Flashing the ESP8266 In Windows

It’s only been a few months since the ESP8266 rolled out of some factory in China, and already the community is moving from simply getting custom firmware to work on the device to making the development tools easy to use. That’s huge – the barrier to entry is lowered, getting even more people on board with this very cool Internet of Things thing.

While the majority of the community is settling on using the Lua interpreter firmware, there’s still the matter of getting this firmware uploaded to the ESP. [Peter Jennings] of Microchess fame has been working on a Windows app to upload firmware to the ESP via a serial interface. There’s not much to it, but this will allow you to upload the community-created Lua firmware, set the WiFi credentials, toggle GPIO pins, and give you the ability to write a little bit of Lua in the same window.

If you’re looking for something that isn’t designed exclusively for Windows, there’s an alternative firmware flasher over on the nodemcu Github. This flasher also connects the ESP8266 to a network and uploads firmware. It’s a stripped-down programmer without a serial terminal or the ability to toggle pins, but there are plans for making this programmer cross-platform.

Genetic Algorithm Programmer Gets Functions

[Kory] has been writing genetic algorithms for a few months now. This in itself isn’t anything unique or exceptional, except for what he’s getting these genetic algorithms to do. [Kory] has been using genetic algorithms to write programs in Brainfuck. Yes, it’s a computer programming a computer. Be thankful Skynet is 18 years late.

When we first saw [Kory]’s work, he had programmed a computer to write and run its own programs in Brainfuck. Although the name of the language [Kory] chose could use some work, it’s actually the ideal language for computer-generated programs. With only eight commands, each consisting of a single character, it greatly reduces the overhead of what any genetic algorithm must produce and what a fitness function must evaluate.

There was one shortcoming to [Kory]’s initial efforts: functions. It’s relatively easy to get a program to say Hello World, but to do something complex, you’re going to need something like a macro or a function. Brainfuck, it its most simple form, doesn’t support functions. This throws a wrench in [Kory]’s plan to have his computer programming computer grow smarter and get over local minima in its genetic algorithms.

The solution to this problem was the creation of a new dialect of Brainfuck [Kory] calls BrainPlus. This takes the best parts of Extended Brainfuck and adds a command that basically serves as a break statement.

With this, [Kory]’s self programming computer can develop more complex programs. Already it has created a program to generate the first few numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. It only goes up to 233 because 255 is the maximum value for a byte, and the program itself took seven hours to generate. It does, however, work. Other programs generated with the new Brainplus functions include reciting 99 bottles on the wall and a program that multiples two values.

Even though [Kory]’s computer is spending a long time to generate these programs, given enough time, there’s really not much this program can’t do. Brainfuck, and [Kory]’s Brainplus, are Turing complete, so that given infinite memory and time it can compute anything. With the new addition of functions, it can compute anything faster.

All the code for [Kyle]’s GA is available on Github.


Arduino vs. Phidgets – Dev Time Trials

Is developing on an Arduino too slow? Are Phidgets too expensive? When might you use one or the other? Hackaday regular [Ken] breaks down what he learned from three experimental time trials.

The main development differences between Arduino and Phidgets are a mix of flavor preferences and some hard facts. The Arduino is open source, Phidgets are proprietary. Arduino requires a mix of hard- and software where Phidgets only needs (and only allows) a connection to a full computer but enables high level languages – it is expected to get the job done sooner and easier. And finally, Arduinos are cheap, Phidgets are 3-5x the cost.

The three time trials were common tasks: 1. Blink an LED. 2. Use a pot to turn a servo. 3. Build a pedometer. For [Ken], the Phidgets won in each of the three experiments, but not significantly: 37%, 45%, and 25% respectively. The difference is only minutes. Even considering time value, for most hackers it is not worth the cost.

HAD - Phidgets3In context, the advantages of a mildly more rapid development on the simplest projects are wasted away by needing to rebuild a permanent solution. Chained to a PC, Phidgets are only useful for temporary or fixed projects. For many of our readers that puts them dead in the water. Arduinos may technically be dev kits but are cheap enough to be disposed of in the project as the permanent solution – probably the norm for most of us.

[Ken] points out that for the software crowd that abhor electronics, Phidgets plays to their preferences. Phidgets clips together their pricey peripherals and the rest is all done in code using familiar modern languages and libraries. We wonder just how large this group could still be; Phidgets might have been an interesting kit years ago when the gulf between disciplines was broader but the trend these days is towards everyone knowing a little about everything. Hackaday readers probably represent that trend more than most, but let us know if that seems off.

[Ken]’s article has much more and much better detailed explanations of the experiments and the tradeoffs between the platforms.

