Unix On Your Breadboard

As smartphones continue to get bigger and bigger, the race to have the smallest chip running Unix (or Linux, as the case may be) is still on. A new contender in this arena is [Serge] who has crammed RetroBSD on a Fubarino microcontroller for a powerful breadboard-friendly device.

The device uses a PIC32MX795 processor to run version 2.11BSD Unix for microcontrollers. It uses only 128 kbytes of RAM which is great for the limited space available, but it doesn’t skimp on software. It has a C compiler, assembler, and a whole host of other utilities that you’d expect to find in something much more powerful. All of this comes in a package that has breadboard-compatible pins so you can interface your Unix with the real world.

There’s a video below that shows the device in action, and a whole host of instructions that’ll get you up and running in no time if you have the hardware available. [Serge] mentioned that this would run on other architectures but is looking for others to join the project to port it to those processors. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen *nix installed on a microcontroller, but it is one of the more useful ones!

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“Bricking” Microcontrollers in LEGO Motivates Young Programmers

Back when he was about seven years old, [Ytai] learned to program on an Atari 800XL. Now he has a seven-year-old of his own and wants to spark his interest in programming, so he created these programmable LEGO bricks with tiny embedded microcontrollers. This is probably one of the few times that “bricking” a microcontroller is a good thing!

IMG_20150519_144818The core of the project is the Espruino Pico microcontroller which has the interesting feature of running a Java stack in a very tiny package. The Blocky IDE is very simple as well, and doesn’t bog users down in syntax (which can be discouraging to new programmers, especially when they’re not even a decade old). The bricks that [Ytai] made include a servo motor with bricks on the body and the arm, some LEDs integrated into Technic bricks, and a few pushbutton bricks.

We always like seeing projects that are geared at getting kids interested in creating, programming, and hacking, and this certainly does that! [Ytai] has plans for a few more LEGO-based projects to help keep his kid interested in programming as well, and we look forward to seeing those! If you’re looking for other ways to spark the curiosity of the youths, be sure to check out the Microbot, or if you know some teens that need some direction, perhaps these battlebots are more your style.

A Tool For Spying On Serial Data

[Piotr] was working on a recent Arduino project when he ran into a problem. He was having trouble getting his Arduino Pro Mini to communicate with an ESP8266 module. He needed a way to snoop on the back and forth serial communications. Since he didn’t have a specialized tool for this task, [Piotr] ended up building his own.

spying-on-serial-thumbThe setup is pretty simple. You start with a standard serial cable containing the TX, RX, DTR, and GND wires. This cable connects the Arduino to the ESP8266 WiFi module. The TX and RX lines are then tapped into. Each wire is routed to the RX pin of two different serial to USB adapters. This way, the data being sent from the Arduino shows up on one COM port and the data being transmitted from the module shows up on the other.

The next piece of the puzzle was coming up with a way to see the data more clearly. [Piotr] could have opened two serial terminals simultaneously, but this wasn’t ideal because it would be difficult to compare the timing of the data. Instead, [Piotr] spent less than an hour writing his own simple serial terminal. This one connects to two COM ports at the same time and prints the data on the same screen. The data from each COM port is displayed in a separate color to make it easy to differentiate. The schematic and source code to this project can be found on [Piotr’s] website.

Tweeting From The NES Expansion Port

[Trapper] is an 80’s kid, and back in the day the Nintendo Entertainment System was his jam. One fateful night, he turned over his favorite gray box, removed a small plastic guard, and revealed the mythical expansion port. What was it for? What would Nintendo do with it?

The expansion port on the NES wasn’t really used for anything, at least in the US market. Even in the homebrew scene, there’s only one stalled project that allows the NES to connect to external devices. To fulfill [Trap]’s childhood dream, he would have to build something for the NES expansion port. Twitter seemed like a good application.

The first step towards creating an NES Expansion Port Twitter thing was to probe the depths of this connector. The entire data bus for the CPU is there, along with some cartridge pass-through pins and a single address line. The design of the system uses a microcontroller and a small bit of shared SRAM with the NES. This SRAM shares messages between the microcontroller and NES, telling the uC to Tweet something, or telling the NES to put something on the screen.

