VCF East: Cactus, Retro Because it Wants to Be

Among the rows of digital dinosaurs, one blinking front panel stood out. It certainly looked the part of a retro computer; with banks of blinking LEDs and multicolored paddle switches. But upon closer inspection, the laser cut wooden front panel betrays the fact that this machine is an impostor. It may have the appearance of a machine from the heady days where home computers looked like they could have doubled as a prop on the bridge of Kirk’s Enterprise, but it’s actually a product of much more modern provenance.

It’s called the Cactus, a love letter to the homebrew microcomputers of the 1970’s, designed and built by somebody at least 20 years too young to have experienced them the first time around. Alexander Pierson created the Cactus not because he had fond memories of putting together an Altair 8800 in 1975, but because he’s fascinated with the retro computer experience: the look of the front panel, the satisfying clunk of era-appropriate switches, and the idea that the computer’s inner workings aren’t an abstract black box but rather something you can interact with and study. Judging by all the attention the Cactus got at VCF East XIII, he’s not the only one.

Let’s take a look at everything Alexander poured into this retrocomputer build.

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VCF East: SDR on the Altair 8800

You’d be forgiven if you thought software defined radio (SDR) was a relatively recent discovery. After all, few outside of the hardcore amateur radio circles were even familiar with the concept until it was discovered that cheap USB TV tuners could be used as fairly decent receivers from a few hundred MHz all the way up into the GHz range. The advent of the RTL-SDR project in 2012 brought the cost of entry level SDR hardware from hundreds of dollars to tens of dollars effectively overnight. Today there’s more hackers cruising the airwaves via software trickery than there’s ever been before.

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A Wild Hackaday Belgrade Confirms Status as One of World’s Greatest Hardware Cons

Hackers, Designers, and Engineers flooded into Dom Omladine on Saturday for what can only be described as an epic celebration of hardware culture. This is the second time Hackaday has organized a huge conference in Belgrade, and lightning really did strike twice.

A Gathering of New Friends and Old

We got things started off with a meetup the night before the conference. The first Hackaday Belgrade was held in 2016 and we didn’t reserve a bar on Friday night — we ended up taking over one just through sheer numbers. This year we called ahead for a large outdoor space, then made good use of it.

Everyone was giddy with anticipation of the next day to come. There is always a sizzling energy of meeting up in real life. Most of this group hangs out on Hackaday.io, but only some of them have met in person. Add to that the reunions of those who became friends at the previous Hackaday Belgrade and at other cons around Europe and you have the feeling of coming home. These really are your people.

Yes, a Conference. But the Cool Kind

Hackaday conferences are more than just parties… they’re conferences. If you approach it the right way you can get your employer on board with you attending because you’re going to meet incredible people, learn lots of stuff, and come back excited to take on the Universe. Actually, bring your boss along for the ride too!

This year we had thirteen incredible talks. As is our practice, we started off with a super-technical talk as Rachel Wong (aka @konichiwakitty) discussed her Ph.D research which involves growing eye tissue in the lab. But like all incredibly brilliant minds, she has a creative outlet which she also covered as part of her Keynote address. Rachel has a passion for building wearables that are reaching for the future by embracing things we really do need in our garments and gear.

From drone monitoring networks to robot soldering machines, and concepts for designing meaningful hardware to using code to automate tedious PCB layout, there was plenty in these talks for everyone.

I really enjoyed Elliot Williams’ talk on Logic Noise for his live demos using simple logic chips to build up complex music. Marcel van Kervinck took us on a journey of TTL computer design. And Sophi Kravitz’s talk on building non-rigid airships had at least two people at the con get inspired and spin their own blimp design during the conference! There was a live-feed of the talks so keep your eye on Hackaday as we pull those out to be featured individually.

Some of the demo hardware: Acoustic levitation for lab work

The workshops were standing room only as people who weren’t able to grab a ticket audited the course. We had three hands-on session that built wearable circuitry, brough art to PCB design, and dove into the world of FPGAs.

Welcome, Here’s Your Neck-Mounted Retro Computer

Everyone through the door received a custom electronic badge to hack on during Hackaday Belgrade. Voja Antonic designed the hardware and oversaw the manufacture. We had excellent yield which is great because we had nearly (if not more than) 100% attendance at the conference. We ended the day with just 5 badges to spare!

Hackaday Belgrade badge and user guide put to use

These handheld computers are truly hot! The badges each have 55 really clicky keys. With at least 350 people in the room, that’s approaching 20k momentary push switches and at one point, a brief “silence” fell and all that could be heard were clicking buttons. That and we asked everyone to play the Mario Overworld tune at the same time as hundreds of badges rose in a glorious chorus. There’s also a 16-page user manual to go along with them which included sample code to get started.

