Using the Physics Engine in Carrara

Carrara has a built-in physics engine which is very capable of calculating dynamic animations. Here’s how to setup a basic scene with physics.

Physics are already setup in every new scene with a default gravity. Feel free to change the Simulation Accuracy and Geometric Fidelity different results before messing with each single object. You can find these properties under Scene – Physics:

physics

All we have to do next is to make our objects participate in the engine and have Carrara calculate the physics. Select an object, then head over to Motion and change the drop down menu to Physics (it’s set to Keyframe by default).

Here you can change the starting behaviour of your object, but the defaults work well for a quick test. Repeat this setup for every object you’d like to participate.

physics2

To change the properties of an object (such as weight, bounciness, etc) head over to the Effects tab and look for a section called Phisical Properties. There are some materials to choose from (such as Clay, Ice, Metal, etc) or you can create your own based on Density, Bounce and Friction.

physics4

Animate this thing

Once setup, decide how long you’d like the simulation to be and adjust your animation duration accordingly. The default is 4 seconds, but you may be interested in events that happen beyond that. Simply drag the little yellow triangle in the timeline to change the duration.

Now we need to ask Carrara to Simulate Physics by pressing that “bone dipped in sauce” icon on the far left side in the top bar, next to the greyed out hand icon. You need to do this every time you make a change to the scene or the objects that participate in the physics engine.

physics3

Either move your timeline scrubber to a desired frame, or render the animation out.

Using IBL and HDRI in Carrara

Coronet

To use IBL (Image Based Lighting) in Carrara we need an HDRI map (High Dynamic Rage Image). Using this technique your scene is not illuminated by light sources but rather by a weird looking image. This concept is known as Global Illumination and the results can be stunning (see above).

Several HDRI maps ship with Carrara, albeit buried deep inside the installation. I’ll show you how to hunt them down and how to use them in your scene.

 

Setting up the scene for use with HDRI

For those HDRI maps to work we need to prepare a few things in our scene. First we need to select the Scene (under Instances) and head over to atmosphere. IBL will only work with either a Sky or a Realistic Sky. Let’s select either of those options and configure them to your liking.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 10.31.47

Under Background we need to add our HDRI map and configure its intensity (Background is just below Atmosphere in the same section):

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 10.35.12

 

 

Hunting down those HDRI maps

On Mac OS X the files we’re looking for are inside the App Bundle. Searching for them with Finder will not reveal them. Instead, open Finder and navigate to the actual Carrara app – mine is in Applications/DAZ 3D/Carrara 8.5 64-bit/Carrara.app

Once selected, right-click and choose “Show Package Contents”. A new Finder window opens, revealing yet more folders. Navigate to Contents/MacOS/Scenes/Global Illumination and you’ll find the following (among other things):

  • DoschHDRI.hdr
  • hdri-20_color.hdr
  • hdri-25_color W.hdr
  • snowfield2_color_small.hdr

Copy them somewhere that makes them easier accessible next time you want to use them.

On Windows it’s less complicated: the Scenes folder is inside the Carrara folder. On my system that’s  C:/Program Files/DAZ 3D/Carrara8.5/Scenes/Global Illumination

 

Render Settings

Over in the Render Room we’ll need to tell Carrara that we want to use Global Illumination. In the Rendering tab, find the Global Illumination section and select Sky Light, and optionally Indirect Light.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 11.23.34

You also have a choice between Full Indirect Light and Ambient Occlusion, the latter will make for speedier renders with slightly softer shadows, the former will present very accurate results but takes a little longer to render.

Now go and globally illuminate something!

How to remove empty folders from your Poser Library

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In Poser we have the ability to add and remove entire runtimes, save new items to those, delete them if and when we like, and we can also create folders inside our runtimes. We can remove items, but it seems we can’t remove folders – not even if they’re empty. This can get messy.

According to this thread, SmithMicro made the decision not to include this option via the GUI because it would mean a potential plethora of “are you sure” dialogues when non-essential files need to be deleted. Instead they’ve left this to the OS tools like Finder and Windows Explorer.

How then can we delete folders manually? How do we even know where that folder is buried deep inside the runtime structure? The answer is: the Extended Details Panel. It can show us the exact path which we can hunt for, or even copy and paste into command line tools.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 01.58.44

To bring it up, take a look underneath the library panel. Just under the “Folder Plus” icon there’s something like a handle to drag the size of the panel, the one that looks like some decoration. Turns out it can bring up a menu when you click it! Who would have thought? Worst UI design ever.

