Philo Farnsworth, RCA, and the Battle for Television

The parenthood of any invention of consequence is almost never cut and dried. The natural tendency to want a simple story that’s easy to tell — Edison invented the light bulb, Bell invented the telephone — often belies the more complex tale: that most inventions have uncertain origins, and their back stories are often far more interesting as a result.

Inventing is a rough business. It is said that a patent is just a license to get sued, and it’s true that the determination of priority of invention often falls to the courts. Such battles often pit the little guy against a corporate behemoth, the latter with buckets of money to spend in making the former’s life miserable for months or years. The odds are rarely in the favor of the little guy, but in few cases was the deck so stacked against someone as it was for a young man barely out of high school, Philo Farnsworth, when he went up against one of the largest companies in the United States to settle a simple but critical question: who invented television?

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Vlogging With Vintage 1980s Equipment

[Dan Mace] decided to try vlogging 1980s style. To do this, he built Pram Cam — a one-man mobile video recording setup using vintage gear. [Dan] is a YouTuber from Cape Town, South Africa. His goal for this project was to motivate people to get out there and make videos. Smartphones, action cams, and modern video equipment all have made it incredibly easy to create content.

[Dan] reminds us of this by grabbing a vintage 1984 video camera – a Grundig vs150 VHS recorder. He couples the camera with a sturdy video tripod, blimp microphone, CRT TV as a monitor, and everything else needed for a period-accurate recording setup.

In a build sequence even the A-Team would appreciate, [Dan] tears down a rusty old three wheel pram, or baby carriage for the Americans out there. He then mounts the video setup to the pram frame using duct tape, zip ties, and a few odd pieces of wood. The result is a proper hacked off-road rolling video studio.

He then uses Pram Cam to film some of the great scenery in Cape Town — beaches, rocky cliffs, and even a helicopter ride. To say the pram was a bit more cumbersome than a cell phone would be the understatement of the year.

The video quality from the camera looks quite a bit worse than we would expect. Some of this may be due to Dan’s digitizing system though the chances are it’s from the camera itself. The Grundig captured video using a Saticon, which was Hitachi’s version of the video camera tube. That’s right, this is a tube based camera – no CMOS sensor, nor CCD. Tubes might not have Jello effect, but they do have all the blooming, motion blur, and other problems one might expect from a 34-year-old device.

What becomes of the Pram Cam? You’ll have to watch the video below to find out. Dan’s message is clear though: get out there and film something. Of course this is Hackaday, so if we’ll add that you should build something — then film it!

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Nvidia Transforms Standard Video Into Slow Motion Using AI

Nvidia is back at it again with another awesome demo of applied machine learning: artificially transforming standard video into slow motion – they’re so good at showing off what AI can do that anyone would think they were trying to sell hardware for it.

Though most modern phones and cameras have an option to record in slow motion, it often comes at the expense of resolution, and always at the expense of storage space. For really high frame rates you’ll need a specialist camera, and you often don’t know that you should be filming in slow motion until after an event has occurred. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just convert standard video to slow motion after it was recorded?

That’s just what Nvidia has done, all nicely documented in a paper. At its heart, the algorithm must take two frames, and artificially create one or more frames in between. This is not a manual algorithm that interpolates frames, this is a fully fledged deep-learning system. The Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) was trained on over a thousand videos – roughly 300k individual frames.

Since none of the parameters of the CNN are time-dependent, it’s possible to generate as many intermediate frames as required, something which sets this solution apart from previous approaches.  In some of the shots in their demo video, 30fps video is converted to 240fps; this requires the creation of 7 additional frames for every pair of consecutive frames.

The video after the break is seriously impressive, though if you look carefully you can see the odd imperfection, like the hockey player’s skate or dancer’s arm. Deep learning is as much an art as a science, and if you understood all of the research paper then you’re doing pretty darn well. For the rest of us, get up to speed by wrapping your head around neural networks, and trying out the simplest Tensorflow example.

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Rolling Old School with Copy Protection from the 1980s

Oh, for the old days when sailing the seas of piracy was as simple as hooking a couple of VCRs together with a dubbing cable. Sure, the video quality degraded with each generation, but it was so bad to start out with that not paying $25 for a copy of “Ghostbusters” was a value proposition. But then came The Man with all his “rules” and “laws” about not stealing, and suddenly tapes weren’t so easy to copy.

If you’ve ever wondered how copy protection worked in pre-digital media, wonder no more. [Technology Connections] has done a nice primer on one of the main copy protection scheme from the VHS days. It was dubbed “Analog Protection System” or “Analog Copy Protection” by Macrovision, the company that developed it. Ironically, Macrovision the company later morphed into the TiVo Corporation.

The idea for Macrovision copy protection was to leverage the difference between what a TV would accept as a valid analog signal and what the VCR could handle. It used the vertical blanking interval (VBI) in the analog signal, the time during which the electron beam returns to the top of the frame. Normally the VBI has signals that the VCR uses to set its recording levels, but Macrovision figured out that sending extra signals in the VBI fooled the VCR’s automatic gain controls into varying the brightness of the recorded scenes. They also messed with the vertical synchronization, and the effect was to make dubbed tapes unwatchable, even by 1985 standards.

