Does This Demo Remind You of Mario Kart? It Should!

Here’s a slick-looking VGA demo written in assembly by [Yianni Kostaris]; it’s VGA output from an otherwise stock ATmega2560 at 16MHz with no external chips involved. If you’re getting some Super Mario Kart vibes from how it looks, there’s a good reason for that. The demo implements a form of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 graphics, which allowed for a background to be efficiently texture-mapped, rotated, and scaled for a 3D effect. It was used in racing games (such as Super Mario Kart) but also in many others. A video of the demo is embedded below.

[Yianni] posted the original demo a year earlier, but just recently added detailed technical information on how it was all accomplished. The AVR outputs VGA signals directly, resulting in 100×120 resolution with 256 colors, zipping along at 60 fps. The AVR itself is not modified or overclocked in any way — it runs at an entirely normal 16MHz and spends 93% of its time handling interrupts. Despite sharing details for how this is done, [Yianni] hasn’t released any code, but told us this demo is an offshoot from another project that is still in progress. It’s worth staying tuned because it’s clear [Yianni] knows his stuff.

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Custom Data Writer Board For 1996 Plane’s GPS

[Dmitry Grinberg] recently bought a Cessna 150 that contained an old IFR-certified GPS from 1996, the KLN89B. The GPS unit contains a database which by law has to be kept up-to-date for IFR flight. The problem was that, while Honeywell still supplied the data in electronic form, [Dmitry] had no way to update the GPS. The original ways for doing it are either no longer supported, too expensive and a pain to do, or not available to him due to the way his GPS was installed.

Two of those ways involved removing a data card which can legally be slid out of the GPS’s front panel. The data card is what stores all the data but it’s a proprietary card and there’s no reader for it. [Dmitry]’s solution was therefore to make his own reader/writer board.

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Hook Any Mouse to an Acorn

Acorn was one of the great IT giants that rose high and then fell to obscurity during the rise of personal computing. However, for many hobbyists these computers are as important and as loved as the Commodore 64. [Simon Inns] has made a great adapter to interface modern USB mice to these old boxes. 

After thirty years of interaction with people, one might be hard pressed to find a working mouse for an older computer. On top of that, even if you did, these mice are likely a lackluster experience to begin with. They were made long before industrial designers were invited to play with computers and are often frustrating and weird. Cotton swabs and alcohol are involved, to say the least.

[Simon]’s box converts a regular USB HID compliant mouse to a quadrature signal that these 8-bit computers like. The computer then counts the fake pulses and happily moves the cursor around. No stranger to useful conversion boxes, he used an Atmel micro (AT90USB1287) with a good set of USB peripherals. It’s all nicely packed into a project box. There’s a switch on the front to select between emulation modes.

If you’d like one for yourself the code and schematics are available on his site. As you can see in the video below, the device works well!

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What’s The Deal With Atmel And Microchip?

It’s been nearly a year since Microchip acquired Atmel for $3.56 Billion. As with any merger, acquisition, or buyout, there has been concern and speculation over what will become of the Atmel catalog, the Microchip catalog, and Microchip’s strategy for the coming years.

For the Hackaday audience, this is a far more important issue than Intel’s acquisition of Altera, On Semi and Fairchild, and even Avago’s purchase of Broadcom in the largest semiconductor deal in history. The reason Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel is such an important issue is simply due to the fact the Hackaday community uses a lot of their parts. This was a holy war, and even changing the name of a line of chips to ‘MCMega’ would result in a consumer rebellion, or at least a lot of very annoying tweets.

For the record, I’ve tried my best to figure out what’s going on with Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel for the last few months. I’ve talked to a few Microchip reps, a few Atmel reps, and talked to a few ‘out of band’ connections – people who should know what’s going on but aren’t directly tied to either Atmel or Microchip. The best I’ve come up with is a strange silence. From my perspective, it seems like something is going on, but no one is saying anything.

Take the following with several grains of salt, but Microchip recently got in touch with me regarding their strategy following their Atmel acquisition. In a few thousand words, they outlined what’s going on in casa Microchip, and what will happen to the Atmel portfolio in the future.

