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Portable 8-bit video synthesizer with NTSC composite output, integrated chiptune audio, SD card slot, USB and MIDI control
Portable 8-bit video synthesizer with NTSC composite output, integrated chiptune audio, SD card slot, USB and MIDI control
Portable 8-bit video synthesizer with NTSC composite output, integrated chiptune audio, SD card slot, USB and MIDI control
178 backers pledged $32,878 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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Ming Micro: Portable 8-bit Video Synthesizer

$32,878

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Thanks to your incredible support, we're now 200% funded! We're happy to announce two new stretch goals that will apply to both the DIY Kit and Assembled reward tiers.

30k: A custom SD card packed with digital content - UNLOCKED!

40k: A 90s-tastic Ming Micro fanny pack

The SD card will include a brand new World Pack, high quality versions of the Ming Mecca and Ming Micro Trailers, an exclusive quick-start video guide shot on VHS, and all the digital rewards already included (trailer music EP, user's guide, patch editor, and WPACKer utility).

The fanny pack will not be available anywhere else, ever, and features a yellow Ming Micro logo printed across its front pocket.

Ming Micro is available as an Arduino-style PCB, or in a 3D-printed enclosure. Designed by D.V. Caputo, the cases will feature a Sega Genesis inspired black finish, panel-mounted buttons, and cutouts for the LED display, SD Card Slot, and connector ports. It will even include a snap-off top panel so you can access the PCB jumper settings without removing Ming Micro from its case.

Ming Micro is a USB-equipped portable video synthesizer that generates retro computer graphics in realtime. Drawing inspiration from the 8-bit era of personal computers and videogame consoles, it puts a fully featured chip-graphics engine at your fingertips. Every engine parameter is controllable via standard MIDI CC and Pitch Bend messages, from large-scale object properties all they way down to individual pixel placements. Parameters can be controlled manually from a MIDI controller, or modulated from MIDI software to achieve complex animation and algorithmic behavior.

Four main elements make up Ming Micro's graphics engine:

  • Sprites — small moveable objects that can be freely positioned anywhere on the display
  • Tiles — graphical blocks that are positioned on a 10 x 12 grid to compose scenes
  • Tile Maps — diagrams that specify which Tiles get drawn in which grid locations
  • Palettes — color definitions used to render the Tiles and Sprites

Each element contains parameters for shaping its presentation in the final scene. For instance, each Sprite contains an X and Y location, as well as a bitmap index to control its graphical content and animation. All four systems and their corresponding parameters combine to create the final video stream.

For maximum authenticity, Ming Micro outputs NTSC composite video at 240p / 60 fps, the same format and resolution used by classic videogame consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Sega Master System (SMS). Compared to computer-emulated pixel art, Ming Micro's output has a natural softness and a variety of subtle analog artifacts native to the format. 

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In addition to its primary video capabilities, Ming Micro also contains a simple digital audio synthesizer, providing two square wave generators and a dual-mode noise generator. The audio synthesizer can be used in conjunction with the graphics engine to create audio-visual patches, or in isolation as a standalone sound generator.

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Ming Micro can generate representational scenes that depict characters, objects, and environments, or completely abstract scenes emphasizing shape, movement, and color; it all depends on what graphics you load (or create) and how you modulate them. You can even write to individual pixels inside Tiles and Sprites to achieve complex pattern synthesis.

All of Ming Micro's assets are easily swappable via the SD card slot. Think of these assets as the "skin" applied on top of your video-world's logical skeleton. They contain color Palettes and Tile Maps, as well as the actual bitmap data used to render Sprites and Tiles, and are stored in a simple ASCII-art inspired text format called a World Pack.

Once a World Pack has been loaded into memory, all of its assets can be modified or overwritten via MIDI in realtime. Any changes you make can be saved back to the SD card for use in future patches or to share with friends. World Packs can also be created directly using any standard text editor, or with our free image-to-world-pack conversion tool WPACKer.

In order to use Ming Micro, you need to have:

  • A NTSC composite video display capable of displaying 240p signals (such as an old CRT television set, or most composite-equipped LCD monitors and projectors)

And at least one of the following:

  • A USB-enabled computer (for use with Ming Micro's built-in USB MIDI interface)
  • Physical MIDI hardware capable of transmitting CC messages (for use with Ming Micro's MIDI DIN port)
Cathode Ray Tubes recommended but not required; this low-cost automotive LCD makes for a great portable rig.
Cathode Ray Tubes recommended but not required; this low-cost automotive LCD makes for a great portable rig.

Ming Micro is best viewed on a vintage CRT display. We recommend the Commodore 1702 as a good balance between cost and quality, but any color TV with composite inputs will do. 

Alternatively, Ming Micro can be used with most LCD displays or projectors equipped with A/V inputs, various composite-to-hdmi converters, and even video capture interfaces for monitoring and recording right on your desktop. For some notes on video compatibility, scroll to the end of the Specifications section below. 

