Retrotechtacular: How Solidarity Hacked Polish TV

In the 1980s, Poland was under the grip of martial law as the Communist government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski attempted to repress the independent Solidarity trade union. In Western Europe our TV screens featured as much coverage of the events as could be gleaned through the Iron Curtain, but Polish state TV remained oblivious and restricted itself to wholesome Communist fare.

In September 1985, TV viewers in the city of Toruń sat down to watch an action adventure film and were treated to an unexpected bonus: the screen had a brief overlay with the messages “Solidarity Toruń: Boycotting the election is our duty,” and “Solidarity Toruń: Enough price hikes, lies, repression”. Sadly for the perpetrators, they were caught by the authorities after their second transmission a few days later when they repeated the performance over the evening news bulletin, and they were jailed for four months.

The transmission had been made by a group of dissident radio astronomers and scientists who had successfully developed a video transmitter that could synchronise itself with the official broadcast to produce an overlay that would be visible on every set within its limited transmission radius. This was a significant achievement using 1980s technology in a state in which electronic components were hard to come by. Our description comes via [Maciej Cegłowski], who was able to track down one of the people involved in building the transmitter and received an in-depth description of it.

Transmission equipment seized by the Polish police.
Transmission equipment seized by the Polish police.

The synchronisation came courtesy of the international effort at the time on Very Long Baseline Interferometry, in which multiple radio telescopes across the world are combined to achieve the effect of a single much larger instrument. Before GPS made available a constant timing signal the different groups participating in the experiment had used the sync pulses of TV transmitters to stay in time, establishing a network that spanned the political divide of the Iron Curtain. This expertise allowed them to create their transmitter capable of overlaying the official broadcasts. The police file on the event shows some of their equipment, including a Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer from the West that was presumably used to generate the graphics.

There is no surviving recording of the overlay transmission, however a reconstruction has been put on YouTube that you can see below the break, complete with very period Communist TV footage.

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HDMI Extender Reverse Engineered

[danman] has been playing around with various HDMI video streaming options, and he’s hit on a great low-cost solution. A $40 “HDMI extender” turns out to actually be an HDMI-to-RTP converter under the hood.

He’d done work previously on a similar extender that turned out to use a quirky method to send the video, which he naturally reversed and made to do his bidding. But non-standard formats are a pain. So when he was given a newer version of the same device, and started peeking into the packets with Wireshark, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the output was just MPEG-encoded video over RTP. No hacking necessary.

Until now, streaming video over an IP network from an arbitrary HDMI output has been tricky, [danman] has been more than a little obsessed with getting it working on the cheap. In addition to the previous version of this extender, he also managed to get a stream out of a rooted Android set-top box. That costs a bit more, but can also record at the same time, should you need to.

None of this solves the HDMI HDCP encryption problem, though. You’re on your own for that one.

(Those of you Wireshark wizards out there will note that we just swiped the headline image from the previous version of the project. There were no good images for this one. Sorry about that.)

1575 Bottles of Beer on the (LED) Wall

Say hello to my little friend, lovingly named Flaschen Taschen by the members of Noisebridge in San Francisco. It is a testament to their determination to drink Corona beer get more members involved in building big displays each year for the Bay Area Maker Faire. I pulled aside a couple of the builders for an interview despite their very busy booth. When you have a huge full-color display standing nine feet tall and ten feet wide it’s no surprise the booth was packed with people.

Check out the video and then join me after the break for more specifics on how they pulled this off.

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Using An FPGA To Generate Ambient Color From Video

We should all be familiar with TV ambient lighting systems such as Philips’ Ambilight, a ring of LED lights around the periphery of a TV that extend the colors at the edge of the screen to the surrounding lighting. [Shiva Rajagopal] was inspired by his tutor to look at the mechanics of generating a more accurate color representation from video frames, and produced a project using an FPGA to perform the task in real-time. It’s not an Ambilight clone, instead it is intended to produce as accurate a color representation as possible to give the impression of a TV being on for security purposes in an otherwise empty house.

The concern was that simply averaging the pixel color values would deliver a color, but would not necessarily deliver the same color that a human eye would perceive. He goes into detail about the difference between RGB and HSL color spaces, and arrives at an equation that gives an importance rating to each pixel taking into account its saturation and thus how much the human eye perceives it. As a result, he can derive his final overall color by looking at these important pixels rather than the too-dark or too-saturated pixels whose color the user’s eye will not register.

The whole project was produced on an Altera DE2-115 FPGA development and education board, and makes use of its NTSC and VGA decoding example code. All his code is available for your perusal in his appendices, and he’s produced a demo video shown here below the break.

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Rasberry Pi Zero Plays Every Simpsons Episode Ever at Random

If there’s a better use for Raspberry Pi Zero than a shuffler for episodes of “The Simpsons”, we haven’t heard about it.

Creator [Stephen Coyle] took inspiration from [Will Smith]’s mention of the burning need for such a device on the Tested podcast years back. The gadget is just a Zero with a familiar yellow button – hopefully it’s Pantone 116 C – that randomly selects an episode from the SD card. [Stephen] is clear on his opinion of over half of the program’s oeuvre, having found only seasons 2 through 10 worthy to load on the card. As an aside, we feel pretty old after seeing that all 593 episodes can easily fit on a 128GB SD card – we started out religiously recording every episode on VHS tapes, but had to stop after a few seasons when the collection got too big to handle.

If ripping episodes from DVDs isn’t your style, or you’re still into the first-run stuff, you might want to check out this confusingly named Smart Homer so you never miss an episode.

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Get Really Basic With Steppers and Eight Buttons

[Kevin Darrah] put together a good video showing how to control a stepper motor with, not a motor driver, but our fingers. Taking the really low-level approach to do this sort of thing gave us a much better understanding about the features of our stepper driver chips. Such as, for example, why a half step needed twice the current to operate.

[Kevin] starts with the standard explanation of coils, transistors, and magnets that every stepper tutorial does. When he hooks up simple breadboard with passives and buttons, and then begins to activate the switches in sequence is when we had our, “oh,” moment. At first even he has trouble remembering the correct sequence, but the stepper control became intuitive when laid out with tactile switches.

We set-up our own experiment to see if we remembered our lessons on the subject. It was a fun way to review what we already knew, and we learned some more along the way. Video after the break.

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VGA Output On A Freescale

Even though VGA is an outdated and becoming somewhat deprecated, getting this video output running on non-standard hardware is a rite of passage for some hackers. [Andrew] is the latest to take up the challenge. He got VGA output on a Freescale i.MX233 and also got some experience diving into the Linux kernel while he was at it.

The Freescale i.MX233 is a single-board computer that is well-documented and easy to wire up to other things without specialized hardware. It has video output in the form of PAL/NTSC but this wasn’t quite enough for [Andrew]. After obtaining the kernel sources, all that’s needed is to patch the kernel, build the kernel, and build a custom DAC to interface the GPIO pins to the VGA connector.

The first thing that [Andrew] did was load up the Hackaday home page, which he notes took quite a while since the i.MX233 only runs at 454 MHz with just 64 MB of RAM. While our retro page may have loaded a little faster, this is still an impressive build and a great first step to exploring more of the Linux kernel. The Freescale i.MX233 is a popular chip for diving into Linux on single-board computers, and there’s a lot going on in that community. There are some extreme VGA hacks out there as well if that’s more your style.