The Immersive, VR, Internet of Things Unicycle

Want something that you’ll try for fifteen minutes before realizing it’s extremely stupid and has limited utility before throwing it in the back of a closet to eventually sell at a yard sale? No, it’s not the Internet of Things, but good guess. I’m speaking, of course, about unicycles.

[retro.moe] is a unicycle and Commodore 64 enthusiast, and being the enterprising hacker he is, decided to combine his two interests. This led to the creation of the Uni-Joysti-Cle, the world’s first unicycle controller for the Commodore 64, and the first video game to use this truly immersive, better-than-an-Oculus unicycle controller.

The build began with the creation of Uni Games, the unicycle-enabled video game for the Commodore 64. This game was coded purely in 6502 assembly and features realistic physics, cutting edge graphics, and two game modes. It’s available on [retro.moe]’s site for the C64 and C128 jin PAL and NTSC formats.

Every game needs a controller, and for this [retro.moe] turned to his smartphone. A simple Android app with a few buttons to send up, down, left, and right commands to an ESP8266 chip attached to the C64’s joystick connector.

While a smartphone transmitting controller commands may seem like a vastly over-engineered joystick, there’s at least one thing a smartphone can do that a joystick cannot: poll an accelerometer. When the joystick senses movement, it transmits movement commands to the video game. Strap this phone to the pedal of a unicycle, and it’s the world’s first unicycle controller for a video game. Brilliant, and [retro.moe] can ride that thing pretty well, too.

Thanks [nfk] for sending this one in.

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Split-flap Train Display Uses Punch Cards; Serviced with Station Ingenuity

short but highly detailed documentary by [Krzysztof Tyszecki] explores the split-flap display system in place at the Łódź Kaliska train station in Poland as well as the efforts needed by the staff to keep it running and useful to this day. Split-flap displays might be old technology, but many are still in use throughout the world. But even by those standards, the unit at Łódź Kaliska is a relic you wouldn’t expect to see outside a museum. “I doubt you’ll find an original anywhere else,” says a staff member. It requires constant upkeep to remain operational, and meeting the changing demands of a modern station within the limitations of the original system takes some cleverness. “In general the failure rate of the device is terrible,” he adds.

Operator console for Czech PragotronThe system runs on punch cards. You can’t buy them anymore, so a local printer makes them – several hundred are needed every time there is a schedule change. The punching pliers (which also can no longer be purchased) get so worn out they replace the pins with custom-made ones from a local locksmith. The moving parts of the card reader have split-pins which need to be replaced every week or two – the stress of repeated movement simply wears them away. There’s nothing to do but replace them regularly. The assembly needs regular cleaning since dust accumulates on the cards and gets into the whole assembly. The list goes on… and so does the station.

There is no computation in the modern sense – it’s an electromechanical signing system managed and updated by human operators. It has more in common with a crossbar switch based telephone exchange than anything else. The punch cards are just a means of quickly, accurately, and repeatedly setting the displays to known states.

The short documentary goes into a lot of detail about every part of the system. The cards themselves are described in detail (1:07), as is the operator’s routine (2:27). We even see the back end controller (9:41), as well as see a split-flap module taken apart and tested (14:33) with an old tester the staffer isn’t sure will even work – but as with everything else we see, of course it does.

Split-flap displays are fascinating pieces of technology. We have even seen people build their own split-flap displays from scratch!

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Hackaday Teams with Vintage Computer Festival for Retro Hackathon

For the last few years, we’ve been going to the Vintage Computer Festival East in New Jersey. This is one of the best cons we go to every year; there are dozens of interesting exhibitors, awesome talks, a great venue, and a small consignment area filled with the weirdest stuff you can imagine. This year proves to be no different, and we’ll be there cataloging the weirdness and spectacular hacks of computer systems old enough to vote, plus something new.

Hackaday’s 8-bit game programming contest is happening for the first time at VCF East, April 15-17 in Wall, New Jersey. Competitors are given two and a half hours and an old 8-bit system (Apple II, C64, Atari 800, etc.). The goal is to create a game using only what is currently in memory, be that in the ROM or between the ears. There are two sessions on the Friday of the event, starting at 10am and 2:30pm.

You can call the 8-bit game programming contest a hackathon. That’s basically what it is; getting a small team together to whip up an application quickly with a number of constraints. The term ‘hackathon’ has been bastardized as of late, with companies requiring the use of a particular API or other nonsense. The 8-bit programming contest doesn’t have these limitations. All you need to do is create the coolest game in two and a half hours, and get the most applause from the audience. The best game wins a prize.

Of course, we’re not going to VCF East just to promote a retro hackathon. We’re only obliged to mention that first because we’re sponsoring it. VCF East is a fantastic event, with more retro goodies to satiate even the most curmudgeonly retro aficionado. The show is enormous with keynotes from [John Blankenbaker], inventor of the Kenbak-1 personal computer and [Stewart Cheifet], host of Computer Chronicles. Dr. Dr. Ted Nelson, author of Computer Lib and creator of Xanadu, the underlying software for computers that won’t be built for 100 years, will also be there. The weekend is, as always, packed with great exhibits of ancient tech, classes, and workshops.