Controlling Ming Micro couldn't be simpler. A fully class-compliant USB implementation means no special driver installation is necessary, and all major OSs are natively supported. Once connected to your computer, standard MIDI software can be used to sequence, modulate, or randomize Ming Micro’s digital landscapes, including virtual modular environments like Max/MSP, Reaktor, and Pure Data. 

Ming Micro also includes a dedicated Patch Editor for OS X and Windows, so even if you don’t have access to 3rd party MIDI software, you can still build fully animated video-worlds quickly and easily.

Ming Micro desktop Patch Editor mockup—features and design not final.
Ming Micro desktop Patch Editor mockup—features and design not final.

You can even connect hardware MIDI controllers to drive Ming Micro directly from tactile interfaces, using physical knobs and buttons to position Sprites, scroll through bitmaps, modify Tiles, or control any other engine parameter of your choosing.

Hardware

  • 240p NTSC composite video and mono audio on standard RCA jacks
  • Physical MIDI input on standard 5-pin DIN connector
  • Integrated class compliant USB-MIDI interface on USB Type B connector, cable included
  • 9V DC power input, 120-220V 50/60 Hz switching power supply included
  • Save and Reset Buttons
  • LED Graph Display visualizes MIDI activity and engine states
  • SD Card Slot with Read and Write LEDs
  • Expansion Port (currently unused)
  • Socketed EEPROM for firmware updates

Software

  • Dedicated Patch Editor for OS X and Windows provides instant control of all Ming Micro Parameters
  • WPACKer tool for OS X and Windows converts .PNG Sprite and Tile sheets into WPACK.TXT files.

Graphics Engine

  • 160×192 pixel internal resolution
  • Full 60 fps progressive video output for incredibly fluid motion
  • 4×4 simultaneous colors / 4×16 palettes / 86 total colors
  • Palettes editable in realtime
  • 3 Sprites with 32 addressable bitmaps 
  • Sprites can be positioned in coarse (CC) or hi-res (Pitch Bend) modes
  • 4 Tiles with 32 addressable bitmaps
  • 16 Tile Maps 
  • Dynamic Tile Map editing
  • Assets replaceable via Secure Digital (SD) Card, FAT16 or FAT32 format 
  • World Pack format cross-compatible with Ming Mecca systems
  • Pixel Draw system allows Tile and Sprite graphics to be modified, erased, or created in realtime
  • Fast Pixel Draw speed allows complex algorithmic pattern synthesis
  • Save function commits all assets to WPACK.TXT file
  • Glitch system allows RAM to be “scrolled” using hi-resolution pitch bend messages to achieve circuit-bent style effects

Audio Engine

  • 3 channels: two square waves and one dual-mode noise wave
  • pitch and amplitude control of all channels via CC messages
  • Pitch-modulating LFO for special effects
  • MIDI keyboard support (note / velocity / pitch bend), includes basic “note stack” for trills and ostinattos 
  • Sprite Lock feature allows audio parameters to be internally driven by Sprite position

Compatability Notes

  •  Ming Micro does not currently support PAL video output, but people in PAL territories can still use Ming Micro via multi-format displays and capture interfaces.
  • Ming Micro outputs a 240p progressive video signal, just like classic videogame consoles. This allows for smooth 60 fps motion and beautiful, strikingly accurate retro graphics, but can occasionally cause compatibility problems. Some video gear, including LZX systems, only accept 480i interlaced video. It may be possible to interface Ming Micro with 480i systems using appropriate converters, video mixers, or time base correctors, but we make no guarantees. As a basic rule of thumb, if your gear works with an NES, SNES, or Sega Genesis, it will probably work with Ming Micro.
  • If you're not sure what all this means, HD Retrovision has a helpful article on 240p video that explains the basics. If you still have questions about compatibility, don't hesitate to contact us!

Ming Micro's hardware has already gone through several revisions and is now finalized. Feature-complete prototypes have been sent to a small cadre of beta testers who are currently putting the system through its paces.

Firmware development is 99% complete. All major bugs have been solved and all features are fully functional. We're working hard to find and crush the last few minor bugs to make sure Ming Micro offers the best possible user experience.

The desktop Patch Editor is currently in the design stage. We're experimenting with various GUI ideas and trying to find the best balance between ease of use, flexibility, and precision control.

The 3D-Printed enclosures are currently being designed and will enter prototyping soon.

Special Stage Systems was founded in 2011 by artist and experimental engineer Jordan Bartee during his doctoral research at Brown University. The company now operates out of Seattle, WA, focusing on Eurorack module development and related technologies. 

Special Stage's first commercial product, the voltage controlled videogame console Ming Mecca, was completed in 2014 and received widespread media coverage. Ming Mecca is currently available for purchase from Analogue Haven and other select distributors.

