FPGA Based Ambilight Clone

The Philips Ambilight – a bunch of rear-facing RGB LEDs taped to the back of a TV – is becoming the standard project for anyone beginning to tinker with FPGAs. [DrX]’s is the best one we’ve seen yet, with a single board that reads and HDMI stream, makes blinkey lights go, and outputs the HDMI stream to the TV or monitor.

[DrX] is using an FPGA development board with two HDMI connectors – the Scarab miniSpartan6+ – and a strand of WS2801 individually addressable RGB LEDs for this project. With a bit of level shifting, driving the LEDs was easily taken care of. But what about decoding HDMI?

Most of the project is borrowed from a project that displays a logo in the corner of a 720p video stream. The hardware is the same, but for an Ambilight clone, you need to read the video stream and process it, not just write to it. By carefully keeping track of the R, G, and B values for each pixel along with the pixel clock,  the colors along the edge of a display can be averaged. It’s not as difficult or as memory-intensive as building a frame buffer; nearly all of the picture data is thrown out when assembling the averages around the perimeter of the display. It does work, though.

After figuring out the average color around the perimeter of the display, it’s just a simple matter of driving the LEDs. Tape those LEDs to the back of a TV, and there’s an Ambilight clone, made with an FPGA.

[DrX] has a few videos of his project in action. You can check those out below.

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VCF East X: The World’s Largest USB Thumb Drive

The Vintage Computer Festival last weekend featured racks and racks of old minicomputers, enough terminals for an entire lab, and enough ancient storage devices to save a YouTube video. These storage devices – hard disks, tape readers, and 8″ disk drives – were only connected to vintage hardware, with one exception: a DEC RL02 drive connected to a modern laptop via USB.

The DEC RL02 drive is the closest you’re going to get to a modern mechanical hard drive with these old machines. It’s a huge rack unit with removable platters that can hold 10 Megabytes of storage. [Chris] found one of these old drives and because he wanted to get into FPGA development, decided to create a USB adapter for this huge, old drive.

The hardware isn’t too terribly complex, with a microcontroller and an FPGA that exposes the contents of the drive over USB mass storage. For anyone trying to bootstrap a PDP-11 or -8 system, [Chris] could download disk images from the Internet, write them to the disk, and load up the contents of the drive from the minicomputer. Now, he’s using it with SimH to have a physical drive for an emulated system, but the controller really doesn’t care about what format the disk pack is in. If [Chris] formatted a disk pack with a FAT file system, he would have the world’s largest and heaviest USB thumb drive in the world.

Video below.

Update: As promised, [Chris] put all the code in a git

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New Part Day: Modern PALs

Back in the bad old days, if you needed a little bit of custom logic you would whip out a tiny chip known as a PAL. A Programmable Logic Array is just what it sounds like and is the forerunner of modern, unsolderable CPLDs and FPGAs.

PALs and GALs have died off, left to the wastes of the Jameco warehouse, and now it seems the only programmable logic you can buy are huge, 100-pin monstrosities. [Nick] at Arachnid Labs was working on his Tsunami signal generator when a user asked if they could add just one more feature: a programmable divider to count 256 iterations of a clock. This is the perfect application for dumb logic, but if you’re looking for a part that’s not recommended for new designs, you only need to look to old programmable logic.

Enter the Greenpak. [Nick] had a dev kit for these ‘modern PALs’ sitting around and decided to give it a go. They’re small – they max out at 20 pins – but there are a few features that make it a little more interesting than a simple array of AND and OR gates. The Greenpak3 features analog comparators, look-up tables, RC oscillators, counters, and GPIO that will work well enough as circuit glue. They also work at 5V, something you’re just not going to find in more complex programmable logic.

These tiny chips are programmed in a graphical IDE, but the datasheet (PDF) includes full documentation for the bitstream; someone needs to write a Verilog or VHDL compiler for it soon. The one downside with these chips is that they’re tiny; 0.4mm pitch QFN packages. If you can solder that, you’re too good at soldering.

The Oldland CPU 32-bit FPGA Core

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) let you program any logic you’d like onto a chip. You write your logic using a hardware description language, then flash it to the FPGA. You can even design your own processor and flash it to the chip.

That’s exactly what [jamieiles] has done with the Oldland CPU. It’s an open source 32 bit CPU core that you can synthesize for use on an FPGA. Not only can you browse through all the Verilog code in the Github repo, but there’s also a bunch of tools for working with this CPU core.

Included with the package is oldland-rtlsim, which lets you simulate the processor on a PC. The oldland-debug tool lets you connect to the processor for programming and debugging over JTAG. Finally, there’s a GNU toolchain port that lets you build C code for the device.

