PHP Gets A Demoscene Engine Of Its Very Own

When we think demoscene, our first thought is typically of 80s computers, particularly the Commodore 64 and Amiga 500 which were widely regarded as the awesomest of their time. However, you can write a demo on any platform you wish, and [OxABADCAFE] has done just that – in PHP.

Pretty, no?

Going by PDE, standing for Pointless, Portable, or PHP Demo Engine, the code is available on GitHub for the curious. The code is set up for RGB ASCII terminal output, for a beautifully old-school aesthetic. Demo sequences can be programmed in JSON files, with the code executing a default in-built demo if none is provided.

There’s no audio yet, so you’ll have to cool your thumping chiptune jets until that’s available in a later release. With that said, we look forward to more development expanding what can be done with the engine – after all, there’s nothing more demoscene than pushing the limits. Video after the break.

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Ello Is A Tiny Computer With A C — Interpreter?

When we talk about a retrocomputer, it’s our normal practice to start with the hardware. But with [KnivD]’s ELLO 1A while the hardware is interesting enough it’s not the stand-out feature. We are all used to microcomputers with a BASIC interpreter, but how many have we seen with a C interpreter? The way C works simply doesn’t lend itself to anything but a compiler and linker, so even with a pared-down version of the language it still represents a significant feat to create a working interpreter.

The hardware centres around a PIC32MX, and has onboard SD card, VGA, sound, and a PS/2 keyboard port. The PCB is a clever design allowing construction with either through-hole or surface-mount components to allow maximum accessibility for less advanced solderers. Full information can be found on the project’s website, but sadly for those wanting an easy life only the PCB is as yet available for purchase.

We’re privileged to see a huge array of retrocomputing projects here at Hackaday, but while they’re all impressive pieces of work it’s rare for one to produce something truly unexpected. This C interpreter certainly isn’t something we’ve seen before, so we’re intrigued to see what projects develop around it.

Hackaday Links: May 9, 2021

Well, that de-escalated quickly. It seems like no sooner than a paper was announced that purported to find photographic evidence of fungi growing on Mars, that the planetary science and exobiology community came down on it like a ton of bricks. As well they should — extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and while the photos that were taken by Curiosity and Opportunity sure seem to show something that looks a lot like a terrestrial puffball fungus, there are a lot of other, more mundane ways to explain these formations. Add to the fact that the lead author of the Martian mushroom paper is a known crackpot who once sued NASA for running over fungi instead of investigating them; the putative shrooms later turned out to be rocks, of course. Luckily, we have a geobiology lab wandering around on Mars right now, so if there is or was life on Mars, we’ll probably find out about it. You know, with evidence.

If you’re a fan of dystopic visions of a future where bloodthirsty robots relentlessly hunt down the last few surviving humans, the news that the New York Police Department decided to stop using their “DigiDog” robot will be a bit of a downer. The move stems from outrage generated by politicians and citizens alike, who dreamt up all sorts of reasons why the NYPD shouldn’t be using this tool. And use it they apparently did —  the original Boston Dynamics yellow showing through the many scuffs and dings in the NYPD blue paint job means this little critter has seen some stuff since it hit the streets in late 2020. And to think — that robot dog was only a few weeks away from filing its retirement papers.

Attention, Commodore fans based in Europe: the Commodore Users Europe event is coming soon. June 12, to be precise. As has become traditional, the event is virtual, but it’s free and they’re looking for presenters.

In a bid to continue the grand Big Tech tradition of knowing what’s best for everyone, Microsoft just announced that Calibri would no longer be the default font in Office products. And here’s the fun part: we all get to decide what the new default font will be, at least ostensibly. The font wonks at Microsoft have created five new fonts, and you can vote for your favorite on social media. The font designers all wax eloquent on their candidates, and there are somewhat stylized examples of each new font, but what’s lacking is a simple way to judge what each font would actually look like on a page of English text. Whatever happened to “The quick brown fox” or even a little bit of “Lorem ipsum”?

And finally, why are German ambulances — and apparently, German medics — covered in QR codes? Apparently, it’s a way to fight back against digital rubberneckers. The video below is in German, but the gist is clear: people love to stop and take pictures of accident scenes, and smartphones have made this worse, to the point that emergency personnel have trouble getting through to give aid. And that’s not to mention the invasion of privacy; very few accident victims are really at their best at that moment, and taking pictures of them is beyond rude. Oh, and it’s illegal, punishable by up to two years in jail. The idea with the QR codes is to pop up a website with a warning to the rubbernecker. Our German is a bit rusty, but we’re pretty sure that translates to, “Hey idiot, get back in your frigging car!” Feel free to correct us on that.

[Editor’s note: “Stop. Rubbernecking kills”.]