Each Vintage Computer Festival is different, but if you’d like a sample of what it’s all about, check out these posts:

Apart from an announcement for the festival in New Jersey, there are a lot of changes in the organization of the various vintage computer festivals held around the country. The Vintage Computer Festival East was formerly organized by MARCH, the Mid-Atlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists. Late last year, MARCH was dissolved, and reformed as a 501(c)3 called the Vintage Computer Federation. The VCF (see what they did there?) also has the rights to hold VCF West, which last happened in 2007. The VCF Midwest, Southwest, Europe, and UK will remain independent.

If it isn’t already extremely obvious, this is one of the top-tier events we go to every year. No, it’s not DEF CON, it’s not HOPE, and it’s certainly not a big con. It’s just a bunch of nerds nerding out, which is the critical ingredient for the best events we attend all year.

Museum Shows Off Retro Malware

There’s some debate on which program gets the infamous title of “First Computer Virus”. There were a few for MS-DOS machines in the 80s and even one that spread through ARPANET in the 70s. Even John von Neumann theorized that programs might one day self-replicate. To compile all of these early examples of malware, and possibly settle this question once and for all, [Mikko Hypponen] has started collecting many of the early malware programs into a Museum of Malware.

While unlucky (or careless) users today are confronted with entire hard drive encryption viruses (or worse), a lot of the early viruses were relatively harmless. Examples include Brain which spread via floppy disk, the experimental ARPANET virus, or Elk Cloner which, despite many geniuses falsely claiming that Apples are immune to viruses, infected Mac computers of the 80s. [Mikko] has collected many more from this era that can be downloaded or demonstrated in a browser.

Retrocomputing is an active community, with users keeping gear of this era up and running despite it being 30+ years old. This software, while malicious at the time, is a great look into what the personal computing world was like in its infancy. And don’t forget, if you have a beige computer from a bygone era, you can always load up our Retro Page.

Thanks to [chad] for the tip!

Resurrecting a 1960’s VTR with Foam

Nearly fifty years back, Sony launched the DVC-2400, their first consumer grade video camera. This unit weighed in at 10 pounds, and recorded only 20 minutes of footage per reel. It left something to be desired for $1250, or nearly $9000 in today’s dollars.

[NeXT] got his hands on one of these camera kits, and began bringing it back to life. While all the pieces were included, the Video Tape Recorder (VTR), which is used to play back the footage, didn’t power up. A little poking found a dead transistor. After determining a modern replacement part, the voltages checked out. However, the drum still wasn’t spinning.

Further disassembly found that the drum’s DC motor was made on the cheap, using a foam instead of springs to apply pressure on the brushes. This foam had worn out and lost its springy qualities, so no electrical contact was made. New foam was cut out as a replacement. Once reassembled, the drum spun successfully. After some adjustment, the VTR was running at the correct speed once again.

With this working, the VTR should be ready to go. However, camera still isn’t working, so we’re awaiting a part 2.

First Edition of German Computer Mag is a Blast from the Past

Every once in a while we get nostalgic for the old days of computing. Here, we’re getting nostalgic for a past that wasn’t even our own, but will probably bring a smile to all the German hackers out there. c’t magazine has its first issue available on their website (PDF, via FTP), and it’s worth checking out even if you can’t read a word of German.

ct-adIt’s dated November/December 1983, and you’re definitely hopping in the WABAC machine here. The cover image is a terminal computer project that you’re encouraged to build for yourself, and the magazine is filled with those characteristic early-computer-era ads, many of them for the physical keyboards that you’d need to make such a device. Later on, c’t would provide plans for a complete DIY PC with plotter, one of which we saw still running at the 2015 Berlin Vintage Computer Festival.

The issue is chock-full of code for you to type out into your own computer at home. If you didn’t have a computer, there are of course reviews of all of the popular models of the day; the TRS-80 Model 100 gets good marks. And if you need to buy a BASIC interpreter, there’s an article comparing Microsoft’s MBASIC with CBM’s CBASIC. A battle royale!

ct_mag_computer_bandOther hot topics include modifications to make your ZX81’s video output sharper, the hassle of having to insert a coded dongle into your computer to run some software (an early anti-piracy method), and even a computer-music band that had (at least) a Commodore 64 and a CBM machine in their groovy arsenal.

It’s no secret that we like old computers, and their associated magazines. Whether you prefer your PDP-11’s physical or virtual, we’ve got you covered here. And if your nostalgia leans more Anglophone, check out this Byte magazine cover re-shoot.

The First Radio Sets: a Spark Gap and a Coherer

[Ashish] let us know about his experiments in recreating the earliest type of radio set: a spark-gap transmitter and iron-filings coherer. He goes through the historical development of the kit in great detail, so we’re just going to skip that part. Go read it yourself!

Instead, we’re going to tease you with the coolest part of the rig: the coherer. In [Ashish]’s build, it’s a piece of tubing with some iron filings between two bolts. When a sufficiently strong EM wave hits the filings, they stick together and bridge the gap between the bolts, allowing electricity to flow and light up an LED, for instance. You can see this in [Ashish]’s video below the break, along with kmore discussion of that coherer.

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