Designing Sci-Fi Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, October 9 at noon Pacific for the Designing Sci-Fi Hack Chat with Seth Molson!

We all know the feeling of watching a movie set in a galaxy far, far away and seeing something that makes us say, “That’s not realistic at all!” The irony of watching human actors dressed up as alien creatures prancing across a fantasy landscape and expecting realism is lost on us as we willingly suspend disbelief in order to get into the story; seeing something in that artificial world that looks cheesy or goofy can shock you out of that state and ruin the compact between filmmaker and audience.

Perhaps nowhere do things get riskier for filmmakers than the design of the user interfaces of sci-fi and fantasy sets. Be they the control panels of spacecraft, consoles for futuristic computers, or even simply the screens of phones that are yet to be, sci-fi UI design can make or break a movie. The job of designing a sci-fi set used to be as simple as wiring up strings of blinkenlights; now, the job falls to a dedicated artist called a Playback Designer who can create something that looks fresh and new but still plausible to audiences used to interacting with technology that earlier generations couldn’t have dreamed of.

Seth Molson​ is one such artist, and you’ve probably seen some of his work on shows such as TimelessStargate Universe, and recently Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space. When tasked to deliver control panels for spacecraft and systems that exist only in a writer’s mind, Seth sits down with graphics and animation software to make it happen.

Join us as we take a look behind the scenes with Seth and find out exactly what it’s like to be a Playback Designer. Find out what Seth’s toolchain looks like, how he interacts with the rest of the production design crew to come up with a consistent and believable look and feel for interfaces, and what it’s like to design futures that only exist — for now — in someone’s imagination.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, October 9 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

 

HDMI From Your Arduino

Creating a video signal from a computer, a job that once required significant extra hardware, is now a done deal with a typical modern microcontroller. We’ve shown you more NTSC, PAL, and VGA projects than you can shake a stick at over the years. Creating an HDMI video signal however is not so straightforward. It’s not a loosely defined analogue standard but a tightly controlled digital one upon which the clever hacks that eke full colour composite video from a single digital I/O pin will have little effect. Surely creating them from a simple microcontroller will be impossible! Not according to [techtoys], who has created an Arduino shield that creates an HDMI output from an SPI control input.

At its heart are two interesting integrated circuits that give us a little bit of insight into creating graphics at this level. First up is an RA8876 MIPI TFT controller which is a full graphics engine that produces a digital RGB output, followed by a CH7035B HDMI encoder that produces an HDMI output from the RGB. This combination of chips is particularly interesting one, because the RA8876 supports a variety of different interfaces that between them should be able to talk to most microcontrollers. In the Arduino world the only other HDMI options come via the use of an FPGA.

This is a project that seems to have been around for a couple of years, but which is still an active one. The classic Arduino shield form factor may now seem a little past its zenith, but as this board shows it’s still capable of being used for interesting new applications.

Thanks [th_in_gs] for the tip.

Zach Archer: Live Coding 500 Watts For ToorCamp

ToorCamp is a five-day open air tech camping event held every two years somewhere around the northwest corner of Washington state. Think of it as something like Burning Man, except you can survive for three hours without water, there aren’t a whole bunch of scenesters and Instagram celebs flying in on private planes, and everyone there can actually build something. Oh, and ToorCamp has delivery drones that will send you creme brulee. These mini creme brulees were probably made with the hot air gun hanging off a soldering station. Don’t worry, you’re getting fresh air that’ll balance out the heavy metal poisoning.

For last year’s ToorCamp, the biggest welcome sign was a 40-foot-long illuminated ToorCamp sign. This was designed, built and coded by Zach Archer, and he was at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference to give us the details on how he made it and how it was coded.

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Blazing Fast Raspberry Pi Display Driver Will Melt Your Face Then Teach You How

Reader [poipoi] recently wrote into our tip line to tell us about an “amazingly fast” Raspberry Pi display driver with a README file that “is an actual joy to read”. Of course, we had to see for ourselves. The fbcp-ili9341 repo, by [juj], seems to live up to the hype! The software itself appears impressive, and the README is detailed, well-structured, educational, and dare we say entertaining?

