Faux-Retro “Tape” Player Runs On ESP32 And 80s Vibes

At first glance, this gorgeous retro-styled audio player built by [Max Kern] could absolutely pass for the genuine article. But then you take a closer look and realize that the “tape” it’s playing is actually an animation running on a 320 x 240 IPS display, and the Play and Rewind buttons on the front aren’t the chunky electromechanical affairs of yesteryear but actually cleverly repurposed MX keyboard switches.

By now you’re probably realizing that this player is quite a bit smaller than you first imagined, which in turn, means that it even its case is a modern fabrication. While it might perfectly encapsulate the look and feel of a piece of 1980s consumer electronics, it was squirted out on a thoroughly modern desktop 3D printer.

Even so, [Max] made sure to include draft angles in the CAD design and and a distinctive separation line so the case looked like it was injection molded. Following similar logic, he decided against using a modern rechargeable battery pack to power the electronics, opting instead for a more era-appropriate set of AA batteries.

In terms of hardware, the custom PCB is home to an ESP32 WROOM, a MAX98357A I2S audio amplifier, a FT231XS USB-to-serial chip, with enough passives and regulators to keep them all well fed and happy. The ESP32 has more than enough computational horsepower to chew through MP3 files, which are conveniently loaded via an SD slot built into the side of the player. As the player was actually intended for audio books, onboard playback is limited to a mono speaker; though there is a 3.5 mm audio jack to plug in a pair of headphones for when the built-in speaker isn’t up to the task.

Check out the video after the break to see how the player is assembled, as well as a demonstration of its simple three-button user interface. It looks like a joy to use, though the lack of fast forward and rewind sound effects took us a bit by surprise given the otherwise impeccable attention to detail. We’ll assume there’s some technical limitation that makes this particularly difficult to implement, and that their absence is currently keeping [Max] up at night.

As impressive as the final product is, we can’t say it’s a surprise. Frankly, we wouldn’t expect anything less from [Max] at this point. His adaptive OLED macro pad wowed us back in 2020, and his ZeroBot is still one of the slickest designs for a DIY two-wheeled robots we’ve ever seen.

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Verbot Goes To The Dark Side

What happens to old, neglected 1980s toy robots? According to the [Randi Rain], they turn to the dark side! Way back in the ’80s, Tomy had an entire line of robots — from keychain wind-up toys to rolling, talking machines almost 2 feet tall. Tucked into the middle of this line was Verbot. Verbot’s claim to fame is that it is a voice-controlled robot. More than that, it was speaker-dependent. Train the robot with commands like “go forward” and then watch as it responds to your every command.

As you might guess, the speech recognition wasn’t great by today’s standards. Recognition was handled by a Microcontroller — a Mitsubishi product that was possibly a mask programmed 8051 variant. Pretty novel for an 80s toy — in fact, there’s a patent for it.

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Screenshot of a 1988 news report on the Morris Worm computer virus

Retrotechtacular: Cheesy 1980s News Report On Early Internet Virus

It was a cold autumn night in 1988. The people of Cambridge, Massachusetts lay asleep in their beds unaware of the future horror about to be unleashed from the labs of the nearby college. It was a virus, but not just any virus. This virus was a computer program whose only mission was to infect every machine it could come in contact with. Just a few deft keystrokes is all that separated law abiding citizens from the…over the top reporting in this throwback news reel posted by [Kahvowa].

Computer History Museum exhibit of the floppy disk used to distribute the Morris worm computer virus.
Computer History Museum exhibit featuring the original floppy disk used to distribute the Morris Worm computer virus.

To be fair, the concept of a computer virus certainly warranted a bit of explanation for folks in the era of Miami Vice. The only places where people would likely run into multiple computers all hooked together was a bank or a college campus. MIT was the campus in question for this news report as it served as ground zero for the Morris Worm virus.

Named after its creator, Robert Tappan Morris, the Morris Worm was one of the first programs to replicate itself via vulnerabilities in networked computer systems. Its author intended the program to be a benign method of pointing out holes, however, it ended up copying itself onto systems multiple times to the point of crashing. Removing the virus from an infected machine often took multiple days, and the total damage of the virus was estimated to be in the millions of dollars.