If you enjoy watching parallel engineering, see the time-lapse video below for a split screen of the time trials.

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Writing A Virtual Machine In Excel

[Ádám] participates in a competition called KöMaL. It’s a 9-times-a-month journal for junior high and high school students featuring math and physics problems. [Paul Erdős], one of the most published mathematicians of all time, was a huge participant and by far the most notable student to crack open a copy of KöMaL in its hundred-year history. [Ádám] was trying his hand at a problem in Excel, but the official rules prohibit the use of Excel macros. In a daze, he came up with one of the most clever uses of Excel: building an assembly interpreter with the most popular spreadsheet program.

This is a virtual Harvard architecture machine without writable RAM; the stack is only lots and lots of IFs.  The instructions – mostly load, MOV, JNZ, INC, and CMP solves this problem, examining two inputs to see if they multiples of each other. If you’re wondering, an example cell from [Ádám]’s Excel sheet looks like this:


[Ádám] has provided his Excel solution to the problem, available on the hackaday.io. It’s in Hungarian which really shouldn’t matter since it’s basically Excel and a pseudo-x86 instruction set. but the column labels will require a bit of Google Translate.

Logic Simulator Atanua Goes Free, Possibly Open Source

The history of software is littered with developers that built a great product, gave people a reasonable option to license the software, and ended up making a pittance. There’s a reason you don’t see shareware these days – nobody pays. It looks like [Gates] had a point with his Open Letter to Hobbyists.

Such is the case with Atanua. [Jari] built a nice little graphical logic simulator that has tens of thousands of downloads, and is being used in dozens of universities. [Jari] has sold only about 60 licenses for Atanua, netting him only a few thousand Euro. You can’t develop software with a pittance, so now [Jari] is giving Atanua away. This neat little logic simulator has reached the end of its life, the license is free, and [Jari] is out of the business.

This isn’t an ideal situation, but [Jari] is strongly considering open-sourcing Atanua. The code is a little bit of a mess at the moment, and cleaning it up will require a bit of work. [Jari] is leaving the option to buy a license for Atanua open, and anyone who wants to see this bit of software open sourced could buy a license or hundred.

While this isn’t great news for [Jari], if you’re looking for a neat tool to learn digital logic, you now have a very nice free option. Atanua simulates individual logic gates, 74-series chips, and even an 8051 microcontroller in real-time (up to about 1 kHz), with enough buttons, LEDs, and displays to do some very cool stuff. It’s more than enough to learn digital logic on, and good enough for a test bed for some odd and bizarre projects you might have floating around your head.

USB On The Teensy 3 From The Ground Up

When implementing USB on a microcontroller, most people are going to reach for V-USB if they’re using an AVR, one of Microchip’s USB libraries if a PIC is involved, or any number of the USB libraries for various ARM processors. [Kevin] had a different idea. As a challenge to himself, he wrote a USB device driver for the Teensy 3.1 microcontroller board, getting as close to the bare metal as he could get.

Writing a USB device driver first required a literature review. There are a few peculiarities in the Freescale K20 family of microcontrollers – the one found in the Teensy 3.1 – that dictate the need for a specific memory layout, using several clocks, and handling all the USB descriptors. [Kevin] started with the clocks, every last one of which must be enabled. The clock is generated by the Multipurpose Clock Generator from a 16MHz crystal, PLL’ed to the frequencies the USB module needs, and sent out over the System Integration Module.

Following the flowcharts and sequences found in the Freescale reference guide told [Kevin] exactly what needed to be done with the startup sequence, and offered a few suggestions on what needed to be done to set up all the interrupts. [Kevin] spent an incredible amount of time documenting, programming, and smashing his head against the keyboard for this tutorial, but he does give everyone a great opportunity to learn from his struggles.

While [Kevin] has a mostly complete USB device driver, his work is far from done. That’s alright, because this project wasn’t meant to be a full-featured driver; it’s still missing real error handling, strings in the configuration, and a real VID/PID. That’s alright, it’s still a great exercise in building something from scratch, especially something that very few people have built successfully.

Oh, blatant Hackaday Store plug for the Teensy 3.1.

Making Embedded GUI’s Without Code

When the 4D Systems display first arrived in the mail, I assumed it would be like any other touch display – get the library and start coding/debugging and maybe get stuff painted on the screen before dinner. So I installed the IDE and driver, got everything talking and then…it happened. There, on my computer screen, were the words that simply could not exist –  “doesn’t require any coding at all”.

I took a step back, blinked and adjusted my glasses. The words were still there. I tapped the side of the monitor to make sure the words hadn’t somehow jumbled themselves together into such an impossible statement. But the words remained…   doesn’t.require.any.coding.at.all.

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