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Andrew "bunnie" Huang: taking it apart and making it better, then telling others how it's done
June 17, 2010 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Andrew Shane Huang is a 35 year old hardware hacker, known to some as bunnie, and others as that guy who hacked the Xbox and went on to write a book about it. Finding the hidden key to the Xbox was an enjoyable distraction while he worked on getting his PhD in Electrical Engineering from MIT as part of Project Aries. Since then, he has written for (and been written about) in Make Magazine, has giving talks on the strategy of hardware openness and manufacturing practices in China, as experienced with the development of the opensource ambient "internet-based TV" called Chumby. When he's not busy on such excursions, bunnie writes about hacking (and more specifically, Chumby hacking), technology in China, and even biology in exquisite detail on the bunnie studios blog (previously).

More bunnie goodness:

* While at MIT, Andrew was part of the first Project ORCA team at the first annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition, where they won first place, in part because the other tree teams didn't complete the course. The competition was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI)

* More on Hacking the Xbox (An Introduction to Reverse Engineering), which is partially available online through Google Books

* bunnie's write-up on the Shanzhai tech trend was tucked into a previous post, but is worth more attention.

* Overview of the Mobile Phone Mega-Market in Shenzhen and discussion of mobile phone schematics that are available in Chinese markets

* A visit to the electronics markets of Shenzhen, organized by Andrew Huang, and hacking the Chumby in a hotel room with parts picked up from the Shenzen markets

* Make your own 3G router with a Chumby One and certain 3G USB modems

* the Chumby was mentioned in a larger Zoltar the Fortune Teller post.

* Review of the Sony Dash, powered by Chumby

* An interview with Andrew Huang, discussing hardware hacking, the downfall of Radio Shack, DMCA, (defunct) internet appliances like the 3Com Audrey, living and working with Chinese manufacturers, and more
posted by filthy light thief (36 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
my dream: that phones are sold as certified original spare parts - you pick out the components you need as in camera or not, radio or not etc based on what your pocket can afford or even buy parts over time until you have enough to take it to the local mobile hacker/repair shop and get it assembled for you

yeah :)

thanks for a lovely post filthy light thief
posted by infini at 1:31 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Was he also the guy who first figured out that you could run a Pentium II at 3GHz if you immersed it in Liquid Nitrogen?
posted by schmod at 1:33 PM on June 17, 2010


my dream: that phones are sold as certified original spare parts - you pick out the components you need as in camera or not, radio or not etc based on what your pocket can afford or even buy parts over time until you have enough to take it to the local mobile hacker/repair shop and get it assembled for you

Like how PCs used to be (of course that's still the case if you buy a desktop, but most people use laptops)

I don't know why no one has made a modular cellphone. What I'd love to see is a front panel with the display and radio, and then screw on backs. So you could get a back with a keyboard, or a really nice camera, or both, or whatever.

I also want a cellphone that's waterproof. So you can take pictures in the ocean, read books in the tub, etc. (or read books in the ocean and take pictures in the shower, I guess)
posted by delmoi at 1:44 PM on June 17, 2010


I do know that the idea has been shot down by at least one top 5 global mfr so who knows why not, seeing as how its potential is immense in the "rest of the world"

re: waterproof - I think some of the older (more than 5 years) models of nokia are, to a degree, afaik from people's experiences in harsh environments but more of "oopsie it fell into the bucket" rather than "pictures in the ocean" type - has there really been any gadget that has been successfully waterproofed ? I've seen mp3 players for the shower though
posted by infini at 1:49 PM on June 17, 2010


Someone is doing a snap-together handheld thingie, with 3G forthcoming.
posted by Zed at 2:11 PM on June 17, 2010


RE: Modular Cells,

Wouldn't, at least part of it, have to do with the strangle that the telecoms have on cell phone service? At some point you're going to have to use their infrastructure to make/receive phone calls.
posted by codacorolla at 2:14 PM on June 17, 2010


buglabs, cool, was thinking about them when delmoi asked, thanks for the link

codacorolla - not a problem in most GSM systems which use SIM cards easily available as prepaid in "rest of the world"
posted by infini at 2:20 PM on June 17, 2010


ah, is the buglab snap together an actual phone? I don't think so - i was thinking more along the lines of what is already being done with most of the spare parts as shown in the link to the shenzen mega mobile mart above
posted by infini at 2:21 PM on June 17, 2010


I don't know why no one has made a modular cellphone.

