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Hardware Hacking Projects for Geeks Scott Fullam
Published by O'Reilly Media
348 pages
£ 20.95
Published: 10th February 2004
reviewed by Mike Smith
   in the June 2004 issue (pdf), (html)

This is something different -- not the usual software manual ... a book on hardware projects. It sounded very interesting, but I was immediately very disappointed when I opened it up.

It rapidly became clear that this book (or at least a part of it) is largely based on a number of projects that have been collected from various places on the web. If you've been around as long as I have (and I'm sure you have) you come across these things all of the time -- whether just cool sites, pointers from Slashdot, or whatever. Examples include a Macquarium, Furby Hacking and Home-made 802.11b Antennas.

Some other projects are just naff - a portable laptop power supply (i.e. put some batteries in series with a suitable connector), and a periscope for the car (ridiculous).

Having got the major issues out of the way, I'll continue to grumble as I go through the book.

There are three major sections to this book - easy projects, hard ones, and appendices. The easy section has 6 projects including the battery thing and periscope. Pah. The others are the Mac Aquarium the 802.11b Antennas, Furby and a PC Water-cooling system. Of course you can just buy a water-cooling system if you want one -- far safer I would imagine. So the only ones I find of interest are Furby and wifi Antennas -- both of which are repeats of information we read on the web some years ago.

There are 9 advanced projects. Building a digital video recorder is interesting, but a bit old hat. MythTV isn't mentioned either. There are some nice ideas at the end about using IR or wireless PDA for remote control, but bluetooth ought to be an option these days -- then your 'phone could be used to change channel, record, pause etc.

There's a project on constructing a building-sized display -- using lights in the windows of an office block (as at the end of the film Hackers). Good, but yet again a repeat of information on the web.

Cubicle Intrusion detection system: Boring (basically a magic eye with a lamp attached to it).

Internet Toaster. Great, I thought: give it an IP address, it'll run a web server, set the lightness and turn the toaster on from my phone. No - just a rudimentary selection of two patterned messages for the toast (using a mask in front of the elements).

How to build a home arcade machine. See Google. Its just Mame and some MDF (from B&Q.)

Building a wearable computer might be interesting, but makes you look a bit nerdy, so I'll avoid it for now, thank you. (In fact I still haven't got used to those bluetooth headsets that look like a beetle on your ear either.) The chapter on this just lists the many options for the machine, input and output devices, so not very good anyway.

The very last project is probably mainly there for nostalgia -- building an Internet coffee maker (like the Trojan room, obviously). However it does try to go one better -- instead of a webcam, probes are used to monitor coffee level and temperature. I don't think much of the tubes going into the coffee, but I did like the look of SitePlayer, which I've not come across before. (Its a mini webserver that plugs into a network and has a serial port. That's the sort of thing you really need for the Internet toaster too.) Besides, I've got a Gaggia, so don't need this -- I just press a button in the morning for my coffee!

There are two projects that I've not covered yet. These are building a Remote Object Tracker, and making remote control cars play laser tag (with Infrared, rather than with lasers). I've left them until last as they are the ones that I find the most interesting. The latter covers programming of PIC controllers, which would be good to try out one day. This project does include the construction of a radio transmitter (as a trigger for the Infrared gun) -- so I don't know how feasible or legal it will be to do this in the UK. It seems a bit odd building another radio transmitter when you've already got one to remote control the car. I'm not an expert, but thought you had several channels to play with.

This just leaves the Remote Object Tracker, which uses a combination of GPS, PDA for viewing, and PMRs. I hadn't thought of using PMRs to transmit location information, so thought it quite ingenious. The range of PMRs is relatively short -- a mile or two in good conditions, so it has limited uses. The interesting bits are the conversions from GPS to PMR, and PMR to PDA. The first uses a commercial kit called a TinyTrack - I wonder how much he's getting for promoting that! This has a serial interface for the GPS and phono in (and out) for the PMR. The decoding at the other end is performed by a TNC. Again there's a recommended kit. Put some mapping software on the PDA (he uses a Palm) and you're all set.

I had hoped to actually do one of the hacks in the book for the review, send pictures in for the magazine etc. But actually, the book isn't very good, and I found nothing worth the effort.

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