At the beginning of May we brought you the news about the ZX Spectrum Next, the latest machine to appear on the market that is catering for the highly popular “Retro” scene. With a thirst for knowledge we managed to speak with Henrique Olifiers, who is part of the team bringing the ZX Spectrum Next (hopefully) to our homes; Henrique’s CV includes being the co-founder of Bossa Studios which has produced hits such as Surgeon Simulator, I am Bread and Worlds Adrift.Henrique Olifiers
Villordsutch: Do you have a professional background in computer design or have your skills been gleaned over the years with stripping and building machines, until finally you’ve come to this point of delivering a ZX Spectrum for the 21st Century?
Henrique: I do my fair bit of electronics as a hobby, all acquired through trial, error and a fair bit of luck. But my hardware skill set is nowhere near the requirements of designing something like the Spectrum Next. That’s Victor Trucco and Fabio Belavenuto’s work — they’re the ones who designed and are working on the hardware and firmware of the machine. The Next is an evolution of their older TBBlue project, a re-implementation of the ZX Spectrum using today’s electronic parts to preserve the machine.Fabio Belavenuto and Victor Trucco
V: Has the ZX Spectrum Next been on the cards – with you – for some time, or did the advent of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega from RetroComputers Ltd along with the Recreated ZX Spectrum Keyboard from Elite Systems ignite a spark within you?
H: The Spectrum Next as an idea was born not long ago, at the end of last year, when talking to Victor Trucco about making the TBBlue available in Europe. I suggested that instead of catering for a limited enthusiast audience with a piece of hardware requiring a lot of work to be used, we should instead create an entire straightforward computer, just like the original Speccy. That lead to the obvious pursuit of getting Rick Dickinson, the designer of all thing Sinclair, to create the look of the Next. And so the Spectrum Next was born, out of a casual chat — like most interesting things do!
V: Looking at the aforementioned two devices, did you look into the massive ZX Spectrum community feedback regarding these machines when you came to designing the ZX Spectrum Next, or had you already planned most of what you wanted to see, before comments like “HDMI”, “play old tapes”, “connect joysticks” started to roll in?
H: Absolutely. I’m a firm believer that one should always be listening to your community and get them to participate in whatever you do. That’s how I make games, after all! The very idea of announcing the project before starting a crowdfunding was to ensure we’ve got all the information at hand to create the ‘perfect’ (if such a thing exists) computer to take to Kickstarter next.
It seems to have worked, the community feels part of the effort, and we are able to work on what matters to them instead of second-guessing what we should be doing.
V: Looking at the design of the keys you seem to be including all of the old commands that could be access via Extend Mode, and you’ve also mentioned that this machine will be totally open source. Will we be getting the ability to once again program upon the ZX Spectrum Next and what exactly do you mean by “totally open source” – is this in the way of programming or will this be relating to both software and hardware?
H: That’s precisely it. The Next is a ‘turn on and get coding immediately’ machine just like the old days. Open Source means that everything we created — both hardware and software — will be documented and available for anyone. The users will have full access to hardware design, firmware and drivers in order to change and improve as they see fit. And anything we deem to take the platform forward will then be incorporated into the ‘official’ releases as updates, with the proper credits to whomever contributed to the evolution of the Next.
V: We can see both Ear and Mic sockets on the back of the machine, giving us the ability to use cassettes again – which will be a bonus for the real hardcore users – but for those of us that like speed there is now an SD Card system. I’m guessing we will be able to Load and Save as if this was a cassette tape? Using the SD Card system will we see an increase in loading speeds for programs we’ve saved? Will we be able to load games via the TZX, TAP or Z80 (some of the common files used for emulated games) on this new machine?
H: Yes, that’s right: it’s possible to use both tapes and SD cards on the Next. If you’re a hardcore user and want the feeling of tape loading, it’s there for you. If you’re more practical and wants the storage space and speed of loading from the SD card, that’s there as well. The SD will be the primary mode of usage for most people, and it supports all typical formats such as the ones mentioned plus Russian TRD, the format of choice for new software these days, as it allows for larger files.
V: What have been the difficulties in getting the ZX Spectrum Next up and running? How difficult was it getting a ZX Spectrum to talk to television via the HDMI? What part of building this new machine has had you awake – the longest – slowly tugging at your hair?
H: It’s the HDMI so far, as we have chosen to make it more than just HDMI. The VGA and RGB outputs present on the Spectrum Next are produced by the ULA (in our case, the ULAplus) chip originally powering the Speccy. That’s not compatible with HDMI, as one would imagine. So we took a Raspberry Pi Zero and connected it via GPIO to the Next’s expansion port, and monitor the video RAM area for any changes. When these changes happen, we copy them over to the Pi’s framebuffer and update what the Pi is outputting via HMDI.
The challenge is to keep everything synced to the original timings of the Spectrum, so when demos and games make clever use of the ULA by hacking timers etc., the effects they originally intended don’t get lost. This has been super-hard to achieve, and there are still a few bumps to iron out.
The hardest is still to come: using the CPU/GPU/RAM of the Pi Zero just for HDMI is a waste of resources, so we’ll build drivers to use them as slave co-processors to the Z80 CPU of the Spectrum Next. That way the Spectrum can say ‘hey, Pi, render me a 3D OpenGL frame of this scene, please’, and have that generated and dumped back into the Speccy RAM for any purpose we want to. So, we could have Minecraft or Quake for the Spectrum, run on the Spectrum, but accelerated by the Pi as a worker.
This will not be easy…
V: Who designed the rather amazing case for the machine? It looks like a Audi concept car designer has got his hands on a ZX Spectrum 48K+; the white one really looks amazing however to be a true perfectionist I really do love the black one. Just a wonder do the classic Spectrum colours – on the side curve – glow?
H: That’s the work of Rick Dickinson, the original designer of the ZX80, ZX81, ZX Spectrum, QL, Microdrive… Everything Sinclair until it got sold to Amstrad. He’s an amazing designer, talented as it gets, able to create iconic pieces that defy the test of time.
About the colours on the side… I asked him the same question when the first images arrived. Would it be transparent and powered by coloured LEDs underneath? Or would it be coloured plastic with a light? What’s the deal?
The honest truth is we’ll prototype a few solutions next and see which one looks best. We want them to pop out just like in the visualisations, but not turn into a cheap light show in the ‘Fast and Furious’ style, if you see what I mean…
V: Have you had any issues when acquiring the licence and developing the ZX Spectrum Next from the current owners of the ZX Spectrum brand, or did they happily give you their blessing?
H: The discussions with the right holders were very straightforward, great people to talk to. They were super helpful and keen to ensure we gave something back in exchange to the rights — in that case, 5% of all the revenues of the Spectrum Next will go to the Great Ormond Street Hospital. How cool a request is that, right?
V: Lastly, when do you think we’ll see the final product arrive on the shelves and what do you expect the retail price to be?
H: We’re aiming at crowdfunding in June, start production in August, and have it shipped in Q1 or Q2 2017 the latest. Let’s see how this plan survives the test of battle. The retail should be under £175 — the original price of the ZX Spectrum at launch. But we’re working hard to bring it down under £100, depending on how many units get ordered and if we can find better suppliers for some parts, in particular the case and keyboard production.
Villordsutch likes his sci-fi and looks like a tubby Viking according to his children. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter. Check out his current countdown of the Your Sinclair Top 100 ZX Spectrum Games too.