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The Hardware Hacker: Bunnie Huang's Tour-De-force (boingboing.net)
209 points by DemiGuru on Dec 30, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 40 comments

Prominently featured in a recent documentary on manufacturing in Shenzhen. Recommended: http://www.wired.co.uk/video/shenzhen-full-documentary

I second the recommendation. The documentary talks in detail about the differing views on intellectual property between Western countries and China that is mentioned in the article.

I watched that docu before realizing who he was, and man, they could not have chosen a more appropriate person to narrate it. His work is absolutely amazing.

Bunnie is also responsible in no minor way for both Chumby[1], and the Novena[2] open laptop.

Met him briefly at Maker Faire and I made sure to thank him for all his excellent work.

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chumby [2]: https://www.crowdsupply.com/sutajio-kosagi/novena

I really loved the idea of Chumby. Would have killed it if it had come out more recently as an IoT device.

I didn't know about the Chumby at the time; I only read about it after the fact. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can think of one detail in the execution that probably didn't help the product's longevity. In 2009, at around the time that the iPhone 3GS and newer Android phones were using ARMv7-based processors and 256 MB of RAM, the Chumby One used an ARMv5-based chip (the i.MX233) that could only handle 64 MB of RAM. [1] Not exactly a forward-looking move. But I don't know if Bunnie could have done it differently. Was there any ARMv7 or even ARMv6-based chip available to startup companies at that time with the i.MX233's high analog integration and low cost?

[1]: https://www.bunniestudios.com/blog/?p=611

The other big problem with Chumby was its use of an embedded Flash player to display content. Made it difficult for open-source developers to create widgets -- and Adobe's effective abandonment of that runtime in 2010 didn't help, either.

Not really. That little chip is /still/ about the fastest chip you're gonna get for any sort of hardware hacking project for which you want a display, and the ability to prototype using one of the super cheap pcb makers.

Really? Can you explain more about why the i.MX233 has those unique benefits? Might it be better to use something like the CHIP (https://getchip.com/), based on an Allwinner R8, instead? Yes, the CHIP is itself a PCB, but it's so small and has enough pin headers that I guess you could treat it as a system-on-module and solder it to a carrier board.

Starting a new project with an ARMv5-based processor today seems really stupid to me, even more so than in 2009. But maybe I'm just hyper-sensitive about obsolete hardware because a community that I care about has been burned in that area before. I'm talking about PDAs designed specifically for blind people. I explained more about that in a mailing list posting here:


The big advantage comes from its packaging and everything built into the chip. It comes in a 144 pin lqfp package, which means that routing pins can be done by a couple people with real minimal amounts of training, and it can be laid out onto a two-layer board, which tends to be a lot cheaper than a four layer board which a bga package pretty much requires. It's also got a dac and adc built in which has the circuitry to directly drive headphones, so you don't need amplification circuitry to do that. Similarly, it's got integrated power regulation, so you don't need those chips either. Finally, all the info on it is available in a datasheet you don't need to jump through hoops to read [1]. It's not as fast as a chip, but because of everything it has, it's much more flexible for when you are designing something.

[1] http://www.nxp.com/assets/documents/data/en/reference-manual...

The Allwinner R8 is available in eLQFP176 and also has a built in audio DAC, ADC and headphone amp. Of course, it requires external memory and all the routing headaches that go along with that, but so does the i.MX233. Power management is generally done by a companion chip from X-Powers, the AXP209.

If the CHIP from Next Thing Co. is any indication of the capabilities of the R8, the built-in audio DAC and headphone amplifier are somewhat lacking in low-end frequency response (i.e. bass) compared to what one can get in a PC, smartphone, or any other consumer-level audio player. Indeed, NTC told me on an email support thread that for their upcoming product, the Dashbot, they're using a dedicated DAC to get better audio.

I'm tempted to buy one of Olimex's i.MX233 boards to find out if the audio capabilities of that chip are better. But as I said, starting any new project today with an ARMv5-based processor just seems wrong. Technology moves on, even in applications that don't require a screen. I doubt that an ARMv5-based processor could run a modern speech recognition engine, even if only to listen to a wake word for something like the Alexa Voice Service or the Dashbot.

Not likely. They centered the platform heavily around Flash so that it was difficult to do any development or hacking on it.

It was quite easy to do non-Flash development and hacking on the chumby if you wanted to, though admittedly there would then be no "market" for the app (not that Chumby really had any kind of market at all, you could upload community apps but there was no ability to sell them).

The chumby was basically just a small, touchscreen ARM based Linux system, before the raspberry pi made that cool (and super cheap). I've hacked on them quite extensively professionally (I was a chumby employee) and personally in Flash/haxe/C/Python and even golang, and lots of others outside the company did as well.

