Microchip Launches New Family Of PICs

Over the last few years, we’ve seen projects and products slowly move from 8-bit microcontrollers to more powerful ARM microcontrollers. The reason for this is simple — if you want to do more stuff, like an Internet-connected toaster, you need more bits, more Flash, and more processing power. This doesn’t mean 8-bit microcontrollers are dead, though. Eight bit micros are still going strong, and this week Microchip announced their latest family of 8-bit microcontrollers.

The PIC16F15386 family of microcontrollers is Microchip’s latest addition to their portfolio of 8-bit chips. This family of microcontrollers is Microchip’s ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ 8-bit offering. Other families of PICs have included features such as a complementary waveform generator, numerically controlled oscillator, a configurable logic controller, power saving functionality and the extreme low power features, but never before in one piece of silicon.

This feature-packed 8-bit includes a few new tricks not seen before in previous Microchip offerings. Of note are power management features (IDLE and DOZE modes), and a Device Information Area on the chip that contains factory-calibrated data (ADC voltage calibration and a fixed voltage reference) and an ID unique to each individual chip.

As you would expect from a new family of PICs, the 16F15386 is compatible with the MPLAB Xpress IDE and the MPLAB Code Configurator, a graphical programming environment. The products in the family range from 8-pin packages (including DIP!) with 3.5kB of program Flash to 48-pin QFPs with 28kB of program Flash. The goal for Microchip is to provide a wide offering, allowing designers to expand their builds without having to change microcontroller families.

All of these chips can be sampled now, although the lower pin count devices won’t be available through normal means until next month.

Smaller Cheaper Arduino

Well, honestly, [Michael Mayer’s] STM8 Arduino (called Sduino) isn’t actually much to do with the Arduino, except in spirit. The STM8 is an 8-bit processor. It is dirt cheap and has some special motor control features that are handy. There’s a significant library available for it. However, it can be a pain to use the library and set up the build.

Just like how the Arduino IDE provides libraries and a build system for gcc, Sduino provides similar libraries and a build system for the sdcc compiler that can target the STM8. However, if you are expecting the Arduino’s GUI or a complete knock off of the Arduino library, you won’t get that.

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Making Use of Stellaris/Tiva Real-Time Clock

If you’re at all like us, or like [Vadim], you’ve got a stash of development boards in a shoebox on a shelf in your closet. If you’re better organized that we are, it might even be labeled “dev boards”. (Ah well, that’s a project for another day.) Anyway, reach into your box and pull one out, and put it to use. Do something trivial if you need to, but a dev board that’s driving a silly blinker is better than a dev board sitting in the dark.

[Vadim]’s good example to us all is going to serve as the brains for an automated plant watering system. That’s a low-demand application where the microcontroller can spend most of the time sleeping. [Vadim]’s first step, then was to get a real-time clock working with the hibernation mode. There’s working code inline in his blog.

“I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King.”

If you use Arduino, you’ll feel at home in the Energia ecosystem. But it’s like ordering a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris: Energia is a Royale with Cheese (YouTube) — it’s the little differences. And maybe that’s the point of the exercise; it’s always a good thing to try out something new, even if it’s only minimally different.

So grab that unused dev board off the shelf, struggle through the unfamiliar development environment and/or toolchain, but remember to keep an eye out for the sweet little differences. The more tools that you’re familiar with, the more solutions will spring to mind when you’re hacking on your next project.

Does This Demo Remind You of Mario Kart? It Should!

Here’s a slick-looking VGA demo written in assembly by [Yianni Kostaris]; it’s VGA output from an otherwise stock ATmega2560 at 16MHz with no external chips involved. If you’re getting some Super Mario Kart vibes from how it looks, there’s a good reason for that. The demo implements a form of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 graphics, which allowed for a background to be efficiently texture-mapped, rotated, and scaled for a 3D effect. It was used in racing games (such as Super Mario Kart) but also in many others. A video of the demo is embedded below.

[Yianni] posted the original demo a year earlier, but just recently added detailed technical information on how it was all accomplished. The AVR outputs VGA signals directly, resulting in 100×120 resolution with 256 colors, zipping along at 60 fps. The AVR itself is not modified or overclocked in any way — it runs at an entirely normal 16MHz and spends 93% of its time handling interrupts. Despite sharing details for how this is done, [Yianni] hasn’t released any code, but told us this demo is an offshoot from another project that is still in progress. It’s worth staying tuned because it’s clear [Yianni] knows his stuff.

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How To Fix Your Broken Onion Omega2

A decade ago, while RISC architecture was busy changing everything and people were wearing Utilikilts without beards, hackers were doing something amazing. They repurposed off-the-shelf routers and turned them into what we would now call the Internet of Things. Need to set up a PBX? A Linksys router will do it. Want to drive a remote control car over the Internet? It’s your old friend, WRT54G.

