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The #badgelife scene that happens at DEFCON is a fascinating topic. Not officially sponsored by DEFCON, #badgelife is an arduous labor of passion for an ever-growing set of hackers. While I wrote about it last year (here) this year I was participating with it in a way which I did not before. I actually made a badge to get out there. It is incredible how many the number of work streams explodes out from just wanting to make a shiny little trinket.

There are many aspects to coming up with a badge. Sure there is a design of the badge, but also there is the production, the selling, the fundraising, distribution, troubleshooting, and repairing of the badge. It’s a small business, and it is tough to do all these things which require much more than just drawing up something with a significant amount of leds in Kicad.

As you can see from this photo by Mike Szczys in his article “All the Badges of DEF CON 26” there were tons of badges and add-ons created this year. How much went into making badges for 2018? Maybe a quarter million by the end of the day. That’s a crazy amount of money here for something so temporal.

However, maybe it’s not ludicrous if you consider all the other temporal art that is out there. It is also acceptable to have an 18-minute fireworks display costing around $270K, so maybe 3 days wearing a hunks of plastic isn’t so bad. Alternatively, maybe they start getting framed and mounted in a museum.

Nobody is getting rich from these. There is almost no way for most of the makers to break even to get these baubles into others hands. I enlisted the help of my family help pack/ship to save money. That isn’t even to take into account the number of hours spent working on them trying to come up with an idea and risking so much time and effort on them. At least 1 of the badges I was backing ran into significant production problems (through no fault of their own) preventing them from being distributed during the conference. Uber might be a way to make an easier buck.

So make no mistake, badges are gifts. They are a way to for others to share with you their love of technology and art. With that, here is my attempt to share a little more with you.

The Design

If there was ever a time to start making a badge, it was this year. While every year I wanted to create something, It always seemed just a little too daunting. However, this year the community put out the SAO connector.

Suddenly, I had a way to be simple, cheap, not worry about power, lanyard, and have a novel function. To fit in with my Houston theme, we came up with the snek. Whenever someone touched the throat of the snek, it would light up its eyes. Cool right? I even had something where I hoped it could take command from the “host” badge to light up as well.

Our local DC 713 group also had great ideas for improvements. First up, it should have a large capacitor to shock someone touching the fangs!

Quietly discarding this idea, we decided we also should have power and some connector since some of the host badges could cost upwards of $150. Then we needed to add an attachment mechanism to affix it somewhere.

Troubles

With all these changes the cost of the badge by quite a bit as a $10 badge suddenly needed $4 of accessories. The cost of this component creep is expensive when scaled out over 210 badges. Fortunately, the launched Kickstarter took this into account and with the help of cPanel as a sponsor we quickly reached our target goal. The influx of cash from the successful campaign allowed me to fund production and component costs.

Days before the con I started trying to use the SAO attached to the first badges that shipped. Slowly, I started seeing some problems with and that the orientation sometimes caused problems when the snek was used as an addon. For one badge the SAO caused a DDOS on the clock. It wrecked the badge for the rest of the conference for me. Ooooops.

Also, distribution was a conundrum due to shipments from people sending items to the wrong place, not reading the local pickup rules, or USPS losing packages.

But we persisted!

The response at DEF CON.

Everyone loved the look of the badges. It was even better since the DEF CON badge made by the Tymkrs also had included the SAO adapter. Hooray everyone could put a snek on the official badge!

Also, Twitter was abuzz with people taking their snek’s out on road trips and assembling at home. Hidden behind #snek tag on twitter you can see the excitement when people successfully solder the insanely small and annoying resisters. There was even a DC713 meet-up to solder these little guys together.

My biggest surprise, whenever I spoke with a fellow badge maker we were discussing two things.

  1. Things we didn’t see coming
  2. How we are going to make the next badge better

With all the time, difficulty, and headaches, my family certainly wondered why I went through the process of trying to build a badge. I may have lost some money, and I lost lots of sleep, but I was floored by how much people enjoyed my modest snek contribution and how it brought our local DEFCON 713 group closer together.

Big Thanks to:

  • cPanel for the great sponsorship!
  • Macrofab for great production
  • DJdead and DC713 for great ideas
  • Family for dealing with the sneks in-house

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