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Build It: The Information Box

Stream PC Text Info to Yourself with This Bluetooth® Feed Reader

Ripped from the pages of Popular Science (January 2008 issue)

Vfd Now you can have your PC stock ticker and take it with you. Or, for that matter, you can schlep your weather report, sports scores, e-mail, PC stats, and RSS feeds around the house or office unencumbered by cables and power cords. Built on the venerable Bluetooth® radio transmitter technology, the “Feeder Reader” gives your PC display a pair of newfound legs. And your text display never looked so good, either. Forget those backlit LCDs, this box uses a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) that glows a gassy green for lending a trendy retro look to this high tech wireless display. But the “Feeder Reader” isn’t all old school, it’s built on a space age power supply technology—a polymer  lithium ion battery. Equipped with an onboard charger system that plugs into your PC USB port for a quick, convenient recharge, you’re ready to take your most important information and move out. You’ll be stepping out in style, too. The “Feeder Reader” is safely ensconced in the perfect finishing touch—a custom-designed old-time radio-style cabinet.

Continue reading "Build It: The Information Box" »

State of the iPhone Hacks: A Guide

Iphonehack As with most semi-illegal hardware hacking, the saga to unlock and/or install third party apps on the iPhone unfolds mostly in the scattered forums and wikis that constitute the back alleys of the Web where regular folks (rightfully) fear to tread. As a result, there is no single place to go for easily-digestible instructions on how to carry out the various hacks available. Making matters more complicated, with each firmware upgrade, a whole new set of instructions and processes is usually necessary, which means the procedure for hacking your phone is likely to change every few weeks. Here, though, we've attempted to provide as clear a guide as possible (as of November 13, 2007) to what can be a fairly intense process.

Before proceeding, it's helpful to know what version of the iPhone firmware you're running. This can be found in Settings -> General -> About on your iPhone.

Firmware 1.0.0, 1.0.1, 1.0.2

Despite all the fury after the 1.1.1 firmware update made it much more difficult (some thought impossible) to run third-party applications on the iPhone, it sure didn't take long for hackers to find perfectly acceptable workarounds. In fact, they've come so far since then that it's now even easier to unlock your phone or run third-party apps while running firmware version 1.1.1 than it ever was with 1.0.0-2. So if you're still holding out with one of the older versions, it's recommended that you upgrade to 1.1.1 via iTunes—you'll get the Wi-Fi iTunes store and have fewer headaches unlocking and running apps. Just be sure to "re-virginize" your phone before upgrading if you used any of the earlier software unlocking methods:

The Virginizer
If you unlocked your phone under firmware version 1.0.2 or lower, you'll need to "re-virginize" your baseband chip (the component that communicates with your SIM card) before upgrading to 1.1.1, or else your phone may stop working. This is pretty easy, though.

  1. Download the AppTapp installer for firmware versions 1.0.2 and earlier from Nullriver and follow the instructions to load the Installer on your phone (works for both Mac and Windows).
  2. Launch the installer from the home screen, and under "Sources" click "Edit" and then "Add," and type in the URL "http://i.unlock.no" (more on this step here).
  3. Click the "Done" button and relaunch the Installer. You should now see a folder called "Unlocking Tools" in the list of installable packages.
  4. Under the "Unlocking Tools" folder, install "The Virginizer (03.x)" and follow the instructions.

Firmware version 1.1.1

After "re-virginizing" (if necessary), you can safely upgrade to 1.1.1 via iTunes. After the upgrade, your Installer icon will be gone, but it's easy to get it back:

Third-Party Apps
To get the Installer application back onto your version 1.1.1 iPhone, simply navigate to jailbreakme.com with your iPhone's Safari browser and follow the instructions. Piece of cake.

After using jailbreakme.com, unlocking the iPhone is a snap, and it can be done without a computer. Start by re-adding the "i.unlock.no" source (above), and then simply install and run "AnySIM" to unlock your phone. See a complete tutorial here. And if you want to bypass AT&T activation altogether, see instructions here.

