Retrotechtacular: Information From The Days When Colour TV Was New

By the time colour TV came to the United Kingdom, it was old news to Americans. Most of the viewing public on the Western side of the Atlantic had had the opportunity to see more than black-and-white images for years when in 1967 the BBC started transmitting its first colour channel, BBC2.

For Americans and continental Europeans, the arrival of colour TV had been an incremental process, in which the colour subcarrier had been added to their existing transmission standard. Marketed as “compatible color” to Americans, this ensured that their existing black-and-white TV sets had no need for replacement as the new transmissions started.

The United Kingdom by contrast had been one of the first countries in the world to adopt a television standard in the 1930s, so its VHF 405-line positive-modulation black-and-white services stood alone and looked extremely dated three decades later. The BBC had performed experiments using modified round-CRT American sets to test the feasibility of inserting an NTSC colour subcarrier into a 405-line signal, but had eventually admitted defeat and opted for the Continental 625-line system with the German PAL colour encoding. This delivered colour TV at visibly better quality than the American NTSC system, but at the expense of a 15-year process of switching off all 405-line transmitters, replacing all 405-line sets, and installing new antennas for all viewers for the new UHF transmissions.

Such a significant upgrade must have placed a burden upon the TV repair and maintenance trade, because as part of the roll-out of the new standard the BBC produced and transmitted a series of short instructional animated films about the unfamiliar technology, which we’ve placed below the break. The engineer is taken through the signal problems affecting UHF transmissions, during which we’re reminded just how narrow bandwidth those early UHF Yagis must have been, then we are introduced to the shadowmask tube and all its faults. The dreaded convergence is introduced, as these were the days before precision pre-aligned CRTs, and we briefly see an early version of the iconic Test Card F. Finally we are shown the basic procedure for achieving the correct white balance. There is a passing reference to dual-standard sets, as if convergence for colour transmissions wasn’t enough of a nightmare a lot of the early colour sets incorporated a bank of switches on their PCB to select 405-line or 625-line modes. The hapless engineer would have to set up the convergence for both signals, something that must have tried their patience.

The final sequence looks at the hand-over of the new set to the customer. In an era in which we are used to consumer electronics with fantastic reliability we would not be happy at all with a PAL set from 1967. They were as new to the manufacturers as they were to the consumers, so the first generation of appliances could hardly have been described as reliable. The smiling woman in the animated film would certainly have needed to call the engineer again more than once to fix her new status symbol.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Remote Control by Head Gestures

Some people may think they’re having a bad day when they can’t find the TV remote. Yet there are some people who can’t even hold a remote, let alone root around in the couch cushions where the remote inevitably winds up. This entry in the Assistive Technologies phase of the 2017 Hackaday Prize seeks to help such folks, with a universal remote triggered by head gestures.

Mobility impairments can range from fine motor control issues to quadriplegia, and people who suffer from them are often cut off from technology by the inability to operate devices. [Cassio Batista] concentrated on controlling a TV for his project, but it’s easy to see how his method could interface with other IR remotes to achieve control over everything from alarm systems to windows and drapes. His open-source project uses a web cam to watch a user’s head gestures, and OpenCV running on a CHIP SBC looks for motion in the pitch, yaw, and roll axes to control volume, channel, and power. An Arduino takes care the IR commands to the TV. The prototype works well in the video below; with the power of OpenCV we can imagine mouth gestures and even eye blinks adding to the controller’s repertoire.

The Assistive Tech phase wraps up tomorrow, so be sure to get your entries in. You’ll have some stiff competition, like this robotic exoskeleton. But don’t let that discourage you.

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Britain Invented Rock-N-Roll, And Other Stories

An elderly relative of mine used to get irate at the BBC news. When our Prime Minister [Edward Heath] or another of her bêtes noirs of the day came on, she’d rail at the radio or the TV, expressing her views to them in no uncertain terms. It taught a young me a lot about the futility of shouting at the telly, as well as about making a spectacle of oneself.

The ISS in flight. NASA(Public Domain)
The ISS in flight. NASA [Public domain].
The other evening though I found myself almost at the point of  shouting at a TV programme, and since it’s one with a clear message about technology I feel it’s worth sharing here. The programme in question was one of the Impossible Engineering series, and it was talking about the technology behind the International Space Station. It was recent enough to include last year’s mission involving [Tim Peake], so it was by no means a show dredged from the archives.

All very well, you say. Impossible Engineering‘s format of looking at a modern engineering marvel and tracing the historical roots of some of its innovations would find fertile ground in the ISS, after all it’s one of our most impressive achievements and could easily provide content for several seasons of the show. And I’ll give them this, they did provide an interesting episode.

The trouble was, they made an omission. And it wasn’t just a slight omission, one of those minor cock-ups that when we Hackaday scribes make them the commenters pounce upon with glee, this one was a doozy. They managed to fill an hour of television talking about space stations and in particular a space station that was assembled by multiple countries under an international co-operation, without mention of any of the Russian technology that underpins much of its design. An egregious example among many was their featuring a new Boeing capsule designed to touchdown on land rather than on water as a novel invention, when as far as I am aware every Russian capsule ever made has performed a land-based touchdown.

