Code Craft – Embedding C++: Multitasking

We’re quite used to multitasking computer systems today. Our desktops run email, a couple of browsers in different workspaces, a word processor, and a few other applications, apparently all at once. Looking behind the scenes using a system monitor or task manager program reveals a multitude of other programs running in support of our activities. Of course, any given CPU is running a maximum of one program at a time. Multitasking is simply the practice of switching between active processes fast enough to give the illusion of simultaneity.

The roots of multiasking go way back. In the early days, when computers cost tons of money, the thought of an idle system was anathema. Teletype IO was slow compared to the processor, and leaving the processor waiting idle for a card reader to slurp in the next card was outrageous. The gurus of the time worked to fill that idle time with productive work. That eventually led to systems that would run multiple programs at one time, and eventually to more finely grained multitasking within a program.

Modern multitasking depends on support from the underlying API of an operating system. Each OS uses its own techniques, making it difficult to write portable code. The C++ 2011 standard increased the portability of the language by adding concurrency routines to the Standard Template Library (STL). These routines use the API of the OS. For instance, the Linux version uses the POSIX threading library, pthread. The result is a minimal, but useful, capability for building upon in later standards. The C++ 2017 standard development activities include work on parallelism and concurrency.

In this article, I’ll work through some of the facilities for and pitfalls in writing threaded code in C++.

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Hacker-Friendly SBCs: Which ones?

We have run out of fruits to name all the single-board computers on the market, but that doesn’t mean you can’t buy a rotten one. Bad documentation, incomplete specifications and deprecated firmwares are just some of the caveats of buying only by price and hardware features. To help you out in case you just need to find a great and open-enough SBC with community support, [Eric] has put together a decent list with 81 individually reviewed boards over at hackerboards.com.

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Kansas City Maker Faire: Pi-Plates

As soon as he spied the Jolly Wrencher on my shirt, [Jerry Wasinger] beckoned me toward his booth at Kansas City Maker Faire. Honestly, though, I was already drawn in. [Jerry] had set up some interactive displays that demonstrate the virtues of his Pi-Plates—Raspberry Pi expansion boards that follow the HAT spec and are compatible with all flavors of Pi without following the HAT spec. Why not? Because it doesn’t allow for stacking the boards.

[Jerry] has developed three types of Pi-Plates to date. There’s a relay controller with seven slots, a data acquisition and controller combo board, and a motor controller that can handle two steppers or up to four DC motors. The main image shows the data acquisition board controlling a fan and some lights while it gathers distance sensor data and takes the temperature of the Faire.

The best part about these boards is that you can stack them and use up to eight of any one type. For the motor controller, that’s 16 steppers or 32 DC motors. But wait, there’s more: you can still stack up to eight each of the other two kinds of boards and put them in any order you want. That means you could run all those motors and simultaneously control several voltages or gather a lot of data points with a single Pi.

The Pi-Plates are available from [Jerry]’s site, both singly and in kits that include an acrylic base plate, a proto plate, and all the hardware and standoffs needed to stack everything together.

Digital Opponent In An Analog Package

Unsatisfied with the present options for chess computers and preferring the feel of a real board and pieces, [Max Dobres] decided that his best option would be to build his own.

Light and dark wood veneer on 8mm MDF board created a board that was thin enough for adding LEDs to display moves and for the 10mm x 1mm neodymium magnets in the pieces to trip the reed switches under each space. The LEDs were wired in a matrix and connected to an Arduino Uno by a MAX7219 LED driver, while the reed switches were connected via a Centipede card. [Dobres] notes that you’ll want to test that the reed switches are positioned correctly — otherwise they might not detect the pieces!

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Beautiful Raspberry Pi Laptop Inspired By Psion

In the four years since the first Raspberry Pi appeared, there have been many takes on a portable computer based on it. The choice of components is fairly straightforward, there is now a wide selection of suitable keyboards, displays, and battery packs to choose from. You might therefore think that there could be nothing new in the world of the portable Pi, indeed another one might be as mundane as just another PC build.

News reaches us from Japan this morning of [nokton35mm]’s “RasPSION” Pi laptop build (machine translation) inspired by the Psion portable computers of the late 1990s.

That hinge, in close-up
That hinge, in close-up

The RasPSION features the Raspberry Pi 7″ display as well as a Bluetooth keyboard, 5V battery pack and the Pi camera. What makes it special is its laser cut case, and in particular its pivoting hinge mechanism. This is the part that takes its inspiration from the Psion machines, and its operation can be seen in the video below the break.

He claims the finished laptop gives him about two hours of battery life, which is no mean feat given that it lacks the sophisticated power management you’ll find in a commercial laptop. We hope that in time we’ll see him posting the details of the build somewhere other than Twitter, as this is a laptop we’d love to know more about.

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A Pi Robot Without a Hat

Daughter boards for microcontroller systems, whether they are shields, hats, feathers, capes, or whatever, are a convenient way to add sensors and controllers. Well, most of the time they are until challenges arise trying to stack multiple boards. Then you find the board you want to be mid-stack doesn’t have stackable headers, the top LCD board blocks the RF from a lower board, and extra headers are needed to provide clearance for the cabling to the servos, motors, and inputs. Then you find some boards try to use the pins for different purposes. Software gets into the act when support libraries want to use the same timer or other resources for different purposes. It can become a mess.

The alternative is to unstack the stack and use external boards. I took this approach in 2013 for a robotics competition. The computer on the robots was an ITX system which precluded using daughter boards, and USB ports were my interface of choice. I used a servo controller and two motor controllers from Pololu. They are still available and I’m using them on a rebuild, this time using the Raspberry Pi as the brain. USB isn’t the only option, though. A quick search found boards at Adafruit, Robotshop, and Sparkfun that use I2C.

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A 150MHz 6502 Co-Processor

If you are familiar with ARM processors, you may know of their early history at the 1980s British home computer manufacturer Acorn. The first physical ARM system was a plug-in co-processor development board for Acorn’s BBC Micro, the machine that could be found in nearly every UK school of the day.

For an 8-bit home computer the BBC Micro had an unusually high specification. It came with parallel, serial and analog ports, built-in networking using Acorn’s proprietary Econet system, and the co-processor interface used by that ARM board, the Tube. There were several commercial co-processors for the Tube, including ones with a 6502,  a Z80 allowing CP/M to be run, and an 80186.

As with most of the 8-bit generation of home computers the BBC Micro continues to maintain a strong enthusiast following who have not stopped extending its capabilities in all directions. The Tube has been interfaced to the Raspberry Pi, for instance, on which an emulation of original co-processor hardware can be run.

bbc-tube-screenshotAnd thus we come to the subject of this article, [Hoglet] and [BigEd]’s 150MHz 6502 coprocessor for the BBC Micro. Which of course isn’t a 6502 at all, but a 6502 emulated in assembler on an ARM which is in a way the very distant descendant of the machine it’s hosted upon. There is something gloriously circular about the whole project, particularly as the Pi, like Acorn, the BBC Micro, and modern-day ARM, has its roots in Cambridge. How useful it is depends on your need to run 8-bit 1980s software in a tearing hurry, but they do report it runs Elite, which if you were there at the time we’re sure you will agree is the most important application to get running on a BBC Micro.

We’ve featured the Tube interface before when we talked about an FPGA co-processor with a PDP/11 mode that was definitely never sold by Acorn. And we’ve also featured an effort to reverse engineer the primordial ARM from that first BBC Micro-based co-processor board.

BBC Micro image: Stuart Brady, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.