ramblings of an electronic engineer.

Leave a comment

Book Review: Racing the Beam

In 1977 Atari released the Atari 2600 (aka Atari VCS) and in doing so radically changed and shaped to the course of gaming to what we have today. It’s not controversial to say that games developed for the Atari spawned multiple of original genres and game mechanics. Racing the Beam published by The MIT Press takes a fascinating and insightful look into the history behind the Atari VCS as well as delving into the technical aspects of the system which influenced the game design for titles on that platform.


In the book authors Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost have picked 6 games (Combat, Adventure, Pac-man, Yar’s Revenge, Pitfall, and Starwars: The Empire Strikes Back) that show the effect the VCS platform had on the creative production of each game. While the book is reasonable technically laden it is still very interesting to learn about the challenges faced by VCS programmers when designing games, probably most notable the limitations of  systems RAM (only 2K!) and limited computational time between drawing frames. VCS games back in the day were displayed on a CRT displays which draw individual frames using an electron beam. The beam ignites phosphors in the display moving horizontally to create one scan line. The beam then moves down one to thee next vertical line and repeats the process until it reaches the bottom of the screen.It then needs to move the beam back to the top of the screen and start the process again. The problem been for VCS programmers that they have the get all the games maths and calculations done before the electron beam reaches the top again so it is ready to draw the next frame of the game, In essence they were constantly racing the beam trying to get all the games calculations finished in time ready for the next frame to be drawn by the display. This problem led to some ingenious solutions like drawing several back lines at the top of the screen to allow for extra computational time i.e. trading screen resolution for computing time.


Racing the beam is also very rich with interesting history of the Atari VCS and gaming in general around that time. For example it takes a look into the origins of game developer Activision which was started by several Atari programmers whom were unhappy with the the recognition and fiscal compensation they received for the titles they had programmed for Atari (collectively worth $60 million). Overall this book was a great read (possible the best so far this year) and I really enjoyed the way it demonstrated how technical challenges of the Atari system influenced the development of games all while mixing in interesting trivia and history. While I think this book would be enjoyable for a reader while little to no technical background (due to the history in the book) I’m inclined to recommend it more towards a reader who is familiar with with some electronics, programming or retro gaming systems.


Leave a comment

Air Quality Logger Project – Research and Specifications

While riding my bike around a few weeks or so ago I was wondering what the air quality was like on the Gold Coast compared to other cities for example Brisbane and the world for that matter. Around the same time I had also seen a project that logged sunlight data to a sd card to determine which plant would be most suitable for the location. So an idea quickly came together to create a device that I would be able to attach to my bike and log air quality data as I go riding about.

Air Quality Factors

So after doing some research on air quality I found out the following:

  1. The three main factors that determine the air quality are:
    • Particulate matter (PM2.5/PM10)
    • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
    • Ozone (O3)

    There are others but these are the commonly measured factors.

  2. The Gold Coast only has two air monitoring station (in Helensvale and Beenleigh)
  3. “Air pollution problems may occur in the next 20-30 years” due to increase in traffic.

I won’t really require data for comparison until I’ve completed the majority of the project and have some data of my own and finish calibrating the system. I actually had a bit of trouble finding current data but got there eventually (amazing what happens when you read the entirety of an article rather than jut skipping to the data and graphs) and found the current air pollutant data at the National Pollutant Inventory.


Considering the initial research on the topic it’s important create some specifications of what the project once fully completed should be able to perform. Here is what I have come up with.

  • Detect particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide.
  • Detect location of measurement (GPS).
  • Store air quality and location data.
  • Have enough power for one day of measurement.
  • Portable and weatherproof.

Realistically some of these may not be possible to budget and practicality constraints but the specifications can always be changed at a later stage.

The Plan From Here

Alright so from here over the next few weeks I’ll hopefully be getting some parts for the project in (sensors) and I’ll be  working on a circuit diagram for the project. I plan to use the Arduino microprocessor for the project because I’m familiar with it’s architecture and programming however once I have the system working properly I plan to redesign the system to operate on a microprocessor that is just sufficiently covers the technical requirements of the project. This should reduce power consumption and price of the system. To start off I’m going to start work on getting each component working individually then interface multiple components. So to start off with I’m going to work on the data logging aspect of the system, mainly because the hardware (a sd card breakout board) has already come in and I can start to work on it. I’m thinking since my sensor hasn’t come in yet I’ll try logging air temperature because I’m 90% certain I have a temperature sensor lying around.

I’m really excited about this project and the various challenges I’m sure I’m face but it should be a fun ride. I’ll be posting progress here as I go and I’ve created a separate page on my blog where I will update with technical information from my posts. Any questions about the project or comments and suggestions let me know by leaving a reply.

Oh yeah I almost forgot, I plan for the whole project to open source and open hardware including all of the data I collect from the project. So you can build your own and use the data for free.

Leave a comment

Pizza Vending Machine

Came across this yesterday on reddit, a vending machine that make pizzas in 3 minutes.

For about $5 a pizza the ‘Lets Pizza’ vending machine you see each process of you pizza been made (forming dough, toppings, cooking) until three minutes later you can retrieve your freshly made pizza. Have a look at the promo video.

Also if you (like me) are more interested in the internals of how the machine works check out this video of the machine been put together. (Skip to around 5:35)

[Product Page]

Leave a comment

‘Popinator’ – the world’s first fully automated, voice activated popcorn launcher.

Some things are completely lazy, yet incredibly awesome. This is one of those things, a popcorn launcher that fires a piece of popcorn at your mouth whenever you say ‘pop’. The launcher detects your voice from two microphones, from the small time delay between the sound of your voice been detected by each microphone it can adjust the pan and tilt of the launcher to shoot the popcorn in the direction of your mouth for consumption. Check out the video for a demo of how it operates.

[Product Page] via [Oh Gizmo]

Leave a comment

Review: MAKE Magazine – Volume 31

To summarise MAKE volume 31 is a few words is not quite a fair task mainly because of the copious amounts of stories, projects and interesting subjects that lie within. Wether your interested in remote controlled cockroaches, binaural beats, DIY scanning electron microscope or creating high voltage (22kV) sparks from running water MAKE volume 31 seems to have something for everyone who is interested in hacking, making and crafting.
The theme of this issue of MAKE is punk science, the concept of running with your ideas and projects first, then questioning yourself afterwards. The most prominent feature article on this for me would have to be a hackerspace in Japan during the aftermath of  the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Instead of waiting around for information on radiation contamination they put together a system to record radiation levels (with corresponding GPS co-ordinate) while driving around. Although crude at first (geotagged pictures of a geiger counter display readout) the system kept on been revised and developed into a complete system. This example reflects well the ideology of this issue of MAKE: Doing first, questioning yourself later.

This issue of MAKE also comes with loads of projects people have done to draw inspiration from as well as a good selection of projects you can do at home with full instructions, bill of materials etc. Some of the more notable (at least for me) projects this issue were Lord Kelvin’s Thunderstorm, a system to generate HV sparks and PVC pipe speakers which use PVC pipe to create a resonation chamber. I can’t wait to have a crack at trying some of these projects (in particular creating HV sparks from flowing water), In addition to this the projects mentioned have also given be some ideas for future personal projects.

All in all I’ve really pleased with this issue of make. I do wonder if some of the projects and stories I could have found out about elsewhere on the internet, however I’m not overly worried because what I see MAKE doing here is sharing and showcasing peoples projects, ideas and storied so that a wider community of hackers and makers can benefit from them.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of MAKE Magazine Volume 31 to review through O’Reilly Blogger Review Program. All comments represent my thoughts and opinions.

I review for the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program