Keeping Alive The Future Of Cars, 1980s Style

Here at Hackaday we’re a varied bunch of writers, some of whom have careers away from this organ, and others whose work also appears on the pages of other publications in different fields. One such is our colleague [Lewin Day], and he’s written a cracking piece for The Autopian about the effort to keep an obscure piece of American automotive electronic history alive. We think of big-screen control panels in cars as a new phenomenon, but General Motors was fitting tiny Sony Trinitron CRTs to some models back in the late 1980s. If you own one of these cars the chances are the CRT is inoperable if you’ve not encountered [Jon Morlan] and his work repairing and restoring them.

Lewin’s piece goes into enough technical detail that we won’t simply rehash it here, but it’s interesting to contrast the approach of painstaking repair with that of replacement or emulation. It would be a relatively straightforward project to replace the CRT with a modern LCD displaying the same video, and even to use a modern single board computer to emulate much of a dead system. But we understand completely that to many motor enthusiasts that’s not the point, indeed it’s the very fact it has a frickin’ CRT in the dash that makes the car.We’ll probably never drive a 1989 Oldsmobile Toronado. But we sure want to if it’s got that particular version of the future fitted.

Lewin’s automotive writing is worth watching out for. He once brought us to a motorcycle chariot.

Who’s Afraid Of A CRT?

Older consumer electronic devices follow a desirability curve in which after they fall from favour they can’t be given away. But as they become rarer, they reach a point at which everyone wants them. Then, they can’t be had for love nor money. CRT TVs are now in the first stage, they’re bulky and lower-definition than modern sets, and thus thrift stores and dumpsters still have them in reasonable numbers. To retrogamers and other enthusiasts, this can be a bonanza, and when he saw a high-end late-model JVC on the sidewalk [Chris Person] wasted no time in snapping it up. It worked, but there were a few picture issues, so he set about fixing it.

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Get Today’s Forecast In Classic 90s Weather Channel Style

Remember when The Weather Channel actually had weather? It’s been a while, but we sure remember what a boon Local on the 8’s was when getting ready for the day. Not having to wait for the low-information national forecast on the morning shows or putting up with the antics of [Willard Scott] or [Al Roker] was just icing on the cake.

Recreating the retro look and feel of the Weather Channel experience is what this 1990s-style weather feed is all about, and we have to say that [Mitchell Scott] knocked it out of the park. Luckily, a lot of the heavy lifting was done already thanks to the WeatherStar 4000+ emulator project, which renders forecasts using online weather APIs in the distinctive retro graphics The Weather Channel used back in the day. He combined the graphics with the original smooth jazz soundtracks that TWC used back then; they’re online, because of course they are.

To really sell the look, [Mitchell] tracked down a period-correct Zenith TV with a 9″ CRT to display the feed from a Raspberry Pi 4’s composite video output. Why such a small screen? Easy. [Mitchell] wanted it on a shelf behind him to be visible during videoconferences. It’s a bit of a weird flex, but we respect it. Getting the composite video output working was a bit of a chore, as was tricking the TV into starting up on channel 14 so the feed is instantly visible.

The nostalgia is strong with this one, especially for weather geeks. For a more in-depth look at how The Weather Channel brought those local forecasts to cable, make sure you check out how the WeatherStar box was reverse-engineered.

Thanks to [USA-RedDragon] for the tip.

Video Killed The Radio Alarm Clock

For decades now, MTV has been on a bizarre trajectory given its original name was an acronym for Music Television. In the original days in the 80s and 90s it kept mostly true to its name, but starting around two decades ago they expanded into reality and other non-musical television programming and have now left it largely behind. Plenty of those who grew up in its heyday have an understandable amount of nostalgia for the channel as a cultural touchstone, and [Derf] used MTV archival footage to build a video alarm clock which helps him keep in tune with the past.

To keep the appropriate 80s aesthetic, the build uses a portable TV from the late 80s with its original CRT. The video files are hosted on more modern technology though, in this case a Raspberry Pi. The Pi is set up to run a python script which launches the VLC media player with a playlist loaded with video files, in this case a long list of MTV shows. Some configuration needs to be done to get it to output to the old CRT properly which depends on the hardware used, but once that’s in place it’s ready to be used as an alarm. [Derf] is using a smart outlet to power the TV at the appropriate time, and a cron job which starts the video player simultaneously at a somewhat random point in the playlist.