One of my favorite bits of work at chumby was helping NPR Labs (their director at the time, Rich Rarey, was a chumby fan) with this project:


The prototype for this was the bigger 8" chumby (the Best Buy branded one at the time), hooked to a braille reader. I wrote drivers for the braille reader and an ActionScript player extension (I've seen the source code to the Flash player and lived to tell the tale!) so they could interact with it from ActionScript code. You can see a photo of the older chumby-based version here:


However, I'm also pretty skeptical that chumby re-imagined (without a serious shift in how it was targeted) would be successful if released today. The chumby (basically an Internet-connected alarm clock and radio and by the way, some random apps) made a lot of sense prior to the iPhone/Android revolution in smartphones, but not so much after that.

Any chance you know of a more modern set of kernel patches for the Infocast (8" BB model) than what Chumby released, or if there's any community developed support?

I have two of them and back in the day I followed Bunnie's guide here to get a browser going on it:


Nope. Looks like you asked me this same question quite a while ago (kudos for persistence in trying to get it updated!):


Not aware of anyone making available newer, working patches since then either... I don't even have any working chumby 8" devices anymore.

Wow, way to remember that. I've keep it around asone of those "hey I could do this eventually..." sorts of things that's probably not worth it anymore given that a raspberry pi and the official touchscreen is <$100.

> I don't even have any working chumby 8" devices anymore.

Do you want one?

Nope, but thanks for asking!

I have the same issue you do where I keep things around just in case I might someday make a project with them. I actually got rid of a bunch of my old chumby devices (plus a lot of old freescale developer boards and miscellaneous embedded devices) specifically in a purge to get rid of such things, so I don't want to relapse!

I've found (as you mentioned) that if such a project does turn up I'm better off just buying a newish device like whatever the newest raspberry pi is and using that... more expensive than using scavenged parts, but lots less wasted time trying to get a modern kernel up, etc.

I was working on getting Linux 3.13 ported over a while back. Never got everything working (audio and wifi was particularly painful), but it might be a start:


I meant more as a concept, I agree that Flash was a large detriment to its success.

Is there a more modern and DIY version of the Chumby?

i have a chumby and the fact that it was designed to ran flash apps was a bad decision from the get go. that and the fact you could only stream apps and not download them.

Excited to give this a read - he's also got a good reference book for non-native Mandarin speakers on navigating the Shenzhen markets[1]

Just bought mine from the publisher as an ebook + hardcover package for about $10 more than Amazon price for just the book, includes early access with code EARLYBIRD: https://www.nostarch.com/hardwarehacker

[1] https://www.adafruit.com/product/3189

I bought a copy too. I was a little disappointed that the early access ebook has the last few chapters missing.


If you haven't had the chance to read one of Bunnie's hardware teardowns, you're missing out. His teardown of the Form 2 3D printer (https://www.bunniestudios.com/blog/?p=4641) is a great example of his work.

That's a nice description of the Form 2 3D printer. You don't see that grade of engineering from most startups. That Formlabs makes their own mirror galvanometers is impressive, but probably necessary. The off the shelf units are either low-precision ones for light shows, or small-volume scientific instrument components.

Can confirm the necessity, having interned there. COTS galvos at that price weren't good enough.

Non-affiliate link to the pre-order for Bunnie's new book: https://amzn.com/dp/159327758X

OP is ~450 word announcment summarizing each half of the new book - if you're interested (hardware manufactring and hacking), you'll already know it and can skip the ads.

It's published by nostarch, so if you get it from them directly you can get a DRM-free ebook: https://www.nostarch.com/hardwarehacker

There is also a coupon code on that page to get 30% off. Total cost for the ebook and the dead tree copy is $20 + shipping. A steal for Bunnie's usual high quality work!

Thank God for that. I was worried Boing Boing might earn five cents when I clicked on that Amazon link.

Thanks for your feedback!

Amazon Affiliates get credit for purchases for up to 24 hours, including "an aggregate view of what people bought and in what quantities" (as of 5 years ago, but I believe this is still the case).


I personally believe that added value is worth rewarding but this particular blurb didn't add much. @deutronium provided more value by linking to the actual publisher's early-access e-book page elsewhere in the thread, but that wouldn't make Cory/BoingBoing any money.

Either way, I appreciate being made aware of the book's impending existence!

There's a table of contents of the book at: https://www.nostarch.com/hardwarehacker

I'm really looking forward to getting my copy :)

Thanks for linking to a place that actually has the (early access) e-book available right now rather than real soon now.

In addition to this and the Wired doc, I'd recommend the keyboard.io blog post from October for those who haven't been to Shenzhen yet, but are in the 'deciding' stage: https://shift.newco.co/what-50-buys-you-at-huaqiangbei-the-w...

and to these, I would add a talk that he gave at FOSS Asia earlier this year about a hardware devicde made for Burning Man: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNtQsyysaGk&t=5s

The amount of thought put into the design and implementation is remarkable and inspiring.

I believe this book is a print edition of a selection of blog posts that have appeared on http://www.bunniestudios.com/.

It's based on bunnie's blog but one of our editors poured her heart and soul into this. She's a EE with incredible passion. In other words, this isn't just a print out of his blog. It's a real book.

Thanks, good to know.

His SoC ISA reverse engineering through FPGA MitM made me smile a lot.

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