Friday, 3 July 2020

THE EVOLUTION OF MY BUSINESS/CONTACT CARD


This was my very first contact card. It was printed off on paper as an afterthought as I need something quick before I left for an event in Southampton where I would be showcasing my android chatbot app. I handed a great many of these out but have deliberately kept a few back to remind of an important lesson that day.


I learnt something very important at that event, and that was you don't have to have everything completely polished and complete. If you have a good idea and you're enthusiastic and have the right intentions, people won't mind receiving your details on a slither of paper.

It was time to get some proper cards made up though in time for my next event. As I try and achieve things for as less money as possible with whatever I do, I found an offer online for free business card sample packs and took advantage of it. For years now I've been branded with rockets, rusty rockets and have done ever since I chose my first Hotmail email address back in the late 90s. So with these cards I quickly put together a rocket logo for the front design.


The reverse of the card comprised of stamps with the idea of it looking similar to a postcard. The idea was that I would hand write my details on the 'postcard' with a little sentence about what we've been talking about to help jog peoples' memories when the find the card weeks or months down the line. This worked really well and I think people appreciated how different it was but it did take a lot of time the write out each one.

My next card design is still my favourite out of all these. By now my website that I display all my builds on was starting to develop a retro feel and the cassette tape featured rather heavily in the design layout. Again, finding an online offer for free sample packs of business cards I took full advantage of the cassette tape template this company offered and I was able to get a large quantity printed in a variety of cassette tape designs at a very low cost.


I loved how the reverse of the card resembled the inlay card of the case. Sadly no contact details printed (I think this came at a huge additional cost) so it was back to hand writing details and I got rather good at writing them out for people in the form of a track listing, as if I had made them a mix tape.

I have been using the cassette tape cards for a number of years now and I've only stopped using them as this particular template is no longer offered anymore. Never fear though, the 3d printer revolution is here! I've been experimenting with new contact cards with a difference and on finding a nice rocket kit template on Thingiverse I modified it so it could be used as a contact card. The idea is the parts all pop out to make a small model of a rocket.


This is a great idea but the actual rocket assembly proved very tricky, so I looked at ways of refining the rocket card kit and the below is the result - A more compact model that's easier to build.


These were going to be used at events this Easter and Summer but have unfortunately been cancelled due to everything going on in the world at the moment. They won't go to waste though, they can be saved until I'm next able to get out. In the meantime I've bought myself a cheap little thermal printer and I'm looking at way this could be used as a way to print out little receipt-like contact details for people, along with images and other fun things that could be included on their.


Take a moment to watch this little video of me talking about my contact cards some more.





Thursday, 14 May 2020

MINI RETROPIE ARCADE CABINET - UPDATE


I have previously built arcade cabinets from scratch and wanted to build another one now that I'm more familiar with the build process. However, after seeing the work of Small Change Arcade, I was inspired to build a miniature arcade machine instead and wondered how small could I go. This tabletop arcade with a Raspberry Pi Zero running Retropie was the result and I love it.


I also set myself an additional task of sourcing the materials from what I already had about the place in a bid to keep costs low and to prove that you can make good use of practically anything. As I was about to throw way some old IKEA CD drawers, I looked at one of them and could instantly see how this could be repurposed as a mini desktop arcade due to its shape.

Now I've never been very good at measuring things for projects accurately, nor am I very good at carpentry but that's never put me off before. I set about roughly cutting out the desired shape with a saw and was able to make good use of the leftovers by building the frame that would sit around the small screen.


The screen I used for this build was a cheap car reversing monitor that I purchased from Amazon a number of years ago and it's still going strong today. The resolution isn't brilliant but it's perfect for what I had in mind for the retro tabletop arcade. In order to get the screen working with the Pi Zero though I had to purchase a cheap AV to HDMI converter.


Due to my rather cavalier approach to accuracy, build components have a hard time of fitting togther nicely. However with this project the USB NES controller is the exact width of a CD case and so slotted into place perfectly. It was as if the two were made for each other, it fitted that well!


Once I had the frame built, the components safely housed inside and confirmed that everything was working as intended, it was time to 3d print the exterior. Again, I had no proper design in mind, I just started printing small parts out and built it up from there. One thing I did find useful about this process was the fact that the little mistakes I had made as a result of not measuring properly or poorly cutting the wood, I could hide really easily from view.