Broad Strokes

In broad strokes, the Microchip PR team wanted to emphasize a few of the plans regarding their cores, software, and how Microchip parts are made obsolete. In simple, bullet point terms, this is what Microchip passed on to me, to pass on to you:

  • Microchip will continue their philosophy of customer-driven obsolescence. This has historically been true – Microchip does not EOL parts lightly, and the state of the art from 1995 is still, somewhere, in their catalog.
  • We plan to support both Atmel Studio 7 and MPLAB® X for the foreseeable future.
  • Microchip has never focused on “one core”, but rather on the whole solution providing “one platform.” This is also true. A year ago, Microchip had the MIPS-based PIC-32 cores, a few older PIC cores, and recently Microchip has released a few ARM cores. Atmel, likewise, has the family tree of 8 and 32-bit AVR cores and the ARM-based SAM cores.
  • We will continue to support and invest in growing our 8-bit PIC® and AVR MCU product families.


In addition to the broad strokes outlined above, Microchip also sent along a few questions and answers from Ganesh Moorthy, Microchip’s President and COO. These statements dig a little bit deeper into what’s in store for the Microchip and Atmel portfolios:

How will the 32-bit products complement each other? Atmel has a few 32-bit microcontrollers, like the SAM and AT32 series. Microchip has the PIC-32. The answer to this question is, “Many of the 32-bit MCU products are largely complementary because of their different strengths and focus.  For example, the SAM series has specific families targeting lower power consumption and 5 volts where PIC32 has families more optimally suited for audio and graphics solutions. We plan to continue investing in both SAM and PIC32 families of products.

Will Atmel’s START support 8-bit AVRs? “Yes, although it is too early to commit to any specific dates at this stage, we consider modern rapid prototyping tools, such as START and the MPLAB Code Configurator, strategic for the our customers to deliver innovative and competitive solutions in this fast-paced industry.”

Now that Microchip has a complete portfolio of low-power, inexpensive 32-bit microcontrollers, will the focus on 8-bit product be inevitably reduced? No, we see that in actual embedded control applications there is still a large demand for the type of qualities that are uniquely provided by an 8-bit product such as: ease-of-use, 5V operation, robustness, noise immunity, real-time performance, long endurance, integration of analog and digital peripherals, extremely low-static power consumption and more. We don’t think that the number of bits is an appropriate / sufficient way to classify a complex product such as the modern microcontroller. We believe that having the right peripherals is actually what matters most.”

Security, Memories, WiFi, and Analog products. For both Atmel and Microchip, the most visible products in each of their portfolios is the lineup of microcontrollers. This isn’t the limit of their portfolios, though: Atmel has space-grade memories, Microchip has some very useful networking chips, and both companies have a number of security and crypto chips. In the statements given by Moorthy, very little will change. The reason for this is the relative lack of overlap in these devices. Even in segments where there is significant overlap, no EOLs are planned, circling back to the, “philosophy of customer-driven obsolescence.” In other words, if people keep buying it, it’s not going away.

The Takeaway

What is the future of Microchip post-Atmel acquisition? From what I’m seeing, not much. Microchip is falling back on their philosophy of ‘customer-driven obsolescence’. What does that mean? Any non-biased assessment of Microchip’s EOL policy is extremely generous. The chip found in the Basic Stamp 1, from 1993, is still available. It’s not recommended for new designs, but you can still buy it. That’s impressive any way you look at it.

The one thing we’re not getting out of this pseudo press release is information about what Atmel will be called in a few years. Will the Atmel mark be subsumed by a gigantic letter ‘M’? Will the company retain two different trademarks? There is no public information about this.

Yes, I know this post is a nearly verbatim copy of a pseudo press release. I’m not particularly happy this information was presented to me this way, but then again, the Atmel/Microchip ecosystem has been impressively secretive. This is the only information that exists, though, and I’m glad to have it in any event.

That said, there are a lot of people in the Hackaday community that want to know what the deal is with Microchip and Atmel. Short of pulling Jerry Seinfeld out of retirement, this is the best we’re going to get for now. Of course, if you have any info or speculation, the comments below are wide open.

Taking a U2F Hardware Key from Design to Production

Building a circuit from prototyping to printed circuit board assembly is within the reach of pretty much anyone with the will to get the job done. If that turns out to be something that everyone else wants, though, the job gets suddenly much more complex. This is what happened to [Conor], who started with an idea to create two-factor authentication tokens and ended up manufacturing an selling them on Amazon. He documented his trials and tribulations along the way, it’s both an interesting and perhaps cautionary tale.

