1-Pixel Pacman

I usually see retro-gaming projects using tiny screens with a fair number of pixels (64×64) but what I really like is the look of making every pixel count. With this in mind I built 1-Pixel Pac-Man, the classic coin-op experience but with characters that consist of just one pixel. Playing a throw-back like this wouldn’t be the same without some vintage controls so I picked up an Atari joystick, patched it into a microcontroller, and started coding. Check it out:

Smartmatrix Bundle

This piece of hardware made the project build really easy: the Smartmatrix. [Louis Beaudioin] developed the Smartmatrix and it’s been in the Hackaday Store for a while now. The display module itself is a commodity item that is used in LED billboards. There are shrouded headers on the back of the panels, to the left and right sides, which allow them to be daisy chained. The Smartmatrix PCB plugs into one of these shields, provides a soldering footprint for the Teensy 3.1 which drives the display, and gives you the wiring to connect screw terminals from the PCB to the power terminals on the module. Why the need for beefy power jumpers? At full white the thing can draw about 3.5A — don’t worry there’s a power supply included in the bundle.

Also integral to making this look good is the diffuser panel which is frosted acrylic. The Smartmatrix is designed to be housed in a shadowbox frame; it even includes a frame backer board with a cut-out for the Teensy 3.1 so it can be programmed without opening the thing up. I like looking at the guts so I’m leaving my free floating until I come up with an interesting way to mount everything as one unit.

Programming Pac-Man from the Ground Up


If you haven’t looked into it before, the ghost AI and gameplay details for Pac-Man are absolutely brilliant. [Toru Iwatani] did a masterful job with the original, and you should take a look at all of the analysis that has been done over the years. The best collection I could find was the Pac-Man Dossier and I based most of my code on the rules described there.

Basically the ghosts have two modes, chase and scatter. The modes set the enemy targets differently; to points at the four corners of the board in scatter, and to points relative to the player in chase. The relative part is key; only the red enemy actually chases you. Another one of them looks at the red enemy’s distance and angle, and targets the reflection of that vector. Really easy, really clever, and results in enemy behavior that’s believable. It isn’t just the enemy movement, little touches like a speed penalty (1/60 of a second) for each dot the player gobbles up means the enemies can catch up if you continuously eat, but you can escape by taking the path already-eaten.

Library, DMA, and Extra Hardware

The hardware and software running the Smartmatrix made the display portions of the project really simple. First off, the Teensy 3.1 is fast, running at 96MHz in this case. Second, it has Direct Memory Access (DMA) which [Louis] used in the Smartmatrix library. This means that driving the display takes almost no CPU time at all, leaving the rest for your own use. This example of a game is under-utilizing this power… it’s totally capable of full-motion video and calculating amazing visualizations on the fly.

The PCB hosting the Teensy 3.1 breaks out several pins to one side. I’m not sure what I’ll add in the future so I actually used the extra surface-mount IO pins on the bottom of the Teensy to connect the Atari joystick (which is simply a set of switches). The are enough pads for two joysticks so I used pin sockets to interface the Teensy to the PCB so that I can get to it again later.

The kit also includes an IR receiver and remote, and also a microSD card to loading animations (there’s an SD socket on the PCB). The bundle in the Hackaday Store is a kit you solder yourself, but [Louis’] company, Pixelmatix, has a Kickstarter running for fully-assembled versions that come with a black remote and sound-visualization hardware.

Future Improvements

The game is fully working, but there are a few key things that I really want to add. The Teensy 3.1 has a single DAC pin available. I’m fairly certain the original coin-op game had mono audio. It should be possible to reproduce the sound quite accurately with this board. That would really make the project pop.

There are also a bunch of touch-ups that need to happen. I’d like to add an animation when the player is eaten by an enemy, and a countdown before the level restarts. The score, shown in binary on the right column, should be scrolled out in decimal when the game ends, and what’s a coin-op recreation without a high-score screen?

