2023: A Year of Accidental Business and Loss

Published: Sun 31 December 2023
By polpo

In misc.

PicoGUS 2.0

2023 was a really strange year for me. The PicoGUS project (a card that lets you emulate various retro sound cards for DOS systems) took off and I accidentally started a business around it. I also lost my mother, the fallout of which consumed a great deal of time and took a mental toll. Between all of that and my day job, I was pretty well consumed.

Getting PicoGUS "good enough"

In last year's end-of-year blog, things like ISA DMA weren't working great yet and I only had some untested code that might fix the issue. Fortunately once I got back in the saddle after the end of year holidays, I made pretty great progress. Streaming audio via DMA is a trick that many games use for sound effects on the Gravis Ultrasound, and fortunately I was able to figure out how to make it work well enough to get the world's most well known DOS game to work on PicoGUS: Doom. I made a video highlighting that plus a couple other features: swapping firmware in DOS and MPU-401 MIDI mode.

Pretty quickly on the heels of that, I fixed a bunch of bugs and in February I introduced two new sound card emulations: Tandy 3-voice and Creative Music System/Game Blaster.

I was feeling pretty great about PicoGUS at this point! Interest was picking up and quite a few people were making their own boards from the open source design files. I also got my first contribution by pull request to the repo.

Everything stops

Then, in March, I spent some time away from home to help out family for what I thought would be a short time. Late in 2022, my brother-in-law had passed away unexpectedly and I helped out dealing with his estate. Once that was dealt with, that time away was extended as I stayed with my elderly parents to help out around their house. One day in April, my mother had to be taken to the hospital and unfortunately she never made it home. She passed away in early May. On top of that, my father started treatment for cancer only a week afterwards. My brothers and I spent a lot of time just being there together so we could deal with the grief and also helping my dad out with day-to-day things as he dealt with his treatment. Fortunately he's doing really well these days, all things considered.

During this time, I missed being home and having the time to be with my wife and kids and to tinker at my workbench to get my mind off of the "real world." But, I'm glad I was able to take the time to help out my mom and dad. I'm also glad my day job allowed for me to work remotely for extended periods of time while I was away.

Slowly starting back up

I made my way home and started tinkering again, but also took turns with my brothers to travel periodically to help my dad out while he was undergoing treatments. Around this time the Hand386, a handheld retro 386-based computer, came out. I could use one to hack on PicoGUS while away from home! I got one and found out that dealing with a PicoGUS card hanging off of it was pretty awkward... so I got the somewhat crazy idea to shrink down PicoGUS so it could plug right into the side of the Hand386 and around July I had them made. Thus the PicoGUS Femto Edition was born:

Creating this version really took my PCB design skills to the next level. I integrated the DAC portion right onto the board instead of using the purple DAC module, and it was also my first experience having surface mount assembly of the PCB done at JLCPCB. I also made an adapter board so you could use the Femto Edition in a normal PC. Since the Femto board was so much smaller and used pretty small SMT parts, it was not DIY friendly, so I made a few extras to sell basically at cost to friends on Discord. This was technically in violation of my promise to myself to never get into selling boards and bring on everything that entails, but...

Vintage Computer Festival Midwest

My dad lives in St. Louis, and VCF Midwest is in the Chicago area. If I'm driving to St. Louis anyway from Colorado to be with my dad, why not drive a bit further on a weekend to make it to VCF Midwest? It's perhaps the biggest vintage computing event in North America and I've wanted to go for years. Despite never having been to one, I decided to get a table so I could show off PicoGUS and the other Pico-powered ISA cards like PicoMEM and PicoPOST. So with a table and room booked, I was ready to go. But then I got the idea to also make a few extra PicoGUS Femto Editions to sell at the show. One more step towards accidental business creation...

Me at VCF

VCF Midwest was a blast. I sold out of all of the Femto card kits pretty quickly and I saw so many cool things and met so many amazing people! My table was next to yyzkevin's, who made a Pico-based PCMCIA card and who I've talked with a lot on Discord. I also ran into Adrian Black who creates the Adrian's Digial Basement channel on YouTube (he took the above photo of me being perhaps a bit too excited at my table). He's a great guy – despite all kinds of people vying for his attention, he still took the time to walk around and take everything in, so he wandered by and I was able to give him the whole spiel about PicoGUS which he was pretty excited about. I had sold out of my Femto bundles by the time I talked to him, so when I got home after the show I built a regular PicoGUS board and sent it his way. Little did I know that he was going to make a video on his channel about the PicoGUS!

Fortunately, I had some advance warning by Adrian and by the time his video premiered, I was kind of prepared. I had set up a store on Tindie so people could add themselves to a waitlist to be notified if I made PicoGUS boards available for sale. Once the video went up on his channel, waitlist signups on Tindie took off like a rocket!

PicoGUS 2.0

One downside to the Femto boards and their adapters is that they need a lot of manual labor to assemble. The IDC connector that lets the Femto plug into the Hand386 or ISA adapter has to have its pins bent and soldered by hand, which takes a ton of time. After I got home from VCF Midwest, I started thinking – what if I made the next version of PicoGUS 99% assembled at JLCPCB? It seemed like there was a decent amount of demand (this was before Adrian's video) to sell a few here and there to recoup the money I've spent on PCBs so far... And so I started on PicoGUS 2.0:

PicoGUS 2.0

The goal of PicoGUS 2.0 is to be "mass produce-able" and add some extra features like a wavetable header with software volume control, and a USB-A port to allow USB joystick (and joystick-like devices) to be used. This allows fun stuff like playing old DOS driving games with an Xbox 360 driving wheel:

The final version wasn't even close to ready by the time Adrian's video came out, but two months later, I finally had a design I was confident in and had made what I thought was a risky amount of boards: 100. I updated and stocked my Tindie store listing aaaand... they sold out in two and a half hours! I was shocked. I had to make more. I thought to myself: this is a business, isn't it? My next batch I made twice as big, and that one sold out in about 12 hours, so I'm currently gearing up for yet another batch. I've had a ton of support from my family and everyone has pitched in to help test, assemble, and pack up boards to be sent. Fulfilling each batch has been a multi-day affair to get everything out.

What 2024 will bring

I'm still not done working on PicoGUS. There's always improvements to be made to make it more compatible, and I plan on broadening the types of joysticks it works with. Thanks to the work of yyzkevin, Sound Blaster emulation is close on the horizon, and wbc on Vogons has teased adding USB mouse support to it. I'll keep making and selling them as long as there's demand (which I expect will hit its limit sometime soon)!

I expect family stuff will probably still take a large part of my time. And my day job also takes up the bulk of my days! So it's not all fun and games...

What about other retro projects? I wanted to make a Pico-based SID replacement for the Commodore 64, but somebody beat me to it! The SIDKick Pico project is just that. I have some boards waiting for me to make in the new year... I'd love to hack on the firmware, and maybe port the cRSID library over to it. So when thinking of other platforms to tackle, the Sharp X68000 comes to mind as an area ripe for disruption. It seems like everything for that computer is overpriced and I'd love to do something about that. The Pico may or may not be capable of interfacing with its bus, but I'd like to find out. I just need to get my hands on one!

If you read all this, thanks, and see you on places like Mastodon (I'm @polpo@bitbang.social) or Discord (join us at Retro Pico Hardware). I also have a YouTube channel that I'm way behind on making videos for. Have a good 2024, everyone!