Alexa, Remind Me Of The First Time Your Product Category Failed

For the last few years, the Last Great Hope™ of the consumer electronics industry has been voice assistants. Alexas and Echos and Google Homes and Facebook Portals are all the rage. Over one hundred million Alexa devices have been sold, an impressive feat given that there are only about 120 Million households in the United States, and a similar number in Europe. Look to your left, look to your right, one of you lives in a house with an Internet connected voice assistant.

2018 saw a huge explosion of Internet connected voice assistants, in sometimes bizarre form factors. There’s a voice controlled microwave, which is great if you’ve ever wanted to defrost a chicken through the Internet. You can get hardware for developing your own voice assistant device. 2019 will be even bigger. Facebook is heavily advertising the Facebook Portal. If you haven’t yet deleted your Facebook account, you can put the Facebook Portal on your kitchen counter and make video calls with your family and friends through Facebook Messenger. With the Google Home Hub and a Nest doorbell camera, you too can be just like Stu Pickles from Rugrats.

This is not the first time the world has been enamored with Internet-connected assistants. This is not the first time the consumer electronics industry put all their hope into one product category. This has happened before, and all those devices failed spectacularly. These were the Internet appliances released between 1999 and 2001: the last great hurrah of the dot-com boom. They were dumb then, and they’re dumb now.

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Put An ItsyBitsy Zork In Your Pocket

Before computer games had all these fancy graphics, text based games were a very popular genre. Rather than move a character on the screen, you’d type out commands for your player in sentence form which the game would interpret; decades before the “cloud” language processing technology that the likes of Amazon and Google currently use to power their virtual assistants. In some ways the genre was ahead of its time, but it didn’t survive the graphical revolution for home computers. Of course, these games still have some diehard fans out there.

[Dan The Geek] is one such fan. He loves text based adventure games like Zork so much that he wanted to create his own implementation of the core technology that made these games possible all those years ago. But he didn’t want to just do it on this desktop computer, there’s already projects that let you run these classic games on modern hardware. He wanted to see if he could run these classic games on a modern microcontroller, and create a authentic retro experience on a handy portable device.

[Dan] starts by explaining the technology used to make titles like these possible in the days when the wide array of home computer types required a nuanced approach. By separating the story files from the actual interpreter, developers could more easily port the games to various computers. In theory these interpreters, known as “Z-machines”, could be written for any computer that could compile C code, had enough RAM to hold the story, and had a terminal and keyboard. Not exactly the kind of system requirements we’re used to seeing for modern PC games, but it was the 1980’s.

In theory a modern microcontroller will meet these requirements, so [Dan] wanted to create his own Z-machine for one. But rather than “cheat” by using an SD card like previous Arduino Z-machines have, he wanted to see if there was a development board out there that could do it all internally. The answer came in the form of the  Adafruit ItsyBitsy M4 Express, with its 192 kB of RAM and 2 MB of SPI flash.

The Z-machine created by [Dan], which he’s calling A2Z, allows users to run Zork and other compatible interactive text games on the ItsyBitsy without any additional hardware. Just plug the board into your computer and you’ll be able to play the games over the the serial connection. He’s even implemented some retro color schemes to make the experience more authentic, like the blue of the Amiga or Compaq green.

We’ve covered previous projects that brought Zork and friends to the Arduino, your web browser via a virtual Altair 8800, and even some more exotic targets like custom FPGAs. You can play cave adventure, the game that inspired Zork, on the Supercon Badge.

Hackaday Retro Edition: The Compaq

It’s been a while since we’ve had any submissions to the Hackaday retro challenge, but [Philip]’s latest project more than makes up for it. He rescued the original 28 pound Compaq luggable and turned it into a work of art. He also managed to get it up on the Internet and pointed it at the Hackaday retro edition, making this one of the best retro submissions in recent memory.

[Philip] rescued this old luggable from the trash, and upon plugging it in and turning it on, heard a loud bang and cloud of smoke from the exploded tantalum caps. We’re guessing [Phil] doesn’t have a variac. After replacing all the broken components, fixing the mechanics of the hard drive, and replacing the two old 5 1/4″ floppy drives with a half-height 5 1/4 and 3 1/2 drives, [Phil] had this machine working again.

After a quick shuffle through his ‘obsolete technology box’, [Phil] found an old 3Com Ethernet card. This was a 16-bit card, but with a new driver and a TCP/IP stack for IBM compatibles it was actually pretty easy to get this old box on the Internet. Since [Phil] removed one of the 5 1/4 drives, he slightly modified a Linksys WRT54G router, wired in new front panel lights for the router, and cut a smoked gray acrylic panel. You can see it next to the drives in the picture above; the colored lights make this old luggable look even more retro, despite it being manufactured about 15 years before blue LEDs became commonplace.

You can check out all the repairs and modifications to this Compaq over on [Phil]’s site, and as always, we’re looking for people to load up the Hackaday retro edition on their old hardware.

Workshop Computer Floats Above Bench And Is Nearly Wireless

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[Ezra] used the parts he had lying around to build a self-contained dual screen shop computer. What might one name such a project? Obviously you’d call it the Dr. FrankenComputer.

The lower monitor is a dell desktop flat screen. During prototyping [Ezra] used the stand to support everything. But to keep his work space clear the final version has been mounted to the wall in the corner of his lab. The upper display is the LCD from a Compaq laptop which he wasn’t using. The laptop still works and we believe that’s what is driving the Fedora system. A bracket mounted to the desktop screen’s inner skeleton supports the laptop screen and motherboard. One power supply feeds everything and connects to an outlet in the wall behind the monitors. The keyboard and mouse are wireless, as is the computer’s connection to the network.

The only thing we would worry about in our own shop is sawdust filling the heat sinks and other components of the motherboard. Perhaps his lab is electronic projects only or he has a dust cover that he uses when the system isn’t in use.

Ancient Laptop Given New Life As Mobile Prototyping Platform

What can you do with a broken Compaq SLT 286? Its briefcase-like size and shape actually make for a pretty interesting portable electronic prototyping station. [Philip] gutted the components and started adding back the items he most commonly uses when developing a project.

He shares all of the details in the video after the break. At center stage is a double breadboard where the keyboard would normally be found. It’s hard to make out in the image above, but there is a set of terminal strips running vertically to either side of these breadboards. Each terminal is connected to a peripheral or power/ground bus. The black knob to the left lets him adjust the output of a variable voltage regulator. To the lower right there’s a rotary encoder, push button, toggle switch, and a couple of potentiometers. These, along with the keypad and character display (mounted where the screen used to be) and DB connectors (on the back of the case) have their pins mapped to the terminal block to the right. [Philip] has mounted an Arduino Uno over the area to the bottom left, but we’re sure that it’s pretty easy to swap out for just about any breakout board he needs.

To answer [Philip’s] running dialog from the video: no, it is not the worst demo ever. We think you did a great job demonstrating all the features. Loose connections are par for the course when it comes to prototypes.

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Compaq Motherboard Power Mod

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Some companies insist on using proprietary pieces. It can be really frustrating when there is no apparent reason other than consumer lock in. It irritates us to feel like we’re being forced to buy their pieces. This is one of the more popular reasons listed when you ask a hacker or modder what got them started.  This project takes us through making a normal power supply work with the compaq proprietary 14 pin plug found in some smaller desktop PCs.

Aside from the plug itself being different, the motherboards require a 3.3v standby voltage. A normal power supply usually only has a 5v. Though there are even simpler ways of bypassing the issue, he chose to put an inline voltage regulator. Schematics are available on the site.

[via Hacked Gadgets]