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Classic Games (Games)

High School Dropout, Self-Taught Chip Designer 816

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the games-people-play dept.
circletimessquare writes "The QVC television shopping network has recently found a hit in its product the C64, which emulates the classic Commodore 64 in a small form factor, a joystick. But the story of the designer of the product is more interesting than the product. Meet Jeri Ellsworth [NYTimes. You know what that means], whose life story emulates the golden age of garage-based computer design. She is proof that the passion of the homebrew electronic hobbyist is still a viable force in an age when well-funded and well-staffed corporate design teams dominate chip design."
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High School Dropout, Self-Taught Chip Designer

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  • No Reg Required... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:31PM (#11139330)
    The soul-saver strikes again (Karma Free, for your pleasure):

    Reg Free Link [nytimes.com]
  • text! (Score:2, Informative)

    by ack154 (591432) * on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:32PM (#11139342)
    Enjoy:

    YAMHILL, Ore. - There is a story behind every electronic gadget sold on the QVC shopping channel. This one leads to a ramshackle farmhouse in rural Oregon, which is the home and circuit design lab of Jeri Ellsworth, a 30-year-old high school dropout and self-taught computer chip designer.

    Ms. Ellsworth has squeezed the entire circuitry of a two-decade-old Commodore 64 home computer onto a single chip, which she has tucked neatly into a joystick that connects by a cable to a TV set. Called the Commodore 64 - the same as the computer system - her device can run 30 video games, mostly sports, racing and puzzles games from the early 1980's, all without the hassle of changing game cartridges.

    She has also included five hidden games and other features - not found on the original Commodore computer - that only a fellow hobbyist would be likely to appreciate. For instance, someone who wanted to turn the device into an improved version of the original machine could modify it to add a keyboard, monitor and disk drive.

    Sold by Mammoth Toys, based in New York, for $30, the Commodore 64 joystick has been a hot item on QVC this Christmas season, selling 70,000 units in one day when it was introduced on the shopping channel last month; since then it has been sold through QVC's Web site. Frank Landi, president of Mammoth, said he expected the joystick would be distributed next year by bigger toy and electronics retailers like Radio Shack, Best Buy, Sears and Toys "R" Us. "To me, any toy that sells 70,000 in a day on QVC is a good indication of the kind of reception we can expect," he said.

    Ms. Ellworth's first venture into toy making has not yet brought her great wealth - she said she is paid on a consulting basis at a rate that is competitive for her industry - "but I'm having fun," she said, and she continues with other projects in circuit design as a consultant.

    Her efforts in reverse-engineering old computers and giving them new life inside modern custom chips has already earned her a cult following among small groups of "retro" personal computer enthusiasts, as well as broad respect among the insular world of the original computer hackers who created the first personal computers three decades ago. (The term "hacker" first referred to people who liked to design and create machines, and only later began to be applied to people who broke into them.)

    More significant, perhaps, is that in an era of immensely complicated computer systems, huge factories and design teams that stretch across continents, Ms. Ellsworth is demonstrating that the spirit that once led from Silicon Valley garages to companies like Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer can still thrive.

    "She's a pure example of following your interests and someone who won't accept that you can't do it," said Lee Felsenstein, the designer of the first portable PC and an original member of the Homebrew Computer Club. "She is someone who can do it and do it brilliantly."

    Ms. Ellsworth said that chip design was an opportunity to search for elegance in simplicity. She takes her greatest pleasure in examining a complex computer circuit and reducing it in cost and size by cleverly reusing basic electronic building blocks.

    It is a skill that is as much art as science, but one that Ms. Ellsworth has perfected, painstakingly refining her talent by plunging deeply into the minutiae of computer circuit design.

    Recently she interrupted a conversation with a visitor in her home to hunt in between the scattered circuit boards and components in her living room for a 1971 volume, "MOS Integrated Circuits," which she frequently consults. The book concerns an earlier chip technology based on fewer transistors than are used today. "I look for older texts," she said. "A real good designer needs to know how the old stuff works."

