ESP8266 Killer?

We’ve seen rumors floating around the Twittersphere about a new integrated microprocessor and WiFi SOC: the NL6621 from Nufront. Details are still scarce, but that doesn’t seem to be because the chip is vaporware: you could buy modules on Taobao.com and eBay right now for between two-and-a-half and three bucks, and Nufront’s website says they’ve produced a million modules since 2013.

The NL6621 WiFi SOC is powered by a 160 MHz ARM Cortex-M3 with 448 KB of RAM, and everything else is integrated in the SOC. The module has 32 GPIOs, SPI, I2C, I2S digital audio, and most of the peripherals that you’d expect. They say they have a completely open source SDK, but we can’t find a link to it anywhere. An English-language forum has sprung up in anticipation of the next new thing, and they say that they’ve contacted Nufront about the SDK, so that’s probably as good a place as any to lurk around if you’re interested. With an ARM core, it shouldn’t be long before someone gets GCC working on these things anyway.

It’s also worth noting that we’ve announced ESP8266 killers before, and it hasn’t come to pass. The mixture of community and official support that (eventually) came out of Espressif seems to be the main factor determining the ESP8266’s success, and we don’t see that yet with the NL6621. So take the question mark in the title seriously, but if this turns out to be the next big thing, remember where you heard it first, ok?

Thanks [David Hunt] for the tip!

Warbots: Is it Already Too Late?

In 1971, a non-profit formed that holds the World Economic Forum each year. The Forum claims it “Engages the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” This year, the Forum hosted a session: What If: Robots Go To War? Participants included a computer science professor, an electrical engineering professor, the chairman of BAE, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, and a Time magazine editor.

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Bye-bye ATmega328P, Hello 328PB!

We never have enough peripherals on a microcontroller. Whether it’s hardware-driven PWM channels, ADCs, or serial communication peripherals, we always end up wanting just one more of these but don’t really need so many of those. Atmel’s new version of the popular ATmega328 series, the ATmega328PB, seems to have heard our pleas.

We don’t have a chip in hand, but the datasheet tantalizes. Here’s a quick rundown of the new features:

  • Two more 16-bit timer/counters. This is a big deal when you’re writing code that’s not backed up by an operating system and relies on the hardware for jitter-free timing.
  • Two of each USART, SPI, and I2C serial instead of one of each. Good when you use I2C devices that have limited address spaces, or when you need to push the bits out really fast over SPI.
  • Ten PWM channels instead of six. This (along with the extra 16-bit timers) is good news for anyone who uses PWM — from driving servos to making music.
  • Onboard capacitive sensing hardware: Peripheral Touch Controller. This is entirely new to the ATmega328PB chip, and looks like it’ll be interesting for running capacitive sense buttons without additional ICs. It relies on Atmel’s QTouch software library, though, so it looks like it’s not a free-standing peripheral as much as an internal multiplexer with maybe some hardware-level filtering. We’ll have to look into this in detail when we get our hands on one of the chips.

So what does this mean for you? A quick search of the usual suspects shows the chips in stock and shipping right now, and there’s an inexpensive dev kit available as well. If you write your own code in C, taking advantage of the new features should be a snap. Arduino folks will have to wait until the chips (and code support) work their way into the ecosystem.

Thanks [Peter van der Walt] for the tip!

Marvin Minsky, AI Pioneer, Dies at 88

Marvin Minsky, one of the early pioneers of neural networks, died on Sunday at the age of 88.

The obituary in the Washington Post paints a fantastic picture of his life. Minsky was friends with Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stanley Kubrick. He studied under Claude Shannon, worked with Alan Turing, had frequent conversations with John Von Neumann, and had lunch with Albert Einstein.

Single_layer_ann
“Single layer ann” by Mcstrother

Minsky’s big ideas were really big. He built one of the first artificial neural networks, but was aiming higher — toward machines that could actually think rather than simply classify data. This was one of the driving forces behind his book, Perceptrons, that showed some of the limitations in the type of neural networks (single-layer, feedforward) that were being used at the time. He wanted something more.

Minsky’s book The Society of Mind is interesting because it reframes the problem of human thought from being a single top-down process to being a collaboration between many different brain regions, the nervous system, and indeed the body as a whole. This “connectionist” theme would become influential both in cognitive science and in robotics.

