Reverse Engineering my Christmas Tree ๐ŸŽ„

Paul Tagliamonte 2020-12-26 reverse-engineering

Over the course of the last year and a half, I’ve been doing some self-directed learning on how radios work. I’ve gone from a very basic understanding of wireless communications (there’s usually some sort of antenna, I guess?) all the way through the process of learning about and implementing a set of libraries to modulate and demodulate data using my now formidable stash of SDRs. I’ve been implementing all of the RF processing code from first principals and purely based on other primitives I’ve written myself to prove to myself that I understand each concept before moving on.

I figured that there was a fun “capstone” to be done here - the blind reverse engineering and implementation of the protocol my cheep Amazon power switch uses to turn on and off my Christmas Tree. All the work described in this post was done over the course of a few hours thanks to help during the demodulation from Tom Bereknyei and hlieberman.

Going in blind

When I first got my switch, I checked it for any FCC markings in order to look up the FCC filings to determine the operational frequency of the device, and maybe some other information such as declared modulation or maybe even part numbers and/or diagrams. However, beyond a few regulatory stickers, there were no FCC ids or other distinguishing IDs on the device. Worse yet, it appeared to be a whitelabeled version of another product, so searching Google for the product name was very unhelpful.

Since operation of this device is unlicensed, I figured I’d start looking in the ISM band. The most common band used that I’ve seen is the band starting at 433.05MHz up to 434.79MHz. I fired up my trusty waterfall tuned to a center frequency of 433.92MHz (since it’s right in the middle of the band, and it let me see far enough up and down the band to spot the remote) and pressed a few buttons. Imagine my surprise when I realize the operational frequency of this device is 433.920MHz, exactly dead center. Weird, but lucky!

After taking a capture, I started to look at understanding what the modulation type of the signal was, and how I may go about demodulating it. Using inspectrum, I was able to clearly see the signal in the capture, and it immediately stuck out to my eye to be encoded using OOK / ASK.

Next, I started to measure the smallest pulse, and see if I could infer the symbols per second, and try to decode it by hand. These types of signals are generally pretty easy to decode by eye.

This wound up giving me symbol rate of 2.2 Ksym/s, which is a lot faster than I expected. While I was working by hand, Tom demodulated a few messages in Python, and noticed that if you grouped the bits into groups of 4, you either had a 1000 or a 1110 – which caused me to realize this was encoded using something I saw documented elsewhere, where the 0 is a “short” pulse, and a 1 is a “long” pulse, not unlike morse code, but where each symbol takes up a fixed length of time (monospace morse code?). Working on that assumption, I changed my inspectrum symbol width, and demodulated a few more by hand. This wound up demodulating nicely (and the preamble / clock sync could be represented as repeating 0s, which is handy!) and gave us a symbol rate of 612(ish) symbols per second – a lot closer to what I was expecting.

If we take the code for ‘on’ in the inspectrum capture above and demodulate it by hand, we get 0000000000110101100100010 (treat a short pulse as a 0, and a long pulse as a 1). If you’re interested in following along at home, click on the inspectrum image, and write down the bits you see, and compare it to what I have!

Right, so it looks like from what we can tell so far that the packet looks something like this:

preamble / sync

Next, I took a capture of all the button presses and demodulated them by hand, and put them into a table to try and understand the format of the messages:

ButtonDemod'd Bits
Dim Up0000000000110101100110100
Dim Down0000000000110101100100100
Timer 1h0000000000110101100110010
Timer 2h0000000000110101100100110
Timer 4h0000000000110101100100000
Dim 100%0000000000110101000101010
Dim 75%00000000001101010001001100
Dim 50%00000000001101010001001000
Dim 25%0000000000110101000100000

Great! So, this is enough to attempt to control the tree with, I think – so I wrote a simple modulator. My approach was to use the fact that I can break down a single symbol into 4 “sub-symbol” components – which is to say, go back to representing a 1 as 1110, and a 0 as 1000. This let me allocate IQ space for the symbol, break the bit into 4 symbols, and if that symbol is 1, write out values from a carrier wave (cos in the real values, and sin in the imaginary values) to the buffer. Now that I can go from bits to IQ data, I can transmit that IQ data using my PlutoSDR or HackRF and try and control my tree. I gave it a try, and the tree blinked off!

๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽŠ Success! ๐ŸŽŠ๐ŸŽ‰

But wait – that’s not enough for me – I know I can’t just demodulate bits and try and replay the bits forever – there’s stuff like addresses and keys and stuff, and I want to get a second one of these working. Let’s take a look at the bits to see if we spot anything fun & interesting.

At first glance, a few things jumped out at me as being… weird? First is that the preamble is 10 bits long (fine, let’s move along - maybe it just needs 8 in a row and there’s two to ensure clocks sync?). Next is that the messages are not all the same length. I double (and triple!) checked the messages, and it’s true, the messages are not all the same length. Adding an extra bit at the end didn’t break anything, but I wonder if that’s just due to the implementation rather than the protocol.

