement in the L0pht Heavy Industries hacker group, to co-hosting Discovery Channel’s Prototype This! and starting his own company, Grand Idea Studio, Joe Grand has always maintained his passion for engineering. Joe and I recently discussed his journey and his lifelong love of all things engineering.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: Give us some background information. When and how did you discover electronics. What was your first project?

 

Joe Grand

JOE: I got involved with computers and electronics in 1982, when I was 7 years old. My first system was an Atari 400 computer, an Atari 810 floppy disk drive, and an Atari 830 acoustic coupler modem. I spent every waking hour playing computer games, trying to write my own programs, and connecting to local bulletin board systems. I was continually experimenting and questioning. I remember learning hexadecimal by poking around with a binary editor and figuring out how to replace names on game title screens with my own.
My brother, who is six years older than me, was also interested in computers and electronics. He would repair audio equipment, build telephone and computer gadgets, and disassemble broken electronics to scavenge them for parts. He had a cabinet that served as a junk bin for components and broken boards. When I did chores for him, like doing his laundry or cleaning his room, he’d let me pick something from the cabinet.

I was 13 years old when I hand-etched my first circuit board to make a “ring-busy device.” The device was simply a resistor across the tip and ring of the telephone line that had an RJ-11 plug for easy insertion/removal. It would make the telephone switch at the central office believe your phone was off the hook (thus, providing a busy signal to any incoming caller), but would still enable you to make outgoing calls. It was a fun, mischievous device, but also very practical to prevent annoying phone calls during dinner.

Right from the start, I had a strong emotional connection to all things electronic. I could just understand how technology was working even if I was unable to explain why. I knew early on that I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I wore this proudly on my sleeve, which didn’t help my ranking in the social hierarchy of elementary school!

NAN: What have been some of your influences?

JOE: In the early 1990s, when I was still a teenager, I joined a group called L0pht Heavy Industries (pronounced “loft” and spelled ell-zero-ph-t, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L0pht). The L0pht was a clubhouse for Boston-area hackers who had met on local bulletin board systems and it was one of the first publicly known “hackerspaces.” The L0pht simply started as a place to store computer equipment, tinker with technology, and hang out, but it ended up as seven close-knit friends changing the face of computer security vulnerability research and disclosure.

We would examine networks, software applications, and hardware products for security flaws. If we discovered a vulnerability, we would challenge the vendor to not only acknowledge the problem, but to fix it. This is now common practice, but back then, it was a feat practically unheard of.

I looked up to the other guys in the group. All were at least six years older than me and they became my mentors (whether they knew it or not) for nearly the next decade. They helped me to focus my energy on projects that would have positive impacts for other people. They also helped reinforce the hacker mindset—that is, not being afraid to try unconventional solutions to problems, pushing the limits of technology, being dedicated to learning through constant experimentation, and sharing my passion with others. Being involved in the L0pht was a very special time for me and shaped much of how I view the world.

NAN: You grew up and went to school in Boston. How did you end up in California?

JOE: Being in Boston for nearly 28 years left me with a lot of history (both good and bad). Everywhere I looked, I had a story, a feeling, or a connection to a time or event. I needed a clean slate. I had just left @stake, a computer security consulting firm that we started out of the L0pht, and my wife (girlfriend at the time) had just finished graduate school. She was also looking for new adventures, so we packed up our stuff and drove across the country not really knowing what we were going to do when we got to California. We lived in San Diego for a few years and ultimately settled in San Francisco when I started work on Discovery Channel’s Prototype This! television show.

San Francisco was a natural fit for us, and when the show ended, we decided to stay. Being close to Silicon Valley and its electronics stores (e.g., Jameco Electronics, WeirdStuff Warehouse, and HSC Electronic Supply) is quite useful, and I always get a thrill driving by the offices of chip vendors I use on a daily basis.

NAN: You started your own product design firm, Grand Idea Studio, in 2002. Tell us about the company.

JOE: Grand Idea Studio (www.grandideastudio.com) is a product design and licensing firm specializing in consumer/household devices and modules for electronics hobbyists. I started the company to create an environment that suited me best and would enable me to focus on what I loved to do. The majority of my work stems from ideas developed in-house or with my industrial design/mechanical engineering partners. I prefer to design simple, effective devices that serve a specific purpose. I’m all for using technology—but only where it’s needed—to make a product better.

