For a while now I’ve wanted to do a music podcast/radio show type thing. I finally got around to it this evening!
For a while now I’ve wanted to do a music podcast/radio show type thing. I finally got around to it this evening!
This might be a bit of an off-topic post, but I wanted to share my recent experience, and I have this handy blog thing here…
For those that haven’t heard of it, the IBM Model M keyboard is regarded by some as one of the finest typing experiences available; not only that, but they’re built like brick outhouses and last an eternity. Mine was made in 1989 and is still kicking. The mechanical key mechanism they use produces great audible and tactile feedback, and is incredibly reliable.
After reading many articles such as this one on Ars Technica espousing the Model M I’ve been tempted to get hold of one for a while. I’m a regular on the bit-tech forums and, as luck would have it, a Model M recently came up for sale in the forum marketplace… for £10 (plus postage). At that price I wasn’t going to pass it up, even though it was a terminal keyboard which uses a non-standard protocol that isn’t compatible with PS2… See, since IBM set many of the standards for PCs in the early days, some Model M keyboards used the AT-style interface – AT is actually compatible with PS2 connectors, all you need is an adaptor. Not so with a terminal keyboard: they use an RJ45-type connector and even if you wired up the connections to the PS2 pins (since the number & function of pins is the same) it uses a totally different protocol which won’t be recognised.
Before I took the plunge and bought this keyboard, I made sure I could convert it to something I could use – USB or PS2, for example. The very first link mentioned something called Soarer’s Converter; an interface for Model M keyboards which, using a microcontroller, converts the keyboard to USB operation. Bingo. The recommended microcontroller is the Teensy++ 2.0 – a little pricey, but not really too expensive when you consider that Model M keyboards often go for £40/£50+.
Fast forward a week or two and I actually received the keyboard, which unfortunately had some plastics damage…
Not to be deterred however, I googled the model number to do a little research on it. Turns out that this is something of a hybrid keyboard; according to this deskthority thread, it was originally a French-Canadian layout which had been converted to a UK layout. Hence why there appear to be two model numbers on the bottom:
Also mentioned on the aforementioned deskthority thread was an alternative to the Teesny++ 2.0, this tiny ATMEGA32U4-based board. Most importantly, this board cost around £2.50, whereas the Teensy++ 2.0 is around £20. Bonus. There was very little information on the pinout for this board, but the post I found did mention that it’s compatible with the Arduino Leonardo; I recently discovered however that it’s actually a clone of the Sparkfun Pro Micro (which is cool, since the Pro Micro is open hardware). Further google-fu lead me to another deskthority post which actually showed me the pinout for connecting a Model M keyboard to this board. Sweet.
Fast forward to today, and I’ve now got all the gubbins I need to actually get started. The first thing I did was to program the microcontroller with Soarer’s Converter and upload the keymap file to the board. There was very little information about this online, so hopefully this post will serve as a good point of reference for others trying to convert a terminal Model M to USB.
First of all, here’s some pre-requisites – I’ve written this with Windows 7/8 in mind, I’m afraid you’re on your own with any other OS.
First of all, plug in the microcontroller. If you open the Device Manager you’ll see that it’s not been recognised properly. Update the drivers and point it at the “Drivers” folder in the arduino software ZIP file; the drivers for an Arduino Leonardo should then be installed. At this point it’s worth testing the voltage of the board. The Sparkfun Pro Micro can be configured for either 5v or 3v3 operation; there’s a solder bridge on the board which changes the setting. My Chinese clone board had this bridge unpopulated, which would indicate that it’s 3v3. When I tested the VCC and Ground pin with a multimeter however it turns out it was actually running at 5V – great, since the keyboard will need 5v.
Now we want to flash the Soarer HEX file to the board, so open up Arduino Builder. First thing to do is to change the Arduino board setting from Uno to Leonardo. Now you want to load the HEX file – beware, there are several HEX files compiled for different microcontroller boards! In my case the correct file was Soarer_at2usb_v1.10_atmega32u4.hex, since the Pro Micro board uses the ATMEGA32U4 chip. Once you load the HEX file, choose the appropriate COM port – if you’re not sure which COM port the board is using, have a look in the device manager – the board should be listed under “Ports (COM & LPT)” and the correct one will be fairly obvious.