[Conor]’s tokens themselves are interesting in their simplicity: they use an Atmel ATECC508A specifically designed for P-256 signatures and keys, a the cheapest USB-enabled microcontroller he could find: a Silicon Labs EFM8UB1. His original idea was to solder all of the tokens over the course of one night, which is of course overly optimistic. Instead, he had the tokens fabricated and assembled before being shipped to him for programming.

Normally the programming step would be straightforward, but using identical pieces of software for every token would compromise their security. He wrote a script based on the Atmel chip and creates a unique attestation certificate for each one. He was able to cut a significant amount of time off of the programming step by using the computed values with a programming jig he built to flash three units concurrently. This follows the same testing and programming path that [Bob Baddeley] advocated for in his Tools of the Trade series.

From there [Conor] just needed to get set up with Amazon. This was a process worthy of its own novel, with Amazon requiring an interesting amount of paperwork from [Conor] before he was able to proceed. Then there was an issue of an import tariff, but all-in-all everything seems to have gone pretty smoothly.

Creating a product from scratch like this can be an involved process. In this case it sounds like [Conor] extracted value from having gone through the entire process himself. But he also talks about a best-case-scenario margin of about 43%. That’s a tough bottom line but a good lesson anyone looking at building low-cost electronics.

Bending The New Amazon Dash Button To Your Will

Most Hackaday readers are familiar with the Amazon Dash button even if it has not yet made an appearance in their country or region. A WiFi enabled button emblazoned with a product logo, that triggers an Amazon order for that product when you press it. Stick it on your washing machine, press the button when you run out of laundry soap, and as if by magic some laundry soap appears. You still have to get out of your armchair to collect the soap from the delivery guy, but maybe they’re working on that problem too.

Of course the embedded computer concealed within the Dash button has been the subject of much interest within our community, and quite a few creative uses have been made of repurposed and reverse engineered examples.

Earlier this year a new Dash button model appeared. Largely similar on the outside, but sporting a comprehensive hardware update internally. Gone is the STM32 processor to be replaced by an Atmel part, and unfortunately since they also made changes to its communication protocol, gone also are most of the hacks for the device.

[Evan Allen] writes to us with his work on bending the new Dash button to his will. He goes into detail on the subject of retrieving their MAC addresses, and modifications to existing hacks to allow the buttons to be intercepted/redirected to trigger his MQTT server. It’s not by any means the end of the story and we’re sure we’ll see more accomplished uses of the new Dash button in due course, but it’s a start.

If the new button’s hardware interests you then [Matthew Petroff]’s teardown is definitely worth a look. As well as the Atmel chips — discovered to be a ATSAMG55J19A-MU with an ATWINC1500B wireless chip — the buttons now support power from a AA cell, and boast a significantly reduced power consumption. We really, really, need to pwn this tasty new hardware!

We’ve covered quite a few Dash button hacks before, from simply capturing button presses to cracking it wide open and running your own code. Let’s hope this new version will prove to be as versatile.

Microcontrollers now substitute for CPUs

Microcontrollers are getting faster and faster, as is most of the rest of the computing world. Just like you can play Nintendo console games on the newest Nintendo handhelds, it seems that modern microcontrollers can replace CPUs on personal computers from the 80s. At least, that’s what [Dave] has shown with his latest project: an Atmel microcontroller that directly attaches to the CPU slot on a Commodore PET.

Essentially, the project started out as a test rig of sorts for the Commodore. [Dave] wanted to see if some of the hardware on the Commodore was still functional and behaving properly. From there, it somewhat snowballed. The address bus was easy enough to investigate, but adding only a few more pins on the microcontroller he was already using would be enough to access the databus too. A character table was soon added, a test algorithm, and more useful insights. It’s a masterful manipulation of this older hardware with modern technology and is definitely worth a look.

There’s a lot more going on in the retrocomputing world than meets the eye. One might think these old computers were all in landfills by now, but there is a devoted fanbase that does everything from building new hard drives for old computers or investigating their true audio-visual potential.

Thanks to [Mike w] for the tip!