Much of my time is spent building prototypes or proof-of-concepts of ideas (though many of those don’t ever see the light of day) that are sold and/or licensed to suitable partners. Some projects I’ll release as open source (usually through a Creative Commons Attribution license), so others can learn from my experiences and build upon my work to make something better.

I also teach a hardware hacking course at public and private events (www.grandideastudio.com/portfolio/hardware-hacking-training). The course focuses on teaching board-level hardware hacking and reverse-engineering techniques and skills. It’s a combination of a lecture and hands-on exercises covering the hardware hacking process, proper use of tools and test measurement equipment, circuit board analysis and modification, embedded security, and common hardware attack vectors. The course concludes with a final hardware hacking challenge in which students must apply what they’ve learned to defeat the security mechanism of a custom circuit board. Design engineers and computer security researchers don’t often join forces. Being both, I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to help make that connection.

NAN: Tell us about your engineering experience prior to Grand Idea Studio.

JOE: My most relevant and memorable engineering experience was when I worked for Continuum (formerly Design Continuum, www.continuuminnovation.com), a design and innovation consultancy based in West Newton, MA. I had worked on and off at the company during college and took a full-time engineering position in 1998. I was one of only two electrical engineers. We worked very closely with industrial designers, mechanical engineers, manufacturers, and clients to create innovative new products. Some key projects I contributed to were the A.T. Cross iPen (an early digital writing tablet) and the FluidSense FS-01 portable infusion pump (voted one of the best inventions of 2000 by Time magazine). It was during my time at Continuum that I learned about the product development and production manufacturing processes and sharpened my skills as an engineer.

NAN: Tell us about your experience working on Discovery Channel’s Prototype This! television show. Do you have a favorite project?

 

Prototype This! Giant Boxing Robot

JOE: Prototype This! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prototype_This!) was a short-lived engineering entertainment show that followed the real-life design process of a unique prototype each episode. Although we only filmed for one season (comprising 13 episodes), the show gained a “cult” status of sorts among engineers and makers. It aired on Discovery Channel in the US in late 2008, but is now airing elsewhere throughout the world. The show is also available on Netflix, making it accessible to viewers who may have missed the show the first time around.

To be clear, I’m an engineer to the core, and I never had any intention of being in front of a camera as part of my job. But, the opportunity to show off engineering to the world in a way that was fun, entertaining, and somewhat educational seemed too good to pass up. Producing the show turned out to be a difficult and frustrating process, as we not only had to be on-screen television hosts trying to convey complex, technical builds in a way most viewers would understand, but we also had to actually engineer, design, build, and test the prototypes.

Prototype This! The PyroPack

We ended up building ridiculously crazy contraptions including “Mind Controlled Car” (Episode 1), giant 10’ “Boxing Robots” (Episode 2), and a “Traffic Busting Truck” that could elevate itself over other traffic and move in any direction (Episode 3). Each build had its own special flavor and design challenges and I actually enjoyed working on all of them. From an engineering point of view, I was most proud of the AirTrax control system (Episode 3), the PyroPack (Episode 6: “Robotic Firefighter Assistant”), and the underwater ROV controller (Episode 10: “Virtual Sea Adventure”). All of the documentation for my contributions to the builds, including schematics, source code, and development notes, is available at www.grandideastudio.com/prototype-this.

Ultimately, the show proved to be unsustainable (from financial and time perspectives), but it was an unforgettable experience. The best thing is how the show continues to inspire future engineers. Nearly every day I receive e-mails from viewers asking for details about a particular build or what it takes to become an engineer, and I do my best to point them in the right direction.

NAN: You’ve designed dozens of things—from computer memory-imaging tools to children’s products to medical devices. Tell us about your design process. Do you have a favorite project?

JOE: I think my design process is very typical. I start by identifying and sourcing key components for the project. I’ll put together a preliminary block diagram and then build a proof-of-concept or prototype using a breadboard or PCB (depending on complexity and/or other constraints).

If the design is an embedded system that requires firmware, I’ll start writing it as soon as the prototype hardware is ready. This lets me validate that each hardware subsystem behaves as required and, if necessary, I can easily make changes to the design.

Once the hardware design has been sufficiently proven, I’ll move to a production design and form factor. Then, I’ll finish up the firmware, refine my documentation (which I work on throughout the process), and either release the design or move to production. If things go wrong, which they can sometimes do, then I may make multiple iterations of a design before it’s ready for production.

