Vintage Audio Gear Gets a Display Upgrade

The lengths the retrocomputing devotee must go to in order to breathe new life into old gear can border on the heroic. Tracing down long-discontinued parts, buying multiple copies of the same unit to act as organ donors for the one good machine, and when all else fails, improvising with current productions parts to get that vintage look and feel.

This LCD display backlighting fix for a vintage audio sampler falls into that last category, which was pulled off by [Inkoo Vintage Computer]. The unit in question is an Akai S1100 sampler, a classic from the late 1980s that had already been modified to replace the original floppy drive with a USB reader when the backlight on the LCD began to give out. Replacements for the original electroluminescent backlight are available, but [Inkoo] opted for a cheaper way out. An iPhone 6s 6 Plus backlight was an inexpensive option, if it could be made to fit. Luckily, [Inkoo] was able to trim the diffuser without causing any electrical issues. A boost converter was needed to run the backlight from the sampler’s 5 V DC rail, and interfacing the backlight’s flexible circuitry to the 80s-era copper wiring was a bit fussy, but the results were great. The sampler’s LCD is legible again, and looks just like it might have in the studio back when [Depeche Mode] and [Duran Duran] were using it to crank out hits.

As much as we like this repair, it doesn’t imply that EL is a dead technology. Far from it – [Ben Krasnow] is using it to create unique displays, and EL wire makes for some dazzling wearables. It doesn’t last forever, but while it does, it’s pretty neat stuff.

Cyberpunk Jacket Is The Garment of Choice For The Streets of 2019

Fans of science fiction and related genres have always been disappointed by real life. The future holds so much promise on paper, yet millions were disappointed upon reaching 2015 to find that hoverboard technology still eluded us. It’s not all bad, though – [abetusk] has developed a cyberpunk jacket so you can live out your grungy hacker fantasies in real life.

The effect is achieved with specially designed jacket patches. Nylon fabric is lasercut with artwork or lettering, and then placed over an electroluminescent panel. The fabric acts as a mask and is glued onto the EL panel, and the assembly is then attached to the back of the jacket with velcro.

It’s a build that focuses on more than just a cool visual effect. The attention to detail pays off in robustness and usability – wires are neatly fed through the lining of the jacket, and special strain relief devices are used to avoid wires breaking off the EL panels. The extra effort means this is a jacket that can withstand real-world use, rather than falling apart in the middle of a posed photo shoot.

Everything is well documented, from artwork creation to final assembly, so there’s no reason you can’t replicate this at home – and the final results are stunning. Our take is that electroluminescent technology is the way to go for retro and cyberpunk looks, but LEDs can be fun too – like in this high-powered Burning Man build.

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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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Hackaday Prize Entry: Touch Sensitive Power Supplies For EL Panels

[fool]’s entry in the Hackaday Prize competition is a modular and configurable lighting system the purpose of which is to assist seniors and others with limited mobility navigate safely at home. For [fool], this means the quiet steady hum of electroluminescent panels and wire. EL stuff is notoriously tricky to power, as it only operates on AC. The MoonLITE project is the answer to the problem of an easy to use EL power supply. The goal is to create a 5 watt, quiet, wearable EL power supply that outputs 100V at 100Hz.

One of the reasons why [fool] is interested in EL materials is that it can also turned into a touch sensor. This has obvious applications in lighting, and especially in assistive technologies. The MoonLITE project is based around [fool]’s Whoa Board that turns EL wires and panels into not only touch-sensitive lights, but also analog switches that can control basically anything. This unique capability of lighting doubling as a sensor offers the opportunity to make light-up EL grab bars for a senior’s bedside, for instance. He or she is going to be touching it anyway when getting up—why not add light as well as stability?

This is an especially cool project that brings something to the table we don’t really see much of. You can check out a video of the project below, complete with example of EL panels being used as buttons.

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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.