Improving the Parallax Propeller in an FPGA

The Parallax Propeller is an interesting chip that doesn’t get a lot of love, but since the entire chip was released as open source, that might be about to change: people are putting this chip inside FPGA and modifying the binaries to give the chip functions that never existed in the original.

Last August, Parallax released the source for the P8X32A, giving anyone with an FPGA board the ability to try out the Prop for their own designs. Since then, a few people have put some time in, cleaning up the files, unscrambling ROM images, fixing bugs, and all the general maintenance that an open source microcontroller core requires.

[Sylwester] has grabbed some of the experimental changes found on the Parallax forum and included them as a branch of the Propeller source. There is support for a second 32-bit port, giving the new chip 64 I/O pins, multiply instructions, video generators, hard-coded SD card libraries, and a variant called a microProp that has four cores instead of eight.

You can grab all the updated sources right here and load them up on a DE0 Nano FPGA board. If you’re exceptionally lucky and have the Altera DE2-115 dev board, you’ll also be able to run the upcoming Propeller 2.

Turning the DEFCON Badge Into a Bitcoin Miner

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The DEFCON badge this year was an impressive piece of hardware, complete with mind-bending puzzles, cap sense buttons, LEDs, and of course a Parallax Propeller. [mike] thought a chip as cool as the Propeller should be put to better use than just sitting around until next year so he turned it into a Bitcoin miner, netting him an astonishing 40 hashes per second.

Mining Bitcoins on hardware that doesn’t have much processing power to begin with (at least compared to the FPGAs and ASIC miners commonly used) meant [mike] would have to find some interesting ways to compute the SHA256 hashes that mining requires. He turned to RetroMiner, the Bitcoin miner made for an original Nintendo. Like the NES miner, [mike] is offloading the communication with the Bitcoin network to a host computer, but all of the actual math is handled by a single core on the Propeller.

Saving one core for communication with the host computer, a DEFCON badge could conceivably manage 280 hashes/second, meaning the processing power of all the badges made for DEFCON is about equal to a seven-year-old graphics card.

Your Halloween Costume May Be Cool, But It’s Not Laser-Cut Cardboard Vintage Airplane Cool

While others are absorbed in baseball playoffs, [Aidan] has spent his recent Octobers planning incredible Halloween costumes for his son. We don’t know what he did last year, but there’s no way it’s better than this laser-cut cardboard airplane costume.

He had a few specs in mind and started with a model of a Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat from 3D Warehouse. Using SketchUp, he simplified the model and removed the landing gear and the propeller. [Aidan] created a simpler model on top of that, and set to work changing the proportions to make it adorable and toddler-sized.

To build around his son’s proportions, he inserted a 10-inch diameter scaled tube vertically into the model and squished down the fuselage in SketchUp. The plan was to have it laser-cut by Ponoko, which meant turning the design into flat pieces for them to cut. He ended up with 58 parts, many of them mirror images due to the symmetry of his design.

When the box from Ponoko arrived, [Aidan] was giddy. He was astonished at the quality of the pieces and found the plane very satisfying to build. But, he didn’t stop there. Using LayOut, he created a custom instrument cluster with reflections and shadows. The plane also has a Wii steering wheel, a motorized propeller, and of course, decals.

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.

FPGA with Open Source Propeller 1 Running Spin

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Open Sourcing something doesn’t actually acquire meaning until someone actually uses what has been unleashed in the wild. We’re happy to see a working example of Propeller 1 on an FPGA dev board. That link takes you to a short description and some remapping of the pins to work with a BeMicro CV board. But you’ll want to watch the video below, or rather listen to it, for a bit more explanation of what [Sylwester] did to get this working.

You’ll remember that Parallax released the Propeller 1 as Verilog code a few weeks back. This project first loads the code onto the FPGA, then proves it works by running SIDcog, the Commodore 64 sound emulation program written in Spin for p8x32a processors.

We do find this to be an interesting first step. But we’re still waiting to see what type of hacks are made possible because of the newly available Verilog code. If you have a proof of concept working on other hardware, certainly tell us about it below. If you’ve been hacking on it and have something you want to show off, what are you waiting for?

Continue reading “FPGA with Open Source Propeller 1 Running Spin”

Hands-On DEFCON 22 Badge

It took a measly 2-hours in line to score myself entry to DEFCON and this nifty badge. I spent the rest of the afternoon running into people, and I took in the RFIDler talk. But now I’m back in my room with a USB cord to see what might be done with this badge.

First the hardware; I need a magnifying glass but I’ll tell you what I can. Tere are huge images available after the break.

  • Parallax P8X32A-Q44
  • Crystal marked A050D4C
  • Looks like an EEPROM to the upper right of the processor? (412W8 K411)
  • Something interesting to the left. It’s a 4-pin package with a shiny black top that has a slightly smaller iridesent square to it. Light sensor?
  • Tiny dfn8 package next to that has numbers (3336 412)
  • Bottom left there is an FTDI chip (can’t read numbers)
  • The DEFCON letters are capacitive touch. They affect the four LEDs above the central letters.

I fired up minicom and played around with the settings. When I hit on 57600 8N1 I get “COME AND PLAY A GAME WITH ME”.

Not sure where I’m going from here. I don’t have a programmer with me so not sure how I can make a firmware dump. If you have suggestions please let me know in the comments!

Continue reading “Hands-On DEFCON 22 Badge”

Parallax Propeller 1 Goes Open Source

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Parallax has embraced open source hardware by releasing the source code to its Propeller 1 processor (P8X32A). Designed by [Chip Gracey] and released in 2006, the 32-bit octal core Propeller has built up a loyal fan base. Many of those fans have created development tools for the Propeller, from libraries to language ports. [Ken, Chip], and the entire Parallax team have decided to pay it forward by releasing the entire source to the Propeller.

The source code is in Verilog and released under GNU General Public License v3.0. Parallax has done much more than drop 8-year-old files out in the wild.  All the configuration files necessary to implement the design on an Altera Cyclone IV using either of two different target boards have also been included. The DE0-Nano is the low-cost option. The Altera DE2-115 dev board is more expensive, but it also can run the upcoming Propeller 2 design.

The release also includes sources for the mask ROM used for booting, running cogs, and the SPIN interpreter. [Chip] originally released this code in  2008. The files contain references to PNut, the Propeller’s original code name.

We’re excited to see Parallax taking this step, and can’t wait to see what sort of modifications the community comes up with. Not an Altera fan? No problem – just grab the source code, your favorite FPGA tools, and go for it! Starved for memory? Just add some more. 8 cogs not enough? Bump it up to 16.  The only limits are the your imagination and the resources of your target device.

Interested in hacking on a real Propeller? If you’re in Las Vegas, you’re in luck. A Propeller is included on each of the nearly 14,000 badges going to DEFCON 22 attendees. While you’re there, keep an eye out for Mike and The Hackaday Hat!