Build an FPGA Microbee in Three (Not so) Easy Steps

Microbee,_Melbourne_Museum

[Brad Robinson] was feeling a bit nostalgic for his Microbee, so he rebuilt it in an FPGA. Not once, but three times. For the uninitiated, the Applied Technology Microbee was a Z80 based computer 1980’s. Designed in Australia, the Microbee did not see much popularity outside its home continent. Even so, the introduction to home computers many Australians was on a Microbee. [Brad] actually wrote several programs for the Microbee, including some games sold by Applied Technology themselves.

Fast forward to 2012, [Brad] is learning FPGAs, and wants to build a Microbee in VHDL. The FPGAbee was born. The first iteration of the FPGAbee began with the CPU, which came from the T80 open source VHDL Z80 core. Around this core [Brad] added the video controller, keyboard, and sound. When he started adding disk functionality, [Brad] ran into some problems. He wanted to use a FAT formatted SD card for cassette and hard disk emulation.

The relative complexities of the FAT format meant he would have to use some custom software to make this work. [Brad] decided to run this software on a second Z80 core. Both cores would need access to memory, and this is where [Brad] learned what he calls “a hard lesson in cross domain clocks” on FPGAs. Multiple clock nets can cause major propagation delay issues. [Brad] was able to work through the problems, but it caused him to step back and re-evaluate the entire design. This was the start of FPGABee2.

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SDRAM controller for low-end FPGAs

There are very few ‘recent’ FPGAs out there that can be easily soldered. Due to their important number of IOs, they usually come in Ball Grid Array (BGA) packages. The Xilinx Spartan 6 LX9, a TQFP144 FPGA (having pins with a 0.5mm pitch) is one of the few exceptions that can be used to make low end development boards. However, it doesn’t have a lot of logic and memory resources or an on-chip Memory Control Block implemented in the silicon. Therefore, [Michael] designed an SDRAM controller with a small footprint for it.

Writing an SDRAM controller from scratch isn’t for the fainthearted – first of all you really have to know how SDRAM  works (RAS, CAS, precharges, refresh cycles), and because of the high speed and accurate timing required you also have to learn some of the finer points of FPGA off-chip interfacing. In addition, most publicly available open cores are very complex – for example just the RTL core of the sdr_ctrl controller on opencores.org adds up to over 2,700 lines of Verilog. Even if it is not an accurate comparison metric, [Michael]‘s controller is only 500 lines long.

Making vector arcade games with an FPGA

3d

While we’re sure most Hackaday readers were raised by arcade games featuring sprites, pixels, and other shiny brightly colored squares, this was not always so. Many classic arcade games – Lunar Lander, Gravitar, and Asteroids in particular – used vector displays. Instead of drawing individual pixels, these games functioned more like an oscilloscope, drawing lines. When [Todd] and [Andrew] got their hands on a monitor from an old Asteroids cabinet, they knew what they had to do: build their own vector arcade game.

The guys made their own DAC and Amplifier board that plugs right in to a Nexys2 FPGA dev board. This was after they tested out some 3D drawing code with a gnarly handmade R2R DAC they used to draw and rotate a cube on an oscilloscope screen.

Not only did the guys build a vector video card, they also connected the FPGA’s VGA out to a monochrome monitor for an in-game HUD. Awesome work that blows away anything available in the golden days of vector arcade games. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering that certainly deserves its own cabinet.

Video of the game available below.

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Filtering out mains hum from ADC samples

Hum_filter

A little light reading means something different to us than it does to [Hamster]. He’s been making his way through a book called The Scientist and Engineer’s Guide to Digital Signal Processing written by [Steven W. Smith, Ph.D]. Being the hacker type, a million different uses for the newfound knowledge popped to mind. But as a sanity check he decided to focus on a useful proof of concept first. He’s come up with a way to filter out the mains hum from Analog to Digital Converter samples.

Mains hum is all around us; produced by the alternating current in the power grid that runs our modern lives. It’s a type of interference that can be quite problematic, which is on reason why we see EMF sensor projects from time to time. Now you can filter that ambient interference from your projects which take readings from an ADC. This would be quite useful for applications which measuring teeny signals, like ECG hacks.

