Homebrew Programming With Diodes


Diode matrices were one of the first methods of implementing some sort of read only memory for the very first electronic computers, and even today they can be found buried deep in the IPs of ASICs and other devices that need some form of write-once memory. For the longest time, [Rick] has wanted to build a ROM out of a few hundred diodes, and he’s finally accomplished his goal. Even better, his diode matrix circuit is actually functional: it’s a 64-byte ROM for an Atari 2600 containing an extremely simple demo program.

[Rick] connected a ton of 1N60 diodes along a grid, corresponding to the data and address lines to the 2600’s CPU. At each intersection, the data lines were either unconnected, or tied together with a diode. Pulling an address line high or low ([Rick] hasn’t posted a schematic) pulls the data line to the same voltage if a diode is connected. Repeat this eight times for each byte, and you have possibly the most primitive form of read only memory.

As for the demo [Rick] coded up with diodes? It displays a rainbow of colors with a black rectangle that can be moved across the screen with the joystick. Video below.

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Faster Benchmarks With Slower Hardware


The Bus Pirate is a cheap, simple, Swiss army knife of electronic prototyping, capable of programming FPGAs, and writing to Flash memory. The uISP is possibly the most minimal way of programming Atmel chips over USB, using less than $5 in components. Although the uISP is using a slower chip and bit-banging the USB protocol, it turns out it’s actually faster when operating as a programmer for SPI Flash memories.

Most of [Necromancer]’s work involves flashing routers and the like, and he found the Bus Pirate was far too slow for his liking – he was spending the better part of four minutes to write a 2 MiB SPI Flash. Figuring he couldn’t do much worse, he wrote two firmwares for the uISP to put some data on a Flash chip, one a serial programmer, the other a much more optimized version.

Although the ATMega in the uISP is running at about half the speed as the PIC in the Bus Pirate, [Necromancer] found the optimized firmware takes nearly half the time to write to an 8 MiB Flash chip than the Bus Pirate.

It’s an impressive accomplishment, considering the Bus Pirate has a dedicated USB to serial chip, the uISP is bitbanging its USB connection, and the BP is running with a much faster clock. [Necro] thinks the problem with the Bus Pirate is the fact the bandwidth is capped to 115200 bps, or a maximum throughput of 14 kiB/s. Getting rid of this handicap and optimizing the delay loop makes the cheaper device faster.

ASAP 3 – The Almost Simple As Possible Computer

ASAP-3 12 - LED Display

[Pong] has joined an elite club of people who have designed and built their own computer – including a CPU created from discrete 7400 series logic. His computer is the  Almost Simple As Possible Computer 3 (ASAP-3). ASAP-3 is not a completely new design. The architecture is based upon the SAP series of computers from Albert Malvino’s book, Digital Computer Electronics. [Pong] looked at quite a few of the “modern retro” computers such as Magic-1Big Mess o’ Wires 1, and the Duo. These computers were beyond his skill levels back then, so he began to build his own system. His primary design goal was to be able to run a 4 function calculator program.

One thing that can’t be stressed enough is the fact that [Pong] made his design work much easier by using lots of simulation. His tool of choice was Proteus Design Suite. While simulation can’t solve every problem, it can often help in verifying that a given design is sound. The ASAP-3’s instruction set is microcode, based upon the 8085 series instruction set. The microcode itself is stored on Flash ROMS. Using microcode makes ASAP-3 very flexible. Don’t have a machine instruction you need? No problem – just write one up. When all was said and done, [Pong] had over 100 instructions spread over 3 Flash ROM chips.

The hardware was only half the battle – [Pong] found writing the software just as challenging. He wrote all the software by hand in his own machine code. This is where the simulation mentioned above really saved him some time. Even with simulation he still ran into some problems. The ASAP-1 is limited to a clock speed of around 500kHz. Above that, glitches from the ROM chips start triggering the asynchronous inputs in some of the registers. [Pong] doesn’t have a logic analyzer on hand, so he wasn’t able to track this one down further. He also found a (update simulation only) issue with the carry bit on the 74LS181 bit slice ALU. In certain circumstances the carry bit would not propagate correctly. [Pong] corrected this by using a ROM as a look up table replacement for certain ‘181 functions. Even with these limitations, this is still a great hack!

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Making a Diode Matrix ROM

Here is a nice project that allows youngsters (but also adults!) to actually see the data stored in a Read Only Memory (ROM). The memory shown in the picture above is made of diodes. [Scott] made it as a part of his Barcamp Fall 2013 presentation about visualizing ROMs. He starts his write-up by stating the obvious: this memory is not practical. Nonetheless, it still was a fun exercise to do. [Scott] then greatly described all the different kinds of read only memories that you can find out there, with a few words explaining how they work. In his diode ROM, bits are ‘programmed’ by adding (or not) a diode between a given data line (anode) and an address line (cathode). When pulling low a given address line, the corresponding data line will only be pulled low if a diode is present. [Scott] finally checked his circuit by using a very old device programmer which could only be run in DOS.

Proposing with a Contra ROM hack


We’ve seen marriage proposals via modified Nintendo games before, but most of these put the proposal just after the first level. It’s one thing to have the old man in Zelda present your SO with a ring, but it’s another thing entirely to beat the game before getting on one knee. That’s what [Quinn] forced [Amy] to do when he proposed by modifying the ROM for Contra to display a proposal right before the end credits.

By tearing open a few cartridges, [Quinn] found himself with a bunch of EPROMs and NES cartridge PCBs. After grabbing the Contra ROM off the Internet, [Quinn] edited the game’s end screen to his proposal. This was then burned onto a 1 Megabit EPROM, soldered onto a cartridge, and put into the NES for his now-fiance to play. Once [Amy] and [Quinn] finished the game (without cheating, by the way), [Amy] saw her proposal and [Quinn] pulled out the ring.

Paper ROM


This low-resolution memory device packs in just a few bytes of data. But it’s enough to spell out [Michael Kohn’s] name. He’s been experimenting with using paper discs for data storage.

His technique becomes immediately clear when you view the demo video below. The disc spins multiple times with the sensor arm reading one track. This gives the system the chance to measure the black band in order to get the data timing figured out. Once the outer track has been read the servo controlling the read head swings it to the next until all of the data is captured.

An Arduino is monitoring the QTR-1RC reflectance sensor which makes up the reading head. It uses the black band width in order to establish the size of an individual byte. Interestingly enough, the white parts of the disc do not contain data. Digital 0 is a black area 1/4 the width of the large black strip, and digital 1 is half as wide.

[Michael’s] set up the generator which makes the discs so that he can easily increase the resolution. The limiting factor is what the reading hardware is able to detect.

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Tamagotchi ROM dump and reverse engineering

tamagotchi-rom-dump-and-reverse engineering

Often the true key to success is persistence and that holds true for this project which dumped the ROM from the current generation of Tamagotchi toys. If you’re a fan of learning the secrets built into consumer electronics — and you know we are — you’ll want to go back and watch the 24-minute lecture on Tamagotchi hacking which [Natalie Silvanovich] gave a 29C3 last year. She had made quite a bit of headway hacking the playable pods, but wasn’t able to get her hands on a full ROM dump from the General Plus chip on board processor. This update heralds her success and shares the details of how it was done.

As we learned form the video lecture it was a huge chore just to figure out what processor this uses. It turned out to be a 6502 core with a few other things built in. After prowling the manufacturer’s website she found example code for writing to Port A. She was then able to execute her own code which was designed to dump one byte of ROM at a time using the SPI protocol.

[Natalie] posted her code dump if you’re interested in digging through it. But as usual we think the journey is the most interesting part.

[Thanks Itay]