    Several years ago Ms. Ellsworth cornered Stephen Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, at a festival for vintage Apple computers and badgered him for the secrets of his Apple I
  • SHE? (Score:4, Informative)

    by nycsubway (79012) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:37PM (#11139408) Homepage
    She?? did this? That is great! I believe this is the first woman I've heard of who has dropped out of school and started a garage-computer company. I'm not being sexist, but it really is the first time I've heard of it.
  • Re:eureka! (Score:1, Informative)

    by narcolept (741693) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:37PM (#11139417)
    that exact thing was the topic of a recent /. post about Nintendo lawsuits..
    http://games.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/11/02/ 1928240&tid=159 [slashdot.org]
  • Re:eureka! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Gr33nNight (679837) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:40PM (#11139455)
    Actually, there has been some Slashdot articles mentioning this exact same device. Its an illegal copy of Nintendos roms, usually at horrible quality.

    Buyer beware
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:45PM (#11139513)
    smart people don't need school. only dumb people. I'm dumb too, so don't feel bad. some of the very best in IT have no college degree at all. They just pick it up on their own. These aren't your normal programmer and they don't fit in the normal definition. There are also plenty of idiots in the IT field with no degrees, so having no degree doesn't meant anything.
  • by acomj (20611) on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:52PM (#11139589) Homepage
    What I found interesting about it was that the article hints that you could hook up a keyboard to the device and a drive and have a computer. They keep getting better and better games in these things. Pretty soon PS one in a gamepad.

    Slashdot covered the release of the device here.

    slashdot coverage of the device commodore game device [slashdot.org]
    I discovered..
    (when I submitted the story 12 hours ago .. cough..cough)
  • Re:SHE? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @03:55PM (#11139622)
    I believe this is the first woman I've heard of who has dropped out of school and started a garage-computer company.

    If you're that interested, maybe you'd like to try reading the article. Here's part:

    Her first business foray came during high school when she began designing and selling the dirt-track race cars that she had been driving with her farther. Using his service station as a workshop, she was soon making so much money selling her custom race cars that she dropped out of high school.
  • More links (Score:2, Informative)

    by vasqzr (619165) <vasqzr@netBOYSENscape.net minus berry> on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:01PM (#11139684)
    She's turning up a ton of hits on Google

    Here she is at the XGamestation booth: http://www.xgamestation.com/view_media.php?id=109 [xgamestation.com]

    Here's another article on her:

    http://home.att.net/~rmestel/articles/on_road_ells worth.txt [att.net]

  • Re:Bills Gates, too. (Score:5, Informative)

    by schon (31600) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:02PM (#11139692)
    Maybe Bill Gates should have stayed in school and got a degree. He could have been rich, I tell you!

    You do realize that Bill was rich before he founded Microsoft, right? His father is a millionaire.
  • Re:NO way (Score:3, Informative)

    by mekkab (133181) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:19PM (#11139871) Homepage Journal
    There's no way you can learn chipd design without actually designed, building, and testing chips.

    Not true; you use the software. Now, I know you said the software was expensive; but where there is a will, there's a way.

    Ledit [tanner.com] student version came with the book; so for under $80 you can start laying out a chip; go to a college campus and you could pick this up used for a song. I'm sure you could also get evaluation and free versions of Verilog [verilog.net], too.

    As for the fabbing, yep, you gotta shell out some bucks to get your design implemented. But $500... thats do-able. No wife, no kids, no other hobbies... you can cough up that kind of money, just not too often! ;)
  • by Pompatus (642396) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:20PM (#11139882) Journal
    and for all other registration required stuff....

    bugmenot [bugmenot.com]

    Even has extensions for firefox and ie. I'm sure most of you already know about it, but in case you didn't, here it is.
  • Re:impossible? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Grishnakh (216268) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:20PM (#11139891)
    You haven't worked much with FPGAs, have you?

    FPGAs are programmed in Verilog or VHDL; it's not much different from programming a computer. All you need is a development board with the FPGA plugged in (the FPGA makers make eval boards specifically to support this), and a connection to your PC so you can download the compiled design into the FPGA.

