The Ides of DEF CON: The inside scoop on the (best) unofficial electronic badge at DEF CON 25

Erin Nelson 27 Jul 2017

A hacker conference is the perfect place for ... hackable badges. For DEF CON 25, Avast got behind John Adams and his team’s creation, available today.

In the words of its creators, The Ides of DEF CON is a wearable hardware badge, featuring featuring blinky lights, sound, a sub-1Ghz radio, games, and more. Based on the NXP/Freescale KW01. 

(It's also the crypto challenge we were dropping hints about a few days ago.)

While this may not sound like Greek to you (in which case you’re probably at DEF CON right now), if you're unfamiliar with electronic conference badges, they usually consist of some sort of printed circuit board badge worn on a lanyard. Unlike the usual conference badge, though, these are filled with puzzles, easter eggs, and tons of cool toys hackers love.

The Ides of DEF CON, a badge created by a team led by San Francisco hacker John Adams and supported (by Avast, among others) as a Kickstarter project, is a hackable badge and Roman gladiator game all rolled into one, playable at DEF CON, which opened its 25th annual conference today at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

While John and friends created 94 pre-ordered badges ahead of time, they did roll into town with 90+ additional badges, available on site (if you’re lucky enough to get one!).

And we were lucky enough to talk with John about The Ides of DEF CON, the ideas behind it, and what it was like to create an unofficial electronic badge for DEF CON’s silver anniversary.

Where and when did the idea for The Ides of DEF CON originate?

We started thinking about the project in August of 2016, nearly a year ago. DEF CON 24 was the year of unofficial badges, with more than 20 available. Making an unofficial badge is a chance for groups to show off their skills in a sort of unofficial contest, an idea we liked very much. Just seeing last year’s badges inspired me to build one for DEF CON’s 25th anniversary. When we found out it was at Caesar's Palace (I'm a bit obsessed with ancient Rome), I was inspired to make a multi-user game of some kind involving something Roman.  

I was also reminded that at DEF CON 18 (We've been going for the last 15-20 years) there was a fighting game made by the Ninja Networks team. I wanted to expand on that and make it more modern.

And DEF CON 25’s retro-gaming theme certainly influenced the design.

Anything you’d change about your creative process over the last several months? Any regrets or lessons learned?

The biggest regrets I have are using the NXP KW01 processor. Its VFLGA footprint created many issues that reduced our overall board yield and introduced issues in manufacturing. I would certainly use an ARM processor again, but the fine pitch of the footprint hurt us. We had many board failures due to the chip's footprint.

The second issue was using the WS2812B LEDs. They cannot survive the reflow process, so if they failed in the SMD oven, they were very, very hard to repair or replace. Next time, I would hand-solder all 2,700 of them. Even though that would be terrible it would reduce the failure rate dramatically.

Why did this DEF CON “tradition” of unofficial conference badges begin? What were some of the earlier iterations of this project like?

DEF CON has always had some kind of “badge hacking contest,” with the goal of hacking the official conference electronic badge. I think today’s projects grew from that contest, with people wanting to one-up the official badge, as well as from the burgeoning maker movement. It has certainly become much easier in recent years to manufacture just about anything especially electronics in small quantities, from your home.

Have you created an unofficial badge before this year? If so, what was that like, and how does this year’s Kickstarter-funded project compare to any past projects?

No, I have not. First major project, first time using Kickstarter.  

Do you think you’ll do this again next year? Do you already have ideas going?

I’m not sure yet, to be honest. Given the investment I made in a home electronics lab I'd bet I'll be back at this in a couple months, but first, I need a break. And if we did have any ideas, they’d be a secret until next year.

Any other aspects of this project you'd like to share?

I think I underestimated the efforts required to make this project go. Coordinating a development schedule that involved sponsor demands, lanyards, electronics, hardware, software, artists, packaging, graphic design, and other issues like SD card duplication and gold master creation was a monumental effort. Bill [Bill Paul, who along with Egan Hirvela and Matthew Harris built the badge with John] says I should get a medal for coordinating this, and maybe he’s right, because I sure am exhausted.


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