Hacking Our Way to a Better Future

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By the Casey Research Technology Team

We love technology. We wouldn’t invest so much of our time and money in all things tech – particularly the companies that we invest in and recommend in our Casey Extraordinary Technology service – if we didn’t. And while firmly established publicly traded companies garner the bulk of our investment dollars, it’s important to keep in mind where these entities got their start. Most successful tech ventures began in a garage, the back room at a university lab, or on some secret skunkworks project. Think Google (a computer lab), Microsoft (a dorm room), and Apple (a garage). So it behooves us – and all investors in the tech sector – to stay abreast of the latest developments coming out of these venues in hopes of stumbling upon the next billion-dollar idea.

In this vein (and in the interest of entertainment) we regularly scour the tech world in search of the most promising, cool, or just plain odd things that have been hacked up in the basements of our fellow geeks. Here are some of our favorites that we’ve come across over the past year:

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Eyegaze Computing

This first hack is an excellent illustration of the ease with which modern tech allows some unlikely people to reach a very sophisticated level of innovation.

Like a Honduran teenager.

Luis Cruz, 18 and just out of high school, has invented the Eyeboard, an eye tracker designed to provide a cheap and easy way to interface with a computer using only the eyes. The Eyeboard involves a special pair of glasses – which look in Luis’ video as if they’re held together with masking tape – that translate electrical impulses from the eye into onscreen data. If you look at an onscreen alphabet and focus on a letter, Luis’ software will print that letter for you. A person could compose a book solely with his or her eyes.

There are other eye trackers, of course, but Luis hopes that his will be adaptable and affordable enough to help large numbers of people with disabilities. And Luis’ software is open source. So if you like tinkering with code, you can get involved. You can also order your own DIY Eyeboard kit and contribute to Luis’ college education fund if you wish.

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Homemade Spy Planes

That can’t be done” is surely the four words that have launched more cutting-edge technology projects than any others. As a recently spotted bumper sticker put it: If you believe it cannot be done, please don’t interrupt those doing it.

Two guys who didn’t want to be interrupted are Mike Tassey and Richard Perkins, an ex-Air Force official and a former airplane hobby-shop owner, both of whom have decades of experience as network security contractors for the military. They were told they couldn’t hack an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and cheaply turn it into a personal spy plane. So they did it.


Mike Tassey with his WASP

The result – which took two years to make and cost a mere $6,200 – is a Wireless Aerial Surveillance Platform (WASP) they named Vespid (Latin for “wasp”). They built it by stripping down a surplus FQM-117B Army target drone and refitting it with all manner of off-the-shelf spy gear.

To power the 76-inch-long Vespid, they replaced its gasoline engine with a 2.5-horsepower electric motor, driven by two lithium-ion batteries and capable of keeping the drone aloft for half an hour. They stocked it with: an HD camera; a cigarette-pack-sized, onboard Linux computer programmed with network-hacking tools including the BackTrack testing toolset and a custom-built, 340-million-word dictionary for brute-force guessing of passwords; eleven antennae; a 32-gigabyte USB storage drive; and a 4G USB dongle to maintain connection with a server on the ground.

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What can the Vespid do? Intercept Wi-Fi communications, hack into networks, jam signals, even eavesdrop on cellphone calls by emulating a cell tower. While it requires a human controller to get it airborne, once it’s flying, the WASP can follow a preselected route on its own and circle above a target area.

The builders have no evil intent and plan no commercial production, they say. All they wanted to do was to demonstrate that it could be done… and to warn security experts of the potential danger. Despite the UAV’s seeming complexity, it easily could be duplicated by someone with basic hacking skills, a few thousand bucks, and a large dose of ill will. (For those interested in surveillance technology, here’s another worthwhile article.)

Boosting Your Brain with Batteries

People have always looked for ways to rev up their brains. Ancient humans sought plant foods that would give them increased mental acuity through the long hours of a hunt. Their descendants chew cultivated coca leaf or slurp coffee. If they have access to a pharmacy, they might swallow ginkgo biloba capsules or tabs of Adderall. There’s a whole new category of chemicals, called nootropics, that some folks swear by. And of course, the US is currently experiencing an epidemic of methamphetamine use.

But all of these brain-boosters have one thing in common (other than that most have potentially unpleasant side effects, including the possibility of addiction): a chemical reaction inside the body. What if you could bypass all of that and go right to the source? What if you could amp up brain power by directly zapping the organ with electricity?