The Possibility Of Driving 16,000 RGB LEDs

Like just about everyone we know, [Luis] decided a gigantic RGB LED matrix would be a cool thing to build. Gigantic LED matrices are very hard to build, though: not only do you have to deal with large power requirements and the inevitable problems of overheating, you also need to drive a boat load of LEDs. This is not easy.

[Luis] found a solution to the problem of driving these LEDs with a new, fancy ARM Cortex M4 microcontroller. All Cortex M4 ARMs have DMA, making automatic memory transfers to peripherals and LED strips a breeze.

The microcontroler [Luis] is using only supports 1024 transfers per transfer set, equating to a maximum of 14 LEDs per transfer. This problem can be fixed by using the ping-pong mode in the DMA controller by switching between data structures for every DMA request. Basically, he’s extending the number of LEDs is just switching between two regions of memory and setting up the DMA transfer.

The result is much better than [Luis]’ original circuit that was just a bunch of SPI lines. It also looks really good, judging by the video below. It’s not quite a gigantic LED matrix yet, but if you want to see what that would look like, check out the huge 6 by 4 foot matrix hanging in the Hackaday overlord office.

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High Speed SSD1306 Library

[Lewin] wrote in to tell us about a high speed library for Arduino Due that he helped develop which allows interfacing OLED displays that use the SSD1306 display controller, using DMA routines for faster display refresh time.

Typically, displays such as the Monochrome 1.3″ 128×64 OLED graphic display , are interfaced with an Arduino board via the SPI or I2C bus. The Adafruit_SSD1306 library written by [Limor Fried] makes it simple to use these displays with a variety of Arduinos, using either software or hardware SPI. With standard settings using hardware SPI, calls to display() take about 2ms on the Due.

[Lewin] wanted to make it faster, and the SAM3X8E on the Due seemed like it could deliver. He first did a search to find out if this was already done, but came up blank. He did find [Marek Buriak]’s library for ILI9341-based TFT screens. [Marek] used code from [William Greiman], who developed SD card libraries for the Arduino. [William] had taken advantage of the SAM3X8E’s DMA capabilities to enable faster SD card transfers, and [Marek] then adapted this code to allow faster writes to ILI9341-based screens. All [Lewin] had to do was to find the code that sent a buffer out over SPI using DMA in Marek’s code, and adapt that to the Adafruit library for the SSD1306.

There is a caveat though: using this library will likely cause trouble if you are also using SPI to interface to other hardware, since the regular SPI.h library will no longer work in tandem with [Lewin]’s library. He offers some tips on how to overcome these issues, and would welcome any feedback or testing to help improve the code. The speed improvement is substantial. Up to 4 times quicker using standard SPI clock, or 8 times if you increase SPI clock speed. The code is available on his Github repo.

12 Mbps Communication Between A PC and MCU

The world of hobby electronics have only started putting USB in projects for the last few years, and right now, pushing 1.5 Mbps down a USB port is good enough for most cases. This isn’t true for all cases; that’s a terrible data rate, really, and to get the most out of a USB connection, you can at least move up to USB Full Speed and 12 Mbps.

[Linas] is using the STM32F4 microcontroller for this example, an extremely large and very capable chip. [Linas] is using FTDI’s FT2232D USB UART to send data from an SPI port over USB. This chip does support 12 Mbps, but only after a few additions; an external EEPROM must be connected to the FTDI chip to provide a USB 2.0 device descriptor, otherwise the connection between the microcontroller and a computer is limited to 1.5 Mbps. Even using the USB on the STM32 would be a bottleneck in this case; [Linas] is moving data out of the processor using only the DMA controller – using the USB on the STM32 would eat up processor cycles in the microcontroller.

Thanks to the DMA controller inside the STM32, the microcontroller is capable of sending and receiving data through SPI at the same time. The STM32 is capable of reading and writing to the Tx and Rx buffer at the same time, but the computer is only capable of half-duplex operation – it can only read or write at any one time. [Linas] is setting up the DMA controller on the STM32 as a circular mode, putting everything in the buffer into the FTDI chip, and reading everything sent from the computer back into the STM32’s memory. After counting off the correct number of packets. the controller resets everything, moves the circular buffer back to the beginning, and starts the whole process over again.

