Digital Picture Frame Turned Vectrex Overlay

For Hackaday readers which might not be so well versed in the world of home video gaming before the 1983 crash, the Vectrex was an interesting attempt at bringing vector graphics into player’s living rooms. Priced around $500 in today’s dollars, the machine was unique in that it included its own black and white CRT display rather than requiring the owner to plug it into their television. To spice things up a little bit, games would include a thin plastic overlay you could put over the screen to give the game faux colors. What can we say? It was the 1980’s.

Like many vintage gaming systems, the Vectrex still commands a devoted following of fans, some of which continue to find ways to hack and mod the system nearly 40 years after its release. One such fan is [Arcade Jason], who’s recently been fiddling with the idea of creating a modern take on the overlay concept using a hacked LCD display. While it’s still a bit rough around the edges, it does hold promise. He hopes somebody might even run with the idea and turn it into a marketable product for the Vectrex community.

[Jason] started by getting an old digital picture frame and tearing it down until he liberated the LCD panel. By carefully disassembling it, he was able to remove the backlight and was left with a transparent display. He then installed the panel over the display of the Vectrex, leaving the picture frame’s PCB and controls dangling off to the side. Extending the display’s ribbon cable should be easy enough for a more robust installation.

He then loaded the frame with random psychedelic pictures he found online, as well as some custom overlays which he quickly whipped up using colored blocks in an art program. In the video after the break, [Jason] shuffles through images on the frame using the buttons on the PCB while loading different demos to show the kind of visual effects that are possible.

While a neat concept, there are a couple of issues that need to be resolved before this could really be put into practice. For one, the LCD panel isn’t the proper size or aspect ratio to match the Vectrex display, so it doesn’t cover the whole CRT. It’s also rather difficult to select images to show on the LCD panel; an improved version might use something like the Raspberry Pi to load images on the panel while exposing a control interface on a secondary screen of some type.

This isn’t the first time [Jason] has experimented with the Vectrex, or even the first time he’s tried to add color to the classic system. We’re interested to see what he comes up with next.

9 thoughts on “Digital Picture Frame Turned Vectrex Overlay

  1. I miss the 4:3 aspect ratio too. 16:9 is just awkwardly narrow in my opinion. Not everything needs that kind of movie-theater presentation, and 4:3 displays it just fine if you do need it.

  2. Early TV had some weird aspect ratios like the now annoying vertical phone shot. Edison was very practical in using 4:3.
    One forgets that 16:9 is the TV compromise between 4:3 and true widescreen of the cinema standard. There are now extra-wide displays for proper display of movies and gamers are happy too. Vectrex seems to be made for the standup console experience just scaled down. I have a Battlezone display gathering dust, 19 inches in a horizontal mode. If they had wrap around displays back then that would have been the game to run.

  3. As this would cut the brightness by at least 1/4 (half per polarizing filter on either side of lcd glass) I wonder how bright the image appears in real life? Looks pretty good from pics, but cameras have a way of making things look brighter than they do to your eyes.

  4. it had a reasonably effective 3D glasses set, and was the first game system i experienced that had actual proportional control in a joystick instead of being a set of on/off microswitches. my mother did housekeeping and babysitting for a family that had significant money back in the day, so their kids had one of these and all the accessories, and a handful of games.

  5. I would love to see this with an old iPad 1 or iPad2.
    In other words old tech that the family no longer uses.
    That would: cover the tube, has very high pixels per inch, allow photo access wirelessly over bluetooth or WiFi, let you change images by swiping left or right.
    iPad insides would probably be difficult to seperate from the display; However, there is room inside the front case opposite the Vectrex power board that the iPad insides would fit.

  6. The pixel mask may interfere with the vectors, making them pixelised in some cases, at least gridised. The lcd light spreader film would spread the light to fill the pixel. Also, lcd blanking out sub pixels to produce color means some black dot pixelisation as the pixel goes to black to produce the color. High resolution, like 4k+ could make it less noticeable, or an lcd with a non pixel bonded spreader film on the front. But as is, you could time a 3D screen setup to emulate the vectrex color wheel.

    There were lcd screen technology in those days that went in front or a CRT and changed the whole screen at once, like a giant single pixel, through the primary colors, to produce full colour on a monochrome CRT. That’s the sort of thing you could use here with maybe no pixel effects. A very simple microchip controller could match the color wheel with little effort. You could just use an arm send drawing and sound data to the vectrex and read back controller data, but use the rest of its time running game code and doing the color overlay pixels.

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