Click it and navigate to Display, then check the tick box labelled Extended Details Panel. When enabled this will show the full path to the selected item (the one in blue), giving you a clue where a folder is buried.

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Armed with this knowledge we can now hunt to the location, remove desired items and then click the little refresh icon to make those changes show up in Poser.

To take it one step further, we can highlight and copy this path, then open Terminal (or the Command Prompt), and issue a shell command that will delete said folder. On Mac we can use rm (as in remove):

rm -rf 'pasted/path/here'

and on Windows we can use del or erase:

del 'pasted/path/here' /Q

Note the ‘single quotes’ enclosing that path, this will alleviate problems if folders contain spaces.

Keep those runtimes tidy!

How to upgrade Poser Pro 2014 to Poser Game Dev

GameDev-Launch

Poser Game Dev was released as part of Service Release 4 of Poser Pro 2014. It adds additional features to the app which can be unlocked with a new serial number. Essentially Poser Game Dev is the same executable as Poser Pro 2014.

But how do we upgrade? Information on this topic is a tad sketchy: all we’re given is two download links to the SmithMicro Download Manager and a serial number. In this article I’ll talk you through how to upgrade without having to uninstall and reinstall the whole thing. I’ll also show you how to archive your installers for safekeeping.

 

Downloading the installers

The Download Manager is a new tool that was introduced with Poser Pro 2014. It makes downloading the many files associated with the product a bit easier. All it really does is download installers on your behalf from a nice interface and offer a one-click installer for each portion of the app. We had to do this manually with many clicks before.

Game Dev comes with a new version of the Download Manager. When you install it, your old version will be updated. Launch it when it’s ready and have your new serial number to hand, it will be requested upon launch, determining which downloads are associated with it.

You’ll see two tabs at the top: Installers and Updates. At the bottom right you’ll see a button labelled “Download All”. You can click that and grab a coffee, or if you’re in a rush or on a bad internet connection, select desired component separately. Do the same on the Updates tab and the tool goes to work.

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 11.53.06

I can see two updates available at this time: Service Release 4 (which includes Game Dev) and a Content Updater. Notice on the latter that this version is somewhat behind the service release and make a mental note of it. This is an issue that may be fixed by the time you try this.

Let’s install the service release first, followed by the content updater. Grab a coffee and let each installation finish.

 

Launching Poser Game Dev

Now launch Poser Pro 2014 and you’ll see that splash screen with the raunchy brunette. Note that the version number should now read 10.0.4.xxxx or higher. If it’s still reading 10.0.3.xxxx then the service release has not been applied yet. In which case, quit Poser, go back and install it.

PoserPro2014-Launch

Let’s add our new serial to the app: head over to Help – Personalize and paste it into the serial number field. Your current Poser Pro 2014 serial should automatically be transferred into the “previous serial number” box. Take this opportunity to activate your new version when prompted.

Poser will prompt you to restart, so let’s do that. When you launch again you’ll be greeted with a new splash screen featuring the low-res bald dude, seemingly infiltrating that super secure facility with his laser gadget.

Congratulations, you’re now rocking Poser Game Dev!

 

Wait… Poser still looks the same – where are the new features?

Game Dev only unlocks a few new features within Poser Pro 2014:

  • Figure – Combine Figures…
  • Figure – Find Unseen Polygons…
  • Figure – Remove Unseen Polygons…
  • Window – Add-Ons – Kinect Capture (Windows only)
  • File – Import – FBX
  • File – Export – FBX
  • Help – Poser Game Dev Addendum

The latter is a new short manual that explains all those features. When you try to click that option right now, you’ll notice that nothing happens… the Poser Reference Manual still opens in Adobe Reader – but the new Game Dev Addendum does not. What gives?

 

Updating the User Manuals

Sadly the Content Updater has neglected to update our user manuals! I guess this happened because the Content Updater wasn’t as up to date as the rest of the installers. It would have applied the latest changes to your content, but not to the manuals. Bad updater!

To do this manually, we’ll have to go back into the Download Manager and run the Poser Support Files installer (under Installers – the second from the bottom, about 1.06GB in size). Download it and run the installer. Quit Poser before you do this, and close Adobe Reader if you were looking at the manual.

When finished, launch Poser again and head over to Help and check out the new manuals. The Game Dev Addendum should now load fine, and the Reference Manual should read “July 2014″ on the front, instead of “February 2014″ (which was the old version).

Note: if your Download Manager won’t let you install just the Poser Support Files component and says “Install Poser Pro 2014 to continue”, ignore this and fret not. There’s no need to re-install the entire application just to update a frigging manual. Instead, find the relevant installer file and run it manually.

I’ll explain below how to find it (called PoserSupport.pkg on Mac and PoserSupport.exe on Windows).

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 11.58.37

 

Archiving the installers

SmithMicro have always had a policy that when you buy digital software, you have 30 days to download it – unless you pay for the extended download service. This means that you may want to burn a DVD of that app for $499 you’ve just bought, preferably today rather than “later”.

This rule of expiring downloads still applies, even with the introduction of Download Manager.

Before the introduction of this super high-tech tool we had several download links and we could simply store the resulting installer files somewhere safe. Download Manager uses the same standalone files, so by poking deep into its file structure we can find those very same files. Go ahead and download ALL those installer files now, no matter if you need them right now or not.

The tool is clever enough to store “installed” installers in a different directory than “ready to be installed” installers. You’ll see the main directory at the bottom of the Download Manager. On Windows the default is

C:/Users/You/SmithMicroDLM/Downloads

On Mac it’s

Users/You/SmithMicroDownloadManager/Downloads

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 12.21.50

In here you’ll find several directories, two of which are release and update – representing those two tabs at the top of the Download Manager (Installers and Updates respectively).

In either of these you’ll find two further directories: content and installed. Drill down further to find a win or mac folder (indicating the platform for the installers) and finally the actual installer files. There’s also a corresponding meta data file (.version) which we don’t need to archive.

Save all the .exe files (Windows) and .pkg files (Mac) and you’ve archived your installers. In total there are 11 files per platform: 9 installers and 2 updaters.

Note that these may be spread across the release and update folders, depending if you’ve installed (some) them or not. Download Manager moves the files to the appropriate directory when it’s worked them over. There’s no need to archive the .version files.

 

Downloading Windows installers on Mac and the other way round

Download Manager will default to the platform it’s running on and assumes that if you’re on Windows, you want to download Windows files. Likewise, on Mac it will show you the Mac downloads.

It can however download either platform’s installers. You can change this under Edit – Preferences.

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 12.23.33

Note that Download Manager can only show you one platform at a time. It will place the installer files in the appropriate directories (mac or win) as explained above. This allows you to archive both platform’s installer files on a single system.

 

Cleanup

Once you’ve downloaded, archived and installed your new version of Poser, there’s no need to have those downloads occupying space on your hard drive any longer. On my Surface Pro for example space is limited.

That’s where the Cleanup option comes in handy. It will delete all downloads from the system, except for those that are currently in progress (and of course those that you’ve copied to a safe location).

You can use the Cleanup option even if you don’t have a serial number to hand: simply ignore the prompt and head over to Preferences which will display the above dialogue.

That’s it! Now go and have fun with Poser ;-)

How to navigate 3D space in Hexagon and Carrara

 

Beach Hut.Still002

Once every year I pick up my 3D hobby and find that I’ve forgotten most of what I used to know. That’s because I hardly take notes.

With all my coding endeavours this really isn’t an option – so I’ve promised myself to learn from past mistakes and take notes on the 3D stuff as well, saving me time and frustration in the future. Let’s get started by remembering how to navigate a scene in Hexagon.

 

Magic Trackpad Navigation

I’m using Hexagon 2.5.1.79 on a Mac with a Magic Touchpad. The principles are the same on a 3-button mouse in Windows though, where Option is equivalent to the ALT key. There are three ways in which you can navigate:

Option 1:

With the Object Selection tool selected,

  • Zoom in and out: two-finger swipe forward and back
  • Rotate: hold Option-Click with one finger, while moving another finger
  • Pan left and right: hold Option while right-clicking (with two fingers), then drag both fingers. It’s like a two-finger drag while holding Option

Option 2:

Alternatively you can click on any of these three navigational icons, found at the bottom in the middle of the screen. The first one is the object selection tool, and the next three are the camera navigation tools (rotate, pan and zoom).

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 12.04.28

You can either click one of them and then click anywhere in the scene while dragging your second finger to perform the selected action. At the end of which you need to select the object selection tool again to perform things like moving the object or manipulating it any other way.

Option 3:

Or you can click one of those three icons while dragging with your other finger to perform the action. As soon as you let go, the object selection tool is active again. It’s a nice when you work on an object, but sometimes the movement isn’t as smooth (especially when you have to drag off-screen).

 

Keyboard Navigation

You also have limited control by using the keyboard – and it couldn’t be easier:

  • Cursor Left / Right: Rotate left and right
  • Cursor Up/Down: Pan up and down
  • Cursor Shift+Left/Right: Rotate 90 degrees
  • Cursor Shift+Up/Down: sideview or top view
  • P: toggles Orthographic and Perspective view

 

Space Navigating in Carrara

You’ll be pleased to hear that the same principles as above apply to Carrara too. I’m using Carrara Pro 8.5 for Mac, and the only difference really is the location of theses icons – in case you’d like to use them. They’re on the top left by default, on the side of the screen.

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 12.38.56

You can select objects with the first 6 icons and move a selected object with the lower 5. Just like in Hexagon, you can either click any of those icons and then navigate by click-draging anywhere in the scene. You’ll have to select an object manipulation tool afterwards.

Or you can click an icon, then drag to perform a navigational action. As soon as you let go again your object selection/manipulation toll is selected again. Here’s what those lower five navigational icons do:

  1. Track YZ will move an object up and down, and zoom in and out when you drag left/right. It’s weird.
  2. Track XY will pan an object up, down, left or right.
  3. Tack XZ will move and object left and right, and zoom when you drag up and down.
  4. Dolly is a multifunctional tool. Click it multiple times to get Pan and Bank.
  • Dolly rotates around your object
  • Pan moves your object left/right/up/down
  • Bank tilts your scene on the horizon line – nice for creepy camera angles

Lounge

Autodesk SketchBook Pro 7 First Impressions

If you’ve read my previous article then you know that I’m a big fan of Autodesk SketchBook Pro and its many variations. This summer a new version has appeared which introduces new features and a new licensing scheme which cleans up the jungle of SketchBook versions – at least on your desktop. Or so you’d think.

SketchBook7-IconMeet the new and improved Autodesk SketchBook, sometimes called SketchBook Pro 7. It even has a new icon that sets it apart from the mobile apps – which may change soon, depending on the companies other plans.

In this article I’ll tell you the major differences between your many buying options so you can decide which one is best for you. I’ll also give you a quick overview of what’s new and if it actually makes sense to upgrade at all.

SketchBook is now a single version for both Mac and PC and is completely free when installed. There is no longer a Pro Trial version. Instead, you can create a free SketchBook account and login right from within the app, unlocking further features. The drawing engine is the same across all editions

Here’s how this works:

 

Starter / Essentials / Pro

If you don’t have an account, or you’re not logged in, you’ll have access to the same features that you had in SketchBook Express: six standard brushes, six colour swatches and a colour picker and no layers. It’s pretty basic, but it lets you test drive the engine and the interface and see if you like it. But it works without the need for an account (unlike Adobe Creative Cloud products).

Logging in with a free SketchBook account (with your Autodesk ID or your favourite Social Network’s credentials) you get access to the “Essentials” features: those are more brushes, including blenders, a variety of Copic colours, 3 layers, the famous selection tool and a few other bits. This is similar to the previous SketchBook Copic Edition and is a great tool to have for free.

If you choose to upgrade your account with a paid subscription or buy a proprietary license you get access to all Pro features which bring back everything that SKetchBook Pro 6 had, plus new tools such as:

  • perspective distortion / transform tool (skew and squish)
  • perspective rulers with up to 3 vanishing points, including circular ruler
  • FlipBook tool (under File – New FlipBook) for animations with selectable onionskin feature (back and ahead)
  • adjustable Steady Stroke tool (it had a static value before)
  • improved selection tool with Magic Wand and “add” feature
  • gradient tool (expands the flood fill tool), for linear and circular gradients
  • “clear layer” (where have you been all these years)
  • Copic colours now have an ID on swatches
  • full brush customisations for every brush (just like in SketchBook Pro 6)

The team have done a great job integrating all the above into the same clean interface as in the previous version, combining related commands (like the shapes tool) into a single icon which opens a second menu where necessary. If you’ve used SketchBook Pro 6 you’ll feel right at home.

The new SketchBook is 64 bit compatible which makes it run a little bit smoother on compatible hardware. I’ve noticed this even on my 3yr old Mac hardware. It’s not major but a nice addition – available in all editions, not just Pro.

 

How much, love?

So how much are the Pro features going to set you back? Autodesk have introduced several licensing options that literally suit every taste:

  • You can buy the software outright via a proprietary license just like before, either as a single Mac/PC disk for $65 or a download. Amazon have it on special offer sometimes ($49 at the time of writing). This is for the full version of SketchBook Pro 7.
  • You can also buy an Upgrade from previous versions from the Autodesk site for $45 (download only). This upgrade has not appeared on Amazon yet.
  • You can buy an annual subscription for $24.99
  • You can buy a monthly subscription for $2.99

Subscriptions are linked to your SketchBook account which allows you access on both Mac and PC – switch platforms as you please, even if you’re working on someone else’s machine.

Autodesk have introduced an option for everyone here: I’m currently on the $2.99 per month plan to test drive the new features, and I love the flexibility: $2.99 is less than a latte at Starucks, cheaper than an iPad app and I can drop the subscription anytime I like (it auto-renews, so don’t forget to cancel if you’d like to make use of this feature).

My creative drawing muse only visits every few months and don’t need access to the Pro features at all times.

Note that there is no “trial version” anymore – so you don’t get to use the Pro features for free for a limited time as you could before. There is however a field for a “coupon code” upon checkout, which suggests discounts or options for a “free trial month” somewhere down the line.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 08.41.54

Should I upgrade?

This is always a tough question for me: if you already own SketchBook Pro 6, is the upgrade to SketchBook Pro 7 really worth it?

Well the good news is that both versions can peacefully coexist on the same machine: SketchBook Pro 7 is a new executable that installs itself alongside SketchBook Pro 6. And at the time of writing they both work equally well. If you don’t need the new features, and Pro 6 works for you, then use it for as long as it works on the current OS (Mac Mavericks / Windows 8.1 at the time of writing).

SketchBook Pro 6 however won’t receive any new updates, so if a newer OS breaks the software, I doubt that Autodesk will fix it. For example, SketchBook Pro for iPad does not currently work with the Developer Beta 5 of iOS 8 – a similar fate may befall Pro 6 for Mac with the arrival of Yosemite, and perhaps even with Windows 8.2.

Thanks to the new licensing options though, you can keep SketchBook 7 installed on your machine and dip in-and-out of those new features as and when you need them. Perhaps you didn’t know how cool animations inside SketchBook could be? Or maybe those perspective rulers turn out to make you a better artist. Or maybe you don’t need any of those features – in which case stick with what you have (Pro 6).

I will say that Sketchbook Pro 7 is a little bit faster due to its 64 bit libraries. It is noticeable, but really only when compared side by side. I can feel a minor difference both on my Mac Latop with a Wacom Intuos 4, as well as the Surface Pro. But as I said, this is small. Try the free version and compare.

I always thought that SketchBook Pro  was a little overpriced for what it was – considering cheaper products like Manga Studio 5, which is still only $30 from Amazon (full version, no upgrade, no subscription). But it’s also unfair to compare both these apps with one another as they target different audiences.

$60 for Sketchbook Pro was always a bit much if you’re an occasional user, or if you only need the software for a single project. But with the new licensing scheme there really is no excuse not to try SketchBook Pro 7 – for a single project or a whole year.

 

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I’m just saying… would it kill them to give Sketchbook Pro 6 owners 50% off an annual subscription to Sketchbook Pro 7?

 

Careful with that Perpetual License

You’d think previous owners of Sketchbook Pro 6 should get an incentive to upgrade by paying less. But that’s not what Autodesk think! Starting February 2015 all “upgrade pricing” will be abolished in favour of subscriptions.

If you decide to save a buck and purchase the perpetual upgrade license as they call it, you’re in for a surprise: this is a special version of Sketchbook Pro 7 which includes all Desktop Pro features and does not check your Sketchbook account for a membership. This special version has a field to enter a serial number instead of your account details.

This is of course not important if you’re going to use the desktop version exclusively. Be aware however that a subscription brings other perks, such as cloud storage and – more importantly – unlock features in the upcoming mobile versions of Sketchbook for Android and iOS. The perpetual license will likely NOT UNLOCK those features, and it is unclear right now how Autodesk is going to charge for those. It is likely however that said mobile pro features are directly tied to a Sketchbook subscription.