The driver’s main goal is to produce high frame rates — up to around 60 frames per second — over an SPI bus, and it runs on various Raspberry Pi devices including the 2, 3 and Zero W. Any video output that goes to the Pi’s HDMI port will be mirrored to a TFT display over the SPI bus. It works with many of the popular displays currently out there, including those that use the ILI9341, ILI9340, and HX8357D chipsets.

The techniques that let [juj] coax such frame rates out of a not-terribly-fast serial bus are explained in detail in the README’s How it Works section, but much of it boils down to the fact that it’s only sending changed pixels for each frame, instead of the full screen. This cuts out the transmission of about 50% of the pixels in each update when you’re playing a game like Quake, claims the author. There are other interesting performance tweaks as well, so be sure to check out the repo for all the details.

There’s a video comparing the performance of fbcp-ili9341 to mainline SPI drivers after the break.

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Retro Rebuild Recreates SGI Workstation Demos On The Go

When [Lawrence] showed us the Alice4 after Maker Faire Bay Area last weekend it wasn’t apparent how special the system was. The case is clean and white, adorned only with a big red button below a 7″ screen with a power switch around the back. When the switch is flicked the system boots to display a familiar animation and drops you at a menu. Poking around from here elicits a variety of self-contained graphics demos, some interactive. So this is a Raspberry Pi in a box playing videos, right? Not even close.

Often retro computing focuses on personal computer systems. When they were new the 8-bit graphics or intricate 2D sprites were state of the art, but now their appeal tends towards learning opportunities and the thrill of nostalgia. This may still be true of Alice4, the system [Brad, Lawrence, Mike, and Chris] put together to run Silicon Graphics (SGI) demos from the mid 1980’s but it’s not the whole story. [Lawrence] and [Brad] had both worked at SGI during its heyday and had fond memories of the graphics demos that shipped with those mammoth workstation. So they built Alice4 from the FPGA up to run those very same demos in real-time.

Thanks to Moore’s law, today’s embedded systems put yesterday’s powerhouses within reach. [Lawrence] and [Brad] found the old demo code in a ratty FTP server, and tailor-made Alice4’s software and hardware to run them natively. [Brad] wrote a libgl which implements the subset of the IrisGL API needed to support their selected set of demos. The libgl emits sets of triangles to the SDRAM where [Lawrence’s] HDL running on the onboard FPGA fetches them to interpolate color and depth and draw the result on-screen. Together they allow the $99 Altera Cyclone V development board at Alice4’s heart to run these state of the art demos in the palm of your hand.

Alice4 is open source and extensively documented. Peruse the archeology of reverse engineering the graphics API or the discussion of FIFO design in the FPGA. If those don’t sate your appetite check out a video of Alice4 in action after the break.

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Joe Kim: Where Technology And Art Collide

The rewards of being a writer for Hackaday are many, but aside from the obvious perks like the secret Hackaday handshake and admission to the private writer’s washroom, having the opportunity to write original content articles is probably the best part of the job. It gets even better, though, because after you submit an article, you’ll eventually get an email from Supplyframe Art Director Joe Kim with a Dropbox link to the original art he has created to accompany your piece. No matter where I am when that email comes in, I click on the link immediately, eager to see what Joe has come up with. And I’m never disappointed.

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Linux Graphics Programming

There was a time when embedded system developers didn’t need to worry about graphics. When you have a PIC processor and two-line LCD, there isn’t much to learn. But if you are deploying Linux-based systems today, graphics are a real possibility. There are many options for doing Linux graphics including Wayland, X11, and frame buffers. Confused? This tutorial can help. The sections on Wayland and Mir are under construction, but that’s probably not what you are going to be using on a typical hacker project for the foreseeable future, anyway.

Of course, even inside those broad categories, you have multiple choices. If you are doing X11, for example, you can go low-level or pick any of a number of high-level libraries.

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