An Epic Quest To Build The Perfect Retro Handheld

It’s a good time to be a fan of classic video games. Most of us carry around a smartphone that’s more than capable of emulating pretty much everything from the 32-bit era on down, and if you want something a little more official, the big players like Sony and Nintendo have started putting out “retro” versions of their consoles. But even still, [Mangy_Dog] wasn’t satisfied. To get the portable emulation system of his dreams, he realized he’d have to design and build it himself.

The resulting system, which he calls the “Playdog Blackbone”, is without a doubt one of the most impressive DIY builds we’ve ever seen. While there are still some issues that he’s planning on addressing in a later version of the hardware, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there’s commercially available game systems that didn’t have half as much thought put into them as the Blackbone.

Which is, incidentally, how this whole thing got started. The original plan was to buy one of those cheap emulation handhelds, which invariably seem to come in the form of a PSP clone, and fit it with a Raspberry Pi. But [Mangy_Dog] quickly realized that not only were they too small to get everything he wanted inside, but they also felt terrible in the hand. Since he wanted the final product to be comfortable to play, his first step was to design the case and get feedback on it from other retro game enthusiasts.

After a few iterations, he arrived at the design we see today. Once he printed the case out on his SLA printer, he could move on with fitting all of his electronics inside. This takes the form of a custom PCB “motherboard” which an Orange Pi Zero Plus2 (sorry Raspberry fans) connects to. There’s actually a surprising amount of room inside the case, enough for niceties like dual speakers and a fan complete with ducting to keep the board cool.

Unsurprisingly, [Mangy_Dog] says a lot of people have been asking him if they can buy their own version of the Blackbone, and have suggested he do a crowdfunding campaign to kick off mass production. While he’s looking at the possibility of resin or injection molding the case so he can produce a few more copies, on the whole, his attention has moved on to new projects. Which frankly, we can’t wait to see.

If you’re interested in slightly more modern games, we’ve seen a number of handhelds based on “trimmed” Nintendo Wii’s which you might be interested in. While they might not have the sleek external lines of the Blackbone, the work that goes into the electronics is nothing short of inspirational.

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Building An Open Hardware EBook Reader

On the whole, hackers aren’t overly fond of other people telling them what they can and cannot do with the hardware or software they’ve purchased. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid DRM and other Draconian rules and limitations as time goes on. Digital “eBooks” and the devices that are used to view them are often the subject of such scrutiny, which is why [Joey Castillo] has made it his mission to develop a open hardware eReader that truly belongs to the user.

[Joey] has been working on what he calls the “The Open Book Project” for a few months now, and he’s just recently announced that the first reader has been successfully assembled and powered up. As is usually the case, a few hardware issues were identified with this initial prototype. But it sounds like the device was largely functional, and only a few relatively minor tweaks to the board layout and components should be necessary before the hardware is ready for the masses.

An earlier prototype, using the Adafruit Feather

If you’re feeling a bit of déjà vu seeing this, don’t worry. The Open Book Project has taken a somewhat circuitous path to get to this first prototype, and [Joey] had previously developed and built the “eBook Feather Wing”. While they look very similar, that earlier incarnation required an Adafruit Feather to operate and was used to help refine the firmware and design concepts that would go into the final hardware.

The Open Book is powered by a ATSAMD51N19A processor with a GD25Q16 2MB flash chip to hold the CircuitPython code, and a microSD slot to store the actual book files. It also features support for audio output via a standard 3.5 mm headset jack, an RGB status LED, and expansion ports that tap into the I2C interface for adding whatever other hardware you can dream up.

One of the most interesting aspects of this Creative Commons licensed reader is the extensive self documentation [Joey] has included on the silkscreen. Every major component on the back of the PCB has a small description of its purpose and in some cases even a breakdown of the pin assignments. The idea being that it not only makes the device easier to assemble and debug, but that it can also explain to the curious user what everything on the board does and why it’s necessary. It’s a concept that makes perfect sense given the goals of the Open Book Project, and something that we frankly would love to see more of.

[Marc Juul] presented his work on a FOSS operating system for older-model Kindles at HOPE XII as a way to avoid Orwellian monitoring of the user’s reading habits, so it’s interesting to see somebody take this idea to the next level with completely libre reader hardware. Unfortunately none of this addresses the limited availability of DRM-free eBooks, but one step at a time.

