A Personal Hackerspace in Lyon, France

Jean Noël Lefebvre, of Lyon, France, is the inventor of the Ootsidebox touchless technology, an innovative interface that enables adding touchless technology to an existing tablet. (Watch the Elektor.LABS video interview with Lefebvre to find out more about Ootside box and how it works).

Recently, Lefebvre shared with Circuit Cellar photos of his workspace, which he prefers to call his “personal hackerspace”  where he conceives inventive ideas and builds them.

Deskweb

Lefebvre’s desk reflects his new project.

His desk has an old oscilloscope, with only two inputs. “I have to upgrade it as soon as possible,” he says.

He is working on a shield for the Arduino UNO board on his desk, which is also where he keeps a Weller soldering iron with specific tools for surface mount devices (SMDs).

“On the screen of the computer you can see the logo of my project Ootsidebox and also the logo of Noisebridge, the San Francisco hackerspace.”

A diverse library

A diverse library

Lefebvre says his library is filled with “a lot of good books (old and modern)” covering many different topics and skills, including electronics, software, signal processing, cryptography, physics, biology, mathematics, and inventors’ biographies.

What is he currently working on in his hackerspace?

“I’m working on my own invention: a touchless gesture user Interface based on electric-fields (E-fields) sensing,” he says. “It’s an open-source  and open-hardware project, compatible with the Arduino environment.”

You can learn more about how his project is being shared on the Elektor.LABS website.

Storage for some of Lefebvre's stock components

Storage for some of Lefebvre’s stock components

Although Lefebvre is currently working alone in his “personal hackerspace” at his family’s home, his dream is to go to San Francisco, CA, and work out of the well-equipped Noisebridge hackerspace.

A few years ago, he says, big ideas and innovations in technology started in garages.  “Today this will take place in hackerspaces, where creativity and technical skills are omnipresent,” he says. “By making stuff in such a place, you are fully connected with a worldwide network of creative people of different backgrounds, and this synergy highly accelerates the innovation process.”

You can view pictures and video Lefebvre posted from his last Noisebridge visit.  And you can follow Lefebvre and his work on Twitter.

A Visit to the World Maker Faire in New York

If you missed the World Maker Faire in New York City, you can pick up Circuit Cellar’s February issue for highlights of the innovative projects and hackers represented there.Veteran electronics DIYer and magazine columnist Jeff Bachiochi is the perfect guide.

“The World Maker Faire is part science fair and part country fair,” Bachiochi says. “Makers are DIYers. The maker movement empowers everyone to build, repair, remake, hack, and adapt all things. The Maker Faire shares the experiences of makers who have been involved in this important process… Social media keeps us in constant contact and can educate, but it can’t replace the feeling you can get from hands-on live interaction with people and the things they have created.

Photo 1: This pole-climbing robot is easy to deploy at a moment’s notice. There is no need for a ladder to get emergency communication antennas up high where they can be most effective.

Photo 1: This pole-climbing robot is easy to deploy at a moment’s notice. There is no need for a ladder to get emergency communication antennas up high where they can be most effective.

“It should be noted that not all Maker Faire exhibitors are directly involved with technology. Some non-technological projects on display included the ‘Art Car’ from Pittsburgh, which is an annual revival of an old clunker turned into a drivable art show on wheels. There was also the life-size ‘Mouse Trap’ game, which was quite the contraption and just plain fun, especially if you grew up playing the original game.”

Bachiochi’s article introduces you to a wide variety of innovators, hackers, and hackerspaces.

“The 721st Mechanized Contest Battalion (MCB) is an amateur radio club from Warren County, NJ, that combines amateur (ham) radio with electronics, engineering, mechanics, building, and making,” Bachiochi says. “The club came to the Maker Faire to demonstrate its Emergency Antenna Platform System (E-APS) robot. The robot, which is designed for First Responder Organizations, will turn any parking lot lamppost into an instant antenna tower (see Photo 1).”

The keen and growing interest in 3-D printing as a design tool was evident at the Maker Faire.

“Working by day as an analog/mixed-signal IC design engineer for Cortina Systems in Canada, Andrew Plumb needed a distraction. In the evenings, Plumb uses a MakerBot 3-D printer to create 3-D designs of plastic, like thousands of others experimenting with 3-D printing,” Bachiochi says. “Plumb was not satisfied with simply printing plastic widgets. In fact, he showed me a few of his projects, which include printing plastic onto paper and cloth (see Photo 2).”

Photo 2: Andrew Plumb showed me some unique ideas he was experimenting with using one of his 3-D printers. By printing the structural frame directly on tissue paper, ultra-light parts are practically ready to fly.

Photo 2: Andrew Plumb showed me some unique ideas he was experimenting with using one of his 3-D printers. By printing the structural frame directly on tissue paper, ultra-light parts are practically ready to fly.

