Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Super Doriath - Cancelled. Why?

It's been a while I did not post. What is happening? There has been no activity since several months!

 Well, that's usually not a good sign...

Last year, on December 31, I was talking with one of my friend about this project. He was enthusiast and supportive but concerns about the legal aspect. After all, I did not succeed to get in touch with the authors of the original game! The few emails I sent to websites related to that game remains unanswered after nearly a year.

He suggests… Instead of working on porting a game, I should do my own game.

It is one possible solution... but doing a port or a sequel of an existing game should help to boost the popularity and have more people to enjoy/talk about it.

But, my friend told me (again) his bad experience in the past regarding copyright. That without a written agreement I could put myself at risk to get a legal letter at any time. So, after we discuss this topic, I decided... yes, I should do my own adventure game from scratch.

And then, I was busy on other stuff…
But that delay gives me time to think about it...
  • What should I do? 
  • What I really want to do?

I got some ideas (10) over the years, some which I prefer over others, but not a definitive decision yet.

"Something" Thinking...
Artificial Intelligence

I can write software about anything... or could I? When I think about something challenging, making a software that replicate the human brain even partially, it`s far from being trivial! 

But it is probably the most interesting topic in Computer Science. Not because of the cool gadgets that could become a reality but for what we could learn.

However, important discoveries in that field of science will lead to various applications. Among them, some will bring a significant negative impacts/dangers in our life. This will also bring new opportunities, but would the overall change will be positive? I doubt.

This idea will be research-oriented and not application-oriented. What would I learn? What would be my discoveries?

So far, from my experience in writing smart-application (flexible and adaptive, but not auto-learning & creative). I was dividing problems into few parts and give each one their own goal to achieve. 

For example, in a calibration software I wrote, the input data was creating a certain shape in 2D. Within that shape, 8 key points should be used by the firmware, which was his calibration values. 

I wanted to have a flexible software which will find the key points as soon as they get draw on screen, just like we (human) could do it.

To achieve this I divided the task into 4 steps: 

  • draw the input data on screen, 
  • find geometrical features that could potentially be a key point, 
  • evaluate key points and output possible solutions using 8 among them,
  • strict validation of the final result.

The last step was the only part of the software which was strictly program. This step was equivalent as a human inspector verifying the solution. 

Part #2 and #3 consisted of 'for-loops' not limited by the number of elements but they were limited by time! I wanted the system to take advantage of the time. As the time pass, the input data being draw on screen reveal more and more data. The user who draw something on screen can complete the input shape needed, but the system could start analyzing and finding key points even if the drawing is incomplete. 

This software end up to be robust and reliable. As long as the basic feature of the shape remains the same, the system can find the solution even if the drawing shape is distorted.

Although this system is not learning anything by himself. It is a good example of an adaptive system build from scratch using intuition. Also, it prove that limiting computation in quantum using time limit could increase the performance. 

In my application, random points on the drawing surface were selected with also a random size for the region to be evaluated. The key feature was ending edges, but the size of the region of interest would also determine what size that ending edge could be. Allowing to analyze various size of a same feature.

Back to the research I am interested to do. I have identified few aspects that would be part of an Artificial Intelligence System. They are: input & output, memory, mind, emotion and functions. Where functions are some basic functions that should allows the main structure to work. In order words, they are the foundation of the operation executed on information by the system. 

When I think about something, the part which is composing ideas and though will be the mind. Of course each component will interact with all others. And I think that's the tricky thing, as usually when you write a software, one function call others but rarely call back the caller. 

My hopes are modest as I know I may end up with more questions than answers.

But, I think that spending a considerable amount of time will result to at least more knowledge, and perhaps I will exchange with other people interested or who work in that field of research.

Quest for Tires (Coleco Vision)'s Theme
Video Game Clock
Video Game Clock - NextGen!

One short project I did in the past was a self-bootable clock on 386+, using graphics of "Quest for Tires" on Coleco Vision. Sources and binary can be found here:

I could decide to work on a newest version which will add power management (as the current version use 100% of the CPU), hard drive installation and boot-up via other media than CD-ROM. 
Also, I could add contents based on the date and time!

There are many themes that can be added. It could be like a Calendar, where you have some special stuff based on the holiday: New Year, Anniversary of first human in space (Yuri Gagarin)! 

Another idea, it could display fake news & events but based on news of the past up to today and try to predict what will happen in the future. Making the daily experience of looking & reading of such a display being like having a window through a parallel Universe! Over the years the content would become more and more distant to the reality, but will share some common stories (those from the past) with our world.

