The Supercon Badge is a Freakin’ Computer

It hangs around your neck, comes with the cost of admission, and would blow away a desktop computer from the 1980’s. This is the Hackaday Superconference badge and you can get your hands on one for the price of admission to the ultimate hardware conference.

Everyone through the door gets one of these badges featuring a 320 x 240 color display, a full qwerty keyboard, and limitless hacking potential! The stock firmware runs a BASIC interpreter, the CP/M operating system, and includes games and Easter Eggs. It’s a giant playground, and we want to see what you can do with this custom hardware during the three days of Supercon. Get your ticket now, then join me after the break for a demo video and plenty more info.

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It’s The Web, Basically

If you are of a certain age, you probably learned to program in Basic. Even if you aren’t, a lot of microcontroller hobbyists got started on the Basic Stamp, and there are plenty of other places where to venerable language still hides out. But if you want to write cool browser applications, you have to write JavaScript, right? Google will now let you code your web pages in Basic. Known as WWWBasic, this is — of course — a Javascript hack that you can load remotely into a web page and then have your page use Basic for customization. You can even import the thing into Node.js and use Basic inside your JavaScript, although it is hard to think of why you’d want to.

According to the project’s documentation — which is pretty sparse so far, we’re afraid — the Basic program is compiled into JavaScript on page load. There are a few examples, so you can generally pick up what’s available to use. There are graphics, the ability to read a keyboard key, and a way to handle the mouse.

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ESP8266 Home Computer Hides Unexpected Gems

With a BASIC interpreter and free run throughout their hardware, home computers like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 used to be a pervasive way to light that hacker fire. With the advent of cheap single board computers like the Raspberry Pi, devices purpose built to emulate these classic systems have become fairly commonplace. [uli] built a device in this vein called the BASIC Engine which is driven by a microcontroller and a handful of hardware peripherals. Like other examples it can be attached to a keyboard, programmed in a BASIC, play video and sound, etc. But digging into the BASIC Engine reveals that it’s similarity to other devices is only skin deep.

The current version of the BASIC Engine (“rev2”) lives in a Raspberry Pi 3 case for convenience. It has RCA connectors for NTSC or PAL video output and mono audio, plus a bank of headers to tap into GPIOs, connectors for a keyboard, and more. [uli] wanted to aim for extreme low cost so a relatively beefy board like a Raspberry Pi didn’t fit the bill, and we expect it was an enjoyable challenge. Instead its interpreter runs atop an ESP8266 but with the networking stack removed. [uli] was disheartened by how bloated even a “Hello world” program was and ripped it out, discovering that hidden beneath was a very powerful and disproportionately inexpensive general purpose microcontroller. The video is driven by a VS23S010, sold as a 1 Mbit parallel SRAM with a neat trick; it also includes a composite video controller!

The real treat here is [uli]’s history writeup of how the BASIC Engine came to be. We’d recommend brewing a cup of coffee and sitting down for a full read-through. The first version was inspired by the PlayPower project, which was repurposing clones of Nintendo’s Famicom (NES to Americans) game console to make low cost home computers, complete with keyboard and gamepad input. [uli] started out by building a custom cartridge for a particular Famicom clone that ran a BASIC interpreter but after showing it to disinterested adults the project was left fallow. Years later, [uli] was encouraged to pick up the project again, leading down a twisted rabbit hole to where we are today.

If you want to build a BASIC Engine for yourself, Gerbers and build instructions are available on the pages linked above.

Thanks for the tip [antibyte]!

DIY Coil Winding Machine Counts The Hacky Way

“Wait, was that 423 or 424?” When you’re stuck winding a transformer or coil that has more than a few hundred turns, you’re going to want to spend some time on a winding jig. This video, embedded below, displays a simple but sufficient machine — with a few twists.

The first elaboration is the addition of a shuttle that moves back and forth in sync with the main spindle to lay the windings down nice and smooth. Here, it’s tremendously simple — a piece of threaded rod and a set of interchangeable wheels that are driven by a big o-ring belt. We love the low-tech solution of simply adding a twist into the belt to swap directions. We would have way overthought the mechanism.

