The exquisite art and subculture of Def Con’s (unofficial) badges

It’s all about the #badgelife.

A series of tweets sent me and other Def Con attendees scrambling to get to the Caesers Palace pool as quickly as possible. I cut short a conversation, shoved my gear in my bag and ran out of the press room without an explanation. I was after a piece of art. A piece of tech. But mostly I was excited about adding to my growing collection. I was on the hunt for Puffy, one of dozens of unofficial Def Con badges available for sale at the annual hacker conference from build-teams from all over the world. It's a piece of electronics shaped like a fish, and I decided I must have it.

For myself and other attendees, it's a bit like a treasure hunt. Waiting patiently for a tweet that'll reveal the location of a sale of a blinking PCB (Printed Circuit Board) that we'll wear around our necks like futuristic Mr. Ts. To the builders, it's participating in a community that grows every year.

This year's official Def Con badge is, well ... disappointing. A few weeks ahead of the conference, the organizers dropped the news that there would be no special badges and no challenges. A huge blow to the attendees that have come to expect the conference would give them a unique keepsake filled with puzzles, tech or even radiation. Instead, the official event badges (the badge that actually gets you into the conference) are homages to yesteryear. The main "human" badge looks like the Def Con 1 badge. It's a nice throwback, but people have come to expect more.

But while the conference proper was trying to how to go forward without using the company that has been designing the badge for years, a community of badge makers toiled away for months well ahead the opening day in Vegas trying to get their creations ready. Some of the design concepts were thought up years ago and only recently came to fruition. Others were thought up at last year's conference and are the result of 12 months of hard work. What's on display around the necks of those willing to part with cash are the fruit of many hours, burnt fingers from soldering and frustratingly mundane nights of flashing (adding the base software).

This year, the community outdid itself with features like botnets, games, RPGs, challenges, amazing art work and so many blinking lights. With prices ranging from free up to a few hundred dollars, the badges are far from money-making projects. Between design, testing and final assembly, even with the PCBs being created at factories, the actual work done by the individuals numbers in the hundreds of hours. When asked about the biggest obstacle to building a badge, one of the team members of the Mr. Robot Badge said, "Time. That's the answer you're going to hear from absolutely everybody that's building a badge." That crew alone lost three weeks because of shipping components between team members in other states.

Some creators are just hoping to break even, at least when it comes to hardware costs. Others are using the money to raise cash for a good cause. The DC801 badge is helping to fund its hackerspace, 801 Labs. But mostly, it's a labor of love with the creations referencing pop- and hacker-culture and the conference theme of "community, discovery and the unintended uses of technology" with a "retro-futurist" vibe. You know, 8-bit stuff.

One badge that made a splash this year that's based on a TV show popular with Def Con attendees is the Mr. Robot badge. The unauthorized face of the show made an appearance on Twitter before the conference even began. One of the team members who goes by @MrRobotBadge (many Def Con attendees insist on anonymity) noted that their badge is the key to an ARG (augmented reality game). Clues are being dropped on Twitter and within the badge itself as players try to determine, "Who is Mr. Robot?" Clearly something ripped directly from the show itself.

In addition to the ARG, the orange face also includes Tetris, Snake, Paint and what the team calls "wireless fun." Like many of the badges, there's a sense of discovery attached to them. You don't just buy one -- you investigate it. You dig into its secrets. It's a thrill for the users and creators. "I love watching people getting to learn about the badge and actually use them and wear them around and be happy that they have it," RuShan, a team member of the DC801 party badge, told Engadget.

DC801 party badge worked off the Caesars Palace theme and designed a sheep with a Hermes hat from Roman mythology. It has the requisite LEDs but also a tiny display and BLE. The designers created a badge that unlocks features as you attend events. It truly is the party badge. But it also interacts with other badges like the AND!XOR badge over a botnet. The badges are talking to one another and in some cases, battling.

Meanwhile, this is the AND!XOR's team's second year building a badge, and like last year, they went with the owner of everyone's favorite shiny metal ass, Bender. But this time crossed with Hunter S. Thompson. The response they got last year to the Futurama character caught the team a bit off-guard. They tweeted the location of their sale on Twitter, and all hell broke loose. "Thirty seconds later we hear screams and all six elevators open up at the same time and people just start flooding in." Zapp of team AND!XOR said. There were 300 people and only 70 badges available.

This year, they've bulked up their inventory (over 400), and Bender does more than just blink. Like the DC801, the robot is part of a botnet. It talks to and battles other nearby AND!XOR badges in a kind of low-level RPG battle. In addition to the screen showing you your character as it fights random strangers, it plays GIFs, games like a Flappy Bird clone (Flappy Defcon). You can also control the LEDs that line the teeth and make up the eyes and end of the cigarette, connect via an official app and even rickroll yourself. (BTW, I rickrolled myself.) It even has airplane mode, because of the WiFi and Bluetooth radios.

Like a lot of the other badges, and in theme with the show, you can hack it. Access to the badges is usually via USB or GPIOs (general-purpose I/Os). Attendees can modify the software or even create their own hardware add-ons. They are hackers, after all, and well, hackers are gonna hack.

