At Defcon, You Can Even Hack the Badges
The Defcon computer security conference earned its reputation as
a hacker haven honestly, with good-natured contests such as “Spot
the Fed” and the usual warnings about their wi-fi network being
“the most hostile network in the world,” where users should assume
that logging on opens their hard drive to 5,000 hackers. What many
may not know, however, is that Defcon badges feature their own customized
electronics and are designed to be hackable.
Indeed, Defcon badges from past years go for good money on eBay,
and Defcon's badge hacking contest is one of the con's most highly
anticipated events. This year's badge featured even more capability
than usual. It's a circuit board that runs on a three-volt battery
and boasts a built-in microphone and multicolored LED. The LED responds
to sound received by the microphone by blinking and by changing
color and brightness. Aside from being totally cool by itself, the
different types of badges (there are seven) come in shapes that
fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.
And you can do some interesting things with multiple badges and
some electrical skill. Each badge has three test points, and can
be wired to other badges by the corresponding test points. So what
can you make out of these badges? The badge hacking contest winner
came up with a hat that can defeat facial recognition systems. The
second place went to a group that attached some badges to a toy
blimp and programmed them to steer the toy away from noisy areas.
One entry that didn't place, but deserves points for sheer coolness,
turned a badge into a polygraph device. After all, at this conference,
you never know when someone is telling the truth.
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Computer Interfaces of the Future
Many technical conferences offer a delightful glimpse of the future,
and this year's SIGGRAPH is no exception. The annual meeting of
the ACM's Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques
showcased a number of especially cool and intriguing interfaces
this year. Some of them seem like they're right out of a science
fiction movie or novel.
Take the one created by a team of researchers at the University
of Tokyo. Dubbed “touchable holography,” it uses an LCD and concave
mirror to make objects appear in mid-air. That's not the most interesting
part, though; it also uses an ultrasound device to produce the sensation
of touch. As an example, you can actually feel holographic raindrops
falling on your hand. Or if you're feeling a little more playful,
Franz Lasorne, a student at L'Ecole de Design in France, came up
with an augmented reality interface that, in combination with special
movable hex grid platforms, lets you arm old toys, like Lego people,
with virtual bazookas so they can shoot each other.
Or how about turning all the walls in your house into a low-energy
computer interface? Chris Harrison, a research at Carnegie Mellon
University, uses a stethoscope and a microphone attached to any
surface to detect the sounds of scratches on the surface. Since
scratches done at different speeds or in different directions can
be distinguished - for example, when the user is scratching the
shape of a letter or tapping the surface multiple times - it is
possible to translate those scratches into meaningful input.
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Even Appliances Twitter
You've probably heard about the cat that Twitters, or the cartoon
character that Twitters, or even the beer fridge at Wired that...well,
you get the idea. And of course, those are all really humans just
pretending to be a cat, a cartoon character, and an appliance. But
believe it or not, real appliances have been wired to post messages
to Twitter...and some of them even have respectably-sized followings.
For example, one washing machine, Pimpy3wash, regularly posts when
it has done a load of laundry. MyToaster alternates its Twitters
between “Toasting” and “Toast is done.” Hacklab.toilet posts a random
humorous message from a collection every time it flushes (such as
“does anyone know a good plumber?” and “can I trade jobs with someone
for a day?”). And mattsoffice, a collection of home light and temperature
sensors, tweets about the temperature and the brightness in its
That last Twitterer is particularly interesting, because its creator,
Matthew Morey, an engineer at Texas Instruments, can also control
the array through Twitter. All he has to do is send a tweet directed
to mattsoffice with the words “light on” or “light off,” for example,
to control the light at his desk. More usefully, “I can adjust the
air conditioning or the wireless security camera to take a picture
of a particular spot in the backyard through Twitter,” Morey notes.
With the various do-it-yourself kits on the market, you don't need
to be a programmer or an electronics geek to make your appliances
tweet what they're doing to the whole world.
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