Well, it turns out you can. It’s called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). With it, researchers have found that they can more than double the rate at which people learn a wide range of tasks. Given that demonstrated improvements have been realized in such areas as object recognition, math skills, and marksmanship, it’s no surprise that the military is running some of the most enthusiastic lab tests.

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The author of Better Living Through Electrochemistry  tried it out. Not only did it make her a better shooter – a goal she normally would not have chosen – but it enabled her to turn off her inner monologue and really focus her mind for what felt like the first time in her life. Needless to say, she loved it.

Does this mean that future humans will be passing their days with tDCS caps on their heads and 9-volt batteries in their pockets? Maybe. But see for yourself what you think. As dedicated technophiles, we find it very intriguing, to say the least.

Before you go to the article, though, a couple of caveats: first, there is rough language there. But more important, there is an embedded link to a site that purports to show how to construct your own transcranial stimulator with off-the-shelf parts. We do NOT recommend that you try this at home. Instead, if you’re sufficiently interested, we suggest you follow the author’s suggestion, try to find a university where research in this field is under way, and sign up there.

Smart Parts Drawers

Suppose you work in a place where you routinely have to deal with thousands of different kinds of small parts. How do you file them, and how do you access the particular thing you need at a particular moment? Think of an auto repair shop, with its endless, confused drawers full of specialty tools and spare parts for different makes and models, some of which are used so infrequently that a mechanic always forgets where they are. No doubt a lot of time is wasted searching for what he wants.

A DIYer named Danh Trinh pondered this problem and came up with a solution that’s almost too simple and elegant. He created StorageBot, a voice-activated robotic shop assistant that puts the desired object into his hands in seconds.

It’s an extraordinary design that you have to see to believe.

As Trinh points out, this is merely a beginning, not an end. There is a huge business to be made by a determined entrepreneur here, but there are any number of spinoff businesses that could be built on the same model. After all, isn’t this the basic reason why Amazon went robotic by buying KIVA? They solved one small part of the problem, and it saved Amazon colossal amounts of money – not just on labor but on insurance against that labor hurting itself.

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Advances in robotics and voice-recognition software are rendering more and more types of manual labor obsolete. In the short run, that means greater unemployment, but it also means that the competitive edge enjoyed by China and other places where human labor is cheap is eroding.

That’s a good thing, and innovators like Trinh are helping point the way.

Hackers Converge at DEFCON

Once a year, many of the top hackers in America gather together in Las Vegas for an event called DEFCON. The term derives from the acronym for Defense Condition, the military’s description of its state of readiness, from Defcon-1 or normal peacetime deployments to Defcon-5, meaning the US military or territory is under ongoing attack, or that such a state of war is imminent.

Hackers didn’t call their meetup Defcon-5, but the implication is there. Secondarily, DEFCON also refers to a conference of phone phreaks (the original hackers), with DEF defining the #3 button on a handset. And, in one final nose-thumb at authority, the organizers even got to put that little ® after the name.

Industry and government always keep an eye on the DEFCON to see what may come out of it, because: 1) hackers often put their proudest creations on display, and 2) they’ve been known to call attention to serious security flaws in the national data-transmission grid.

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In fact, this year’s conference, held the last week of July, featured a keynote speech by – of all people – National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander, who would’ve been a bête noir not long ago (DEFCON playfully used to run a “Spot the Fed” contest). But Alexander, who also is commander of the US Cyber Command, had a dead-serious purpose. He appeared to ask the hackers for their help. “In this room right here is the talent we need to secure cyberspace,” he said. “You know we can protect the networks and have civil liberties and privacy, and you can help us get there.”

Outside of this unlikely marriage, there were any number of other interesting things to emerge from of the conference, and one of our favorites was:

Yes, the hackers created their very own GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) phone network.

Ninja Tel is “the biggest OpenBTS (base transceiver station) network ever,” according to Ninja Michael J.J. Tiffany. OpenBTS networks allow for software-based switching technology that can operate in confined spaces, such as the Ninja Tel van that was parked in one of DEFCON’s rooms.