In an attempt to anonymize himself, Morris initially launched his worm program from a computer lab at MIT as he was studying at Cornell at the time. It didn’t work. Morris would go onto to be the first person to receive a felony conviction under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. After the appeals process, he received a sentence a community service and a fine. After college Morris co-founded the online web store software company Viaweb that Yahoo! would acquire in 1998 for 49 million dollars. Years later in an ironic twist, Morris would return to academia as a professor at MIT’s department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Interested in some info on viruses of a different nature? Check out this brief history on viruses from last year.
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Milspec Teardown: ID-2124 Howitzer Data Display

It’s time once again for another installment in “Milspec Teardown”, where we get to see what Uncle Sam spends all those defense dollars on. Battle hardened pieces of kit are always a fascinating look at what can be accomplished if money is truly no object. When engineers are given a list of requirements and effectively a blank check, you know the results are going to be worth taking a closer look.

Today, we have quite a treat indeed. Not only is this ID-2124 Howitzer Deflection-Elevation Data Display unit relatively modern (this particular specimen appears to have been pulled from service in June of 1989), but unlike other military devices we’ve looked at in the past, there’s actually a fair bit of information about it available to us lowly civilians. In a first for this ongoing series of themed teardowns, we’ll be able to compare the genuine article with the extensive documentation afforded by the ever fastidious United States Armed Forces.

For example, rather than speculate wildly as to the purpose of said device, we can read the description directly from Field Manual 6-50 “TACTICS, TECHNIQUES, AND PROCEDURES FOR THE FIELD ARTILLERY CANNON BATTERY”:

The gun assembly provides instant identification of required deflection to the gunner or elevation to the assistant gunner. The display window shows quadrant elevation or deflection information. The tenths digit shows on the QE display only when the special instruction of GUNNER’S QUADRANT is received.

From this description we can surmise that the ID-2124 is used to display critical data to be used during the aiming and firing of the weapon. Further, the small size of the device and the use of binding posts seem to indicate that it would be used remotely or temporarily. Perhaps so the crew can put some distance between themselves and the artillery piece they’re controlling.

Now that we have an idea of what the ID-2124 is and how it would be used, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on inside that olive drab aluminum enclosure.

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Repairing A Vintage Sharp MemoWriter

As you may know, we’re rather big fans of building things here at Hackaday. But we’re also quite partial to repairing things which might otherwise end up in a landfill. Especially when those things happen to be interesting pieces of vintage hardware. So the work [ekriirke] put in to get this early 1980’s era Sharp MemoWriter EL-7000 back up and running is definitely right up our alley.

There were a number of issues with the MemoWriter that needed addressing before all was said and done, but none more serious than the NiCd batteries popping inside the case. Battery leakage is a failure mode that most of us have probably seen more than a few times, but it never makes it any less painful to see that green corrosion spreading over the internals like a virus. When [ekriirke] cracked open this gadget he was greeted with a particularly bad case, with a large chunk of the PCB traces eaten away.

The corrosion was removed with oxalic acid, which dropped the nastiness factor considerably, but didn’t do much to get the calculator back in working order. For that, [ekriirke] reconnected each damaged trace using a piece of wire; he even followed the original traces as closely as possible so the final result looked a little neater. Once everything was electrically solid again, he covered the whole repair with a layer of nail polish to adhere the wires and add a protective coating. Nail polish might not have been our first choice for a sealer, and likely not that particular shade even if it was, but sometimes you’ve got to use what you have on hand.

After years of disuse the ribbon cartridge was predictably dry, so [ekriirke] rejuvenated it with the fluid from a permanent marker applied to the internal sponge. He also made some modifications to the battery compartment so he could insert rechargeable Ni-MH AA batteries rather than building a dedicated pack. There’s no battery door in the enclosure, so removing the batteries will require opening the calculator up, but at least he has the ability to remove the batteries before putting the device in storage. Should help avoid a repeat of what happened the first time.

If you’re a fan of a good restoration, we’ve got plenty to keep you entertained. From bringing a destroyed Atari back from the dead to giving some cherished children’s toys a new lease on life, fixing old stuff can be just as engrossing as building it from scratch.

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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.