Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI

We all know what Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is nowadays. It’s almost impossible to get away from it in any television show or movie. It’s gotten so good, that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the real world and the computer generated world when they are mixed together on-screen. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. This 1982 clip from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World shows what the wonders of CGI were capable of in a simpler time.

In the earliest days of CGI, digital computers weren’t even really a thing. [John Whitney] was an American animator and is widely considered to be the father of computer animation. In the 1940’s, he and his brother [James] started to experiment with what they called “abstract animation”. They pieced together old analog computers and servos to make their own devices that were capable of controlling the motion of lights and lit objects. While this process may be a far cry from the CGI of today, it is still animation performed by a computer. One of [Whitney’s] best known works is the opening title sequence to [Alfred Hitchcock’s] 1958 film, Vertigo.

Later, in 1973, Westworld become the very first feature film to feature CGI. The film was a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park robots that become evil. The studio wanted footage of the robot’s “computer vision” but they would need an expert to get the job done right. They ultimately hired [John Whitney’s] son, [John Whitney Jr] to lead the project. The process first required color separating each frame of the 70mm film because [John Jr] did not have a color scanner. He then used a computer to digitally modify each image to create what we would now recognize as a “pixelated” effect. The computer processing took approximately eight hours for every ten seconds of footage. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI”

Non-Arduino powered by a piece of Computing history

Sometimes it is a blessing to have some spare time on your hands, specially if you are a hacker with lots of ideas and skill to bring them to life. [Matt] was lucky enough to have all of that and recently completed an ambitious project 8 months in the making – a Non-Arduino powered by the giant of computing history – Intel’s 8086 processor. Luckily, [Matt] provides a link to describe what Non-Arduino actually means; it’s a board that is shield-compatible, but not Arduino IDE compatible.

He was driven by a desire to build a single board computer in the old style, specifically, one with a traditional local bus. In the early days, a System Development Kit for Intel’s emerging range of  microprocessors would have involved a fair bit of discrete hardware, and software tools which were not all too easy to use.

Back in his den, [Matt] was grappling with his own set of challenges. The 8086 is a microprocessor, not a microcontroller like the AVR, so the software side of things are quite different. He quickly found himself locking horns with complex concepts such as assembly bootstrapping routines, linker scripts, code relocation, memory maps, vectors and so on. The hardware side of things was also difficult. But his goal was learning so he did not take any short cuts along the way.

[Matt] documented his project in detail, listing out the various microprocessors that run on his 8OD board, describing the software that makes it all run, linking to the schematics and source code. There’s also an interesting section on running Soviet era (USSR) microprocessor clones on the 8OD. He is still contemplating if it is worthwhile building this board in quantities, considering it uses some not so easy to source parts. If you are interested in contributing to the project, you could get lucky. [Matt] has a few spares of the prototypes which he is willing to loan out to anyone who can can convince him that they could add some value to the project.

Continue reading “Non-Arduino powered by a piece of Computing history”

Pac-Man Clock Eats Time, Not Pellets

[Bob’s] Pac-Man clock is sure to appeal to the retro geek inside of us all. With a tiny display for the time, it’s clear that this project is more about the art piece than it is about keeping the time. Pac-Man periodically opens and closes his mouth at random intervals. The EL wire adds a nice glowing touch as well.

The project runs off of a Teensy 2.0. It’s a small and inexpensive microcontroller that’s compatible with Arduino. The Teensy uses an external real-time clock module to keep accurate time. It also connects to a seven segment display board via Serial. This kept the wiring simple and made the display easy to mount. The last major component is the servo. It’s just a standard servo, mounted to a customized 3D printed mounting bracket. When the servo rotates in one direction the mouth opens, and visa versa. The frame is also outlined with blue EL wire, giving that classic Pac-Man look a little something extra.

The physical clock itself is made almost entirely from wood. [Bob] is clearly a skilled wood worker as evidenced in the build video below. The Pac-Man and ghosts are all cut on a scroll saw, although [Bob] mentions that he would have 3D printed them if his printer was large enough. Many of the components are hot glued together. The electronics are also hot glued in place. This is often a convenient mounting solution because it’s relatively strong but only semi-permanent.

[Bob] mentions that he can’t have the EL wire and the servo running at the same time. If he tries this, the Teensy ends up “running haywire” after a few minutes. He’s looking for suggestions, so if you have one be sure to leave a comment. Continue reading “Pac-Man Clock Eats Time, Not Pellets”

The Original Seven (Eight?) Segment Display

The seven-segment LED display is ubiquitous. But how old do you think the fundamental idea behind it is? You nixie tube fans will be thinking of the vacuum-tube era, but a reader sent us this patent filed in 1908 where [Frank W. Wood] builds a numeric display with plain-vanilla light bulbs, slots cut in wood, and lots of wires.

