Talking BeagleBoard with [Jason Kridner]

[Jason Kridner] is a member of the i3 Detroit hackerspace and during the Hackaday meet-up we were able to spend a few minutes talking about what’s going on with BeagleBoard right now. For those of you that don’t know, BeagleBoard is a non-profit foundation which guides the open hardware initiative of the same name. This includes BeagleBone which is the third iteration of the platform. [Jason's] a good guy to talk to about this as he co-founded the organization and has been the driving force in the community ever since.

Right now the organization is participating in the Google Summer of Code. This initiative allows students to propose open source coding projects which will help move the community forward. Students with accepted proposals were paired with mentors and are paid for the quality code which is produced. One of the projects this year is a 100 Megahertz, 14-channel Logic Analyzer which [Jason] is waving around in the video. It’s the GSoC project of [Kumar Abhishek] and you can learn more from his proposal.

Also of interest in the video is a discussion about the power of the BeagleBone’s PRUs, or Programmable Real-Time Units. They’re basically unused microcontrollers that have direct access to a lot of the processor’s features and are just waiting for you to bend them to your will. Having these is a huge boon for hardware hackers. If you haven’t played with them before, check out our earlier article on what PRUs are all about and then give it a whirl yourself.

After the break there’s a brief table of contents which maps the topics in the video above.

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An Introduction To The BeagleBone PRU

BBB While the BeagleBone is usually compared to the Raspberry Pi, there are a few features that make the ‘Bone a vastly more capable single board computer. There is a small difference in the capabilities of the processor, but the real power of the BeagleBone comes from the PRUs available: two small cores that give the BeagleBone the hardware equivalent of bitbanging pins. [Texane] has put up two great tutorials for using the PRU in the BeagleBone that should be required reading for every BeagleBone owner.

The first tutorial goes over the capabilities of the PRUs in the BeagleBone and setting up the software environment to develop your own hardware interfaces with the PRU. While writing code for the PRU has usually involved the Beagleboard packages, TI has recently released a version of Code Composer Studio that gives the option to compile C code for the PRU.

[Texane] used this C compiler to rehash the earlier, assembly only PRU program, making development significantly easier. There’s still a bit of inline assembly, and the inline assembly support isn’t as advanced as in GCC, but it’s still much easier than the assembly only variant.

While [Texane] is using the PRU in his BeagleBone to develop something at a synchrotron facility, three are a few things where really fast hardware bitbanging comes in handy: it can be used to make a video card for a vintage mac, or any sort of VGA video card, really. Very cool stuff, especially now that you can write something in C.

Offloading VGA generation onto a coprocessor

[Alessandro] sent us a link to his post about a PRU software VGA rasterizer. It’s not the easiest read, but we think it’s worth your time.

The gist of his background information is that back when his company was developing for an ARM9 processor he wanted to test his mettle with the coprocessor chips. The first iteration was to write a character LCD driver that pulled data from the main processor’s memory and displayed it on the screen. This makes for a low-overhead debugger display, it’s also very limited (32 characters over two lines doesn’t tell you much). And thus began his work on a VGA generator for the Programmable Realtime Unit (PRU is what TI calls this coprocessor) that grabs data in memory just like the original version. But with a much larger display area this becomes quite useful for debugging. That resistor mess is the R2R ladder he soldered together to perform the Digital to Analog Conversions. There’s a quick demo clip after the jump.

This work could end up being useful to you. [Alessandro] reports that the BeagleBone has similar hardware. A bit of porting could get his generator working on that board as well.

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