Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, AZERTY

In the US, we don’t hear much about computing from beyond the Anglosphere. We’ve seen some home computer clones from behind the iron curtain, but getting any information about them is hard. If you find an old keyboard with a QWERTZ layout, or even a few Cyrillic characters, in the States, it’s a rarity. To date, the only French computer on Hackaday is an old Minitel dumb terminal. To help rectify this, [Jeremie Marsin], [Thierry Mazzoleni], and [Jean Paul Mari] from Quebec brought the best of the French computing revolution of the 1980s along to this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East

The American-designed French Victor

The evolution of the reigning champion of this exhibit begins with the Micronique Victor Lambda, a licensed copy of a purely American computer, the Interact Home Computer System. This computer featured a 2 MHz 8080A, 8 or 16 kB of RAM, and was quickly discontinued. The French company Micronique quickly bought the original designs and remarketed the computer in France.

In a few short years, Micronique took this design and turned it into the Hector. This machine featured a 5 MHz Z80, 48 kB of RAM, high resolution graphics (243×231 at four colors) and included BASIC and Forth interpreters.

The Victor and Hector were the best home computers at the time, but for every Commodore or Apple, you need a ZX Spectrum. France’s version of this tiny computer with a terrible keyboard was the Matra Alice 32, a computer with a 1 MHz 6803, 16kB of Ram, and a real 80×25 text mode. The Alice is heavily based on the American TRS-80 MC-10, with a SCART connector and an AZERTY keyboard.

DSC_0133

The weirdest computer [Jeremie], [Thierry], and [Jean Paul] brought out? That would be the Excelvision EXL100. The 1980s, for better or worse, were the times of the Z80 and 6502. The EXL100 was running something completely different. This home computer used a TMS7020 CPU from Texas Instruments, a speech synthesizer, and a wireless keyboard. Very strange for the time and relatively inexpensive; in 1984 this computer cost only ₣3190, or about $550 USD.

TMS

[Jeremie], [Thierry], and [Jean Paul] had an exhibit that presented the best the Francosphere had to offer to the computing world in the 80s and 90s. We haven’t seen enough early computers from outside the US, so we’re happy to have met these guys at the 11th annual Vintage Computer Festival East.

Mike Harrison Exposes Hot Oil and High Voltage of Ancient Live Projector

It’s amazing how quickly a technological pivot will erase the existence of what was previously a modern marvel. A great example of this is the live video projection technology known as the Eidophor. In the beginning there was film, and if you shined a light through it followed by a set of lenses you could project an image for all to enjoy. But what if you didn’t want to wait for film to be developed? What if you wanted to project live video, or real-time data for a room full of people who could not be served by even the biggest of the cathode-ray tubes of the time? This question led to the development of the Eidophor whose story has been all but lost.

Mike Harrison is trying to revive the details of this amazing engineering feat and presented his findings during his talk at the Hackaday | Belgrade conference. Mike is interested in technology that is “impractical, ridiculous, absurd, or stupidly expensive” and the Eidophor certainly ticks all of those boxes. Check it out below and join us after the break where we’ll touch on the myriad challenges of developing projection technology based on hot oil and high voltage.

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Digital Images And The Amiga

There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s where the Amiga was the standard for computer graphics. Remember SeaQuest? That was an Amiga. The intro to Better Call Saul? That’s purposefully crappy, to look like it came out of an Amiga. When it comes to the Amiga and video, the first thing that comes to mind is the Video Toaster, hardware and software that turns an Amiga 2000 into a nonlinear video editing suite. Digital graphics, images, and video on the Amiga was so much more than the Video Toaster, and at this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East, [Bill] and [Anthony] demonstrated what else the Amiga could do.

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Building The First Digital Camera

While the official history of the digital camera begins with a Kodak engineer tinkering around with digital electronics in 1975, the first digital camera was actually built a few months prior. At the Vintage Computer Festival East, [William Sudbrink] rebuilt the first digital camera. It’s wasn’t particularly hard, either: it was a project on the cover of Popular Electronics in February, 1975.

Cromemco catalog page for the Cyclops, the first digital camera
Cromemco catalog page for the Cyclops, the first digital camera

[William]’s exhibit, Cromemco Accessories: Cyclops & Dazzler is a demonstration of the greatest graphics cards you could buy for S-100 systems and a very rare, very weird solid-state TV camera. Introduced in the February, 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, the Cyclops was the first digital camera. This wasn’t a device that used a CCD or a normal image sensor. The image sensor in the Cyclops was a 1 kilobit DRAM from MOS, producing a digital image thirty-two pixels square.

The full description, schematic, circuit layout, and theory of operation are laid out in the Popular Electronics article; all [William] had to do was etch a PCB and source the components. The key part – a one kilobit MOS DRAM in a metal can package, carefully decapsulated – had a date code of 1976, but that is the newest component in the rebuild of this classic circuit.

To turn this DRAM into digital camera, the circuit sweeps across the rows and columns of the DRAM array, turning the charge of each cell into an analog output. This isn’t a black or white camera; there’s gray in there, or green if you connect it to an oscilloscope.

