A Trash-Steam-Machine-80

Sometimes for a retrocomputing enthusiast it can be challenging to see a surviving machine gutted and used for another purpose. But in the case of [Tom Pick]’s Radio Shack TRS-80 based Steam Machine PC we can forgive him, because it began with a very unpromising machine that had most definitely seen better days.

The TRS-80 in question is a Model III, the all-in-one console device with a numerical keypad, CRT monitor, and dual 5.25″ floppy drives built in. This provided plenty of space for the components of a modern PC with a 12″ LCD monitor. The PC itself is a run-of-the mill 2.6 GHz Pentium and nothing exceptional, but its input devices are of note. The keyboard is a Red Dragon mechanical item which has been made to look the part in place of the old Radio Shack item with a set of custom colour-coded keycaps, while the pointing device in a particularly neat touch is a modern Radio Shack-branded mouse. The boot screen is the proper Radio Shack logo from the TRS-80’s heyday, meaning that if you didn’t know any differently you might think this was meant to be. Sadly the two floppy drives are unconnected, though we’re sure it would be possible to make a modern PC see them for a bit of 360k storage goodness.

We don’t see as many projects featuring the TRS-80 series as we should, and the model III is a particular rarity. Far more common in these pages is the portable Model 100, most recently gaining a cellular connection.

Plot Your Way Past A Tiny Buffer

There is a dedicated community of plotter enthusiasts who keep their often-aging X-Y axis pen drawing devices going decades after they were built, and who share plotter-generated paper artwork online. [Dhananjay Balan] was seduced by this, so acquired a second-hand HP7440A through eBay and set about bringing it to life.

Bringing it to life was in the first instance the usual progression of cleaning the mechanism and checking all was in order, before doing a bit of research to find that the missing power supply was a 10-0-10V AC item. Then some adapters and a USB-to-serial port had it talking to a modern PC, and thanks to the wonders of HPGL it was working once more. This could thus have been a very simple tale worthy of the dreaded Not A Hack moniker, had the focus then not changed from the hardware into the software.

Back in the day, a 60-byte buffer in a plotter must have seemed huge. But in 2019 a plotter can be sent data at a rate that will swiftly fill it, after which the commands are not stored and are never drawn. Introducing a delay between sending commands solves the problem, but at the expense of very slow plotting. This was solved with a very clever use of the HPGL command to send the pen position, which waits until the pen has finished moving before sending its return value. This became a handy way to detect when the plotter was ready for more, allowing speedier printing without buffer overruns.

The plotter has an expansion port into which an optional module containing trigonometric drawing functions could have been plugged, but was missing in this example. HP’s idea was that the buffer was so small that a programmer would have difficulty writing their own, but the buffer hack in the previous paragraph put paid to that. Python code for all this and more is in a handy GitHub repository.

Via Hacker News.

Here’s How Hard It Is To Produce A Conference Badge

Making an event badge is hard work. Making a single prototype badge is hard enough, but the whole process of sourcing components and coordinating manufacture for hundreds of badges on a shoestring budget with the looming deadline of the event and its expectant attendees is a Herculean task.

[Uri Shaked] is one who bears the scars of producing an event badge, and he’s written a fascinating account of his experience. The conference in question was Aramcon 2019, a private tech event in Israel, and the badge has an nRF52840 driving an e-ink display, multi-colour LED, and an audio codec, with a set of full-size keyboard keys as user input. Since the nRF chip supports mesh networking, the idea was to produce a badge capable of streaming audio across the entire event.

A clothes-pin as a programming jig, we like it!
A clothes-pin as a programming jig, we like it!

We follow the team through nail-biting months of prototype boards, reversed connectors with last-minute cable bodges, compatible parts that didn’t turn out to be quite so compatible, and wrong footprints, and see them arriving at a badge which worked, but without the audio they’d hoped for. Along the way they came up with a clothes-pin-based programming jig which would surely have merited its own Hackaday write-up had they covered it on its own. Demonstrating the mesh networking by turning a whole auditorium’s worth of badges LEDs yellow was their reward, and we can see they’ve produced a very creditable badge. We particularly like the use of keyboard key switches, and we commend them for planning a life for the badge after the event.

Our Hackaday colleague [Brian Benchoff] is a veteran of badge production, read his write-ups of the genesis of our Superconference 2017 badge and the Tindie dog badge. Meanwhile the keen-eyed among you may recognise the nRF52840 as the guts of the latest generation of Particle boards.

Transparent and Flexible Circuits

German researchers have a line on 3D printed circuitry, but with a twist. Using silver nanowires and a polymer, they’ve created flexible and transparent circuits. Nanowires in this context are only 20 nanometers long and only a few nanometers thick. The research hopes to print things like LEDs and solar cells.

Of course, nothing is perfect. The material has a sheet resistance as low as 13Ω/sq and the optical transmission was as high as 90%. That sounds good until you remember the sheet resistance of copper foil on a PCB is about 0.0005Ω.

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Braille Keyboard Finds Its Voice

If you have a serious visual impairment, using a computer isn’t easy. [Dhiraj] has a project that allows people fluent in Braille to use that language for input. In addition to having a set position for fingers, the device also reads the key pressed as you type. With some third party software it is possible to even create Word documents, according to [Dhiraj].

You can see the finished product in the video below. This is one of those projects where the idea is the hardest part. Reading six buttons and converting them into characters is fairly simple. Each Braille character uses a cell of six bumps and the buttons mimic those bumps (although laid out for your fingers).

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Yet Another Concrete Speaker Build

Concrete is great if you feel like making something heavy on the cheap. [Marek Unger] decided to have a go, using the material to cast speaker cabinets for a home hi-fi rig (Youtube link, embedded below).

Initial attempts involved creating a laser-cut MDF outer mold, with a styrofoam core inside to be removed later. This was unsuccessful, and [Marek] developed the design further. The second revision used an inner core also made from lasercut MDF, designed to be left inside after casting. This inner mold already includes the mounting holes for the speaker drivers, making assembly easier too.

Once cast, the enclosures were fitted with Tang-Band W4-1320SIF drivers. These are a full-range driver, meaning they can be used without needing crossovers or other speakers to fill in the frequency range. Each cabinet weighs just over 10kg, and they’re ported for extra response in the lower frequency bands. Sound tests are impressive, and the rough-finished aesthetic of the final product looks great in [Marek]’s living room.

We’ve seen concrete used for all manner of projects, from furnaces to USB hubs. Video after the break.

Continue reading “Yet Another Concrete Speaker Build”

DIY Button Matrix Lights Up And Speaks I2C

[David Johnson-Davies] always wanted an illuminated button matrix for projects, but cost was never very friendly. That all changed when he discovered a cheap source of illuminated pushbuttons on Aliexpress, leading to this DIY 4×4 illuminated button matrix design which communicates over I2C. The button states can be read independently of setting the light pattern, and an optional interrupt signal gets pulled low whenever there is a change detected. Not bad for one PCB plus about $10-worth in components!

The device uses every single pin on an ATtiny88, and because each button gets its own pin the keypresses can be detected with pin-change interrupts. The state reporting of buttons over I2C is unambiguous, even when multiple buttons are pressed simultaneously. A simple protocol provides all the needed functionality, and all connections are brought to the board’s edge to allow for easily tiling multiple panels.

The GitHub repository contains the code and PCB files and [David] helpfully shared the board files to OSH Park and PCBWay for easy ordering. In addition, he provides two demos (Tacoyaki and Tacoyaki+) which are games related to the classic Lights Out to show off the matrix.