Still making it up as I go along and as a finishing touch to the build I managed to find some old broken Christmas lights that I'd clearly kept for a project like this to come along. Once I got a few of the LED lights working again I was able to drill a few holes in the wooden frame of the cabinet and have them illuminating parts of the 3d printed panels, including the miniature coin slots.

IMPROVEMENTS

Whilst I am really pleased with the way this mini arcade turned out, there are a couple of things I would like to change in order to improve the build.

The first is to print a proper button and joystick panel to go over the USB NES controller. Whilst using the NES controller allows me to retain that retro feel of the project, it is a little awkward at times to use.

The Raspberry Pi Zero is at the heart of the build and this can be run off a battery pack. Unfortunately the screen I used cannot, it has to be plugged in and so it's not completely portable.

Finally, I would just love it if this could be made into a proper coin operated cabinet. I have the coin operator along with old 10 pence coins that we could use.



Friday, 24 April 2020

RASPBERRY PI PIRATE RADIOS AND NUMBER STATIONS


I am a little late to the party but I have only recently discovered that one of my tutorials written three years ago was featured on the Adafruit blog. Whether it was a human or an automated algorithm that posted it, I am just so pleased that someone or something thought it worthy to be posted despite the photographs being blurry, the writing is terrible (even now I'm still not confident with my writing, hence this blog to help practice) and a somewhat illegal activity of interfering with local FM transmissions (see small print below). It all backs up my advice to people, that you don't have to make a project that is perfectly polished, you just have to crack on and make it, for people will see through all the roughness and home in on your idea. It also got feature over on the Instructables site too.

I wrote the Instructables tutorial as I wanted the practice writing detailed steps for my projects, as most view the production of documentation as a chore, it's a necessity in most cases as it helps others understand your work and processes. If you have a Raspberry Pi Zero just gathering dust, check out the tutorial or click on the video below and you too can have a secretive number station broadcasting codes in next to no time.
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My favourite Raspberry Pi radio project of all has to be this one that Make featured a number of years ago. For someone just starting out and struggling with the Raspberry Pi, I remember seeing this video and instantly having a deep appreciation for writing projects that are designed to include everybody, no matter their skill level. This has stuck with me ever since and I've visited this project many times. If you have an early model of the Raspberry Pi, then you should check out the video. There is also a really helpful Instructables tutorial that I've visited many times in the past, it has a really useful complete image of the project and talks you through flashing it to your Pi's SD card.


Since submitting this tutorial I have gone on to build and experiment with many other number station and pirate radio projects featuring the BBC Microbit as well as the Raspberry Pi.

Small print:

My radio projects are purely intended for educational purposes and are not to be used to break any local laws regarding the interference of local FM frequencies. Please use these projects sensibly.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

PRINTING FOR THE NHS

It hasn't taken me long to get from working out how to 3d print for the first time to a point where I'm able to put my borrowed printing to good use by helping to print visor parts for the NHS.

There are a number of organisations coordinating the huge task of printing protective visors for front line staff and I registered with 3D Crowd UK who after introducing myself and chatting with a few people on their Slack channel, found the online community to be incredibly welcoming and helpful indeed.

I was able to find and download the files they provided without any trouble and although I was surprised at how long the print took, I had my first headband and lower screen reinforcer successfully printed. In order to achieve the best quality possible, the process of printing them is slow, which is why it is really important that as many people as possible register their printers to help.


I encountered another slight issue and that was to do with the size of my printing platform. It is just a few millimetres too small for the band and I could only print them out be tilting them slightly. All is not lost though, my region's coordinator who I've been chatting to over Slack has managed to find someone local who prints the headbands but doesn't like printing the smaller components on the grounds that it slows down their process. The two of us are now working together to produce complete kits and I'm very pleased to say my first batch has been delivered to the central distribution point.

Here are some of the Wiltshire NHS 3d printing community, featuring yours truly photographed outdoors in his slippers!



If you have a 3d printer, please consider registering to help here. At the time of writing this, there were over 5,500 registered volunteers but more are needed. There are other ways you can help too by making a donation towards printing materials here.

Friday, 3 April 2020

ADVENTURES IN 3D PRINTING

The thought of 3D printing has been something that has excited me for many years but I have yet to experience it properly for myself. With the school that I work at having temporarily closed I have borrowed their 3d printer to allow myself to get to know the printing process better.

Not know really where to start, I first visited Thingiverse, a website that allows people to share their creations as well as the design files to allow others to print their own too. I found a really nice model of a rocket that people can print and assemble. I thought it would be a great idea to get practice amending models instead of wading straight in and building something from the ground up.

