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Electronic Design

Scott Fullam

Hardware hacking doesn't get nearly as much publicity as computer hacking. Due to the large number of well-publicized computer-related crimes, the term "hacking" has obtained a negative connotation. I'd like to change the reputation of hacking, hardware in particular. First, hardware in particular. First, to me, a "hack" is a (sometimes) clever modification or fix made to a piece of equipment that improves its performance or makes the equipment do something for which it was not originally designed. The results of the hack need not be "useful" in the strict sense of the word.

To help the reputation of the hardware hack, let me relate an experience of mine. In the early 1990s, I had an opportunity to work for Apple Computer. This was my second job out of school, and I was looking forward to the exciting environment where the famous Macintosh computer was designed. My office was in a cube farm with the rest of my project team. The lack of a closed office meant that I could hear everything that was said in the surrounding cubes. To overcome this distraction, I would work with a set of over-the-ear headphones and play music to mask the noise that the headphones could not block. My computers and monitors were placed against the far wall of the cube (away from the entrance), so while working I could not see who was entering my cube.

A somewhat mischievous coworker had the cube next to mine. I would be working away in peace with my headphones on, when out of the blue he would poke me, causing me to leap up. I decided that prevention was the best defense. At a local electronics scrap shop, I picked up an IR entrance enunciator. (You hear them in action when you walk into a store and hear a chiming sound.) This device projected an IR light beam that was reflected off of a plate and back to a receiver window on the device. It had Normally Open relay terminals rated for 110 V ac. I located a table lamp in my cube, cut one of the power wires, and wired the resulting two wires to the two relay terminals. I set up the IR transmitter/receiver and reflective plate across the opening to my cube. When someone would enter my cube, the table lamp would flash, alerting me to the intruder. The next day, within a few minutes of my coworker arriving, I saw the lamp flash. I quickly spun around and confronted the "intruder," who was quite surprised.

This experience is the essence of a hack. It was quick, used stuff I could easily locate, and accomplished a task for which the original equipment was not designed. And it was fun! My coworker then began to determine ways to get around my system, and I continued to improve it. (I added mirrors to bounce the IR beam across multiple locations in the doorway.) It amused us and usually prevented me from getting "surprised."

After working for Apple Computer, I decided to start my own company. I founded PocketScience Inc. in 1995. I designed and oversaw the manufacture of four wireless portable e-mail terminals. The PocketMail devices included a folding acoustic coupler that allowed them to connect to the PocketMail service over any telephone line, from pay phones to digital cell phones. A number of Japanese consumer electronics companies licensed our technology and built products around it. To protect our intellectual property, we filed a large number of patents covering data communications, our coupler design, and some unique data-modulation schemes.

The company was sold in 2000, and I went on to work for a consulting company. I could not stay away from hardware too long, though, and left to work on my own projects and my book. I am currently enjoying hacking for fun and profit on a wide variety of products, from embedded system design to RF and high-volume manufacturing management.

I was always a hacker. When I was a kid, I loved to take things apart. In my college dorm, I found a way to avoid morning lines for the shower and sleep later. I hooked up a magnet relay to the shower room door. I then ran the wires back to my room and connected them to a small battery-powered LED. Whenever the door was closed, the LED would blink. I could now stay in bed for a few extra minutes and wait for the LED to switch off before dashing to the shower.

In my experience, it's easier to hack a piece of hardware you have around the house than to hack a software application on your PC. Why? When you obtain a piece of hardware, like a toaster, you can open it up to see what's inside and how it works. With most commercial software, you're stuck with only the executable file and no source code that shows the inner workings. Its behavior is fixed as the original programmer intended. Open-source software is the exception. You can obtain the source code and look at how it works and even modify it, but most software purchased today is not open source.

I want to inspire a renaissance in hardware hacking. For example, old PCs can be loaded with Linux and turned into wireless routers or printer servers; an old laptop can be turned into a digital picture frame; and old toys can be resurrected into new ones! Let your imagination go wild and think up new purposes for all of the stuff you have buried in the garage. Hardware hacking is better than recycling. The equipment gets reused without having to be crushed into plastic and recast into a new product.

TAGS: Defense
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