Old tech, new spec

Many makers who we speak to take pride in making something that will last long enough, and be of a high enough quality, that people will appreciate it far into the future. Martin Mander takes that idea one step further: he finds old technology that has been discarded and gives it a new lease of life.

He mostly uses the Raspberry Pi, with a smattering of micro:bit and Arduino, as and when the project calls for it. Most importantly, each new object is inspired in some way from the thing it’s made out of. We met Martin at Raspberry Fields to find out how he does what he does, and came away with some wisdom that all upcyclers could learn from…

I’m passionate about upcycling old technology with the Raspberry Pi. I’ve always been tinkering with old electronics but, before we discovered the Raspberry Pi, I used to do old tech conversions on old TVs, putting big flat panels in there, and chopping them down to make them a more sensible size.

The disadvantage of all of these pre-Pi projects was that you still needed a computer to hook them up to. So, you’d have it mounted on the wall, but you’d only be able to get it working if there was also a wire connecting it to a desktop computer, or a laptop, or something like that. When I published the build for one of my TV projects, one of the commenters on the website said, “Why don’t you put a Raspberry Pi in it? Then you can do the whole thing in one.“
I said whoa, I’d never heard of this, but I’ll give it a go. It’s been a marriage made in heaven since then, doing old tech conversions and using a Raspberry Pi.

PiVCR

My first Raspberry Pi project was the VCR, which has a Raspberry Pi 1. It’s got a USB hub in the front, a 14-inch HD panel in the rear, and it runs a distribution of Kodi, so it’s a media centre. It was my first Pi project, but it did take about nine months to complete, so it wasn’t the quickest of things. After that, I converted a Bang & Olufsen cassette player into an internet radio, which again was lots of fun, but took about six months. So, we moved on to smaller things.

The first thing that I’ve managed to do with the Raspberry Pi this year is this little game: the Rabbit Ears of Doom. You’ve got a Betamax remote control with a Raspberry Pi, you start on one side of the rabbit ears, and you’ve got to get it all the way round to the other side, and touch a metal contact to win the game. But while you’re doing that, you wear a pair of glasses that have various LCD shutters in them. As you try to move around the rabbit ears, your vision is being interrupted, one eye at a time, just to make it extra hard.

Apart from the Raspberry Pi and new accessories, all of it was free. All of it was given to us at the end of car boot sales by somebody who just didn’t want to take it home, given to us by relatives, or it was found and we bought it for about 50p… it shows just how accessible it can be to take old tech, stick a Pi in it, and create a really unique project.

Rabbit ears of doom

Why old tech?

One of the main things is that tech from the 1960s, 1970s, the 1980s, it’s all screwed together. It wasn’t clipped together, it wasn’t glued together, you don’t need to buy a set of tools off eBay to pry it open. You just need a screwdriver and you can take it apart. And that makes it really accessible, really fun, you can take it apart really easily.

Another reason is: old tech big, new tech small. To do something fancy with electronics back in the 1970s, you needed a massive amount of circuit boards and components. But nowadays, we only need a little bit. So, when you take an old piece of tech and you rip its guts out, all of a sudden you’ve got loads of space to put a speaker in, some lights, some motors. It really frees up what you can do inside the case of a classic bit of tech.

Time to make

I know a lot of people at work who say: “Oh yeah, I want to get a Raspberry Pi, but I just can’t decide what to do with it.” What we do is approach it from the other end. Go down the car boot sale, find something that we really like – Julian (Martin’s son), sitting there, usually does the negotiating so that we get the cute face discount, get a bit of money knocked off – £2 instead of £3, that sort of thing – but we start with the object. We find something that we really like, so radio, TV, cassette player, hair-dryer, whatever it might be.

Once we’ve got something, we think : “Okay, we’ve got this thing that we really like the look of, what should we make it do? Shall we make it light up, or make a noise, or run around the room screaming every time it detects motion in the front garden?” And that’s what decides the direction of the project. We’ve got this thing and we’re trying to work out how to do something with it. Once we’ve got that, we know what techniques to research, and maybe what accessories we need to get. So, we learn new techniques every time.

OldTechNewSpec

Bargains to be had

Car boot sales are absolutely the best place to find old tech, because they want rid of stuff, and at the end of the car boot sale, they don’t want to take it home again. Where we often score is towards the end of the car boot, or if it starts raining, people are just literally giving stuff away, 50p here, or £1 there.

Gumtree is also great, again, people just want rid of it. If you’re going to go to their house and relieve them of something, especially if it’s a bulky old TV or something, you won’t need to pay them much money.

If you’re looking for something on eBay, obviously with the current trend for vintage and retro, if you search for either of those terms, it’s going to be overpriced. You’re better off looking for spares and repairs, or broken. If you’re going to take its guts out, or if you’re going to paint it anyway, it doesn’t really matter that it’s broken. It’s almost better that it’s broken, because then you don’t feel bad about taking it apart.

Top tips for upcyclers

Think beforehand about what you want to achieve. Safety first, especially with old TVs. Be careful before you take all the parts out, a lot of it is mains electronics. Document any dismantling; I usually take a lot of photos or videos when we’re taking something apart, because it might take a month to do the project, and by then you’ll have completely forgotten what goes where.

Keep all the parts. We have a magnetic parts tray and that’s just brilliant, because you can chuck a screw in and it sticks.
Where possible, use the original features. If you can use the original switches, knobs, or sliders, and integrate them with the GPIO on the Pi, it really adds to the project.

Once you get the case open and pull all the electronics out, there are very often lots of plastic posts in there that need to come out, and the rotary tool is great for getting those out, great for cutting holes. Or, if you want to mount a little LCD screen in there, a rotary tool is your best friend for cutting apertures.
Hot glue gun: I realised recently that you can get black hot glue. It’s my favourite thing in the world now. You can use it to fill gaps in black plastic, and it dries with a really good sheen.
Lastly, a multimeter – if you’re using the original controls, you’ll definitely want one off these, as that will help you decide how the original switch was wired, because that can be an education in itself, and then how you can use that to connect a GPIO to run functions on the Pi.

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