The board should flash – Arduino Builder will show you some summary guff when it’s complete – and you’ll notice that Windows should now be installing a new HID keyboard device automatically. The final thing I did before assembling the hardware was to upload a keymap file to the converter board. Take a look into the documentation that comes with Soarer’s Converter if you want to mess around with this a little more, but I used a file that had already been made by someone else. Simply copy and paste the “remapblock” file in that post to a text file. Once you’ve done that, you can drag and drop that file onto the file scaswr.bat – this comes with the Soarer’s Converter files and is located in the “Tools” subdirectory (you’ll have to unzip it first). What this does is compiles the keymap text file into a binary format and then uploads it to the converter board.
Now, on to the hardware installation! Dear me, do cover your shame!
I’m not going to cover disassembly of the keyboard here, but this is the main board you want. As you can see, there’s a 5-pin connector at the end of the connector which plugs into the main PCB – very handy.
Here’s the pinout for that connector – note, you’re advised to do some research on your own keyboard, since this pinout is for terminal keyboards only.
You can find out which pins on the Pro Micro are needed over here.
I’m sure there may be some Model M enthusiasts out there that will cringe at what I did here…
Ahh, my old friend, I haven’t seen you in a while…
All wired up and ready to go
Bow in fear at my super-neat installation skills! Obviously this isn’t final, I plan to tidy this up, and maybe 3D print a cover to go over the cable grommet at the back of the case.
All done, all plugged in and working a bloody treat.
So it’s about 10 hours since we finished the 36 hour marathon, and a few thoughts on some of the technical stuff come to mind. I thought I’d knock up a quick post about this, so that I don’t forget all this after I’ve slept!
Players are the easy bit, but we need a non-playing person to look after the video stream and social feeds, as well as doing the “commentator” and announcement stuff every now and then. One of the Ready Player 2 and Street Pass Southampton guys also suggested this in the Twitch comments and was bang on.
The mics used by Allun and Andrew were more suitable than the “proper” condenser mic I used, but cable noise was an issue as they were lapel/lav mics; hiding cables under clothing wasn’t really a practical option when people want to get up, wander round and have a break. Next time I think headset mics are definitely the way to go.
Regular indoor household lighting doesn’t cut it. My webcam framerate was piss poor; not really noticeable in the “inset” view, but full screen webcam video made it very apparent indeed. Anyone want to sell me some cheap softbox continuous lighting kits…?
Streaming gameplay footage is relatively easy these days, but having a separate machine running the stream would massively simplify matters, especially when things go titsup and games crash…
My wecam sucks. It’s fine as a webcam, but it ain’t a video camera by any means. Decent lighting will help this, but can you spell grain? I’m sure as hell not going to be using chromakey with this thing. Unfortunately, “proper” HD cameras ain’t cheap :(.
Test, test and test again!
I noticed afterwards that my audio and video didn’t *quite* line up, and it’s really noticeable in full-screen webcam video. I thought I’d ironed this out already, but clearly not. All the micrphones and game audio are fed into a mixing desk, and the main output of the mixing desk is the audio you hear in the stream. I think there is a delay with my audio interface when not using ASIO drivers, so this could be the main culprit.
After much organising and deliberating we’re finally getting closer to the 36 Hour Charity Gaming Marathon! It’s now just over two weeks away! I AM EXCITE!
You’ll notice a few changes around these parts. First up, we’ve re-arranged the menus up top and added a page regarding the competitions – if you want to be in with the chance to win some free Steam games during our marathon then you need to read this page. Srsly. There’s no scary sounding agreements or anything like that, but there are things you really need to know in there.Secondly we’ve also added a bunch of links over there on the right: you can now go straight to the JustGiving donations page, Facebook page, and Twitch channel. Oh, and there’s also a Twitter feed – keep an eye on that one, it’s where most of the updates will probably go!
