Monday, June 16, 2014

Votrax Type 'n Talk (1980)


Votrax Type 'n Talk (1980)

Yay! I finally obtained a TNT on eBay after 34 years of waiting.  Amazon even had a new-old-stock, "O1P-1224B," power supply for it.  I've put up the contents of the owner's manual, which is impossible to find online in this format:  Owner's Manual (PDF)

Type 'n Talk owes its existence to the speech synthesizer design created in 1970 by Richard T. Gagnon.  This was after coming up with a viable design scheme in his basement laboratory during his spare time.  The older I get the more I find that I like looking at patents.  Here is Gagnon's patent from 1973: US3908085

The TNT uses a Motorola 6802 CPU with 4K ROM and 1K RAM.  It interfaces to the outside world via an onboard RS-232C connector capable of receiving data at eight different baud rates from 75 to 9600 (8-N-1).

In 1980, Votrax designed and manufactured an integrated circuit speech synthesizer called the SC-01.  It was essentially Gagnon's discrete design mapped to silicon.  The TNT leverages the SC-01.  I find that a lot can be learned by looking at the data sheets for ICs, and here is the one for the  SC-01.

The TNT does not have an internal speaker, but the jack on the back is pre-amplified and not a "line out" signal, so headphones should work fine.

In 1981 two Votrax employees, Kathryn Fons and Tim Gargagliano, published an article in BYTE regarding the topic of voice synthesis.  This is a great source of history.  BYTE republished it 15 years later, but now it is almost impossible to find easily.  BYTE Magazine - February, 1996 (PDF)









Wednesday, June 26, 2013

VIC-VODER now shipping!

VIC-VODER

VIC-VODER is a new voice synthesizer for the Commodore VIC-20 / 64 / 128 featuring some of the latest advancements in speech technology. The system is developed by Rick Melick of San Francisco, California and is available to order at his web site right now. VIC-VODER features an all-in-one design that simply plugs into the User Port to produce quality text-to-speech (English). Talking is as simple as a PRINT statement. A built-in amplifier and speaker complete the entire package. The architecture is "open," which makes it a terrific platform for the development community. You can upgrade your system as new features become available in the months and years ahead.  Click here for VIC-VODER product specifications and sales information.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Change Observations

Change Observations

Moore's Law, the observation that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years, has given rise to a number of other interesting observations:
  • Wirth's Law is a computing adage made popular by Niklaus Wirth in 1995.  It states that, "Software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware becomes faster."
  • Gates' Law is a variant on Wirth's law, borrowing its name from Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. It is a humorous and ironic observation that, "The speed of software halves every 18 months."  (Presumably at Microsoft.)
  • May's Law, named after David May, is a variant where, "Software efficiency halves every 18 months, compensating Moore's Law."
With most of the world's CPUs running at 99% idle, I don't know that I agree with all of this.  We're doing more with less in many ways:
  • Enterprise and comsumer systems are easier to use then ever before.  This is thanks, in part, to simple interfaces that just have a high overhead.
  • More people have access to more technology than ever, at lower cost, leading to more creativity and educational opportunities for people all over the world.
  • Object Oriented Methodologies and Service Oriented Architectures allow exponentially more opportunites of code re-use, driving down the development time for new innovation.
  • Open Source Software and new licensing models allow many, many individual contributers to collaborate, develop and perfect massive software initiatives, such as Operating Systems, from all over the globe.
  • With new markets and distribution channels, such as app-stores, we see more entrepenureship.  Pull-requests allow for systems to keep themselves up to date with the latest developments.
  • Networking protocols are leveraged to distribute the processing power required to drive many of today's advanced applications.  This has allowed new ways for people to network socially and stay connected.
Of course, most "innovation" is really just the same tired old ideas re-imagined and repackaged.  At the end of the day one has to ask if the world is really any better off for all of this change and "progress."  Are people any more fulfilled or any happier?  We're more isolated than ever.  All the toxic stuff required to produce our technology is impossible to get rid of and destroys our environment.  We consume more non-renewable energy than ever to power all of our junk.  The commoditization of software in our Capitalistic and consumer-driven world ultimately just makes information disposable, and you're left wondering if there is any enduring value to any of it.  Destroying information is akin to burning books, and where they start burning books they will soon start burning people.  The right to privacy and the protection of one's personal identity are just two ways people are getting "burned" in a virtual world where information is a disposable commodity.  The long-term prospects are really very cloudy. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Build a Speech Synthesizer for VIC-20

Build a Speech Synthesizer for VIC-20

Speech Synthesizers for legacy systems are getting harder and harder to find. Back in the day, there were the high-end units that featured text-to-speech translation processors. The Cadillac systems were the Votrax "Type-N-Talk" and "Personal Speech System." Then there were the low-end units, requiring manual translation of allophones or phonemes from tables in manuals, combined with PEEKs and POKEs, to form words and sentences. The purpose of this project is to simulate the high-end units of the time.

