Minitel, The 1980s Console Game Platform You Never Had

We’ve made no secret over the years here at Hackaday of our admiration for the Minitel. The ubiquitous CRT terminals which made 1980s France the most connected country in the world never made it to where we grew up, but OH! how we wanted them to! We’ve seen quite a few Minitels repurposed as serial terminals here, but for the time being we think [Louis H] has won the Minitel Internet with his plugin game console cartridges. These have a DIN plug to fit the Minitel serial port, and present themselves as a serial game.

The cartridge itself is an extremely simple affair, a tube which fits over the DIN plug body, containing a slim PCB with an ATmega328 and its supporting components. The games must be programmed such that their gameplay can work over a serial interface, so as an example the first game is a version of 2048.

We applaud both the simplicity and creativity of this project, and we love it that a new 1980s console we never knew we had has been unearthed, without the need for hardware modification. Meanwhile if you’d like to peer inside an Alcatel Telic 1, we can take you there.

Need A Serial Data Plotter? Better Write Your Own

When you’re working with a development team, especially in a supporting capacity, you can often find yourself having to invent tools and support systems that are fairly involved, but don’t add to the system’s functionality. Still, without them, it’d be a dead duck. [Aidan Chandra] was clearly in a similar situation, working with a bunch of postgrads at Stanford, on an exoskeleton project, and needed an accurate data plotter to watch measurements in real-time.

This particular problem has been solved many times over, but [Aidan] laments that many solutions available seem to be too complex, hard to extend, or just have broken dependencies. This happens a lot, and it simply leads to yet another project to get going, before you can do the real work it supports. Based on Python and PyQT5, serial-plotter is a new beginning, with an emphasis on correct data acquisition and real-time data visualization with a little processing thrown in. Think, acquire data, show the raw values as well as the mean value, and RMS noise all on the same windows side-by-side, all of which is easily tweakable with a bit of programming using Numpy and Matplotlib.

One particularly important point to highlight is that of the handling of time-stamping. [Aidan] needed to ensure samples were logged together with a local MCU timestamp so that when displayed and possibly later post-processed, it was possible to accurately determine when a particular value or event occurred. With the amount of buffering, data loss and multiple-thread shenanigans, it is easy to forget that the data might get to the application in a non-deterministic way, and just relying on local CPU time is not so useful.

If you need to visualize data transported over the serial port, we have seen many projects to help. Like the highly configurable Serial Studio, for one. If your needs are a bit more complex, especially with multiple data transport methods, then a Supercon 2022 talk by [Alex Whittemore] might be a jolly good place to start.

Finally! A Typeface For Hardware People

When it comes to novelty typefaces there is no shortage of weird and wonderful fonts to be found when you have finally tired of Comic Sans. Everything from bananas forming letters to Wild West saloon lettering can be yours, plus of course our favourite, the embossed Dymo label. But there’s a new kid on the novelty typeface block, and for us it sweeps all before it.

Scopin’ Sans is as its creator [Guy Dupont] calls it “A typeface for hardware people”, and its party trick is that it doesn’t produce letters. Instead it forms an oscilloscope trace that displays what it would look like as serial data. Instantly your text jumps straight to 1337, and you win the internet.

We have shamefacedly to admit that we don’t know binary ASCII by sight, so we’ll have to take his word for it. But for the curious there’s a demo from which you can amuse yourself creating traces, and if you can’t recognize serial ASCII then the chances are few of the people around you can either. We take our hats off to [Guy], and it’s something we’re sure we’ll use at some point to delight and confuse our friends. It’s not the first font we’ve brought you, here are some more if you come from the bitmap era.

Four jumper wires with white heatshrink on them, labelled VCC, SCL, SDA and GND

Three Pitfalls In I2C Everyone Wishes Weren’t There

The best part of I2C is that it is a bus that is available just about anywhere, covering a vast ecosystem of devices that offer it as a hardware-defined interface, while being uncomplicated enough that it can also be implemented purely in software on plain GPIO pins. Despite this popularity, I2C is one of those famous informal standards that feature a couple of popular implementations, while leaving many of the details such as exact timing, bus capacitance and other tedious details to the poor sod doing the product development. Thus it is that we end up with articles such as a recent one on the tongue-twisting [pair of pared pears] blog, covering issues found while implementing an I2C slave.

