Supercon Badge Hardware Hacking: Here’s What to Bring

Hackaday Superconference is just a week away (precious few tickets remain), a celebration of all things Hackaday, which naturally includes creative projects making the most of their hardware. Every attendee gets a platform for hacking in the form of the conference badge.

To make the most of your badge hacking fun, plan ahead so you will have the extra components and the tools you need. At the most basic, bring along a serial to USB cable and a PIC programmer. These are common and if you don’t own them, ask around and you will likely be able to borrow them. Now is also the time to put in a parts order for any components you want to use but don’t have on hand!

The badge is hackable without any extras, but it’s designed for adding hardware and hacking the firmware. We’re excited to see what you can do with it. We gave an overview of this retro themed pocket computer a few days ago, today we’re inviting you to exploit its potential for your hardware hacks.

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The Supercon Badge is a Freakin’ Computer

It hangs around your neck, comes with the cost of admission, and would blow away a desktop computer from the 1980’s. This is the Hackaday Superconference badge and you can get your hands on one for the price of admission to the ultimate hardware conference.

Everyone through the door gets one of these badges featuring a 320 x 240 color display, a full qwerty keyboard, and limitless hacking potential! The stock firmware runs a BASIC interpreter, the CP/M operating system, and includes games and Easter Eggs. It’s a giant playground, and we want to see what you can do with this custom hardware during the three days of Supercon. Get your ticket now, then join me after the break for a demo video and plenty more info.

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Circuit Bending A TV For Better Input

If you haven’t noticed, CRTs are getting hard to find. You can’t get them in Goodwill, because thrift stores don’t take giant tube TVs anymore. You can’t find them on the curb set out for the trash man, because they won’t pick them up. It’s hard to find them on eBay, because no one wants to ship them. That’s a shame, because the best way to enjoy old retrocomputers and game systems is with a CRT with RGB input. If you don’t already have one, the best you can hope for is an old CRT with a composite input.

But there’s a way. [The 8-Bit Guy] just opened up late 90s CRT TV and modded it to accept RGB input. That’s a monitor for your Apple, your Commodore, and a much better display for your Sega Genesis.

There are a few things to know before cracking open an old CRT and messing with the circuits. Every (color) CRT has three electron guns, one each for red, green, and blue. These require high voltage, and in CRTs with RGB inputs you’re looking at a circuit path that takes those inputs, amplifies them, and sends them to the gun. If the TV only has a composite input, there’s a bit of circuitry that takes that composite signal apart and sends it to the guns. In [8-bit guy]’s TV — and just about every CRT TV you would find from the mid to late 90s — there’s a ‘Jungle IC’ that handles this conversion, and most of the time there’s RGB inputs meant for the on-screen display. By simply tapping into those inputs, you can add RGB inputs with fancy-schmancy RCA jacks on the back.

While the actual process of adding RGB inputs to a late 90’s CRT will be slightly different for each individual make and model, the process is pretty much the same. It’s really just a little bit of soldering and then sitting back and playing with old computers that are finally displaying the right colors on a proper screen.

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Ants, Dirt, Rain, And The Commodore 64 That Wouldn’t Quit

Some electronics gear is built for the roughest conditions. With rugged steel cases, weatherproof gaskets, and cables passing through sealed glands, these machines are built to take the worst that Mother Nature can throw at them, shrugging off dust, mud, rain, and ice. Consumer-grade computers from the start of the home PC era, however, are decidedly not such machines.

Built to a price point and liable to succumb to a spilled Mountain Dew, few machines from that era that received any kind of abuse lived to tell the tale. Not so this plucky Commodore 64C, which survived decades exposed to the elements. As [Adrian Black] relates in the video below, this machine was on a scrap heap in an Oregon field, piled there along with other goodies by one of those “pickers” that reality TV loves so much. The machine was a disaster. It hadn’t been soaked in oil, but it was loaded with pine needles and an ant colony. The worst part, though, was the rust. The RF shielding had corroded into powder in some places, leaving reddish rust stains all over the place. Undeterred, [Adrian] gave the machine a good bath, first in water, then in isopropanol. Liberal applications of Deoxit helped with header connections, enough to see that the machine miraculously booted. It took some finagling, especially with the 6526 I/O controller, but [Adrian] was eventually able to get everything on the motherboard working, even the sound chip.

Whether this machine survived due to good engineering or good luck is debatable, but it’s a treat to see it come back to life. We hope a full restoration is in the works, not least as a way to make up for the decades of neglect.

