2017: As The Hardware World Turns


The year is almost over, and now it’s time to look back on the last fifty-odd weeks. What happened in this year in hacking? 2017 will go down as the beginning of another AI renaissance, although we’re not going to call it that; this year was all about neural nets and machine learning and advancements resulting from the development of self-driving cars and very beefy GPUs. Not since the 80s have we seen more work in ‘AI’ fields. What will it amount to this time around the hype cycle? Find out in a few years.

Biohacking was big this year, and not just because people are installing RFID tags and magnets in their hands. CRISPR is allowing for Star Trek-style genome hacking, and this year saw in vivo experiments to enable and disable individual genes in rat models. Eventually, someone is going to get a Nobel for CRISPR.

We’re going to Mars, and soon — very soon — a SpaceX Falcon Heavy is going to either lob a Tesla Roadster into solar orbit or the Atlantic Ocean. We learned about the BFR that will take dozens of people to Mars in a single launch. Boeing and Lockheed think they can compete with the Elon Musk PR powerhouse. The Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module passed its in-flight test on the ISS, giving the space station a new storage closet. Even in space, amazing stuff is happening this year.

Is that it? Not by a long shot. This year has seen some of the coolest hacks we’ve ever seen, and some of the dumbest security breaches ever. Hackaday is doing awesome. What else did 2017 have? Read on to find out.

The State of Hackaday

As far as events, conferences, and contests, this has been a fantastic year for Hackaday. In March, we had three simultaneous unconferences in Chicago, LA, and San Francisco. In August, we hosted hundreds of eclipse viewings and shipped out thousands of eclipse glasses. We had a Sci-Fi contest. We challenged the Hackaday community to do the most with one kilobyte. In September, we hosted an unconference in London. All this time, we saw the world’s engineers mobilize for the Hackaday Prize, a competition to build something to change the world. And it all culminated in the Hackaday Superconference, a two-day extravaganza of hardware creation. The Superconference is the best hardware conference on the planet, bar none. Add in weekly Hack Chats, monthly, bi-coastal meetups, and everything else, and you can plainly see Hackaday has never had a stronger community.

Tindie is going gangbusters, with more products from thousands of hardware creators. Hackaday.io has hundreds of thousands of projects and users. We’ve never been bigger or more active. We’re even starting up an Open Access, peer-reviewed Journal Of What You Don’t Know.

While Supercons and Unconferences and Hackaday Prizes are great, there is another intriguing success this year. Our readership for North Korea is through the roof. Every year, we take a look at our readership numbers in places around the globe, and our North Korean readership has never been better. In 2014 and 2015, we were seeing only a few dozen views from the People’s Democratic Republic. This changed in 2016 with even more dozens. This trend continued in 2017 with a total of 156 views from Pyongyang. If these numbers continue, look forward to a viable Hackaday meetup in North Korea sometime in the next century.

Of course, we’re interested in more than just the views from North Korea. If you want to know more about the State of Hackaday, our Editor in Chief, Mike Szczys, gave a talk on the State of Hackaday at the Hackaday Superconference.

Magical Internet Money

This year, the price of Bitcoin increased from $3k to probably about $20k when this post is published lol nope nevermind. That’s great news for the early adopters. Back when I invented Bitcoin in 2006 (hey, that’s enough proof for WIRED), I couldn’t have imagined Bitcoin would be so popular.

The Great Wannacry of 2017

October 21, 2016, saw an attack on the Internet itself. A bunch of IP webcams trained the Low Orbit Ion Cannon on DNS servers on the East Coast. For some, the Internet was gone. The ‘S’ in ‘IoT’ stands for security.

This year, we got something even worse. The Wannacry ransomware got into a bunch of Windows computers and shut down the UK’s NHS. This was pure ransomware, asking for $300 in Bitcoin (which is now worth about $2500, and this was only six months ago who knows) before a computer would be unlocked. Yes, people paid up. It wasn’t for long, because a security researcher registered a domain that turned out to be a killswitch. The attacks are still ongoing, and a variant of Wannacry is messing around with computers in Chernobyl.

Who was behind Wannacry? For a few months, the best guess was “a state-level actor”, with guesses ranging from Russian hackers who are using some leaked NSA tools, Chinese hackers who are using some leaked NSA tools, to North Korean hackers who are using leaked NSA tools. Now we have an answer: it was those North Korean hackers using leaked NSA tools.

Oh great, everyone’s personal data has leaked

Equifax are morons.

Do You Like Apples?

Last year, Apple started to suck. Between the introduction of laptops with dedicated emoji bars and completely neglecting users who need a lot of RAM and a fast CPU, it seems the Macintosh division at Apple is slowly dying. 2017 saw a slight reversal of the trend with the introduction of the iMac Pro, the stopgap Mac until someone can figure out how to cram discrete graphics cards into a trash can. Is everything terrible in the giant circular spaceship? No, not at all; there’s an iPhone with a Kinect that makes animated poo.