Firmware version 1.1.2

Firmware version 1.1.2 was just released this week, and as expected, it rendered many of the processes for version 1.1.1 unusable. Although there are already ways to unlock and install third-party apps on version 1.1.2, they're pretty ugly. It will probably take another week or so for thoroughly tested and easy-to-use unlock and jailbreak methods to surface for version 1.1.2, so for now we'd recommend holding off on the upgrade, especially if you've tinkered with your iPhone previously. You won't be missing much, as the 1.1.2 update provides only a few minor tweaks and bug fixes. 

Important Links

Check here first for the latest in iPhone hacking news.

  • iPhone Dev Team Wiki: This wiki is the home base for an advanced community of iPhone hackers. Lots of how-tos and links but can get pretty techie.
  • iPhone Elite Dev Team: Apparently an offshoot of the original dev team, these guys have the re-virginizer tool and many others for download.
  • Modmyifone.com: Lots of breaking news and step-by-step guides on the forums.

Now with the info you need, go forth! —John Mahoney

Yes, But Can You Build It for Less Than 1M Yen?


Sure can; and PopSci sure did. Remember our All-Seeing Tank project (November 2007 issue)? Well, Sanyo has uniquely stumbled onto the same concept—remote-controlled home foundation inspection tanks. In our iteration, for less than two hundred bucks, we showed you how to convert an RC tank into a dirt-grubbing, IR-seeing, home-crawl-space runabout. Sanyo’s incarnation of a similar product features an IR camera, obstacle-avoidance software, and a custom mapping application for driving your tank through subterranean spaces, but sports a sobering price tag of ¥1,000,000 (roughly $8,736 USD). Sanyo calls their beast, “Yuka shita Inspection Robot.” Great minds must think alike. —Dave Prochnow

(Image: Sanyo)

Build It: Hack Your Doorbell


Ripped from the pages of Popular Science (December 2007)

Customize your dingdong with a “Dingtone”

It seems like everywhere you go, someone’s cell phone is playing a personalized ringtone. Whether annoying or clever, it’s your call, but inside your home, it’s still the domain of the boring “ding-dong.” Not for long, however. If you’ve got a spare MP3 player laying around your home, it’s time to hack your household doorbell system and create your own customized “dingtone.” Just like your cell phone’s ringtone, you can change your dingtone to match the season or your mood. Our seasonal dingtone selection? Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas;” natch.




(1) An MP3 player (e.g., Sandisk Sansa Express 1Gb Amazon.com #B000MD40N8;$38.72)
(1) MP3 player speaker (All Electronics #NGA-4; $4.35)
(1) 9V wall adapter (All Electronics #DCTX-960; $3.75)
(1) 78M05 Voltage Regulator (Digi-Key #LM78M05CTFS-ND; $0.55)
(1) 0.47mF 50V electrolytic capacitor (Digi-Key #493-1885-ND; $0.23)
(1) 0.1mF 50V electrolytic capacitor (Digi-Key #P925-ND; $0.18)

H2.WHOA! Make sure that the household power is disconnected from your doorbell system before you begin this project.

Load the song snippet onto the MP3 player. Disconnect the doorbell button from its low- voltage transformer, and connect the wires to the inside of the MP3 player’s Play button. Replace the transformer with the nine-volt DC wall adapter. Connect the five-volt voltage regulator’s input to the adapter, and attach its outputs to the USB female cable. Plug the MP3 player into the USB female cable, which will power and charge the player’s battery. Then attach another line from the wall adapter’s output to the MP3 speaker’s battery terminals.


Disassemble your doorbell. Take note of which wires are connected to the transformer (these notes will help you rebuild your doorbell, if you long for a dingdong, again). Remove the metal plates, electromagnetic coils, and movable plungers from the doorbell. Connect the MP3 speaker and squeeze both the MP3 player and speaker system into the doorbell housing.