Also in the 3-D arena, Bachiochi encountered some innovative new products.

“It was just a matter of time until someone introduced a personal scanner to create digital files of 3-D objects. The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first I’ve seen (see Photo 3),” Bachiochi says. “It uses a laser, a turntable, and a CMOS camera to pick off 3-D points and output a STL file. The scanner will create a 3-D image from an object up to 8″ in height and width. There is no third axis scanning, so you must plan your model’s orientation to achieve the best results. Priced less than most 3-D printers, this will be a hot item for 3-D printing enthusiasts.”

Bachiochi’s article includes a lengthy section about “other interesting stuff” and people at the Maker Faire, including the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab), a community that uses inexpensive DIY techniques to investigate environmental concerns.

Photo 3: The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first production scanner I’ve seen that will directly provide files compatible with the 3-D printing process. This is a long-awaited addition to MakerBot’s line of 3-D printers. (Photo credit: Spencer Higgins)

Photo 3: The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first production scanner I’ve seen that will directly provide files compatible with the 3-D printing process.  (Photo credit: Spencer Higgins)

“For instance, the New York chapter featured two spectrometers, a you-fold-it cardboard version and a near-infrared USB camera-based kit,” Bachiochi says. “This community of educators, technologists, scientists, and community organizers believes they can promote action, intervention, and awareness through a participatory research model in which you can play a part.”

At this family-friendly event, Bachiochi met a family that “creates” together.

“Asheville, NC-based Beatty Robotics is not your average robotics company,” Bachiochi says. “The Beatty team is a family that likes to share fun robotic projects with friends, family, and other roboticists around the world. The team consists of Dad (Robert) and daughters Camille ‘Lunamoth’ and Genevieve ‘Julajay.’ The girls have been mentored in electronics, software programming, and workshop machining. They do some unbelievable work (see Photo 4). Everyone has a hand in designing, building, and programming their fleet of robots. The Hall of Science is home to one of their robots, the Mars Rover.”

There is much more in Bachiochi’s five-page look at the Maker Faire, including resources for finding and participating in a hackerspace community. The February issue including Bachiochi’s articles is available for membership download or single-issue purchase.

Photo 4: Beatty Robotics is a family of makers that produces some incredible models. Young Camille Beatty handles the soldering, but is also well-versed in machining and other areas of expertise.

Photo 4: Beatty Robotics is a family of makers that produces some incredible models. Young Camille Beatty handles the soldering, but is also well-versed in machining and other areas of expertise.

Q&A: Scott Garman, Technical Evangelist

Scott Garman is more than just a Linux software engineer. He is also heavily involved with the Yocto Project, an open-source collaboration that provides tools for the embedded Linux industry. In 2013, Scott helped Intel launch the MinnowBoard, the company’s first open-hardware SBC. —Nan Price, Associate Editor

Scott Garman

Scott Garman

NAN: Describe your current position at Intel. What types of projects have you developed?

SCOTT: I’ve worked at Intel’s Open Source Technology Center for just about four years. I began as an embedded Linux software engineer working on the Yocto Project and within the last year, I moved into a technical evangelism role representing Intel’s involvement with the MinnowBoard.

Before working at Intel, my background was in developing audio products based on embedded Linux for both consumer and industrial markets. I also started my career as a Linux system administrator in academic computing for a particle physics group.

Scott was involved with an Intel MinnowBoard robotics and computer vision demo, which took place at LinuxCon Japan in May 2013.

Scott was involved with an Intel MinnowBoard robotics and computer vision demo, which took place at LinuxCon Japan in May 2013.

I’m definitely a generalist when it comes to working with Linux. I tend to bounce around between things that don’t always get the attention they need, whether it is security, developer training, or community outreach.

More specifically, I’ve developed and maintained parallel computing clusters, created sound-level management systems used at concert stadiums, worked on multi-room home audio media servers and touchscreen control systems, dug into the dark areas of the Autotools and embedded Linux build systems, and developed fun conference demos involving robotics and computer vision. I feel very fortunate to be involved with embedded Linux at this point in history—these are very exciting times!

Scott is shown working on an Intel MinnowBoard demo, which was built around an OWI Robotic Arm.

Scott is shown working on an Intel MinnowBoard demo, which was built around an OWI Robotic Arm.

NAN: Can you tell us a little more about your involvement with the Yocto Project (www.yoctoproject.org)?

SCOTT: The Yocto Project is an effort to reduce the amount of fragmentation in the embedded Linux industry. It is centered on the OpenEmbedded build system, which offers a tremendous amount of flexibility in how you can create embedded Linux distros. It gives you the ability to customize nearly every policy of your embedded Linux system, such as which compiler optimizations you want or which binary package format you need to use. Its killer feature is a layer-based architecture that makes it easy to reuse your code to develop embedded applications that can run on multiple hardware platforms by just swapping out the board support package (BSP) layer and issuing a rebuild command.

