Archive for the ‘Hacks & mods’ Category

Jury-rigging the Apple II, either in reality or concept.

Charlie Kellner of alphaSyntauri

October 5th, 2015 1:37 PM
Filed under Hacks & mods, History, Software showcase;
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Were it not for the Apple II, Apple would've made no other machines; consequently, when telling the story of the Macintosh, historians often include segments of interest to the Apple II user. Such was the case with the 2008 documentary Welcome to Macintosh, which showed enough interest in the Apple II (including an interview with Vince Briel) that it was reviewed in Apple II magazine Juiced.GS.

Now the identically named but unrelated podcast Welcome to Macintosh has another serving of Apple II goodness — one that ties in with one of my all-time favorite movies: TRON. I knew the Apple II had played a role in other films of the era, such as WarGames, but I didn't realize it'd also contributed to the soundtrack of TRON — or that the software with which it did so was played by its developer at Steve Wozniak's wedding.

It's all courtesy Charlie Kellner, inventor of alphaSyntauri, one of the first digital music synthesizers.

Welcome to Macintosh host Mark Bramhill interviewed Kellner about how he created the synthesizer not as a commercial product, but as something he wanted for himself. It nonetheless then caught the interest of Apple, musicians such as Stevie Wonder, the Dolphin Research Center, and more. At a time when personal computers were new and their functions not yet widely understood, Kellner successfully demonstrated the Apple II's utility to a diverse range of professionals in a variety of fields.

Although the interview focuses on this particular application, Kellner likely has many more stories from the dawn of personal computing. His résumé reads like a who's-who of developers and publishers: Apple, Lucasfilm, Epyx, and Isix in the 1980s; in later decades, Viacom, Microsoft, Wizards of the Coast, and Nintendo. But you can find out about his earliest success by downloading the interview in your favorite podcatcher, or streaming it below:

The Marriage of Figaro to the Apple II

September 21st, 2015 9:48 AM
Filed under Hacks & mods, Musings;
1 comment.

Steve Jobs may be getting his own opera — but that's not the only connection opera has to the Apple II.

In June of 2007, I was in a production of The Marriage of Figaro. Among the 28 theatre productions I performed in during my seven years after undergraduate, this show was memorable for two backstage events: the breaking of my PowerBook; and meeting the lead actor. Unlike some shows I've been in, Figaro's stars and chorus mingled, disregarding any theatrical hierarchy. Given that it was June, I was probably spending my offstage time editing drafts of the year's second quarterly issue of Juiced.GS. I suspect the actor playing Figaro asked me what I was doing, and when I told him, he got excited, telling me he still had his original Apple IIGS! Although it was no longer his primary computer, he remembered quite fondly and accurately the software and hardware he'd added to it throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As soon as the show was over, Figaro the actor was off to New York City for another role. When I joined Facebook a year later, we reconnected, allowing me to offer an annual wish for a happy birthday spent playing Apple II games. But other than that, our personal and theatrical lives did not cross again.

Until this month! I received an email from Figaro that he was moving to Europe and had plenty of material possessions he wished to neither move, keep, or store. Would I be willing to take his Apple II?

What an honor! Of course I would. Figaro drove to my house and dropped off three boxes of hardware and software — a collection he confessed used to be bigger but which had dwindled with each move over the years. I didn't find much rare or unique among his donation, but the opportunity to spend an hour chatting with him about the Apple II was fun. He prompted as much of the discussion as I did, as he'd kept abreast of the community enough to ask me how my recent trip to KansasFest went. I was happy for the opportunity to show him some of the products of today's lively Apple II community, such as the Replica 1 and a Raspberry Pi case, or to pull out artifacts he'd remember, such as issues of Nibble magazine.

I'm grateful to have received this bounty; although such salvage operations are the norm for likes of Sean Fahey and James Littlejohn, it's a rare occurrence for me. Here is a photo gallery of my new property:

What do I do with this IIGS now that I have it? It came gratis with no strings attached: I can keep it or find a good home for it, though I wouldn't allow myself to sell it. But I know what my inclination is. As Figaro and I chatted about the Apple II and he saw how much fun people were still having with it, I could see him beginning to regret having to let go of his childhood computer. I'd love to hold onto it until Figaro returns from Europe in 18 months; maybe then, he can be reunited with the machine and rediscover it, as so many of us have, after a long absence.

After a first act of introduction and a second act of separation, a third act with a happy reunion seems only fitting.

