Try out your assembly and BASIC skills with a ZX Spectrum project

It can be really hard to warm up to coding in Assembly. But this tutorial looks to make it understandable and (almost) easy. It focuses on programming a game for the ZX Spectrum. But you won’t need the hardware on hand as you can just use the ZX Spin emulator as you work your way through the code.

Ostensibly this is a 30-minute tutorial but that’s a gross underestimate. We finished a cursory read of the tutorial and the building blocks are certainly clear and easy to understand. But we like to make sure we understand every line of code and plan to spread that out over the coming weekend.

The first chapter eases us into machine code by combining it with a bit of BASIC. You’ll see how to manipulate the ZX Spectrum memory and then pluck that value back out into the BASIC program. But once chapter 2 hits it’s pretty much all assembly from there on out. The nice thing is that as you go along you learn how the hardware works and there are quite a few references to pages in the manual so you can do some extra learning along the way.

[Thanks Mathilda]

Programming without a toolchain; crafting PIC op code by hand

We’ve been living a life of luxury, writing our microcontroller code in a text editor and using — of all things — a compiler to turn it into something the chip can use. [Dan Amlund Thomsen] shows us a different way of doing things. He’s actually crafting the operation codes for a PIC microcontroller by hand. We’re glad he’s explained this in-depth because right now we feel way over our heads.

His program is pretty simple, it blinks a single LED and he’s chosen t work with a PIC 12F1840. The first order of business is to issues the words that configure the chip using 14-bit binary values from the datasheet. From there he goes on to write the program in assembly code. At this point he could pretty much just run this through the assembler, but he’s really just getting started now. He walks through the format necessary to package the configuration words, then goes on to illustrate the translation of assembly commands to binary op codes. We’re not sure we’ll ever get around to trying this ourselves, but it was certainly fun to read about it.

Operating systems development with the Raspberry Pi

Even though the Raspberry Pi has, from the very beginning, been touted as an educational computer, we’ve seen neither hide nor hare of coursework, lesson plans, or even computer sciencey tutorials using the Raspi. We’re guessing academia works at a much slower pace than the average hardware hacker, but [Alex Chadwick] at Cambridge University has managed to put together an online tutorial on developing an operating system from scratch for the Raspi.

The goal of this tutorial is to throw a budding Raspi tinkerer into the strange and confusing world of registers, hexadecimal, and ARMv6 assembly. After going through the necessary toolchain, [Alex]‘s tutorials cover blinking the ‘OK’ LED on the Raspberry Pi using only assembly.

The OS development guide goes on from there to include drawing graphics on the screen and even accepting input from a USB keyboard.

It’s important to point out what [Alex]‘s tutorial isn’t; even though this series of tutorials goes through manipulating the bare metal of the Raspberry Pi, don’t expect to be porting UNIX to the Raspi after going through these guides. That being said, after completing these tutorials, you’ll be in a fabulous position for building your own homebrew OS on the Raspberry Pi.

A detailed tutorial on speeding up AVR division

[Alan Burlison] is working on an Arduino project with an accelerometer and a few LEDs. Having the LEDs light up as his board is tilted to one side or another is an easy enough project a computer cowboy could whip out in an hour, but [Alan] – ever the perfectionist – decided to optimize his code so his accelerometer-controlled LEDs don’t jitter. The result is a spectacular blog post chronicling the pitfalls of floating point math and division on an AVR.

To remove the jitter from his LEDs, [Alan] used a smoothing algorithm known as an exponential moving average. This algorithm uses multiplication and is usually implemented using floating point arithmetic. Unfortunately, AVRs don’t have floating point arithmetic so [Alan] used fixed point arithmetic – a system similar to balancing your checkbook in cents rather than dollars.

With a clever use of bit shifting to calculate the average with scaling, [Alan] was able to make the fixed point version nearly six times faster than  the floating point algorithm implementation. After digging into the assembly of his fixed point algorithm, he was able to speed it up to 10 times faster than floating point arithmetic.

The takeaway from [Alan]‘s adventures in arithmetic is that division on an AVR is slow. Not very surprising after you realize the AVR doesn’t have a division instruction. Of course, sometimes you can’t get around having to divide so multiplying by the reciprocal and using fixed point arithmetic is the way to go if speed is an issue.

Sure, squeezing every last cycle out of an 8 bit microcontroller is a bit excessive if you’re just using an Arduino as a switch. If you’re doing something with graphics or need very fast response times, [Alan] gives a lot of really useful tips.

Receiving asynchronous data bursts

[Johan's] been working on a chunk of code for about seven years and he thinks it’s ready to help you with your next project. He calls it D1 (The One) and it lets you receive asynchronous data without the need for a hardware USART. It’s capable of working with signals from an IR or RF remote, as well as tangentially related transmissions like RFID and magstripe readers.

It uses timer and port interrupts to sample the incoming data. Once it’s captured a transmission, the code sets a flag so that you can pull what it got into your own application. If you’re expecting to receive a protocol that sends packets several times in a row a verification module is also included which runs as a precondition of setting the received flag. The package is written in PIC assembly, but with all the information that [Johan] included in his post this shouldn’t be hard to port over to other chip architecture.

DCPU-16 running Pac-Man

If you’ve been trying to think of stuff you can do with the DCPU-16 this may inspire you to write a clone of  a classic game.

This version of Pac-Man was written using a sprite system with a 16 color pallette. It runs in an HTML-based emulator, so you can even monkey around with the assembly code to help you figure out how it works. But if you’re not into writing code that is this machine-close, you can just click the ‘run’ button and use your keyboard arrows to play through a level or two. You’ll notice there’s only one game board available so far and some things are still missing like that familiar waka-waka as he gobbles up the dots. Let us know if you mange to extend the features of this version.

In case you missed it, this emulator is running the DCPU-16 spec from Notch’s new game, 0x10c (. We have no idea how that’s going to shape up, but getting in on the game early will pay off it turns out to be as popular as Minecraft.

Interesting substrate used to position LEDs of this Word Clock

[Ivan] decided to build a Word Clock as holiday gift for his parents. He pulled it off, but as you can see above, it meant a lot of point-to-point soldering. One small piece of proto-board is used to host the power supply and a few integrated circuits, with the rest of the device mounted on an interesting choice of material.

The substrate that holds the LED array for the display is a plastic mesh. You’ll find the stuff in any craft store, it’s meant for use in yarn work. It comes rated in several different sizes designated by holes-per-linear-inch. This is fantastic because it makes precision spacing a snap. The face plate itself looks great, especially when you consider that all of the letters were cut out from a piece of black foam board by hand. This bezel was then put in a picture frame, with a bit of tissue paper as a diffuser.

They tell us that the code was written in assembly for an ATtiny2313 microcontroller. It uses a DS1305 RTC chip to keep time and you might be interested to see how the communication protocol was implemented in assembly. The project is based on [Doug's] Word Clock which we covered in this links post.