Before you reconnect the household power, check all of your wiring with a multimeter. Restore power and program the MP3 player to play a song once (i.e., don’t repeat songs) and don’t power off (i.e., don’t power down or enter “sleep” mode). Run outside and press the doorbell button. Nah, go ahead, press it again and again. Your home now has a personality. It’s own dingtone.

Personalize Your Dingtones

If you’d like to try your hand at creating a unique dingtone for each regular visitor to your home, then this “mash-up” should get you started:


1. Replace your doorbell button with a Microsoft Fingerprint Reader Model No. 1033 and connect the reader to a dedicated PC (i.e., a PC that can remain “ON” for monitoring your fingerprint “doorbell”).

2. Install and configure Griaule Desktop Identity software.

3. Register Desktop Identity to play an MP3 “dingtone” for each unique fingerprint press. This effort could require some DOS batch programming outside the Desktop Identity application. —Dave Prochnow

Build It: The All-Seeing Tank

Ripped from the pages of PopSci (November 2007)

RC Home Inspector

Never Crawl Through Your Home’s Crawl Space, Again—Let Your Eyes Do the Crawling For You!


You know that you’re supposed to do it at least once a year, but the thought of crawling around your home’s foundation makes you cringe with procrastination. There’s spiders, dampness, and a host of other unpleasant varmints waiting to greet you. Not to mention the confinement of tight spaces that are inherent with most house crawl spaces. Take arm against this dreaded annual inspection task with a tricked out remote control tank. Equipped with a high-resolution infrared (IR) video camera this RC Home Inspector is able to drive up to any point of interest and transmit a clear video signal of your home’s foundation…even in pitch darkness. When your yearly inspection is finished, just drive the tank out from under your house, wipe everything off, and store your RC Home Inspector in a handy bag until next year.



VsTank 1/24 Leopard 2 A6 tank ($69.99 #LXLSV9A4)-Discontinued-Instead use: #LXLSW0 w/Winter Camouflage
IR B/W camera ($31.95 allelectronics.com #VC-303)
12VDC power supply ($5.50 allelectronics.com #PS-1236)
McGuire Nicholas 16-inch builders tool bag ($25 amazon.com #22316)
25’ RCA plug video cable ($3.50 allelectronics.com #VMC-25)
25’ 16-gauge outdoor extension cord ($4.99 Lowes #70370)
5/16-inch wire retainer ($.55 Lowes #41714)
3/8-inch swivel eye bolt ($1.54 Lowes #62848)
50’ Multi-Purpose cord ($2.27 Lowes #227439)
Extension cord caddies ($2.66 Lowes #75288)

8-AA batteries
1-9V battery


5” portable TV ($29.99 Circuit City #507BWR)



Cut off roughly 6-inches of barrel length from the tank’s turret. Keep the IR “gun” inside the barrel for boosting your IR video camera’s forward vision. Open up the tank and remove the internal speaker.



While the tank is open, drill two holes in the rear body plate. Install the 5/16-inch cable retainer and close up the tank. Tie the multi-purpose cord to the 3/8-inch swivel eye bolt. Use a bowline knot (you can find tying instructions for this knot here.



Mount the IR camera to the tank’s barrel. Connect the 12VDC power supply to the camera. Install batteries in the tank and the RC transmitter.

Connect the outdoor extension cord to the 12VDC power supply and plug one end of the video cable into the IR camera and the other end into whatever you're using to monitor the video (like a small portable television). Attach the 3/8-inch swivel eye bolt to the 5/16-inch wire retainer, turn on the tank and RC transmitter, and drive inside your home’s foundation crawl space. Aim the IR camera with the turret and barrel controls on the RC transmitter. Record distances under your house by measuring the amount of cord pulled by the tank. And if the tank’s batteries die, just pull the tank out with the extraction lanyard.