There is no economic basis for it existing, maybe..

For example (based on very superficial look, to be sure) that BUG thing looks like it is more about being an interesting gadget than an economically attractive offering.

On the other hand, if you redefine the paradigm of modularity, you might be able to come up with something interesting. Imagine an open protocol working over Bluetooth so that your GPS and your phone and your netbook and your whatever else could all talk and interact with each other. Of course there is still a lack of economic advantage for most manufacturers (Apple would much rather you just buy there latest all-in-one offering for big $$$), but at least it doesn't have the obvious disadvantages of trying to make cell phones modular.
posted by Chuckles at 2:54 PM on June 17, 2010


I think the buglabs thing has a 3G, or at least GSM module. And you could probably hack VOIP on it. I'd seen them before and they're not exactly sleek. (although they do look a bit smoother now then they did with the transparent cases I saw before)

You can add GSM to any electronics projects with a GSM Module, but trying to build your own cellphone from components might be difficult (although not impossible, I bet).

They also make waterproof cameras today, flickr has some good water shots taken with that camera.
posted by delmoi at 2:57 PM on June 17, 2010


There is no economic basis for it existing, maybe..

For example (based on very superficial look, to be sure) that BUG thing looks like it is more about being an interesting gadget than an economically attractive offering.
Well we have no idea, since the carriers shut down any phone features they don't want. We're just now getting front facing cellphone cameras in the U.S. after the rest of the world got them decades ago.

If the cellphone market was open, the way the PC industry is there would be lots of experimentation and we would know what's economically feasible and what's not. There's no way to know in advance if something has an 'economic basis for existing' without actually, you know, trying it.
posted by delmoi at 2:59 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


It just isn't that easy, because everything is so tightly integrated. It's never going to be like desktop PCs. And, even in the desktop PC market you can see how massive integration wins the day every time (onboard sound, onboard network, etc.).
posted by Chuckles at 3:01 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I completely agree about the stifling atmosphere of North American cell phone companies though, don't get me wrong. Open standards and open access are certainly the right way to do things for everybody except the entrenched players.
posted by Chuckles at 3:04 PM on June 17, 2010


It just isn't that easy, because everything is so tightly integrated.

People sell bluetooth keyboards that work with cellphones. You'd just have to make it smaller and mechanically fit together, and you'd want to share a power supply too. I don't see why it would be any more difficult to have a camera that worked the same way too.

And on to of that some high end cellphones have host USB even. So I'm sure it would work. The only challenge is making it so things snap together (or in my design they would have a set of screw socket to make the connection really strong) but the communication could use bluetooth, and you'd just need a few connections for power.

Basically just a smaller, sleeker version of the buglabs stuff.
posted by delmoi at 3:17 PM on June 17, 2010


Modularity is wasteful. It means connectors, which take up space and are a failure point. I was always a build-your-own-PC kind of guy until I got my first laptop in 2003 and I've never looked back. The first time the power failed and the computer didn't crash -- magic! Then there were all those hurricane evacuations where I just unplugged the cables, closed it up, and tossed it in the car.

Recently at work I traded in both a 10 year old desktop used for internet access and a more modern 10 lb Dell Latitude laptop for field use for a new EEE PC. USB works now unlike a few years ago and takes care of most of the stuff that isn't in the case.

Nowadays by the time you'd want to add a module to your modular device, all the new modules would be incompatible and all the old compatible modules would be unavailable. With the entire device costing under $300 it's simpler to just shitcan the old one and buy one that does what you want wholesale. Wasteful in a different way, but the result in your hand is smaller, lighter, better integrated, and if anyone cared they could waterproof it.

(The older Nextels were in fact pretty water resistant, as well as being dragged through mud and dropped resistant, but they were strongly targeting industrial users like the people who would buy toughbooks if they could afford them. Sprint doesn't care so much about anything other than smarts that sell data plans and miniaturization, and like modularity toughness is the enemy of small and cheap.)
posted by localroger at 3:34 PM on June 17, 2010


Bunnie was also the subject of this MeFi post where he investigated SD cards made on "ghost shifts."
posted by zsazsa at 3:46 PM on June 17, 2010


I was always a build-your-own-PC kind of guy until I got my first laptop in 2003 and I've never looked back. The first time the power failed and the computer didn't crash -- magic! Then there were all those hurricane evacuations where I just unplugged the cables, closed it up, and tossed it in the car.

