Electronics for Curious Brains.

ShareBrained Technology makes electronic kits and devices for music, radio, and timekeeping. The Chronulator is our first product -- an analog, retro-ish clock with modern, programmable guts. Like all our (future) products, the Chronulator hardware and software are open-source. So you can customize it to look and work however you choose. Read more about the Chronulator or take a look at our gallery.


PortaPack Update, October

I have all the parts and PCBs for 500 units. I am now waiting on the assembler to start cranking them out. I wish I could give a firmer update at this point, but the assembler has not yet scheduled assembly. Once assembly starts, I’ll post another update and let you know how it’s going. Maybe with pictures, even!

The PortaPack H1 monitoring automotive Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) transmissions

The PortaPack H1 monitoring automotive Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) transmissions

In the meantime, if you want me to e-mail you when the PortaPack H1 is available, please leave at least your e-mail address here:

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PortaPack Manufacturing Update

The PortaPack H1 is progressing. The hardware design is stable — just tiny tweaks at this point. I have purchased and received enough components to build 250 units. There are a few components I’m having trouble sourcing, but have some good leads and am optimistic I’ll have that resolved by early next week. I have several quotes for assembly and have picked my preferred assembler.

So what’s left? There’s the lead time for the remaining components (I’ve been told “4 to 6 weeks”), the lead time for the production PCBs (3 weeks), and assembly (about a week). The remaining components and PCBs are both requirements for assembly. So it could be 5 to 7 weeks before I can ship to Kickstarter backers and my retailers. It’s getting close. All this cat-herding is a lot of work!

If you want me to e-mail you when the PortaPack H1 is available, please leave at least your e-mail address here:

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PortaPack for HackRF One is Imminent!

With the Kickstarter HackRF Ones shipping out soon, I’ve made some progress on the PortaPack add-on. I have a revised prototype, adapted to attach to the HackRF One.

The PortaPack for HackRF One is Operational

The PortaPack for HackRF One is Operational

I’ve added a few features to the Jawbreaker prototype I showed last year. Here’s what new the PortaPack has to offer:

  • 240 x 320 RGB LCD. High update rate permits display of spectrum, time-domain data, and other real-time radio parameters.
  • 9-way navigation control. Outer ring is four-way directional control (moving a cursor/selection). Middle ring is a rotating ring quadrature encoder. Center is a select button.
  • Touch screen. For direct entry of information or scrolling through data.
  • Audio I/O via a 3.5mm mobile phone jack. It accepts iPhone-style headphone/microphone combinations. Sound quality is good due to using a *real* music player style audio codec. Headphone power is considerable (a.k.a. “painful”).
  • Micro SD card slot for storing or playing back data.
  • Lithium coin battery to power HackRF’s internal real-time clock (RTC). Great for logging applications.

Like the HackRF, the PortaPack is more of an open-source development platform than a finished radio tool. But I’m confident the HackRF community will eagerly embrace an entirely portable SDR and develop some awesome applications for the hardware. I will do my part to provide enough code to make the PortaPack do *something* interesting. Right now, I have basic spectrum analysis and AM/FM/WBFM demodulation working.

I’m still working through pricing the cost of acquiring all the parts and getting PCBs and assembly done. My target retail price is less than $100 US. If you’re interested in getting your hands on a PortaPack for your HackRF One, please follow me via Twitter (sharebrained) or leave your e-mail address via the form below, and I’ll let you know when it’s ready to order!

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HackRF Jawbreaker PortaPack Lives!

I got my LCD + audio + controls “shield” for the HackRF Jawbreaker working reasonably well, and wanted to show it off, doing wideband spectrum analysis:

I’m bringing this thing to DEF CON and Black Hat, and would be happy to show it to anybody who’s interested. :-) Just look for me (Jared) in the DEF CON Hardware Hacking Village or Wireless Village. I’ll also be at Black Hat Arsenal with Mike Ossmann, discussing all things HackRF. See you there?

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Robotron Autopsy at Open Source Bridge 2013

I gave a talk on Tuesday about reverse-engineering the 1982 arcade game Robotron: 2084. Using the schematics from the original game, we located the major elements of the design, derived the system architecture, and then analyzed individual blocks of circuitry. We discussed the video subsystem — how pixels get to the screen and how the game deals with inverting the video image in a cocktail version of the game.

I’ve posted my PDF slides of the talk to the Open Source Bridge wiki. The slides file is very large (114MB) due to the vast number of schematic images I used. Sorry about that… While you wait for the PDF to download, here’s a few slides to whet your appetite:

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ShareBrained Hijacks Hak5, Twice!

