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.

Crowdfunding: !Sinclair !ZX Vega To Lose The Sinclair Name

It’s not a good time to be a backer of the crowdfunded Sinclair ZX Vega retro console. After raising a record sum on Indiegogo, a long series of broken promises and missed dates, and a final loss of patience from the crowdfunding site, it has emerged that the owner of the Sinclair and ZX brands is to withdraw the right to use them from the console.

The Vega itself should have been a reasonable proposition, a slick handheld running the FUSE Spectrum emulator rather than Z80 hardware, and from Retro Computers Limited, a company that boasted a 25% ownership from Sinclair Research and thus Sir Clive himself. The sorry tale of its mishandling will probably in time provide enough information for a fascinating book or documentary in itself, but one thing that has come to light in the BBC’s reporting is the fate of those Sinclair brands. They famously passed to Amstrad in the 1980s, a move that gave us the Spectrum +2 and +3 with decent keyboards and built-in tape and disk drives, but long after the last Spectrum had rolled off the production line they passed with Amstrad’s set-top-box business to the satellite broadcaster Sky, who are now responsible for pulling the plug.

This is a general news story as much as a hardware story as there is little by way of a hack to be found beyond the realisation that you could almost certainly roll your own with a Raspberry Pi, a copy of FUSE, and a 3D-printed case. But it’s a fitting follow-up to our previous reporting, and unless something unexpected happens in the Retro Computers boardroom it’s probably the last we’ll hear of the product. In an unexpected twist though they are reported to have shipped a few Vegas to backers in recent days, and we’ll leave the final word to the BBC’s quote from [David Whitchurch-Bennett], one of those recipients.

“The buttons are absolutely awful, You have to press so hard and they intermittently stop working unless you apply so much pressure.”

From where we’re sitting, remembering the dubious quality of some of the keyboards on original Spectrum products, we think that it might have more in common with the original than anyone is willing to admit.

Indiegogo Calls Time On The ZX Vega

It has been an exciting time to be a retro computer enthusiast in recent years, and the availability of affordable single board computers, systems-on-chip, and FPGAs have meant that retro hardware could be accurately reproduced or emulated. A host of classic micros have been reborn, to delight both the veterans who had the originals, and a new crop of devotees.

Today we have news of the impending demise of one of the higher-profile projects. The ZX Vega+ is a handheld Sinclair Spectrum console bearing the Sinclair name that came with an impeccable pedigree in that it had the support of the man himself. It seemed like a good proposition on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, and when it made its debut there in early 2016 it attracted over half a million pounds worth of backing in short order. Things soon went sour though, with reports of a falling-out within Retro Computers, followed by multiple missed deadlines and promises undelivered over the last couple of years. With little sign of either the money or the console itself, it seems Indiegogo have now lost patience and will be sending in the debt collectors to recover what they can. Whether the backers will see any of their money is unclear.

It’s fair to say that the ZX Vega saga has been a tortuous and rather sordid one, out of which few players emerge smelling of roses. In a way though it is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the 8-bit era, as the period from the late 1970s onwards was littered with the financially bare corpses of dubiously run companies in the home computer industry. Meanwhile if you are hankering for a Vega it should be easy enough to create one for yourself, as Retro Computers Ltd admitted that under its skin was a copy of the FUSE software emulator. We suspect that most Hackaday readers could take a Raspberry Pi and a suitable LCD, pair them with a 3D-printed case and an 18650 cell, and be playing Manic Miner in no time. Far simpler than this convoluted Spectrum project!

Crowdfunding Is Now A Contract Between Company And Backer

Kickstarter is not a store. Indiegogo is not a store. Crowdfunding is not buying something — you’re merely donating some money, and you might get a reward for your pledge. Caveat emptor doesn’t apply, because there is no buyer, and no one can figure out what the correct Latin translation for ‘backer’ is. These are the realities that have kept Indiegogo and Kickstarter in business, have caused much distress in people who think otherwise, and have been the source of so, so many crowdfunding follies.

Now, finally, crowdfunding is being legally recognized as a store. The Register reports a court in England has ruled against Retro Computers Ltd and said it had formed a contract of sale with crowdfunding backer Rob Morton. For one person, at least, for one of their pledges, Indiegogo is a store.

The crowdfunding campaign in question is the Retro Computers’ Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega Plus, a small device not unlike the Commodore 64 direct to TV joysticks. The Spectrum Vega simply plugs into your TV, reads an SD card, and plays old ‘speccy games. Clive Sinclair, the genius who brought us the Spectrum, strange flat CRTs, and a host of other inventions, was involved in this campaign. In the years since the campaign ended, there have been numerous updates and Retro Computers still says they intend to deliver the device. Morton, apparently fed up with the delays, brought a suit against Retro Computers for the grand sum of £584: £85 for the Spectrum pledge, £5 for shipping, and the remainder for travel expenses and lost wages for the court date.