But then the hack is the digital counter made out of an old calculator. We’ve seen this before, of course, but here’s a great real-world application.

Thanks [Jānis] for the tip!

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QuickBASIC Lives On with QB64

When I got my first computer, a second hand 386 running MS-DOS 6.22, I didn’t have an Internet connection. But I did have QuickBASIC installed and a stack of programming magazines the local library was throwing out, so I had plenty to keep myself busy. At the time, I thought QuickBASIC was more or less indistinguishable from magic. I could write simple code and compile it into an .exe, put it on a floppy, and give it to somebody else to run on their own machine. It seemed too good to be true, how could this technology possibly be improved upon?

Of course, that was many years ago, and things are very different now. The programming languages du jour are worlds more capable than the plodding BASIC variants of the 80’s and 90’s. But still, when I found a floppy full of programs I wrote decades ago, I couldn’t help but wonder about getting them running again. With something like DOSBox I reasoned I should be able to install the QuickBASIC IDE and run them like I was back on my trusty 386.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. Maybe I’m just not well versed enough in DOSBox, but I couldn’t get the IDE to actually run any of the source code I pulled off the floppy. This was disappointing, but then it occured to me that modern BASIC interpreters are probably being developed in some corner of the Internet, and perhaps I could find a way to run my nearly 30 year old code without having to rely on 30 year old software to do it. Continue reading “QuickBASIC Lives On with QB64”

A Modern, Upgraded BASIC Stamp

Back in the Before Times, when microcontroller development required ultraviolet light, building anything was a pain. You probably had to burn a ROM onto a chip with a parallel programmer, there was no in-circuit programming, and who knows what would happen if you needed a serial port.

This changed in the early 90s with the introduction of the BASIC Stamp from Parallax. This was a simple microcontroller development board using Microchip PIC. With a little bit of clever firmware developed by Parallax, you could write code in BASIC, upload your code over a serial or parallel port (which every computer had), and blink a LED with just a few lines of code. All microcontroller development boards — including the Arduino — owe a debt to the BASIC Stamp. It is the grandfather to the Arduino, and it is very, very old.

Microchip didn’t update the BASIC Stamp, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t handle that. [Bruce Eisenhard] is crowdfunding an improved, updated version of the famous 24-pin BASIC Stamp. It’s got modern parts, runs seven hundred times faster than the original, and is still chock full of BASIC interpretation.

This upgraded Stamp is built around NXP’s LPC11U3 micrcontroller, an ARM Cortex-M0 part with about a hundred times more Flash than the chip in the original Stamp. Programming is done through modern IDEs, and yes, there’s a USB port. This project is pin-compatible with the original BASIC Stamp, so if your microcontroller project from twenty years ago is dying, this is the replacement for you.

The BASIC Stamp was an awesome device for its time, even though it cost more than two hundred dollars in today’s money. [Bruce]’s campaign is offering one of these for $25, which is pretty reasonable for what it is.

 

Fixing Bugs In Ancient BASIC Games

Before everyone learned programming on Stack Exchange, things were much different. Computer magazines had BASIC programs in them, which readers would type out, line by line, and hit RUN. In theory, this is a terrible way to learn programming; it’s simply rote recitation without any insight into what the code is actually doing. Of course, copying and pasting from Stack Exchange is exactly the same thing, so maybe these magazines were ahead of the curve.

[0xA000] recently came across one of his old computer magazines containing the type-in listing for Blindganger, a game where you wander a maze blindly. When [0xA000] typed this game into his C64 back in 1988, the game didn’t work. Thirty years later, he decided to give it another go and ended up fixing bugs in an old computer game.

When [0xA000] typed this game into his computer back in 1988, the map just didn’t work, and the final screen revealed a maze where the walls were where they shouldn’t be. A quick Google turned up a disk image of the same game that had the same problem. This bug was obviously in the section of code that draws the map at the end of the game, so [0xA000] started looking there. The offending typo in the code was an $F4 instead of an $F5, or 244 instead of 255. This shifted the colors of the map by 11 positions, meaning the locations marked as visited in the final screen were wrong. Whether this bug cropped up in development or was just a simple typo when typesetting the magazine doesn’t really matter now; after 29 years, this bug is fixed.