Showing posts with label hardware. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hardware. Show all posts

Bitcoins And Biohacks: Dermally-Implant Your Dough?

Body modifications have been around as long as humanity.  We are constantly seeking new ways to embellish, improve, and artistically distinguish ourselves by pimping our corporeal rides, and now, technological innovations may be added to that mix.

As reported by the Telegraph UK, Dutchman Martijn Wismeijer has had 12mm NFC (near-field communication) computer chips embedded in his hands as a sort of human upgrade. On these chips, he stores the keys to his bitcoin wallet, as well as a personalized alarm clock where the chips must be held to a sensor to shut off his daily alarm.  

Easier than carrying around a sack of doubloons, for sure...but not as secure.
(Image courtesy

The 888-byte chips were installed via a ready-made syringe which delivered them to the fatty subdermal flesh.  While Wismeijer admitted that many doctors were recalcitrant to perform the modification, other body artists such as tattooists or piercers may be more amenable (although regardless of the surgeon, sterile conditions are still a must.)

The founder of Mr. Bitcoin, a company that deals in crypto-currency ATMs, Wismeijer says the chips are not secure enough to permanently carry the codes at the moment, but that his experiment in embedding them was a success.  He eventually would like the technology to include wireless key access for his home.  Wismeijer feels this type of "bio-hacking" is just the fingertip of the bigger body of possible uses for the technology.

In the beginning, there was the byte.
(Image courtesy

Wismeijer explained, “The reason I did take the implants is that I have real-world uses for it today, my phones and tablets are all compatible. I personally feel that by supporting these bio-hacking developments we can learn what works and what doesn't and that some day, in the not so distant future we will be able to implant more functionality like sub dermal glucose sensors or heart rate monitors and other vital health monitoring devices. Imagine a normally invisible tattoo on your arm glowing red when you get a heart attack, swipe your phone and your phone will notify doctor.

“By supporting these bio-hacking initiatives I believe we are paving the way for social acceptance while at the same time we support the bio-hacking technology that drives it.”

Bodymodding biohackers, use your new powers for good.
(Image courtesy,)

Electroadhesion: How Does That Grab You?

It's no secret that robots are fast taking over a variety of different manual labor jobs.  Yet their fine motor skills could use some refinement other than "clutch that thing" or "use suction to grab that thing."  Now, a new company is developing a means for robots to snag things using the principles of static electricity (which actually has uses other than rubbing your feet on the carpet to shock someone or sticking a balloon to your hair.)

According to, the GrabIt company has created mechanical "hands" that use electrostatic attraction to lift and relocate objects.  Electrodes embedded on the gripper's surface or in its flexible "fingers" use the forces to delicately deliver everything from sheets of glass to crates.  Even particularly fragile tech items like an iPad are safe in static electricity's grip, and bruisable items like fruit or poppable bags of chips are also no problem for "electroadhesion."

One version of a GrabIt robot's grip ability.  It's bigger, flatter brother can pick up large crates.
(Image courtesy

With no reconfiguration of gripper parts needed (as traditional grabber/sucker robots might require), the possibilities for electroadhesion are vast.  Check out GrabIt's website for a variety of videos of what their technology is capable of.  The machines' electrostatic surface area generates and maintains a great deal of well-dispersed power, making larger objects as easily handled as smaller or more delicate ones. The technology could even be applied to conveyor belts for an added level of factory security.

Best of all, the electroadhesion technology requires less power than traditional gripper robotics.  The GrabIt 'bots don't require expensive vacuum tubes or pumps, which is nice not only on the wallet but also on the ears (this technology is considerably more quiet than other types of grippers.)  It's small enough to be useful at home, but strong enough for factory work.  Could one of the most useful pieces of future robotics be a technology that's basically just giving everything an electrostatic hug?

Everything can use a little grabbing sometimes.
(Image courtesy

Shots Fired? New "Yardarm" Device Reports Police Weapon Use And Location In Real-Time

Police violence, no-knock raids, SWAT invasions, traffic stops gone wrong...all sorts of issues seem to arise these days between citizens and those who supposedly "serve and protect."  Weaponry, which has been made available to local police departments on an unprecedented scale, plays a major role in this.  Since America's glorious Constitution isn't about to let guns go out the window for police nor citizens, it's imperative that a middle ground be reached where our taxpayer-endorsed police forces can be held accountable for their firearm actions with official evidence (and the "body cameras" seem to keep mysteriously losing batteries.)  So, meet the Yardarm.

