Vulcan 74: A Masterpiece of Retro Engineering

[Radical Brad] has played around with FPGAs, video signals, and already has a few astonishing projects of bitbanged VGA on his resume. Now he’s gone insane. He’s documenting a build over on the 6502.org forums of a computer with Amiga-quality graphics built out of nothing but a 65C02, a few SRAM chips, and a whole pile of logic chips.

The design goals for this project are to build a video game system with circa 1980 parts and graphics a decade ahead of its time. The video output is VGA, with 400×300 resolution, in glorious eight-bit color. The only chips in this project more complex than a shift register are a single 65c02 and a few (modern) 15ns SRAMs. it’s not a build that would have been possible in the early 80s, but the only thing preventing that would be the slow RAM chips of the era.

So far, [Radical] has built a GPU entirely out of 74-series logic that reads a portion of RAM and translates that to XY positions, colors, pixels, and VGA signals. There’s support for alpha channels and multiple sprites. The plan is to add sound hardware with support for four independent digital channels and 1 Megabyte of sample memory. It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and becomes even more impressive when you realize he’s doing all of this on solderless breadboards.

[Brad] will keep updating the thread on 6502.org until he’s done or dies trying. So far, it’s looking promising. He already has a bunch of Boing balls bouncing around a display. You can check out a video of that below.

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VCF East X: The Not Trashy Eighty

The lowly TRS-80 doesn’t get much love in most circles; it’s constantly overshadowed by the popularity of the Apple II or computers that had graphics that weren’t terrible. For [Mike Loewen]’s VCF exhibit, he’s turning his TRS-80 into something good with SD card disk drives and custom graphics adapters.

The -80 in question is a Model 4, the fancy all-in-one version that could run CP/M. The disk drives in this computer were replaced with half-height 5 1/4″ drives, the 200ns RAM was replaced with 100ns RAM and modified to get rid of the wait states, and a hard drive is emulated on a SD card adapter thanks to an add-on from [Ian Mavric].

[Ian] is somewhat prolific in the world of TRS-80s; he reverse engineered the original hi-res graphics board and reimplemented it with video RAM chips of a more modern vintage.

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VCF East X: The Quarternet Steering Committee

Today was the first day of the Vintage Computer Festival East X. As is the tradition, the first day was packed with talks and classes about various retrocomputing ephemera, with this year featuring a great talk from [David Riley] about 8-bit computer music, a class on system architecture from our own [Bil Herd] (video coming soon), and a talk about vintage teletypes. One of these talks was about creating new hardware: [Jim Brain]’s steering committee on a networking solution for vintage microcontrollers. It’s called Quarternet: a two-bit solution for an eight bit world.

While minicomputers are easily networkable, designed around multi-user operating systems, and have the hardware for a lot of networking hardware, 8-bit micros are the exact opposite. That doesn’t mean 8-bitters don’t have networking; you can get an Ethernet cart for a C64, and just about everything can connect to a BBS. [Jim]’s talk was about whittling down the use cases for the Quarternet to something that could be implemented easily, but still give the most capability.

During the talk, the audience settled on using a serial connection from the micro to the outside world; this makes sense, as everything has a serial port. A ‘lightweight API’ was suggested to take up the software side of the problem, but there wasn’t much agreement over what that API would actually do.

[Jim]’s idea is for a box that plugs into the serial port of any old microcomputer and would connect to the Internet somehow. Ethernet, WiFi, or even a modem isn’t out of the question here. That takes care of connecting to the Internet, but there’s also the question of the cooler side of networking – network drives, file sharing, and the like.

For this, [Jim] is imagining a box with a serial port on one end, and a network port on the other. In the middle would be a cartridge slot for any hardware imaginable. If you want to plug in an Apple II disk drive, just insert the right cartridge and you’re good to go. If you need network access to a Commodore 1541 drive, just insert another cartridge, and it’ll just work.

It’s an interesting idea, but [Jim] is really interested in getting even more feedback for a networking system for old microcomputers. If you have any ideas, leave a note for him in the comments.

Retro Edition: VCF East X This Weekend

It’s mid-April and time once again for the Vintage Computer Festival East X. The X means 10. It’s a three-day weekend full of interesting people, cool tech, and computers you’ve only heard about. We’ll be there all three days, and if you’re in New York or are unable to pump your own gas (Oregon excluded), it’s a great way to spend the weekend.

The sessions for this Friday will include everything from chiptunes to retr0bright to emulating vintage computers on FPGAs. Sessions of note include our own [Bil Herd] giving a talk on system architecture. Think of this as a bunch of engineers in a room with a whiteboard. How could you not have fun with that. There will also be the first meeting of the Quarternet committee, headed up by [Jim Brain]. This session will be a discussion of implementing a vintage networking protocol across different models and different brands of vintage computers. Confused? It’s a, “two-bit solution for an eight-bit world.” That’s all we know, and I’m pretty sure that’s all anyone knows. It will be interesting.

Saturday and Sunday will feature an incredible number of exhibits that includes everything from Atari 8-bits, Hollerith cards, mainframes, an amateur radio station (KC1CKV) and somehow a Fairlight CMI. Since this is the 50th anniversary of the PDP-8, there will be a few of these ancient machines on display. A freshly restored Straight-8 will be up and working, as will an incredible emulation from hackaday.io.

Just because there are exhibits doesn’t mean the talks end on Friday. On Saturday the guest speaker will be [Brian Kernighan], the guy who literally wrote the book on C. Sunday will feature [Bob Frankston], co-developer of VisiCalc. There will be very important people here all weekend.

