Encoding NTSC With Your Hands Tied

Generally, when trying to implement some protocol, you are constrained by your hardware and time. But for someone like [EMMIR], that’s not enough. For example, NTSC-CRT is a video signal encoding/decoding simulator with no hardware acceleration, floating point math, or third-party libraries. Just basic C.

While NTSC has officially gone dark in America, people still make their own ATTiny-powered transmitters. NTSC is a bit of a strange standard and is sometimes referred to as never-twice-the-same color, but it does produce a distinct look.

That look is what [EMMIR] was going for. It encodes a message in a ppm format into NTSC and then back in ppm with some configurable noise. It can do this in real-time as an effect in [EMMIR’s] engine or on a rendered image via a CLI. It looks incredible, and there’s something very satisfying. There’s a video after the break showing off the effect. The code is pretty short and easy to read.

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Reverse Engineering “The Seven Words (and More) You Can’t Say On TV”

For as visionary as he was, [George Carlin] vastly underestimated the situation with his classic “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” bit. At least judging by [Ben Eater]’s reverse engineering of the “TVGuardian Foul Language Filter” device, it seems like the actual number is at least 20 times that.

To begin at the beginning, a couple of weeks ago [Alec] over at everyone’s favorite nerd hangout Technology Connections did a video on the TVGuardian, a device that attempted to clean up the language of live TV and recorded programming. Go watch that video for the details, but for a brief summary, TVGuardian worked by scanning the closed caption text for naughty words and phrases, muted the audio when something suggestive was found in a lookup table, and inserted a closed caption substitute for the offensive content. In his video, [Alec] pined for a way to look at the list of verboten words, and [Ben] accepted the challenge.

The naughty word list ended up living on a 93LC86 serial EEPROM, which [Ben] removed from his TVGuardian for further exploration. Rather than just plug it into a programmer and dumping the contents, he decided to roll his own decoder with an Arduino, because that’s more fun. And can we just point out our ongoing amazement that [Ben] is able to make watching someone else code interesting?

The resulting NSFW word list is titillating, of course, and the video would be plenty satisfying if that’s where it ended. But [Ben] went further and figured out how the list is organized, how the dirty-to-clean substitutions are made, and even how certain words are whitelisted. That last bit resulted in the revelation that Hollywood legend [Dick Van Dyke] gets a special whitelisting, lest his name becomes sanitized to a hilarious [Jerk Van Gay].

Hats off to [Alec] for inspiring [Ben]’s fascinating reverse engineering effort here.

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A small green circuit board with a tiny OLED display

An Oscilloscope Trigger For Vintage Video Processors

Working on retro computers is rarely straightforward, as [ukmaker] recently found out while designing a new display interface. Their oscilloscope was having trouble triggering on the video signal produced by older video circuitry, so they created the Video Trigger for Retrocomputers.

The Texas Instruments TMS9918 video display controller was used across a range of 1980s game consoles and home computers, from the well-known ColecoVision to Texas Instruments’ own TI-99/4. Substantial retro computing heritage notwithstanding, the video output from this chip was (for reasons unknown) not quite compatible with the Hantek DSO1502P oscilloscope. And without a better understanding of the video signal, it was difficult to use the chip with newer TFT displays, being designed for CRT televisions with more forgiving NTSC tolerances.

Maybe a different scope would have solved the problem, but [ukmaker] had a feeling that the ‘scope needed an external trigger signal. The Video Trigger project uses a LM1881 sync separator to tease out the horizontal and vertical sync signals from the vintage video chip, with the output piped into an ATmega 328P. Along with a smattering of discrete components, the ATmega aids the user in selecting which line to frame a trigger on, and the slope of the horizontal sync signal to align to. A tiny OLED display makes configuration easy.

If this has piqued your interest, [ukmaker] also has a great write-up over on GitHub with all the gory details. Maybe it will help you in your next vintage computing caper. Having the right tool can make all the difference, like this homebrew logic meter for hobby electronics troubleshooting. Or if you want to know more about the mystical properties of analog NTSC video, we’ve covered that, too.

Retrotechtacular: How Television Worked In The 1950s

Watching television today is a very different experience from that which our parents would have had at our age, where we have high-definition digital on-demand streaming services they had a small number of analogue channels serving linear scheduled broadcasting. A particular film coming on TV could be a major event that it was not uncommon for most of the population to have shared, and such simple things as a coffee advert could become part of our common cultural experience. Behind it all was a minor miracle of synchronised analogue technology taking the signal from studio to living room, and this is the subject of a 1952 Coronet film, Television: How It Works!  Sit back and enjoy a trip into a much simpler world in the video below the break.

Filming a TV advert: 1950s housewife sells cooker
Production values for adverts had yet to reach their zenith in the 1950s.

After an introduction showing the cultural impact of TV in early-50s America there’s a basic intro to a cathode-ray tube, followed by something that may be less familiar to many readers, the Image Orthicon camera tube that formed the basis of most TV signals of that era.

It’s written for the general public, so the scanning raster of a TV image is introduced through the back-and-forth of reading a book, and then translated into how the raster is painted on the screen with the deflection coils and the electron gun. It’s not overly simplified though, for it talks about how the picture is interlaced and shows how a synchronisation pulse is introduced to keep all parts of the system working together.

A particularly fascinating glimpse comes in a brief mention of the solid copper co-axial cable and overland microwave links used to transmit TV signals across country, these concrete towers can still be seen today but they no longer have the colossal horn antennas we can see in the film.

