When I arrived at the InfoAge Science and History Museum for this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East, I fully expected it to be a reduced event compared to last year. After all, how could it not? Due to the schedule getting shifted around by COVID, show runner Jeffrey Brace and his team had just six months to put together an event that usually gets planned over the course of an entire year. With such a truncated preparation time, they more than deserved a little slack.
But as anyone who attended VCF East 2022 can attest, they didn’t need it. Not only did the event meet the high expectations set by last year’s Festival, it managed to exceed them. There were more workshops, more talks, more vendors, more consignment rooms, more live streams, more…well, everything. This year’s program even got a splash of glossy color compared to the grayscale handout attendees received in October. It was, by any metric you care to use, better than ever.
It does however leave me in somewhat on an unenviable position. As we’ve learned during the pandemic, a virtual representation of an event as extensive as VCF can give you a taste of what’s offered, but all the nuance is lost. Looking at pictures of somebody’s passion project can’t compare to actually meeting the person and seeing that glint of pride in their eye as they walk you through all the details.
So bear that in mind through this rundown of some of the projects that caught my eye. This isn’t a “best of” list, and the Festival is certainly not a competition. But each attendee will invariably come away with their own handful of favorite memories, so I’ll document mine here. If you’d like to make your own memories, I’d strongly suggest making the trek out to the Jersey Shore come April 2023 for the next Vintage Computer Festival East.
Of course, the global semiconductor shortage combined with shipping slowdowns led to delays, but things did ultimately come together for the project. I’ve always been a sucker for small-format machines, especially ones that come as a well-designed kit, and that means I can tell you all about what it was like to put it together and turn it on. There’s a lot to look at, so let’s get started.
Over the years we’ve seen many small computer boards of various abilities, among them many powerful enough to be almost-useful Linux general purpose computers. We’ve also seen more than a few computers that claimed the impossible, usually an amazing spec for a tiny price tag. Here for once is a small computer that’s neither of those two; a minimum viable Linux handheld terminal whose $15 USD price tag is openly discussed as a target price for a large production run rather than touted as its retail price.
It’s the work of legendary former Hackaday writer [Brian Benchoff], and instead of being merely a PCB it’s a fully usable computer with case, keyboard and display. It’s based upon an Allwinner F1C100s SoC, it’s powered by AAA cells, and it sports a split rubber keyboard that likely builds on his previous experience with the VT-69 portable RS-232 terminal. On the back is a USB port and an SD reader, and in the centre of the front panel lies a 320 x 240 pixel display. It’s important to note that this is not intended to run a GUI, while it’s DOOM-capable it remains very much a command-line Linux tool. Perhaps most interestingly it’s claimed that all the parts are available in quantity here in the chip shortage, so maybe there’s even a chance we might see it as more than a project. We can hope.
The Nintendo Game Boy and its many permutations represent one of the most well-known and successful gaming platforms ever produced. There was a decades-long stretch of time where the most popular kid in the lunch room was the one who brought in their Game Boy so the rest of the class could huddle around and check out the latest Pokemon title.
But those days are long gone, and now these once-coveted handhelds can be had for a song on the second-hand market. Which makes it the perfect time to check out this project [kgsws] released recently that allows you to interface the Game Boy LCD with the ESP32 or the Raspberry Pi. In the most basic of applications, it lets you push video from your Linux computer out to the Game Boy LCD over WiFi. But as the video below illustrates, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
With the ESP32 wired between the handheld’s LCD and main PCB, the microcontroller can also act as a capture device using I2S camera mode. Compared to what ends up showing on the handheld’s LCD, the recorded gameplay [kgsws] shows off looks fantastic. Visuals are crisp and fluid, and naturally devoid of the Game Boy’s iconic (if slightly nauseating) greenish tint.
The project also includes the capability to control an array of Game Boy LCDs, which allows for some interesting possibilities. The image can be stretched to cover multiple displays, which [kgsws] demonstrates by playing a game on 3 x 3 grid of salvaged panels, but each LCD also can be controlled individually as is the case with the large digital clock seen above.
Back in the 1970s, there were a few LED-based games on the market that were quickly superseded by the rise of LCDs and other fancier technologies. However, [grossofabian] wanted to recreate that classic style of game but with more modern hardware. The result is the LEDBOY, a colorful handheld game built in tribute to that era.
The handheld is based around the ATtiny 1614 microcontroller, driving a 10×10 array of NeoPixel Nano 2427 LEDs, named for their small 2.4 mm x 2.7 mm form factor. They’re RGB, too, so there’s lots of wonderful colors to play with.
Wrapped up in a neat enclosure with a rechargeable 130 mAh lithium-ion battery and some simple tactile buttons, it’s a tidy little handheld game console. Add in the CH340C chip for USB to serial duties, and it’s easy to program with the Arduino IDE, too.
Code is available on Github for those keen to take a closer look. Amusingly, the project bears a striking resemblance to a similarly-named build we featured just under 12 years ago. Time is a flat circle, and the video, my friends, is after the break.
Back in 2019 we first came across the mutantC, an open source 3D printable Raspberry Pi handheld created by [rahmanshaber] that took more than a little inspiration from Sony’s VAIO ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) from the early 2000s. It was an impressive first effort, but it clearly had a long way to go before it could really be a practical mobile device.
Well after two years of development and three iterative versions of this Linux powered QWERTY slider, [rahmanshaber] is ready to show off the new and improved mutantC_v4. Outwardly it looks quite similar to the original version, with the notable addition of a tiny thumbstick and a pair of programmable buttons on the right side that can be used for input in addition to the touch screen. But inside it’s a whole other story, with so many changes and improvements that we hardly even know where to start.
Probably the most notable improvement is the addition of an ESP32-S2, specifically a bare ESP-12K module, to the main PCB. Previous versions of the hardware used an Arduino Pro Micro to interface with all the hardware, but the added horsepower of the ESP32 should come in handy with the array of sensors, controls, and NeoPixels that [rahmanshaber] has tasked the chip with. There’s even a buzzer and a coin-style vibration motor in there to provide some feedback to the user. While the board has changed significantly, it still retains compatibility with the Pi Zero, 2, 3, and 4.
Another notable addition is the expansion connector on the bottom of the handheld that has pins for I2C, UART, and 3.3 V. In the video below, [rahmanshaber] mentions that this feature was previously implemented with a standard 2×6 female header block, but is now using a far slimmer female USB-C port. We do wonder if it’s not a bit confusing to have this faux-USB port right next to the real one that’s actually used to charge the system, but with such cramped quarters occasionally you’ve got to make some tough decisions like that.
The first thing we notice about this portable PS2 is that the plastic looks like a consumer-grade shell, not a 3D printed case. It comes from [GingerOfOz], who has lots of portable conversions under his belt, so we are not surprised this looks like a genuine Sony device. When you are as experienced as he, details like plastic texture, and button selection, are solved problems, but shouldn’t be taken for granted by us mortals.
Of course, this isn’t just pretty, and if it weren’t functional, we wouldn’t be talking about it. The system plays nearly all PS2 titles from USB memory. The notable exceptions are the ones that refuse to load without a Dualshock controller. Rude. If you’re wondering if it plays games at full speed, yes. It achieves authentic speed because it uses a PS2 slim motherboard which gets cut down by a Dremel. Custom PCBs provide the rest of the hardware, like volume buttons and battery charging. There is no optical drive since they are power hogs, so your cinematic cut scenes may lag, and load times are a little longer.