My first thought turned to the old classic, Sketch Up but I found a much more simpler package that will allow you to design your own models for printing called Tinkercad. I was able to easily load the file obtained from Thingiverse and using the Tinkercad editor ad my own features.



I was then able to import the file from Tinkercad into the Dremel Digilab 3D Slicer software that came with the printer. It was here that the model gets prepared for the next stage.

Next came the printing part. The printer I am using is a Dremel 3d40 which was a delight to set up, but I did have trouble levelling the build platform. However, after a quick scout around in the forums I found the solution.


The one thing I really don't get on with is the part where you have to try an remove the finished print from the build platform. Scrapers are supplied but even so, it's a very nervous time as one false move could spell disaster for your printed model. I still haven't mastered this and I'm sure an easier process could be developed.

I'm very pleased to say that this particular print was removed without any problems and the overall quality of the print is pretty good. This would make a great little business card.


The rocket parts were removed without too much fuss, although I did snap one of the pieces being a little heavy handed. Assembling them was more difficult however and I think this is down to not taking the time to properly finish the print as it was still rather rough around the edges. Still, with a little persuasion and a couple of dabs of glue, I had a lovely little assembled rocket.





Saturday, 28 March 2020

THE LOST ARCADE BRISTOL

The Lost Arcade is a long running pop-up arcade located in the harbour area of Bristol and last month myself along with my ten year old son went along to play some games.

So the story begins...

"Building workers, recently renovating an old dock building in Bristol have stumbled across what is thought to be ' a lost video game arcade ' 100s of vintage and retro video games from the 1970s, 80s and 90s – upon finding this haul, the developers for the scheme called in the 'History of Video Games team." Of course this is just a marketing ploy but a great one at that, it sets the scene of the place really well.

Upon entering the first thing I noticed was the wide selection of games they have. I loved how collectively the make this inaudible noise but every now and then you can hear a snippet of a familiar theme, grabbing your attention immediately. With the entrance fee allowing you free plays on all of them, to begin with you are spoilt for choice and the nostalgia hit is huge.


From the moment we entered my son loved the place, playing the games for what they are and not constantly comparing them to modern games like I heard a number of kids doing in the place. I could watch him all day as he obsessively plays a single game, learning its mechanics and looking for ways to beat it as he assumes all games of a certain age had flaws in their programming. He found one too and my heart just burst at seeing the joy on his face.


My all time favourite game Battlezone was present and I must have played this one for a full hour until the outlines of tanks were etched into the backs of my eyes. I love all the clever and creative controls some of the cabinets had back then and I loved the use of the periscope with this one. 


It reminded me of this talk I watched about how the Paperboy game and cabinet controller was designed. 


I would definitely recommend a visit in you can, if you would like to learn more then follow this link.



Wednesday, 11 March 2020

TED TALK UPDATE

Last month Salisbury hosted its first TEDx event and I was extremely flattered to have been asked to deliver a talk on creative coding. 

The video is now available to watch on the TED website. Alternatively you can click on the video below.


I still can't quite get my head around what was achieved that evening. This was an event that Salisbury had been crying out for and I'm just amazed at all the positivity that is still rippling through the city as a result.

Friday, 28 February 2020

TEDx SALISBURY

Last night Salisbury's Arts Centre played host to a very special event, the city's first ever TEDx talks. The theme of the evening was all about crossing boundaries with a set comprising of four guest speakers and two musicians. I was very flattered to have been selected as one of those speakers.

I thought long and hard about the topic of my talk and in the end went with something very personal to me, dealing with self doubt when artists and creatives showcase their work. I called it Connecting the Dots Differently and is all about the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone. The video of my talk should be available to watch on the TED platform soon.


I remember the tickets selling out rather quickly but the popularity of the event wasn't realised until I stepped out onto the red spot to be greeted by the audience. To be the first speaker at the very first event was a huge privilege, if not a little scary but once I settled into the talk and spoke about the many paths my creative coding projects have led me down, it all felt strangely natural. I think part of that is down to teaching and running classes both in schools and out.


Afterwards, the audience were encouraged to chat with all the speakers and I really enjoyed meeting everyone last night. There are so many kind and creative people who came out to see us, there was a lovely positive vibe about the whole event. To the people who told me they were going to give coding a try for the first time - go for it! To the others who said they never post about their passion projects through fear of rejection but are going to give it a shot after attending this event, you are awesome in so many ways. 


