How An Amiga Graphics Business Ran In The 1990s

If you have ever used an eraser to correct a piece of pencil work, have you ever considered how much of an innovation it must have seemed when the first erasers were invented? It might seem odd to consider a centuries-old piece of stationery here on Hackaday, but there is a parallel in our own time. Digital image manipulation is such a part of everyday life these days as to have become run-of-the-mill for anyone with a mobile phone and the right app, but it’s easy to forget how recent an innovation it really is. Only a few decades ago your only chance of manipulating a photograph was to spend a lot of time in a darkroom with a photographic developer of exceptional skill, now children who have never known a world in which it wasn’t possible can manipulate their selfies with a few deft touches of the screen.

[Steve Greenfield] pointed us at a detailed description of the business he ran in the 1990s, offering digital and composite photography using an upgraded Amiga 3000.  It caught our attention as a snapshot of the state of digital image manipulation when these things still lay at the bleeding edge of what was possible.

His 3000 was highly customised from the stock machine. It featured a Phase 5 68060 accelerator board, a Cybervision 64 graphics card, a then-unimaginably-huge 128MB RAM, and an array of gigabyte-plus Fast SCSI drives.  To that he had attached a Polaroid SCSI digital camera with a then-impressive 800×600 pixel resolution. The Polaroid had no Amiga drivers, so he ran the Shapeshifter Mac emulator to capture images under the MacOS of the day. The fastest 68000-series Mac only had a 68040 which the early PowerPC Macs could only emulate, so he writes that his 68060-equipped Amiga ran the Mac software faster than any Mac at the time.

His stock-in-trade was attending sci-fi conventions and giving costumed attendees pictures with custom backgrounds, something of a doddle on such a souped-up Amiga. He writes of the shock of some Microsoft employees on discovering a 60MHz computer could run rings round their several-hundred-MHz Pentiums running Windows 95.

His business is long gone, but its website remains as a time capsule of the state of digital imagery two decades ago. The sample images are very much of their time, but for those used to today’s slicker presentation it’s worth remembering that all of this was very new indeed.

In a world dominated by a monoculture of Intel based desktop computers it’s interesting to look back to a time when there was a genuine array of choices and some of them could really compete. As a consumer at the start of the 1990s you could buy a PC or a Mac, but Commodore’s Amiga, Atari’s ST, and (if you were British) Acorn’s ARM-based Archimedes all offered alternatives with similar performance and their own special abilities. Each of those machines still has its diehard enthusiasts who will fill you in with a lengthy tale of what-if stories of greatness denied, but maybe such casualties are best viewed as an essential part of the evolutionary process. Perhaps the famous Amiga easter egg says it best, “We made Amiga …

Here at Hackaday we’ve covered quite a few Amiga topics over the years, including another look at the Amiga graphics world. It’s still a scene inspiring hardware hackers, for example with this FPGA-based Amiga GPU.

Amiga 3000 image: By [Joe Smith] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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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Bootstrapping an Amiga 2000 Graphics Card Because Vintage is Pricey

If you have a computer on your desk today, the chances are that it has an Intel architecture and is in some way a descendant of the IBM PC. It may have an Apple badge on the front, it may run Linux, or Windows, but in hardware terms the overwhelming probability is that it will be part of the Intel monoculture. A couple of decades ago though in the 16- and early 32-bit era you would have found a far greater diversity of architectures. Intel 3-, and 486s in PCs and clones, Macintosh, Commodore, and Atari platforms with the 68000 family, the WDC 65C816 in the Apple IIGS, and the Acorn Archimedes with an early ARM processor to name but a few.

In the tough environment of the 1990s most of these alternative platforms fell by the wayside. Apple survived to be revitalised under a returning Steve Jobs, Atari and Commodore withered under a bewildering succession of takeovers, and Acorn split up and lost its identity with its processor licensing subsidiary going on to power most of the mobile devices we take for granted today.

Surprisingly though some of the 16-bit platforms refused to die when their originators faded from view. In particular Commodore’s Amiga has lived on with new OS versions, new platforms, and community-supported hardware upgrades. News of just such a device came our way this morning, [Lukas Hartmann]’s MNT VA2000, a graphics card for the Amiga 2000 using a GPU implemented on an FPGA.

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A Keypad Joypad For Your Retro Gaming

[TK] is a retro computer enthusiast who’s had some difficulty locating a joystick for his trusty Amiga 500. New ‘sticks are expensive, and battered survivors from the 80s go for more than they should.

Happily these old controllers were simple devices, having only five control lines for the four directions and a fire button which were active low. [TK] therefore cast around the available components and decided to craft his own controller from a numerical keypad.

Numerical joypad schematic
Numerical joypad schematic

Numerical keypads may be ubiquitous, but they’re not the perfect choice for a joypad. Instead of individual switches, they are wired as a matrix. [TK]’s controller works within that constraint without butchering the keypad PCB, though his layout has the left and right buttons below the up and down buttons. Looking at the schematic we wonder whether the 4-5-6 and 7-8-9 rows could be transposed , though joypad layout is probably a matter of personal choice.

