Classic 80s Text-To-Speech On Classic 80s Hardware

Those of us who were around in the late 70s and into the 80s might remember the Speak & Spell, a children’s toy with a remarkable text-to-speech synthesizer. While it sounds dated by today’s standards, it was revolutionary for the time and was riding a wave of text-to-speech functionality that was starting to arrive to various computers of the era. While a lot of them used dedicated hardware to perform the speech synthesis, some computers were powerful enough to do this in software, but others were not quite able. The VIC-20 was one of the latter, but thanks to an ESP8266 it has been retroactively given this function.

This project comes to us from [Jan Derogee], a connoisseur of this retrocomputer, and builds on the work by [Earle F. Philhower] who ported the retro speech synthesis software known as SAM from assembly to C which made it possible to run on the ESP8266. Audio playback is handled on the I2S port, but some work needed to be done to get this to work smoothly since this port also handles the communication with the VIC-20. Once this was sorted out, a patch was made to be able to hear the computer’s audio as well as the speech synthesizer’s. Finally, a serial command interface was designed by [Jan] which allows for control of the module.

While not many of us have VIC-20s sitting at home, it’s still an interesting project that shows the broad scope of a small and inexpensive chip like the ESP8266 which would have had a hefty price tag back in the 1980s. If you have other 80s hardware laying around waiting to be put to work, though, take a look at this project which brings new vocabulary words to that old classic Speak & Spell.

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David Murray and Kevin Williams with an early X16 prototype

Commander X16: A Dreamy 8 Bit Computer Comes Closer To Reality

Imagine the ultimate homage to 1980s 8-bit home computers. It might  look like [David Murray] aka The 8-Bit Guy’s Commander X16.

As a core group of geeks, hackers, and developers age, we yearn for the computers of our youth. VIC-20s, Commodore Pets, 64s, 128s, Ataris, Apple IIes, and the list goes on and on. For many of us, our first hands on experience with a computer was with such a machine that is now called “retro”. Sadly, many of these relics are getting more expensive as demand increases and supplies dwindle. Working examples are harder to find, and even those can break down. Original monitors, peripherals, and accessories are also getting scarcer. This is all quite understandable when we consider that some of these classics are over 40 years old.

What was it that we loved about these old rigs that makes them so attractive? [David] decided to distil what makes a classic a classic, and then turn that list into a spec list for what he calls his “Dream Computer”. He found that things like a printed and spiral bound manual were a big part of the charm and utility of these early home computers. Booting directly to a prompt and being able to directly control the hardware was another highly desirable trait.

[David] also took the time to determine what people don’t like about these retro machines: Wacky keyboard layouts, composite video output, and glacially slow storage. Swapping multiple floppies to load a program or respooling a cassette tape is just as undesirable in 2021 as it was in 1981. Who knew?

X16 Prototype #3
The X16’s’ prototyping is still in progress.

The result of [David]’s research is the Commander X16. Inspired by the VIC-20, it’s a fresh take on the retrocomputer that only uses parts that are currently available. You can see the first video in a series about the development of the X16 below the break. Be aware that a lot of progress has been made since the video came out in 2019, but it still provides an excellent starting point for learning about the project.

The X16’s specifications read like dream list made in the mid 80s: 256 color VGA, up to 2MB memory, an 8 MHz 6502, plenty of expansion ports, and even ports for SNES style controllers.  And what else will this dream machine include? You guessed it: A spiral bound manual!

It’s not possible to list all of the great features of the X16 in this space, so check out the Commander X16 FAQ for all the details. If this project makes your heart go pitter patter, you may be interested to know that they need help with software development! An emulator is available for development. The goal is to have a healthy software ecosystem in place when the X16 launches.

You may also enjoy reading about other 6502 retrocomputer reports such as this “Brain in a vat” 6502 computer, or a guided tour of the birthplace of the 6502 and the Commodore 64 with our very own Bil Herd.

Thank you to [Truth] for bringing us a report of this fine project via the Tip Line. Keep those tips coming!

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Inside The VIC-20

Commodore machines are well-loved around here, but usually when you think Commodore, you think about the Commodore 64, or maybe the PET or Amiga. But the Commodore 64 had an older sister, the VIC 20. This was the first computer to sell a million units and has a lot in common with its better-known successor. The machine was only made for a few years, and [Dubious Engineering] has been restoring one over a few videos. In the video below, he opens it up for a look inside, among other things.

If you want to get straight to the opening, you’ll need to fast forward about 5 and a half minutes. The keyboard pulls off and a nice old-fashioned set of cables made from individual wires connect to the skinny main board with all the smarts on it. No ribbon cables or flex PCBs!

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Finding A Secret Message From A Gaming Legend

Satoru Iwata is perhaps best remembered for leading Nintendo through the development of the DS and Wii, two wildly successful systems which undeniably helped bring gaming to a wider and more mainstream audience. But decades before becoming the company’s President in 2002, he got his start in the industry as a developer working on many early console and computer games. [Robin Harbron] recently decided to dig into one of the Iwata’s earliest projects, Star Battle for the VIC-20.

Finding the message was easy, if you knew were to look.

It’s been known for some time that Iwata, then just 22 years old, had hidden his name and a message in the game’s source code. But [Robin] wondered if there was more to the story. Looking at the text in memory, he noticed the lines were actually null-terminated. Realizing the message was likely intended to get printed on the screen at one point during the game’s development, he started hunting for a way to trigger the nearly 40 year old Easter Egg.