The Yardarm chip, shown in green, is a witness who can't lie.

Currently in development in Silicon Valley, the Yardarm is a startup venture that could start a serious new trend of keeping cops in check.  Installed in the butt of a pistol, the Yardarm's Bluetooth sensor connects to an officer's smartphone, then notifies police dispatchers when and where an officer carries, draws or fires their weapon.  It can even deduce the direction of the discharge, which could be important later in court for all parties involved.  In the officers' aid, it could help alert dispatchers when a cop is under fire but cannot immediately radio their situation or location.

Yardarm's website states their technology is "designed to seamlessly integrate into existing computer aided dispatch (CAD) and real-time crime center (RTCC) solutions", which provide maps for a dispatcher to track progress on. This could enable more accurate data regarding crime-infested areas and ultimately prove safer for everyone.

Unfortunately, there are no current plans to make Yardarms for nightsticks.

This (Text) Message Will Self-Destruct (Your Hard Drive's Data)

Security of your digital information now means security of the majority of your life.  Though it's possible to use a service that will release your valuable documents in the event of your untimely demise, what if you just need a complete destruction of data?

Look no further than the Autothysis128t.  According to, the 128-gigabyte hard drive is specially created for cautious compilers' control.  It's encrypted with a password, but for an unbeatable extra level of security, an onboard cell radio is standing by to eradicate your info with a mere text message.  

The Autothysis128t can be programmed to automatically go scorched-earth on your saved files in several ways, such as if it's unplugged from your computer, or if too many passwords are attempted to crack it.  But the real killswitch is the text-based execution order (textecution?) that you personally choose and fire off should the situation require it.

Thus, in event of theft or loss, the device will murder your data beyond all known recovery techniques as soon as you hit "send."  For $1600, it's an expensive security measure, but can you put a price on perfect privacy?

For all of your most sensitive materials.

One For The Road: New Portable Breathalyzer For Self-86'ing

Sometimes it's just hard to tell when you've had that liiiittle bit too much to drink.  Now, technology has got your back, before the cops (or worse) have you flat on it.  Meet the DrinkMate.

As reported by, the device claims to be the smallest Breathalyzer in the world, measuring in at 4.7 by 1.5 centimeters (plus the smartphone you have to dock it to.)  It is accurate down to .01% of a BAC (blood-alcohol content) and is a much better judge of whether you should drive than you slapping yourself in the bathroom mirror trying to decide if you're capably lucid.

The device is currently under Kickstarter development from the Washington-based company Edge Tech Labs and is simple enough for use even after a few too many.  Small enough to be kept on a keychain, it only requires plugging into a mini-USB port on a smartphone, then it uses a semiconductor-based sensor to suss out your sobriety (or complete lack thereof.)

DrinkMate operates similarly to a device previously discussed here, the Alcohoot.  However, the DrinkMate is smaller and is priced significantly less ($25.95 as opposed to the Alcohoot's $99.)  Now you can drink safely and still have plenty of money left over to buy your friends a round.

Cool, spooky, stern-warning posters from the past not included, so we'll leave one here for you.

Your Security, Your Secretary, and Your Sacajawea: New "Smart" Motorcycle Helmet Protects, Takes Calls, Provides GPS

Do you enjoy motorcycling but long for the creature comforts (like hearing audible music, making phone calls, and monitoring rear-view cameras) afforded by some cars?  According to, the new Skully AR-1 "smart" motorcycle helmet will bring you the best of both worlds.

Skully, which was created thanks to a crowdsourcing initiative, has been heralded as "the helmet for the digital age," by Popular Science.  It was one of this year's top 10 inventions, according to CNN.  And if you don't believe the media hype, believe the masses:  the $250,000 development goal was met two and a half times one day.

Each Skully features an E-tint visor that acts as a heads up display, offering GPS maps and a 180-degree rearview camera (for watching our for rival biker gangs, obviously.)   An in-helmet Bluetooth connection allows for music and phone calls to be dealt with hands-free.  A 9-hour battery ensures you can go on long treks with your tech still intact.