No, seriously, is Apple dying? 2017 saw the stupidest login bug ever. Anyone could log on as ‘root’ with no password. The fix for this exploit broke file sharing. It’s time to have a discussion: right now, MacBooks are issued to every junior dev without thinking, and now it may be time to reassess this practice. What is the solution? Last year, Microsoft announced there would be a Linux ‘shim’, and now PuTTY won’t exist in a few years. Let this sink in: Windows is becoming a better development environment than OS X. How do you like them apples? Fan of Linux? Good news, it only took five years to fix a bug in Wine.

The Great Hope Of Consumer Electronics

About a decade ago, everyone wanted one of those new, huge, fancy LCDs. 3D TV came and went, and now a 42″ TV that would have cost thousands a few years ago now sell for $300. VR was going to be the next big thing. That’s getting there, but it doesn’t look like VR is going to have a huge impact in the near-term. The same goes with drones, and self-driving cars aren’t there yet, despite what Elon will tell you. This year, CES had far too many ‘home robots’ — anthropomorphized bits of plastic with a camera and a display. Nobody wanted them.

As a saving grace to the consumer electronics industry, there was one product that everyone latched onto this year: Alexas and Google Homes and Apple HomePods. What are these devices? Far-field microphones with a somewhat beefy CPU connected to the Internet. The cool versions have a display and a camera. These are the must-have bits of consumer electronics right now.

I don’t know if Nineteen Eighty-Four was dropped from 8th grade English class a few decades ago, but there is a problem with these Intelligent Personal Assistants. They will be hacked eventually, and anyone will be able to listen to the Internet-connected microphones you set up in your home. Believing otherwise is rejecting reality. No, we don’t know how Amazon has made hackers love the Alexa, but nevertheless, people are installing Telescreens in their homes. The popularity of these devices is befuddling and concerning. It’s like no one believes elections can be hacked. They can, and in under an hour. Security just went right off the rails this year, but don’t worry, you can add a headphone jack.

2017 In Tools And Hardware

What did this year give us in tools and hardware? Prusa’s four-color extruder is finally shipping, as is the Mk. 3 upgrade. The Monoprice MP Mini V.2 is out (and it’s great), and the MP Mini Delta is ramping up production (it’s great and it’s super cheap). The Anet A8 is a capable printer if you value your time at zero, and we’re slowly getting to the point where anyone can have a 3D printer on their desk if they want to. We’re actually getting to the point where these desktop printers aren’t annoyingly loud with some fancy stepper drivers.

3D printing is in a weird place. Shares of SSYS match the curve of the Hype Cycle, and slowly, very slowly, 3D printers are becoming mainstream. There’s still a lot of work to do, from 32-bit controller boards, to the perpetual promise of cheap resin printers, but we’re getting there. Soon, a 3D printer will be as common as the drill press in the home shop.

By far the most interesting innovation in 3D printing this year was the Infinite Build Volume printer. We first saw this at the Midwest RepRap Festival in March, designed by [Bill Steele] as a quick, hacky proof of concept. Basically, it’s a printer with a conveyor belt bed rotated 45 degrees to the rest of the machine. Blackbelt 3D quickly came out with their own implementation, and Printrbot teamed up with [Bill] to create the Printrbelt. Do these machines exist in the wild yet? No, not really, but it’s the most innovative 3D printing thing we’ve seen in years.

The Glowforge is finally shipping, but only to buyers who have popular YouTube channels, it seems.

Now that 3D printers are slowly creeping into the mainstream, it’s time for the Maker Market to find a new product to capitalize on. Next year, it’s going to be all about laser cutters. The Glowforge is finally shipping, which means the largest crowdfunding campaign ever (or at least it was two years ago) is finally starting to bear fruit. Dremel is introducing a 40W laser cutter next year, although there’s no price or availability date, so you shouldn’t care. The Dremel might have a cool radiator for liquid coolingbut other than that, there’s not much to speak of.

Lasers are the next big thing, and in a shocking turn of events, China isn’t keeping up. The ubiquitous K40 laser cutter still has crappy electronics, a weird, spring-loaded engraving bed, and a mechanical design that doesn’t make sense. It is the best way to get a laser cutter for under a grand, though, and there are now real electronics boards that work with the K40. Will 2018 be the year some factory in China realizes they can move a massive number of laser cutters by making a few simple changes? One can only hope; the ROI on a $4000 Glowforge doesn’t cut it for me, but a $1000 K40 does.

Late last year, we saw the introduction of the RISC-V in real silicon. The HiFive1 from SiFive is a big-O Open ISA, previously only available in Verilog. This year, it’s a real chip, and that’s just awesome. Arduino announced a RISC-V, ESP32, WiFi, Bluetooth, Arduino thing, but who knows what’s happening with that. What’s really impressive is the announcement of a RISC-V SoC. This will be a processor about as powerful as what you would find in a phone based on the Open RISC-V ISA. It’ll be released in 2018, so keep your ears to the ground for this one.

Looking Forward

What does 2018 have in store for Hackaday? More of everything. We now have an Open Access journal, we’re going to roll with another Hackaday Prize, and we’re looking forward to events in Europe. 2017 was great, but thanks to our community, 2018 will be even better.


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