Make a High-Speed Flash

Katherine_balloon_4_2Capturing the most fleeting of moments—like the droplets formed by a splash of water or the ripping plastic from an exploding balloon—used to be expensive propositions. Fancy photo strobes with special voice- or sound-activated switches (called VOX) costing hundreds of dollars were the equipment of choice for high-speed photographers. Not so, anymore. By tapping into the powerful tools housed inside disposable flash cameras, you can build your own high-speed photography system for under $30.


Warning: Before you start working with the flash mechanism from a disposable camera, remove the battery and make sure that the onboard storage capacitor is completely discharged (hold a pair of insulated pliers across the + and - flash terminals and manually trigger the flash).

How to Build a DIY High-Speed Flash System


1 hour
Cost: $25.16

Parts List


(1) Disposable flash camera (The Electronic Goldmine #G16329; $1.29 or Fuji Photo Film QuickSnap; $5.99)
(1) Silicon Controlled Rectifier (SCR) sensitive gate 0.8A 400V (Digi-Key #EC103D-ND; .39)
(1) 3.5mm stereo cable (The Electronic Goldmine #G15449; .99)
(1) Cassette tape recorder (scavenged or Memorex® MB1055 @ Target; $19.99)
(1) Electret microphone (scavenged or All Electronics #MIKE-75; $2.50)


(2) AA & (2) AAA alkaline batteries
Camera capable of “B” (bulb) or prolonged (> 2 seconds) exposures



Step 1. The Anatomy of a Flasher.

Remove all of the exterior plastic, film advance system, and shutter assembly from the disposable flash camera. Locate the + and - flash terminals. These terminals are located near the shutter. Use a voltage meter for identifying which terminal is positive (+) and which one is negative (-). Some cameras (e.g., Fuji QuickSnap, as pictured) might require the flash on/off switch to be soldered in the “on” position.

Step 2. Becoming Flash Trigger-Happy

Snip off one jack of the 3.5mm stereo cable. Prep the snipped end exposing the red, white, and black wires. Solder the cathode pin of the SCR to the negative (-) flash terminal and solder the anode pin of the SCR to the positive (+) flash terminal. Solder the red and white wires from the 3.5mm stereo cable to the SCR’s gate pin. Finally, solder the stereo cable’s black wire to the negative (-) flash terminal (along with the SCR cathode pin).


Step 3. Void the Cassette Recorder’s Warranty

Remove the cassette tape door from the cassette recorder. Make sure that you have clear and easy access to the cassette recorder’s write-protection button. This is a small movable “finger” opposite the record head that determines whether or not a cassette tape can be recorded. This button must be depressed to turn the cassette recorder on in “record” mode. You will use the “record” mode for gathering sound and amplifying it enough for triggering the flash.

Step 4. Lights, Cameras, High-Speed Action

Find a darkened location for experimenting with high-speed photography—an area completely devoid of ambient lighting. Mount your camera on a tripod, set the shutter for a bulb or “B” exposure. Cameras that can deliver timed 1-4 second exposures can also work.

Insert fresh batteries into the disposable flash camera. Plug an inexpensive electret microphone into the recorder’s “MIC” input. Plug the jack of the 3.5mm stereo cable into the “PHONE” output. Hold down the recorder’s write-protection button and press the recorder’s red “RECORD” button. The flash should begin charging. [NOTE: some disposable cameras might require you to depress a flash activation button.] When the amber “ready” light glows steadily on the back of the disposable camera, the flash is ready to be triggered by sound.

Kill the lights, hold the flash trigger near your subject, open the camera’s shutter, and record some high-speed event that is triggered by its noise. Like the pop of a balloon, the kerplunk of water, or the smack of a head slap. Take your pick and take some pix.

The $72 PC is a hit!


