Playing NES Games On An Industrial EL Display

Modern consoles are fun, but there are certain charms to retro gear that keep hackers entertained to this day. The original NES is a particularly ripe ground for projects, being one of the most popular consoles of its era. [kevtris] is one such Nintendo hacker, and decided to get NES games running on an old-school electroluminescent display (Youtube video, embedded below).

The display in this project was originally used in an industrial pick-and-place machine.

Rather than work with an original NES, [kevtris] chose to instead work with the NT Mini, an FPGA-based clone of his own design. Having picked up an EL640.480-AA1 screen, formerly from a DEK 265LT pick-and-place machine, he hunted down a data sheet and got to work. With the document outlining the required video input specifications, it was a simple matter of whipping up some Verilog and an adapter cable to get things working.

Mario, Kirby and friends can now run around, looking resplendent in the 9 colors of the red/green EL display. [kevtris] notes that the screen performs well with fast motion, and estimates the refresh rate to be in the vicinity of 60Hz. For those of you playing along at home, such screens are available online, though they’re not exactly cheap.

We’ve seen [kevtris]’s work before, with his SNES chiptune player being particularly impressive. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Morris for the tip!]

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Add-Ons Go Electroluminescent

It’s that time of the year again, and once more we’re faced with the latest innovations in Badgelife, the movement to explore the artistic merits of electronics and manufacturing. This is an electroluminescent printed circuit board, and it’s some of the finest work we’ve seen. It’s also a Shitty Add-On that glows blue.

The process for applying an electroluminescent coating to printed circuit boards is, surprisingly, something we’ve covered before. Late last year, [Ben Krasnow] delved deep into a DIY EL display. The process is expensive, but all the products come from a company called Lumilor. The first step in this process is applying a thin conductive coating on a substrate with an airbrush. Since the entire idea of printed circuit boards is to have a layer of conductive material etched into any shape you want, the simple circuit board is the idea experimental platform for playing with EL displays. Traditionally, EL displays were made entirely with a silk screen process, like [Fran]’s ongoing attempt to recreate the Apollo DSKY display.

The electronics for this badge are simply a Microchip MIC4832 EL Driver, which converts the 3.something volts from the add-on header into 100 or so Volts AC at hundreds of Hz. This is a single-chip solution to driving EL displays, and the only other parts you need are an inductor, diode, and a few caps and resistors. An ATtiny85 can be used to blink the circuits, or, alternatively, you could copy [Ben]’s work and build a character EL display.

The process of applying an electroluminescent coating to a PCB does require a spray gun or airbrush, and the chemicals are a bit expensive. This, though, is pushing the boundaries of what can be done with artistic PCBs. It’s new applications of technology, simply as wearable electronics. It’s the best example of the possibilities of the medium and some of the best work that’s come out of the Badgelife scene.

Applied Science Rolls An Electroluminescent Controller

After LEDs and TFTs and OLEDs and liquid crystals, there’s another display technology that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Electroluminescent displays have been around for ages, and there still aren’t a whole lot of applications for them. That might change soon, because Applied Science a.k.a. [Ben Krasnow] figured out an easy way to build EL displays on anything, and created a simple circuit that’s capable of driving video on a remarkable blue phosphor EL display.

For this build, [Ben] is using a specialty product from Lumilor consisting of a copper-ish conductive base layer, a clear dielectric, the ‘lumicolor’ phosphor, and a clear conductive top coat. All of these layers are applied with an airbrush, and the patterns are made with a desktop vinyl cutter.  This is an entire system designed to put electroluminescent displays on motorcycle gas tanks and to have doors that go like *this* and glow. That said, the system isn’t very dependent on the substrate, and [Ben] has had successful experiments in creating EL displays on plastic sheets, 3D printed parts, and even paper.

Compared to previous (and ongoing) efforts to create EL displays such as [Fran]’s recreation of the Apollo DSKY, the Lumilor system seems extraordinarily easy and clean. Current efforts as with [Fran]’s example are using a silkscreen process, which is a mess no matter how you look at it and can’t be applied to non-flat surfaces.

But EL displays are more than just putting a few layers of chemicals on a substrate — you need to drive these displays with high-frequency, high-voltage AC. For this, [Ben] designed a multi-channel electroluminescent driver based on the Adafruit Trinket M0, two LT3468 ICs to generate a high voltage, and either a an HV507 or HV513 to drive 8 or 64 channels.

With the ability to create EL displays and drive 64 channels, there really was only one thing to do: a 32×32 display. Even seeing a few lines scan across a 32×32 EL display is magical, but it’s got another trick up its sleeve: it also plays a low-resolution video of Never Gonna Give You Up.

This isn’t a video to be missed, check it out below.

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Re-Creating The Apollo DSKY’s Display

Apollo astronauts used the DSKY (Display-Keyboard) to interact with the flight computer with a series of 2-digit codes punched into a numeric keypad. Above the keyboard was a high voltage electroluminescent (EL) display whose segments were driven by electromechanical relays; old-ass technology not seen in operation in decades.

[Fran Blanche] is working to re-create the DSKY’s display, and is raising funds to make her first prototype. She was actually able to go dismantle a real DSKY at the Smithsonian, and this drove her desire to re-create the DSKY’s unusual display.

As [Fran] points out in her video, cinematic re-creations typically involve LED displays and CGI rather than the authentic EL 7-segs. Who would want that when you could have the original?

The DSKY is one of the most recognizable and historically relevant parts of the Apollo Command Module and it’s also quite rare. There are only a handful of  them around and of course none of them work. [Fran]’s display could help museums, collectors — and yes, moviemakers — re-create DSKYs with greater authenticity.