A few weeks ago, Darren Kitchen of Hak5 rolled through Portland on his Hack Across America tour. I showed him around my neighborhood, and talked with him a bit about Mike Ossmann’s HackRF project and my Chronulator kit. Of course, Darren had a camera pointing at me the whole time — that’s his job! :-)

HackRF Spectrum Analyzer


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Wireless Microphones and HackRF

[Updated with GNU Radio flowgraph picture and .grc file link.]

I and my HackRF software-defined radio spent some time at a big software conference recently. Because I can’t resist gently sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, I decided to investigate the wireless microphones being used on the conference stages.

If you’re not familiar with a software-defined radio, it’s pretty disruptive technology. A software radio is a radio that doesn’t know anything about AM, FM, Bluetooth, ZigBee, cellular — any of that. Instead, it just digitizes or transmits raw signal data. It relies on a computer running software that knows about different wireless technologies. And because the bulk of the work is now done in software instead of being set in stone (in hardware), the software can be updated to speak virtually any wireless technology — past, present, or future. You don’t need to buy a new, different radio, just use different software. This vast flexibility also makes software-defined radio a great technology for investigating wireless security vulnerabilities.

So back to the conference. I wanted to learn more about the security vulnerabilities these wireless microphones might pose. Here’s the process I followed:

Step 1: Discover what kinds of microphones were used. At this conference, the sound engineers were set up at the back of the room and would frequently leave their equipment unattended, sitting on a table in plain view. I was able to walk up and copy down the FCC equipment authorization IDs off the back panels of the microphone receivers. Armed with those IDs, I went to the FCC OET Web site and looked up internal photographs, test reports, and user manuals for the receivers. I discovered that the microphones operated in the 524 to 542 MHz range. I also learned that these microphones used simple frequency modulation (FM). This should be easy!

Step 2: With the HackRF and GNU Radio, I did a survey of the 524 to 542 MHz frequency range, looking for signals that had the tell-tale spectrum symmetry of an FM transmission. I found several candidates.

Step 3: I worked up a quick GNU Radio Companion flow graph of an FM demodulator, based on several FM demodulator examples I found on the Internet. As I tuned to each candidate frequency, the spectrum analysis of the demodulated signal turned from white noise to a much lower noise floor with bursts at the rate of typical conversation. A quick check on my laptop’s audio output confirmed I had access to the audio directly from the microphone!

What are the security implications of these wireless microphones, used in this situation? A few things come to mind, in increasing levels of evil-ness:

  • I could record the audio directly from the microphones. And if several microphones are in use, but with carriers all within HackRF’s 20 MHz bandwidth, I could record all the microphones at the conference with a single radio.
  • I could overwhelm the microphone signals with my own transmissions, replacing the audio the audience hears with my own audio.
  • With a good high-gain, directional antenna, I could monitor presentations at conferences, from outside the perimeter of the building. I could listen to conferences I am not invited to, and purloin information I am not otherwise privy to.

How are these problems addressed? The most obvious answer, aside from using wired microphones, is to move to a digital modulation, digitize the audio, and encrypt the audio data stream. There are microphones on the market that address this — though I suspect they are expensive and power-hungry, much like digital mobile phones were when they were introduced as the replacement for analog “AMPS” phones. But until convention center customers express concern over the security of their conference content, venues will continue to use their cheaper FM systems, and digital systems will continue to be a niche product and expensive. Big, public conferences may not care too much about this vulnerability, but private groups and organizations may feel otherwise.

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Radio Spectrum Analyzer at Maker Faire

Here’s some details of my radio spectrum analyzer hack at Maker Faire. But first, a quick video of the hack in action:

Technical Details

This project is built around the HackRF, a software-defined radio transciever. I programmed it to sample 20MHz of radio spectrum from an antenna, do a frequency analysis on the data, and display the results on a Noritake vacuum fluorescent display. I added the tuning wheel mid-afternoon on Sunday, and it really improved the interactivity of the display. It felt really cool to spin the wheel around and watch the spectrum scroll back and forth. Too bad I didn’t capture that in the video…

The HackRF’s microcontroller is an ARM Cortex-M4F + Cortex-M0 “dual core” chip. Both are running at 204MHz. The M4F has hardware floating point, which drastically simplifies the signal processing code.