I think this idea has some commercial potential. It could be on “kickstarter”! I would like to know (you, readers)... what type of contents you would feel more enthusiast about?

Perhaps an editor for creating contents could also be developed.

A first version for smart phones and tablets might be the best to do before building a dedicated hardware clock! And maybe old tablets could be converted to a wall clock, which will reduce the e-trash and giving them a second life!

nanoKONTROL 2 - Korg
Music Synthesizer

I play piano. Well, I never took piano lesson and all I learned is by myself since the age of 4. At the beginning, I discover a few tricks in music which helped me to improve my skills. 

One of them was creating & repeating patterns. Another was to select fewer notes to play. After few days or weeks with my first piano, I discovered that playing with the black notes only could easily be melodious, but will make it sound like Chinese music! 

But, what I was most amaze about music is how it can trigger emotions? Why I could play notes and feel so depress? Strangely, I liked it. A tool to control my emotion! Strange, it's nothing we see, it's no words... But it does carry a meaning! 

As a kid, I though that it might depends of people or culture. Surprisingly, it is mostly universal, and even across species! There are preferences and variants, but the basic parameters (fast vs slow tempo = stressful vs calm) trigger in general the same change of emotions. Our preferences seem more related with other factors in our environment combine with when we hear certain type of songs. I might over simplify here, but you got the main idea.

Over the year, I wrote a few simple synthesizer and also few tools to generate samples. These were primitive but interesting enough. In early 2000, I re-create a sound sample of a guitar using an analysis of it's frequency. My idea was to create a sum of 'sum of sine' waves at different period scales. For each period scale, the amplitude get lower by a big factor, so after the 3rd or 4th period scale, it become negligible. The first order only produced a sound which sounded like a FM Synth. By adding the all the order of scales, the sound become more rich. Up to a point where it become hard to distinguish between the original sample and the one generated from the equation.

I though to first do a study with samples at different pitch and try to deduce a more generic equation. However, looking to the number of parameters involved and knowing that for each, I would get a complex equation, I knew this system could not run real-time on a Pentium III, 733 Mhz.

Then, later on I took a look on different articles about synthesizer published by Sound on Sound (Synth Secrets). I print out all the articles and wrote resume about them. The first few articles give details about the implementation, however it become less technical and more practical at the end.

The last things I did related with sounds was to develop on paper a new algorithm which could produce a wider variety of sounds. My hope was that this model I wrote could lead to a wider variety of sounds with only few input parameters. Considering the number of people who worked on that topic and the result which has been achieved, there is not too much chance I will get a breakthrough discovery. 

The mathematical structure of the equation I wrote down looked promising. Usually when there are symmetry and simplification that show up, it's a good sign. I was aiming to develop it to be an audio system part of the GP2X library I was working on. When I stopped to make demos for GP2X, this project become cancelled.

For my reference, there are 2 small executable which feature amazing sounds:

CandyTron (fr-030) by Farbrausch


Adding voice in a song in 2003! It may be hard to understand, but a full lyric is there and with more than one type of voice.

Uncovering Static by Fairlight & Alcatraz


I found that the sound quality feature one of the most amazing I hear within a 64kb intro.

There is a kind of beauty knowing that emotions can be trigger from small mathematics models. It also required a good amount of work to compose and develop it. 

I think, like arts, you can appreciate it even more when you are familiar with the work behind it.

1-Bit Processing Unit

When reading the specification for the chips used in the Coleco Vision, I though perhaps I can design my own microprocessor!

When I was student in the 1990, I took few courses to design electronic components. Because I was use to program on 6502 and 80386, assembling logic gates to perform operations was easy and fun. 

Even after years not doing anything in electronic, it does not take long to understand: bloc diagrams, timing charts or reading specifications. I get a clear idea of how, what and why it's like that. On Coleco, in a day, I could write down what possible tricks could be explore regarding the CPU-VPU (VPU: Video Processor Unit) communication to enable newest video mode & colors.

What if I would be making my own CPU? Since the beginning of the commercial CPU, we saw the number of bits increasing (8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, ...) which end up offering a wider range of instructions and better performance. However, you don't always need 32 or 64-bit word to compute your data. As an optimization, sometime I pack multiple data into a 32-bit word and unpack it after the operation. Sometime it's the opposite...you would need more bits to keep the precision, even when using floating-points!