    The problem with FPGAs is that they're very similar to SRAM, and when they lose power, they lose their programming. So they have to program themselves every time they power on, meaning you need a separate ROM chip on the board for it. Worse, because of this and because of the sheer cost per chip of FPGAs, they aren't very good for designs with large production volumes (they are good for small volumes, though, because you don't have to get a custom chip made, which has a high initial cost). So, all you have to do is get your FPGA design converted to an ASIC; there's several companies that specialize in exactly this.

    Basically, all this girl had to do was do the actual HDL design at home, test and debug it on a prototype board, then when it was finished send it to a manufacturer to have them make ASICs in large volume from it. You don't need your own fabrication plant any more than you need your own photo developing lab to make photos.
  • Beware the sig (Score:3, Informative)

    by Rufus88 (748752) on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:25PM (#11139951)
    Sadly, all it would take is one lawsuit (ore even the threat thereof) to shut her down.
    -- Just like it happened to this poor sap [tinyurl.com].


    Beware the sig in the parent post. The link is not work-safe, and the context makes it look like it's relevant to the discussion:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 20, 2004 @04:34PM (#11140071)
    No it wasn't.

    THe C64 was based on the 6510 (a 6502 compatible).

    The Apple II was a 1MHz 6502.

    The Atari 800 and 400 used 1.8MHz 6502A.
  • by bob65 (590395) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:00PM (#11140385)
    Not to mention that

    Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin are all owned by Ford;

    Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac, GMC, Oldsmobile, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab are all owned by General Motors; and

    Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz, Maybach, and CSmart are all owned by DaimlerChrysler.

    Also note that many cars are simply re-brands - i.e. the Saab 9-2 is a Subaru Impreza Wagon, the Mazda Tribute is a Ford Escape, etc... and did you know the Subaru Forestor is sold a Chevrolet Forestor in India?

    and of course as mentioned, Lexus and Scion are just brands of Toyota, Infiniti is just a brand of Nissan, and Acura is just a brand of Honda.

  • Re:Yes but... (Score:2, Informative)

    by iamhassi (659463) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:05PM (#11140442) Journal
    i know you're a Mac user so you're not required to know a damn thing about anything but it'd sure be nice if you guys would learn how hyperlink properly WITHOUT spaces.

    Little bit of leg FIXED [mac.com]

    Little bit of up the skirt FIXED [mac.com]

    typical slashdot: they post a story about a C64 in a joystick and what are we concerned about? Looking up the skirt of the developer ;)

  • by HeghmoH (13204) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:05PM (#11140446) Homepage Journal
    One more thing, can Slashdot's editors please stop whining about NYT's registration? To read their news for free just for filling in some info seems like a generous trade.

    I don't think the editors care. However, people used to get up in arms about the registration back when slashdot didn't warn people about it. In fact, many people still complain about NYTimes links even with the warning. Your beef is with the complainers, not with the editors.
  • Re:NO way (Score:5, Informative)

    by svirre (39068) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:15PM (#11140562)
    L-edit is a polygon pusher. You are going to be pretty damn persistent to do anything more than a puny digital design in that.

    For real digital layout you want to use Astro/Synopsys, Encounter/Cadence, Blast Fusion/Magma or Pinnacle/Sierra (Just maybe). None of these are going to cost you less than a few $100K.

    Of cource before you to the point of doing layout you likely want to do synthesis (Although it is not beyond human capability to hand generate netlists). Design Compiler/Synopsys is pretty much the defacto standard but both cadence and magma has credible alternatives.

    After layout you want to check your design for timing. To do this you want a Static Timing Analysis tool (Primetime from Synopsys is pretty much the only choice here for sign-off quality, though you might live with what your back-end tool has built in if you feel brave). To feed the STA tool with good data you need to extract the circuit: StarXTRC/Synopsys, Fire & Ice/Cadence, CalibreXRC are the prime contenders.