This most badass of bike helmets comes in Matte Black (*insert Darth Vader noises*) or Gloss White, and currently retails for $1,399.  The first models ship in May 2015, so you still have some time to learn how to ride a motorcycle (unfortunately Skully is not quite smart enough to teach you...yet.)

Look, it's as close to an X-Wing pilot helmet as you're going to get for right now, okay?

Walk Down To Electric Avenue: New Piezoelectric-Charge Shoes Generate Electricity From Exercise

Energy is all around, just waiting to be harvested.  Thanks to the invention of one 15-year-old boy, power can be derived from something as simple as taking a stroll.

As reported by, Angelo Casimiro of the Phillippines has spent the last several years working on a device that will generate power from sensors in your shoes while walking.  The device operates by using piezoelectricity, where the compression of certain materials produces an A/C current.  The sensors for your shoes gather the electricity as your heel treads on the piezoelectric materials, and generate enough charge to power a phone or iPod.

Angelo has not only become a finalist in the Google Science Fair, but has also made his plans for the power-producing shoes open-source.  This may help improve the design of the device, which Angelo says is fully operational but not currently in mass production.  However, anyone at home can attempt this useful experiment.  Thanks to all the walking it'll require, you may even grow more powerful physically as you generate more power electrically.

DIY mobile power supply!

Rosetta Spacecraft Reaches Comet, Sends Back Cool Postcards

After ten years and over three billion miles of travels, the Rosetta spacecraft has entered the orbit of its comet destination, and all reports currently show the mission progressing as intended.

Braking 62 miles over the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Rosetta is set to inform humanity on many new discoveries, possibly even helping us understand how life developed on Earth. The oddly-shaped comet (referred to as a "rubber ducky" shape by some researchers) is the first to be this intricately analyzed.

As reported by, one of the Rosetta mission’s principal investigators, Holger Sierks of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, stated, “Today, we are opening a new chapter of the Rosetta mission. And already we know that it will revolutionize cometary science.” Sierks was impressed with the level of detail from the photographs of the comet's icy, rocky comet surface.

A 220-pound lander named the Philae is set to descend from Rosetta and land on the comet on November 11th, the first such attempt in history. The Philae will be anchored by harpoons and in addition to photography, will be able to take drill samples and other scientific readouts of the comet's composition.

Rosetta will remain in 67P's orbit for the next year, hovering as low as six miles to create topographical maps of the crater-flecked comet's surface. As 67P rounds the sun, icy elements in its geology will melt, and the subsequent geographical changes will be noted.  The comet is visible to the naked eye, but watching the Rosetta blog might be easier.

A closeup of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Image courtesy THE SPACECRAFT WE'RE LANDING ON A FREAKING COMET.

Tesla And Panasonic Team Up To Bring The (Environmentally Friendly) Power To The People

The idea of a clean-energy car is a great and necessary one, but the challenge of creating non-cost-prohibitive EV batteries to run them was until recently still an issue. Now, clean-car pioneers Tesla, along with electronics giant Panasonic, have teamed up to take matters into their own hands.

According to, Tesla and Panasonic announced that a major deal has been struck where the two companies will work together to mass-produce EV batteries at a new American factory (location to be determined.) The projected scale of the batteries' production will be large enough to eventually enable EV battery prices to drop.

The battery plant itself will take up between 500 and 1000 acres, and will employ 6,500 people. Current location speculations include Nevada, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

The terms of the deal state that Tesla will build and maintain the plant, while Panasonic will provide construction materials, lithium cells and manufacturing equipment. By 2020, Tesla is expecting to create 35GWh of cells and 50GWh of power packs to fuel some 500,000 of their cars.

While still pricey, Tesla cars will usher in a new era of transportation in a post-fossil-fuel world. Another golden age of American road travel could theoretically follow once it becomes inexpensive (and much more environmentally friendly) to drive cars again.  

Tesla automobiles being assembled.  Batteries definitely included.

iWomb: Microchip Birth Control From Bill Gates

Whether you plan to help give birth to one of the impending fresh several billions of people that will grace the world over the next decade (or especially if you're not), there is some interesting news, oddly from the technology field.  The Bill Gates Foundation has announced plans for a microchip that, when embedded under the skin, would work as an active contraceptive for up to sixteen years.