The biggest challenge today is finding modern parts that are willing to communicate at 1200 baud. For example, the SpeakJet allophones synthesizer, combined with a 8-bit microprocessor programmed with letter-to-sound rules for text-to-speech (such as the TTS256), popular in today's robotics, will only operate at 9600 baud. That is too fast for poor, old VIC!

These days it is actually easier (and cheaper) to dedicate an entire computer and software to the task versus a purely silicon approach.  The dedication of a computer to a specific task as part of a larger system is not so different than the intelligent peripherals of the day, like disk drives and printers, where processing was offloaded to the device.    Today this is common place.  We're surrounded by dedicated systems interconnected in highly flexible ways.  Even the "walled gardens" of our cell phones, tablets and consumer appliances have full-fledged operating systems underneath their slick user interfaces. 

So, this solution does expose one to some really cool things: Raspberry Pi (University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory); Debian Linux configuration; hardware-level general purpose input/output (GPIO); TTL serial communications; logic level converters; the Festival (offline manual in PDF format) text-to-speech synthesis system (University of Edinburgh's Centre for Speech Technology Research and  Carnegie Mellon University) which has a Scheme-based (SIOD) command interpreter for control; basic soldering techniques and more!

This project can easily be completed in a weekend, and done together with a child or friend. Only a Raspberry Pi, simple components and basic soldering are required.  What you will have in the end is a unit that operates very much like the high-end Votrax systems of the day. ... You OPEN a command channel for writing and PRINT the sentences and words you want spoken.  Now you're talking!

So, what about the Scott Adams adventure games?  My hope was that Commodore was using a similar technique as this project for communicating with the Votrax.  Unfortunately, Votrax had some proprietary control codes that could be sent to their system and not be interpreted by their text-to-speech processor in the manner we're communicating for this project.  My belief is that only a Votrax Type-N-Talk (not even the Votrax Personal Speech System) is the only way to get voice from these adventures.  Bummer!

I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm

Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unobtainium! (Part 2)...


MPI 020 prototype boards

Only a fellow neomaxizoomdweebie (ultimate modern nerd), like me, could fully appreciate something as cool as these prototype expansion boards. Unobtainium at its finest!

- Original photo prints and docs.
- Rev #0 & Rev #1 (both working).
- 35K RAM and option ROM.
- 3-slot expansion. 
- System reset.  Fused.


I have scanned and placed the documentation up on DLH's Commodore Archive. 

I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm
 
Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

GCE Vectrex


 GCE Vectrex

This obscure, cult, game system is from 1982.  Vectrex was unusual for a couple of reasons: for one, it had its own screen, whereas all other game systems of that time required that you plug them into the TV for display. And secondly, it had a different kind of screen, one that gamers had seen before, in the arcades, displaying games like Asteroids and Tempest: a vector display.  The Vectrex itself was a nice little portable unit, looking quite a lot like the Macintosh that would appear a couple of years later.  Here is a link to my system's serial number registry: http://vectrexmuseum.com/vecsdb/index.php/vectrexes/view/62

The built-in game was MINESTORM and it is widely considered a de facto favorite.  Other original games that are favorable to most include: ARMOR ATTACK; BEDLAM; BERZERK; COSMIC CHASM; FORTRESS OF NARZOD; HYPERCHASE; POLE POSITION; RIPOFF; SCRAMBLE; SPACE WARS; SPIKE; SPINBALL; STAR CASTLE; STAR TREK and WEB WARS.  A top-rated prototype is TOUR DE FRANCE, and ROCKAROIDS is a universally loved homebrew game.

Recommended Accessories:


Dust Cover

This dustcover is custom made.  The manufacturer has made the pattern, thanks to her friend, cut it out by hand, embroidered on her embroidery machine and stitched together on her regular sewing machine. This dustcover is made from soft, black pleather and will wipe clean with just a damp cloth.  The manufacturer has used Snow White thread for the embroidery as she thinks it stands out very well against the black pleather.  I agree and recommend this product and eBay seller.



Light Pen

The original lightpen is a rare accessory for the Vectrex, officially compatible with just three games: Art Master; Melody Master and Animaction.  These games are as rare as the lightpen itself, but demand and prices for the pens have gone up due to increased availability of the lightpen games on several multicarts. As a result of this demand, RecycledGamer began manufacturing reproduction light pens in 2009. They build each lightpen by hand using a custom-designed board and all through-hole components. The pen casing itself is a recycled dry erase marker and the cord is a re-purposed Sega Genesis controller cable.  The quality is good and the price is great.  I highly recommend this shop.


AtariVox+

click to enlarge
The VecVoice was an add on device for the Vectrex.  It would plug into Vectrex controller Port #2 and speak syllables programmed into cartridge.  Three cartridges currently support it:  VERZERK (an enhanced BERZERK); PYTHAGOREAN THEOREM and Y.A.S.I.  The voice sounds robot-like .. and is based on the same technology that went into the Intellivoice and the Odyssey Voice module.  The new AtariVox+ combines both Vectrex VecVox and AtariVox (they both use the SpeakJet chip), and VecVoice emulation. The various modes are selectable from a DIP switch inside.  Maybe only one cartridge uses VecVox, called DEBRIS.