The Cutest Oscilloscope Ever Made

If you thought your handheld digital oscilloscope was the most transportable of your signal analyzing tools, then you’re in for a surprise. This oscilloscope made by [Mark Omo] measures only one square inch, with the majority of the space taken up by the OLED screen.

It folds out into an easier instrument to hold, and admittedly does require external inputs, so it’s not exactly a standalone tool. The oscilloscope runs on a PIC32MZ EF processor, achieving 20Msps and 1MHz of bandwidth. The former interleaves the processor’s internal ADCs in order to achieve its speed.

For the analog front-end the signals first enter a 1M ohm terminator that divide the signals by 10x in order to measure them outside the rails. They then get passed through a pair of diodes connected to the rails, clamping the voltage to prevent damage. The divider centers the incoming AC signal around 1.65V, halfway between AGND and +3.3V. As a further safety feature, a larger 909k Ohm resistor sits between the signals and the diodes in order to prevent a large current from passing through the diode in the event of a large voltage entering the system.

The next component is a variable gain stage, providing either 10x, 5x, or 1x gain corresponding to 1x, 0.5x, and 0.1x system gains. For the subsystem, a TLV3541 op-amp and ADG633 tripe SPDT analog switch are used to provide a power bandwidth around the system response due to driving concerns. Notably, the resistance of the switch is non-negligible, potentially varying with voltage. Luckily, the screen used in the oscilloscope needs 12V, so supplying 12V to the mux results in a lower voltage and thus a flatter response.

The ADC module, PIC32MZ1024EFH064, is a 12-bit successive approximation ADC. One advantage of his particular ADC is that extra bits of resolution only take constant time, so speed and accuracy can be traded off. The conversion starts with a sample and hold sequence, using stored voltage on the capacitor to calculate the voltage.

Several ADCs are used in parallel to sample at the same time, resulting in the interleaving improving the sample rate. Since there are 120 Megabits per second of data coming from the ADC module, the Direct Memory Access (DMA) peripheral on the PIC32MZ allows for the writing of the data directly onto the memory of the microcontroller without involving the processor.

The firmware is currently available on GitHub and the schematics are published on the project page.

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A Cyberdeck Built With Ergonomics In Mind

With a new decade looming over us, the hot new thing for hackers and makers everywhere is to build cyberdecks to go with the flashy black-and-neon clothing that the sci-fi films of old predicted we’d all be wearing come next year. [Phil Hagelberg] has been designing one based on his own ergonomic keyboard, prioritizing not only form but also function.

The Atreus mechanical keyboard has a split layout that foregoes the traditional typewriter-inherited staggered arrangement in favor of one that better fits the user’s hands. The reduced number of keys limits hand movement for a more comfortable writing experience, however if you use function keys often, the trade-off is that you’ll need to use an auxiliary key to access them.

The deck [Phil] documents for us here is built from the ground up around that same design and aims to be small enough for travel, yet pleasant enough for serious use. It’s gone through four revisions so far, including an interesting one where the keyboard is laid out on the sides for using while standing up. As for the brains of the machine, the past revisions have used different flavors of Raspberry Pi and even a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone, though the latest model has a Pine64 running the show. How much has changed between each finished prototype really goes to show that you don’t have to get it right the first time, and it’s always good to experiment with a new idea to see what works.

[Phil] is now moving onto a fifth prototype, and hopes to eventually sell kits for building the whole cyberdeck along with the kits already available for the standalone keyboard. We’ve been struck by the creativity shown in these cyberdeck builds, which range from reusing retro computer shells to completely printing out a whole new one for a unique look. We can’t say for sure if this custom form-factor will eventually surpass mass-produced laptops, but it sure would be hella cool if it did.

A Retro Gaming Console For The New Generation

Ostensibly the ESPboy is an open-source hackable game engine built as an IoT platform for STEM education and play, but there’s no way [RomanS] could have been inspired by anything other than retro gaming consoles from the near past. For anyone who grew up playing with Tamagotchi pets or Palm Pilots, this project is going to be a major throwback.

The Saint Petersburg-based microcontroller hobbyist utilizes a ESP8266 microcontroller to build a series of modules for different game play modes, including a TFT display, GSM phone, MP3 player, GPS navigator, FM radio, and keyboard module. He has plans to build even more modules, including a LoRa messenger and thermal camera, to really expand the system’s capabilities.