I think there might be a better approach to achieve greater performance. What if we will design the most tiny unit we could: a 1-bit processing (BitPU) unit linked to a tiny memory and interconnected to other BitPUs. Considering the number of transistors we can put on a die today, we will end up with thousands of BitPUs across the die. The performance for one single instruction would be slower, but the number of processing unit might be around 75,000 per die!

A software is not slow because the processor is slow to execute 1 instruction. But it's slow because of the number of instructions to perform. It's the loops size which are responsible for sky-rocketing the number of instructions to perform.

What happen today on a Quad-Core processor when you write a software (single-thread) to compute a blur filter on an image? For each output pixel of the image of size (W * H), N * N pixels will be read and each input pixel will be multiplied with a specific weight. The number of data to read, multiplication and addition will be equal to: W * H * N^2. On the die of the processor, a small portion of the die will be used. Leaving a big portion of the die unused! With an architecture of BitPUs, the compiler will be design to take advantage of the number of processors.


Let's suppose we want to blur a HD (1080p) image with a gauss filter of 5x5 pixels (W = 1920, H = 1080, N = 5).

The number of input pixels read and computed sequentially will be equal to:
W * H * N^2 = 1920 * 1080 * 5^2 = 51,840,000.

Let's assume we have 48,000 BitPUs per core and we have a quad-core. The total of BitPUs available will be: 192,000 BitPUs Then, the number of instruction executed sequentially by the population of BitPUs will be equal to 51,840,000 / 192,000 = 270!

Each BitPUs will have enough logic to allows arithmetic & logical operations, including branches.

However, this architecture is so radically different than the classic one and many possible issues need to be analyze: heat, memory transfer, complex operations (including floating points). The BitPUs is based on 8-bit processor which was fairly limited to what they could perform in hardware.

I think I should write a white paper about it - I never wrote a white paper before. In order to write a white paper, I would need to study it more and study similar articles. Regarding the development & marketing of this product, this would required a fairly amount of resources in money, labor, contacts...

With the amount of details I give here, it might be a smart and successful idea. But, at this stage it's only an idea, not yet proven and where the research and development required investment. If this idea turn out to be better than today's architecture, I do believe one day someone will think and give a try anyway. If someone read it and decide to use it and end up making money, good for him and good for everyone (to have access to a better architecture)!

Development tools
for Coleco Vision

While working on "Super Doriath", I was thinking if I would have more time I wish to create and use my own editor, compiler and emulator (all-in-one). 

Today's PC are quite powerful, enough to handle text editing while checking the syntax and modifying the binary output. In one word, no need to wait for compiling. One good example is the website: ShaderToy.

If I would write my own text editor & compiler, I might also be interested to get the emulator combined... this to see exactly what is happening. Imagine that you are about to write a piece of code which is fairly complex. You could decide to stop the running code at the beginning of the function you are about to write. Then let's say inside that function you have 3 blocks of code to write... 1st to pre-compute some stuff, 2nd to generate intermediate data and 3rd to draw something on screen. You could write the code for each part and verify that it working as expected by moving the pause position.

With the traditional tools, to get this thing, you will need to do this: to compile... start the emulator, put a break-point, start the code, wait until it reach the break-point then open the proper view to check the data. Repeat again and again at each time you do a change.

Another key feature I would like to have is to be able to store and reuse code. When using software, we end up producing some files or data. Over the years, I lose track of some code I wrote. What I do when I want to re-use a code, I will copy the latest version of a function without knowing how many copy of that functions I have copied in the past. 

I would like to be able to store a function in a gadget which will help me to re-use it. This gadget would manage variants of the same code and the editor should find the similar piece of code based on what I write. So, if I am writing for the n-time part of a code to open a binary file or to draw something on screen, I would like to have the code available and modified with the variable names I started to write.

Regarding the text editor, one feature I found very useful is to be able to have multiple carets (text cursors) which can write or delete text at different place simultaneously! It's available in notepad++ by using the mouse and ALT key. You can then select columns of text and add or remove stuff, without having to edit line by line! I wonder if that feature could be extended to be even more versatile? Sometime, there are multiple place in code that you need to add an instruction... like protecting a variable with a mutex.

By designing my own development tool, this could lead to many add-on! If a tool like that could turn out to be use by others, it may turn out that I would be working on that tool only while other will be developing their games, demos or utilities.

Macintosh Computer - System Disk (OS)
Operating System

After writing many stuff which could be part of core of an operating system, I think I could write my own operating system on a specific hardware. 

