Michael Whiteley (aka [compukidmike]) is a badgelife celebrity. Together, he and his wife Katie make up MK Factor. They have created some of the most popular electronic conference badges. Of course, even experts make mistakes and run into challenges when they dare to push the envelope of technology and delivery schedules. In his Supercon 2022 talk, There’s No Rev 2: When Badgelife Goes Wrong, Mike shares details from some of his worst badge snafus and also how he managed to gracefully pull them back from the edge of disaster.
Living the Badgelife
Attendees at the world’s largest hacker convention, DEF CON in Las Vegas, had already become accustomed to receiving and wearing very cool and novel admission tokens, more properly known as badges. Then in 2006, at DEF CON 14, everything changed. Designed by Joe Grand, the first electronic DEF CON badge was a circuit board featuring a tiny PIC microcontroller, two LEDs, and a single pushbutton. Badgelife was born.
DEF CON 30 Humans Sampling Board
Mike begins his war stories with one about the DEF CON 30 badge. This was a herculean project with 25,000 badges being produced on a short timeline in the ever-changing chaos of a semiconductor supply-chain meltdown. Even though many regard it as one of the best DEF CON badges ever made, the DC30 badge posed a number of challenges to its creators. Microcontrollers were in short supply during 2021 and 2022 forcing the badge team to keep an eye on component vendor supplies in order to snipe chips as soon as they appeared in stock. The DC30 badge was actually redesigned repeatedly as different microcontrollers fluctuated in and out of supply.
Last minute changes to an audio amplifier on the DC30 badge were also forced by supply chain shortages. The amplifier modification introduced circumstances where the chip could burn up if the audio cable was looped back from a badge’s audio output to its input. It was also discovered that the amplifier chip could burn up if a lanyard clips shorted against the badge’s audio jack. Unfortunately, this discovery was not made until after the conference started. The amplifier chips that were burning up were in a nearly microscopic ball grid array (BGA) package. At only 1.5 mm square, these are not the easiest chips to rework when the are damaged.
Mike goes on to share stories from other badge projects. These include more lanyard clip problems with a SAINTCON badge, snapped 0.8 mm PCBs, broken traces connected through vias, reversed LEDs, mod wires, silkscreen delays, smashed connectors, and so on. There are so many details that go into an electronic badge and failing any one of them can become a showstopper.
Making Things Right
Of course, a great part of learning about all these problems is hearing how they were mitigated. Handling issues on the fly, as gracefully as possible, is where real expertise comes in. We are lucky to have forums like Supercon where we can learn about one another’s mistakes and hopefully avoid them in the future.
Mike shared how the number of burning amplifier chips at DC30 were significantly reduced by placing stickers on the badge bags and signs around the conference showing how the audio cable was not to be looped back between the audio output and input. Also, many people covered the audio jack pins with tape to avoid shorting against the lanyard clips. And best of all, the Hardware Hacking Village stepped up to assist people to perform the difficult BGA rework on the tiny amplifier chips. While regression testing after the change to the amplifier chip may have caught some of the problems, quickly identifying root causes and communicating fixes really helped to save a lot of badges.
For the SAINTCON 2019 badge, Mike caught reversed LEDs during the manufacturing process. The assembly house was able to flip them, but only at the cost of delayed delivery. The badge boards did not arrive until the morning of conference. Mike also nailed a last minute fix with mod wires on a few hundred DC801 badges. And then once again by stuffing components on all of the Car Hacking Village badges over one final weekend after the board house misprinted the PCB silkscreens introducing a significant delivery delay.
Ultimately, Mike summarizes the most important lessons he has learned from all of his badgelife adventures: “Time is everything. It can be your saving grace or your downfall. Things will go wrong, so have a backup plan. Lanyards are chaotic evil. Badges will get broken in unexpected ways. Test, test, and test some more!”