How does the ESC "Hello There!” badge work?

-April 07, 2016

We're getting really close to the wire now but -- at the time of this writing -- you've still got time to throw your hat into the ring for a chance to win one of the wireless networked "Hello There!" badges that we'll be giving away at ESC Boston 2016.

Don’t forget that we will be giving the badges out at the Introducing the "Hello There!" Badge session in the ESC Engineering Theater at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday April 13th.

Also, at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday April 14th, we'll be having our "Hello There!" Badge Meet-Up session. This is where we'll be telling you all about how to hack into the badges; we'll also be soliciting suggestions for additional games and applications we can add to our repertoire.

For the rest of this column, we're going to focus on the usage model for the first incarnation of the badge. Note that, as I pen these words, the code is still wet and sticky (I keep on having to wipe down my keyboard), so please excuse any minor changes that we may make between now and ESC Boston. Let's kick off the proceedings by reminding ourselves what the badge looks like.

(Source: Max Maxfield /

The main On/Off switch is in the bottom right-hand corner. Also observe the USB-micro port located at the bottom left-hand corner (this port provides one mechanism for hacking the badge). Next up we see the Arduino-footprint headers, which can be used to attach off-the-shelf (3.3V) Arduino shields. Also observe the Reset button located just inside the bottom-left header.

In the middle, on the left-hand-side, we see the Synapse MCU/RF module, which provides all of the badge's processing and wireless networking capabilities. To the right of this we see an 8-bit DIP/DIL switch. Initially, all of these switches should be set to their Off (left) positions.

At the top of the badge we see an 8 x 8 array of LEDs. On either side of this array we find a momentary push-button; one marked 'L' and one marked 'R', indicating "Left" and "Right", respectively.

Cunning application organization

The way the folks at Synapse -- the designers of the badge -- have implemented things is really rather clever. Knowing that many users won't be too familiar with Python (the language the apps are written in), they've architected the system in such a way that we can load any app into the badge as a standalone and then play with that app in isolation.

(Source: Max Maxfield /

However, the way in which the badge will be presented at the show is with a bunch of apps pre-loaded, along with a "Master Controller" app that allows us to move between the individual apps as we wish.

By default, when the badge is powered up, the Master Controller automatically launches the first app. This is our ESC Scroller, which displays the message "ESC 2016."

While in the ESC Scroller app, pressing and holding either the Left or Right button will cause the badge to display the current state of the battery (when you get close to 2.0V, it's time to start thinking about changing your batteries).

What turns you on?

Before we go any further, let's quickly return to look at the 8-bit DIP switch. Switches 1 through 6 are associated with STEM, Analog, Digital, Hardware, Software, and the IoT, respectively (don’t touch switches 7 or 8 just yet). You can set one or more of these switches to their On (right) positions to indicate that these are your areas of interest.

The first thing that will happen when you activate switches 1 through 6 is that their associated text will be appended to the end of the ESC Scroller text. Thus, if you were to activate the Digital, Hardware, and IoT switches, for example, your badge will now start scrolling "ESC 2016 … STEM … Hardware … IoT".

By this means, everyone can tell what turns you on, tickles your fancy, and floats your boat from a surprising distance away. But there's more... let's suppose that you are wandering around and you approach another proud possessor of a "Hello There!" badge. It may be that this poor misguided fellow focuses on software. It's even possibly that (and I say this in hushed and horrified tones), he has taken the wibbly-wobbly path of analog in his career.

As you get closer, your badges will chat with each other to determine their owners' interests. Initially it seems that all is lost... but wait! Suppose turns out that this fine fellow also has an interest in the IoT. In this case, both of your badges will start displaying an animation associated with this common interest, thereby provoking great beaming smiles, hearty handshakes, and exclamations of "IoT? Well, I never... Hello There!" (FYI, the animation effect won’t be constantly triggered while you converse with a like-minded badge-wearer, but instead will appear at intervals. Also, if lots of badges are close together, the effect will be to cycle common interest animations.)

Having said all of this, if you turn Switch 8 to it’s On position, this puts you in "Antisocial Mode," which means you can slip, slide, and slither through the conference without anyone knowing anything about you (well, apart from the fact that you are antisocial, of course).

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