I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who helped organise the TEDx Salisbury event. They were all volunteers, giving up their own free time to help make something magical and get the people of Salisbury sharing and discussing ideas.


My chatbot projects featured heavily in my talk, highlighting the many uses for a simple project born out of boredom a couple of years ago. There is now a simplified version of Cass online for people to play with, pull apart and add their own features if they wish to. The online version along with the code and Android download can be found here. I would love it if people were to get in touch in a few weeks time to share with me their ideas.


Tuesday, 18 February 2020

MAKING YOUR FIRST GAMEBOY GAME


It's always great to be able to build games that run on original hardware. Sure, the same task can be achieved more easily through various emulation platforms such as RetroPie for the Raspberry Pi but there's nothing quite like the feeling of coding something that plays on the console it was originally intended for. For years I thought that coding for old, obsolete consoles was very much a dark art until I found a really nice drag and drop game creator called GB Studio that popped up last year and has been well met within the community.



This is all backed up with some helpful documentation here and although relatively young, support for GB Studio is growing, especially on YouTube and I would recommend checking out Pixel Pete's channel for some really useful tutorials on how to get started.


Pixel Pete's channel is also proving a good resource for people who are wanting to develop their pixel art skills further.

What I really like about GB Studio is the ability to not only export as a ROM file but also as a web page with your game embedded within it. This is such a nice feature and one that I would like to explore further when I have the time.


Once you have exported your ROM, you're going to need need to transfer it onto a flash cart of some kind. The one I went for was this one being sold by Retro Towers.


Now for some reason I had trouble using the software that came with the cartridge, I found it too clunky. However, I managed to find a suitable alternative called ems-qart and you can download the latest version from here. This made transferring files so much easier and I recommend that you use this software from the start, to avoid the same frustrations that I encountered.


Here is the game running on my original Gameboy.


It even runs and looks slightly nicer due to the additional colours on my Gameboy Advanced SP.


I did have trouble running it on my much favoured Gameboy Pocket, as the game failed to load and kept rebooting itself. After a quick search in the forums, apparently the issue is due to the power that the flash cart requires in order to successfully run and the Gameboy Pocket just can't deliver.


Sunday, 2 February 2020

TACO CAT: THE GAME

I think it's important to not exclude the younger generation when it comes to game development. As a teacher I am always amazed at the thoughts and ideas that come out of the heads of children and it's this level of creativity that so many independent game developers crave. Sure, we can master the countless software solutions out there that will allow us to produce truly incredible things but without an idea, without that spark of inspiration we are never going to fly.

So I set about proving a point. I recently entered a game jam competition, which is nothing new for me but this time I wanted to only use the software that children are taught in schools - Scratch and hopefully highlighting that it's not what the game is made with but it's the idea behind the concept that's important. I've made the Scratch blocks for my game Taco Cat available for all here.

Image result for scratch logo

For those who wish to skip the process of making the Taco Cat game and visit the game's page to read its feedback and to play it yourself, then click here.
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Character Design:

There is a lot of truth behind the saying, "Keep It Simple Stupid" and when developing 2d pixelated games I like to create characters that contain bold colours and subtle animations. The Taco Cat character was based on a gif of the same name, drawn using the free Pixelart online and animated to give the appearance of walking.


Controls:

I wanted to add something a little different to the game, so not only can you move the character through the level from left to right, you can toggle the gravity to vertically flip Taco Cat adding a new dimension of play to the level.

With any game, it's important that the player knows the rules and controls from the very beginning and Taco Cat is no exception - Simple controls for a simple game. I've found that with the majority of my games it's of huge benefit if the game opens with the controls and rules of the game. In this case the controls are displayed in the background of the first introductory level.


Level Design:

This is an interesting one and a topic that has countless books written about it. It's important that the player understands the rules of the game by completing the opening levels and ensuring that the player levels up quickly and easily at the start.


The levels in Taco Cat start with the easiest possible obstacle of all, a single cactus before increasing in number and complexity. It's important not to make the game too difficult too soon, the skill is finding that sweet spot that makes the game not too difficult but still poses a challenge.


Thank you for getting this far through the post. Hopefully I've managed to highlight that if you have a great idea there will always be a tool out there to help you build on it. Just look at Taco Cat, built using Scratch and entered into a competition where it was pitched against some truly fantastic designers and their games.