Cinnamon II hits Kickstarter

August 3rd, 2015 7:13 AM
Filed under Hacks & mods;
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Smart watches have a way of setting a precedent and establishing a trend: rumors of the Apple Watch started almost as soon as the first Pebble raised over $10 million on Kickstarter in 2012. Shortly before the Apple Watch was finally released in 2015, we saw the Apple II adapted to that form factor with the Apple II Watch, DJ Harrigan's 3D-printed hack that simulates the hardware and software aesthetics of the Apple II.

Now, entrepreneur Damian Peckett is taking it a step further by putting an actual Apple II inside a watch. Introducing the Cinnamon II:

Although Kickstarters are more effective when they have a pitch video, this campaign lacks one, though it does offer this 12-second demo:

The hardware specs roughly mirror an Apple II Plus, with a "virtualized 6502 clocked at a blistering 1 Megahertz and a whopping 32K of memory… binary compatible with the original 1977's microcomputer. Complete video / sound / keyboard emulation is provided. The Cinnamon II also features a Micro SD socket that offers disk drive emulation." However, the resolution is 160×128, compared to the original Apple II's 280×192, so things are going to be a bit squished.

The dimensions also bring challenges for interacting with such a small Apple II. The available options are limited: "One button brings up a smart onscreen keyboard that allows you to scroll through various keyboard options. The other two buttons are available to user mode applications mapped to the up/down keys. Gesture control is provided via an on board accelerometer that is user programmable. It can be used to interact with user interface elements."

There is only one reward level: $159 AUD will get you the watch. Limited production runs are expensive, so Peckett has set the minimum at roughly 850 watches — hence the crowdfunding goal of $150,000 AUD ($114,842 USD) by August 13, 2015.

Unfortunately, like Bride of the Wizard King before it, this campaign lacks several important components: not only a pitch video, but a breakdown of expenses and different reward levels. The first Pebble offered 11 rewards starting at a mere $1, which 2,615 backers selected — raising more money at that level alone than the Cinnamon II is likely to.

Nonetheless, the Cinnamon II is a cool idea, and I'd like to see it developed further and perhaps open-sourced — I'm sure its ideas can be refined further and its production made more affordable and accessible.

Recording Let's Plays on the Apple II

July 20th, 2015 10:31 AM
Filed under Game trail, Hacks & mods, Happenings;

Last week I attended the 27th (and my 18th) annual KansasFest, a convention for Apple II users. I was thrilled to be among fellow retrocomputing enthusiasts, charging my batteries for another year of Juiced.GS and other hobby projects.

As an educator and public speaker, I love giving presentations at KansasFest. Most of the event's talks are technical in nature, whereas I tend to take what I've learned in the other areas of my life — podcasting, crowdfunding — and apply them to the Apple II. This year, I drew upon my experience developing a YouTube channel and demonstrated how to record a Let's Play video using the Elgato Game Capture HD hardware (but not the more expensive HD60, which lacks the necessary A/V input port).

This $150 device is normally used to capture HDMI audio and video, but with an included adapter, it can capture component video as well. By plugging the red component cable into an Apple II's composite video output, and then connecting the computer's headphone jack to a 3.5mm-to-RCA adapter, the audio and video from an Apple II will show up oon a PC or Mac in the Elgato's software — but with a delay. A monitor stills need to be connected to the Apple II, which is why I used Chris Torrence's Night Owl monitor plugged into the IIc's video port; an RGB monitor connected to a IIGS will work as well. Then I used a 3.5mm Y-splitter to connect headphones or speakers to the Apple II. (Note that the IIc Plus does not have a headphone jack; neither does the IIe, unless you add a RetroConnector adapter.) Finally, a USB headset allowed me to overlay my audio commentary over the recorded gameplay footage.

Prefer to learn these techniques visually? Mike Whalen streamed my KansasFest session and has made it available on YouTube:

Here's the Let's Play Flapple Bird video that I recorded during this session.

The capture process was not perfect, as I had to make two edits in Final Cut Pro X before uploading to YouTube: the height of Elgato's exported video was stretched (654 x 480), so I reduced the Y-scale to 85% (though ultimately I went with an X-scale of 147.79% and Y-scale of 125.62%, so as to occupy the full window); and the color was off, so I adjusted it per this screenshot.

Final Cut Pro X

Editing Flapple Bird in Final Cut Pro X.
I saved this setting as an "Apple II" preset.

Also, I should've disabled the KansasFest sound system, as I was close enough to the speaker for my USB headset to pick up my booming voice, resulting in poor audio quality.