The chip, speculated on by Gates at MIT and now in development phases thanks to the Massachusetts company MicroCHIPS, holds reservoirs of birth control hormone which it would evenly time-release to be effective over a long duration.  Implanted in the arm, abdomen, or buttock, the chip is an unobtrusive 20mm x 20 mm x 7mm.  It would activate by a small electric reaction heating a seal to melt 30 microgram reserves of anti-baby hormone daily.

Much as the electric vibrator preceded the arrival of the electric iron, vacuum cleaner, and toaster, could this healthily sexual, simple and useful device lead the way for even more great discoveries for the common person?  Perhaps this could be the first wave of acceptable tech for regular humans to begin digitally augmenting their bodies.

Sexy science.

I Can Haz Automatic Cheezeburger? Facial-Recognition Cat Feeder In The Works

For all of you cat owners, your overlords are now more easily appeased. A new type of facial recognition software allows your feline to get food just by imaging its face at a sensor.

According to, a Taiwanese-based company has "racked up more than $25,000 in funding from crowdsourcing sites" to create an automatic cat-food dispenser that will save you all the usual trouble of getting mewled at or punched in the nose with a clawed paw at an ungodly hour of the morning.

The device, called the Bistro, is initiated by the cat sticking its head into a clear sensor box, which scans your critter's furry face, verifies that it is not an impostor cat, and deposits food directly into a bowl.

The Bistro also sends alerts to the owner's smartphone if Garfield goes on a bender and empties his entire kibble supply.

Vibrator Video Camera: Go Low With The New GoPro

Do you love the action captured when strapping on your GoPro camera and going for an adventure?  Do you pore over the diverse array of videos where the hardy little device braves heat, snow, water, flight, and more?  Get ready for an all new, ultra-immersive version of these videos.

According to, the Chinese/Thai company Svakom has recently released a video-enabling vibrator called the Gaga.  Using a GoPro camera mounted in a straightforward, ergonomic "personal massager", you are now able to create and/or view incredibly intimate footage of yourself or your partner's interior.

The artistic opportunities that will arise from this venture are sure to be stimulating.

Inner intrigue:  Svakom's new "Gaga" vibrator/videocam.

Chicago Serves Up Deep-Dish Big Brother With New Downtown Multi-Sensors

Urban engineering requires a lot of data to help cities and their denizens improve. However, the city of Chicago may have taken it into creepy territory with their new, discreet, downtown multi-sensors.

Ostensibly created to track data on climate, pedestrian movement patterns, environmental pollutants, light intensity, sound volume, and (of course, in Chicago) wind, the sensors are an interesting idea to monitor city elements in real time. The worrisome bit is that they also record the cellphone connectivity of passersby. Advocates are quick to point out that the sensors only monitor connectivity to wireless networks, not actual device signatures, but the element of privacy invasion remains.

Computer scientist Charlie Catlett, who has led the team working on this "Array Of Things" project, told the Chicago Tribune that, "We don't collect things that can identify people. There are no cameras or recording devices...sensors will be collecting sound levels but not recording actual sound. The only imaging will be infrared."

However, Gary King, Harvard University's director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, astutely pointed out that, "If they do a good job they'll collect identifiable data. You can (gather) identifiable data with remarkably little have to be careful. Good things can produce bad things."

The data grab is being promoted in part as a means to understand urban environments more thoroughly, and to make cities run more cleanly and efficiently. Hopefully this won't include raids from the Thought Police.

Will you be e-raided by the Array?  Image courtesy the Chicago Tribune.

From Blind To Bionic: New Technology Enables A Chance At Sight

Slowly watching one's senses fail is a sense of horror unlike any other. Now, visually, this can be somewhat curtailed thanks to the new bionic-eye invention, the Argus II.

Recently implanted with resounding success on blind American Roger Pontz, the Argus II is not perfect, but enables tremendous new capabilities in the visualization of light and dark differentiation. This enables Pontz to identify people, different locations, and sudden changes in environment far more accurately than he had before. As a teenager, Pontz had begun manifesting symptoms of retinitis pigmentosa, where the eye's retinas fail to transmit light patterns to the brain, and at age 40 he was fully blind.

Then, a virtual miracle occurred in the form of the Argus II technology. The Argus II system consists of a video camera mounted in a pair of glasses, which beams images to an small artificial retina implanted at the back of the eye. That retina then communicates the signals with the brain via cell-stimulating electrical pulses.

