Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

A event log for Ideas to Prototypes Hack Chat with Nick Bild

You've got the idea, now make something of it

Dan MaloneyDan Maloney 07/29/2020 at 20:040 Comments

I'm not sure I've seen Nick sign on yet - you out there, Nick?

morgan12:00 PM
probably cleaning his desk

morgan12:00 PM
/me ducks


Nick Bild joined the room.12:00 PM

Nick Bild12:00 PM
Hi, I'm here!

Nick Bild12:01 PM
The wheels were spinning.

greenenergyengr joined the room.12:01 PM

There he is. Welcome Nick, and welcome to everyone on this fine Hack Chat Wednesday! I'm Dan, I'll be modding today. Let's welcome Nick Bild to the Hack Chat today to talk about turning ideas into prototypes.

Nick, can you give us a little backstory on yourself?

Boian Mitov12:02 PM
Hello everyone :-)

Nick Bild12:02 PM
Sure! Thanks so much for having me...

Nick Bild12:02 PM
I have degrees in computer science and bioinformatics and professionally I've been a software engineer for about 15 years, splitting my time between industry and academia...

Nick Bild12:02 PM
About a year and a half ago I got interested in the idea of teaching myself about electronics in my free time. I decided to design and build a retrocomputer based around the 6502 processor as a first project. I knew nothing at the start...I was literally googling "what is the difference between voltage and current"...

Nick Bild12:02 PM
It took me several months to build and debug (I had almost no tools other than a multimeter at the time; no logic analyzer, etc.) The result was the Vectron 64 ( I learned a lot in the process, and by the end I was hooked...

Nick Bild12:03 PM
With the confidence from building my first project, I started quickly building devices based on my other ideas. At this point, I've finished 17 substantial projects, 13 of those being published on Hackaday. Some of my more popular projects are...

Nick Bild12:03 PM
- ShAIdes ( - glasses that control devices around the house with a wave of the hand.

Nick Bild12:03 PM
- Tipper ( - AR glasses that predict if a baseball pitch will be in or out of the strike zone.

Nick Bild12:03 PM
- Deep Clean ( - watches a room and flags all surfaces as they are touched for special attention on the next cleaning to help prevent the spread of contagious disease.

Nick Bild12:04 PM
- Vectron AI ( - interfaces with the Vectron 64 to provide gesture detecting AI to control and Atari 2600 game.

Nick Bild12:04 PM
- Safe Meeting ( - keeps an eye on you during your Zoom calls, and if it sees inappropriate attire, the video is immediately muted.

Nick Bild12:04 PM
A full list is here:

Nick Bild12:04 PM
I haven't (yet) had the chance to turn any of my prototypes into finished consumer-ready products, but I have had some success in quickly turning ideas into working prototypes, so I'd be happy to your answer questions about that, and general questions about any of my projects.

Nick Bild12:04 PM
PS - My desk is not normally that clean :)

Phew -- one of us...

Nick Bild12:05 PM

Luke J. Barker joined the room.12:06 PM

So with the Vectron build, did you find your IT background prepared you in any way? Or had your education kind of abstracted the bits and bytes so much that it was like starting from scratch?

Nick Bild12:09 PM
That was one of the reasons I wanted to build the Vectron. I was used to working at such a high level of abstraction, that I wanted to learn what was really happening, beyond some boxes labeled "RAM" and "CPU" with lines connecting them...

Nick Bild12:10 PM
When you deal with these older chips you can understand everything that's happening. You can envision every signal on the bus and get a very deep understanding.

Nick Bild12:10 PM
The modern abstractions are good, yes, writing assembly and building your own computer isn't terribly practical...

Yeah, that's exactly why I want to build a machine from scratch. Spent so many years programming at a high level that it feels important to get back to the register level and recapture some of what I learned in my teens.

Nick Bild12:10 PM
But it's VERY educational.

