Badgelife: the art of the conference badge

There are times when the art world can appear inaccessible and remote to outsiders. As billionaires pay record prices for lost Leonardos, and achingly trendy East London galleries serve up the latest conceptual works to gushing art journalists, the person in the street can be forgiven for feeling a little at a loss. Dismissed even, as though our simple tastes are not worthy of consideration in the face of such sophistication.

Sometimes though, artistic movements and new artistic media evolve on their own, outside of the art establishment. They retain their own raw creative edge, until eventually they are ‘discovered’ and exclaimed over, with examples such as graffiti art gracing the pages of highbrow catalogues and being featured inside those trendy galleries, rather than painted on their exterior walls in the dead of night.

Our community has an art form all of its own, one that came from the grass roots, that boasts huge technical sophistication, and which can deliver exceptionally beautiful results.

We are speaking, of course, about electronic conference badges, the wearable confluence of electronic hardware and PCB art that has taken on a life of its own over the last decade. A modern conference badge will typically be an all-in-one computer in its own right, on a board replete with PCB artwork, complete with colour TFT screen, input devices, USB, and WiFi networking.

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Image: Cat Murdock (@catmurd0ck)

They will come with a fully hackable operating system, typically with an app store for which code can easily be written by the conference attendees. The announcement of the badge is a key part of the event build-up and, during proceedings, the store will fill up with a huge variety of apps to show of the community’s creativity. To give some idea of the complexity involved, the 2015 German Chaos Communication Camp (CCC) rad10 badge, featured a software-defined radio transceiver, and the 2017 Hackaday Superconference badge sported a fully functioning digital camera.

Electronic conference badges first appeared during the last decade, and were fairly simple affairs. Joe Grand’s 200 badge for the DEF CON 14 hacker conference, for example, was a circular PCB featuring the event logo, with the eyes of the smiley face being formed by a pair of LEDs, on the back of which was a coin cell and a PIC microcontroller to vary the LED flash pattern. A hardware hacking contest was run for the badge, something which has become a tradition at events.

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Meanwhile, equivalent events were taking the same path. The CCC Sputnik badge had an RF proximity detector system as a demonstration of population tracking for a real-life version of Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map.

Over the decade since those early beginnings, there have been many badges produced, all with a spin appropriate to their particular event. It is normal now to expect an LCD screen and some form of wireless module, and badges will normally expose their processor’s spare GPIOs and other interfaces to a set of headers, inviting attendees to try their hand at producing add-on boards. Meanwhile, the badge will typically boot into a menu system with pre-installed apps from the event organisers, and a store containing apps contributed by the event attendees.

The official conference badges are, however, only part of the story. Impressive as they are, we would probably not be bringing you this article were it not for the unofficial badge culture, known informally as Badgelife, that has developed alongside them. Subgroups attending conferences produce their own badges for their members, and individual hackers and groups produce badges merely as an expression of the art form. Into these unofficial badges goes the best that can be found, both in electronics and computing, and in aesthetic design through PCB artwork and shaping. Away from the confines of event requirements, the unofficial badge designers have free rein to exercise all of their prodigious talents.

Badgers

This year’s DEF CON 25 sported the most impressive Badgelife offerings yet, with a common wireless standard shared between the various groups producing badges, allowing them to communicate. The array of badges on offer included plenty of blinkenlights, and more than one that took its artistry beyond the PCB into textile and even woodwork, but since this was DEF CON there was much more to them than simple visual appeal. There were badges with cryptographic puzzles, ones with backdoors waiting to be found through the wireless network, and even a badge that doubled as a miniature quadcopter.

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If your attention has been captured by the badge scene, there’s nothing to stop you having a go at designing one yourself. Sure, some of the badges mentioned have super-powerful computing and novelty capabilities, but even the simplest circuitry can still make a sought-after badge. The promotional dog badge from the hardware market Tindie, for example, has only a couple of flashing LEDs but, coupled with some well-executed PCB art, it made for a much-admired piece of swag. But, this is your canvas for your artwork, and there are no rules to say that you need to even use a PCB. Impressive badges have been made using stripboard, and even with dead-bug-style soldering.