Since the board has built-in WiFi, firmware can be uploaded to the device without a wired connection and compiler. The nature of the project makes the board compatible with the Arduino IDE and Micropython, which makes hacking the software even easier.

A TP4056 battery charging module charges the LiPo, although depending on the battery capacity, the charging current (set by the R3 resistor on the controller) does require some change. A MCP4725 I2C DAC is used for smooth driving the LCD’s backlight. In order to extend the battery life, the battery controller uses sleep mode to periodically wake up to measure and send data, which allows it to extend its battery life without external power. There’s also transistor driven buzzers that provide a little extra feedback to the user when playing games, complete with a variable resistor to adjust the sound volume.

A number of free pins run along the periphery for connecting to other modules, including pins for GPIO extension, sensor adapters, connectors to addressable LEDs, and an extension slot for actuators. For anyone interested in making their own version of the ESPboy, the PCB schematics are accessible online.

Projects like the Arduboy have shown that a small microcontroller-based game system can be equal parts fun and educational, so we’ve been excited to see more of these types of projects popping up during the course of the 2019 Hackaday Prize.

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Meet MutantC: Raspberry Pi Sidekick Complete With Sliding Screen, QWERTY

Over the years we’ve seen the Raspberry Pi crammed into almost any piece of hardware you can think of. Frankly, seeing what kind of unusual consumer gadget you can shoehorn a Pi into has become something of a meme in our circles. But the thing we see considerably less of are custom designed practical enclosures which actually play to the Pi’s strengths. Which is a shame, because as the MutantC created by [rahmanshaber] shows, there’s some incredible untapped potential there.

The MutantC features a QWERTY keyboard and sliding display, and seems more than a little inspired by early smartphone designs. You know, how they were before Apple came in and managed to convince every other manufacturer that there was no future for mobile devices with hardware keyboards. Unfortunately, hacking sessions will need to remain tethered as there’s currently no battery in the device. Though this is something [rahmanshaber] says he’s actively working on.

The custom PCB in the MutantC will work with either the Pi Zero or the full size variant, but [rahmanshaber] warns that the latest and greatest Pi 4 isn’t supported due to concerns about overheating. Beyond the Pi the parts list is pretty short, and mainly boils down to the 3D printed enclosure and the components required for the QWERTY board:  43 tactile switches and a SparkFun Pro Micro. Everything is open source, so you can have your own boards run off, print your case, and you’ll be well on the way to reliving those two-way pager glory days.

We’re excited to see where such a well documented open source project like MutantC goes from here. While the lack of an internal battery might be a show stopper for some applications, we think the overall form factor here is fantastic. Combined with the knowledge [Brian Benchoff] collected in his quest to perfect the small-scale keyboard, you’d have something very close to the mythical mobile Linux device that hackers have been dreaming of.

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Smartphone Case Doubles As Chording Keyboard, With Gesture Inputs

Smartphones and other modern computing devices are wonderful things, but for those with disabilities interacting with them isn’t always easy. In trying to improve accessibility, [Dougie Mann] created TypeCase, a combination gestural input device and chording keyboard that exists in a kind of symbiotic relationship with a user’s smartphone.

With TypeCase, a user can control a computer (or the smartphone itself) with gestures, emulate a mouse, or use the device as a one-handed chording keyboard for text input. The latter provides an alternative to voice input, which can be awkward in public areas.

The buttons and motion sensors allow for one-handed button and gestural input while holding the phone, and the Bluetooth connectivity means that the device acts and works just like a wireless mouse or keyboard. The electronics consist mainly of an Adafruit Feather 32u4 Bluefruit LE, and [Dougie] used 3D Hub’s on-demand printing service to create the enclosures once the design work was complete. Since TypeCase doubles as a protective smartphone case, users have no need to carry or manage a separate device.

TypeCase’s use cases are probably best expressed by [Dougie]’s demo video, embedded below. Chording keyboards have a higher learning curve, but they can be very compact. One-handed text input does remind us somewhat of a very different approach that had the user make gestures in patterns reminiscent of Palm’s old Graffiti system; perhaps easier to learn but not nearly as discreet.

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