We’ve finally nailed down the game we’ll be playing! We’ve gone for XCOM: Enemy Within because in my humble opinion it’s one of the best games to have been released over the last couple of years. We’ll be playing it on Ironman, so there’s no going back, if your crack sniper is killed then he’s dead – no re-loading an earlier save game to try and stop him being killed! We were tempted to try Classic difficulty in conjunction with Ironman, but we really would like to play through the entire game in (more or less) one sitting. This game relies on a little bit of luck, so the last thing we’d want to do is have to restart 5 times just because the game really hates you. That’s no fun for anyone…
The last gaming marathon really proved just how worn out you can get by doing repetitive tasks. I lost count of how many times I almost fell asleep while I was digging for diamonds in Minecraft for hours on end. We’re going to try and break things up a bit this year; if we find that we’re struggling to carry on then we’ll stick on another game for an hour or two, just to break things up a bit and hopefully stop us from falling asleep! We’ve got the following games lined up as “time killers”:
That’s probably about all there is to tell at this point. We’ve got the volunteers ready, the technical stuff is all worked out (subject to a few “dry runs”!), and now we’ve got the games nailed. All that remains is for me to thank you for reading, remind you to tune in at 10PM (BST) on June 27th, and of course urge you to donate!
You can now find the JustGiving Fundraising page here: http://www.justgiving.com/hasbeardplaysgames
After the last charity gaming marathon it’s fair to say that I was a little weary of taking on the challenge again. But now I’ve had chance to recover and reflect I think I am ready to take on the challenge again!
This time however I want to make it more challenging. 24 hours at a time was hard, but this time I’m going for 36 hours straight. This will be in one continuous unbroken session this time – aside from toilet/feeding breaks, that is!
This time the charity we’ve chosen to support this time is Cancer Research UK. I’m in the process of setting up the JustGiving page, but in the mean time you can read more details about the event using the handy little link up there.
Stay tuned for more information!
First of all, we want to send a massive thank you to everyone who watched the stream, shared the links and contributed donations. We wouldn’t have made it without your help!
As you may have noticed from the donation widget, our Minecraft Marathon event met the fundraising goal we set for Child’s Play. It was a modest goal but we didn’t even think that we’d get that far! We’re extremely pleased and very touched that so many people contributed towards Child’s Play. We’re going to leave the donation link active, because the money appears to be still rolling in; we had another £10 in this morning!
We’ve got – as you might have guessed! – many many hours of video footage to sift through, edit and highlight. We’re hoping to get some highlight videos uploaded to our YouTube channel, but it might take a while so please bear with us! The first one is in the pipes now and we’re hoping to get it uploaded before the day is out.
What’s next? Well we’ve got plenty of plans for some great content over on our YouTube channel, as well as more live streaming events in the pipeline. We’re also planning a bigger and better marathon event in aid of Child’s Play next year, but we’re still getting over the first one so we’re in no hurry!
As ever you’ll find the most recent updates on our Facebook page, so stay tuned!
It’s been a little while since we posted an update here – the latest news can always be found on our Facebook page – so it’s about time I updated with what’s been going on. I can assure you that we haven’t been idle at Beard Towers!
The technical side is now pretty much sorted:
So we’re pretty much set to go!
As mentioned we now have a Minecraft server up & running so we’re pretty much all set. Except for what we’re actually going to be doing, that is! Since we’re all so lame and severely lacking in the imagination department we’ve decided that we’ll “borrow” the talent of others and play through some of the excellent survival, puzzle and adventure maps that the awesome Minecraft community has come up with. We have a few selections so far, but we’re always keen to hear more; head on over to our Facebook page if you want to give us some ideas. We’ve embedded some Yogscast videos below to give you a taste of what these maps offer.
This map plonks you on a tiny island in the middle of the sky, gives you a few basic resources and gives a laundry list of challenges. Some of the tougher challenges are:
Honestly, you should head on over to the thread and check out the full list; it’ll certainly keep us going a while!