Going one step futher, [jamieiles] built a full SoC around the Oldland core. This has SPI, UART, timers, and more features you’d expect to find in a microcontroller. It can be flashed to the relatively cheap Terasic DE0-Nano board.

[jamieiles] has also ported u-boot to the processor, and the next thing on the list is the Linux kernel. If you’ve ever been interested in how CPUs actually work, this is a neat project to look through. If you want more open source CPU cores, check out OpenCores.

Using The Red Pitaya As An SDR

The Red Pitaya is a credit-card sized board that runs Linux, has Ethernet, and a good bit of RAM. This sounds a lot like a Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black, but the similarities end there. The Red Pitaya also has two RF inputs, two RF outputs, and a load of digital IOs, all connected to an Xilinx SoC that includes an FPGA. [Pavel] realized the Pitaya had all the components of a software-defined radio, and built an implementation to prove it.

The input for the SDR taps directly into one of the high impedance inputs with a simple loop antenna made out of telephone cable. The actual software-defined part of this radio borrows heavily from an Xilinx application note, while everything is controlled by either SDR# or HDSDR.

[Pavel] included a pre-built SD card image with all his software, so cloning this project is simply a matter of copying an SD card and building an antenna. The full source is also available, interesting if you would like to muck about with FPGAs and SDRs.

HDMI Audio and Video for Neo Geo MVS

[Charlie] was killing some time hacking on some cheap FPGA dev boards he bought from eBay. Initially, he intended to use them to create HDMI ports for a different project before new inspiration hit him. Instead, he added an HDMI port to Neo Geo MVS games. The Neo Geo MVS was a 90’s arcade machine that played gems like the Metal Slug and Samurai Showdown series. [Charlie] has a special knack for mods, being featured on Hackaday before for implementing Zork on hardware and making a mini supergun PCB. What’s especially nice about his newest mod is that the HDMI outputs both audio and video.

[Charlie] obtained the best possible video and audio signal by tapping the digital inputs to the Neo Geo’s DACs (digital-to-analog converter). The FPGA was then used to convert the signals to HDMI, maintaining a digital signal path from video generation to display. While this sounds simple enough, there was a lot that had to be done. The JAMMA video standard’s lower resolution was incompatible with the various resolutions offered by the HDMI protocol. [Charlie] solved this problem by implementing scan doubling using the RAM on the Cyclone II dev board. He then had to downsample the audio to 32kHz (from 55.6kHz) in order to meet the HDMI specs. Getting the sound over HDMI required adding data islands to the signal, a feat [Charlie] admits was a frustrating one.

When he tested the HDMI with his monitor, it was out of spec but still worked. His TV, on the other hand, refused to play it at all. This was due to the Neo Geo outputting 59.1 fps – not the standard 60 fps. Using the FPGA, [Charlie] overclocked the NeoGeo by approximately 1% and used the 27Mhz pixel clock to change the FPGA output to a 720 x 480p signal.

For those that love the scan lines of yore, they can be enabled with the push of a button. [Charlie] notes that there are some slight differences in the shadow effects of some graphics, but he has done his best to minimize them. He also admits that the FPGA code contributes only 100 microseconds of delay compared to analog output, which is fast enough for even the most hardcore gamers.

Check out the video after the break to see how the Neo Geo looks in HDMI along with a side-by-side comparison to a CRT TV.

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Reverse Engineer then Drive LCD with FPGA

Fans of [Ben Heck] know that he has a soft spot for pinball machines and his projects that revolve around that topic tend to be pretty epic. This is a good example. At a trade show he saw an extra-wide format LCD screen which he thought would be perfect on a pinball build. He found out it’s a special module made for attaching to your car’s sun visor. The problem is that it only takes composite-in and he wanted higher quality video than that offers. The solution: reverse engineer the LCD protocol and implement it in an FPGA.

This project is a soup to nuts demonstration of replacing electronics drivers; the skill is certainly not limited to LCD modules. He starts by disassembling the hardware to find what look like differential signaling lines. With that in mind he hit the Internet looking for common video protocols which will help him figure out what he’s looking for. A four-channel oscilloscope sniffs the signal as the unit shows a blue screen with red words “NO SIGNAL”. That pattern is easy to spot since the pixels are mostly repeated except when red letters need to be displayed. Turns out the protocol is much like VGA with front porch, blanking, etc.

With copious notes about the timings [Ben] switches over to working with a Cyclone III FPGA to replace the screen’s stock controller. The product claims 800×234 resolution but when driving it using those parameters it doesn’t fill the entire screen. A bit more tweaking and he discovers the display actually has 1024×310 pixels. Bonus!

It’s going to take us a bit more study to figure out exactly how he boiled down the sniffed data to his single color-coded protocol sheet. But that’s half the fun! If you need a few more resources to understand how those signals work, check out one of our other favorite FPGA-LCD hacks.

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