    In addition you might want/need to do:
    - Formal verification (To verify your final netlist conforms to your design)
    - Rail analysis (To verify your power grid is adequate)
    - Thermal analysis (To check your device won't melt of fail due to too high junction temperature)
    - Crosstalk analysis (Check for parasitic effects on timing. Required for designs on 0.13um and better)

    A complete tools suite for digital design will likely set you back $1000K. Naturally a lot of smaller designhouses will outsource the the implementation, but they will at minimum require simulators (minimum $5000 a seat) and synthesis ($100000 pr. license)

    As for fabbing, $500? That would be a mighty sweet deal, even for a shared MPW run. With academic discounts and on an old process you might be able to get a slot on an MPW for $5000. On a reasonably modern process (like 0.18um) a engineering run with 6 prototyping wafers (i.e. not a MPW) will set you back somwhere between $50K to $200K
  • by FiSHNuTZ (213853) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:21PM (#11140605)
    I've already posted this, but since you seem to not know much about the C-One, feel free to see the homepage for the C-One which has, among other things, schematics, pictures, and ordering information for the beta boards currently available to any interested parties (for about US$400). The C-One is an entire ATX form-factor motherboard.

    http://www.c64upgra.de/c-one [c64upgra.de]
  • by alanwall (319926) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:24PM (#11140644) Homepage
    no her boy friend is also a geek.Joe Torre if you know of him.An Amiga person.I first met Jeri 6 years ago at AmiWest-and no that girl in some of the old pics links to her is a "friend"
  • Bzzzt...wrong (Score:4, Informative)

    by WebCowboy (196209) on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:34PM (#11140742)
    It appears that it's properly licensed [64.233.167.104].

    Commodore isn't exactly the big juggernaut it was 20 years ago...I'd venture to say that the owner of the brand is not exactly "well lawyered". Rather than aim to shut her down, I think they gladly paid her for the idea in hopes of finally making money off the brand for the first time in ages.

    Of all the big names of the past I'd say Commodore is the safest bet on the emulation scene. The other big players 20 years ago? Apple, Atari, IBM, perhaps you could include Tandy and TI in there as well. There are still big companies behind all those brands, and in some cases they have demonstrated a willingness to defend their rights to those brands even if they no longer support those old products.

    Jeri's a sharp cookie, she has gotten in on the leading edge of a craze. Those retro joysticks (a lot of them pirate NES knockoffs) are all over the malls this Christmas...it's quite possible they will be a real craze next year. Whether they'll remain popular in the long haul I'm not sure. In any case, the original NY Times article is right, Jeri has all the hallmarks of becoming another Woz or Burell or Dr. Roberts. I'd ventrue to say there'll be more neat stuff to come from here in the future.
  • Re:Bills Gates, too. (Score:4, Informative)

    by Fnkmaster (89084) * on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:45PM (#11140843)
    Rule #1 of business: It's hard to make a billion bucks without starting with at least a few million (or 10) first.

    It takes more than just brains and business sense to make money, it takes capital, and it's hard to get capital without taking smaller amounts of capital and making larger amounts of capital (well, banks are willing to loan you some money, but ironically, only if you have money or assets to back the loan first).

    Most people who make a billion dollars in their lifetime start with a base of some wealth to work from. It's not impossible to go from zero, it's just much harder, since you have to get to a few tens of millions first - in other words, you need that many more lucky streaks, brains, business sense, whatever, without any big busts or screwups in the middle.

    Ya know Donald Trump? His father was a successful real estate developer in the outer boroughs of New York in the first half of this century. Donald took his fathers business, and had the courage and built the connections needed to take it into Manhattan and pursue bigger projects. In other words, he brought something to the table, but no, he didn't do it all from scratch.

    In any case, this is pretty obvious stuff. We can't all leave our children billions of dollars, but you don't need to, to give them the tools to be financial successful. It's not so hard to make and save a few million dollars over the course of your career, by always underspending your earnings, saving money, making smart investments and so on. And giving your children a financially stable platform gives them the opportunity to explore career options and take bigger risks in general, which is a good thing for more than just financial success, it gives you more opportunities to find a career that is rewarding and in tune with your goals in life.
  • by harrkev (623093) <kfmsd@@@harrelsonfamily...org> on Monday December 20, 2004 @05:56PM (#11140968) Homepage
    Yes, schematics of the BOARD were available in the advanced programmer's reference guide.

