You may not have heard, but there’s a chip shortage out there. And it’s not just the fancy new chips that are in short supply; the chips that were fancy and new back when you could still buy them from Radio Shack are getting hard to come by, too. For different reasons, of course, but it does pose a problem that requires a little hacking to fix.
The chip in question here is the General Instrument SP0256, a 1980s-era speech synthesizer chip that [Andrew Menadue] relies on. The LSI chip stored 59 unique allophones, or basic sounds the vocal tract is capable of, and synthesized speech by rapidly concatenating these sounds. The chip and its descendants made regular appearances in computers and games throughout the 80s, so chances are good you’ve heard it. If not, think WarGames (yes, we know that wasn’t actually a computerized voice) or [Stephen Hawking] and you’ll be pretty close.
[Andrew]’s need for such a chip stems from his attempts to give voice to his collection of Psion Organisers, another 80s relic that was one of the first pocket computers. Some time ago he built a speech board for the Psion based on the SP0256-AL2, but had to resort to building an emulator for the chip since none were to be had. The emulator uses an RP2040 and lives on a PCB that has the same footprint as the original chip, so it can just plug right in. He dug up WAV files of the allophones and translated those to sequences of bytes, allowing the RP2040 to output the correct sounds as they’re called for. Speaker problems notwithstanding, it sounds pretty good in the video below.
Introduced in 1984, the Psion Organiser series defined the first generation of electronic organizers or PDAs (personal digital assistants). Even though these devices are now over 30 years old, the Psion Organiser scene is alive and well: with new hardware and software is still being developed by enthusiasts the world over.
One of those enthusiasts is [James Stanley], who designed and built a USB interface for the Psion Organiser II. Although a “CommsLink” module providing an RS-232 port was available back in the day, it’s become hard to find, inspiring [James] to design a completely new module based on an Arduino Nano. Hooking it up to the Psion’s data bus was a simple matter of wiring up the eight data lines to the Nano’s GPIO ports. A set of series resistors served to prevent bus contention without having to add glue logic.
Getting the software working was a bit more difficult: the Organiser’s native OPL programming language doesn’t allow the user to directly access the expansion port’s memory address, so [James] had to write a routine in HD6303 machine code to perform the read, then call that routine from OPL to display the result on the screen. Currently, the routine only supports reading data from the Arduino, but extending it to a bidirectional interface should be possible too.
Ask a hacker to imagine computing in the 1980s, and they might think of the classic 8-bit all-in-one machines from the likes of Commodore and Atari, or perhaps the early PCs and Macs. No matter the flavor, they’ll likely have one thing in common: a lack of mobility thanks to being anchored down by a bulky CRT screen in the form of either a television or a dedicated monitor. Mobile computing at the time was something of an expensive rarity, consisting of various quirky handhelds that today have been all but forgotten.
Looking to see if one of these so-called “pocket computers” could still be of use in 2019, [James Fossey] set out to get his circa 1986 Psion Organiser II connected to the Internet. With a Hitachi CPU, two-line text-only LCD and ABCD keyboard it’s a world away from the modern smartphone, yet as an early stab at a PDA as well as general purpose computer it’s visibly an ancestor of the devices we carry today. Of course, as the Psion was produced before the advent of affordable mobile data and before even the invention of the Web, it needed a bit of help connecting to a modern network.
Psion sold an RS-232 cable accessory which came with both serial terminal and file transfer in ROM, so with one of these sourced and a little bit of hackery involving an RS-232 to TTL converter and a DB-25 connector, he was able to hook it up to a Raspberry Pi. That means it’s reduced to being a dumb terminal for a more powerful machine that can do the heavy lifting, but those with long memories will tell you that’s exactly what would have been done with the help of a modem to connect to a BBS back in 1986. So far he’s got a terminal on the Pi and a Twitter client, but he’s declined to show us the Hackaday Retro Edition.
Psion has rarely featured directly on these pages, but despite being forgotten by many today they were a groundbreaking company whose influence on portable computing stretched beyond their own line of devices. One we have shown you is an effort to put more recent hardware into a Psion Series 5 clamshell.