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 Navigation back then meant outdated paper maps, long detours because of missed turns, and the far too frequent stops at dingy gas stations for the humiliation of asking for directions.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.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Car Navigation Like It’s 1971”

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]

Continue reading “Ditch The Tapes, Put An Android In Your Deck”

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.

Continue reading “The Hard Way of Cassette Tape Auto-Reverse”

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.

Onde Magnetique Will Wow And Flutter Your Ears

[Scott Campbell] built a cassette-based synthesizer that sounds exactly like everything you’ve heard before. The sound generation comes straight off cassettes, but the brainbox of this synth varies the volume and pitch. It’s called the Onde Magnetique, and it is what you would get if you combined a Mellotron and Ondes Martenot.

The key component for the Onde Magnetique is a Sony cassette recorder that conveniently and inexplicably comes with a ‘tape speed input’ mini jack. By varying the voltage sent to this input jack, the speed of the tape, and thus the pitch of the sound being played, is changed. Build a box with a touch-sensitive button for volume, and a few tact switches for different speeds, and you have an electromechanical bastard child of a Mellotron and an Ondes Martenot.

By itself, the Onde Magnetique produces no sound – it only controls the pitch and volume of whatever is on the cassette. [Scott] produced a few single-note cassettes for his instrument, with ‘voice patches’ including a flute, choir, and a synth. With the CV and Gate input, these sounds can be sequenced with outboard gear, producing the wonderful sounds heard in the video after the break.

Continue reading “Onde Magnetique Will Wow And Flutter Your Ears”

Fisher Price Bluetooth Speaker Hack

A good hacker hates to throw away electronics. We think [Matt Gruskin] must be a good hacker because where a regular guy would see a junky old 1980’s vintage Fisher Price cassette player, [Matt] saw a retro stylish Bluetooth speaker. His hack took equal parts of electronics and mechanics. It even required some custom 3D printing.

You might think converting a piece of old tech to Bluetooth would be a major technical challenge, but thanks to the availability of highly integrated modules, the electronics worked out to be fairly straightforward. [Matt] selected an off the shelf Bluetooth module and another ready-to-go audio amplifier board. He built a custom board to convert the stereo output to mono and hold the rotary encoder he used for the volume control. An Arduino (what else?) reads the encoder and also provides 3.3V to some of the other electronics.

The really interesting part of the hack is the mechanics. [Matt] managed to modify the existing mechanical buttons to drive the electronics using wire and hot glue. He also added a hidden power switch that doesn’t change the device’s vintage look. Speaking of mechanics, there’s also a custom 3D printed PCB holder allowing for the new board to fit in the original holder. This allows [Matt] to keep the volume control in its original location

Continue reading “Fisher Price Bluetooth Speaker Hack”