Hackaday 10th Anniversary: Jon McPhalen and the Propeller

[Jon] came out to our 10th anniversary mini-con to talk about the Propeller, and judging from his short introduction, his hacker cred is through the roof. He has a page on IMDb, and his first computer was a COSMAC. Around 1993, he heard of a small company introducing the BASIC Stamp, and like us with most new technology was incredulous this device could perform as advertised. He tried it, though, and for a few years after that, he was programming the BASIC Stamp every single day.

Having a lot of blinky light project under his belt, [Jon] was always struggling with interrupts, figuring out a way to blink an LED exactly when he wanted it to blink. A lot has changed over at Parallax since 1993, and now they’re spending time with the Propeller, an 8-core microcontroller where interrupts are a thing of the past. He showed off a huge, 10-foot tall bear from League of Legends, all controlled with a single Propeller, using 1000 LEDs to look like fire and flames.

[Jon] shared the architecture of the Propeller, and the inside of this tiny plastic-encapsulated piece of silicon is wild; it’s eight 32-bit microcontrollers, all sharing some ROM and RAM, controlled by something called a Cog that gives each micro access to the address, data, and IO pins.

When the Propeller was first released, there were a few questions of how the chip would be programmed. C isn’t great for multicore work, so Parallax came up with a language called Spin. It’s written for multicore microcontrollers, and from [Jon]‘s little session in demo hell, it’s not that much harder to pick up than Python. Remember that hour or two where you learned the syntax of Python? Yeah, learning Spin isn’t a huge time investment.

Even though you can program the Propeller in C and C++, there’s a reason for Spin being the official language of the Propeller. It isn’t even that hard, and if you want to dip your toes in multicore microcontroller programming, the Propeller is the way to do it. It’s an open source chip as well so you can give it a try with an FPGA board.

The Thurber Feeder 5000 Helps to Slow Fido Down

AUTOMATIC DOG FEEDER

Does your dog eat too fast? [Thurber] does, and he even chokes occasionally while snarfing down the kibble — naturally this worried his owners, so [Jason] stepped up to the challenge to slow him down. Introducing the Thurber Feeder 5000.

[Jason] is a seasoned maker, and has built a few CNC machines in his day — he’s even automated an Etch a Sketch with stepper motors. Making the Thurber Feeder 5000 was a piece of cake. He designed the entire thing in 3D CAD and then used his home-made CNC machine to cut out all the parts, 3D printing a few of the more complex mounting brackets.

It’s a fairly simple device consisting of a food hopper (seal-able to keep Thurber away), a stepper motor and an auger bit borrowed from a chocolate fondue fountain. The stepper goes through a 6:1 belt pulley ratio which gives it a whopping 200 oz-in of torque to push those kibbles and bits through the feeding pipe. The speed is adjustable by programming the Parallax Propeller, so once they found an acceptable eating speed [Jason] set it as default. A single button turns it on, and while the machine is running it lights up — turning off when little [Thurber] is done.

[Read more...]

Build Your Own Retrocomputer with Modern Chips

F2J850II00TI11R.LARGE

If you’ve ever wanted to get started in retrocomputing, or maybe the Commodore 64 you’ve been using since the 80s just gave up the ghost, [Rick] aka [Mindrobots] has just the thing for you: a retrocomputer based on a PIC microcontroller and a Parallax Propeller.

The two chips at the heart of the computer are both open source. The Propeller is the perfect board to take care of the I/O, video, and audio outputs because it was purpose-built to be a multitasking machine. The microcontroller is either a PIC32MX150 or a PIC32MX170 and is loaded with a BASIC interpreter, 19 I/O pins, a full-screen editor, and a number of communications protocols. In short, everything you would ever want out of a retro-style minicomputer.

The whole computer can be assembled on a PCB with all the outputs you can imagine (VGA, PS/2, etc) and, once complete, can be programmed to run any program imaginable including games. And, of course, it can act as a link to any physical devices with all of its I/O because its heart is a microcontroller.

Retrocomputing is quite an active arena for hackers, with some being made from FPGAs and other barebones computers being made on only three chips. It’s good to see another great computer in the lineup, especially one that uses open chips like the Propeller and the PIC.

Propeddle, The Software Defined 6502

propeddle

When it comes to building retrocomputers, there are two schools of thought. The first is emulation, that allows for greater compatibility and ease of use, and much easier to find parts. The second requires real, vintage hardware with all the bugs and idiosyncrasies found in vintage chips. Reconciling these two ideas is hard, but the software defined Propeddle manages to do it, all while using a real 6502 CPU.

The trick here is using a Parallax Propeller for the heavy lifting of loading the ROM into RAM with an extremely clever technique using the Reset and NMI pins, generating the clock and other signals required by the 6502, and hosting the keyboard, serial, and video I/O. Already [Jac] has the Propeddle running as an Apple 1 emulator (video below), making it possible to write programs for the Propeddle in BASIC or assembly.

It’s a great design that allows for emulation of a lot of the classic 6502 computers with a real CPU, all while doing away with the cruft of expensive ACIAs and video generation hardware. Awesome work, and we can’t wait for the next version that will be dedicated to [Bill Mensch].

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Homemade Alarm System Doesn’t Lack Features

alarm system

To many of us, our garage (or workshop) is probably one of the most important parts of the house. If a burglar broke in, we’d likely be more worried about our tools! [Ron Czapala] decided he needed an alarm system in his garage to keep his stuff safe, so he decided to build one from scratch.

The system makes use of a Parallax 4×4 keypad membrane, a MCP23008 port expander, a Parallax Propeller, a LCD screen, and a few switches to represent future magnetic reed switches located in the door and window.

Using circular buffers, the propeller has several states for monitoring the garage.

  • Not armed — ignore all sensors
  • Armed — system will react to changes in the sensors
  • Exit delay — system has been armed, 45 second countdown has begun to allow you to exit the garage
  • Window trigger — if the window is opened, the alarm will go off immediately (siren and strobe light)
  • Door trigger — alarm will go off in 60 seconds if correct code has not been entered on the keypad

For a complete demonstration, check out the following video where [Ron] explains it all!

[Read more...]

Automated Light Painting Makes It Easy

DSC_00027

What can we say — we’re a sucker for projects that feature our favorite logo. This is the Parallax Propeller Automated Light Painting Machine  — and no, it’s not a persistence of vision setup.

[Daniel], [Nathan], and the folks over at Embedded Aesthetics are big fans of Hack a Day and are very excited to share their new project. It’s a fully automated light painting setup that features an X-axis slide, a strip of RGB LEDs, a Parallax Propeller (microcontroller), and a DSLR — all you have to do is choose an image, and press start.

They first started light painting with their LED Paint Brush, an equally awesome, but slightly less automated tool. They’ve created this one to be a bit more interactive — in fact, you can actually go on their website, upload an image, and it will paint you a picture! But… it’s not available right now.

[Read more...]

Once, Twice, Three Times a Nixie

Try as he might, [Localroger] can’t seem to throw away a certain board that started life in one of the first digital industrial scales, the NCI DigiFlex model 5775. He recently gave it a third career as a nixie clock with an alarm.

[Localroger] says the board dates to about 1975. It’s all TTL, no microprocessor anywhere. He was headed to the Dumpster with it in the mid-1980s, but realized that he could hack it into something useful. Since the display wasn’t multiplexed, it would be fairly easy. He used it as a BCD tester for about 10 years until the method fell out of fashion.

After a decade on the shelf, [Localroger] started off for the Dumpster once more with the board. The nixie tube display cried out for another chance to glow, so he decided to repurpose it into a remote-controlled bedside clock with an alarm. He installed a Parallax Propeller Protoboard with headers for easy removal and subsequent servicing of the 5775 board. He added a few things to the protoboard: a piezo element for the alarm, a SparkFun RTC module, an IR receiver, and vertically-oriented header so the PropPlug can be plugged in from the top. But that’s not all. [Localroger] designed a custom melamine-finished MDF enclosure and laser cut it, giving the edges a nice contrast. It’s so tough, he can put his ceramic lamp on top of it to save space on the nightstand.

Nixie tubes are becoming more scarce all the time. If you can’t find any, we humbly suggest rolling your own.

[Thanks Localroger!]

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