Micro-controllers lend themselves to all kinds of projects. From home automation to robotics, the long-predicted Internet of Things is finally flashing and beeping its way into our hobby time. Among the most satisfying uses of these tiny boards is to rebuild the great computer milestones of the past. Projects that took teams of expert developers years to create not so very long ago can now be reproduced with a few weeks of tinkering. They’re fun, they’re nostalgic, they’re a great way to learn, and they make fantastic gifts.
The number of single-chip boards and micro-computers available is growing all the time, and becoming ever more affordable. (We here at Packt are excited for the Banana-Pi, Galileo, and Humming Board.) For now, there are three main options if you want to get to work on fixing the past for yourself.
Speed dating with the three big players:
- Arduino is a single circuit board with a microprocessor. It’s tiny, it’s light, it’s great for custom firmware – use it to power wearables, LED displays, remote-control devices, or an army of tiny robot slaves.
- Raspberry Pi is a micro-computer – unlike Arduino, it runs an operating system. Since its memory lives on an SD card, you can build multiple projects for one board and just swap its brains out whenever you want. Raspberry Pi’s support for audio and video makes it great for retro-gaming, media projects, and a wealth of other projects dreamed up by its active user base.
- BeagleBone is another micro-computer like Raspberry Pi. It’s got a powerful processor and all the connectors in the universe. (Seriously – you can connect anything to it. Twice. The Borg probably run on Beaglebone.) It’s a great fit for powering home automation, robotics projects, or your very own Rube Goldberg-esque media player.
Once you’ve chosen your hardware, there are thousands of options for repurposing all those bags of old electronics that you were keeping just in case 1996 rolled back around.
Rebuild an old toy
Remember when ComQuest was the cutting edge of the toy catalog? Or Speak and Say devices? They’ve long since been outstripped by better tech, but for those of us who grew up with them they still hold a certain power. You never forget that first sense of mystery – how does it work? How does it speak? Why can’t I teach it to call my sister names? Now you can. With an old case and an ARM board you can hack your own childhood as much as you like.
A common project with micro-computers is to refurbish or rebuild an old Game Boy. With a Raspberry Pi, an emulator, and an old case (or a 3D printer and a sense of adventure) you can make your own Game Boy. Higher resolution, better colours, clearer sound, and any peripherals you like are optional. (You could even go all out and build a Game Boy with a Sega emulator.)
Stylish USB keyboards
Nowadays the Commodore 64 is slightly less powerful than the remote control for your TV or the thermostat in your fridge. But with a little modification, it makes for a nostalgic and surprisingly comfortable USB keyboard.
Less about the coding, and more about crafting and perhaps a little soldering – but the robust plastics of old devices can make for great protective casing for the delicate and exposed circuitry of most ARM boards. One seller on Etsy is even 3D printing replicas of the Apple II to make Raspberry Pi cases.
Think big. A single Raspberry Pi can power your very own arcade machine with hundreds of games and no need for quarters. Unless you want to incorporate a coin slot – then you can certainly do that too. How you build the case is up to you – sprayed metal, polished mahogany, or cardboard and poster paints are all Raspberry Pi compatible.
Beautiful old radios
For years before the age of disposable plastics, radios and televisions were designed to be part of your house’s furniture. Scouting around the right markets or websites you can find some truly beautiful broken electronics. Repairing them with original parts is costly when it’s even possible. But Internet radios are some of the simplest problems around for ARM boards. There’s no reason why you can’t combine the aesthetic best of the mid twentieth-century with a state of the art interior for less than the cost of a hipster knock-off transistor.