As it turns out, it’s hidden behind a single flag in the code. Just change it from 0 to 1, and the game will display Iwata’s long-hidden credit screen. That proved the message was originally intended to be visible to players, but it still didn’t explain how they were supposed to trigger it during normal game play.

That’s where things really get interesting. As [Robin] gives us a guided tour through Star Battle’s inner workings, he explains that Iwata originally intended the player to hit a special combination of keys to tick over the Easter Egg’s enable flag. All of the code is still there in the commercial release of the game, but it’s been disabled. As Iwata’s life was tragically cut short in 2015 due to complications from cancer, we’ll perhaps never know the reason he commented out the code in question before the game was released. But at least we can now finally see this hidden message from one of gaming’s true luminaries.

Last time we heard from [Robin], he’d uncovered a secret C64 program hidden on a vinyl record. With his track record so far, we can’t wait to see what he digs into next. Continue reading “Finding A Secret Message From A Gaming Legend”

3D-Printed Rotary Dial Keypad Is Wonderfully Useless

Right up front, let us stipulate that we are not making fun of this project. Even its maker admits that it has no practical purpose. But this 3D-printed Commodore-style rotary dial keypad fails to be practical on so many levels that it’s worth celebrating.

And indeed, celebrating deprecated technology appears to be what [Jan Derogee] had in mind with this build. Rotary dials were not long ago the only way to place a call, and the last time we checked, pulse dialing was still supported by some telephone central office switchgear. Which brings us to the first failure: with millions of rotary dial phones available, why build one from scratch? [Jan] chalks it up to respect for the old tech, but in any case, the 3D-printed dial is a pretty good replica of the real thing. Granted, no real dial used a servo motor to return the dial to the resting state, but the 3D-printed springs [Jan] tried all returned the dial instantly, instead of the stately spin back that resulted in 10 pulses per second. And why this has been done up VIC-20 style and used as a keypad for Commodore computers? Beats us. It had to be used for something. That the software for the C-64  generates DTMF tones corresponding to the number dialed only adds to the wonderful weirdness of this. Check out the video below.

We’ll hand it to [Jan], he has a unique way of looking at the world, especially when it comes to clocks. We really enjoyed his persistence of phosphorescence clock, and his screw-driven linear clock turns the standard timekeeping UI on its head.

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Bringing A VIC-20 Back From An Oily Grave

No matter which platform you’re into, retrocomputing is usually a labor of love. The obsolete, the unpopular, the downright weird – old computers of every stripe are found, restored to something like their former glory, and given a new lease on life. It’s heartwarming, in a way. But when a computer has obviously been abused, it takes a little extra effort, of a lot in the case of this oil-submerged VIC-20 restoration.

In the two-part video below, [The 8-Bit Guy] goes through the gory details of bringing this classic Commodore back from the grave. The first video shows the cosmetic rebuild, which given the filthy state of the machine was no mean feat. Cracked open, the guts were found to be filled with an oily residue; [The 8-Bit Guy] chalks that up to a past life in some kind of industrial setting, but we see it more as flood damage. Whatever the sad circumstances on the machine’s demise, the case required a workout to clean up, and it came out remarkably fresh looking. The guts needed quite a bit of cleaning too, mainly with brake cleaner to cut through the gunk.

Part two focuses on getting the machine running again, and here [The 8-Bit Guy] had his work cut out as well. With a logic probe, signal injector, and some good old-fashioned chip swapping, he was able to eliminate most of the potential problems before settling in on some RAM chips as culprits for the video problems he saw at power-up. It all worked out in the end, and the machine looks and acts like new. We’re impressed.

Maybe we shouldn’t question [The 8-Bit Guy]’s call on the VIC-20 being from an industrial setting, though. After all, the “little Amiga that could” ran a school’s HVAC system for over 30 years.

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“The Commodore Story” Documentary Premieres Today

What is it about a computer that was introduced 36 years ago by a company that would be defunct 12 years later that engenders such passion that people still collect it to this day? We’re talking about the Commodore 64, of course, the iconic 8-bit wonder that along with the other offerings from Commodore International served as the first real computer to millions of us.

There’s more to the passion that Commodore aficionados exhibit than just plain nostalgia, though, and a new documentary film, The Commodore Story, seeks to explore both the meteoric rise and fall of Commodore International. Judging from the official trailer below, this is a film anyone with the slightest interest in Commodore is not going to want to miss.

It will of course dive into the story of how the C64 came to be the best selling computer in history. But Commodore was far from a one-trick pony. The film traces the history of all the Commodore machines, from the PET computers right through to the Amiga. There are interviews with the key players, too, including our own Bil Herd. Bil was a hardware engineer at Commodore, designing several machines while there. He has shared some of these stories here on Hackaday, including the development of the C128  (successor to the C64) and making the C64 speak.

We can’t wait to watch this new documentary and luckily we won’t have to. It’s set to start streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes today, so pop up some popcorn and settle in for a two-hour ride through computer history but right now we’re unable to get firm dates on when. However, those of you in the Mountain View area have an even better opportunity this evening.

The Commodore Story will be premiered live at 6:30pm PST at the Computer History Museum. Grab your tickets to the premiere and a Q&A session with Bil Herd, Leonard Tramiel, and Hedley Davis.

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