[Hamster] did a pretty good job of presenting his demonstration for the uninitiated. He even provides examples for Arduino or FPGA projects.

Giving the VirtualBoy a VGA out

virtualboy

Nintendo’s VirtualBoy – the odd console-inside-a-pair-of-goggles  and arguable ancestor of Nintendo’s 3DS – was a marvelous piece of technology for its time. In a small tabletop unit, you were able to play true 3D video games at an impressive 384 x 224 pixel resolution. Of course the VirtualBoy was a complete failure, but that doesn’t mean hardware tinkerers are leaving this wonderful system to video game collectors. [furrtek] has been playing around with his VirtualBoy and managed to add VGA out.

As a 3D system with two displays, any sort of video out was rightfully ignored by the VirtualBoy system designers. Still, [furrtek] wanted some sort of video out on his system, so he began poking around with a small FPGA board to generate some VGA signals.

The two displays inside the VirtualBoy aren’t your normal LCD display – as seen in this iFixit teardown. they’re really two linear LED arrays that generate a single line of 244 pixels, with mirrors scanning the line in the in the Y axis. These LED arrays are controlled by the VirtualBoy CPU through a series of shift registers, and by carefully tapping the lines of each LED array, [furrtek] was able to copy all the image data into the RAM of an FPGA.

After stuffing an XESS XULA-200 FPGA board inside the case of his VirtualBoy, [furrtek] wired up a few resistors for a DAC and installed a VGA out port on the underside of his console. Everything worked the first time he powered it up, and he began playing his VirtualBoy on his big screen TV.

Because [furrtek] is only reading one of the VirtualBoy’s displays, all the 3D data – and the main feature of the VirtualBoy – is lost when it’s displayed on a TV. 3D TVs do exist, though, and we’d love to see an improved version of this that captures data from both of the VirtualBoy displays.

You can see [furrtek]‘s video of his mod in action below.

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Etch your own CPLD development board

etch-your-own-cpld-breakout

Ever wanted to make the jump from microcontrollers to logic chips? Although not technically the same thing we consider FPGA and CPLD devices to be in similar categories. Like FPGAs, Complex Programmable Logic Devices let you build hardware inside of a chip. And if you’ve got the knack for etching circuit boards you can now build your own CPLD development module. Long-time Hackaday readers will remember our own offering in this area.

Our years of microcontroller experience have taught us a mantra: if it doesn’t work it’s a hardware problem. We have a knack for wasting hours trying to figure out why our code doesn’t work. The majority of the time it’s a hardware issue. And this is why you might not want to design your own dev tools when just starting out. But one thing this guide has going for it is incremental testing. After etching and inspecting the board, it is populated in stages. There is test code available for each stage that will help verify that the hardware is working as expected.

The CPLD is programmed using that 10-pin header. If you don’t have a programmer you can build your own that uses a parallel port. Included on the board is an ATtiny2313 which is a nice touch as it can simulate all kinds of different hardware to test with your VHDL code. There is also a row of LEDs, a set of DIP switches, and a few breakout headers to boot.

Anti-Tetris project is a study in hand tracking

anti-tetris

The game of Anti-Tetris is played by standing in front of a monitor and watch falling Tetris pieces overlaid on a video image of your body. Each hand is used to make pieces disappear so that they don’t stack up to the top of the screen. We don’t see this as the next big indie game. What we do see are some very interesting techniques for hand tracking.

An FPGA drives the game, using a camera as input. To track your hands the Cornell students figured out that YUV images show a specific range of skin tones which can be coded as a filter to direct cursor placement. But they needed a bit of a hack to get at those values. They patched into the camera circuit before the YUV is converted to RGB for the NTSC output.

Registering hand movement perpendicular to the screen is also a challenge that they faced. Because the hand location has already been established they were able to measure distance between the upper and lower boundaries. If that distance changes fast enough it is treated as an input, making the current block disappear.

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