But, good news, it looks like we have a stable prefix to the messages from the remote – must be my device’s address! The stable 6 bits that jump out right away are 110101. Something seems weird, though, 6 bits is a bit awkward, even for a bit limited embedded device. Why 6? But hey, wait, we had 10 bits in the preamble, what if we have an 8 bit address – meaning my device is 00110101, and the preamble is 8 0 symbols! Those are numbers that someone working on an 8 bit aligned platform would pick! To test this, I added a 0 to the preamble to see if the message starts at the first 1, or if it requires all the bits to be fully decoded, and lo and behold, the tree did not turn on or off. This would seem to me to confirm that the 0s are part of the address, and I can assume we have two 8 bit aligned bytes in the prefix of the message.

preamble / sync

Now, when we go through the 9-10 bits of “stuff”, we see all sorts of weird bits floating all over the place. The first 4 bits look like it’s either 1001 or 0001, but other than that, there’s a lot of chaos. This is where things get really squishy. I needed more information to try and figure this out, but no matter how many times I sent a command it was always the same bits (so, no counters), and things feel very opaque still.

The only way I was going to make any progress is to get another switch and see how the messages from the remote change. Off to Amazon I went, and ordered another switch from the same page, and eagerly waited its arrival.

Switch #2

The second switch showed up, and I hurriedly unboxed the kit, put batteries into the remote, and fired up my SDR to take a capture. After I captured the first button (“Off”), my heart sunk as I saw my lights connected to Switch #1 flicker off. Apparently the new switch and the old switch have the same exact address. To be sure, I demodulated the messages as before, and came out with the exact same bit pattern. This is a setback and letdown – I was hoping to independently control my switches, but it also means I got no additional information about the address or button format.

The upside to all of this, though, is that because the switches are controlled by either remote, I only needed one remote, so why not pull it apart and see if I can figure out what components it’s using to transmit, and find any datasheets I can. The PCB was super simple, and I wound up finding a “WL116SC” IC on the PCB.

After some googling, I found a single lone datasheet, entirely in Chinese. Thankfully, Google Translate seems to have worked well enough on technical words, and I was able to put together at least a little bit of understanding based on the documentation that was made available. I took a few screenshots below - I put the google translated text above the hanzi. From that sheet, we can see we got the basics of the “1” and “0” symbol encoding right (I was halfway expecting the bits to be flipped), and a huge find by way of a description of the bits in the message!

It’s a bummer that we missed the clock sync / preamble pulse before the data message, but that’s OK somehow. It also turns out that 8 or 10 bit series of of “0"s wasn’t clock sync at all - it was part of the address! Since it also turns out that all devices made by this manufacturer have the hardcoded address of []byte{0x00, 0x35}, that means that the vast majority of bits sent are always going to be the same for any button press on any remote made by this vendor. Seems like a waste of bits to me, but hey, what do I know.

Additionally, this also tells us the trailing zeros are not part of the data encoding scheme, which is progress!


Now, working on the assumptions validated by the datasheet, here’s the updated list of scancodes we’ve found:

ButtonScancode BitsInteger
On10010001145 / 0x91
Off10010100148 / 0x94
Dim Up10011010154 / 0x9A
Dim Down10010010146 / 0x92
Timer 1h10011001154 / 0x99
Timer 2h10010011147 / 0x93
Timer 4h10010000144 / 0x90
Dim 100%0001010121 / 0x15
Dim 75%0001001119 / 0x13
Dim 50%0001001018 / 0x12
Dim 25%0001000016 / 0x10

Interestingly, I think the “Dim” keys may have a confirmation that we have a good demod – the codes on the bottom are missing the most significant bit, and when I look back at the scancode table in the datasheet, they make an interesting pattern – the bottom two rows, right and left side values match up! If you take a look, Dim 100% is “S1”, Dim 75% is “S19”, Dim 50% is “S8”, and Dim 25% is “S20”. Cool!

Since none of the other codes line up, I am willing to bet the most significant bit is a “Combo” indicator, and not part of the button (leaving 7 bits for the keycode).

And even more interestingly, one of our scancodes (“Off”, which is 0x94) shows up just below this table, in the examples.

Over all, I think this tells us we have the right bits to look at for determining the scan code! Great news there!

Back to the modulation!

So, armed with this knowledge, I was able to refactor my code to match the timings and understanding outlined by the datasheet and ensure things still work. The switch itself has a high degree of tolerance, so being wildly off frequency or a wildly wrong symbol rate may actually still work. It’s hard to know if this is more or less correct, but matching documentation seems like a more stable foundation if nothing else.