District Judge Clarke of Luton County Court heard the case and ruled against Retro Computers, finding there was a contract of sale between Morton and Retro Computers Ltd.. Evidence included a number of copies of Morton’s order, a document the judge pointed out as saying ‘this order’ and not ‘this pledge’. Additionally, the judge found the fine print on Indiegogo does not negate a contract of sale; there was still an implied agreement between Morton and Retro Computers, and Retro Computers had breached the contract by not delivering a Spectrum.

It should go without saying that this finding does not apply to every project on Indiegogo, it does not apply to Kickstarter, and nor does it apply to every crowdfunding campaign. This does not even apply to all backers of the Spectrum Vega Plus. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of backers for crowdfunding projects that haven’t received what they paid for, and if nothing else this story gives just a little bit of satisfaction to anyone that’s still waiting on an undelivered product.

Someone’s Made The Laptop Clive Sinclair Never Built

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was one of the big players in the 8-bit home computing scene of the 1980s, and decades later is sports one of the most active of all the retrocomputing communities. There is a thriving demo scene on the platform, there are new games being released, and there is even new Spectrum hardware coming to market.

One of the most interesting pieces of hardware is the ZX Spectrum Next, a Spectrum motherboard with the original hardware and many enhancements implemented on an FPGA. It has an array of modern interfaces, a megabyte of RAM compared to the 48k of the most common original, and a port allowing the connection of a Raspberry Pi Zero for off-board processing. Coupled with a rather attractive case from the designer of the original Sinclair model, and it has become something of an object of desire. But it’s still an all-in-one a desktop unit like the original, they haven’t made a portable. [Dan Birch has changed all that, with his extremely well designed Spectrum Next laptop.

He started with a beautiful CAD design for a case redolent of the 1990s HP Omnbook style of laptop, but with some Spectrum Next styling cues. This was sent to Shapeways for printing, and came back looking particularly well-built. Into the case went an LCD panel and controller for the Next’s HDMI port, a Raspberry Pi, a USB hub, a USB to PS/2 converter, and a slimline USB keyboard. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a battery included, though we’re sure that with a bit of ingenuity some space could be found for one.

The result is about as good a Spectrum laptop as it might be possible to create, and certainly as good as what might have been made by Sinclair or Amstrad had somehow the 8-bit micro survived into an alternative fantasy version of the 1990s with market conditions to put it into the form factor of a high-end compact laptop. The case design would do any home-made laptop design proud as a basis, we can only urge him to consider releasing some files.

There is a video of the machine in action, which we’ve placed below the break.

Continue reading “Someone’s Made The Laptop Clive Sinclair Never Built”

Radiohead’s Greatest Hits for the ZX Spectrum

We’ll admit that only a few of us here at Hackaday are Radiohead fans. However, we all couldn’t help but appreciate their new remastered release of OK Computer. The new release contains some bonus material. At the end of the bonus material is a strange noise that turns out to be a ZX Spectrum Basic program.[OooSLAJEREKooO] managed to find it, play it, and record it for all of us (see video below).

The two minutes of tones might sound unfamiliar to a modern computer user, but back in the day, audio tones were used to communicate over phone lines and to load and save programs via cassette tape recorders. You might be asking yourself: why the ZX Spectrum? Radiohead is from the UK, but that’s not the complete picture. Of all home computers, the ZX Spectrum had a higher effective bit rate when storing data on tape. Basically, it takes less time (and less tape) to put it on a Speccy than a C64 or Apple.

Continue reading “Radiohead’s Greatest Hits for the ZX Spectrum”

Hackaday Links: July 16, 2017

[Carl Bass] has joined the board at Formlabs. This is interesting, and further proof that Print The Legend is now absurdly out of date and should not be used as evidence of anything in the world of 3D printing.

Here’s something cool: a breadboardable dev board for the Parallax Propeller.

Finally, after years of hard work, there’s a change.org petition to stop me. I must congratulate [Peter] for the wonderful graphic for this petition.

Want some flexible circuits? OSHPark is testing something out. If you have an idea for a circuit that would look good on Kapton instead of FR4, shoot OSHPark an email.

SeeMeCNC has some new digs. SeeMeCNC are the creators of the awesome Rostock Max 3D printer and hosts of the Midwest RepRap Festival every March. If you’ve attended MRRF, you’re probably aware their old shop was a bit on the small side. As far as I can figure, they’ll soon have ten times the space as the old shop. What does this mean for the future of MRRF? Probably not much; we’ll find out in February or something.

Rumors of SoundCloud’s impending demise abound. There is some speculation that SoundCloud simply won’t exist by this time next year. There’s a lot of data on the SoundCloud servers, and when it comes to preserving our digital heritage, the Internet Archive (and [Jason Scott]) are the go-to people. Unfortunately, it’s going to cost a fortune to back up SoundCloud, and it would be (one of?) the largest projects the archive team has ever undertaken. Here’s your donation link.

If you’re looking for a place to buy a Raspberry Pi Zero or a Pi Zero W, there’s the Pi Locator, a site that pings stores and tells you where these computers are in stock. Now this site has been expanded to compare the price and stock of 2200 products from ModMyPi, ThePiHut, Pi-Supply, and Kubii.