VCF East 2023: Retro Luminaries Take The Stage

Our friend [Fran Blanche] recently recorded what it was like to participate in an energetic round table at the recently held Vintage Computer Festival (VCF) East. Fran joined well known personalities [Jeri Ellsworth], [Adrian Black] of Adrian’s Digital Basement, and Usagi Electric creator [Dave Lovett] with yours truly moderating.

The table-less roundtable discussed the pros and cons of streaming about retro and tech, and what its like to hang yourself out there in video format. Goals and motives differed widely from speaker to speaker and there was some good-natured ribbing about who makes money vs. who simply gets away with spending less.

Most of all fun was had by the speakers as they interacted with each other, and with the audience — and that comfort came across to the standing room only crowd of avid retro-enthusiasts who only told us good things about what they saw and heard that night.

One thing we did note was that every speaker actually knew what microphones were and how to use them.

Want to learn more about the 2023 Vintage Computer Festival East? You can start by checking out our previous coverage, and don’t miss the first in a series of fascinating interviews recorded by the Hackaday crew as they explored this phenomenal retrocomputing event.

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Tilt Five: A Fresh Take On Augmented Reality Tabletop Gaming

Tilt Five is an Augmented Reality (AR) system developed by Jeri Ellsworth and a group of other engineers that is aimed at tabletop gaming which is now up on Kickstarter. Though it appears to be a quite capable (and affordable at $299) system based on the Kickstarter campaign, the most remarkable thing about it is probably that it has its roots at Valve. Yes, the ones behind the Half Life games and the Steam games store.

Much of the history of the project has been covered by sites, such as this Verge article from 2013. Back then [Jeri Ellsworth] and [Rick Johnson] were working on project CastAR, which back then looked like a contraption glued onto the top of a pair of shades. When Valve chose to go with Virtual Reality instead of AR, project CastAR began its life outside of Valve, with Valve’s [Gabe] giving [Jeri] and [Rick] his blessing to do whatever they wanted with the project.

What the Tilt Five AR system looked like in its CastAR days. (credit: The Verge)

Six years later Tilt Five is the result of the work put in over those years. Looking more like a pair of protective glasses along with a wand controller that has an uncanny resemblance to a gas lighter for candles and BBQs, it promises a virtual world like one has never seen before. Courtesy of integrated HD projectors that are aimed at the retroreflective surface of the game board.

A big limitation of the system is also its primary marketing feature: by marketing it as for tabletop gaming, the fact that the system requires this game board as the projection surface means that the virtual world cannot exist outside the board, but for a tabetop game (like Dungeons and Dragons), that should hardly be an issue. As for the games themselves, they would run on an external system, with the signal piped into the AR system. Game support for the Tilt Five is still fairly limited, but more titles have been announced.

(Thanks, RandyKC)

[Jeri] Builds A Magnetic Loop Antenna

Most new hams quickly learn that the high-frequency bands are where the action is, and getting on the air somewhere between 40- and 160-meters is the way to make those coveted globe-hopping contacts. Trouble is, the easiest antennas to build — horizontal center-fed dipoles — start to claim a lot of real estate at these wavelengths.

So hacker of note and dedicated amateur radio operator [Jeri Ellsworth (AI6TK)] has started a video series devoted to building a magnetic loop antenna for the 160- and 80-meter bands. The first video, included after the break, is an overview of the rationale behind a magnetic loop. It’s not just the length of the dipole that makes them difficult to deploy for these bands; as [Jeri] explains, propagation has a lot to do with dipole height too. [Jeri] covers most of the mechanical aspects of the antenna in the first installment; consuming a 50-foot coil of 3/4″ copper tubing means it won’t be a cheap build, but we’re really looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

We were sorry to hear that castAR, the augmented reality company that [Jeri] co-founded, shut its doors back in June. But if that means we get more great projects like this and guided tours of cool museums to boot, maybe [Jeri]’s loss is our gain?