Uh, a $50 UPS will keep your desktop running given a power interruption. I've occasionally had might lights flicker, maybe once every two years or so. Never had a problem with my desktop going out since I got a UPS. The other thing you mentioned is portability. But the cellphone modules wouldn't make the devices much larger.

As far as compatibility and connectors, that's why I said bluetooth. The only connectors you would need would be for electricity, nothing too complicated. And bluetooth hasn't changed much over the years. And neither has USB, so I'm not sure why you think the modules would become obsolete so quickly.

It would be a niche product, for sure. But if we had wireless net neutrality, then all these niche players would have a chance to sell their products, and potentially fail. But instead we've got a locked down system preventing innovation.

I'm confident that if we had an open system, devices like these would be for sale.
posted by delmoi at 3:46 PM on June 17, 2010


The only challenge is making it so things snap together

Ya, exactly, and what a problem!!! I suppose you could come up with something like a VESA mount for cell phones, but.. it wouldn't work very well.
posted by Chuckles at 3:48 PM on June 17, 2010


Delmoi: We technically already have an open system. People are completely welcome to buy unlocked GSM phones of any flavor and use them on AT&T or T-Mobile. The problem is that people are addicted to subsidized cell phone prices where a rather pedestrian phone worth $300 becomes "free." Anyone who sells a phone that isn't subsidized is immediately priced out of the market.
posted by zsazsa at 3:51 PM on June 17, 2010


Delmoi, have you seen the inside of an iphone? Or really any other cell phone? I've taken apart a few different ones, and they're all so finickily tiny and mashed together inside. There's really no way you're going to accomplish the same form factor with connectors.

And I can only imagine the bugginess from loose connections. And then loose connector connections once you've moduled a few times too many.
posted by flaterik at 3:56 PM on June 17, 2010


Bunnie was also the subject of this MeFi post where he investigated SD cards made on "ghost shifts."

That's the (previously) link above the break. That was my inspiration to collect links on him and do a proper write-up on his background, as that FPP glossed over the guy behind the blog, IMO.

posted by filthy light thief at 3:57 PM on June 17, 2010


Delmoi, have you seen the inside of an iphone? Or really any other cell phone? There's really no way you're going to accomplish the same form factor with connectors.

First of all if they were going to be modular then the parts that connect would be made differently. Cellphones have no problem accepting SIM and Micro SD cards.

Secondly you would only need two physical connections for electricity, probably the same connectors that hold it together. You could use bluetooth for the data.

Just because non-modular cellphones are complicated internally doesn't mean that modular cellphones would need complicated connectors. The parts inside the modules might need to be even more compact and advanced. You could even power the devices with electromagnetic induction, with no direct electrical connection at all.

The idea that this is somehow too hard seems weird. Who would have imagined ten years ago that you could have a tiny PC that fits in your hand with universal broadband internet available almost everywhere? (at least everywhere with a dense population). Well, most people but that's because we're used to continual technical advancement. It might be complicated but it I can't imagine it would be prohibitive in terms of engineering.
posted by delmoi at 4:12 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


i have read the debate and here are some examples - a phone hacked to accept two SIM cards from ghana, your average mobile repair (hacker) shop on the corner of any *cough* third world street
posted by infini at 4:15 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bunnie now spends his time designing nanophotonic integrated circuits for a startup company, Luxtera.

Nanophowhat? OK, I think I know what that is, but that is the most Treknobabbly thing I've ever seen on someone's resume. (And wasn't Luxtera Lwaxana Troi's sister?)
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:26 PM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


delmoi, I'm in the middle of this with a project at work. Serviceability is another expensive thing, and that's my hobby horse. So you have two gel-coated pins for power and do everything else through induction, or bluetooth, or signals superimposed on the power pins? Well you need silicon to do that. And even with just two pins if you want them at all durable the engineering isn't cheap. It's more expensive in every way than just adding the SMT chip with the same functionality to the main PCB.