The ARM grabs 512 complex samples at a time from the radio analog-to-digital converter (ADC). It applies a window function that reduces artifacts from sampling arbitrary chunks of a radio signal. The windowed samples are converted to frequency domain data through a 512-point fast-Fourier transform (FFT). The frequency data that comes out of the FFT (frequency vs. a complex vector) is converted to real magnitudes. I take the logarithm of each magnitude to get values vs. frequency that resemble decibels. Then, I scale the log-magnitude data to fit nicely on the vacuum fluorescent display, which is 384 x 32 pixels. For each frequency in the scaled data, I render a bar into a frame buffer I maintain in RAM, using cute bit-shifting tricks. Then, I render marks at 1MHz intervals to provide a tick-mark scale on the display. In the left corner of the display, I render minimum and maximum sample buffer values for each of the two sampling channels — this is so I can tell if I need to turn up or down the gain on the receiver. I draw the current tuning frequency in MHz at the center of the display. Lastly, I scan out each of the pixels, one byte at a time, into the VFD’s parallel 8-bit interface, using the display’s “Graphic DMA” mode.

The optical quadrature encoder runs purely on interrupts. Whenever a positive- or negative-going edge is detected on either of the two optical sensors, an interrupt is generated. Based on the current and previous values of the optical sensors, the software (borrowed from PJRC’s Encoder Library) decides if the wheel has moved, and if so, which way it has moved. Based on that decision, the tuning frequency is incremented or decremented.

There was a hairy bit of wiring between the HackRF and the VFD. I needed to interface the HackRF, which is a 3.3 Volt device, to the VFD, which communicates at 5 Volts. So I needed to translate several signals between those two voltages. I had an old circuit board from my Robotron-FPGA project that did exactly that, for a completely different purpose. But with enough wires and headers and disgusting rewiring, I made it work. But it wasn’t pretty. I had to keep poking it and twisting it, as some signals were intermittent and sometimes needed my help.

The Faire Experience

The HackRF can tune from below 10MHz (where it’s mostly amateur radio and AM radio stations), up through 6GHz. That includes *almost* every signal in common use. Until I added the tuning dial, I left the HackRF at about 840MHz, right in the middle of one of the cellular (mobile phone) bands. As you’d imagine, lots of cellular phones were in use at Maker Faire, so a lot of signals were jumping about on the display. People who really got the display would soon pull out their phones to make a call. Most of the time, their phones were operating in other cellular bands, but a few times we got lucky and could clearly see activity that came and went depending on whether they were in a call or not.

Late Saturday, a couple of hams (amateur radio operators) came by with their portable radio transcievers. I tuned the HackRF up to 440MHz and we could see peaks when they were transmitting. They were amused…

The first half of Sunday, I attached the optical encoder wheel and wired up the optical interrupters to the HackRF. The wheel was laser cut acrylic, cut before I left for Maker Faire. I cut a bunch of different designs, since I wasn’t sure exactly how everything would fit together ahead of time. The wheel was mounted on a Lazy Susan apparatus I bought at a hardware store. I drilled the wheel assembly to my display whiteboard, and then started attaching the optical interruptors with hot glue. Unfortunately, I needed a couple of 470 Ohm through-hole resistors to control the current through the interruptors’ LEDs, but I didn’t bring *any* resistors with me. So I went begging at the Radio Shack “Learn to Solder” tent, and they were kind enough to bust open one of their $60 electronics kits to give me $0.07 worth of resistors. While I was gone, somebody had forcefully cranked the wheel and broken off several of the teeth. I should’ve seen that coming! Fortunately, I had lots of other options from my laser cutting binge. I settled on a sandwich, consisting of the tooth pattern cut in paper with clear thin plastic on either side.

Once I got the encoder software working, I added a frequency display in the middle of the VFD. People would walk up and give the wheel a spin, looking around for interesting signals. There’s a lot of underutilized spectrum (at least where we were), so it wasn’t too exciting outside the cellular and 2.4GHz bands. The environment was also quite electrically noisy, so with a fairly insensitive receiver, long-distance bands (e.g. aviation) didn’t really show anything — those weaker signals were jammed by all the motors and Tesla coils nearby. I’m sure my antenna also wasn’t the best…

Despite the last-minute additions and general hackiness of the project, I had a lot of fun building it and talking with people about it. Events like Maker Faire are great as a reminder that you’re not the only person in the world who likes to nerd out on such obscure things!

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My First 8-Layer PCB

I recently completed my first 8-layer PCB design, for Michael Ossmann’s Daisho project. Among the challenges: a 780-pin Altera Cyclone IV FPGA, a USB 3.0 chip with 0.8mm ball spacing, very high-speed parallel and serial buses, tight power constraints, and keeping the cost down. Oh, and did I mention I was using only open-source schematic and PCB tools (KiCAD)?

It’s back from manufacturing, and the first few subsystems are being assembled. Any bets on whether it’ll work the first time? :-)

First fabricated Daisho project main boards are back from manufacturing.

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Robotron: CoR Style

This gentleman is clearly a devotee of the Church of Robotron.

Maker Faire attendee knows proper Robotron playing style.

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