Although Pontz, the second American to undergo the Argus II implantation, had to relearn how to process visual signals using the new device, he lauded the results. Pontz told CNN, "It's been pretty awesome," he says. "I can tell when my grandson runs around the house, I can tell when people step in front of me, I can tell when my wife had on a white top versus dark bottoms, vice versa. I could follow my mom around on Easter; she had a light top on. Every day it's something small but something different."
Eyes on the prize:  the Argus II's optical elements.

Telepresence: The Good Kind Of Mind Control

Paralysis used to mean being condemned to a life of immobility. Now, thanks to amazing technological breakthroughs, we not only have the ability to restore the power of motion to human beings, but will soon be able to utilize the same "telepresent" technology to operate robotic elements on other worlds.

This week, for the first time ever, a paralyzed young man was able to have mobility and even a level of dexterity restored to his arm, thanks to a microchip embedded in his brain. The research team, comprised of doctors from Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center and engineers from the non-profit research center Battelle, had expected their microchip to enable motion in one finger of the paralyzed 23-year old Ian Burkhart. Stunningly, Burkhart was able to not only open and close his entire hand, but was capable of summoning the dexterity to pick up a spoon.

Burkhart had been paralyzed from the chest down for the last four years.

The fascinating new technology that enabled this breakthrough is called the Neurobridge. Starting with a .15-inch-wide chip implanted in the skull, the Neurobridge "reads" thoughts via 96 electrodes and sends them to a sleeve of receptor electrodes on the wearer's limb, travelling via an external skull-socket not unlike the humans' plug-in ports seen in the "Matrix" movies.

Thank to the success, Burkhart's surgeon, Dr. Ali Rezai, told the Telegraph UK, "I do believe there will be a day coming soon when somebody who's got a disability – being a quadriplegic or somebody with a stroke, somebody with any kind of brain injury – can use the power of their mind and by thinking, be able to move their arms or legs.”

The basics of the Neurobridge, as shown by

Outstanding as it is, this may be only the beginning for telepresent technology. Another organization increasingly interested in mind-powered motion is none other than NASA, who feel the technology could be applied to enabling robotic elements for complex tasks in some of the most remote places possible.

At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, a series of experiments for robot-human interfaces have been taking place, aiming to make telepresence a feature of future spaceflight. Currently projects are underway using video-game technology like Xbox Kinect and Oculus Rift to manipulate robotic avatars in virtual reality, with the goal of someday allowing a human to operate them from afar. The head of JPL's Planning Software Systems Group, NASA's Jeff Norris told
"We want to go to a lot of different places. Mars is interesting, and we want to go there very much, but there are so many other places in the solar system. The ability to build a robot that is perfectly suited to a potentially very hazardous environment, that’s going to go swimming in the rains of Saturn, or something like that. The ability to build a robot that is optimized for that task, and then to control it in a way that makes you feel like you are there, to me feels like a very powerful competence. Because, here we are, able to use technologies that make us feel present in that environment, but in a way of inhabiting a robotic avatar that is perfectly attuned to that environment. That’s pretty phenomenal."
Beyond the virtual realm, NASA's plans to make telepresence a facet of full-on "telexploration" are already well underway. Robonaut, the humanoid robot installed on the International Space Station, can be controlled telepresently by human operators on earth, expressing 43 degrees of "freedom" via helmet-mounted units, specialized gloves, and posture-positioning trackers. According to NASA, "The goal of telepresence control is to provide an intuitive, unobtrusive, accurate and low-cost method for tracking operator motions and communicating them to the robotic system."

While NASA's plans for spacecraft and robotic control don't yet include a chip in the brain, it continues to improve on the technology that will make the virtual and actual uses of telepresence more immersive, realistic, and dexterous. New algorithms, camera-based tracking, and magnetic sensors will all add to and improve the ability to manipulate elements like Robonaut or other specialized machinery.

The concept of telepresence has been around in science fiction for as long as the genre has existed, but the term itself was coined in 1980 by MIT professor and robotics engineer Marvin Minsky. He theorized that telepresent robots would, in the 21st century, be critical operational elements for dangerous tasks like mining, the maintenance of oil disasters, or even serious trouble like nuclear reactor meltdowns. In his Omni magazine article "Telepresence: A Manifesto", Minsky states that when faced with the challenge of building "unbreakable" reactor parts (that will eventually someday require repair) versus building with realistic material lifespans that could be fixed via robotic telepresence, "I think the better extreme is to build modular systems that permit periodic inspection, maintenance, and repair. Telepresence would prevent crises before they could arise."