These two stunning maps are not for those who suffer from any kind of motion sickness or vertigo! Though they are certainly a welcome relief from those who are sick of jumping puzzles, as these are exactly the opposite: falling puzzles! Check out this Yogscast video from a while back, because you really need to see these!
These two maps are adventure maps made by the awesome Hypixel. They both feature amazing locations, a full story line, custom items and dialogue, and all the other custom tricks that awesome people have come up with.
This is another awesome map by Hypixel; this is a custom mob arena with a full trading system and increasing levels of difficulty. We’ve played this a few times before, and have never managed to get past the first level!
Back in the days of yore – actually around 14 years ago – several of my friends were talking about a PlayStation game called Final Fantasy 7. Most of the PSX games I had been interested in were things like Resident Evil, Demolition Derby, Ridge Racer, etc. I had played RPG games before, such as Fallout 2 and Diablo, but it wasn’t the everyday sort of game that I played (as brilliant as Fallout 2 was). Final Fantasy 7 was a very different sort of RPG however. For starters, it was the first PSX game I ever played that came on more than one disc; most of that was taken up with cut scenes but it was still pretty epic to 15-year old me.
On the recommendation of friends, I decided I’d get this game. After saving the money required, a quick trip to Electronics Boutique (yes, that’s how long ago it was) saw the game in my sweaty little hands. The first thing that struck me was the quality of the cut scenes. They were all prerendered CG and, though they are dated by today’s standards, they were utterly mind blowing at the time. When the game actually starts properly, you’re very quickly thrown into a battle. I actually almost lost the first battle in the game, because it took me a while to figure out what the hell to do!
For those not familiar with the JRPG style, a little background is in order. Most of the game takes place on the “field” – these are the locations that you explore, the towns/cities/dungeons/caverns that you visit. When you encounter an enemy, you’re taken to a separate scene – the “battle” screen – where you see your characters lined up on one side and the enemies you’re fighting on the other side. In the case of FF7, the battles are pseudo-turn-based. This means that you have to wait a certain period of time before you can carry out an action – attacking, using magic or an item, etc – and so do your enemies. You issue commands to your characters, they carry them out, while at the same time the enemy is doing the same. The first battle over, I was returned to the field to carry on. After some plot exposition, you gain full control of your characters. At which point you start getting random encounters – the second massive culture shock. I was used to being able to see my enemies on screen before I was thrown into a battle with them. Not so in FF7 (and many JRPGs). As you’re wandering around a location you encounter random battles – usually you do not see your attacker unless it’s a boss fight. This felt utterly gruelling: wandering round somewhere, never knowing when you’re going to run into a fight. It actually took me a good couple of hours of gameplay before the hooks really started to sink in. The gameplay mechanics were totally alien to me, but luckily the game had a compelling story. Once I started getting into the story a little more, there was no way I was ever going to put this game down – especially once they’d introduced Sephiroth, the main antagonist.
This was one of the few games I played that really hammered home the importance of having a good story line. The graphics, for the most part, were certainly not the best that the PSX could produce. The field screens were pre-rendered backgrounds with simplistic rendered characters. The battle screens were all completely rendered in realtime, and were rather more impressive, but you only ever saw those when someone was trying to kill you. Compared to the detail of the characters in Resident Evil, it felt like a step backwards. It’s a time-honoured cliché to say that graphics don’t matter if the story is engaging, but this was the first time I ever experienced it.