[Fran] is a good friend of Hackaday. If you missed her Hack Chat on antiquated technology last Friday you can check out the transcript here.

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Reproducing A DSKY

This is a project that is about a year and a half in the making, but [Fran] is finally digging into the most iconic part of the Apollo Guidance Computer and building the most accurate reproduction DSKY ever.

The Apollo Guidance Computer was a masterpiece of engineering and is frequently cited as the beginning of the computer revolution, but it didn’t really look that interesting – it looks like a vastly overbuilt server blade, really. When everyone thinks about the Apollo Guidance Computer, they think about the DSKY, the glowey keypad interface seen in the blockbuster hit Apollo 13 and the oddly accurate disappointment of Apollo 18. It’s the part of the Apollo Guidance Computer the Apollo astronauts actually interacted with, and has become the icon of the strange, early digital computers developed for NASA in the 60s.

There are a few modern DSKY replicas, but all of them are exceedingly anachronistic; all of these reproductions use seven-segment LEDs, something that didn’t exist in the 1960s. A true reproduction DSKY would use custom electroluminescent displays. These EL segments are powered by AC, and transistors back then were terrible, leading to another design choice – those EL segments were turned on and off by relays. It’s all completely crazy, and aerospace equipment to boot.

Because of the custom design and engineering choices that seem insane to the modern eye, there isn’t much in the way of documentation when it comes to making a reproduction DSKY. This is where [Fran] tapped a few of the contacts her historical deconstruction cred earned when she reverse engineered a Saturn V Launch Vehicle Digital Computer to call upon anyone who would have access to a real Apollo-era DSKY.

The first contact was the Kansas Cosmosphere who was kind enough to send extremely detailed photographs of the DSKYs in their archives. It would have been extremely nice to have old documentation made when the DSKYs were rolling off the assembly line, but that information is locked away in a file cabinet owned by Raytheon.

[Fran] got a break when she was contacted by curators at the National Air and Space Museum’s Garber facility who invited her down to DC. She was given the grand tour, including the most elusive aircraft in the museum’s collection, the Ho 229, the dual-turbojet Nazi flying wing. At the Garber facility, [Fran] received permission to take apart two DSKYs.

The main focus of [Fran]’s expedition to the Air and Space Museum was to figure out how the EL displays were constructed. The EL displays that exist today are completely transparent when turned off because of the development of transparent conductors.

The EL displays in the DSKY were based on earlier night lights manufactured by Sylvania. After looking at a few interesting items that included Gemini hardware and early DSKYs, this sort of construction was confirmed.

With a lot of pictures, a lot of measurements, a lot of CAD work, and some extremely tedious work, [Fran] was able to create the definitive reference for DSKY display elements. There are 154 separate switchable element in the display, all controlled by relays. These elements are not multiplexed; every element can be turned on and off individually.

Figuring out how the elements were put together was only one part of [Fran]’s research. Another goal was to figure out the electrical connections between the display and the rest of the DSKY. There, [Fran] found 160 gold pins in a custom socket. It’s bizarre, and more like a PGA socket than like the backplane connector [Fran] found in the Saturn V computer.

Even though [Fran]’s research was mostly on the EL panel inside the display, she did get a few more insights with her time with the DSKYs. The buttons are fantastic, and the best keys she’d ever used. This is just part one of what will be an incredibly involved project, and we’re looking forward to what [Fran] looks into next.

[Fran]’s New Project: The DSKY

[Fran] has already made a name for herself in some retro cool historical aviation and computer circles by tearing down a flight-ready spare of a Saturn V launch vehicle digital computer, the computer that was responsible for getting all flights to the moon into low earth orbit. Now she’s ready for another project, and again, this is something that hasn’t been done in 40 years. She’s building a DSKY, the control panel for the Apollo Guidance Computer

The Apollo Guidance Computer is a well-documented piece of computing history, with homebrew versions all over the web. The DSKY is only one small part of the AGC, but it is by far the most famous module. Being the only user interface for the AGC, it’s the only part of the AGC that gets all the screen time in Apollo 13, the travesty on BluRay that was Apollo 18, and is the only device that bears any physical resemblance to its real-life counterpart in a number of AGC simulators.

That’s not to say DSKY builds haven’t been attempted before; there are a few out there using LEDs and off-the-shelf buttons for the build, but the DSKY from the mid-60s is much, much cooler than a bunch of LEDs and light pipes. The eery green numbers are actually EL displays. Guess how those displays are controlled? Relays. It’s a masterpiece of technology, made even more impressive in that the folks at MIT who built the thing didn’t have anything better to build the display with.

Because of her deconstruction efforts with the Saturn V LVDC, [Fran] was invited down to the National Air and Space museum in the middle of Washington DC. There, she saw everyones favorite ugliest spacecraft, the Apollo LEM, along with an incredible assortment of paraphernalia from aviation history. The Wright Flyer – yes, the original one – is hanging from the ceiling next to the Spirit of St. Louis, and X-15 rocket plane, right above the command module Columbia from Apollo 11. Copies of probes currently rolling over Mars are on display, and you can walk through a training model of Skylab. If you’ve never been, spend half a day there, then take the metro out to the Udvar-Hazy center, where you’ll find all the stuff they couldn’t fit in the downtown collection like a Space Shuttle and a Concorde.

This is only the first part of [Fran]’s vlog documenting the construction of a copy of the DSKY, and we haven’t even seen the inner guts of the most famous part of the AGC yet. She’s been working on this for a while now, and there’s no doubt she’ll finish the job and come up with the best replica of a DSKY ever.