Artwork Spans Fifty Years Of Display Technology

Swiss artist and designer [Jürg Lehni] was commissioned to create an artwork called Four Transitions which has been installed in the HeK (House of electronics Arts) in Basel. This piece visually depicts the changes in technologies used by public information displays, such as those in airports and train stations. As the title of the installation suggests, four different technologies are represented:

  • Flip-Dot, early 1960s, 15 each 7 x 7 modules arrayed into a 21 x 35 pixel panel
  • LCD, 1970s and 1980s, two each 36 x 52 modules arrayed into 52 x 76 pixel panel
  • LED, 2000s, six each 16 x 16 RGB modules arrayed into a 32 x 48 pixel panel
  • TFT, current, one 24 inch module, 1200 x 1920 pixel panel

The final work is quite striking, but equally interesting is the summary of the the design and construction process that [Jürg] provides on Twitter. We hope he expands this into a future, more detailed writeup — if only to learn about reverse engineering the 20 year old LCD controller whose designer was in retirement. His tweets also gives us a tantalizing glimpse into the software, controllers, and interconnections used to drive all these displays. There is quite a lot of interesting engineering going on in the background, and we look forward to future documentation from [Jürg].

You may recognize [Jürg] as the creator of Hektor, a graffiti output device from 2002 which we’ve referenced over the years in Hackaday. Check out the short video below of the displays in operation, and be sure to unmute the volume so you can listen to the satisfying sound of 735 flip-dots changing state. [Jürg] also gives in interview about the project in the second video below. Thanks to [Niklas Roy] for sending in the tip about this most interesting exhibition.

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Air-Assist Analysis Reveals Most Effective — And Quietest — Methods

If there’s one thing that continues to impress us about the Hackaday community as the years roll by, it’s the willingness to share what we’ve learned with each other. Not every discovery will be news to everyone, and everything won’t be helpful or even interesting to everyone, but the mere act of sharing on the off chance that it’ll help someone else is really what sets the hardware hacking world apart.

Case in point: this in-depth analysis of laser cutter air-assist methods. Undertaken by [David Tucker], this project reads more like a lab writeup than a build log, because well, that’s pretty much what it is. For those not into laser cutters, an air assist is just a steady flow of air to blow smoke and cutting residue away from the beam path and optics of a laser cutter. It’s simple, but critical; without it, smoke can obscure and reflect the laser beam, foul lenses and mirrors, and severely degrade cut quality.

To see what air-assist methods work best, [David] looked at four different air pumps and compressors, along with a simple fan. Each of these methods was compared to a control of cuts made without air assist. The test was simple: a series of parallel lines cut into particle board with the beam focused on the surface at 80% power, with the cut speed slowly decreasing. It turned out that any air-assist was better than nothing, with the conspicuous exception of using just a fan, which made things worse. Helpfully, [David] included measurements of the noise levels of the compressors he tested, and found there’s no advantage to using an ear-splitting shop compressor over a quieter aquarium air pump. Plus, the aquarium pumps are cheap — always a bonus.

Not sure how to get up to speed with lasers? Laser Cutting 101 might be a great place to start.

Polyphony On A Tiny Scale

Older readers may remember the Stylophone, a small battery powered electric organ using conductive PCB pads and a stylus to create notes. The simple multivibrators in those instruments made them monophonic, but here in 2021 we can do better than that! [Sjm4306] has gone the extra mile with a PCB organ, by making a capacitive-touch instrument that boasts four-note polyphony.

At its heart is an ATmega328p whose software sports four tone generators that each emerge on a different pin. These are summed using a set of 100 Ω resistors and fed to a tiny speaker. Power comes from a CR2032 lithium cell, and he notes that a higher voltage delivers more volume.

The full story is detailed in the video below the break, along with a bit of four-note polyphonic action. We’re guessing that this instrument would sound sensational when hooked up to a reverb unit.

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Fix Your Nokia’s White Screen Of Death

Today the Nokia brand can be found on a range of well-screwed-together Androind phones and a few feature phones, but as older readers will remember that before their descent into corporate chaos and the Windows Phone wilderness, there was once a time when the Finnish manufacturer dominated the mobile phone landscape and produced some of the most innovative and creative handset designs ever created. It’s for some of these that [Michael Fitzmayer] has done some work providing tools revive the devices from an unfortunate bricking.

The N-Gage was the phone giant’s attempt to produce a handset that doubled as a handheld game console, and though it was a commercial failure at the time it has retained a following among enthusiasts. The flaw comes as its Symbian operating system fills its user partition, at which point the infamous “White Screen Of Death” occurs as the device can no longer reboot. Rewriting the flash chip used to be handled by Nokia service tools, but these can no longer be found. His fix substitutes a “Blue pill” STMF103-based dev board that connects to the Nokia FBus serial port and does its job. It’s possible that it could be used on other Symbian devices, but for now it’s only been tested on the N-Gages.

It’s easy to forget when a smartphone is defined by iOS and Android, that Symbian gave us a smartphone experience for the previous decade. For those of us who still pine for their miniaturised Carl Zeiss Tessar cameras and candybar form factors, it’s good to see them receiving some love.

Thanks [Razvan] for the tip.