nThe first time I played the game, I was more interested in kicking Sephiroth’s ass back to the stone age – I played through the game in around 40-50 hours. While reading reviews and other material online, I started reading about parts of the game that I had completely missed. I was more interested in playing through the story than doing all possible side quests and really getting to grips with the game mechanics. So, I decided to play the game again from scratch. This time however, because I knew where the story was going, I could really explore the game fully and really get to grips with it. It took me a year or two to get the motivation to go through it all again – it is a very long game, after all – but boy did I miss a shedload of content.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to go all nerdy here – a common theme of this blog – and really get under the skin of this game. The basic RPG mechanics are that your character has a number of attributes, represented by numbers, that dictate how good they are at attacking, evading enemy attacks, using magic, accuracy of attacks, etc. To increase these skills you fight battles; battles give you “experience points” (hereafter referred to as EXP) and once you’ve gained enough EXP, your character goes up a level and their stats become more powerful. This system is employed by Final Fantasy 7. The magic system in Final Fantasy 7 was through a system called “materia”. In the game world, materia are condensed orbs of the “stuff of life” (lifestream) which contain knowledge of previous generations. When materia is equipped the wearer can use that knowledge in the form of offensive and defensive magical attacks/spells; some types of materia also allow you to call up powerful monsters to carry out an especially powerful attack against your enemies. rnrnIn order to use materia, each character’s weapons and armour have slots to which materia can be equipped. Usually, the more powerful the weapon/armour the more slots it has. Some of these slots can also be “linked”, meaning that you can combine two types of materia for added effects. Materia come in a number of different types:
Materia also gains “experience” and “grows” to become more powerful. At the end of each battle, as well as awarding EXP to characters, AP is also awarded. Whatever materia the characters are wearing will have that AP added to it and once the AP reaches a certain threshold, the materia grows and becomes more powerful. Some materia, notably Summon materia, also have a limit on the number of times it can be used in battle – as it becomes more powerful, you can use it more and more times in battle. Materia usually has five AP levels before it reaches it’s maximum power; at this point it will absorb no more AP and is called “mastered”. When a summon materia is mastered, you can use it as many times as you like in battle (well, as many times as you have Magic Points, but hey). It doesn’t stop there though; once a materia is mastered, a new copy of it is spawned. This new copy has no AP, so is the most basic form you can obtain. Some materia is so powerful that it is only possible to find one copy in the game world. With enough time and effort though, you can equip all your characters with the most powerful materia in the game by levelling it up.
Once you get your head around the tricks to the game, and find the combinations that work well, it’s very easy to become very good in battles. With enough time invested, it is very easy to create extremely powerful characters which have no problem in walking all over the bosses in the game – even the end-game bosses. In my first playthrough of the game, it took me a long time to get through the final area. I struggled like crazy to beat the end-game bosses – Sephiroth just does not want to freakin’ die! – and lost count of the number of times I died and had to start again. When I replayed the game and made a bit more effort with my characters, I walked all over the end-game bosses. Of course the game designers anticipated the fact that you could tank through the game with powerful characters, so put in optional bosses that were even more powerful and deadly than the bosses in the main story line, just for us punishment-gluttons.
As mentioned, the game even allows for combinations of materia which pretty much make you invincible. One of the later summon materia you can obtain is called Phoenix. It does a Fire-based attack against all enemies; it isn’t exactly the most powerful fire-based attack, but what it also does is revive all characters who have been killed. There is also a rare support materia – you only ever find one copy in the game – called Final Attack. When the character wearing it is killed, they automatically use whatever materia it is paired with. Pair Final Attack with Phoenix and you have a character that automatically revives themselves – and all other dead party members – when they are killed. At lower levels of the materias, this isn’t so useful – you can only use them a limited number of times each, so you might only get this chance once or twice in battle. Once they’re mastered however, you can use this combo as many times as you like: no matter how many times that character dies in battle, they’ll always revive automatically and bring all other dead party members back. Of course once you master these two materia, you get another two copies – master the copies and you can now have this materia combo on two characters. Of course if you master the two new copies you get a third copy of both. If you can master three copies of this materia, you can equip it to all party members – you now have a party full of characters that can never be killed. Some monsters will remove characters from battle without killing them, but they tend to be extremely rare and extremely powerful bosses – usually the optional bosses I mentioned earlier.
This is just a small example of the flexibility of the combat system in this game, and says nothing for all the optional quests and content available. As a testament to just how big this game is, one of my save games on the original PSX has over 180 hours logged against it.
If you’ve never played the game, and can spare some time to invest in it, I highly recommend picking up a copy and giving it a whirl.