The BBC Computer Literacy Project From The 1980s Is Yours To Browse

In the early 1980s there was growing public awareness that the microcomputer revolution would have a significant effect on everybody’s lives, and there was a brief period in which anything remotely connected with a computer attracted an air of glamour and sophistication. Broadcasters wanted to get in on the act, and produced glowing documentaries on the new technology, enthusiastically crystal-ball-gazing as they did so.

In the UK, the public service BBC broadcaster produced a brace of series’ over the decade probing all corners of the subject as part of the same Computer Literacy Project that gave us Acorn’s BBC Micro, and we are lucky enough that they’ve put them all online so that we can watch them (again, in some cases, if a Hackaday scribe can get away with revealing her age).

You can see famous shows such as the moment when the presenters experienced a live on-air hack while demonstrating an early online service, but most of it is a fascinating contemporary look at the computers we now enthuse over as retro devices. Will the MSX sweep all before it, for example? (It didn’t).

They seem very dated now with their 8-bit micros (if not just for the word “micro”), synth music, and cheesy graphics. But what does come across is the air of optimism, this was the future, and it was packaged not as a threat, but as a good place to be. Take a look, but make sure you have plenty of time. You may spend a while in front of the screen.

We’ve mentioned int he past another spin-off from the Computer Literacy Project, the Domesday Project.

Thanks [Darren Grant] for the tip.

 

Real-Time Polarimetric Imager from 1980s Tech

It’s easy to dismiss decades old electronics as effectively e-waste. With the rapid advancements and plummeting prices of modern technology, most old hardware is little more than a historical curiosity at this point. For example, why would anyone purchase something as esoteric as 1980-era video production equipment in 2018? A cheap burner phone could take better images, and if you’re looking to get video in your projects you’d be better off getting a webcam or a Raspberry Pi camera module.

But occasionally the old ways of doing things offer possibilities that modern methods don’t. This fascinating white paper from [David Prutchi] describes in intricate detail how a 1982 JVC KY-1900 professional video camera purchased for $50 on eBay was turned into a polarimetric imager. The end result isn’t perfect, but considering such a device would normally carry a ~$20,000 price tag, it’s good enough that anyone looking to explore the concept of polarized video should probably get ready to open eBay in a new tab.

Likely many readers are not familiar with polarimetric imagers, it’s not exactly the kind of thing they carry at Best Buy. Put simply, it’s a device that allows the user to visualize the polarization of light in a given scene. [David] is interested in the technology as, among other things, it can be used to detect man-made materials against a natural backdrop; offering a potential method for detecting mines and other hidden explosives. He presented a fascinating talk on the subject at the 2015 Hackaday SuperConference, and DOLpi, his attempt at building a low-cost polarimetric imager with the Raspberry Pi, got him a fifth place win in that year’s Hackaday Prize.

While he got good results with his Raspberry Pi solution, it took several seconds to generate a single frame of the image. To be practical, it needed to be much faster. [David] found his solution in an unlikely place, the design of 1980’s portable video cameras. These cameras made use of a dichroic beamsplitter to separate incoming light into red, blue, and green images; and in turn, each color image was fed into a dedicated sensor by way of mirrors. By replacing the beamsplitter assembly with a new 3D printed version that integrates polarization filters, each sensor now receives an image that corresponds to 0, 45, and 90 degrees polarization.

With the modification complete, the camera now generates real-time video that shows the angle of polarization as false color. [David] notes that the color reproduction and resolution is quite poor due to the nature of 30+ year old video technology, but that overall it’s a fair trade-off for running at 30 frames per second.

In another recent project, [David] found a way to hack optics onto a consumer-level thermal imaging camera. It’s becoming abundantly clear that he’s not a big fan of leaving hardware in an unmodified state.

A Touchscreen From 1982, That Could Kill With A Single Finger Press

Over the pond here in the UK we used to have a TV show called Tomorrow’s World, It was on once a week showing all the tech we would have been using in 10 years time (or so they said). In 1982 they ran with a story about a touch screen computer. Perhaps not what you would recognize today as a touchscreen but given the date and limited technology someone had come up with a novel idea for a touchscreen that worked sort of.

It was a normal CRT screen but around the edges where photodiodes pointing inwards as if to make an invisible infrared touch interface just half an inch in front of the screen. Quite impressive technology giving the times. As they go through the video showing us how it works a more sinister use of this new-fangled touch screen computer rears its ugly head, They turned it into a pretty cool remote-controlled gun turret complete with a motorized horizontal and vertical axis upon which an air pistol was placed along with a camera. You could see an image back from the camera on the screen, move the gun around to aim the weapon, then with a single finger press on the screen, your target has been hit.