Now that the Internet of Things is a thing, a few companies have realized people will buy bare bones router chipsets. It’s like an Arduino, or something, and it connects to the Internet. We’ll sell a million. Get Indiegogo on the phone.

The Onion Omega2 launched on Kickstarter last year, and so far has seen some success. They’ve shipped their units, and people are generally happy with them. One thing that wasn’t mentioned in the Kickstarter was the fundamental problem with the design. The pins on this seemingly breadboard-compatible dev board have a pitch of two millimeters. Horribly broken. Huge mistake. Terrible deal.  Not the best people we have working on this.

Imperial is a superior unit of measurement. Metric is outdated.

The Onion Omega2 won’t fit in a breadboard, but Onion does offer a breakout ‘expansion dock’ for $15 USD. There’s a better, cheaper solution, though. You can complain about it on Hackaday.io’s Hack Chat. That’s what [zach] did, and a few minutes later, [davedarko] whipped up a quick PCB design to convert the 2mm header to the much more logical 0.1 inch header. Imperial units win once again.

After sending three dollars and twenty cents to OSHPark, [zach] had his pin adapters in hand. A few minutes with a soldering iron, and the Onion Omega2 is made compatible with every breadboard ever made.

If you have an Onion Omega2 and would like a really cool hexagonal sticker, here’s the project on OSHPark.

A Guide For Building Rubber Dome Keyboards

Let’s talk about computer keyboards for a second. The worst keyboards in the world are the cheap ‘rubber dome’ keyboards shipped with every Dell, HP, and whatever OEM your company has a purchasing agreement with. These ‘rubber dome’ keyboards use a resistive touchpad to activate a circuit, and the springiness of the key comes from a flexible rubber membrane. Mechanical keyboards are far superior to these rubber dome switches, using real leaf springs and bits of metal for the click clack happiness that is the sole respite of a soul-crushing existence. MX blues get bonus points for annoying your coworkers.

Mechanical key switches like the Cherry MX, Gateron, or whatever Razer is using aren’t the be-all, end-all mechanical keyswitch. History repeats, horseshoe theory exists, and for the best mechanical keyswitch you need to go back to rubber domes. Torpre switches are surprisingly similar to the crappy keyboards shipped out by OEMs, but these switches have actual springs, turning your key presses into letters through a capacitive touchpad. Is this a superior switch? Well, a keyboard with Torpre switches costs more than a keyboard with Cherry MX switches, so yeah, it’s a better switch.

It seems everyone is building their own mechanical keyboards these days, and the recipe is always the same: get a few dozen Cherry MX (or clone) switches, build a PCB, grab a Teensy 2, and use the tmk keyboard firmware. There’s not much to it. DIY Torpre boards are rare because of the considerations of building a capacitive switching PCB, but now there’s a DIY guide to making the perfect rubber dome keyboard.

[tomsmalley] put together this guide after reviewing a few amazing projects scattered around the web. Over on Deskthority, [attheicearcade] is building a custom, sculpted, split Torpre board and a split Happy Hacking Keyboard. These are projects worthy of a typing god, but so far there has been no real beginner’s guide for interfacing with these weird capacitive switches.

As far as circuitry goes on these capacitive boards, the PCB is the thing. Each key has a pair of semi-circular pads on the PCB to serve as plates on a capacitor. These pads are connected to a microcontroller through an analog mux, with a little opamp magic thrown into the mix.

With a relatively decent guide to the hardware, [tomsmalley] has also been working on his own firmware for capacitive switches. Shockingly, this firmware is compatible with the Teensy 3.0, which will provide enough horsepower to read a bunch of analog values and spit out USB.

Mechanical keyboards are great, and we really like to see all these hardware creators pushing the state of the art. You can only see so many custom sculpted keycaps or DIY MX boards, though, and we’re really eager to see where the efforts to create a custom Torpre board take us. If you’re building one of these fantastic keyboards, send it in on the tip line.

Bus Pirate Commandeers I2C

The Bus Pirate is one of our favorite tool for quick-and-dirty debugging in the microcontroller world. Essentially it makes it easy to communicate with a wide variety of different chips via a serial terminal regardless of the type of bus that the microcontroller uses. Although it was intended as a time-saving prototyping device, there are a lot of real-world applications where a Bus Pirate can be employed full-time, as [Scott] shows us with his Bus Pirate data logger.

[Scott] needed to constantly measure temperature, and the parts he had on hand included an LM75A breakout board that has a temperature sensor on board. These boards communicate with I2C, so it was relatively straightforward to gather data from the serial terminal. From there, [Scott] uses a Python script to automate the process of gathering the data. The process he uses to set everything up using a Raspberry Pi is available on the project site, including the code that he used in the project.

[Scott] has already used this device for a variety of different projects around his house and it has already proven incredibly useful. If you don’t already have a Bus Pirate lying around there are a few other ways to gather temperature data, but if you have an extra one around or you were thinking about purchasing one, then [Scott]’s project is a great illustration of the versatility of this device.