Nick Bild12:11 PM
I grew up in the 80s with Commodores and Color Computers, etc., so the nostalgia factor was also there.

Nick Bild12:11 PM
But then, I didn't really know much beyond LOAD "*".

jim joined the room.12:12 PM

Nick Bild12:12 PM
Now I can crack open an old computer and know what's really going on with all those beautiful through-hole chips.

Nick Bild12:13 PM
It was also a great way to learn about electronics in general--you'll run into LOTS of problems trying to get a computer running on a breadboard.

Nick Bild12:13 PM
Lots of knowledge comes out of debugging.

Nick Bild12:14 PM
Any other retrocomputing fans out there? Or we can switch to another topic?

Andy Geppert12:15 PM
@Nick Bild Couldn't agree more with your sentiment of learning by debugging a complex system like a computer.

Any thoughts about moving Vectron-64 from the "mess o' wires" phase to a something neater and more permanent? Like a PCB, or perhaps a wirewrap?

jim12:15 PM
I soldered or wire wrapped all the TTL chips together back in the 70's at Xerox

Andy Geppert12:15 PM
#retrocomputingforever ;)

Or ar ethe wires just too much a part of its charm?

Nick Bild12:17 PM
They are a bit charming, but also a pain! Yes, I've thought about creating a PCB for the Vectron. But if I hadn't started with a breadboard, I wouldn't have learned as much about power distribution, RF interference, and so on.

Nick Bild12:18 PM
So, I also extended the Vectron in a couple ways...

greenenergyengr12:18 PM
I'm just surprised the excess wire don't create problems in the logic

Nick Bild12:18 PM
I added VGA, built a VR game with headset, and built an AI extension for gesture recognition to control an Atari 2600 game.

Nick Bild12:19 PM
Anyone else have interesting uses of their own retro stuff?

Practical question then: Have you found a decent breadboard? Every one I buy seems to make it really hard to insert leads, and some just have the metal clips get pushed out the back.

Nick Bild12:20 PM
Yeah, this is the best one I've found:

Nick Bild12:20 PM
I had some major issues with others, like contacts not being made, or intermittent.

Nick Bild12:20 PM
That kind of thing is very painful to deal with.

Andy Geppert12:20 PM
I'd like to implement a PID controller in 6502 assembly and see how fast I can get it to refresh. That would be a "fun" learning experience to me...

jim12:21 PM
That is one area not to cheap out, I still use point to point wiring to avoid those problems.

Ah yes - Jameco. Should have guessed. I can remember seeing ads in Popular Electronics for them like 40 years ago. Thanks!

Nick Bild12:21 PM
True about breadboards -- don't go cheap. You'll waste a lot of time to save $5.

Nick Bild12:22 PM
I like that "fun" is in quotes -- truth!

Nick Bild12:22 PM
It's fun, yet sometime awful.

Nick Bild12:22 PM
But worth it when it finally works.

xBeau12:22 PM
@Nick Bild I got a bit obsessed with the retro sound chips after taking apart a Vectrex, I really like the idea of bread boarding for development, in practice though I find point to point wiring on proto board to be faster and more reliable, even with inevitably having to back and fix/bodge/redo a few bits.

Nick Bild12:24 PM
No doubt, breadboards have limits. When I built Vectron VGA I used perfboard for the clock divider. Until the clock frequency was lower I wouldn't trust a breadboard.

Nick Bild12:24 PM
Depends on the board, but as a general rule, I'd be concerned about >10MHz.

jim12:24 PM
Yeah perf board with the copper pads seem to be fast and more robust when soldering the components in

Nick Bild12:25 PM
Pretty much anything is better than a breadboard. :) But they are so convenient and fast.

Nick Bild12:25 PM
Especially when you don't know what you're doing and have to make lots of changes!

Nick Bild12:25 PM
Don't ask how I know that.

Have you found the need to advance your test instrument suite past the multimeter-only phase yet?