Continue reading “A Touchscreen From 1982, That Could Kill With A Single Finger Press”

Usborne Release More 1980s Computer Books

Children of the 1980s who had an interest in technology were lucky indeed. As well as the first generations of home computers at their disposal they had the expectation to program them, something which the generation that followed had lost.

Traditional children’s publishers enthusiastically embraced the home computer boom, and probably for the only time in history there were books aimed at children covering subjects like machine code, or interfacing to microprocessors.

Kid's books were better when we were young! Usborne(Fair use)
Kid’s books were better when we were young! Usborne(Fair use)

If you are British, the most memorable of these books came from Usborne Publishing. Their format of colourful cartoons and easy to digest layout have made them something of a cult object among the now-grown-up generation who first received them, and Usborne themselves have cleverly exploited their heritage to promote their current offerings by releasing some of them as PDFs. And now, to promote their latest title, “Coding For Beginners Using Python”, they’ve released five more (scroll down to see). Titles are “Practice Your BASIC”, “Better BASIC”, “Computer Controlled Robots”, “Experiments With Your Computer”, and “Keyboards & Computer Music”, which join the fifteen they’ve already released.

Obviously they are heavily based around the microcomputers of the 1980s, but of course for most Hackaday readers that will be their chief attraction. Either way they’re an interesting read, and should you happen to have a few old micros lying around then maybe you could have a go at some of the projects.

If the BASIC listings are a little foreign to you, might we suggest some places to find BASIC information.

Flappy Bird is the New “Does it Run Doom?”

Back in 2014 [Johan] decided to celebrate BASIC’s 30 50 year anniversary by writing his own BASIC interpreter. Now, a few years later, he says he feels he has hit a certain milestone: he can play Flappy Bird, written in his own version of BASIC, running on his own home-built computer, the BASIC-1.

Inside the BASIC-1 is an Atmel XMega128A4, a keyboard from a broken Commodore 64, a joystick port, a serial to TV out adapter, and an SD card adapter for program storage. An attractively laser-cut enclosure with kerf bends houses the keyboard and hardware. The BASIC-1 boots into BASIC just like many of its home computer counterparts from the 80s.

Continue reading “Flappy Bird is the New “Does it Run Doom?””

The Power Glove Ultra Is The Power Glove We Finally Deserve

How do you make the most awesome gaming peripheral ever made even more bad? Give it a 21st-century upgrade! [Alessio Cosenza] calls this mod the Power Glove Ultra, and it works exactly as we imagined it should have all those years ago.

The most noticeable change is the 3D-printed attachment that hosts the Bluetooth module, a combination USB charger and voltage booster, and a Metro Mini(ATmega328) board. On top of a 20-hour battery life, a 9-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass gives the Power Glove Ultra full 360-degree motion tracking and upgrades the functionality of the finger sensors with a custom board and five flex sensor strips with 256 possible positions for far more nuanced input. [Cosenza] has deliberately left the boards and wires exposed for that cyberpunk, retro-future look that is so, so bad.

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Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI

We all know what Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is nowadays. It’s almost impossible to get away from it in any television show or movie. It’s gotten so good, that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the real world and the computer generated world when they are mixed together on-screen. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. This 1982 clip from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World shows what the wonders of CGI were capable of in a simpler time.

In the earliest days of CGI, digital computers weren’t even really a thing. [John Whitney] was an American animator and is widely considered to be the father of computer animation. In the 1940’s, he and his brother [James] started to experiment with what they called “abstract animation”. They pieced together old analog computers and servos to make their own devices that were capable of controlling the motion of lights and lit objects. While this process may be a far cry from the CGI of today, it is still animation performed by a computer. One of [Whitney’s] best known works is the opening title sequence to [Alfred Hitchcock’s] 1958 film, Vertigo.

Later, in 1973, Westworld become the very first feature film to feature CGI. The film was a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park robots that become evil. The studio wanted footage of the robot’s “computer vision” but they would need an expert to get the job done right. They ultimately hired [John Whitney’s] son, [John Whitney Jr] to lead the project. The process first required color separating each frame of the 70mm film because [John Jr] did not have a color scanner. He then used a computer to digitally modify each image to create what we would now recognize as a “pixelated” effect. The computer processing took approximately eight hours for every ten seconds of footage. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI”