Pips Help Everyone Around the House

Sometimes you start a project with every intention of using it in a specific way, or maybe your plan is to have a very well-defined set of features. Often, though, our projects go in a completely different direction than we might have intended. That seems to be the case with [Dave] and his Pips. These tiny devices were originally intended to be used by people with disabilities, but it turns out that they’re a perfect platform for this “Internet of Things” thing that we’ve been hearing so much about.

Built around the Bright Blue Bean microcontroller platform to take advantage of its low energy requirements, the Pips were originally intended to be placed around the house where they would light up to remind the user to perform some task. Once the button was pushed, the next Pip in the sequence would activate. While they are quite useful for people with cognitive or sensory impairments, they can also be used in a similar way to the Amazon Dash button or any other simple internet-enabled device. Especially when used in conjunction with a home automation setup, this device could be used in novel ways, such as automating your morning routine without having to add a weight sensor to your bed.

We are also pleased to see that all of the project files are available on GitHub for anyone looking to try this out. Its interesting when something that was originally intended to help out anyone with a disability finds a use somewhere else that it might not have originally been intended for. After all, though, the principle of using things in novel ways is kind of the entire basis of this community.

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!

Turn Down the Bed, Turn Down the Lights

Home automation seems to be working its way to a computer-controlled future in which humans will be little more than an afterthought. Eventually they will take over Skynet-style, but until then, we will enjoy the relative comfort that a good home automation project provides. The latest from [Clement] certainly goes a long way towards this goal by automating his bed (Google Translate from French).

With four load cells and a microcontroller, [Clement]’s bed can tell whether or not he is sleeping. After taking a weight reading, the bed can send commands to the rest of his home automation system and tell it to turn off his stereo and turn the lights off in the house (or change them to a different color). And it doesn’t stop with just going to bed, but when he wakes up as well. The system can begin turning on lights, starting the coffee machine, and opening the blinds without any interaction from him at all.

This project goes well beyond simple home automation. With a little configuration and extrapolation, [Clement] can tell where in the bed he slept at night, what stages of sleep he was in at specific times, and the overall quality of his sleep. This could go a long way for someone who has a hard time sleeping and needs a little more information on how to correct the problem.

While we’ve seen various takes on tying a bed into one’s home automation system, this one goes above and beyond with the amount of data collected. You could even go one step further and have it turn on some Barry White if the normal weight in the bed suddenly doubles, for whatever reason. Maybe that will be a feature in Version 2.

Mike Szczys Ends 8-Bit vs 32-Bit Holy War!

If you’ve read through the comments on Hackaday, you’ve doubtless felt the fires of one of our classic flame-wars. Any project done with a 32-bit chip could have been done on something smaller and cheaper, if only the developer weren’t so lazy. And any project that’s squeezes the last cycles of performance out of an 8-bit processor could have been done faster and more appropriately with a 32-bit chip.


Of course, the reality for any given project is between these two comic-book extremes. There’s a range of capabilities in both camps. (And of course, there are 16-bit chips…) The 32-bit chips tend to have richer peripherals and run at higher speeds — anything you can do with an 8-bitter can be done with its fancier cousin. Conversely, comparatively few microcontroller applications outgrow even the cheapest 8-bitters out there. So, which to choose, and when?

Eight Bits are Great Bits

The case that [Mike] makes for an 8-bit microcontroller is that it’s masterable because it’s a limited playground. It’s a lot easier to get through the whole toolchain because it’s a lot shorter. In terms of debugging, there’s (often) a lot less that can go wrong, letting you learn the easy debugging lessons first before moving on to the truly devilish. You can understand the hardware peripherals because they’re limited.

And then there’s the datasheets. The datasheet for a chip like the Atmel ATMega168 is not something you’d want to print out, at around 660 pages long. But it’s complete. [Mike] contrasts with the STM32F405 which has a datasheet that’s only 200 pages long, but that’s just going over the functions in principle. To actually get down to the registers, you need to look at the programming manual, which is 1,731 pages long. (And that doesn’t even cover the various support libraries that you might want to use, which add even more to the documentation burden.) The point is, simpler is simpler. And if you’re getting started, simpler is better.

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Megaprocessor is a Macro Microprocessor

If we have to make a list of Projects that are insane and awesome at the same time, this would probably be among the top three right up there. For the past few years, [James Newman] has been busy building Megaprocessor – a huge micro-processor made out of transistors and LED’s, thousands of ’em. “I started by wanting to learn about transistors. Things got out of hand.” And quite appropriately, he’s based out of Cambridge – the “City of perspiring dreams“. The Why part is pretty simple – because he can. We posted about his build as recently as 10 months back, but he’s made a ton of progress since then and an update seemed in order.

megaprocessor_04How big is it ? For starters, the 8-bit adder module is about 300mm (a foot) long – and he’s using five of them. When fully complete, it will stretch 14m wide and stand 2m tall, filling a 30 sq.m room, consisting of seven individual frames that form the parts of the Megaprocessor.

The original plan was for nine frames but he’s managed to squeeze all parts in to seven, building three last year and adding the other four since then. Assembling the individual boards (gates), putting them together to form modules, then fitting it all on to the frames and putting in almost 10kms of cabling is a slow, painstaking job, but he’s been on fire last few months. He has managed to test and integrate the racks shown here and even run some code.

The Megaprocessor has a 16-bit architecture, seven registers, 256bytes of RAM and a questionable amount of PROM (depending on his soldering endurance, he says). It sips 500W, most of it going to light up all the LED’s. He guesses it weighs about half a ton. The processor uses up 15,300 transistors and 8,500 LED’s, while the RAM has 27,000 transistors and 2,048 LED’s. That puts it somewhere between the 8086 and the 68000 microprocessors in terms of number of transistors. He recently got around to calculating the money he’s spent on this to date, and it is notching up over 40,000 Quid (almost $60,000 USD)!  You can read a lot of other interesting statistics on the Cost and Materials page.

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Intel Ups The Dev Board Ante With The Quark D2000

Intel have a developer board that is new to the market, based on their Quark (formerly “Mint Valley”) D2000 low-power x86 microcontroller. This is a micropower 32-bit processor running at 32MHz, and with 32kB of Flash and 8kB of RAM. It’s roughly equivalent to a Pentium-class processor without the x87 FPU, and it has the usual impressive array of built-in microcontroller peripherals and I/O choices.

The board has an Arduino-compatible shield footprint, an FTDI chip for USB connectivity, a compass, acceleration, and temperature sensor chip, and a coin cell holder with micropower switching regulator. Intel provide their own System Studio For Microcontrollers dev environment, based around the familiar Eclipse IDE.

Best of all is the price, under $15 from an assortment of the usual large electronics wholesalers.

This board joins a throng of others in the low-cost microcontroller development board space, each of which will have attributes that its manufacturers will hope make it stand out. Facing such competition the Intel board will have to be something rather special to achieve that aim, so why should it excite your interest? We would point to the low price, the x86 code if that is your flavour of choice, and the relatively tiny power consumption.

Stepping back from the dev board for a moment, consider this processor as an illustration of technological progress in semiconductor fabrication. Over twenty years ago this chip’s Pentium ancestor ran on 5 volts and got so hot you could fry an egg on it, here is a Pentium that can run on a few milliwatts from a coin cell. Fortunately you won’t be running Windows 95 on it though.

We’re sure we’ll see plenty of projects here in the future using the Quark. Intel’s previous effort in this space, the Edison, has made several appearances. We’ve covered its launch in 2014, looked at someone running Doom on it, and examined its use with audio effects.

Thanks [Nolan M] for the tip.

When Are 8 Bits More Than 32?

Whenever we write up a feature on a microcontroller or microcontroller project here on Hackaday, we inevitably get two diametrically opposed opinions in the comments. If the article featured an 8-bit microcontroller, an army of ARMies post that they would do it better, faster, stronger, and using less power on a 32-bit platform. They’re usually right. On the other hand, if the article involved a 32-bit processor or a single-board computer, the 8-bitters come out of the woodwork telling you that they could get the job done with an overclocked ATtiny85 running cycle-counted assembly. And some of you probably can. (We love you all!)

redblue_pillWhen beginners walk into this briar-patch by asking where to get started, it can be a little bewildering. The Arduino recommendation is pretty easy to make, because there’s a tremendous amount of newbie-friendly material available. And Arduino doesn’t necessarily mean AVR, but when it does, that’s not a bad choice due to the relatively flexible current sourcing and sinking of the part. You’re not going to lose your job by recommending Arduino, and it’s pretty hard to get the smoke out of one.

But these days when someone new to microcontrollers asks what path they should take, I’ve started to answer back with a question: how interested are you in learning about microcontrollers themselves versus learning about making projects that happen to use them? It’s like “blue pill or red pill”: the answer to this question sets a path, and I wouldn’t recommend the same thing to people who answered differently.

For people who just want to get stuff done, a library of easy-to-use firmware and a bunch of examples to crib learn from are paramount. My guess is that people who answer “get stuff done” are the 90%. And for these folks, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to recommend an Arduino variant — because the community support is excellent, and someone has written an add-on library for nearly every gizmo you’d want to attach. This is well-trodden ground, and it’s very often plug-and-play.

Continue reading “When Are 8 Bits More Than 32?”