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Crystal radios from Jeri Ellsworth's museum tour

Jeri Ellsworth Tours A Radio And Tech Museum

[Jeri Ellsworth] has done some YouTubing again (yes, that’s a word, just like YouTuber) after a four-year hiatus. She’s recently uploaded a very enjoyable four-part series touring the Museum of Radio and Technology in Huntington, West Virginia.

Part one contains radios spanning the ages, starting with a spark gap transmitter, some wonderful crystal sets, pocket radios from the 1940s, commercially available amateur radio transmitters and receivers from the 1930s to the 1950s, and more. There’s even a lovely hack of a transmitter built into an old refrigerator. Part two contains educational toys, three covers television sets and cameras, and four is about all types of record players and hi-fi. Each contains equipment as old as the spark gap transmitters in part one.

You may know of [Jeri] as co-founder of castAR, an augmented reality startup that recently shut its doors, but before that she was famous among hackers for her numerous projects ranging from a flexible electroluminescent display,  a centimeter wave scanner using hacked feed horns, to yours truly’s personal favorite, a Commodore 64 bass keytar.

So nuke some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the tour following the break.

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CastAR Shuts Doors

Polygon reports CastAR is no more.

CastAR is the brainchild of renaissance woman [Jeri Ellsworth], who was hired by Valve to work on what would eventually become SteamVR. Valve let [Jeri] go, but allowed her to take her invention with her. [Jeri] founded a new company, Technical Illusions, with [Rick Johnson] and over the past few years the CastAR has appeared everywhere from Maker Faires to venues better focused towards innovative technologies.

In 2013, Technical Illusions got its start with a hugely successful Kickstarter, netting just north of one million dollars. This success drew the attention of investors and eventually led to a funding round of $15 million. With this success, Technical Illusions decided to refund the backers of its Kickstarter.

We’ve taken a look a CastAR in the past, and it’s something you can only experience first-hand. Unlike the Oculus, Google Cardboard, or any of the other VR plays companies are coming out with, CastAR is an augmented reality system that puts computer-generated objects in a real, physical setting. Any comparison between CastAR and a VR system is incomplete; these are entirely different systems with entirely different use cases. Think of it as the ultimate table top game, or the coolest D&D game you could possibly imagine.

CastAR Teardown

A little more than a year ago, castAR, the augmented reality glasses with projectors and retro-reflective surfaces made it to Kickstarter. Since then we’ve seen it at Maker Faire, seen it used for visualizing 3D prints, and sat down with the latest version of the hardware. Now, one of the two people we trust to do a proper teardown finally got his developer version of the castAR.

Before [Mike] digs into the hardware, a quick refresher of how the castAR works: inside the glasses are two 720p projectors that shine an image on a piece of retroreflective fabric. This image reflects directly back to the glasses, where a pair of polarized glasses (like the kind you’ll find from a 3D TV), separate the image into left and right for each eye. Add some head tracking capabilities to the glasses, and you have a castAR.

The glasses come with a small bodypack that powers the glasses, adds two jacks for the accessory sockets, and switches the HDMI signal coming from the computer. The glasses are where the real fun starts with two cameras, two projectors, and a few very big chips. The projector itself is a huge innovation; [Jeri] is on record as saying the lens manufacturers told her the optical setup shouldn’t work.

As far as chips go, there’s an HDMI receiver and an Altera Cyclone FPGA. There’s also a neat little graphic from Asteroids on the board. Video below.

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CastAR Hands-On And Off-Record Look At Next Version

At long last I had the opportunity to try out the CastAR, a glasses-based Augmented Reality system developed by Technical Illusions. The hardware has been in the works now for a couple of years, but every time we have come across a demo we were thwarted by the long lines that accompany them. This time I was really lucky. [Jeri] gave us a private demo in a suite at the Palazzo during CES 2015. Reflecting on the experience, CastAR is exactly the type of Virtual Reality hardware I’ve been longing for.

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