Build a badge##

When you set about designing your electronic badge, though, there are some requirements that you will have to consider before starting. For example, will the components be robust enough to withstand several days of bouncing around on a lanyard dangling from someone’s neck? And are they well-enough protected that they resist damage from snagging on a wearer’s clothing?

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Then there is the tricky question of power; whichever circuitry you choose must not drain your choice of battery too quickly. You will see badges with everything from CR2032 coin cells to 18650 lithium-ion cells but, if your circuitry requires the latter, then whoever wears the badge may end up with a sore neck.

If you’re making a PCB for your badge, and particularly if you’re making one incorporating PCB art, you will need to familiarise yourself with the offerings from the various PCB fabrication houses. Boards made in the usual way with a solder mask and silkscreen will offer you four colours to play with, but the exact palette at your disposal will depend upon the work of your chosen board house. Solder masks can be had in a huge variety of colours, aside from the familiar green. Some of the more expensive Badgelife boards will even use custom combinations of solder masks; however, that level of sophistication requires a relationship with the board house not usually available to mere mortals.

We’ve seen some of the directions that badges have taken over the past decade, but how about the future? It is certain that the available processor power will increase hugely over the forthcoming years, and that ever more exciting peripherals will be included. An easy prediction is that some official badges will tend towards standardisation around a particular processor and software stack, to deliver a known quantity in terms of being ready to run on event day one. Meanwhile, it is probable that we will eventually see badges running a fully fledged operating system, such as a Linux distribution of some kind.

In manufacturing terms, it’s also an easy prediction that people will find ways to produce more colours on a piece of PCB art, and we should also expect more custom parts appearing. Perhaps future badges will break away from the PCB design entirely, and feature custom cases more of the type you would expect to see on a commercial product. Whatever happens, the Badgelife scene will be an exciting one to watch over the coming years.

Mr Robot badge

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Image: Brian Benchof

The 2017 Mr Robot badge, from Brian Benchof, took a piece of iconography from the US TV show of the same name, and added an LED matrix with a driver chip fed by an ESP82 processor. Its artwork took a custom fabrication process, involving not one but two silkscreen colours, and a custom coloured solder resist layer to provide the skin tone. It carried a game involving assembling a hidden zip file with clues delivered in a series of tweets, then disassembling its contents to find an image hidden at an address in the badge’s ROM.

Fear and loathing

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The 2017 Bender on a Bender badge from AND!XOR built on the team’s offering from a previous year for a badge that had everything. Impressive custom PCB artwork, more blinking LEDs than you could ever need, multimode wireless connectivity, integration with Android phones via an app, and emulation of the CHIP-8 programming language for emulation of classic games. It also had a multiplayer computer security game between all the Bender badges, in which they formed a peer-to-peer botnet, and players became sysadmins of their own badge, with the aim of both protecting their own badge and launching attacks on others nearby.

EMF Camp

The British Electromagnetic Field (EMF) hacker camp has run every two years since 2012, and seeing its official badges side-by-side provides a fascinating window into the evolution of badge technology over that time period. The 2012 badge was an Arduino-compatible microcontroller board based upon an ATMega32U4, but whose only visual interface was a pair of LEDs. By comparison, the 2014 badge was an ARM-based Arduino Due clone, with a joystick and LCD display, and had a series of apps on board, as well as basic wireless connectivity. The most recent badge from 2016 had a much more powerful ARM processor, a colour LCD screen, WiFi, and a full software suite including an app store for which attendees could write their own apps in MicroPython.

PCB: the artist's canvas

A PCB takes the form of several layers: the fibreglass substrate; the copper conductors, which are usually plated with solder; the solder mask layer that can be almost any colour but is often a transparent green; and finally the silkscreen that would normally carry white text. By combining these layers a simple four-colour palette can be created, with the plated copper being a silver-grey, the solder mask over copper being a light green, the mask over bare board being a dark green, and the silkscreen being white. A PCB artist takes their image and carefully maps their desired image to these available colours, before creating it in a vector graphics package such as Inkscape, from which it can be exported with each colour as the various layers to a PCB CAD package.

Thanks to Matt Westcott for the loan of some of the badges used in this piece.

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