Making the controller was a simple case of wiring the pad to a 9-pin D socket in the correct order, and plugging it into the Commodore. He reports that it’s comfortable to use and better than some of the lower-quality joysticks that were on the market back in the day. Veterans of Amiga gaming will understand that sentiment, there were some truly shocking offerings to be had at the time.

Quite a few home-made game controllers have made it onto these pages over the years. There is this one using tactile switches and a ballpoint pen, and a stick made from the idler wheel from a surplus VCR, but the ultimate crown of junkbox joysticks should go to this joystick made from clothes pins. If we take one thing away from all this home-made controller ingenuity, it is that what really matters is not the hardware but the gameplay.

Hackaday Links: October 25, 2015

There are dozens of different 3D printable cases out there for the Raspberry Pi, but the BeagleBone Black, as useful as it is, doesn’t have as many options. The folks at 3D hubs thought they could solve this with a portable electronics lab for the BBB. It opens like a book, fits a half-size breadboard inside, and looks very cool.

The guy who 3D printed his lawnmower has a very, very large 3D printer. He now added a hammock to it, just so he could hang out during the very long prints.

There’s a box somewhere in your attic, basement, or garage filled with IDE cables. Wouldn’t they be useful for projects? Yep, only not all the wires work; some are grounds tied together, some are not wired straight through, and some are missing. [esot.eric] has the definitive guide for 80-wire IDE cables.

Like case mods? Here’s a golden apple, made out of walnut. Yes, there are better woods he could have used. It’s a wooden replica of a Mac 128 with a Mac Mini and LCD stuffed inside. Want a video? Here you go.

If you have a 3D printer, you’re probably familiar with PEEK. It’s the plastic used as a thermal break in non-all-metal hotends. Now it’s a filament. An extraordinarily expensive filament at €900 per kilogram. Printing temperature is 370°C, so you’ll need an all-metal hotend.

It’s the Kickstarter that just keeps going and going and going. That’s not a bad thing, though: there really isn’t much of a market for new Amiga 1200 cases. We’ve featured this project before, but the last time was unsuccessful. Now, with seven days left and just over $14k to go, it might make it this time.

Hackaday Links: September 13, 2015

One more go at new enclosures for the Amiga 1200. Yes, it’s a Kickstarter campaign, and we mentioned a similar the same campaign last month. The previous campaign received a little more than half of the desired funding in a 30-day campaign. The new campaign received half its funding in a week. The only difference? Now you can put a Raspberry Pi in a newly manufactured A1200 case. And they say Raspberry Pi consumerism isn’t a thing…

Cheap SLA printing service. [Ian] and Dangerous Prototypes have made a name for themselves with dirt cheap, acceptable quality PCBs. Now they’re going for custom prints on a resin machine. It’s $0.95 per gram (density is 1.3g/cc). That’s cheap.

[James Willis] built a floppy drive orchestra. There are 16 drives in this orchestra, all controlled by an FPGA. Here’s the writeup.

Here’s a video overview of a real, huge, rideable hexapod robot. ‘Wow’ is just about the only thing we got for this.

Western Digital introduced a hard drive made specifically for the Raspberry Pi. It’s a hard drive with a USB interface, and a USB cable that connects to the Pi, the drive, and a power adapter. In other news, externally powered USB hard drives exist. You can buy a 2TB drive for the price of the 1TB PiDrive. What was that thing about Raspi consumerism?

Next week is the Open Hardware Summit in Philadelphia. We’ll be there (or rather, I will). We’ll have a post on the OHS badge up on Monday. Would anyone like to go see the lady made out of soap? It’s right around the corner from the venue.

Hackaday Links: August 2, 2015

Over the last few years, Maker’s Asylum in Mumbai has grown from a garage to a very well stocked workspace with 140 members. They’re getting kicked out at the end of the month and they need some help. We just had a meetup at the Delhi branch of Maker’s Asylum, and these guys and gals are really cool.

Speaking of crowdfunding campaigns for hackerspaces, South Central Pennsylvania might be getting its own hackerspace. The 717 area code is a vast wasteland when it comes to anything anyone reading Hackaday would consider interesting, despite there being plenty of people who know their way around CNC machines, soldering irons, and welders. This needs to happen.

Need some help with Bluetooth standards? Tektronix has you covered with a gigantic poster of the physical layer. If only there were a repository of these handy, convenient reference posters.

Forgings and castings make for great YouTube videos, and this aluminum bell casting is no exception. There’s about 18 pounds of aluminum in there, which is pretty large as far as home casting goes.

Electronic Goldmine has an assortment of grab bags – spend a few dollars get a bag of chips, LEDs, diodes, or what have you. What’s in these grab bags? [alpha_ninja] found out. There’s some neat stuff in there, except for the ‘SMD Mixture’ bag.

Remember the found case molds for the Commodore 64C that became a Kickstarter? It’s happening again with the Amiga 1200. This is a new mold with a few interesting features that support the amazing amount of upgrades that have come out for this machine over the years. Being new molds, the price per piece is a little high, but that’s your lesson in manufacturing costs for the day.