Applying this same reasoning to the space program could keep costs in check while maintaining a high standard of operational capability during missions. As for humans, integrated cranial telepresence could restore "mission capability" to damaged limbs. That does not mean the technology isn't still a little creepy in its formative stages, particularly if one wants to be "emotionally" telepresent.

TELL ME YOUR SECRETS:  the Telenoid wants to talk with you.  Image courtesy Ars Electronica.

The Telenoid, a telepresently-operated robot intended for advanced video conferencing, is able to mimic the eye, mouth, and upper body movements of its user, simulating the major tenets of what humans perceive physically as "emotions." Created by Japanese robotics engineer Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, this is an interesting attempt at sharing your feelings with faraway friends. While the Telenoid's pale, spectral presence is still a bit eerie to be considered a good substitute for a human interaction, achievements in android avatar technology in the future may allow for more realistic robotic experiences. While the emotional components of telepresence may still fall short, in the meantime, the physical elements of the technology are now proven to produce results, and disabled humans like Ian Burkhart and others can now hopefully use the technology to at least physically improve themselves.

Telepresence is undoubtedly a fine facet of the future now, and as we continue to map the human brain and unlock its secrets, perhaps externally beaming our thoughts out to our limbs (or those of robots under our command) will surpass many of humanity's previously-known physical limits. Though it seems nearly like movie magic at the present, future developments will branch out abundantly thanks to these current experiments. As Robert Heinlein said when first theorizing about telepresence in his story "Waldo & Magic, Inc.", "Never worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it's supposed to do."

Telepresent Demolition Derby on the moon soon?

3-D Me: Mechanically-Printed Organs And You

With tremendous biomedical leaps set to save you as 3-D printed organs are poised to become a reality, wants to tell the true story behind the technology.  Beginning with "building blocks" printed at the Wake Forest Center for Regenerative Medicine in the late 1990s, bladder cells were printed for the purposes of study.  Later, scientists at Clemson University began printing the actual 3-D organs.  In 2007, the biomedical company Organovo began creating slices of human livers for testing.

After CAT and MRI scans to determine the size and placement of the organ needed, scientists use stem cells as well as other non-organic printable material (such as titanium) to craft the part in question.  Live cellular organisms are then put into incubators to help aid their growth and cell fusion.

Of course, the organs still require acceptance by the body to go into action.  As Cornell engineer Hod Lipson is quick to point out:  "You can put the cells of a heart tissue in the right place together, but where's the start button?  The magic happens after the printing has taken place."

78,837 people currently await organ donations, although only 3,407 donations have been created organically since January of this year.  Hopefully this new onslaught of organ technology will make breakthroughs in time to save lives.

The smallest elements of a freshly-printed organ.

Bots Making Shots: World Cup To Be Kicked Off By Mind-Controlled Exoskeletal Robot Suit

Thursday's World Cup action in Sao Paulo, Brazil, will capture the world's attention with its athletic spectacle, but will also feature a fascinating technological innovation. The kickoff for the storied soccer tournament, which is expected to be viewed by billions worldwide, is slated to be made by one of eight paralyzed young adults who have been training for the event in a specially-designed robotic exoskeleton.

New Scientist reports that there is "a phenomenal amount of technology within the exoskeleton, including sensors that feed information about pressure and temperature back to the arms of the user, which still have sensation."

Lead robotic engineer Gordon Cheng, working with a team from the University of Munich, Germany, has developed the means for a skullcap of electrodes to transmit signals from the wearer's brain to a computer interface which then instructs the exoskeleton to kick the ball.

No word on if the machine makes vuvuzela noises upon goal completion.

Pirate Box: A Simple LAMP Stack Live Server Build

I first came across the PirateBox DIY project late last year, and thought it would be fun to set one up, but I didn’t really have an idea of where it could be put to good use. And then one day it hit me. I'm in a band and we play shows fairly regularly here in NYC. After shows people often ask if they can download any of our songs online (which, of course, they can), or they want to share pics they took during the set, or they want to get in touch with us and need our contact info, and so on. So I thought, hey, I’ll set up a Pirate Box for the band and run it as a live server during shows, and then people could share pics with us and one another directly, download songs directly from us rather than through an online middleman, get general info about the band, upcoming shows and so on.