In short, Minksy was convinced that complex problems often had necessarily complex solutions. In research projects, he was in for the long-term, and encouraged a bottom-up design procedure where many smaller elements combined into a complicated whole. “The secret of what something means lies in how it connects to other things we know. That’s why it’s almost always wrong to seek the “real meaning” of anything. A thing with just one meaning has scarcely any meaning at all.”

useless_machine-shot0005Minsky was a very deep thinker, but he kept grounded by also being a playful inventor. Minsky is credited with inventing the “ultimate machine” which would pop up in modern geek culture and shared numerous times on Hackaday as the “most useless machine”. He inspired Claude Shannon to build one. Arthur C. Clarke said, “There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing — absolutely nothing — except switch itself off.”

He also co-designed the Triadex Muse, which was an early synthesizer and sequencer and “automatic composer” that creates fairly complex and original patterns with minimal input. It’s an obvious offshoot of his explorations in artificial intelligence, and on our bucket list of must-play-with electronic instruments.

Minsky’s web site at MIT has a number of his essays, and the full text of “The Society of Mind”, all available for your reading pleasure. It’s worth a bit of your time, not just in memoriam of a great thinker and a wacky inventor, but also because we bet you’ll see the world a little bit differently afterwards. That’s a legacy that lasts.

Giant Mersenne Prime Found

Ever hear of a Mersenne prime? These are prime numbers that are one less than a power of two. Named after Marin Mersenne, a French Minim friar, who studied them in the early 17th century, there is a distributed computing project on the Internet to find Mersenne primes called GIMPS (Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search). The project recently announced they have found the largest known prime.

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ESP-Micro is a Tiny Development Board

The ESP-8266 packs a lot of networking power into a small package. Some would say too small, which is why they often come on a slightly larger carrier PCB. The PCB is usually little more than a breakout with an optional 3.3V regulator. [Frazer Barnes] went one step further: he put an equally tiny USB to serial bridge, an oscillator, and some power management on an ESP-8266 breakout board.

You can program the ESP-8266 via the serial port, so having a built-in USB port is handy. Of course, you might not need it in the final product, but with the board being 25x30mm, you can probably cram it into most projects. [Frazer] posted a bit about the project on Hackaday.io, and has a GitHub project, although right now the upload of the design files is pending.

There’s no shortage of ESP-8266 projects. We saw a small Zigbee to ESP8266 board last year, and also the antidote for a tiny carrier board that includes an LCD, switches, and more. We also have tons of breakouts on Hackaday.io: here’s one with all the bells and whistles, and a similar, stripped-down version. All open-everything, and ready to go.

Microchip To Acquire Atmel for $3.56 Billion

Just last week, there was considerable speculation that Microchip would buy Atmel. The deal wasn’t done, and there was precedent that this deal wouldn’t happen – earlier this year, Dialog made an approach at Atmel. Now, though, the deal is done: Microchip will acquire Atmel for $3.56 Billion.

There are three main companies out there making microcontrollers that are neither ancient 8051 clones or ARM devices: TI’s MSP430 series, Microchip and Atmel. Microchip has the very, very popular PIC series microcontrollers, which can be found in everything. Atmel’s portfolio includes the AVR line of microcontrollers, which are also found in everything. From phones to computers to toasters, there’s a very high probablitiy you’re going to find something produced by either Atmel or Microchip somewhere within 15 feet of your person right now.

For the hobbyist electronic enthusiast, this has led to the closest thing we have to a holy war. Atmel chips were a little easier (and cheaper) to program, but were a little more expensive. Microchip’s chips have a very long history and proportionally more proper engineers who are advocates. PIC isn’t Arduino, though, a community that has built a large and widely used code base around the AVR family.

Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel follows several mergers and acquisitions in recent months: NXP and Freescale, Intel and Altera, Avago and Broadcom, and On Semiconductor and Fairchild. The semiconductor industry has cash and wants to spend it. What this means for the Atmel product line is left to be seen. The most popular micros probably won’t be discontinued, but if you’re using unpopular Atmel micros such as the ATtiny10 you might want to grab a reel or two before they’re EOL’d.