No Frame Buffer for FPGA VGA Graphics

Usually, when you think of driving a VGA–in software or hardware–you think of using a frame buffer. The frame buffer is usually dual port RAM. One hardware or software process fills in the RAM and another process pulls the data out at the right rate and sends it to the VGA display (usually through a digital to analog converter).

[Connor Archard] and [Noah Levy] wanted to do some music processing with a DE2-115 FPGA board. To drive the VGA display, they took a novel approach. Instead of a frame buffer, they use the FPGA to compute each pixel’s data in real-time.

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FPGA Powers Blazingly Fast LED Matrix Audio Visualizer

[Sam Miller], [Sahil Gupta], and [Mashrur Mohiuddin] worked together on a very fast LED matrix display for their final project in ECE 5760 at Cornell University.

Real time!
Real time!

They started, as any good engineering students, by finding a way to make their lives easier. [Sam] had built a 32×32 LED matrix for another class. So, they made three more and ended up with a larger and more impressive 64×64 LED display.

They claim their motivation was the love of music, but we have a suspicion that the true reason was the love all EEs share for unnaturally bright LEDs; just look at any appliance at night and try not be blinded.

The brains of the display is an Altera DE2-115 FPGA board. The code is all pure Verilog. The FFT and LED control are implemented in hardware on the FPGA; none of that Altera core stuff. To generate images and patterns they wrote a series of python scripts. But for us it’s the particle test shown in the video below that really turns our head. This system is capable of tracking and reacting to a lot of different elements on the fly why scanning the display at about 310 FPS. They have tested display scanning at twice that speed but some screen-wrap artifacts need to be worked out before that’s ready for prime time.

The team has promised to upload all the code to GitHub, but it will likely be a while before the success hangover blows over and they can approach the project again. You can view a video interview and samples of the visualizations in the videos after the break.

Thanks to their Professor, [Bruce Land], for submitting the tip! His students are always doing cool things. You can even watch some of his excellent courses online if you like: Here’s one on the AVR micro-controller.

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FPGA-and-Pi Colossus Smashes Your Codes!

If it were sixty years ago, and you were trying to keep a secret, you’d be justifiably glad that [Ben North] hadn’t traveled back in time with his Raspberry-Pi-and-FPGA code-breaking machine.

We’ve seen a lot of Enigma builds here at Hackaday — the World War II era encryption machine captured our readers’ imaginations. But perhaps the more important machines to come out of cryptanalysis during that era were Turing’s electromechanical Bombe, because it cracked Enigma, and the vacuum-tube-based Colossus, because it is one of the first programmable electronic digital computers.

[Ben]’s build combines his explorations into old-school cryptanalysis with a practical learning project for FPGAs. If you’re interested in either of the above, give it a look. You can start out with his Python implementations of Colossus to get your foot in the door, and then move on to his GitHub repository for the FPGA nitty-gritty.

It’s also a cool example of a use for the XuLA2 FPGA board and its companion StickIt board that plug straight into a Raspberry Pi for programming and support. We haven’t seen many projects using these since we first heard about them in 2012. This VirtualBoy hack jumped out at us, however. It looks like a nice platform. Anyone else out there using one?

Real-Time FPGA Finger Detection

The student projects that come out of [Bruce Land]’s microcontroller- and FPGA-programming classes feature here a lot, simple because some of them are amazing, but also because each project is a building-block for another. And we hope they will be for you.

This time around, [Junyin Chen] and [Ziqi Yang] created a five-in-a-row video game that is controlled by a pointing finger. A camera, pointed at the screen, films the player’s hand and passes the VGA data to an FPGA. And that’s where things get interesting.

An algorithm in the FPGA detects skin color and, after a few opening and closing operations, comes up with a pretty good outline of the hand. The fingertip localization is pretty clever. They sum up the number of detected pixels in the X- and Y-axis, and since a point finger is long and thin, locate the tip because it’s going to have a maximum value in one axis and a minimum along the other. Sweet (although the player has to wear long sleeves to make it work perfectly).

How does the camera not pick up the game going on in the background? They use a black-and-white game field that the skin-color detection simply ignores. And the game itself runs in a Nios embedded processor in the FPGA. There’s a lot more detail on the project page, and of course there’s a demo video below.

We love to follow along with Prof. Land‘s classes. His video series is invaluable, and the course projects have been an inspiration.

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Using An FPGA To Generate Ambient Color From Video

We should all be familiar with TV ambient lighting systems such as Philips’ Ambilight, a ring of LED lights around the periphery of a TV that extend the colors at the edge of the screen to the surrounding lighting. [Shiva Rajagopal] was inspired by his tutor to look at the mechanics of generating a more accurate color representation from video frames, and produced a project using an FPGA to perform the task in real-time. It’s not an Ambilight clone, instead it is intended to produce as accurate a color representation as possible to give the impression of a TV being on for security purposes in an otherwise empty house.

The concern was that simply averaging the pixel color values would deliver a color, but would not necessarily deliver the same color that a human eye would perceive. He goes into detail about the difference between RGB and HSL color spaces, and arrives at an equation that gives an importance rating to each pixel taking into account its saturation and thus how much the human eye perceives it. As a result, he can derive his final overall color by looking at these important pixels rather than the too-dark or too-saturated pixels whose color the user’s eye will not register.

The whole project was produced on an Altera DE2-115 FPGA development and education board, and makes use of its NTSC and VGA decoding example code. All his code is available for your perusal in his appendices, and he’s produced a demo video shown here below the break.

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A Raspberry Pi In An FPGA

Somehow or another, the Raspberry Pi has become a standardized form factor for single board computers. There are now Raspberry Pi-shaped objects that can do anything, and between the Odroid and bizarre Intel Atom-powered boards, everything you could ever want is now packaged into something that looks like a Raspberry Pi.

Except for one thing, of course, and that’s where [antti.lukats]’s entry for the 2016 Hackaday Prize comes in. He’s creating a version of the Raspberry Pi based on a chip that combines a fast ARM processor and an FPGA in one small package. It’s called the ZynqBerry and will, assuredly, become one of the best platforms to learn FPGA trickery on.

Xilinx’ Zynq comes with a dual-core ARM Cortex A9 running around 1GHZ, and from that fact alone should be about comparable to the original Raspberry Pi. Also inside the Zynq SoC is a very capable FPGA that [antti] is using to drive HDMI at 60hz, and can stream video from a Raspberry Pi camera to a display.

Last year for the Hackaday Prize, [antti] presented some very cool stuff, including a tiny FPGA development board no bigger than a DIP-8 chip. He’s’s resident FPGA wizard, and the ZynqBerry is the culmination of a lot of work over the past year or so. While it’s doubtful it will be as powerful as the latest Raspberry Pis and Pi clones, this is a phenomenal piece of work that puts an interesting twist on the usual FPGA development boards.

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Belgrade Experience: MikroElektronika, Museums, and FPGA Computing

I recently had the chance to visit Belgrade and take part in the Hackaday | Belgrade conference. Whenever I travel, I like to make some extra field trips to explore the area. This Serbian trip included a tour of electronics manufacturing, some excellent museums, and a startup that is weaving FPGAs into servers and PCIe cards.

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