 

Careful where you buy that Subscription

Eager readers will have noticed that you can buy a subscription in two places:

  • directly from sketchbook.com
  • from the Mac App Store as an In-App Purchase

Since the pricing is the same, what’s the difference? Well as in previous versions, the Mac App Store version is another special version of Sketchbook Pro 7. You are charged via the Mac App Store, and your license will likely not work on a Windows machine.

In theory such a subscription should register on your Sketchbook account, but early user reviews on the App Store indicate that this is not the case. Just a word of caution here: if you would like to use Sketchbook Pro 7 on both Mac and Windows DO NOT BUY THE MAC APP STORE VERSION.

Let’s remember that owners of Sketchbook Pro 5 and 6 were bitten by the fact that upgrading to a new major release is impossible with the Mac App Store version as Apple don’t have a mechanism for that. Users who had bought the app from Amazon or Autodesk were eligible for upgrades, but Mac App Store users were not.

See, it’s really not about the users here – it’s only about Autodesk and how best to extract money from us. I’d like to see at least a discount code for previous owners of Sketchbook Pro 6: give us 6 months free access, or give os 50% off an annual subscription for the first year. Anything to make us happy.

But alas: Autodesk doesn’t really need happy customers as much as  they need happy bank managers and shareholders. Enough said.

 

SketchBook Pro 2015 vs SketchBook Pro 7

You may have heard of SketchBook 2015 which was released a fees weeks ahead of 7. It was the same deal with SketchBook Pro 2011 vs 6. From what I understand they’re essentially the same product with the same features, the only difference is the licensing part.

For Pro 2015 you don’t need individual accounts for every user. Instead an admin can “unlock” the software on 10 workstations for his employees. Pro 7 requires individual accounts for every user. Pro 2015 isn’t for the likes of you and me, and if you’re buying in excess of 10 licenses you’re probably better off taking to your Autodesk Account Manager.

Computers coming full circle

Sony-acquires-cloud-gaming-platform-Gaikai-1087715

I was interested to hear about Sony’s plans for the future of gaming:

Turns out that they’ve bought Gaikai, a company specialising in rendering games in a data centre, streaming the results back to you. All we do is to transmit your gamepad’s directions.

Therefore there’s nothing to install locally, no updates or disks to deal with – and more importantly we don’t need super high-tech hardware at home that needs to be upgraded every 3-5 years. Technology upgrades happen in the data centre, and all we pay for is access to the game itself.

Sony say that they want to bring this service to the Playstation 4 (it’s currently in beta), Playstation 3 as well as Bravia TV sets. This could mean a massive back catalogue of 10 year old games from the PSOne and PS2 era, as well as top titles from PSP, PS Vita, PS3 and PS4.

It’s right up there with “cloud based office” solutions like Office 365 and the iWork suite – not to mention Dropbox, Flickr, Vimeo and whatever else we use as an external hard disk replacement.

Looking back over the beginnings of computers in the sixties and early seventies, we’re now experiencing exactly what had been commonplace back then: computer time sharing.

 

The Sixties

Back in the days, computers were to large and expensive that there was no way the likes of you and I could have one at home. But universities and companies had them in something like a control room, with terminals from various other rooms to access the computer. That’s why Linux is such a capable multi user environment: one machine, lots of users logging in submitting jobs to The Machine.

At first those terminals were local and connected via a thick heavy cable to The Machine in the same building. Later you could have a terminal at home and dial in via a local (free) phone call and use the computer. Terminals were small keyboard type things with a monitor and literally no computing power.

DEC_VT100_terminal

Then in the mid to late seventies the MOS 6502 processor came out and started the home computer revolution. Over the next few decades the likes of you and I bought computers and ran them at home, and it didn’t take long for technology to become so cheap and ubiquitous that our machines at home (and in our pockets) were better than what was sitting in those custom data centres. Those were the nineties and naughties.

 

Virtual Machines

Remote computers are great for “always on” services such as websites and emails – so you can rent a full computer in a data centre and manage it yourself if you like. Over the last decade or so it became more economical to maximise hardware capacity by creating virtual instances.

Those are “units” that emulate a full machine and react just the same, but in reality they’re just containers running on larger clusters of hardware. Rather than a CPU sitting idle 99% of the time, my own idle time could be put to good use elsewhere and “pretend” to be someone else’s fully fledged machine. The added benefit is that if one physical machine in the cluster crashes, the others can buffer the mistake until it’s fixed (much like a hard disk stripe).