Even if vintage computers aren’t your thing, there’s still plenty of stuff to see at the venue. The InfoAge science center has technological curiosities stretching back a century, and recently they’ve rehabbed an old satellite dish and turned it into a radio telescope. Registration happens here, and if the last few paragraphs haven’t sold you on the event, you can check out [The Guru Meditation]’s VCF preview video below. We will, of course, be posting a lot of stuff from the event.

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An Apple ][ emulator on an Arduino Uno

April Fools’ Day may have passed, but we really had to check the calendar on this hack. [Damian Peckett] has implemented an Apple ][, its 6502 processor, and a cassette port, all on an Arduino Uno. If that wasn’t enough, he also uses a PS/2 keyboard for input and outputs analog VGA. [Damian] is doing all this with very few additional components. A couple of resistors, a capacitor and some very clever hacking were all [Damian] needed to convince an Arduino Uno that it was an Apple.

Making all this work boiled down to a case of resource management. The original Apple ][ had 4KB of RAM and 8KB of ROM. The ATmega328 has only 2KB of RAM, but 32KB of Flash. The only way to make this hack work would be to keep as much of the emulation and other routines in Flash, using as little RAM as possible.

The core of this hack starts with the MOS 6502, the processor used in the Apple. [Damian] wrote a simple assembler which translates the 6502 opcodes and address modes to instructions which can be executed by the Arduino’s ATmega328. To keep everything in ROM and make the emulator portable, [Damian] used two large switch statements. One for address modes, and a 352 line switch statement for the opcodes themselves.

A CPU alone is not an Apple though. [Damian] still needed input, output, and the ROM which made the Apple so special. Input was through a PS/2 keyboard. The PS/2 synchronous serial clock is easy to interface with an Arduino. Output was through a custom VGA implementation, which is a hack all its own. [Damian] used the lowly ATmega16u2 to generate the video timing. The 16u2 is normally used as the Arduino Uno’s USB interface. The only external hardware needed is a single 120 ohm resistor.

The original Apples had cassette and speaker interfaces. So does this emulated Apple. [Woz’s] original cassette and speaker interface accurate loops to generate and measure frequencies. One of the trade-offs [Damian] accepted in his 6502 was cycle accuracy, so he couldn’t use the original routines. Not a problem though, as he was able to write simple functions to replace these routines and drop them in place of the Apple’s own ROM calls.

The Apple ][ ROM itself is handled as one giant character array. This includes the system monitor, Mini-Assembler, Sweet-16, and [Woz’s] own Integer Basic. [Damian] caps off this incredible project by booting his new computer, loading a  Mandelbrot set program from cassette -or in this case an audio file stored on his cell phone, and running it. The well-known fractal is displayed in all its glory on a modern LCD monitor, driven by a microcontroller, emulating a computer from nearly 40 years ago.

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Hackaday Links: March 8, 2015

Nintendo is well known for… odd… hardware integration, but this video takes it to a new level. It’s a Gamecube playing Zelda: Four Swords Adventure, a game that can use a Game Boy Advance as a controller. [fibbef] is taking it further by using the Gamecube Game Boy Advance player to play the game, and using another GBA to control the second Gamecube. There’s also a GBA TV tuner, making this entire setup a Gamecube game played across two Gamecubes, controlled with a Game Boy Advance and displayed on a GBA with a TV tuner. The mind reels.

TI just released a great resource for analog design. It’s the Analog Engineer’s Pocket Reference, free for download, if you can navigate TI’s site. There are print copies of this book – I picked one up at Electronica – and it’s a great benchtop reference.

A few months ago, a life-size elephant (baby elephants are pretty small…) was 3D printed at the Amsterdam airport. A model of the elephant was broken up into columns about two meters tall. How did they print something two meters tall? With this add-on for a Ultimaker. It flips an Ultimaker upside down, giving the printer unlimited build height. The guy behind this – [Joris van Tubergen] – is crazy creative.

And you thought TV was bad now. Here’s the pitch: take a show like Storage Wars or American Pickers – you know, the shows that have people go around, lowball collectors, and sell stuff on the Internet – and put a “Tech” spin on it. This is happening. That’s a post from a casting producer on the classic cmp message boards. Here’s the vintage computer forums reaction. To refresh your memory, this is what happens when you get ‘tech’ on Storage Wars. Other examples from Storage Wars that include vastly overpriced video terminals cannot be found on YouTube. Here’s a reminder: just because it’s listed on eBay for $1000 doesn’t mean it’ll sell on eBay for $1000.

A Smaller, Homebrew Amstrad

Although they weren’t very popular in America, the Amstrad CPC 464 and CPC 6128 were extremely well-received in Europe. [Zaxon] loved his ‘464, and for a bit of a learning experience – and the fact that an Amstrad takes up an exceptional amount of desk space – decided to make a clone of his favorite computer (.pl, Google translatrix).

The clone began as a simple schematic of the original Amstrad CPC 464, but the parts used in the original required some modern equivalents. Still, most of the old chips remained in the clone; the original Hitachi HD46505 CRT controller remains, as do the original DRAM chips and the vintage Z80 CPU.

A few modern amenities were added, including an interface for a PS/2 keyboard and a disk that’s much improved over the original cassette drive or weird 3.5″ disks: a Disk On Module, or basically a CompactFlash card in a strange form factor that plugs straight into a motherboard’s IDE socket. They’re mostly seen when tearing apart old thin clients, but using them in retrocomputing project is a great idea.

Thanks [rasz_pl] for the tip. Video below.

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