Only a single address pin – A15 – is available on the expansion port, but [Trapper] needed to read and write to a certain section of memory starting at $6000. This meant Addresses A13 and A14 needed to be accessed as well. Fortunately, these pins are available on the cartridge slot, and there are a number of cartridge pass-through pins on the expansion connector. Making a bridge between a few pins of an unused cartridge solved this problem.

From there, it’s just a series of message passing between a microcontroller and the NES. With the help of [Trap]’s brother [Jered] and a Twitter relay app running on a server, this NES can actually Tweet. You can see a video of that below.

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High Voltage AVR Programmer

The most common way of programming AVR microcontrollers is the In System Programming port. That little six-pin header with MOSIs and MISOs coming out of it will program every AVR you’ll ever come across. The ISP does have a downside – fuses. Set your fuses wrong, and without a High Voltage Serial Programmer, your chip is bricked. [Dilshan] designed his own HVSP that’s less expensive than the Atmel STK500 and has a nice GUI app.

Instead of following in the footsteps of the USBtinyISP, [Dilshan] is using a PIC18F as the main microcontroller in the programmer. This chip was chosen because of its built-in USB functionality. Because the High Voltage part of a HVSP operates at 12V, actually providing that voltage needed to be taken into consideration. For this, [Dilshan] is using standard 78xx regulators with an 18V input.

The app to control this programmer does everything you would expect, including all the usual AVRdude commands. A great build, and just what we need to reset the fuses on a few dozen chips we have sitting around.

New Part Day: SPI RAM and a Video Controller

Generating video signals with a microcontroller or old CPU is hard if you haven’t noticed. If you’re driving even a simple NTSC or PAL display at one bit per pixel, you’re looking at a minimum of around 64kB of RAM being used as a frame buffer. Most microcontrollers don’t have this much RAM on the chip, and the AVR video builds we’ve seen either have terrible color or relatively low resolution.

Here’s something interesting that solves the memory problem and also generates analog video signals. Yes, such a chip exists, and apparently this has been in the works for a very long time. It’s the VLSI VS23s010C-L, and it has 131,072 bytes of SRAM and a video display controller that supports NTSC and PAL output.

There are two chips in the family, one being an LQFP48 package, the other a tiny SMD 8-pin package. From what I can tell from the datasheets, the 8-pin version is only an SPI-based SRAM chip. The larger LQFP package is where the action is, with parallel and SPI interfaces to the memory, an input for the colorburst crystal, and composite video and sync out.

After looking at the datasheet (PDF), it looks like generating video with this chip is simply a matter of connecting an RCA jack, throwing a few commands to the chip over SPI, and pushing bits into the SRAM. That’s it. You’re not getting hardware acceleration, you’re going to have to draw everything pixel by pixel, but this looks like the easiest way to generate relatively high-resolution video with a single part.

Thanks [antibyte] for the tip on this one.

Spectrum Analyzer on the Cheap

Provided you have an NTSC-compatible TV you can build yourself a really inexpensive spectrum analyzer. From there you just need one trivial piece of hardware to complete this build. [Bruce Land] has come up with a spectrum analyzer that shouldn’t cost any more than $5, if that’s what’s been keeping you from adding this tool to your workbench!

The spectrum analyzer is based on a PIC32 microcontroller which was previously proven in his Oscilloscope project. [Bruce] has managed to squeeze quite a bit out of this robust chip; the spectrum analyzer has 450 kHz bandwidth and runs a 256 Hz TV display and can output over 30 updates per second. The microcontroller runs the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) to do calculations, with great results.

[Bruce] notes that the project was based on TV framework from another project, and that the FFT was added on top of that. Be sure to check out the source code on the project site if you’ve been on the hunt for an inexpensive spectrum analyzer, and if you need something with more processing power but only slightly more money, check out the FFT that runs on the Raspberry Pi’s GPU.