Nick Bild12:27 PM
Oh yes. Definitely yes! I got a Saleae Logic 8 after I finished the Vectron, and first used it on Vectron VR. It made life so much easier and easily shaved weeks of troubleshooting off the build.

jim12:27 PM
@Andy Geppert - I bit the bullet and just bought a PID controller for the CNC

Andy Geppert12:28 PM
PROTOBOARD SUGGESTION: I'm working on a 6502 computer build using to give me a ground and power plane. I like this stuff from that respect, but it's still tedious to run all those bus wires. I'm thinking I might abandon the approach and switch to a PCB. We shall see. I do like the idea of just finishing what I started though.

newdendrite12:29 PM
How do you deal with having to pay $10 to ship that last $0.52 part you need?

Andy Geppert12:29 PM
@jim That looks great - using it on a DIY CNC, I'm guessing? I'd still like to do a 6502 PID just for "street cred."

newdendrite12:29 PM
And wait 10 days.

Nick Bild12:29 PM
I definitely could have given up at several points, but it drives me nuts if I can't figure something out, so I tend to just push through the mundane stuff too.

Nick Bild12:30 PM
I do the best I can to plan ahead and buy things up front (although that almost never works)...

Andy Geppert12:30 PM
@newdendrite My solution is to have 40 different projects going on so I can always order multiple useful things for different projects and feel like I'm wasting shipping... Or, I just add stuff that I might use some day...

Nick Bild12:30 PM
So I look to see if there are multiple sources.

Nick Bild12:31 PM
Often Amazon has the part I need, and tends to be much quicker than electronics suppliers.

Nick Bild12:32 PM
I wish there were more physical electronics stores where I could go grab parts -- but not in my area.

Just ordered two Jameco breadboards. I have no impulse control

Nick Bild12:32 PM

Nick Bild12:32 PM
I think that's very common for hardware hackers.

jim12:33 PM
@ Andy no I have a Shapeoko XL and building another from scratch. I need the PID to slow the router down for milling Plex

Nick Bild12:33 PM
I don't know why, but I might eventually need it.

DrG12:34 PM
Nick, you asked "Anyone else have interesting uses of their own retro stuff?" As a proud owner of a KIM-1 (original 6502 board) which was my first computer and that still woks, my answer is no. EVERY time I think about it, I ask myself why build a retro when a simple PIC or ATMEGA will do it better faster and cheaper. Respect the Retro, you bet - but that is my answer :)

benbergman joined the room.12:35 PM

Nick Bild12:35 PM
Fair enough. I don't think anyone builds a 6502 computer because the computer itself is practical though.

Nick Bild12:36 PM
Anyone interested in home automation? Machine learning?

Boian Mitov12:36 PM
I am :-)

I don't know, I think part of the fun of retro is seeing what it can do, especially for applications that weren't even dreamt of when the machines were mainstream. Like crypto mining on a Z80

greenenergyengr12:37 PM
yeah, both!

greenenergyengr12:37 PM
where does one get started in machine learning??

Andy Geppert12:37 PM
@Dan Maloney RE applications for retro - yeah, for sure! Just how far can we take this retro tech?!

Yeah, I'm actually interested in how you made the lead from retro 6502s to AI with the latest in Edge computing

DrG12:37 PM
A tough question maybe, but I mean it with respect - do hard core EEs throw shade your way for your projects (which look pretty creative to me) because they lack a well thought out circuit board and so on....

jim12:38 PM
Build an S-100 system with custom boards - don't miss it, had a wet darkroom with large format film - don't miss it.

Not the sentimental type with all the cool tools and resources we now have. . . these are the good days.

Nick Bild12:39 PM
Yes DrG, that happens. I'm not an EE, I'm a hobbyist, so I'm OK with that. As long as I can build the devices I dream up and they work, I'm happy. If I were to have to burden myself with lots of extra tasks that don't actually help me get to my goal, I'd be far less productive (and happy with my hobby).