Although my session focused primarily on Let's Play videos, I also gave a brief introduction to unboxing videos, the genre with which I launched my YouTube channel. I combined unboxing Let's Play, and the Apple II when I unboxed and played Retro Fever.

Not sure why anyone would watch someone else play a video game — or what my "I moth stories" shirt meant? Both are explained in this video from a monthly storyslam I attend in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I hope this session was useful and that it inspired attendees to record and share their subjective experience with Apple II software. I look forward to your YouTube videos!

Remembering the Apple II Watch

April 13th, 2015 9:40 AM
Filed under Hacks & mods;
1 comment.

Even though everyone has seen it by now — it's been reblogged everywhere — I would be remiss to not also feature it on Apple II Bits. And so, ladies and gentlemen and all others, I present: the Apple II Watch.

This video showcases an actual, wearable piece of technology with all the features demonstrated therein. Twenty-four-year-old DJ Harrigan, aka Aleator777, offers detailed instructions for 3D printing and assembling your own device:

The design would be a working device, heavily inspired by the form factor of the full size computer, but it would also be an imaginative exploration of a wearable tech world that began long before we had the technology to do so in a meaningful way. Calculator watches are already, by definition, a wrist-worn computer, and are pretty neat, but there's just something so appealing about the idea a tiny wrist-worn CRT. I also wanted to push my new 3D modeling skills as well, so building a reasonable complicated enclosure was a fun challenge.

He doesn't give an estimate of the total cost of assembling such a device, but he does list all the parts needed, including a Teensy Arduino as the main processor. All the schematics are available for download, as are some fun byproducts of the design, such as little floppy-shaped stickers.

My thanks to this hardware hacker for producing such a fun, creative project that caught the public's attention and imagination! His work has been shared by the likes of Popular Mechanics, Gizmodo, The Daily Beast, Mashable, TechCrunch, NPR, Macworld, Lifehacker, Tech Times, IGN, and Dan Kottke — and was shared directly with me by several people, including Dan Muse, former editor-in-chief of inCider/A+. Even Steve Wozniak commented on the instructions: "This is incredible and has great significance to the maker community. I would buy this over the Apple watch and would wear it too! It would go well with my nixie watch."
Closed the developer:

This was a really enjoyable project to build and I certainly gained a lot of respect for the fine engineers who do this for real products. I'm definitely in the mood of creating even more anachronistic devices in the future. I would also love to see someone build on this and make a fully featured "smart watch" using a retro computer design and true OS. If you have any ideas for similar projects, I'd love to know. Thanks for reading!

Ben Heck's Apple-1

November 24th, 2014 10:31 AM
Filed under Hacks & mods, Mainstream coverage;
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Back in 2008, engineer and hardware hacker Ben Heckendorn made headlines in the Apple II world when he built an Apple IIGS in a laptop form factor. Although his first computer was an Atari 800, not an Apple II, the same wistfulness applies to many of Ben Heck's projects. In an interview for Juiced.GS and Computerworld, he told me:

People go to the junkyard, get an old car, and fix it up. There's really no point to that, but people do it because they like the car. Computers are a lot like old cars. "I grew up with this, my dad drove me around in this" — it's the same thing with old computers: I programmed my first program on this old computer, it's such a great memory, now I can remember it… expensively. I think that's what it is, almost a car culture with computers. It's a different object, but the same kind of nostalgia.

Heck insisted the interview be conducted over the phone, not email, so as to better capture his personality. Other media outlets have since recognized that same spark and have given Heck his own web series, The Ben Heck Show, in which he builds and tears down a variety of unusual hardware in zany style.

In his latest project, Heck returns to that IIGS laptop's roots and tackles designing his own Apple-1 clone. Instead of buying a Replica 1 from Briel Computers, he assembles and builds his own components from DreamBoard. Over three episodes and 56 minutes that aired Nov 7–21, he demonstrates how anyone with the proper equipment and soldering skill can build their own original Apple.

Heck ends by providing his Apple-1 something the original never had: a case. Keeping in mind the aesthetic of 1977, he designed a wooden frame for his machine.

Ben Heck's Apple-1

Grandpa? Is that you?

As someone who'd never soldered before Vince Briel showed me how at KansasFest 2009, Heck's tutorial is beyond my ken. But among today's retrocomputing enthusiasts, I'm unusual in my lack of hardware familiarity, and I suspect many hardcore fans will enjoy not his step-by-step instructions and energetic delivery.

(Hat tip to Joyniece Kirkland)