Hacking went on throughout the day but as the talk session wrapped up we transformed the hall into a Hacker Village. Tables were brought in and immediately filled. Live music filled the room as Bogdan Rosu and Richard Hogben each played IDM sets. If you’ve been watching Hackaday videos you’ve heard their work and their performances this night were epic.

There was food, there was beer, and there were the tools of our lifestyle; laptops, programmers, jumper wires, blinky add-ons, and the excitement that goes along with all of them. The badge hacking presentations began at midnight and the place was still alive with excitement. It is truly great to see how supportive our community is of exploring hardware and trying things out. Publish your badge hacks and stories from the conference on Hackaday.io as we’ll be featuring those in the coming days and want to make sure we have all the juicy details.

Why Belgrade?

Keep your eye on Hackaday as there is much more coverage to come on this wonderful event. Many have asked: “Why Belgrade?”. It’s a fantastic city and the engineering community in the area is passionate about getting together to learn and share ideas. This includes the Supplyframe engineers who live in Belgrade and did the heavy lifting to organize and staff Hackaday Belgrade. You all did an amazing job and everyone at the con owes you a debt of gratitude, thank you so much! We also want to thank Supplyframe and SevenBridges, our sponsors for the event.

To all who attended, it wouldn’t have happened without you! I can speak for everyone on the Hackaday crew in saying the culture we share is energizing, encouraging, and humbling. It’s exactly the kind of recharge everyone looks for to keep life interesting! We’ll see you at the next one. Now over the next five months we have our sights set on the Hackaday Superconference. See you there!

VCF East: The Mail Order App Store

Today we take the concept of a centralized software repository for granted. Whether it’s apt or the App Store, pretty much every device we use today has a way to pull applications in without the user manually having to search for them on the wilds of the Internet. Not only is this more convenient for the end user, but at least in theory, more secure since you won’t be pulling binaries off of some random website.

But centralized software distribution doesn’t just benefit the user, it can help developers as well. As platforms like Steam have shown, once you lower the bar to the point that all you need to get your software on the marketplace is a good idea, smaller developers get a chance to shine. You don’t need to find a publisher or pay out of pocket to have a bunch of discs pressed, just put your game or program out there and see what happens. Markus “Notch” Persson saw his hobby project Minecraft turn into one of the biggest entertainment franchises in decades, but one has to wonder if it would have ever gotten released commercially if he first had to convince a publisher that somebody would want to play a game about digging holes.

In the days before digital distribution was practical, things were even worse. If you wanted to sell your game or program, it needed to be advertised somewhere, needed to be put on physical media, and it needed to get shipped out to the customer. All this took capital that would easily be beyond many independent developers, to say nothing of single individuals.

But at the recent Vintage Computer Festival East, [Allan Bushman] showed off relics from a little known chapter of early home computing: the Atari Program Exchange (APX). In a wholly unique approach to software distribution at the time, individuals were given a platform by which their software would be advertised and sold to owners of 8-bit machines such as the Atari 400/800 and later XL series computers. In the early days, when the line between computer user and computer programmer was especially blurry, the APX let anyone with the skill turn their ideas into profit. Continue reading “VCF East: The Mail Order App Store”

Badge Bling And More At LayerOne 2018

The security conference LayerOne 2018 took place this past weekend in Pasadena, California. A schedule conflict meant most of our crew was at Hackaday Belgrade but I went to LayerOne to check it out as a first-time attendee. It was a weekend full of deciphering an enigmatic badge, hands-on learning about physical security, admiring impressive demos, and building a crappy robot.

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Hackaday Belgrade is On: Join LiveStream and Chat!

Good morning Hackaday universe! Hackaday Belgrade 2018 has just started, and we’re knee-deep in sharing, explaining, and generally celebrating our craft. But just because you’re not here doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take part.

Come join us!

Hacking for Learning and Laughs: The Makers of Oakwood School

The tagline of Bay Area Maker Faire is “Inspire the Future” and there was plenty of inspiration for our future generation. We have exhibits encouraging children to get hands-on making projects to call their own, and we have many schools exhibiting their student projects telling stories of what they’ve done. Then we have exhibitors like Oakwood School STEAM Council who have earned a little extra recognition for masterfully accomplishing both simultaneously.

[Marcos Arias], chair of the council, explained that each exhibit on display have two layers. Casual booth visitors will see inviting hands-on activities designed to delight kids. Less obvious is that each of these experiences are a culmination of work by Oakwood 7th to 12th grade students. Some students are present to staff activities and they were proud to talk about their work leading up to Maker Faire with any visitors who expressed interest.

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