 

Meanwhile, on your desktop

We’ve reached the point in the home computer revolution where a faster processor, a shinier display with more colour depth or more RAM aren’t going to make a difference anymore. Neither do faster data lines to the outside world. We have all that and more.

We’re at the end of what the MOS 6502 started in the seventies. Your desktop can no longer be made any better than it already is. It’s an interesting thought to recognise this.

Which leaves the question: what’s going to happen next?

Sure, we can shift everything into The Cloud (THE shittest description for this phenomenon bar none) and access the same services we already have with slower machines and inferior hardware. Those could be good at other things: they can be small and battery powered or cheaper, like our smart phones and tablets – yet they would appear as powerful as a fully fledged laptop, because computing is done in The Cloud. Amazon’s Silk web browser in the Kindle Fire is a good example: with relatively slow hardware, it pre-renders web pages in their data centre and is supposed to deliver a better user experience.

 

So what’s next?

Just like back in the early eighties when ordinary humans laid their hands on the first home computers – all we can think of doing with “The Cloud” is to replicate what we can already do – without The Cloud. That’s not innovation though is it?

That’s why I think of Playstation Now as such a cool idea: have real time graphics render off site and see the results – we’ve not seen this before.

I remember when the iPad first came out, and we all thought “this is great for emails and web browsing”, but we could do that already on laptops. Shortly after it became a revolution, all these innovative apps started coming out which turned the iPad into something else, changing our lives. Ray was saying back then, “Currently the iPad is a placeholder” – meaning society hasn’t decided where this is going just yet.

Perhaps it’s the same with The Cloud. It takes another decade to really appreciate where this is going, what the next real innovation is (it’s not 3D or 4k TV by the way).

Personally I’d like to see a “less is more” approach. What’s happening online is quickly becoming more important to society than what’s actually around us. We need to get out more and care less about who’s writing what on The Internet, regardless if it’s some website or some social network. We have other senses that need to be fed too.

I hope both current and future generations (me included) will be able to remember that there are things other than The Cloud, and there are other places in our world than Online.

Machine Language, Assembly and Assembler, Interpreters and Compilers

I finally found out what the difference is between Machine Language, Assembly and Assembler – and how it fits in with Interpreters and Compilers. For those of you game enough, let me explain what these cryptic terms mean – and how they span computers from the early C64 to today’s high-end laptops.

Interpreters

Something that has plagued the early computers was their speed of how they executed things in BASIC – or rather the lack thereof. As nice as BASIC is, sifting through an array of variables can compare them with a known value does take some time.

That’s not BASIC’s fault though – it’s rather the way it is executed. You see, BASIC (on the C64 and his comrades) is an interpreted language. This means that while the computer is working, it’s translating the BASIC statements into something it can actually understand – which is of course not BASIC. All a computer really knows is if something’s ON or OFF. Computers are truly binary machines – no matter how old or how new they are. So if you tell them to PRINT “HELLO” then some translation work needs to happen for HELLO to appear on the screen – and that takes time.

That’s what an interpreter does: translate one language into another on the fly – much like people can listen in Spanish, and speak the same thing in English, for the benefit of an audience (usually not for their own pleasure).

The great thing about interpreted languages is that the source code always remains readable. As you can imagine, ultimately the interpreter will throw some ones and zeros at the computer. There’s no way you could make a change to that as it bears no resemblance to your source code.

One alternative to speeding up the programme in question would be to have the something like the interpreter to go to work BEFORE the programme is executed. Ahead of time, and in its own time. Then we could present the translated result to the computer right away, taking away the “on-the-fly” translation and saving some CPU power. I guess it won’t come as a big surprise that this is done frequently too: it’s called compiling, and a Compiler does such a job.

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Microsoft Small Basic

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Back in the eighties, BASIC ruled the home computer world. Most machines came with some BASIC flavour in ROM, ready for you to issue commands to that mysterious machine.

Most BASIC dialects could be traced back to Bill Gates’ very own Microsoft BASIC which he hand-coded together with Paul Allen and Monte Davidoff for the Altair. Subsequently they licensed BASIC to many manufacturers, including Commodore in the mid to late seventies.