New releases of the build system come out twice a year, in April and October.

Here, the OWI Robotic Arm is being assembled.

Here, the OWI Robotic Arm is being assembled.

I’ve maintained various user space recipes (i.e., software components) within OpenEmbedded (e.g., sudo, openssh, etc.). I’ve also made various improvements to our emulation environment, which enables you to run QEMU and test your Linux images without having to install it on hardware.

I created the first version of a security tracking system to monitor Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) reports that are relevant to recipes we maintain. I also developed training materials for new developers getting started with the Yocto Project, including a very popular introductory screencast “Getting Started with the Yocto Project—New Developer Screencast Tutorial

NAN: Intel recently introduced the MinnowBoard SBC. Describe the board’s components and uses.

SCOTT: The MinnowBoard is based on Intel’s Queens Bay platform, which pairs a Tunnel Creek Atom CPU (the E640 running at 1 GHz) with the Topcliff Platform controller hub. The board has 1 GB of RAM and includes PCI Express, which powers our SATA disk support and gigabit Ethernet. It’s an SBC that’s well suited for embedded applications that can use that extra CPU and especially I/O performance.

Scott doesn’t have a dedicated workbench or garage. He says he tends to just clear off his desk, lay down some cardboard, and work on things such as the Trippy RGB Waves Kit, which is shown.

Scott doesn’t have a dedicated workbench or garage. He says he tends to just clear off his desk, lay down some cardboard, and work on things such as the Trippy RGB Waves Kit, which is shown.

The MinnowBoard also has the embedded bus standards you’d expect, including GPIO, I2C, SPI, and even CAN (used in automotive applications) support. We have an expansion connector on the board where we route these buses, as well as two lanes of PCI Express for custom high-speed I/O expansion.

There are countless things you can do with MinnowBoard, but I’ve found it is especially well suited for projects where you want to combine embedded hardware with computing applications that benefit from higher performance (e.g., robots that use computer vision, as a central hub for home automation projects, networked video streaming appliances, etc.).

And of course it’s open hardware, which means the schematics, Gerber files, and other design files are available under a Creative Commons license. This makes it attractive for companies that want to customize the board for a commercial product; educational environments, where students can learn how boards like this are designed; or for those who want an open environment to interface their hardware projects.

I created a MinnowBoard embedded Linux board demo involving an OWI Robotic Arm. You can watch a YouTube video to see how it works.

NAN: What compelled Intel to make the MinnowBoard open hardware?

SCOTT: The main motivation for the MinnowBoard was to create an affordable Atom-based development platform for the Yocto Project. We also felt it was a great opportunity to try to release the board’s design as open hardware. It was exciting to be part of this, because the MinnowBoard is the first Atom-based embedded board to be released as open hardware and reach the market in volume.

Open hardware enables our customers to take the design and build on it in ways we couldn’t anticipate. It’s a concept that is gaining traction within Intel, as can be seen with the announcement of Intel’s open-hardware Galileo project.

NAN: What types of personal projects are you working on?

SCOTT: I’ve recently gone on an electronics kit-building binge. Just getting some practice again with my soldering iron with a well-paced project is a meditative and restorative activity for me.

Scott’s Blinky POV Kit is shown. “I don’t know what I’d do without my PanaVise Jr. [vise] and some alligator clips,” he said.

Scott’s Blinky POV Kit is shown. “I don’t know what I’d do without my PanaVise Jr. [vise] and some alligator clips,” he said.

I worked on one project, the Trippy RGB Waves Kit, which includes an RGB LED and is controlled by a microcontroller. It also has an IR sensor that is intended to detect when you wave your hand over it. This can be used to trigger some behavior of the RGB LED (e.g., cycling the colors). Another project, the Blinky POV Kit, is a row of LEDs that can be programmed to create simple text or logos when you wave the device around, using image persistence.

Below is a completed JeeNode v6 Kit Scott built one weekend.

Below is a completed JeeNode v6 Kit Scott built one weekend.

My current project is to add some wireless sensors around my home, including temperature sensors and a homebrew security system to monitor when doors get opened using 915-MHz JeeNodes. The JeeNode is a microcontroller paired with a low-power RF transceiver, which is useful for home-automation projects and sensor networks. Of course the central server for collating and reporting sensor data will be a MinnowBoard.

NAN: Tell us about your involvement in the Portland, OR, open-source developer community.

SCOTT: Portland has an amazing community of open-source developers. There is an especially strong community of web application developers, but more people are hacking on hardware nowadays, too. It’s a very social community and we have multiple nights per week where you can show up at a bar and hack on things with people.