But the level of complexity isn't without its issues. The AND!XOR team ended up having to flash badges with new firmware. My personal DC801 badge also needed a flash after the buttons stopped working. Both were done without any fuss. The AND!XOR folks even set themselves up at a vendor booth and tweeted out their location for badge owners to get their Benders updated. Software, while not easy, isn't quite as tough as hardware, which The Ides of Def Con and Mr Blinky Bling teams learned the hard way.

"It's a lot of work. A lot of heartache. A lot of headache and a lot of late nights. Eventually you end up making them work, but the hardest thing with any manufacturing is yield," John Adams said. Their badge's "yield" included an issue with the CPU and the footprint it sits on. It's a 64-pin piece of silicon on an 8-millimeter-by 8-millimeter square that the team had to reflow to the board in their room with a very fine soldering gun and a microscope. Unfortunately, that created another issue with the LEDs that don't handle reflow and heat very well. It meant spending the night before Def Con sitting in a hotel room getting their elaborate badge ready for the masses.

The result is an impressive badge that resembles an old handheld console with the case ripped off. Like the DC801 badge, it also pays homage to the Caesars Palace venue with a botnet RPG of Roman characters (spoiler: There's an Easter egg to make your character Bender).

Team member Bill Paul worked on the electrical and firmware, and wrote a bunch of the apps. Adams worked on additional apps and brought the game to life with game designer Egan Hirvela. Plus, being long-time Def Con attendees, they added a "constant retry" to attacks as redundancy to deal with the conference's extremely noisy wireless environment. But even experience doesn't protect you at Def Con.

The Mr. Blinky Bling team deals with hardware on a daily basis. That's their business -- they create custom badges for events. But when their badges showed up to Def Con on Thursday from the manufacturer in China, there was a deviation from the final test boards they received. These "final" boards were missing a diode, and the badge wouldn't work with AA batteries. "We're in Vegas -- there's no time for this," said Blenster, co-founder of Blinky-Bling, reacting to the situation.

Most of the badges had already been paid for by Kickstarter backers, and many of those had opted for the less-expensive AA-battery version. So they got on the phone and Twitter and started looking for 250 LiPos (rechargeable lithium polymer battery). It turns out the Car Hacking Village had the batteries the team needed.

The badges with new batteries were handed out to backers at no extra cost. But while I was picking up mine, people were throwing down a few extra dollars to help cover the cost of the new piece of hardware. "The badge community really came together for us and helped us brainstorm ideas and looked for batteries for us," Blenster said. Some hadn't met in real life before the conference.

At the beginning of Def Con, the badge makers had a get-together. For months, many had corresponded on a dedicated Slack channel about what they were building. Over the internet, they talked ideas, traded tips and shared the names of companies for sourcing components. Now they gathered in a small beige conference room, marveling at each other's creations, trading badges and telling stories of last-minute changes.

The community and its Slack channel are the only reason Kerry Scharfglass finished his exquisite dragonfly Sympetrum badge, based on the book The Diamond Age: "It was instrumental in the willpower to finish." Scharfglass worked on his badge almost entirely alone (his mom did the silkscreening), and while it doesn't have a battlemode or screen, its form-factor and random color cycling of LEDs are spellbinding. Yet it also also has an IR sensor, and when multiple badges are within sight of each other, they sync up their color variations.

It's that level of detail that makes these badges so intriguing and collectible. Hardware is hard. Thousands of hardware products have popped up on crowdsourcing sites in recent years, and only a very small percentage of them ever actually make it to backers on their promised ship date, if ever.

These teams have been able to accomplish just that (some with the help of Kickstarter for funding). Still, all of the badge-makers were concerned that maybe their creation wouldn't sell. That the Def Con hordes would look at their badges, turn up their collective noses and head to the next session about IoT or car-hacking.

Instead, people watched their phones for Twitter clues on where sales would take place. They stalked the creators and stopped strangers walking the halls to inquire about the hardware hanging around their neck. People bring hundreds to dollars to get as many badges as possible.

It's a club within a club of like-minded hackers and researchers joining together to share their latest findings and just catch up with old friends in the middle of Sin City. But nowhere is that bond of long-term friendship more apparent than with the Telephreak badge that's actually a motorcycle vest. Conceived four years ago on the drive back from Def Con, the "badge" is the brainchild of ch0l0man. Each vest has the area code of the wearer along the bottom of the back and the Telephreak name stitched across the top for select wearers.

When asked if they would do it again, every badge maker I talked to said yes. Even with the technical setbacks, concerns about cash flow and last-minute scrambles for batteries haven't deterred them.

As I spoke with The Ides of Def Con team, Paul said, "we'll probably make it a lot simpler next year." Adams talked about hardware changes they could have made that would have led to an easier build with fewer issues. But after listening to Adams wax on about better chips and LEDs and how those components would have yielded fewer issues, I finally butted in.

"You say you want to do something simpler, but it sounds like you're already figuring out a way to make another complex badge for next year."

"Yeah, you're right," he admitted. "I'll tell you: if you could make a board this complex and make it repeatable, increase the yield and reduce the failure rate, why not?"

In the end, Puffy sold out before I was able to find the team behind the badge. But I'm guessing they'll be back next year with something better, and like other attendees, we'll be waiting, cash-in-hand, for our own piece of hacker art.