As far as retro TVs go, having one as an alarm clock is certainly a novel idea. We have seen a few others in the past, though, one to play the golden age of The Simpsons, and another that recreates the nostalgia of 90s cable television complete with a preview channel and era-appropriate commercials.

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A Vintage Monitor Lives Again With A New Heart

Aside from keeping decades-old consumer-grade computing hardware working, a major problem for many retrocomputing enthusiasts lies in doing the same for vintage monitors. Whether your screen is a domestic TV or a dedicated monitor, the heat and voltage stress of driving a CRT made these devices significantly less reliable than many of their modern-day counterparts. [Adrian’s Digital Basement] has a worn-out and broken Commodore 1701 monitor, which he’s brought back to life with a modern circuit board and a CRT transplant.

Following on from a previous project, he’s using a replacement board sold as a repair option for CRT TVs on AliExpress. The Commodore monitor has its board on a metal chassis which takes the replacement with a bit of modification. He doesn’t say where the new CRT came from, but we’re guessing it was a late model TV as CRTs made over the last few decades are more interchangeable than might be expected. There’s a moment of mild dodginess as he makes a voltage doubler to run the 220 V board from 120 V with a pair of large electrolytic capacitors hot glued in place, but otherwise it’s a success.

At the end of it all after some testing and set-up he has a Commodore monitor with a new heart and multi-standard support. Is it really a Commodore monitor though, or should it have been repaired? It’s a difficult one to answer, but we’d suggest that CRT monitor repair is less easy today than it used to be because many of the parts are now difficult to find. If it saves at least some of the original from the dumpster it’s better than doing nothing. We wonder how long these upgrades will remain possible as even with Chinese plants making these boards and a handful of CRT TVs still appearing on AliBaba it’s clear that CRTs are at the very end of their life.

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This Baby ‘Scope Is Within Your Reach

The modern oscilloscope is truly a marvelous instrument, being a computer with a high-speed analogue front end which can deliver the function of an oscilloscope alongside that of a voltmeter and a frequency counter. They don’t cost much, and having one on your bench gives you an edge unavailable in a previous time. That’s not to dismiss older CRT ‘scopes though, the glow of a phosphor trace has illuminated many a fault finding procedure. These older instruments can even be pretty simple, as [Mircemk] demonstrates with a small home-made example that we have to admit to rather liking.

At its heart is a small 5 cm round CRT tube, with an off-the-shelf buck converter supplying the HT, a neon lamp relaxation oscillator supplying the timebase, and a set of passive components conditioning the signal to the deflection plates. The whole thing runs from 12 V and fits in a neat case. It has one huge flaw in that there is no trigger circuit, and sadly this compromises its usefulness as an instrument. Our understanding of a neon oscillator is a little rusty but we’re guessing the two-terminal neon lamp would have to be replaced by one of the more exotic gas-filled tubes with more electrodes, of which one takes the trigger pulse.

Even without a trigger it’s still a neat device, so take a look at it. Perhaps surprisingly we’ve seen few CRT ‘scopes made from scratch here at Hackaday, but never fear, here’s one used as an audio visualiser.

Bringing Back The CRT TV Experience In Software

Cathode-Retro is a collection of shaders and sample C++ code for reliving the glorious days when graphics were composite video signals displayed on a CRT screen. How? By faking it in software and providing more configuration options than any authentic setup ever had.

Love it or don’t, there’s nothing quite like it.

Not satisfied with creating CRT-style color images with optional scanlines and TV picture controls like tint and saturation, Cathode-Retro can emulate more nuanced elements as well.

The tool includes the ability to imitate things like the slight distortion of a period-correct curved screen, the subtle effects of different methods CRT displays used to actually work (such as shadow mask vs aperture grille), and even taking into account the slight distortion of light refracting imperfectly through the glass face of the CRT. There’s even options for adding noise and ghosting, which may spark some artistic ideas.

If all you need is software to recreate an old-school CRT terminal, we have you covered. But if your needs are a bit more low-level, Cathode-Retro might be what you’re missing.