Game Jam Tips

I would definitely recommend making and entering a game in one of the many game jams that take place on a weekly basis. They're a great way to test your working process and they're such a great way of getting friendly and constructive feedback from the community. Here are a few game jam tips to get you started. 

  1. The most important point is always participate. This may sound silly but if nobody took part in games jams there would be no game jams. Even with little experience, people can benefit from the game jam experience on so many levels, so just get stuck in.

  1. It’s a mistake made by many, people start working on a game before the theme of the game jam is announced and they then try to shoehorn their game idea to fit the theme. Always wait for the theme of the jam before brainstorming ideas. 

  1. Always keep ideas simple as quality with always triumph over quantity. People will always favour playing a really good short game over a lengthy one. Keeping ideas short and simple will also make it easier to experiment with new concepts and at the end of the day, that is the main point of game jams.

  1. Create multiple ideas at the pen and paper planning stage, then condense these down to one. Take time to do this, giving each idea careful consideration as this will pay dividends further down the line. Expect this final idea to keep evolving over time as development progresses.

  1. Manage your time and write your development time on your calendar, plan your work in two hour blocks and put everything in your calendar. Remember to always factor in time for polishing and bug fixing as these stages are often overlooked. You don’t have to work the full allotted time of the jam.

  1. Never overlook the impact that sound has in a game. If your skills lie elsewhere, hunt out all the free resources that will help you out when source sound effects and backing tracks.

  1. Write a good, clear explanation for your game and pick a great title of it.
  2. Most Importantly, have fun!



Sunday, 19 January 2020

GAMEBOY RESTORATION


I recently purchased this 'broken' Nintendo Gameboy for £19. It was being sold as spares due to a screen issue and the A/B buttons failing to work properly. Everything else however appeared fine once I put batteries in it. The screen was problematic in the sense that it was suffering from several missing vertical lines and the A/B buttons were a little unresponsive - though I suspect from judging by the general condition of the device that this unresponsiveness was due to dirt inside.



The first thing I always do with any restoration project is gently take everything apart so that you can see the full extent of the problems. You will need a tri-wing screwdriver to open up the casin of which I have a couple, both of which have been damaged by my wife trying to use them to unscrew Philips screws in the past but they're still able to do the job in this case.



It's worth mentioning that care needs to be taken when removing the springs from the rear battery case. These have little metal catches that are designed to hold them in place to prevent them rattling around in the casing. These can be easily removed by using your screwdriver to pop the catches.




It was very clear at this stage that I needed to give the Gameboy handheld a good wash. To be honest it was pretty disgusting in parts but a dip and a descent scrub soon had it looking presentable. There was still some discolouration on the front outer shell but considering this thing is nearly 31 years old, I'll let it off. Remember to throw everything in apart from anything metal: casings, battery cover, buttons and rubbers, they all need cleaning especially in this instance where most of the inside was caked in thirty years of dirt.



With everything scrubbed and dried, it was time to partly assemble things back together. Only the rear casing and the battery springs should be assembled - don't forget the power switch at the top like I did! The rest will need to wait until the screen issue has been fixed. In order to do this, add batteries and power up the device. Set the contrast dial to its lowest setting and you will now see the extent of the issue of missing lines. Also remove the small rubber strip that runs along the base of the screen.



To fix the issue of missing vertical lines on a Gameboy, we're going to have to use a soldering iron to heat the contacts underneath where that rubber strip once sat. You need the soldering iron nice and hot and you'll need to apply some pressure in order to melt the old solder beneath. This scared me when I first tried it as the screen will appear to get worse before it gets better but keep persevering and eventually you will have all the lines on the screen restored. Remember, this process takes time and although I've repaired many Gameboys this way, it still takes me about half an hour to complete this stage.





Once happy that the screen appears as it should, assemble the remaining parts, ensuring that all the buttons have their nicely cleaned rubbers sat behind them. Take your time when assembling everything back together, the screws screw into the plastic casing and won't tolerate being removed and screwed in repeatedly, so make sure you don't miss anything out.



The finished result is a very clean Nintendo Gameboy with a fixed screen and fully working buttons. I am still amazed at how retro consoles can easily be revived with a little TLC, I am even more amazed at the power of a good clean. The before and after photographs don't highlight enough how dirty this handheld was but it's looking and working so much better now and I love it.




THE EVOLUTION OF MY BUSINESS/CONTACT CARD

This was my very first contact card. It was printed off on paper as an afterthought as I need something quick before I left for an event ...