Full-Colour, Full-Motion Video – On An Audio Cassette!

A lot of projects we feature use video in some form or other, but that video is invariably digital, it exists as a stream of numbers in a computer memory or storage, and is often compressed. For some of us who grew up working with composite video there is a slight regret that we rarely get up-close and personal with an analogue stream, so [Kris Slyka]’s project putting  video on a conventional audio cassette is a rare opportunity. (Video, embedded below.)

It's fair to say this isn't the highest quality video.
It’s fair to say this isn’t the highest quality video.

Readers with long memories may recall the Fisher-Price PixelVision toy from the late 1980s which recorded black-and-white video on a conventional cassette running at many times normal speed. This system does not take that tack, instead it decreases resolution and frame rate to a point at which it can be recorded at conventional cassette speeds. The result is not particularly high quality, but with luminance on one side of a stereo recording and chrominance on the other it does work.

The video below the break is a run through the system, with an explanation of how video signals work. Meanwhile the code for both encoder and decoder are available through the magic of GitHub. If you’re interested further, take a look at our examination of a video waveform.

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A Ploopy Pick And Place

A fair number of hackers reach that awkward age in their careers – too old for manual pick and place, but too young for a full-fledged PnP machine. The obvious solution is to build your own PnP, which can be as simple as putting a suction cup on the Z-axis of an old 3D-printer. Feeding parts into the pick and place, though, can be a thorny problem.

Or not, if you think your way through it like [Phil Lam] did and build these semi-automated SMD tape feeders. Built for 8-mm plastic or paper tapes, the feeders are 3D-printed assemblies that fit into a rack that’s just inside the work envelope of a pick and place machine. Each feeder has a slot in the top for the tape, which is advanced by using the Z-axis of the PnP to depress a lever on the front of the case. A long tongue in the tape slot gradually peels back the tape’s cover to expose a part, which is then picked up by the PnP suction cup. Any machine should work; [Phil] uses his with a LitePlacer. We like the idea that parts stay protected until they’re needed; the satisfyingly clicky lever action is pretty cool too. See it briefly in action in the video below.

It looks like [Phil] built this in support of his popular Ploopy trackball, which is available both as a kit and fully assembled. We think the feeder design is great whether you’re using PnP or not, although here’s a simpler cassette design for purely manual SMD work.

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Retrotechtacular: Car Navigation Like It’s 1971

Anyone old enough to have driven before the GPS era probably wonders, as we do, how anyone ever found anything. Navigation back then meant outdated paper maps, long detours because of missed turns, and the far too frequent stops at dingy gas stations for the humiliation of asking for directions. It took forever sometimes, and though we got where we were going, it always seemed like there had to be a better way.

Indeed there was, but instead of waiting for the future and a constellation of satellites to guide the way, some clever folks in the early 1970s had a go at dead reckoning systems for car navigation. The video below shows one, called Cassette Navigation, in action. It consisted of a controller mounted under the dash and a modified cassette player. Special tapes, with spoken turn-by-turn instructions recorded for a specific route, were used. Each step was separated from the next by a tone, the length of which encoded the distance the car would cover before the next step needed to be played. The controller was hooked to the speedometer cable, and when the distance traveled corresponded to the tone length, the next instruction was played. There’s a long list of problems with this method, not least of which is no choice in road tunes while using it, but given the limitations at the time, it was pretty ingenious.

Dead reckoning is better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from GPS navigation. If you’re still baffled by how that cloud of satellites points you to the nearest Waffle House at 3:00 AM, check out our GPS primer for the details.

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Ditch The Tapes, Put An Android In Your Deck

While we here at Hackaday never question why an individual took on a particular project, it surely doesn’t stop our beloved readers from grabbing their pitchforks and demanding such answers in the comments. Perhaps no posts generate more of this sort of furore than the ones which feature old audio gear infused with modern hardware. In almost every case the answer is the same: the person liked the look and feel of vintage hardware, but didn’t want to be limited to antiquated media.

That sentiment is perhaps perfectly personified by the TapeLess Deck Project, created by [Artur Młynarz]. His creations combine vintage cassette decks with an Android phone small enough to fit behind the tape door. An Android application which mimics the look of a playing tape, complete with “hand written” track info, completes the illusion.

The output from the phone is tied into the deck where the audio signal from the tape head would have been, so the volume controls and VU meters still work as expected. Watching the meters bounce around while the animated “tape” plays on the screen really does look incredibly slick, though the effect is somewhat hindered by the fact the physical playback controls don’t seem to be implemented. Incidentally, the whole experience works better if the plastic window on the tape door is removed; that way you can utilize the touch and swipe interface [Artur] has in the software.