Back in those days, home computer owners – the likes of you and I – were equally a “user” of pre-written software, as well as “programmer” to a varying degree. If you as much as wanted to see what was on a floppy disk, you had to know a couple of commands to make it happen. From there it was but a small step to creating short programmes – even insignificant ones that would perhaps repeatedly write the word HELLO on your screen.

It was fun, and something I’ve always enjoyed about BASIC.

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As computers grew more advanced, this simple pleasure has been taken out of the equation: by the nineties we’ve all been turned into “software users”, and only extremely intelligent humans would continue to produce software which could be run on our new machines.

The day of the “casual garage coder” was effectively over.

The knowledge one needed to possess, together with the software and hardware tools, was not intended for the faint-hearted BASIC user, nor were they easy to come by. BASIC was out, and the new kids on the block were compiled languages which offered a lot more than a 40 column text screen – and they ran a lot faster on the new hardware.

So BASIC, and the Hobby Hacker along with it, is a thing of the past… or is it?

It’s sad to think that something got perhaps lost with faster and better machines, snazzier software and slicker UI’s where everything is – ultimately – about “how much money can we make out of that?”. It’s like saying “I’m only learning how to speak if you show me some cash”.

Knowing how computers work goes a long way to getting pleasure out of using them. Have you noticed that people who don’t care about such things have a really hard time making computers work for them? They can be your friends you know, they weren’t made to be our enemies.

There’s a garage coder in many of us – perhaps not in every one of us. But if you still like the idea of “casual programming”, but…

  • you don’t want to run an old computer as an emulator
  • or even buy an old computer and speak to him in BASIC (like I do)
  • and if you’re simply missing the pleasures of simple coding

you’ll be as delighted as I was when I found Microsoft Small Basic.

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Fixing up a Commodore Plus/4

Recently I bid on a very good looking Commodore Plus/4 on eBay. I’ve never had one and have only heard the stories about this little guy: mismanaged marketing, the failed successor of the C64, the computer nobody wanted. A sad story – especially considering that it’s a really good machine that paved the way for the C128.

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With almost the same powerful BASIC commands as its successor, the Plus/4 is much smaller than the C128, a little over half its size I’d say. It takes up much less desk space and can use the 1541 floppy drive. Other peripherals were not compatible (joysticks, datasette drive, etc), neither was existing C64 software – which was widespread and popular at the time. The Plus/4 did have more colours but no sprites (which made computer games amazing in those days), and its sound qualities were less sophisticated than those of its predecessor.

The major downfall of the Plus/4 was undoubtedly its marketing and strategic decisions within Commodore: Jack Tramiel wanted a $99 machine that would sell alongside the expensive $500 C64 in 1984/85 and wipe out the fragmented home computer competition. Design of the 264 family began thanks to him – this included the C16/C116 and Plus/4 – even a 364 with speech module (only legends know about, like the CBM Museum).

Before the launch of the new machine however Tramiel left the company in 1984 – and with Commodore’s visionary gone, the rest of the clueless board of directors turned the Plus/4 family into a C64 replacement. Well, it flopped. Badly.

Since it was never meant to be what it became, and because it wasn’t compatible with existing popular software, less than 1 million units were produced worldwide and the Plus/4 was discontinued within a year of its launch.

Nevertheless, learning from their galactic mistakes, Commodore quickly developed the C128 and added everything to it that was missing on the Plus/4.

 

My Plus/4 Story

I bought mine for $49 including shipping from California, boxed with both manuals and dedicated 1531 Datasette. A complete bargain! Other than being a bit dusty, it was in great condition – some minor ageing issues aside.

One of the tragic things about shipping 30yr old computers several thousand miles, even with the best packaging, is that components can break, old solder joints can snap, and things may not survive the journey. It’s the nature of shipping retrotech.

Then there are those abysmal power supplies Commodore built back in the day: they’re usually potted and can’t be opened and are no repairable. Voltages over time may increase which leads to the death of many a chip in the best working machines. Another tragic story.

I was delighted to see that my new Plus/4 WORKED out of the box! The power supply measured the correct voltages, cursor blinks with a glint in his eye. The packaging was not only adequate, it was fantastic! I was really lucky with this purchase:

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The only thing I noticed was that several of the keys did not respond well unless I hammered them or pressed them repeatedly. Time for a thorough examination and a quick fix!

Join me if you will on a journey under the hood of the Commodore Plus/4.

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