Phones able to connect to the net – HTC One V’s running a customized version of the open-source OS Android 4.0.3 – were given away to 650 lucky people who have contributed to the DEFCON community, and immediately became a status symbol. Recipients got to choose their own phone numbers and usernames and could have their photos taken so that their faces showed up in everyone’s contact list.

In addition to standard features like phone calls, texts, chats, and conferences, the Ninja phones also came with a sword-fighting game and a number of unique apps. Proving to be a very popular one was the whimsical BoozeFone, which lets the user specify a type of alcohol (“Press 1 for vodka, 2 for bourbon, 3 for beer,” and so on). He or she is then connected with another attendee who has that kind of beverage available.

Does this mean a free, private phone network is coming to your neighborhood? Could be, if you’ve got some phreaks in the area. Otherwise, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

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Unless, of course, some creative entrepreneur is glimpsing future profit potential here…

Office Basketball Is Taken to a New Level

And speaking of whimsy, one of the cleverest hacks we’ve seen in a while comes courtesy of a Japanese modder who’s taken the sport of office basketball to a new level. You know the game: you wad up a sheet of paper and see if you can do a Kobe Bryant on the wastebasket at the other end of the room. And you know the embarrassment when you miss and have to make that perplike walk to the trash can to atone for your errant aim.

Well, with this Kinect hack, you can succeed every time. Not only with paper, but with empty beer cans, pencils broken in anger, whatever you feel like hurling.

OK, perhaps this was a guy with way too much time on his hands, because it does take most of the fun out of the game. But its creator is more optimistic. He plans to patent the device and dreams of creating a viable, consumer-friendly commercial version.

While we wait, his demo video is a lot of fun.

The Beer Cannon

Techies like us spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen to begin with, just keeping up. Now add in the long hours of research necessary to ferret out top-notch companies whose stocks are available for reasonable prices. Then add in the intense mental gymnastics involved in translating all that techspeak into comprehensible English for our newsletter.

Whew! This is hard work, even if our electronic partner is doing a lot of the intellectual heavy lifting for us.

At the end of the day, folks, we need a break. So is it too much to ask that we not have to trudge all the way to the refrigerator in the kitchen in order to reward ourselves with the adult beverage of our choice?

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Thought not.

Luckily, there are clever hackers out there who have been pondering the same question, and Carnegie Mellon grad student Ryan Rusnak – surely suffering as we have – arrived at an ingenious solution. He married an iPhone to a retrofitted dorm fridge, added a few off-the-shelf parts, and drum roll, please… came up with something we always knew we needed. A beer cannon.

That’s right – you simply touch your phone screen to select the brand of brew you want at that moment (works with soft drinks and iced tea too, of course), then press the Fire! button, and the cannon will shoot an ice-cold can across the room and right into your hands.

Best of all, basic directions for building your own cannon – which’ll set you back about $400, a small price to pay for this kind of convenience, in our opinion – are available at that link, and the app to operate it can be downloaded from the iTunes store for free.

This truly is tech at the service of its masters.


Bits & Bytes

What Comes After the Touch Screen (Technology Review)

So, what does come after the touch screen? Devices activated by tongue movement or muscle flexing. The ability to perform complex tasks with the flick of a wrist or a snap of the fingers. All this new tech and more was on display at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology at the Marriott in Cambridge, Massachusetts this week.

Extending Einstein’s Theory Beyond Light Speed (University of Adelaide)

We were all taught as children that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. Einstein said so. But a duo from the University of Adelaide’s School of Mathematical Sciences now says it can be done – at least from a theoretical mathematical perspective. Professor Jim Hill and Dr. Barry Cox have developed new formulas that extend special relativity to a situation where the relative velocity can be infinite, and can be used to describe motion at speeds faster than light. According to the team, “Our paper doesn’t try and explain how this could be achieved, just how the equations of motion might operate in such regimes.”

txtr Reveals Pocket-Sized Beagle eReader (Gizmag)

While most e-readers are looking more and more like tablets each day in terms of display and functionality, one company has decided to go in the opposite direction. Meet the Beagle by German developer txtr, the e-reader the size of a smartphone but with none of the functionality or display features. The Beagle takes simple and small to the extreme. And while the device is the most portable e-reader on the market, it has some serious drawbacks – like no touchscreen, no backlight, no Wi-Fi support, and not even a standby mode.

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avatarDoug Casey - Casey's Daily Dispatch posted Thursday, October 11th, 2012.

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