A Video Game Odyssey: How Magnavox Launched the Console Industry

What was the first video game console? If you said the Atari 2600, you would be wrong, but we’d forgive you. After all, the Atari was early and widely sold. It also had the major features you expect from a video game. However, there was an earlier console available. the Magnavox Odyssey.

This system was black and white, had two wired controllers, and while it didn’t quite have cartridges, you could select from one of several games. The system seems inexpensive today at $100 (not including the optional light gun). However, adjusting for 1972 currency value, that’s equivalent to about $600 today.

It was not an impulse buy, and the differentiation between games was mostly an exercise in imagination. But the the Magnavox Odyssey nevertheless brought computer technology into the home and that was exciting. It proved a market existed for home video gaming, and served no small part in the success of Atari.

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Firework Shows, The Vintage Atari Way

In the summer of 1987, the Atari magazine ST-Log caried a piece entitled “Atari Sets Off Fireworks!”, a profile of the use of Atari computers in professional firework displays by Astro Pyrotechnics, a now-defunct California company. Antic podcast host [Kevin Savetz] tracked down the fireworks expert interviewed in 1987, [Robert Veline], and secured not only an interview, but a priceless trove of photographs and software. These he has put online, allowing us a fascinating glimpse into the formative years of computerized pyrotechnics.

The system uses not one, but two Ataris. An ST has all the display data and scheduling set up in the Zoomracks card file software, this is then exported to an 800XL which does the work of running the display. We’re told the code for the 800XL is loaded on a ROM cartridge for reliability. The 800XL is mounted in an aluminium briefcase with a small CRT monitor and battery, and a custom interface board stuffed with TO220 power transistors to fire the pyrotechnics themselves.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be breaking out a vintage Atari yourselves to fun a firework show three decades later, but the opportunity to examine in detail a real-world contemporary commercial use of a now-vintage computer doesn’t come along too often. You can read the original article on the Internet Archive, and listen to the [Veline] interview on the podcast episode.

This is the first Atari firework controller we’ve brought you, but we’ve shown you plenty of others like this beautifuly-executed Arduino build. And if you wonder how to trigger the fireworks themselves, how about destroying a resistor?

Hackaday Links: June 11, 2017

PCB art is getting better and better every year. This year, though, is knocking it out of the park. In March, [Andrew Sowa] turned me into money. More recently, [Trammell Hudson] has explored the layers of OSH Park soldermask and silk to create a masterpiece. Now, we’re moving up to full-blown art. [Blake Ramsdell] worked with OSH Park to create a full panel of art in gold, fiberglass, soldermask, and silkscreen. It’s 22×16 inches, and it’s fantastic.

There’s an independent Hackaday meetup going down in Hong Kong this week. The subject of the meetup will be vacuum systems for electron beam melting, mass spectrometry, and building Nixie tubes.

Why does my circuit still work when I remove some caps? This question was posed to the EEVBlog forums, with a picture attached of  the worst mess of wires I’ve ever seen. This is — supposedly — not a joke, and a complete, functional CPU built out of 74HC series logic on thirty or so solderless breadboards. A weird bonus of access to the tip line at Hackaday means everyone here becomes experts in the field of absurdly constructed electronics. Want to see the worst PCB ever? We’ve seen it. This is, without question, the most rats nest electronic project anyone has ever built.

[Adam West] died this weekend at the age of 88. [West] is perhaps best known for his performance in Lookwell as a crime-solving, washed-up TV action hero. He is survived by his wife, Marcelle, and six children.

There’s a new documentary on [Nolan Bushnell] and the early days of Atari. Documentarian [Bruno Grampa] will be showing his latest, Easy to Learn, Hard to Master at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on June 23rd. It’s narrated by [Bil Herd], so we’re a bit prejudiced, but check out the trailer.

A Mini-ITX Atari 800

As a community has grown up around the 8-bit microcomputers of the 1980s, there have been some beautifully crafted rebuilds of classic machines to take advantage of newer hardware or to interface to peripherals such as keyboards or displays that were unavailable at the time. Often these have taken the form of small boards, or boards that are designed to follow the form factor of the original machine, and fit in an original case.

[mytekcontrols] has taken a different tack with his Atari 800 build, he’s produced an Atari clone designed to take the most popular upgrade boards produced by the 8-bit Atari community, as daughter boards. And he’s followed an existing form factor, though it’s not one from the Atari world. Instead, he’s made it as a mini-ITX motherboard of the type you may well be familiar with from the world of PCs.

He’s calling it the 1088XEL, because with a popular 1MB upgrade board fitted it boasts a generous 1088k of memory. It sports the original five Atari LSI chips, and manages the task without resorting to surface-mount construction.

The forum thread linked above is a long one that makes for a fascinating read as it deals in depth with the design of an 8-bit micro clone. But if you want to skip straight to the hardware, start at about page 13.

We’ve had more than one 8-bit Atari on these pages over the years. Most memorable though is probably this laptop.