I began hunting on Craig’s List for an appropriate router to install the PirateBox ISO, but had no luck. Being the impatient type, I broadened my search criteria and found someone selling an old Mac Mini for $50. Perfect. That weekend, I went to a local flea market and picked up a cheap soho router and some cables for another $10, and set to work.

Because of some apparent incompatibilities between the PirateBox ISO and the Mac Mini hardware, I decided to scratch the idea of installing the PirateBox ISO and instead create my own build from scratch rather than spend endless amounts of time troubleshooting and tweaking to get the hardware and software to play nice with each other.

After a couple weeks of research and tinkering, I managed to put together a nice little LAMP stack running a main portal page, a band Wiki, a chat room, and a song downloads page (see below for full details). I keep the setup in an old laptop case with the Mac Mini and the router inside, plugged into a power cord. I’ve since brought it along to two shows and set it up somewhere inconspicuous on stage. When we’re doing sound check I just plug in the extension cord, turn on the router and the server, and it’s good to go!

I configured the network and server so that once someone has hopped onto the wifi, all they have to do is navigate to serverhostname.local to access the server, and I set the wifi broadcast name and the host name of the server to the name of the band.  Here are some screen caps from the initial setup.  Once someone connects to the wifi and navigates to the correct url (in the present case: utm.local), they are greeted with a success page. 

Clicking the portal link takes them to the site's main navigation page.

From there, users can navigate to the wiki:

Or to the chat room:

 Or to the download page:

Try not to laugh at the download page, this was what it looked like after initial setup, it's since been spiced up a bit.  If you want to see it now, you'll just have to come out to one of our shows!

All in all this was a fun little project.  It took about a month's worth of work (mostly on weekends) to get everything up and running, including preliminary research, installation, configuration and customization, as well as the time spent setting up an initial test on a VirtualBox VM on my laptop. 

There were, however, some frustrating hurdles along the way: finding an Ubuntu Server ISO that worked without problems on the Mac hardware, getting hostname resolution to operate correctly for both iOS and Android devices (avahi-daemon eventually did the trick, though a bug in older generations of the Android OS prevents those devices from being able to resolve the hostname.local URL to the IP address of the server), and, perhaps most ridiculously, uploading the band's logo into the MediaWiki (though drinking a bit less beer during configuration would have probably made that process go a bit more smoothly!).   

There's a lot more that one could go into here: installing Ubunutu Server onto the Mac Mini, installing and configuring the LAMP stack, comparisons of the various open source software packages I decided to include, as well as those that I decided against, potential security issues running an open wifi at bars and clubs in NYC, and so on.  But perhaps those are best left to their own individual posts. So for now, that's all folks!

UTM Live Server Build

• Mac Mini, $50 on Craig’s List
• Netgear router, $10 at a local flea market
• Cables, $5 at the same flea market
Total Hardware Cost: $65

• OS: Ubuntu Server
• LAMP Stack:
    • Apache2 Web Server
    • PHP5
    • MYSQL DB
    • PHPMyAdmin
    • OpenSSH
• Web Interface:
    • MediaWiki
    • Blueimp’s AJAX Chat
    • PHP login module for the downloads page (adapted from Harvard’s Building Dynamic Websites online course)
    • Noir HTML5 Template optimized for mobile devices
Total Software Cost: $0

Unplugged: The Key to Longer Laptop Battery Life

From Wired:
In order to squeeze as much life out of your lithium-polymer battery, once your laptop hits 100 percent, unplug it. In fact, you should unplug it before that.

Cadex Electronics CEO Isidor Buchmann told WIRED that ideally everyone would charge their batteries to 80 percent then let them drain to about 40 percent. This will prolong the life of your battery — in some cases by as much as four times. The reason is that each cell in a lithium-polymer battery is charged to a voltage level. The higher the charge percentage, the higher the voltage level. The more voltage a cell has to store, the more stress it’s put under. That stress leads to fewer discharge cycles. For example, Battery University states that a battery charged to 100 percent will have only 300-500 discharge cycles, while a battery charged to 70 percent will get 1,200-2,000 discharge cycles.