    But the schematics just show how the board itself is wired up. Yup, this pin of this chip goes to that pin of that chip. You now have about 10% or less of the design. All of the magic happens IN the chips themselves. THAT was the hard part. There is a free core or two for the processor (assuming that it is accurate). However, the sound and video chips are an entirely different story. Those must have been a pain in the butt.
  • Re:just think (Score:3, Informative)

    by pilgrim23 (716938) on Monday December 20, 2004 @06:04PM (#11141052)
    I have had a couple of conversations on geek subjects with Jeri. She is a brilliant person. Her education in the subject matter has little to do with it. She naturally has the curious mindset and the self-developed tools to achieve. What formally recognized union card (or as they say in the military: ticket punched) you get may mean something to the middle managers, but it means diddly in the reality of life. The truly brilliant shine no matter what their background, what their training. I personally majored in history yet work in IT and as a hobby I am one of those retro computer nerds the article speaks of. Jeri has done wonders with limited resources in areas the majors developers would not find worth looking into or commercially viable. We of the Retro world salute Jeri Ellsworth for her accomplishments!
    oh and PS: speaking to a post above: in person, Yes, she IS Hot! :)
  • Re:impossible? (Score:5, Informative)

    by MagerValp (246718) on Monday December 20, 2004 @06:18PM (#11141197) Homepage
    > 1) Implement a 6502 processor. There is a free core or two floating around, which she likely used. Still not exactly trivial, though.

    No, she did her own core, which is both smaller and faster than the free cores out there.

    > 2) Reverse-engineer and implement the DRAM circuitry. The design does not use DRAM, but you still need to emulate certain portions of the hardware for timing reasons. When DRAM refreshes, the processor has to snooze.

    The NTSC unit is SRAM based. The C64 uses transparent DRAM refresh during the VIC's half of every cycle. The PAL unit will use SDRAM.

    > 3) Reverse-engineer and implement the SID sound chip. Fairly major headache.

    MAJOR headache.

    > 4) Reverse-engineer and implement the video circuitry. Major headache. This system even had hardware sprites.

    Yes, it took her years, and there are still timing glitches. It's amazingly compatible though.

    5) Reverse-engineer and implement the different hardware ports.

    I believe this was fairly easy though.

    > 6) Include a bridge that would allow a PC keyboard to emulate a C64 keyboard.

    IIrc that's a small state machine and a matrix, nothing too hairy.

    > 7) Emulate a cassette drive and load it with warez.

    That was done in software by Adrian Gonzalez. The NY Times article concentrated on Jeri herself, so I guess it's forgivable that they didn't mention that there was a software team as well (Adrian and Robin Harbron were the main programmers, plus me and Mark Seelye helped patch games).

    > 8) Implement the analog bits of the video and sound circuitry. Maybe somebody else did this.

    Nope, all Jeri.

    Those people doubting her hardware skills really shouldn't talk without checking facts, and if you think that designing things in VHDL is as simple as programming in C you need a clue. No, make that two. And for the record, it's designed with a mix of VHDL and schematic capture.
  • Re:Yes but... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Frogbert (589961) <frogbertNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday December 20, 2004 @08:11PM (#11142225)
    Yes, and I'm sure her girlfriend [amicue.org] thinks so too
  • by miskate (730309) on Monday December 20, 2004 @10:04PM (#11143082)
    Not long after I got by comp sci degree, I discovered Systers [systers.org] - an "informal organization for technical women in computing". It's not a bad place to start if you're looking for female inspiration - there're some very smart ladies in that group.
  • by nt7s (842196) on Monday December 20, 2004 @11:39PM (#11143885) Homepage
    No, I think the parent is correct. I read the story and was shocked because Jeri is the same age as I am and went to Dallas High, the same school that I did.

    Dallas is a small town, but I could not remember Jeri; which I should because I would have remembered a female geek of such cailber in the same class as me. :) The last name sounded familiar, and when I read the parent's post I knew he was correct. I remember JJ as a big C64 fan and very talented with electronics. I haven't lateley had much contact with anyone I went to high school with, so I had no idea he had a sex change.

    So basically, I really think you are wrong about this being libel. If you doubt me, check my slashdot username in the FCC database. I'm a ham and I was first licensed while in high school in Dallas, OR.

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