This photo was taken in the Open Source Bridge hacker lounge, where people socialize and collaborate on projects. Here someone brought a brainwave-control game. The players are wearing electroencephalography (EEG) readers, which are strapped to their heads. The goal of the game is to use biofeedback to move the floating ball to your opponent’s side of the board.

This photo was taken in the Open Source Bridge hacker lounge, where people socialize and collaborate on projects. Here someone brought a brainwave-control game. The players are wearing electroencephalography (EEG) readers, which are strapped to their heads. The goal of the game is to use biofeedback to move the floating ball to your opponent’s side of the board.

I’d say it’s a novelty if I wasn’t so used to it already—walking into a bar or coffee shop and joining a cluster of friendly people, all with their laptops open. We have coworking spaces, such as Collective Agency, and hackerspaces, such as BrainSilo and Flux (a hackerspace focused on creating a welcoming space for women).

Take a look at Calagator to catch a glimpse of all the open-source and entrepreneurial activity going on in Portland. There are often multiple events going on every night of the week. Calagator itself is a Ruby on Rails application that was frequently developed at the bar gatherings I referred to earlier. We also have technical conferences ranging from the professional OSCON to the more grassroots and intimate Open Source Bridge.

I would unequivocally state that moving to Portland was one of the best things I did for developing a career working with open-source technologies, and in my case, on open-source projects.

The Transistor: Something for Every DIY-er

The Transistor is a UT-based hackerspace. Its members have a love for all things open source and DIY. They enjoy working with embedded electronics and have created their own version of Arduino.

Orem

Location 1187 S 1480 W Orem, UT 84058
Members 55

Salt Lake City

Location 440 S 700 E
Unit #102, Salt Lake City, UT 84102
Members 18

The Transistor Hackerspace

Founder Deven Fore tells us about The Transistor:

ROBBERT: Tell us about your meeting space!

DEVEN: We currently have two locations. One in Salt Lake City, UT and one in Orem, UT.

Our Salt Lake City location is about 1,000 sq ft in a nice office building. We have one main area and two smaller rooms.

Our Orem location is about 5,700 sq ft in a large warehouse that also has offices. We have sectioned off a wood shop, a metal shop, a clean CNC, an assembly area, a members desks area, a lounge, a server room, an electronics room, and a few other dedicated areas.

ROBBERT: What tools do you have in your space? (Soldering stations? Oscilloscopes? 3-D printers?)

DEVEN: Too many things to list. All the general things you would expect, such as:

  • Soldering irons
  • Oscilloscopes
  • Analyzers
  • PCB work stations
  • Laser cutter
  • Vinyl cutter
  • Heat press
  • Chop saws
  • Mini lathe
  • Servers
  • Air tools
  • Cut-off saws
  • Mig welder
  • V90 FireBall router
  • A couple small miscellaneous CNC routers
  • 3-D printers
  • Networking gear

ROBBERT: Are there any tools your group really wants or needs?

DEVEN: We would love to have a large mill (CNC or manual) some day. Also, just all-around upgrades to current equipment.

ROBBERT: Does your group work with embedded tech (Arduino, Raspberry Pi, embedded security, MCU-based designs, etc.)?

DEVEN: All the time.

ROBBERT: Can you tell us about some of your group’s recent tech projects?

DEVEN: Currently we are working on miniature MAME cabinets. They are two player and will hold up to a 22″ LCD. We will release the CNC plans to the public as soon as we are done.

We’re working on a lot of miscellaneous projects: software, hardware, security, and so forth.

We’re also currently working on building some displays for The Living Planet Aquarium, in Sandy UT.

ROBBERT: What’s the craziest project your group or group members have completed?

DEVEN: Nothing too crazy. We built a drink cooler a year or so ago for the Red Bull Challenge. We designed and build a few full-size four-player MAME cabinets (planned for release to the public on our website, and featured in J. Baichtal’s Hack This: 24 Incredible Hackerspace Projects from the DIY Movement (Que Publishing, 2011).

4-player MAME cabinet

4-player MAME cabinet

ROBBERT: Do you have any events or initiatives you’d like to tell us about? Where can we learn more about it?

DEVEN: Lots of things are going on right now. Nothing specific, aside from working with the aquarium. We have a lot of public events/user groups that meet at our space. Our calender is on our website if you are interested in specifics.

ROBBERT: What would you like to say to fellow hackers out there?

DEVEN: Have fun, be productive, be safe.

Want to learn more about The Transistor? Check out their Facebook or MeetUp page!

Check out their calender to see what The Transistor is up to.

Show us your hackerspace! Tell us about your group! Where does your group design, hack, create, program, debug, and innovate? Do you work in a 20′ × 20′ space in an old warehouse? Do you share a small space in a university lab? Do you meet a local coffee shop or bar? What sort of electronics projects do you work on? Submit your hackerspace and we might feature you on our website!

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.