When the Amiga company hired Carl Sassenrath to write their operating system, they told him you can write any type of operating system. He decided to write a multi-tasking operating system! If you asked me what kind of operating system I would like to write... I would choose to go with a single tasking but with support of multi-task! Also, it will be more oriented for developers than users, but will be relatively simple.

GP2X is dead and most people are using cellphone and tablets... These devices are heavy dependent of networking services in order to work. I think the PC market will shrink over the years. People get more and more dependent of their computer as they could carry it with them. Once you can do everything on your portable device, why having a big box at home? I am also considering to have only laptops in the future.

So, on which platform I could write an OS? I think maybe Rasberry PI could be an interesting platform. But I have no idea how long the current hardware will last? Would it be replace by newly chips within the next 5 years? Would current users will also be upgrading to the newly hardware right away?

If I would wrote an operating system, it should be for a dedicated hardware. After all, there won't be a list of drivers to load. Ideally, only one type of hardware will be supported. The device will instantly boot. You turn ON the power switch, it's READY! Yup, just like the C64.

This limit the system to what it can perform on boot-up. But having the display, sound, input and storage device ready is what it need. Network could arrive a bit later, but considering it's usage today, network should be ready as soon as possible!

Also, one key feature could be to have a reset button that keep the memory intact! The Operating System could use the existing data to recover, if possible.

Commodore 128 - Programmer's Reference Guide
New Basic for C64/C128

Another idea, is to create a new basic for Commodore 64/128. My first computer was a Commodore 128 which was using Basic version 7.0. While on C64 you would need to use unfriendly peeks and pokes to memory, on C128 you could call graphics & sounds functions!

However, there is one aspect which was problematic, basic is super slow compare to assembly language. I don't blame the author of the Basic... which at that time could include Bill Gates. There are rumors that he did write some parts of the assembly language used to be shipped to Commodore. Maybe for the Commodore PET?

Writing code from scratch for a new version of ROM for those machine C64, C128... what benefit could we add? Assuming that backward compatibility could be put into a separate code available by toggling a switch or by pressing a key while turning the device on. Maybe this backward compatibility could be turned ON automatically when loading a file (having some bits on diskettes or tapes reserved to tell which ROM to use).

Commodore 64 remains a popular computer today. Well... relative to other obsolete computers! But, as far as I know... no one has ever try to write a new ROM for those machine? While on Commodore Amiga, different ROM version were produced. I did not check the technical details, but maybe Cartridge is more suitable than replacing the ROM?

Paint Shop Pro (v7.0)
Paint Software

The most popular paint software on PC is PhotoShop. There is a freeware which is similar: Gimp. Me, I am still using Jasc Paint Shop Pro v7 (PSP), released in 2000! Maybe I should try the Corel version X6, but I like the one I am use to.

I am not an artist but I use it to draw or to edit something from time to time. I also wrote some software to do some graphic stuff.

In the past, I wrote an editor for drawing vector shapes over a video footage (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4POrYrKo0M). If I would write my own paint program, I will treat pictures and video as the same entity. Also, I will allow vectors and bitmap to coexist (this is already the case with PSP).

In my opinion, this idea should start with something small and be combines with another project which will benefit of its development.

As it's been a while I did not try newest version of graphic software, I should look and see what they have change. But, last that I tried, video, bitmap and vector graphics was still handle in at least three different software.

Simulation in Blender 3D - gregdesign.ch
Intro 64Kb based on physics

In the past, I did a few demos on GP2X (a portable entertainment player), our group: Québarium. I remember how long it took to do our first one. We were often talking about making something, I was showing them some parts, but never felt we were ready to release something soon. It took a fast demo compo (a crappy production, in my opinion), followed by few good comments to jump in for more!

Our last release "Chalcogens" was our first cooperation with 2 other demo groups: DESiRE and TRSI. During those years, I was the team leader, coder and main graphician 
(I don’t think I deserve the title of graphic artist) for Québarium. We produced 6 demos (which is 2 times more what I did in the early 1990)! Our last release was pretty hard for me as I got sick (food poisoning) and after a week being back to normal… I comeback one night with a flooding in my condo. At least, the flooding did not started in my unit.

In this adventure, I pushed myself and others to get the release on the deadline despite all these bad luck! I still think it was the right decision, as otherwise it would have moves the release date to more than 6 months! I have to mention that we started the project 2 months before the deadline. So, by adding 6 months, we will be on break for a long time and we will be tempted to add and change more and more things.