As with any shared bus, whether multi-master or not, figuring out when the bus is clear is a fun topic, yet one which can cause endless headaches. One issue here comes from a feature that the SMBus version of I2C calls quick read/write. This allows for the rapid transfer of some data. Still, depending on the data returned by the slave, it may appear to the master that nothing is happening yet, since SDA is being held low by the slave until the stop condition, essentially locking the bus.

I2C hold times example.
I2C hold times example.

Where things get even more exciting comes generally in the form of what logic analyzers love to traumatically call a ‘spurious start/stop condition’. This refers to the behavior of SDA and SCL, with SDA going low before SCL indicating an error. This can occur due to a hold time that’s too low, causing other devices on the bus to miss the transition. Here SMBus defines a transition time of 300 ns, while I2C calls for 0 seconds, but it’s now suggested to delay calling a start/stop condition until a delay of 300 ns has passed. Essentially, it would seem that implementing a hold time is the way forward until evidence to the contrary appears.

The third pitfall pertains to the higher-speed modes of I2C, including Fast-Mode (FM) and Fast-Mode Plus (FM+). Backward compatibility with these higher speed versions is absent to spotty. Although FM+ (introduced by NXP in 2007) is supposed to be backward compatible with slower speeds, effectively the timing requirement differences between the FM+ and FM standards are too large to compensate for. At least in the current versions of the standards, but one of the joys of I2C is that there’s always another new set of revisions to look forward to.

Interlaken Want To Connect All The Chips

One of the problems with designing things on a chip is finding a good way to talk to the outside world. You may not design chips yourself, but you care because you want to connect your circuits — including other chips — to the chips in question. While I2C and SPI are common solutions, today’s circuits are looking for more bandwidth and higher speeds, and that’s where Interlaken comes in. [Comcores] has an interesting post on the technology that blends the best of SPI 4.2 and XAUI.

The interface is serial, as you might expect. It can provide both high-bandwidth and low-latency multi-channel communications. Interlaken was developed by Cisco and Cortina Systems in 2006 and has since been adopted by other industry-leading companies. Its latest generation supports speeds as high as 1.2 Tbps.

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A Simple Serial Display

Often with more “modern” complex protocols involving handshaking, token exchanges, and all the other hoops and whistles accompanying them, we forget how useful and powerful serial can be. In what might be a wonderful tribute to that, [Davide Gironi] created a simple AVR-powered 16-digit serial display.

It can display two numbers, and that’s it. A MAX7219 drives the display, and the brains are an ATmega8. It’s straightforward to send new values: a start byte, a CRC, the data to display, and an end byte. A CP2102 provides a UART to USB interface to connect to a host. An EEPROM helps it remember the last numbers shown. It supports positive, negative, and floating-point numbers.

This is a beautiful example of doing one thing and doing it well. The design is simple and allows it to be used for anything. You can show the current stock market price, the time for the next two trains for your commute, or whatever else you can think of. [Davide] included a schematic, code, and a 3d printed enclosure.

Perhaps the idea could be combined with a clever design for a single-motor seven-segment display.

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YouTube Like It’s 1970s France With This Minitel-VCR Mashup

When it’s not just sticking fake gears on things and calling it a day, the Steampunk look is pretty cool. Imagining technology in a world stuck with Victorian aesthetics is a neat idea, and one that translates to the look of other time periods — Fallout, anyone?

But what if you try to create a technological aesthetic based on a more recent and less celebrated time? That’s what [ghettobastler] has attempted with this somewhat bizarre Minitel-YouTube-VCR mash-up. Taking inspiration from a webcomic’s take on “Formicapunk,” modern tech based on the aesthetic of the wildly successful French videotex service of the 70s and 80s, the system uses a very cool Minitel 1B terminal and a Raspberry Pi 3.

A custom level-shifter for the Pi

With the help of a level-shifting circuit, the Mintel and the Pi talk over serial, allowing the terminal to be used as, well, a terminal for the Pi. Videos are downloaded from YouTube by the Pi, which sends the video to the VCR from its composite output, and controls the VCR with an IR LED that emulates the original remote. Come to think of it, just watch the video below — it’s probably easier than trying to describe it.

It’s weird, true, but we love the look of that Minitel terminal. Something about it just screams cyberdeck; if anyone has a spare one of these, get busy and put something together for our Cyberdeck Design Contest.

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