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Fixing An IBM 1401 Computer To Get It Printing Again

The IBM 1401 is a classic computer which IBM marketed throughout the 1960s, late enough for it to have used transistors rather than vacuum tubes, which is probably a good thing for this story. For small businesses, it was often used as their main data processing machine along with the 1403 printer. For larger businesses with mainframes, the 1401 was used to handle the slower peripherals such as that 1403 printer as well as card readers.

Broken germanium transistor
Broken germanium transistor

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA has two working 1401s as well as at least one 1403 printer, and recently whenever the printer printed out a line, the computer would report a “print check” error. [Ken Shirriff] was among those who found and fixed the problem and he wrote up a detailed blog entry which takes us from the first test done to narrow down the problem, through IBM’s original logic diagrams, until finally yanking out the suspect board and finding the culprit, a germanium transistor which likely failed due to corrosion and an emitter wire that doesn’t look solidly connected. How do they know that? In the typical [Ken]-and-company style which we love, they opened up the transistor and looked at it under a microscope. We get the feeling that if they could have dug even deeper then they would have.

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of this team who maintain the machines at the museum, you’ll want to read up on how they recently got a 1401 to run FORTRAN II code.

Electromagnetic Field: Speczilla!

It is a golden rule of the journalist’s art, that we report the news, we don’t make it. But just occasionally we find ourselves in the odd position of being in the right place such that one of our throwaway comments or actions has the unintended consequence of seeding a story. This is one of those moments, so it’s a rare case of use of the first person in a daily piece as your scribe instead of Hackaday’s usual second person.

At the SHA2017 hacker camp in the Netherlands, [Matt “Gasman” Westcott] gave his presentation on composing a chiptune from an audience suggestion. Afterwards my Tweet about never having seen a Sinclair Spectrum as large as the one on the presentation screen grew a life of its own and became the idea for a project, which in turn at Electromagnetic Field 2018 was exhibited as a giant-sized fully working Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Since much of the work was performed in Oxford Hackspace I saw Matt’s progression, his first experiments with foam rubber keys, then as he refined his two-wire switch mechanism. Early experiments hooking a row of them up to a real Spectrum motherboard weren’t the success he’d hoped for, so he moved to the FUSE emulator on a Raspberry Pi. A huge effort and needlework learning curve plus a lot of help from OxHack’s textile specialists and buying his local furniture store’s entire stock of foam allowed him to perfect a facsimile of the classic Spectrum’s case and blue rubber keys, while its lettering and iconic BASIC keywords were vinyl-cut at rLab in Reading. A Milton Keynes Makerspace member provided transport to the camp where it was united with a huge TV in a gazebo, completing the trio of local spaces.

At the camp, though it suffered a few technical hitches along the way it was rather a success. There were two techniques, kneeling down and pressing keys with the palm of your hand, or dancing on them in socked feet for complex manoeuvres. The trademark single-key-press BASIC keywords took a little while to re-learn though, there was a time when those were instinctive.

We’d normally wrap a piece like this one up with a link or two. To other projects perhaps, or other hacks from the same person. But in this case we have neither another home computer on this scale, nor any hacks from [Matt], as he’s well known in the European arm of our community for something completely different. As [Gasman] he’s a chiptune artist par excellence, as you can see if you watch his set from the 2014 Electromagnetic Field.

TI(ny) Is A New Take On The TI-99/4A

Way back in the 1980s, in the heyday of the personal computer revolution, Texas Instruments were one of the major players. The TI-99/4A was one of their more popular machines, selling 2.8 million units after an epic price war with the Commodore VIC-20. However once it had been discontinued, fans were left wanting more from the platform. Years later, that led [Fabrice] to produce the TI(ny), his take on an upgraded, more integrated TI-99/4A (Google Translate link).

Having spent many years working on these machines, [Fabrice] was very familiar with the official TI schematics – regarding both their proper use and their errors, omissions and inaccuracies. With a strong underlying knowledge of what makes a TI-99/4A tick, he set out to pen his own take on an extended model. [Fabrice] rolls in such features as Atari-compatible joystick ports, slot connectors for PeBOX expansion cards, and an RGB video output. It’s then all wrapped up in a very tidy looking case of somewhat unclear construction; it appears to be modified from an existing small computer case, and then refinished to look almost stock.

The best detail, though? It’s all made with components available in 1983! We see a lot of retro builds that are the equivalent of throwing a modern fuel-injected V8 into a vintage muscle car, and they are fantastic – but this is a project that shows us what was possible way back when.

Overall it’s a tidy build that shows what the TI-99/4A could have been if it was given a special edition model at the end of its life. If you’re looking to relive the glory days of the machine yourself, what better way then firing up the best demo on the platform? As the saying goes – Don’t Mess With Texas.

[Thanks to g_alen_e for the tip!]