When I think about making a new demo, I think about 2 options… a PC intro or a text mode demo for TMDC. For a text mode demo, I have no specific idea but it will probably be more for fun & experimenting rather than to compete for a first place.

For a PC intro (probably 64kb), my idea is about building 3D models with cube (like lego) and playing with physic.

There are so many amazing 4 and 64 kb intros on PC that I won’t even try to compete against them. But implementing a physic simulator can be quite fun (although a bit frustrating when things goes wrong). The equations to compute physic are fairly simple, the hard part is to manage collisions of several objects. Imagine, you can compute the position of every objects up to when a collision happen. Then, the speed vector will change based on the state of objects involved in the collision. That change of movement could end up with more and more collisions, making the system to slow down exponentially. There are many tricks to help making a physic system run in real-time. But those tricks cost more development time.

Ideally, the animation should be funny and make the audience laugh! For me when you can get the crowd react, that’s our biggest reward! Even if sometime we look at each other and wonder… why they are laughing now?

Here is our fast demo produce in 8 hours (the theme was: potato).
Our best moment, when someone shout at the end... making us feel that, the audience did like it and would have to get more! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBWktlUN9ms

Coleco Vision screen
Video Game (Coleco Vision)

I could also just continue on making a video game on Coleco Vision? Within the same genre (adventure game/maze) or not of Doriath.

When I first started on converting Doriath from C64 to Coleco Vision... it was to answer one simple question: Could this game have been made in 32 Kb ROM and 1 Kb RAM? I was interested by the challenge to reduce the data size.

As I was working on it, it become an ambitious project which I was trying to squeeze more and more content into 32 Kb. This was fun but it could turn out to be a very long process where every single detail could become a quest of optimization!

Before releasing demos for Québarium, we were thinking & trying to create games for iPod touch/iPhone/iPad and Xbox360. One of the neat thing I put in place was a way to get a list of game ideas among our group. It was a simple document shared among us where a game idea should be summarize in one or two sentences only. The text was written in order to make the game appealing and was similar to description you could find back to game boxes. Then, a note from 1 to 10 was given by each member of the group.

I was also looking to speed up the development process of making a game (from the idea, to the prototype to the actual game). The first step was to maintain a list of ideas. Then I though, someone in the team will pick one idea among the list, sketch some details (his vision) and will then act like the team leader/producer for that game. The type of game I was envision would be similar to what was made on Coleco Vision or Atari 2600. It has to be simple but fun. The focus being to be quick to produce. How quick? I though, for our group of 3 people, the whole process should take a week-end! Less than 20 hours (4 hours on Friday, 8 hours for Saturday and Sunday)! It could be faster than that, but I was aiming for a receipt where we can easily create any kind of game (with the limitation of the system/tool) within that time frame.

The logic of the game will be limited, and the number of level will be from 3 to 10. The tool would have been custom and all sorts of limitation will be present to reduce the number of choices. The ROM of the game would be a custom binary format which could be added to an engine compiled for a given platform, reducing the amount of work needed to port the game. Once your game work and compile for one hardware, it will do the same for another hardware. Differences like input controls would have been integrated in the software emulator, not in the game.

My goal was: if we can build a game the quality of the early '80s in 2 days, we could more likely end-up with a couple of productions which will have it's own signature. Our time will be spend more on trying & learning marketing strategies in order to be successful to get revenue.

In term of games, I did a remake of Clu Clu Land on C64 using a game editor "Game Construction Kit" in the 80's. And Othello (for 2 players) on a TI-81 calculator in the early 90's. In 2008-2009, I wrote a couple of game prototype for Xbox 360 using 3D graphics enter manually in the text editor.

I still have a Coleco Vision which I borrow from a friend and a SD cartridge for it. I feel that I should do at least one game on this hardware! Maybe aiming for a smaller idea?

In Conclusion,

I am not sure after which project I will like to work on but I hope to spend again few hours per week on some personal projects. Why? Well, doing something by yourself where the objectives are from yourself is good for the self-esteem.

Like anything in life, it's a question of balance. Also, it's better to have short term objective. But, there are some type of projects which required more time than other. In my list, all of them take a fair amount of time. None of them can be done in one week-end, they are some which might be made in few months, other might take several years (considering my free time for hobbies).

I excluded here other area of activities which are not related with computer science...

I welcome you to write down your comments...

and as always, thanks for reading!