A rather obvious omission in this film is the lack of any mention of colour TV, as while it would be late 1953 before the NTSC standard was formally adopted and early 1954 before the first few colour sets would go on sale. Colour TV would have been very much the Next Big Thing in 1952, but with no transmissions to watch and a bitter standards war still raging between the field-sequential CBS system and RCA’s compatible dot-sequential system that would eventually evolve into the NTSC standard¬† it’s not surprising that colour TV was beyond the consumer audience of the time.

Thus we’re being introduced to the 525-line standard which many think of as NTSC video, but without the NTSC compatible colour system that most of us will be familiar with. The 525-line analogue standard might have disappeared from our living rooms some time ago, but as the last few stations only came off-air last year we’d say it had a pretty good run.

We like analogue TV a lot here at Hackaday, and this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve gone all 525-line. Meanwhile for a really deep dive into the inner workings of TV signal timing, get ready to know your video waveform.

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End Of An Era: NTSC Finally Goes Dark In America

A significant event in the history of technology happened yesterday, and it passed so quietly that we almost missed it. The last few remaining NTSC transmitters in the USA finally came off air, marking the end of over seven decades of continuous 525-line American analogue TV broadcasts. We’ve previously reported on the output of these channels, largely the so-called “FrankenFM” stations left over after the 2009 digital switchover whose sound carrier lay at the bottom of the FM dial as radio stations, and noted their impending demise. We’ve even reported on some of the intricacies of the NTSC system, but we’ve never taken a look at what will replace these last few FrankenFM stations.

If you are an American you may have heard of ATSC 3.0, perhaps by its marketing name of NextGen TV. Just like the DVB-T2 standard found in other parts of the world, it’s an upgrade to digital TV standards to allow for more recent video compression technologies and higher definition broadcasts. It has an interesting backwards compatibility feature absent in previous ATSC versions; there is the option of narrowing the digital bandwidth from 6 MHz to 5.5 MHz, and transmitting an analogue FM subcarrier where the old NTSC sound carrier on the same channel would have sat. Thus the FrankenFM stations have the option of upgrading to ATSC 3.0 and transmitting a digital channel package alongside their existing FM radio station. It’s reported that this switchover is happening, with one example given in the Twitter thread linked above.

The inexorable march of technology has thus given better quality TV alongside the retention of the FrankenFMs. We have to admit to being sorry to see the passing of analogue TV, it was an intricate and fascinating system that provided a testbed for plenty of experimentation back in the day. Perhaps as we see it slip over the horizon it’s worth pondering whether its digital replacement will also become an anachronism in an age of on-demand streaming TV, after all it shouldn’t have escaped most people’s attention that in 2021 the good TV content no longer comes to your screen via an antenna socket. Meanwhile we’ll keep our CRTs running, just in case we ever want to relive a 1980s night in with a VHS tape of Back To The Future.

Header image: Mysid, Public domain.

History Of Closed Captions: The Analog Era

Closed captioning on television and subtitles on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming media are taken for granted today. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, it was quite a struggle for captioning to become commonplace. Back in the early 2000s, I unexpectedly found myself involved in a variety of closed captioning projects, both designing hardware and consulting with engineering teams at various consumer electronics manufacturers. I may have been the last engineer working with analog captioning as everyone else moved on to digital.

But before digging in, there is a lot of confusing and imprecise language floating around on this topic. Let’s establish some definitions. I often use the word captioning which encompasses both closed captions and subtitles:

Closed Captions: Transmitted in a non-visible manner as textual data. Usually they can be enabled or disabled by the user. In the NTSC system, it’s often referred to as Line 21, since it was transmitted on video line number 21 in the Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI).
Subtitles: Rendered in a graphical format and overlaid onto the video / film. Usually they cannot be turned off. Also called open or hard captions.

The text contained in captions generally falls into one of three categories. Pure dialogue (nothing more) is often the style of captioning you see in subtitles on a DVD or Blu-ray. Ordinary captioning includes the dialogue, but with the addition of occasional cues for music or a non-visible event (a doorbell ringing, for example). Finally, “Subtitles for the Deaf or Hard-of-hearing” (SDH) is a more verbose style that adds even more descriptive information about the program, including the speaker’s name, off-camera events, etc.

Roughly speaking, closed captions are targeting the deaf and hard of hearing audience. Subtitles are targeting an audience who can hear the program but want to view the dialogue for some reason, like understanding a foreign movie or learning a new language.

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Time’s Almost Up For The FrankenFMs: The Impending Switchoff Of Analog TV

In a time when multi-channel digital TV is the norm it’s a surprise to find that a few low-power analog stations are still clinging on in some American cities. These are sometimes fill-in stations for weak signal areas, or more usually the so-called “FrankenFM” stations who transmit static images or digital patterns and derive income from their sound channel lying at the bottom end of the FM band to form unintended radio stations. Their days are numbered though, because the FCC is requiring that they be turned off by July 13th. There’s a way forward for the broadcasters to upgrade to low-power digital, but as you might expect they’re more interested in retaining the FrankenFM frequency from which they derive income.

The industry is represented by the LPTV coalition, who have requested permission to retain their FM frequency alongside their digital service. This has faced stiff opposition from other broadcasters, who see the very existence of the FrankenFM stations as a flagrant flouting of the rules that shouldn’t be rewarded. The FCC have yet to make a ruling, so there remains a slim chance that they may win a reprieve.

The sad tale of the few lingering analog TV stations in the USA is a last flickering ember of a once-huge industry that has been eclipsed without anyone but a few vintage technology geeks noticing, such has been the success of digital broadcasting. But analog TV is a fascinating and surprisingly intricate system whose passing however faint is worth marking.

Header: Tiia Monto, CC BY-SA 3.0.