When I’m in the throes of the design process, I’m obsessed with the work. I think about it constantly—on my daily runs, in the shower, at bedtime, and sometimes while sleeping. I try to anticipate worst-case scenarios, component tolerances, failure modes, and how the end user will interact with the device (both correctly and incorrectly).

Every project I work on is currently my favorite and each project comes with its own challenges, successes, and failures. As soon as I’m done with one project, I’m looking for the next thing to do.

DEFCON 17 Badge

I’m particularly fond of my work on the DEF CON badges. Held every summer, DEF CON (www.defcon.org) is the largest and oldest continuously running hacker event of its kind. It’s a mix of good guys, bad guys, government officials, and everyone in between, all having fun, sharing information, seeing old friends, and learning new things.

For five years (2006–2010) I had the honor of designing the official conference badges, which were artistic, fully functional electronic devices. I believe we were the first large-scale event to provide electronic badges to attendees. It changed what people have come to expect from a conference badge. The challenge was to create something that scrutinizing hackers would enjoy, appreciate, play with, and modify, while staying within the budget (around $10 per badge in 10,000-unit quantities).

The various badge designs have displayed custom scrolling text messages, turned off your television, transferred files over infrared, pulsed to music using fast Fourier transforms (FFTs), and provided USB functionality for computer control. They have incorporated technologies such as capacitive touch, RGB LEDs, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) based microphones, “zero power” cholesteric LCDs, and microcontrollers ranging in size from tiny six-pin devices to powerful 64-pin behemoths. The physical PCBs used extremely complicated mechanical outlines, multiple layers of custom solder mask colors, and laser etching onto single-sided aluminum substrate PCBs.

DEFCON 18 Badge Backside

DEFCON 18 Badge close-up

Full details about the badges, along with schematics, source code, pictures, attendee hacks, and related articles, are available at www.grandideastudio.com/portfolio/defcon-x-badge (where x = 14, 15, 16, 17, 18).

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any projects? Can you tell us about them?

JOE: There will (hopefully) never be a shortage of cool projects to work on. I like to keep multiple plates spinning at one time, though I can only talk about some of those plates.
At the recent 2013 DESIGN West conference, I released the JTAGulator (http://jtagulator.com), which is an open-source, Parallax Propeller-based hardware tool that assists in identifying on-chip debug (OCD) and/or programming connections from test points, vias, or component pads on a target device. Discovering available interfaces is a common step in hardware hacking or reverse engineering, as they are usually left unprotected and can be used to extract memory or affect the state of a system on the fly.
A few similar tools exist, but they are either incomplete, closed source, or proof of concept. I wanted to create something that could be used in actual, real-world situations and that would help new people get involved in hardware hacking. The tool will also help to highlight the insecurity of leaving OCD interfaces enabled in production devices and hopefully serve as a catalyst for change in the engineering community (where convenience often trumps security). The JTAGulator currently supports JTAG and I will be making continued refinements to the firmware to add support for additional OCD protocols.

Last year, I finished up the Emic 2 Text-to-Speech module (www.grandideastudio.com/portfolio/emic-2-text-to-speech-module), which has just started to appear in lots of interesting projects. The module is a self-contained, multi-language voice synthesizer that converts a stream of digital text into natural-sounding speech. It’s based on the Epson S1V30120 text-to-speech (TTS) IC, which uses the familiar DECtalk engine and is easy to interface to any microcontroller through a standard serial interface. Though embedded speech synthesis has been around for a while, there was no small form factor, low-cost solution readily available. So, I made one. A search for “Emic 2” on YouTube will result in various projects that use the module, including a tweet reader, a color-to-voice converter, a talking thermometer, an interaction with Apple’s Siri, and some singing demonstrations.

Some other projects I have planned include experimenting with PCB reverse-engineering techniques, hacking with a BeagleBone Black and OpenCV, and designing a new RFID system.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the embedded design industry?

JOE: I’ve been increasingly concerned with the improper and (sometimes) socially unacceptable use of technology. From cameras at every street corner to mobile devices tracking your every move to Facebook and Google (among others) controlling your personal data, privacy has become something we’re slowly (and willingly?) losing. It’s a slippery slope that I don’t think many people will notice until it’s too late. The problem is largely driven by our society’s mass adoption of technology and taking that technology for granted. As an engineer and hacker, I strive to educate others about the unintended consequences of blindly using technology and hope it will make them more aware.

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