Although Special Stage is owned and operated by Jordan Bartee, a rotating cast of friends, colleagues, and contractors help to realize its various projects. The Ming Micro team is listed below:

Jordan Bartee: Product Design, Electronics Engineering, Firmware Development, Graphic Design

D.V. Caputo: Desktop Application Development, Graphic Design

Molly Roberts: Desktop Tool Development, Shipping and Sales

Yes! Ming Micro is actually the second generation of Ming-series technology. It was initially designed to be a low-cost alternative to Special Stage's flagship synthesizer Ming Mecca, but over time evolved into a unique standalone product.

Whereas Ming Mecca focuses on patchable videogame mechanics and includes sub-systems for gravity, collision, and gamepad interaction, Ming Micro is purely focused on video art and 8-bit audio-visual aesthetics. In terms of raw graphics, Ming Micro is actually more powerful than Ming Mecca, with increased Sprite and Tile counts and the addition of Pixel Draw capabilities.

If you own a Ming Mecca system, Ming Micro makes a wonderful companion. The ability to create or modify World Packs in-situ is a vast improvement over direct ASCII editing or png-to-text conversion using WPACKer, and since both Ming Micro and Ming Mecca use the same WPACK.TXT format, assets are freely exchangeable between the two systems.

Risks and challenges

With any hardware project, the biggest potential source of problems is component shortages and delays from 3rd party contractors. We've tried our best to engineer Ming Micro using commonly available parts, and are working with a well known and reliable PCB manufacturer for the circuit boards, so we don't anticipate any major issues; but in the event of a component shortage or manufacturing delay we promise to be fully transparent and communicate any schedule changes to our backers promptly.

Special Stage has already designed, manufactured, and shipped two Eurorack modules at quantities similar to what we expect for Ming Micro, so we're fairly experienced with the ins and outs of hardware production. However, one significant difference is that our previous projects have been shipped in bulk to distributors rather than directly to end users, so that aspect will be a learning experience for us. We've done our research and think we have a great plan in place, but since it's our first time there may be some surprises in store. Again, if we run into any problems, you'll be the first to hear about them, and we're not afraid to bring in outside assistance (such as a fulfillment service) if it ends up being necessary.

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Support this project

  1. Select this reward

    Pledge $10 or more About $10

    Thank you for supporting us! Your name in the digital Ming Micro User's Guide, and a download of Selected Special Stage Trailer Music by Jordan Bartee and DV-i.

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    17 backers
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  2. Select this reward

    Pledge $175 or more About $175

    1 x Ming Micro DIY Kit.

    REQUIRES THRU-HOLE SOLDERING.
    SMT components pre-soldered.

    Includes Ming Micro PCB and all components, a digital copy of the Ming Micro User's Guide and Build Guide, power supply, USB cable, and downloadable Desktop Editor for OS X and Windows.

    Also includes your name in the User's Guide, and a download of Selected Special Stage Trailer Music by Jordan Bartee and DV-i.

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    Ships to Anywhere in the world
    30 backers
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  3. Select this reward

    Pledge $200 or more About $200

    1 x Ming Micro, fully assembled.

    Includes a digital copy of the Ming Micro User's Guide, power supply, USB cable, and downloadable Desktop Editor for OS X and Windows.

    Also includes your name in the User's Guide, and a download of selected Special Stage Trailer Music by Jordan Bartee and DV-i.

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    99 backers
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  4. Select this reward

    Pledge $325 or more About $325

    1 x Ming Micro DIY Kit + 3D Printed Case

    REQUIRES THRU-HOLE SOLDERING.
    SMT components pre-soldered.

    Case features a black finish, panel-mounted buttons, cutouts for the LED display, SD card slot, and connector ports, and a removable top panel.

    Includes Ming Micro PCB and all components, a digital copy of the Ming Micro User's Guide and Build Guide, power supply, USB cable, and downloadable Desktop Editor for OS X and Windows.

    Also includes your name in the User's Guide, and a download of Selected Special Stage Trailer Music by Jordan Bartee and DV-i.

    Less
    Estimated delivery
    Ships to Anywhere in the world
    1 backer
    $
    Kickstarter is not a store.

    It's a way to bring creative projects to life.

    Learn more about accountability.
  5. Select this reward

    Pledge $350 or more About $350

    1 x Ming Micro, fully assembled + 3D Printed Case

    Case features a black finish, panel-mounted buttons, cutouts for the LED display, SD card slot, and connector ports, and a removable top panel.

    Includes a digital copy of the Ming Micro User's Guide, power supply, USB cable, and downloadable Desktop Editor for OS X and Windows.

    Also includes your name in the User's Guide, and a download of selected Special Stage Trailer Music by Jordan Bartee and DV-i.

    Less
    Estimated delivery
    Ships to Anywhere in the world
    17 backers
    $
    Kickstarter is not a store.

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Funding period

- (30 days)