The circuit was prototyped with an STM Discovery board. With Labview, [Linas] can see the bits coming out of the microcontroller, and send some bits back to the micro over USB. [Linas] has an extraordinarily detailed video tutorial on this project. You can check that out below.

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MicroDMA and LEDs

[Jordan] has been playing around with WS2812b RGB LED strips with TI’s Tiva and Stellaris Launchpads. He’s been using the SPI lines to drive data to the LED strip, but this method means the processor is spending a lot of time grabbing data from a memory location and shuffling it out the SPI output register. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the μDMA available on these chips, and to write a library that uses DMA to control larger numbers of LEDs than a SPI peripheral could handle with a naive bit of code.

DMA is a powerful tool – instead of wasting processor cycles on moving bits back and forth between memory and a peripheral, the DMA controller does the same thing all by its lonesome, freeing up the CPU to do real work. TI’s Tiva C series and Stellaris LaunchPads have a μDMA controller with 32 channels, each of which has four unique hardware peripherals it can interact with or used for DMA transfer.

[Jordan] wrote a simple library that can be used to control a chain of WS2812b LEDs using the SPI peripheral. It’s much faster than transferring bits to the SPI peripheral with the CPU, and updating the frames for the LED strip are easier; new frames of a LED animation can be called from the main loop, or the DMA can just start again, without wasting precious CPU cycles updating some LEDs.

Function Generator with Zero CPU Cycles

No one is sitting around their workbench trying to come up with the next great oscilloscope or multimeter, but function generators still remain one of the pieces of test equipment anyone – even someone with an Arduino starter pack – can build at home. Most of these function generators aren’t very good; you’re lucky if you can get a sine wave above the audio spectrum. [Bruce Land] had the idea to play around with DMA channels on a PIC32 and ended up with a function generator that uses zero CPU cycles. It’s perfect for a homebrew function generator build, or even a very cool audio synthesizer.

The main obstacles to generating a good sine wave at high frequencies are a high sample rate and an accurate DAC. For homebrew function generators, it’s usually the sample rate that’s terrible; it’s hard pushing bits out a port that fast. By using the DMA channel on a PIC32, [Bruce] can shove arbitrary waveforms out of the chip without using any CPU cycles. By writing a sine wave, or any other wave for that matter, to memory, the PIC32 will just spit them out and leave the CPU to do more important work.

[Bruce] was able to generate a great-looking sine wave up to 200 kHz, and the highest amplitude of the harmonics was about 40db below the fundamental up to 100 kHz. That’s a spectacular sine wave, and the perfect basis for a DIY function generator build.

Driving WS2812B Pixels, With DMA Based SPI

Typically bit-banging an I/O line is the common method of driving the WS2812B (WS2811) RGB LEDs. However, this ties up precious microcontroller cycles while it waits around to flip a bit. A less processor intensive method is to use one of the built-in Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI) modules. This is done using specially crafted data and baud rate settings, that when shifted out over the Serial Data Out (SDO) pin, recreate the needed WS2812B signal timing. Even when running in SPI mode, your hardware TX buffer size will limit how many pixels you can update without CPU intervention.

[Henrik] gets around this limitation by using peripheral DMA (Direct Memory Access) to the SPI module in the Microchip PIC32MX250F128B microcontroller. Once properly configured, the DMA controller will auto increment through the defined section of DMA RAM, sending the pixel data over to the SPI module. Since the DMA controller takes care of the transfer, the micro is free to do other things. This makes all of DMA memory your display buffer. And leaves plenty of precious microcontroller cycles available to calculate what patterns you want the RGB LEDs to display.

Source code is available at the above link for those who would like to peruse, or try it out. This is part of [Henrik’s] Pixel Art Project. Video of DMA based SPI pixels after the break:

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