Thanks [Lenore Underwood].

Atari Now Runs Java, Thankfully Doesn’t Require Constant Updates

Java Grinder is a tool that compiles Java programs to run on platforms like microcontrollers and consoles, by outputting native assembly code and using APIs to work with custom hardware like bespoke graphics and sound chips. Amongst other hardware, Java Grinder supports the Commodore 64, which uses a variant of the 6502 CPU. [Michael Kohn] realized the Atari 2600 shares this processor, and figured he’d get started on making Java Grinder work with the Atari by expanding on the C64 work done by [Joe Davisson]. Together, they brought Java to the Atari 2600 and made a game along the way.

According to [Michael], parts of the project were easy, as some Java routines compile down into as little as 1 or 2 instructions on the 6502. Other parts were harder, like dealing with the graphics subsystem, and modifying Java Grinder to output 8-bit bytecode to fit into the Atari’s tiny 4K ROM limit. Even with this tweak, they still couldn’t fit in a game and title screen. In the end they relied on bank switching to get the job done. [Joe]’s game is pretty solid fare for the Atari 2600 — blocky graphics and bleepy sounds — and they’ve uploaded it to the page so you can try it yourself in an emulator.

At the end of the day, porting Java code to a system with 128 bytes of RAM probably isn’t going to be particularly useful. However, as a coding exercise and learning experience, there’s a lot of value here in terms of building your skills as a coder. Other such experiments have shown us Java running on other unexpected devices, like the Sega Genesis or the MSP430. Video after the break.

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Hackaday Links: October 9, 2016

Atari is back! That’s what some dude says. There are no real details in that post, other than ‘Atari is Back!’

The ESP32 is coming, and it’s going to be awesome. Espressif has just released an Arduino core for the ESP32 WiFi chip. The digitalRead, digitalWrite, SPI, Serial, Wire, and WiFi “should” work. If you’re looking for ESP32 hardware, they’re infrequently available and frequently out of stock. Thankfully, stock levels won’t be the Raspberry Pi Zero all over again until someone figures out how to run an NES emulator on the ESP32.

Tiny, cheap ARM boards would make for great home servers if they had SATA or multiple network interfaces. Here’s a Kickstarter for a board with both. It’s based on an ARM A53 with multiple Ethernets, mini PCIe, enough RAM, and SATA. It’s a board for niche use cases, but those uses could be really cool.

You’re not cool or ‘with it’ until you have a PCB ruler. That’s what all the hip kids are doing. For wizards and dark mages out there, a simple PCB ruler isn’t enough. These rare beasts demand RF rulers. There’s some weird stuff on these rulers, like Archemedian spiral antennas and spark gaps. Black magic stuff, here.

Some dude with a camera in the woods did something. Primitive Technology, the best example of experimental archaeology you’ve ever seen, built a spear thrower. You can throw a ball faster with a lacrosse stick than you can with just your hands, and this is the idea behind this device, commonly referred to as an atlatl. You can hunt with an atlatl in some states, but I have yet to see a video of anyone taking down a deer with one of these.

Think we’re done spamming the Hackaday Superconference yet? YOU’RE WRONG. The Hackaday Superconference is the greatest hardware conference of all time until we do this whole thing again next year. Get your tickets, look at the incredible list of speakers, book your flights, and be in Pasadena November 5-6.

An Atari 600XL Talks Composite Video

When we write about the 8-bit era of home computers there is a list of manufacturers whose names are frequently mentioned. Apple, Commodore, Texas Instruments, maybe Acorn and Sinclair if you are British, and of course Atari. But when we mention the last of those names it is invariably in reference to their iconic 2600 games console, it almost passes unnoticed that they also produced a line of 8-bit home computers based upon that success.

[ModPurist] was lucky enough to secure one of the Atari 8-bit computers through bartering with a local game store, an Atari 600XL from around 1983 or 1984, complete with its original box, manuals, cartridges, and a data cassette recorder. But on powering the system up and connecting to a TV a problem emerged. There was something there, but through a lot of noise and very blurry indeed. The solution after a bit of investigation turned out to be quite simple, to bypass the Astec video modulator and apply a composite video modification. Further investigation revealed that the original problem had in part been caused by the unit’s 5V power supply falling short of its voltage, so a further modification was to make a USB lead to allow it to be powered from a modern 5V charger.

This is a relatively simple piece of work, so you might be asking “Where’s the hack?”. The answer lies not in the mod itself, but in the detailed look [ModPurist] gives us at the inner workings of the 600XL, since it’s not a machine we see very often. Having the benefit of 30 years of hindsight and knowing the Atari’s competition quite well, we’d say that compared to some other machines of the era it’s a surprisingly well-designed computer both aesthetically and mechanically.

If your appetite for old Ataris has been whetted by this mod, can we draw your attention to this Atari 800 laptop? Or how about this 800 whose 6502 has been replaced with a 6809?