Archive for the ‘Hacks & mods’ Category

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

Recording Let's Plays on the Apple II

July 20th, 2015 10:31 AM
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Filed under Game trail, Hacks & mods, Happenings;
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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 — here's why).

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.

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
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Filed under Hacks & mods;
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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
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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)

Woz's modern optimization of the Apple II

November 17th, 2014 10:58 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, Steve Wozniak;
1 comment.

I've never been a hardware hacker, but I have enough programming experience to appreciate optimized code. I've written some programs that were serviceable but kludgy; had they been meant for widespread distribution and deployment, I would've taken more time to reduce the number of lines and variables, and hence, the execution time. It's one of the challenges I love most about the Apple II: doing as much as possible with as little as possible.

Nowhere is that principle more effectively demonstrated than in the designs of Steve Wozniak. Before he co-founded Apple, he took Atari's BREAKOUT coin-op and reduced the number of chips by fifty. The brain that mastered this design is still at work, as evidenced by a recent email exchange.

Apple-1 cloner and Vintage Computer Festival East alumnus Mike Willegal recently had some questions about the Apple-1 power supply — so he emailed Woz. Tacked onto the end of Woz's reply was this remark:

I awoke one night in Quito, Ecuador, this year and came up with a way to save a chip or two from the Apple II, and a trivial way to have the 2 grays of the Apple II be different (light gray and dark gray) but it's 38 years too late. It did give me a good smile, since I know how hard it is to improve on that design.

How much different a world would the Apple II community be, if this minor change had been made? Probably not very. But it's good to know that, while many of us are preoccupied grafting modern USB and Ethernet ports onto the Apple II, the original genius is still contemplating how he could've laid for us a stronger foundation.

(Hat tips to Luke Dormehl and Greg Kumparak)

Eye of the Dot Matrix Tiger

March 3rd, 2014 12:01 AM
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We already know that storage media are musical instruments, with floppy disks playing the Star Wars theme and hard drives producing a rendition of the Imperial March. Now printers are getting in on the orchestral action. Behold as a dot matrix printer plays "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky:

Such magic is a combination of custom hardware and software. Says the video's creator on how you too can produce this tune:

Learn about electronics, reverse engineering, embedded software development, maybe some hardware description language, the MIDI protocol and some music theory (how notes relate to frequencies). Then take your printer apart, find out how it works, disconnect the original processor from everything you need and add your custom built electronics…

The MIDI files have to be edited a bit to be played on the printer: some channels need to be disabled (percussion stuff), some are transposed to avoid exceeding the frequency limit. Also the volume of the individual instruments never fits when the original settings are used.

Get started with the MIDI file that was adapted to this purpose; it's available for download.

(Hat tip to Geekologie via Colin Druce-McFadden, Geeks Are Sexy, Brendan Robert, and Mark LaPlante)

The Iconic Apple coffee table book

October 7th, 2013 10:17 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, History;
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At some point in the last four years, you've probably come across the Shrine of Apple, where photographer Jonathan Zufi has set out to produce a gallery of every Apple product ever, from the Apple-1 to the iPad Mini. It's a gorgeous Web site with intuitive navigation and high-quality photos from multiple angles of all Apple hardware and packaging.

Now this artwork can be on display in your home with Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation, a 350-page coffee table book, courtesy the author's self-publishing brand, Ridgewood Publishing.

Iconic features over 650 photos across six chapters: desktops (including the Apple II); portables; peripherals; iOS devices; prototypes (whether or not they went into production); packaging; and people. (For those counting, the video says there are six chapters but lists only fives — the narrator forgot about peripherals.)

The book is available in two hardcopy editions: a now-shipping $75 "classic"; and a yet-to-be-released special edition that comes in a slip sleeve that looks like an Apple IIe case. (There is, naturally, no coffee table e-book edition.) Shipping on the classic edition to my New England home is an extra $11.

Unlike a living Web site, a book immediately becomes a moment in time, a product of its publication date and unrepresentative of all the Apple products to come. Regardless, it's something I wouldn't mind as a holiday gift. It's nice to see a book like this become a reality without a Kickstarter project, especially since the book trailer could've just as easily served as a pitch video, which probably would've motivated me to by it on impulse, knowing I was contributing to moving the book from concept to coffee table.

Will you be putting Iconic on your table?

(Hat tip to Betsy McKay)