Copy protection was pretty effective, and pretty clever given the constraints. With Digital Rights Management, it’s easier to put limits on almost anything — coffee makers, arcade games, and even kitty litter all sport copy protection these days. It almost makes us nostalgic for the 80s.

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No-Battery HD Video Streaming Does It with Backscatter

What if Google Glass didn’t have a battery? That’s not too far fetched. This battery-free HD video streaming camera could be built into a pair of eyeglass frames to stream HD video to a nearby phone or other receiver using no bulky batteries or external power source. Researchers at the University of Washington are using backscatter to pull this off.

The problem is that a camera which streams HD video wirelessly to a receiver consumes over 1 watt due to the need for a digital processor and transmitter. The researchers have separated the processing hardware into the receiving unit. They then send the analog pixels from the camera sensor directly to backscatter hardware. Backscatter involves reflecting received waves back to where they came from. By adding the video signal to those reflected waves, they eliminated the need for the power-hungry transmitter. The full details are in their paper (PDF), but here are the highlights.

Battery-free camera design approach

On the camera side, the pixel voltages (CAM Out) are an analog signal which is fed into a comparator along with a triangular waveform. Wherever the triangle wave’s voltage is lower than the pixel voltage, the comparator outputs a 0, otherwise, it outputs a 1. In this way, the pixel voltage is converted to different pulse widths. The triangular waveform’s minimum and maximum voltages are selected such that they cover the full possible range of the camera voltages.

The sub-carrier modulation with the XOR gate in the diagram is there to address the problem of self-interference. This is unwanted interference from the transmitter of the same frequency as the carrier. And so the PWM output is converted to a different frequency using a sub-carrier. The receiver can then filter out the interference. The XOR gate is actually part of an FPGA which also inserts frame and line synchronization patterns.

They tested two different implementations with this circuit design, a 112 x 112 grayscale one at up to 13 frames per second (fps) and an HD one. Unfortunately, no HD camera on the market gives access to the raw analog pixel outputs so they took HD video from a laptop using USB and ran that through a DAC and then into their PWM converter. The USB limited it to 10 fps.

The result is that video streaming at 720p and 10 fps uses as low as 250 μW and can be backscattered up to sixteen feet. They also simulated an ASIC which achieved 720p and 1080p at 60 fps using 321 μW and 806 μW respectively. See the video below for an animated explanation and a demonstration. The resulting video is quite impressive for passive power only.

If the University of Washington seems familiar in the context of backscatter, that’s because we’ve previously covered their battery-free (almost) cell phone. Though they’re not the only ones experimenting with it. Here’s where backscatter is being used for a soil network. All of this involves power harvesting, and now’s a great time to start brushing up on these concepts and building your own prototypes. The Hackaday Prize includes a Power Harvesting Challenge this year.

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Motion-Controlled KVM Switch

Once upon a time, [hardwarecoder] acquired a Gen8 HP microserver that he began to toy around with. It started with ‘trying out’ some visualization before spiraling off the rails and fully setting up FreeBSD with ZFS as a QEMU-KVM virtual machine. While wondering what to do next, he happened to be lamenting how he couldn’t also fit his laptop on his desk, so he built himself a slick, motion-sensing KVM switch to solve his space problem.

At its heart, this device injects DCC code via the I2C pins on his monitors’ VGA cables to swap inputs while a relay ‘replugs’ the keyboard and mouse from the server to the laptop — and vice-versa — at the same time. On the completely custom PCB are a pair of infrared diodes and a receiver that detects Jedi-like hand waves which activate the swap. It’s a little more complex than some methods, but arguably much cooler.

Using an adapter, the pcb plugs into his keyboard, and the monitor data connections and keyboard/mouse output to the laptop and server stream out from there. There is a slight potential issue with cables torquing on the PCB, but with it being so conveniently close, [hardwarecoder] doesn’t need to handle it much.

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High-Effort Streaming Remote for Low-Effort Bingeing

There’s no limit to the amount of work some people will put into avoiding work. For instance, why bother to get up from your YouTube-induced vegetative state to adjust the volume when you can design and build a remote to do it for you?

Loath to interrupt his PC streaming binge sessions, [miroslavus] decided to take matters into his own hands. When a commercially available wireless keyboard proved simultaneously overkill for the job and comically non-ergonomic, he decided to build a custom streaming remote. His recent microswitch encoder is prominently featured and provides scrolling control for volume and menu functions, and dedicated buttons are provided for play controls. The device reconfigures at the click of a switch to support Netflix, which like YouTube is controlled by sending keystrokes to the PC through a matching receiver. It’s a really thoughtful design, and we’re sure the effort [miroslavus] put into this will be well worth the dozens of calories it’ll save in the coming years.

A 3D-printed DIY remote is neat, but don’t forget that printing can also save a dog-chewed remote and win the Repairs You Can Print contest.

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