We’ve seen previous attempts to modernize the audio cassette experience, but they’ve tended to be more of a novelty than anything. But these decks are nice enough that you can like them non-ironically. Though if we’re talking about portable tape players, there’s only room for one in our cold mechanical hearts.

[Thanks to Nikolai for the tip]

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Friday Hack Chat: Reverse Engineering The Digital Compact Cassette

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re talking about reverse engineering the Digital Compact Cassette. Why should we care about an obsolete format that was only on the market for four years?  Because if a copy of the Spin Doctor’s Pocket Full of Kryptonite costs $50 USD on the used market, it has to be good.

In the early 1990s, several different digital magnetic tape formats came onto the scene. The MiniDisc was magneto-optical, yes, but back in the day it was amazing for recording bootlegs. DAT also appeared in the early 90s, and it was a godsend for recording studios. There was another format introduced in 1992, the Digital Compact Cassette. It was backward compatible with standard audio cassettes, an important feature, because no one would want to replace their entire cassette-based music collection with a new-fangled digital format. That would be just lunacy.

Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat will be [Jac Goudsmit], prolific creator on Hackaday.io, with projects ranging from the L-Star Software Defined 6502 Computer to a GPS Controlled FischerTechnik Clock. [Jac] grew up on a PET 2001, and in the years since he’s worked on projects ranging from motion control systems for lithography equipment, pick and place machines, and even at a Radio Shack. In this Hack Chat, he’ll be discussing the history of the Digital Compact Cassette, the behind the scenes on how stereo PCM is recorded to tape, and other topics like the difference between CS/EE careers in the Netherlands and the USA.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. Our Hack Chats usually happen on Fridays at Noon, so buckle up because this is going down Friday, December 1, at 12:00 PST. What time is that where you live? Who cares! Here’s a time zone converter!

Click that speech bubble to the left, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

The Hard Way Of Cassette Tape Auto-Reverse

The audio cassette is an audio format that presented a variety of engineering challenges during its tenure. One of the biggest at the time was that listeners had to physically remove the cassette and flip it over to listen to the full recording. Over the years, manufacturers developed a variety of “auto-reverse” systems that allowed a cassette deck to play a full tape without user intervention. This video covers how Akai did it – the hard way.

Towards the end of the cassette era, most manufacturers had decided on a relatively simple system of having the head assembly rotate while reversing the motor direction. Many years prior to this, however, Akai’s system involved a shuttle which carried the tape up to a rotating arm that flipped the cassette, before shuttling it back down and reinserting it into the deck.

Even a regular cassette player has an astounding level of complexity using simple electromechanical components — the humble cassette precedes the widespread introduction of integrated circuits, so things were done with motors, cams, levers, and switches instead. This device takes it to another level, and [Techmoan] does a great job of showing it in close-up detail. This is certainly a formidable design from an era that’s beginning to fade into history.

The video (found after the break) also does a great job of showing glimpses of other creative auto-reverse solutions — including one from Phillips that appears to rely on bouncing tapes through something vaguely resembling a playground slide. We’d love to see that one in action, too.

One thing you should never do with a cassette deck like this is use it with a cassette audio adapter like this one.

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Making A Cassette Mass Storage Interface

If you are of the generation who were lucky enough to use the first 8-bit home computers in your youth, you will be familiar with their use of cassette tapes as mass storage. Serial data would be converted to a sequence of tones which could then be recorded using a standard domestic cassette recorder, this recording could then be played back into the machine’s decoder and loaded into memory as a complete piece of software. Larger programs could take a while to load, but though it was rather clunky it was a masterful piece of making the best of what was at hand.

[Mike Kohn] was working with some microcontroller infra-red communication projects when he saw that the same techniques could be used to produce a tape interface like those on the home computers of old.

Over the years he has returned to the project a couple of times, and his original Atmel processor has been supplanted by a W65C265SXB development board based on the 16-bit derivative of the 6502. This made generating the tones as straightforward using his processor’s built-in tone generator, but decoding still presented a challenge. His earlier attempts used an LM2917 frequency to voltage converter to decode tones to logic levels, but on further consideration he decided to move to the LM567 tone decoder. This chip is designed specifically for an on-off logic output rather than the 2917’s analogue voltage output.

His recording device was originally a hi-fi separate cassette deck after experimenting with microcassettes, but eventually he used a data recorder designed for a Radio Shack TRS-80. All his code can be found in his GitHub repository.

It’s probably true to say that [Mike] has made a better cassette interface than the one you could have found on your home computer back in the day. We’ve featured a few data cassette hacks over the years, including this Commodore tape deck with an LED counter, and a tape deck emulator capable of holding an entire software archive.