This project in Popular Electronics would be manufactured by Cromemco in late 1975 and was released as their first product in January, 1976. The Cromemco was marketed as a digital camera, designed to interface with the MITS Altair 8800 computer, allowing anyone to save digital images to disk. This was the first digital camera invented, and the first digital camera sold to consumers. It’s an amazing piece of history, and very happy [William] was able to piece this together and bring it out to the Vintage Computer Festival this weekend.

VCF East: A Retro Hackathon

We got a banner.
We got a banner.

This weekend is the Vintage Computer Festival East in Wall, New Jersey. Every year is different, but there’s a general plan for each day. On Saturday and Sunday, the exhibits rule the con, the consignment shop is busy, and the keynotes bring down the house. Friday is a little different. This is the day for ‘in the trenches’ talks from the commodore crew, classes on recapping 30-year-old computers, and this year – for the first time – a retro hackathon. It’s basically the same format as any other hackathon, but instead of bringing MacBooks and building something cool, Apple IIs and Commodore 64s were provided. This is the report on the first retro hackathon we’ve ever been to.

The Apple II one-liner SIN graph
The Apple II one-liner SIN graph

First off, no one remembers how to program in BASIC. If you’re looking for a population that should remember the vagaries of the different dialects of BASIC, you would think it would be the people who came out to the middle of Jersey on Friday to talk about old CPUs. Apparently, this is not the case and several people were confused about single and double quotes in PRINT statements. Luckily, a few programming manuals for the C64 and Apple II were available, so everyone could still have fun with PEEKs and POKEs.

If you want to get people programming on some old machines, you need to give them some inspiration. The first half hour of the retro hackathon didn’t see any teams programming. Given this demographics proclivity to say, ‘I can do that better’, I typed a few BASIC one-liners in the C64 (random Truchet tiles in PETSCII) and Apple II (a SIN graph), and the people started pouring in. Yes, they could program something better than a single line of BASIC.

What came of an impromptu retro hackathon? Hangman, in BASIC. No, it didn’t quite work, and there were only three or four possible words hardcoded into the program. Still, text mode graphics are a lost art. The Apple IIc was programmed to make fart noises. The original plan for this project was to program music. What would  have been the winning entry was a line-drawing program on the C64 that looked like the enemy in Qix. That guy wasn’t there during judging. The winner of a $50 credit to the consignment shop was a kid who programmed zero-player Pong on Apple II basic. He bought a Mac Portable (non-backlit) with that prize.

We’ve gone to hackathons, we’ve waded through the sea of MacBooks, and had a Red Bull drip installed. This retro hackathon was completely different, but somehow familiar. No, no one is going to create something new – everything that can be done on these machines in a few hours of BASIC programming has already been done. That’s not the point, though. It’s a geek pride of proving your mettle, putting your money where your mouth is, and doing it in a casual environment where everyone is friendly. This is the first retro hackathon we’ve gone to, and it won’t be the last. We’re going to do this again, once we get an Apple IIc+, a few Commodores, a Speccy, and a few good monitors. We already have the banner, anyway.

128 LEDs, 5 Buttons, IR Comm, and a Few Hours: What Could You Create?

When the second band had played its last encore, before the legendary DJ took the stage, a cadre of hardware hackers climbed three steps with a twinkle in their eyes and glowing electronics in their hands. I’m surprised and relieved that the nugget of excitement that first led me to twiddle a byte in a microcontroller is still alive, and this moment — this crossroads of hacker family — stirred that molten hot center of adventure in everyone.

The badge hacking demoscene is a welcoming one. No blinking pixel is too simple, and no half-implemented idea falls short of impressing everyone because they prove the creativity, effort, and courage of each who got up to share their creation. How could we ever get together as a community and not do this?

It was after midnight before we began the demoparty. I somehow managed to come to the Hackaday | Belgrade conference without a USB webcam to use as a top-down camera. I also didn’t line up someone to record with a camera until minutes before. Please forgive our technical difficulties — we first tried to use a laptop webcam to project to the bigscreen. When that failed, focusing on the badges because tough for our ad-hoc camera operator. This video is a hack, but I think it’s worth looking past its tech problems.

The crowd gathered as close to the stage as possible and there was electricity in the audience as the wiles of the day were explained. Join me after the break for a brief rundown of each demo, along with a timestamp to find it in the video.

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Hackaday Invades Toronto

Next Wednesday, April 20th, Hackaday will invade Toronto.

[Sophi Kravitz] and [Michael Guilfoil] are heading north of the border to meet up with our friends at HacklabTO. They’ll be hosting a Bring A Hack meetup with drinks, snacks, and swag.

Since this is a Bring A Hack, attendees are encouraged to bring whatever project you’re working on and show it off, give a lightning talk, and pitch it to the community. [Sophi]’s last visit to Toronto brought some crazy hardware to the meetup, including a gaming glove for a Commodore 64, a demonstration of Ontario’s power plants, testing hamburgers for anything that is not beef with PCR, and analog synthesizers.

Since the Hackaday Prize is in full swing, this is an excellent opportunity to team up with fellow Torontonians for a great Prize entry, or just bounce a few ideas off people to see if your idea is feasible.

The meet and greet at the Hacklab is free, but we would request that you RSVP for the event. The event is also on Hackaday.io, just in case you’d like to chat with [Sophi] or other attendees.

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