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I am an Iconoscope

We’d never seen an iconoscope before. And that’s reason enough to watch the quirky Japanese, first-person video of a retired broadcast engineer’s loving restoration. (Embedded below.)

Quick iconoscope primer. It was the first video camera tube, invented in the mid-20s, and used from the mid-30s to mid-40s. It worked by charging up a plate with an array of photo-sensitive capacitors, taking an exposure by allowing the capacitors to discharge according to the light hitting them, and then reading out the values with another electron scanning beam.

The video chronicles [Ozaki Yoshio]’s epic rebuild in what looks like the most amazingly well-equipped basement lab we’ve ever seen. As mentioned above, it’s quirky: the iconoscope tube itself is doing the narrating, and “my father” is [Ozaki-san], and “my brother” is another tube — that [Ozaki] found wrapped up in paper in a hibachi grill! But you don’t even have to speak Japanese to enjoy the frame build and calibration of what is probably the only working iconoscope camera in existence. You’re literally watching an old master at work, and it shows.

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Hacking On TV: What You Need To Know

It seems to be a perennial feature of our wider community of hackers and makers, that television production companies come up with new ideas for shows featuring us and our skills. Whether it is a reality maker show, a knockout competition, a scavenger hunt, or any other format, it seems that there is always a researcher from one TV company or another touting around the scene for participants in some new show.

These shows are entertaining and engaging to watch, and we’ve all probably wondered how we might do were we to have a go ourselves. Fame and fortune awaits, even if only during one or two episodes, and sometimes participants even find themselves launched into TV careers. Americans may be familiar with [Joe Grand], for instance, and Brits will recognise [Dick Strawbridge].

It looks as if it might be a win-win situation to be a TV contestant on a series filmed in exotic foreign climes, but it’s worth taking a look at the experience from another angle. What you see on the screen is the show as its producer wants you to see it, fast-paced and entertaining. What you see as a competitor can be entirely different, and before you fill in that form you need to know about both sides.

A few years ago I was one member of a large team of makers that entered the UK version of a very popular TV franchise. The experience left me with an interest in how TV producers craft the public’s impression of an event, and also with a profound distrust of much of what I see on my screen. This prompted me to share experiences with those people I’ve met over the years who have been contestants in other similar shows, to gain a picture of the industry from more than just my personal angle. Those people know who they are and I thank them for their input, but because some of them may still be bound by contract I will keep both their identities and those of the shows they participated in a secret. It’s thus worth sharing some of the insights gleaned from their experiences, so that should you be interested in having a go yourself, you are forewarned. Continue reading “Hacking On TV: What You Need To Know”

Vintage Portable TV Turned Retro Gaming System

When [FinnAndersen] found an old TV set by the side of the road, he did what any self-respecting DIY/gaming enthusiast would do: He took it apart and installed a Raspberry Pi 3 running RetroPie in it in order to play retro games on a retro TV!

[Finn] took the CRT out of the TV before realizing that it actually worked. It was already too late, so [Finn] ordered a 12″ LCD screen to put in its place. He liked the idea of the curved screen the CRT had, though, so he molded a piece of acrylic around the CRT and, after some cutting and grinding, had it fitting in the screen’s space.

[Finn] also liked the idea of the TV still being able to view a television signal, so he bought a TV tuner card. After a couple of mods to it, he could control the card with the TV’s original channel changer. He used an Arduino to read the status of the rotary encoders the original TV used. After some trial and error, [Finn] was able to read the channel positions and the Arduino would send a signal to the channel up and down buttons on the tuner card in order to change the channel.

Next up was audio. [Finn] found a nicer speaker than came with the TV, so he swapped them and added an amplifier. The original volume knob is still used to control the volume. A USB Hub is hidden in the side of the TV at the bottom, to allow controllers to connect and finally, a power supply converts the mains voltage to 12V DC which runs both the Raspberry Pi and the TV Tuner.

[FinnAndersen] has built a great RetroPie cabinet reusing a great looking vintage TV. It’s unfortunate that he removed the CRT before figuring out that he could use it, but the replacement looks pretty darn good! And the added advantage? It’s portable, sort of. At least, without the CRT inside, it’s much lighter than it was. Here‘s another retro console inside an old TV, and this article is about connecting a Raspberry Pi to every display you can get your hands on.

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Command Alexa With a Completely Mechanical Vintage Remote Control

Anyone with grandparents already knows that in ye olden days, televisions did not have remote control. Your parents probably still complain about how, as children, they were forced to physically walk over to the TV in order to switch between the three available channels. In these modern times of technological wonder, we have voice control, programmable touch screen remotes, and streaming services that will automatically play an entire season of the show you’re binge watching. However, before these, and before the ubiquitous infrared remote, television manufacturers were experimenting with ways to keep kids from having to run across the living room every time the channel needed to be changed.

Early remote controls were simply wired affairs — nothing too surprising there. But, it wasn’t long before methods of wireless control were being introduced. One early effort called the Flashmatic would shine light onto a photoelectric cell on the television set to control it. Of course, it might also be controlled by unintended light sources, and users had to have good aim to hit the sensor. These issues soon led to the introduction of the Zenith Space Command remote control, which used ultrasonic frequencies to control the TV.

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