Multicart

This is a 72 game multicart. It includes all of the original Vectrex releases (except for Animaction, because it had RAM in addition to ROM) and a variety of prototypes, homebrew games and demos.  The cartridge is menu based and all of the games are organized in categories (left and right on the joystick select a category, up and down select a game).  It is supplied as an uncased, bare PCB in a labelled anti-static bag. A label to fit an original Vectrex cartridge shell is also included so that you can fit the PCB in a case yourself. The price is very reasonable.  The quality is great, and the shipping is very fast.  I highly recommend this shop.  Here is a video of how to do a cartridge case modification:

Click here for a link to the video.

Recommended Homebrew Games:

Vectrexians and Vector Pilot - Highest quality from Kristof Tuts in Belgium.  Recommended.
 
Click here for a link to the demo video.

Protector and YASI - A two-for-one Defender and Space Invaders cartridge by Alex Herbert.  Recommended.


Verzerk (special order) - A hack of Berzerk, adding speech this time around, with a robotic voice welcoming the player during the attract mode, then states "this is Verzerk". The phrases from the original arcade version of "shoot him", "chicken, fight like a robot", "got you humanoid", etc. are included in this release. The game plays identically to Berzerk though, aside from that and only being for one player.  The attract mode has a rotating display that is pretty much like the "credit disc" that would be included in Protector/Y*A*S*I later, giving credit and web site addresses to Richard Hutchinson (who created the VecVoice and VecVox, which are compatible with this game if played in cartridge form) and Alex Herbert.

Click here for a link to a demo video.

Space Frenzy - A recreation of the Space Fury coin-operated videogame by Sega/Gremlin (circa 1981), along with some speech synthesis that, like Spike, doesn't require an adapter.  Recommended.

 
War of the Worlds - The 1981 Cinematronics classic by Fury Unlimited.  Recommended.

Click here for a link to a demo video.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A microPET house-broken and tamed...

The VIC-1020 Expansion Chassis

My VIC-1020 arrived today from Norway.  It was made in Germany.  The front says VIC-1020 but the back says VC-1020.  The computer was made in Japan, and has been expanded to 40K and fitted with JiffyDOS.  A micro-IEC SD card drive is housed in the chassis and contains my library of software images.  A file browser shown on the monitor.

The VIC-1020 expansion chassis (VC-1020 in Germany) is simply a large metal enclosure which provides the VIC-20 computer with six additional expansion slots for cartridges (five pointing upward and one lying horizontally and pointing toward an opening on the the back of the VIC-1020).

The entire VIC-20 computer is placed into the VIC-1020, as shown, and a male edge connector on the 1020's slot expansion board is mated with the VIC-20's internal cartridge port. A monitor can be placed on top of the VIC-1020, giving the entire setup a PET computer-like appearance. Indeed, the black "CBM" label across the front of the VIC-1020's casing is similar to that used on the the PET line of computers. The choice of sheet metal for this enclosure seems natural, as Commodore had a sheet metal fabrication plant for the production of office filing cabinets and desks.

The VIC-1020's chassis has additional storage space which can be used to hide all of the cables and such, giving a typical VIC-20 set-up a much cleaner appearance.  There is also a metal clip on the underside of the lid which can hold the RF modulator.

Slot expanders allowed the simultaneous use of several cartridges on a single VIC-20. This allowed features of utility cartridges (like the Programmer's Aid cartridge) and RAM expanders to be combined.  Mine just contains a 3K RAM cartridge and a 32K one. 

The 9V AC power pass-through is not merely a way to power the computer, but also provides supplemental power to the 6-slot expansion board, thus relieving the draw on the power supply inside the VIC.  In fact, the computer will not even power up if auto-start cartridges are installed on the board and the supplemental power supply is not used.  RAM is similarly unseen.  Shutting off the unit using the rear switch clears any auto-start cartridge image that may be in memory.

I have the original PET style keyboard, but have swapped it out with a newer one.  The reason is because the numeric keypad is hard wired to the keyboard controller pins and the Japanese VICs are simply not tall enough to fit everything inside without warping the case when closed.  In fact, the height is so short that I had to cut off a six inch section of the plastic keyboard support rail on the top-left underside of the keyboard shown (near the 1, 2, 3... keys) to get the case to close naturally.  I also had to cut a chunk of plastic off the the joystick Y-cable, which supplies +5V DC to the parallel printer adapter, to accommodate the metal enclosure.  

The VIC-1020 chassis are quite rare and I had to look half way around the world to find this one.   The effort paid off and I could not be happier with this VIC-20 set-up.  I am quite pleased with its overall style and appearance.  Finally, I would like to appreciate Lars Hanstad (kronuz) for the quick shipment (door-to-door in one week), excellent packing and chocolate bars from Norway

I have additional VIC-20 material over on my web site: http://www.geocities.ws/cbm
 
Are you interested in computer history?  Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again.  Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane.  Head on over to http://rcrpodcast.com and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes.  You'll be glad you did!