I knew when H20-wiz Dave Prochnow suggested a $75 PC project that it'd be popular, but I had no idea how popular. My failure to get the promised "more info" online before the article hit newsstands has resulted in a flood of letters from readers eager to get started. Nothing makes a DIY editor happier, so I'm glad to say the info is now online, with some extra details from Dave, as well as some new sources for the parts. It seems we'd driven so many people to the original sources that they sold out. In the article, we also asked people what they'd do with a cheap PC and have gotten several great responses, which I'll post up here this week. Here's one from reader Mike Creamer:

I bought all the parts you listed ($62 because I bought a couple of parts used on eBay). I have a hinged wooden box—a pretty lacquered thing—in which I'll assemble the PC. This is going to be exclusively for Skype. I'll attach a USB handset and use it to call my sister in Tennessee for free. I gave her the software and a handset for a gift, and we use the Skype software to keep in touch, but talking in front of my computer is a drag. With this setup, I can keep the tiny Skype PC in the living room and talk to her in comfort. Thanks for the inspiration!

Another reader wrote to remind us that Puppy Linux is a fine alternative to the Damn Small Linux OS we recommended in the article.

Have a cool use for the cheap PC, or a way to make it better or cheaper? Let us know in the comments below. —Mike Haney

PopSci: The Milk Carton of the 21st Century


PopSci is all about the children—we staunchly believe, as the sage Whitney Houston instructed us, that we should teach them well and let them lead the way. Unless, of course, they’re the kind of kids who tend to wander off while you’re on vacation.

Fortunately, we’ve got that base covered too. In the April issue, How 2.0 featured a “Hardware Trick of the Month” showing how to recover a lost USB drive by equipping it with a piece of software that displays a custom message requesting its return whenever it's plugged into a computer. It turns out one prescient reader took the trick a step further, attaching drives to lanyards and hanging them around the necks of his young children while the family was at Disneyland. Sure enough, his three-year-old son disappeared, only to be found by a Good Samaritan and brought to the Happiest Security Facility on Earth. Security personnel then plugged in the USB drive, got the boy’s name and his parents’ contact information, and he was returned quickly and safely—an ending befitting, well, a Disney movie. Check out the full story from our friends at Daily Cup of Tech, who wrote the original script for the USB trick. —Doug Cantor

Link - Have Your Lost USB Drive Ask For Help

Calling All Geeks

Askageek_170How do I mount my new flatscreen HDTV on the wall? Can I permanently erase my name from the Web? How do I get "Big Pimpin'" as my ringtone for free?

All good questions. And all are answered by the brightest tech minds we know in PopSci's monthly "Ask a Geek" feature. Today we bring you a roundup of our favorites, but we know there's more. Do you have a different answer to one of the questions posed to our chorus of geeks? Or maybe a question of your own you'd like to see answered? Sound off in the comments below. —John Mahoney

UPDATE: The geeks answer! Commenter Ted asked about finding something to save audio streams from the Web the same way keepvid.com downloads videos. On the Mac side, there's Audio Hijack, an application that listens for audio generated by any application on your computer (your Web browser, Real Player, etc) and records it to an audio file which you can convert to the format of your choice within iTunes (just remember not to steal copyrighted material!). I've used Audio Hijack, and it's great. For Windows there is Total Recorder, which I haven't used personally but appears to have roughly the same functionality.

For everyone submitting specific computer problems they may be having, we know how frustrating these problems can be, but if it's specific to your computer we probably won't be of much help. Maybe give these other geeks a call?

The Ultimate DIY Game Table

Gametable_600_1If you haven't seen it yet, you've got to check out the homemade gaming rig recently built by staff photographer/DIY madman John B. Carnett and How 2.0 editor Mike Haney. Taking a salvaged PC running the MAME emulator and sticking it into a beautiful welded-steel table begat a 200-pound behemoth capable of running all the old school games you can can handle.

Currently, the rig is still sitting in the evil batcave/laboratory of Mr. Carnett in Philly, but it's rumored to be making its way back to PopSci HQ soon—good thing, because I'm pretty eager to school everyone here in Dig Dug (and post some pictures to prove it). See how you can build your own here. —John Mahoney

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