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[CNLohr]‘s Microscope Slide Linux AVR Minecraft… thing


We’ve been following [CNLohr]‘s process of creating an AVR-powered microscope slide running Linux and interfacing redstone circuits in Minecraft to real world electronic for a while now, but we’re really at a loss for words on how it works. Well, now there’s a video explaining everything you want to know about this amazingly complicated and overwrought thing.

The device is powered by an AVR microcontroller and Ethernet controller running [Fabrice Bellard]‘s JSLinux in a browser. [CNLohr] added a few bits to JSLinux allowing him map the x86 IO ports emulated inside JSLinux to the AVR’s IO ports. This allows him to query the status – both analog and digital – using just a browser. Very cool, but [CNLohr] can also run his Minecraft server optimized for 8-bit devices on this microscope slide server to create a bridge between real electronics and redstone circuits.

To sum up what’s going on here, [Bellard] created an x86 emulator in JavaScript, and put Linux on it. [CNLohr] is serving this from a microcontroller attached to a circuit built on a microscope slide so he can blink an LED from within Minecraft. It’s the most beautifully over engineered and useless thing we’ve ever seen, basically.

In the video after the break, you can see [CNLohr]‘s overly convoluted walk through of what’s going on with this microscope slide server. As a little bonus, you can also catch a glimpse of Hackaday at 00:20 in [CNLohr]‘s most visited / new tab thingy in Firefox. We’re honored, really.

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Accurate timers with an AVR


An awful lot of microcontroller projects use timers to repeat an action every few minutes, hours, or days. While these timers can be as accurate as a cheap digital wrist watch, there are times when you need a microcontroller’s timer to measure exactly, losing no more than a few milliseconds a day. It’s not very hard to get a timer to this level as accuracy, as [Karl] shows us in a tutorial.

The problem with keeping time with a microcontroller has to do with the crystal, clock frequency, and hardware prescalers of your chip of choice. [Karl] started his project with an ATMega168 and a 20 MHz crystal and the prescaler set at 256. This made the 78.125 interrupts per second, but the lack of floating point arithmetic means one second for the microcontroller will be 0.9984 seconds to you and me.

[Karl]‘s solution to this problem was to have the ATMega count out 78 interrupts per second for seven seconds, then count out 79 interrupts for one second. It’s not terribly complicated, and now [Karl]‘s timers are as accurate as the crystal used for the ‘168’s clock.

Macro assembly for AVR chips


Here’s an interesting tip that can help improve your ability to write assembly code. In an effort to remove the complexity of assembly code for an AVR project [Quinn Dunki] figured out how to use macros when writing AVR code with the GNU toolchain. Anyone using AVR-GCC should keep this in mind if they ever want or need to pound out a project in assembly language.

If you look at the code snippet above you’ll see two commands that are obviously not assembly; PulseVRAMWrite and DisableVRAMWrite. These are macros that direct the assembler to roll in a hunk of code. But avr-as, the assembler used with this toolchain, lacks the ability to handle macros. That’s too bad because we agree with [Quinn] that these macros make the code easier to read and greatly reduce the probability of error from a typo since the code in the macro will be used repeatedly.

The answer is to alter the makefile to use GNU M4. We hadn’t heard of it, but sure enough it’s already installed on our Linux Mint system (“man m4″ for more info). It’s a robust macro processor that swaps out all of her macros based on a separate file which defines them. The result is an assembly file that will play nicely with avr-as.

Her implementation is to help in development of the GPU for her Veronica computer project.

USB Keyboard Becomes an AVR Programmer

[Steve] created an AVR programmer using an old USB keyboard. We feature a bunch of AVR programmers, but this one is made from parts that many people will have lying around. There are two components: the controller PCB from a USB keyboard, and an optocoupler for emulating key presses.

In order to send data to the AVR, [Steve] used the LED outputs on the keyboard. These LEDs can easily be toggled according to the HID device specification. They provide a 5 volt output with current limiting resistors, which means they can be connected directly to the target AVR.

Reading data is a bit more complex. The optocoupler tricks the keyboard into believing that a single key has been pressed, firing off a data transfer. The MISO pin on the AVR is connected to the row and column of the shift key, which is read by the driver.

On the software side [Steve] created an avrdude interface driver. This allows the programmer to be used with avrdude, just like any other programmer. [Steve] does point out that it isn’t the fastest programmer since the keyboard tries to debounce the MISO input, greatly limiting the speed. However, since it’s made from stuff you might have in your junk bin, it’s a neat hack.

AVR Minecraft server lets you toggle pins from the virtual world

Wanting to test his skills by building a webserver [Cnlohr] decided to also code a Minecraft server which allows him to toggle pins from inside the game. The rows of switches seen above give him direct access to the direction register and I/O pins of one port of the ATmega328.

The server hardware is shown in the image above. It’s hard to tell just from that image, but it’s actually a glass substrate which is [Cnlohr's] specialty. He uses an ENC424J600 to handle the networking side of things. This chip costs almost twice as much as the microcontroller next to it. But even in single quantities the BOM came in at under $20 for the entire build.

In the video after the break [Cnlohr] and a friend demonstrate the ability for multiple users to log into the Minecraft world. The simulation is fairly bare-bones, but the ability to affect hardware from the game world is more exciting than just pushing 1s and 0s through some twisted pairs.

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TinyMatrix derivative uses PIC instead of AVR

[Stu] has a teenage niece whose birthday is coming up and he wanted to give her something unique as a gift. He’s working on an LED matrix pendant that can display pixel graphics, play animations, and scroll messages.

He began the work after drawing inspiration from the TinyMatrix project. That clever design uses a DIP AVR chip soldered directly to the legs of a 5×7 LED matrix. It was powered by a coin cell with the power and ground wires acting as the necklace for the pendant. [Stu] is more comfortable developing using PIC chips, so he based his project on a 16F88. It will not run from a 3V source so he’s got a few issued to work out before the final design is finished.

One thing that’s quite interesting is his side project. After growing weary of hand coding the arrays for each frame of an animation he wrote a GUI in C# that let him design the image and output the code with a few clicks of the mouse.

AVR programmer made without a programmer

[blueHash] uses this cheap development board as an AVR programmer. What’s interesting to us is that it solves the chicken-or-egg problem that is usually encountered when bootstrapping a programmer. We’ve written about this issue before. Most programmers use microcontrollers, which first need to be flashed using a programmer. But it turns out the chip on this dev board has a DFU mode which gets around that conundrum.

He grabbed a uSD dev board for about $6. It’s got a crystal, an ATmega32u4 chip, and on the other side there’s a MicroSD card slot. We looked around and found an Atmel Datasheet (PDF) which describes the Device Firmware Upgrade mechanism. The AVR devices which support DFU are factory configured to use it. This dev board is designed to use DFU so all [blueHash] needed to do is find and configure a ISP firmware package that worked with this chip.