This is why we get things like the recent hackaday posts about "unlocking" the functionality of cheap instruments by setting the right bit or reflashing their firmware because the cheap crippled instrument is the exact same hardware as the more expensive and capable one. It's cheaper to make EVERYTHING top notch but then cripple the ones you sell cheap than to make a whole different run of product for the cheapskates. And that, really, expresses the insanity of capitalism in its most fundamental sense. The next step up is trying to make the unlocking illegal, which is one step below trying to repeal the law of gravity.
posted by localroger at 4:48 PM on June 17, 2010


You're going to put bluetooth on every component, and you're going to get enough bandwidth out of it to get video?
posted by flaterik at 5:29 PM on June 17, 2010


Wireless USB and Bluetooth 4.0 should handle up to 480mbps
posted by delmoi at 5:48 PM on June 17, 2010


Yes but you're going on as if this should have been done already, but you're relying on something that's pre-standard.

And the "communication chip on every device" is not trivial at these form factors.
posted by flaterik at 5:51 PM on June 17, 2010


It's cheaper to make EVERYTHING top notch but then cripple the ones you sell cheap than to make a whole different run of product for the cheapskates.

Or, the units that fail acceptance tests go to the low-cost line -- in which case unlocking the extra features might not do you any good.
posted by phliar at 7:06 PM on June 17, 2010


Yes but you're going on as if this should have been done already, but you're relying on something that's pre-standard.

Up until this year you hardly ever had super-high-res screens for cellphones (like 200+ dpi), now it's standard on the iPhone and some of the new android phones. The fact that the exact technology hasn't been standardized right this very second doesn't mean that it wouldn't be if people could actually use it. Besides it's not even like the tech doesn't exist, the specs just aren't finalized.

Technological progress operates in the regulatory and commercial environment, and people don't spend a lot of time on tech they can't use. WiFi uses the 2.4ghz frequency because that's a band that FCC set aside for people to play around with, presumably other frequencies might have worked better.

Also, the communication wouldn't even have to go nearly as far as bluetooth, just a few cm.
posted by delmoi at 7:20 PM on June 17, 2010


Well, I agree that modular cellphones would be cool. You're just implying that the technical hurdles involved are more trivial than I think they are.
posted by flaterik at 9:32 PM on June 17, 2010


Still using my original Xbox to watch 720p video with XBMC.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:28 PM on June 17, 2010


I feel bad now. I went out to dinner with bunnie because I knew his girlfriend at the time and we went out on a double date. He was very shy, dressed funny, and went by the name 'bunnie'. At the time I thought he was super weird.

This should teach me yet another lesson of don't judge a book by it's cover!
posted by escher at 8:58 AM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


At the time I thought he was super weird.

This should teach me yet another lesson of don't judge a book by it's cover!


It actually seems like you judged him perfectly. Not that there's anything wrong with being 'super weird' :P
posted by Chuckles at 1:55 PM on June 18, 2010


The idea that this is somehow too hard seems weird. ... It might be complicated but it I can't imagine it would be prohibitive in terms of engineering.

Delmoi: You'd end up with a mobile phone the size of the handsets in the 1980's, the experience would be buggy as hell, and the price would be through the roof.

You'd have to make connectors between modules robust enough to tolerate human sausage fingers manipulating them, which means they'd be huge relatively speaking. And, your particular permutation of modules would never have been tested / QA'd because it was to expensive to do so. Customer service would be a nightmare.

Oh, hey, like modern desktop PCs :)

Who would really want to make and sell that kind of thing?
posted by deusx at 10:07 AM on June 19, 2010


I never saw this as modular but more along the lines of Tata has done with redesigning their distribution, assembly and service value chain. Entire cars are shipped in CKD state to be assembled on location. Granted there have been some problems in quality (which they're working on since it is a whole new way to ship, assemble and sell cars) but can't the same method be used for disrupting the mobile manufacturing industry? Especially since there is already an informal ecosystem of repair and hack and cannibalize spare parts across the "rest of the world" ? I bet any company with robust engineering design practice could conceivably pull it off and may even save on packaging costs
posted by infini at 10:18 AM on June 19, 2010


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