Kettlers of Satan

There was a new finnish demoparty called ‘Icons’ held last weekend in Helsinki, Finland. Besides the usual categories, there was also one called ‘Natural Media’. This allowed for all kinds of physical entries (paintings etc.) that were put on display to a gallery-ish space inside the party place.

Just so as it happens, since last summer I have been toying around with an idea of a electronic painting of sorts; A embedded computer system that would not just simply display a (bitmap) image but rather self-generate graphics on the fly. This would then be presented in the context of a traditional painting (read: fancy frames and wall display).

The way I thought it out, it might be neat to see this electronic painting as a static image at a glance. If you’d then look elsewhere for a while (f.ex. other paintings inside a gallery space) and then return to the electronic one, you’d realize it to have changed subtly in the meanwhile. Not to say that the graphics couldn’t evolve with a fast pace as well.

Anyway, this idea had its roots in a few bits of hardware. For quite some time now, I’ve had some single-board CPU modules (PC104 form factor) and 10,4″ TFT displays piling up at work. These are parts that do not pass the required company spec, but are still functional if run in a regular indoor environment.  So to say, good for something and just waiting for me to figure out at least one use for them ;)..

Indianapolis 500 the game. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’ve already done some testing with the CPU module and TFT earlier last year. Simply connecting the parts together, booting to MS-DOS from a 1,44Mb floppy and playing some old games like Indy 500 and Ivan Ironman Off Road Racing. Especially the display cable is a bit of a nightmare to construct (around 40 signal pins, fried one TFT during tests), so the test rig sure served its purpose. As this basic setup already existed, it didn’t take too long for me to connect it with the electronic painting and the Natural Media competition at Icons.

The CPU module test setup from 2006 running Super Off Road.

The biggest problem with such a project is of course that it’s a computer system. Computers need software to run and I’m no coder. Safe to say, I have tried on several occasions, but code just doesn’t “speak” to me that way f.ex. music and hardware does. Lacking the ability to firmly understand code has killed many of my DIY projects at the initial stage.

Despite having many coding-capable friends (demoscene, hello?!) hardly any of them seem to show interest towards fun one-off projects such as this.  Maybe it’s because most of them do coding for living, maybe it’s because they’re too lazy to venture outside their preferred tool chain (or whatever the appropriate jargon for coding setups is) or hardware environment. Who knows.

With this project, I got lucky though. Having never touched MS-DOS coding, Sir GarbageTruck was interested in giving the environment a spin. So for Icons 2007, we formed a group called ‘Course’: I became mr. Ed / Course (geddit?;) whereas Truck chose to be called Golf / Course.

Like said, as the basic hardware setup existed the actual build was a snap. Just cleaned up the setup to a device of sorts. It took far more time for me to source a enough “flashy” looking (and cheap) picture frame and size it down to match the TFT screen.

The single-board CPU module

The power supply is just a quick hack, recycled monolithic DC/DC converters on a piece of perfboard :)

The backlight inverter squeezed between the floppy drive and the mounting plate.

The stapling on the frames didn't turn out anything too classy, good that these are not visible!

One of the mounting brackets for the frame (four total).

Overall view of the hardware. Floppy drive is just ridiculously huge next to the other sub-modules.

To sum up the build, all the parts are mounted to a metal plate the size of the TFT. The elecronic sub-modules of the electronic painting are as follows:

  1. Display element and it’s backlight inverter board
  2. CPU-module
  3. Boot medium (3,5″ floppy drive)
  4. Power module, monolithic +5V and +12V DC/DC converters.

Having the frames attached with brackets/screws allows for changing them if required. Call it interior design compatibility or whatever. So..:

The finished piece on display at the gallery wall, certainly lacking a fancy name tag.

Code-wise I don’t have much to comment (not sure if Truck would?). Uploading some video clip of the device in action might give a better idea what it looks like. Definitely nothing slowly evolving at least.. If I got it right, the graphics are generated based on the system date/time, so it’s not just random garble. Even despite the picture above might suggest otherwise.

The floppy drive could be replaced with a harddisk as the CPU module does have a IDE-interface. However, given the application (disk not accessed after app has been launched) it’d raise the overall power consumption too much for no reason. Afaik, MS-DOS doesn’t have any sleep/spindown commands for harddisks. CF card might work, but I don’t yet have a suitable adapter to test with.

In case you’re wondering what’s up with the silly name for the project, it’s a joke from ‘Settlers of Catan’ (a board game) and is mostly related to the seemingly hexagonal graphics displayed on-screen. Safe to say, it’s more of a striking name than ‘electronic painting’ ;)

What else to say than Icons was a kick-ass, fun demoparty. Out of the other Natural Media entries, the D-Bag (a shoulder bag made from 3,5″ floppies) by Megamies was my favorite! Special fuckings go to Sauli / Jumalauta for “hacking” our piece; I just made it too easy by not having any proper enclosure on the back side of the unit ;).

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