Saturday, July 30, 2011

Smart phone, stupid protection

This morning (29/7) I took off from Schiphol (Amsterdam airport) for Austin, Texas to assist at the 17th NIWeek. During the flight I kept my phone switched off in a pocket of my pants. Now, when my phone is switched off the key lock function does not work because it is a function of the operating system of the phone, not a hardware feature. So, without me noticing, my phone got switched on in my pocket while I was looking out of the window (I had a window seat) and apparently I unknowingly sort of "punched" in (with my thigh or handkerchief) several wrong PIN codes which resulted in a blocked SIM card when I took my phone out again in Houston (where I had to change planes). To unblock the PIN code my phone now first wanted a Personal Unblocking Code (PUK) code, which off course I didn't know. A helpful girl in a phone shop on the airport told me that this code is often printed on the SIM card itself. So I examined my SIM card and indeed discovered a 17-digit code of which the first 8 digits turned out to be the PUK code for my SIM card. Great!

Or is it? Thanks to the missing hardware key lock feature my SIM card got blocked, but thanks to the PUK code conveniently printed on my SIM card, I can unblock it again. And if I can do this, anyone who gets hold of my phone can do this. How's that for anti-theft protection?

So, problem solved? Well... no. Entering the PUK code gave me the right to choose a new PIN code that I had to confirm by typing it again, which I did without errors. 1234 is not so difficult to get right, right? Wrong! According to my phone my new PIN code is incorrect (???) and I am back to the PUK code. I would now be stuck in an endless loop if it weren't for the cleverly built-in hang protection (they did think of that): the number of tries is limited to 8. I still have 3 left...

Tomorrow I will buy a prepaid local SIM card.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vanity chips

Have you ever heard of the company Valens Semiconductor? I hadn't either, until last night.

In 2009 Valens Semiconductor together with LG, Samsung and Sony announced their intention to launch a cross-industry alliance to promote and standardize the HDBaseT technology for whole-home distribution of uncompressed HD multimedia content. A few days later Valens announced the availability of an HDBaseT-compliant chipset: the VS100, consisting of the VS100TX transmitter and the VS100RX (receiver). This chipset enables the convergence of uncompressed full HD digital video, audio, 100BaseT Ethernet, power and control through a single, standard 100m/328ft LAN cable.
(I got this from their website)

To me this sounds like an interesting chipset (although a bit out of my league) for more than one reason. One of those reasons is the printing on the chip. Why?

Well, you may not know it, but my name is Valens. Before the era of internet my family and me knew of very few other people named Valens. There was of course Richie Valens, but that is not his real name, and there were some roman emperors named Valens (I have a coin to prove it). Now that the world population is massively coming on line more and more people and companies named Valens surface.

If you are an electronics engineer and your name happens to be National, Renesas or Avago you can easily find chips with your name on it, but for most other people such an opportunity is pretty rare. And I just came across one!

I want this chipset. Not for building something with it, but to keep on my desk. I want a vanity chip(set). Of course I have contacted the company and asked for a sample. If I get hold of one of these chips I will of course post it here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Control a robot with a watch

Some six months ago Texas Instruments announced the Evalbot, a development platform for their Stellaris ARM Cortex-M3 microcontrollers in the shape of a little robot. It took me a while to get hold of one, but now I have one driving happily around in my living room. It is actually a pretty neat and cleverly engineered kit that you have to assemble yourself. Most parts are made out of PCB material – the two wheels for instance are each made of three disks and a rubber ring – the rest are mainly nuts & bolts. Two little motors with gears drive the wheels and everything is powered from three AA batteries.

The Evalbot is not a gadget; it is a powerful development board with wheels. In the center off the disk-shaped board sits an LM3S9B92 ARM Cortex-M3 controller (256 KB flash, 96 KB RAM and more peripherals than you will probably ever need) assisted by a tiny 96 x 16 blue OLED display, 6 push-buttons (including the on/reset and the off buttons), an Ethernet connector, a USB host port, a USB device port, a USB debugger/programmer port (ICDI), a micro-SD card connector, a speaker, power supply, JTAG, two LEDs and probably more that I am overlooking now; and two motor drivers. Thanks to the battery holders (with batteries) on the bottom of the board the whole thing is pretty heavy and the rubber “tires” prevent sliding it off your desk when you hook the board up to a computer with a USB cable that wants to unwind the wrong way around.

A special wireless expansion port is available too on which you can plug a CC1101EM sub-1 GHz transceiver, which will get you an 868 or 915 MHz radio link. The James Bond part of this setup is a third kit from TI, the eZ430-Chronos based on the CC430F6137 sub-1 GHz RF SoC. This is a combination of a biggish but stylish black watch with a large character display and a USB access point for your PC. Once connected you can control your PC with the watch, although it takes some exercise to do it properly. But... you can also use the watch to control the Evalbot! An integrated accelerometer lets you influence the driving direction of the robot by tilting and rotating the watch. Cool huh? The watch in itself is actually a dev kit and you can reprogram it with your own application.

Programming the dev kits is done with Code Composer Studio 4, the Eclipse-based dev environment from TI. A license file is included with the Evalbot kit, but what exactly this enables is not clear to me. I did read something somewhere about code sizes & limits, but I forgot where. Anyway, all the source code for the Chronos controlled Evalbot is available, it compiles without warnings and errors and programs fine. This really is a fine (but strange) development kit.