The OCR on the patent is poorly done — you’re going to want to download the PDF and read it locally. But as it states in the patent, “Referring again to Fig. 1, the novel arrangement of the lamp compartments will be readily understood.”

Technically it’s not a seven-segment display at all. [F.W. Wood] designed these really nice-looking “4”s with the diagonal heads, and so he needed eight segments per digit. But the basic idea shines through, if you pardon the pun.

The other figures demonstrate the machine that’s used to send the signals to light up the lights. It’s a rotating drum with the right contacts on the bottom side to make connections and turn on the right lights at the other end. Low tech, but it’s what was available at the time.

We’re stoked that we’re not responsible for wiring this thing up, and we’re a bit awed by how old the spirit behind one of our most ubiquitous technologies is.

Thanks to [mario59] for the nostalgic tip!

Dual Porting a C64 Flash Cart

The old cartridges for the Commodore 64 use EEPROMs to store their data, and the newer Flash carts use either a Flash chip or an SD card to put a whole bunch of games in a small plastic brick. [Stian] and [Runar] thought that wasn’t good enough – they wanted to program cartridges in real time, the ability to reboot the C64 without ever touching it, and a device for coding and testing. What they came up with is the latest advance in Commodore cartridge technology.

The device presents 8k of memory to the C64, but it doesn’t do this with Flash or an EEPROM. Instead, [Stian] and [Runar] are using a dual-port static RAM, specifically one from the IDT7005 series. This chip has two data busses, two address busses, and /CE, /OE, and R/W lines for either side of the chip, allowing other digital circuits to be connected to one small section of the C64’s memory.

Also in the cart is an ATmega16 running V-USB to handle the PC communications. It takes about 1 to 1.5 seconds to transfer an entire 8k over to the cartridge, but this chip can read and write the RAM along with the C64 simultaneously.

If you want a box that will give you the ability to put ever game in existence on a single cartridge, this isn’t the one. However, if you want to write some C64 games and do some live debugging, this is the one for you. The Eagle files are available, and there’s a video demo below.

Continue reading “Dual Porting a C64 Flash Cart”

Popular Electronics Magazine Archive Online

They began publishing Popular Electronics magazine in 1954, and it soon became one of the best-selling DIY electronics magazines. And now you can relive those bygone days of yore by browsing through this archive of PDFs of all back issues from 1954 to 1982.

Reading back through the magazine’s history gives you a good feel for the technological state of the art, at least as far as the DIYer is concerned. In the 1950s and 1960s (and onwards) radio is a big deal. By the 1970s, hi-fi equipment is hot and you get an inkling for the dawn of the digital computer age. Indeed, the archive ends in 1982 when the magazine changed its name to Computers and Electronics magazine.

It’s fun to see how much has changed, but there’s a bunch of useful material in there as well. In particular, each issue has a couple ultra-low-parts-count circuit designs that could certainly find a place in a modern project. For example, a “Touch-Controlled Solid State Switch” in July 1982 (PDF), using a hex inverter chip (CD4049) and a small handful of passive components.

But it’s the historical content that we find most interesting. For instance there is a nice article on the state of the art in computer memory (“The Electronic Mind — How it Remembers”) in August 1956 (PDF).

Have a good time digging through the archives, and if you find something you really like, let us know in the comments.

Thinkpad 701c: Reverse Engineering a Retro Processor Upgrade

[Noq2] has given his butterfly new wings with a CPU upgrade. Few laptops are as iconic as the IBM Thinkpad 701 series and its “butterfly” TrackWrite keyboard. So iconic in fact, that a 701c is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Being a 1995 vintage laptop, [Noq2’s] 701c understandably was no speed demon by today’s standards. The fastest factory configuration was an Intel 486-DX4 running at 75 MHz. However, there have long been rumors and online auctions referring to a custom model modified to run an AMD AM-5×86 at 133 MHz. The mods were performed by shops like Hantz + Partner in Germany. With this in mind, [Noq2] set about reverse engineering the modification, and equipping his 701c with a new processor.

thinkpad-brainsurgeryThe first step was determining which AMD processor variant to use. It turns out that only a few models of AMD’s chips were pin compatible with the 208 pin Small Quad Flat Pack (SQFP) footprint on the 701c’s motherboard. [Noq2] was able to get one from an old Evergreen 486 upgrade module on everyone’s favorite auction site. He carefully de-soldered the AM-5×86 from the module, and the Intel DX4 from the 701c. A bit of soldering later, and the brain transplant was complete.

Some detailed datasheet research helped [noq2] find the how to increase the bus clock on his 5×86 chip, and enable the write-back cache. All he had to do was move a couple of passive components and short a couple pins on the processor.

The final result is a tricked out IBM 701c Thinkpad running an AMD 5×86 at 133 MHz. Still way too slow for today’s software – but absolutely the coolest retro mod we’ve seen in a long time.