But you've got to admit it was pretty magical to see images come to life in the developer tray. Photoshop may be better in every tangible way, but that was some magical stuff.

Nick Bild12:40 PM
Dan, I'm not stuck on any particular technology. I like old stuff, I also like modern tech. Whatever tool helps me build my ideas.

Nick Bild12:41 PM
For the ML/Home automation fans...have you seen my project ShAIdes?

Nick Bild12:41 PM
Also v2:

jim12:42 PM
@ Dan Maloney

Yes is was pretty cool but the novelty wore off within a couple decades. A guy I worked with at Xerox started Adobe and I am hooked on it's magic.

Oh yeah, for sure, just seemed like a big leap. Just wondering what got your attention about AI projects that got you going down that path.

Nick Bild12:43 PM
The possibilities. For example, take Tipper ( Determining all of the factors that you need to look at, and determining an appropriate algorithm would be very hard work...

Nick Bild12:43 PM
With ML, you just create a model and feed it a bunch of data. It figures out the algorithm.

deʃhipu12:43 PM
haha, no

Nick Bild12:46 PM
So, on blending retro and modern: Vectron AI (

Nick Bild12:47 PM
This used the Vectron 6502 computer to do gesture recognition and control an Atari 2600 game.

I really liked that one. Thought the way you executed the k-nearest algo in assembly was pretty slick

Nick Bild12:48 PM

Nick Bild12:48 PM
Thanks. Here's what the Vectron "saw".

Nick Bild12:50 PM
Anyone doing lots of Zoom calls these days?

Andy Geppert12:50 PM
@Nick Bild That AI project is now another reason I'll stay up too late reading again. VERY COOL.

Nick Bild12:50 PM
Here's another project I came up with, a little bit tongue in cheek:

Nick Bild12:51 PM
This one mutes video on your Zoom call if it sees your underwear.

Nick Bild12:51 PM
Not that anyone would ever need such a thing. lol

So -- the training set for that one must have been... interesting?

Nick Bild12:53 PM
Haha, yeah, that's one way to put it.

Nick Bild12:53 PM

Nick Bild12:53 PM
For the breadboard haters and lovers alike. Vectron VGA.

Nick Bild12:54 PM
That's Vectron 64 on the left, the rest is the VGA generator.

Nick Bild12:54 PM
You'll need to order more boards, Dan.

Nick Bild12:55 PM
Also, desk not quite so clean. Told you so! :)

Jeez, I guess so. I'm actually thinking about a CDP1802 breadboard build. It was that microprocessor in my "first" computer, a COSMAC VIP that I still have no idea how my parents afforded.

Boian Mitov12:57 PM
Breadboard tetris... :-D

Nick Bild12:58 PM
Hmm, maybe there's an idea there...breadboard Tetris...

Boian Mitov12:59 PM
You seem to be already doing it with your breadboards on the table... :-D

Nick Bild1:00 PM
Yes, I got it :) It just made me start thinking of a mechanical version of tetris

Boian Mitov1:00 PM
yep :-)

DrG1:01 PM
Nick, do you carry a nerd notebook to write down ideas wherever you are?

Boian Mitov1:01 PM
I think it can be done with electromagnets under the table

We're just about out of time for today, so I want to thank Nick for his time. I really enjoyed the Chat today and getting a chance to pick Nick's brain. The Hack Chat channel is always open, so feel free to stay on and continue the conversation. But for now, thanks Nick! And thanks to everyone for the great discussion!

Nick Bild1:01 PM
I use Google Tasks. That way it's always available.

deʃhipu1:02 PM
I thought google tasks were killed already

DrG1:02 PM
Thanks a lot for a fun chat Nick (and, of course Dan The Man). Good stuff!

And now I'm off to ponder just what a purely mechanical Tetris game would entail...

Boian Mitov1:02 PM

Nick Bild1:02 PM
Thanks so much all for joining!

Boian Mitov1:02 PM
Sorry to give you the bug...