This code has been really reliable, and tends to work just as well as the remote from what I’ve been able to determine. I’ve been using incredibly low power to avoid any interference, and it’s been very robust - a testament to the engineering that went into the outlet hardware, even though it cost less than of a lot of other switches! I have a lot of respect for the folks who built this device - it’s incredibly simple, reliable and my guess is this thing will keep working even in some fairly harsh RF environments.

The only downside is the fact the manufacturer used the same address for all their devices, rather than programming a unique address for each outlet and remote when the underlying WL116SC chip supports it. I’m sure this was done to avoid complexity in assembly (e.g. pairing the remote and outlet, and having to keep those two items together during assembly), but it’s still a bummer. I took apart the switch to see if I could dump an EEPROM and change the address in ROM, but the entire thing was potted in waterproof epoxy, which is a very nice feature if this was ever used outdoors. Not good news for tinkering, though!

Unsolved Mysteries

At this point, even though I understand the protocol enough to control the device, it still feels like I hit a dead end in my understanding. I’m not able to figure out how exactly the scancodes are implemented, and break them down into more specific parts. They are stable and based on the physical wiring of the remote, so I think I’m going to leave it a magic number. I have what I was looking for, and these magic constants appear to be the right one to use, even if I did understand how to create the codes itself.

This does leave us with a few bits we never resolved, which I’ll memorialize below just to be sure I don’t forget about them.

Question #1: According to the datasheet there should be a preamble. Why do I not see one leading the first message?

My hunch is that the trailing “0” at the end of the payload is actually just the preamble for the next message (always rendering the first message invalid?). This would let us claim there’s an engineering reason why we are ignoring the weird bit, and also explain away something from the documentation. It’s just weird that it wouldn’t be present on the first message.

This theory is mostly confirmed by measuring the timing and comparing it to the datasheet, but it’s not exactly in line with the datasheet timings either (specifically, it’s off by 200ยตs, which is kinda a lot for a system using 400ยตs timings). I think I could go either way on the last “0” being the preamble for the next message. It could be that the first message is technically invalid, or it could also be that this was not implemented or actively disabled by the vendor for this specific application / device. It’s really hard to know without getting the source code for the WL116SC chip in this specific remote or the source in the outlet itself.

Question #2: Why are some keycodes 8 bits and others 9 bits?

I still have no idea why there sometimes 8 bits (for instance, “On”) and other times there are 9 bits (for instance, “Off”) in the 8 bit keycode field.

I spent some time playing with the “trailing” zeros, when I try and send an “Off” with the most significant 8 bits (without the least significant / last 9th bit, which is a “0”), it does not turn the tree off. If I send an “On” with 9 bits (an additional 0 after the least significant bit), it does work, but both “On” and “Off” work when I send 10, 11 or 12 bits padded with trailing zeros. I suspect my outlet will ignore data after the switch is “done” reading bits regardless of trailing zeros. The docs tell me there should only be 8 bits, but it won’t work unless I send 9 bits for some commands. There’s something fishy going on here, and the datasheet isn’t exactly right either way.

Question #3: How in the heck do those scancodes work?

This one drove me nuts. I’ve spent countless hours on trying to figure this out, including emailing the company that makes the WL116SC (they’re really nice!), and even though they were super kind and generous with documentation and example source, I’m still having a hard time lining up their documentation and examples with what I see from my remote. I think the manufacturer of my remote and switch has modified the protocol enough to where there’s actually something different going on here. Bummer.

I wound up in my place of last resort – asking friends over Signal to try and see if they could find a pattern, as well as making multiple please to the twittersphere, to no avail (but thank you to Ben Hilburn, devnulling, Andreas Bombe and Larme for your repiles, help and advice!)

I still don’t understand how they assemble the scan code – for instance, if you merely add, you won’t know if a key press of 0x05 is 0x03 + 0x02 or if it’s 0x01 + 0x04. On the other hand, treating it as two 4-bit integers won’t work for 0x10 to 0x15 (since they need 5 bits to represent). It’s also likely the most significant bit is a combo indicator, which only leaves 7 bits for the actual keypress data. Stuffing 10 bits of data into 7 bits is likely resulting in some really intricate bit work. On a last ditch whim, I tried to XOR the math into working, but some initial brute forcing to make the math work given the provided examples did not result in anything. It could be a bitpacked field that I don’t understand, but I don’t think I can make progress on that without inside knowledge and much more work.

Here’s the table containing the numbers I was working off of:

KeysKey CodesScancode
S3 + S90x01 + 0x030x96
S6 + S120x07 + 0x090x94
S22 + S100x0D + 0x0F0x3F

If anyone has thoughts on how these codes work, I’d love to hear about it! Send me an email or a tweet or something - I’m a bit stumped.

There’s some trick here that is being used to encode the combo key in a way that is decodeable. If it’s actually not decodeable (which is a real possibility!), this may act as a unique button combo “hash” which allows the receiver to not actually determine which keys are pressed, but have a unique “button” that gets sent when a combo is used. I’m not sure I know enough to have a theory as to which it may be.