Superconference Interview: SpriteTM

SpriteTM, or [Jeroen Domburg], has a bit of a following around these parts. He’s installed Linux on a hard drive the hard way. He can play Snake on his keyboard. He’s cared for several generations of Tamagotchis. In short, there are very few people who have both the technical ability and sense of humor to pull off what [Sprite] does.

At last year’s Supercon, we pulled Sprite aside to talk about his work and his latest hack, the tiniest Game Boy ever. He talked about his Supercon keynote, and how to hack the crypto challenge in last year’s Superconference badge in an hour without solving any of the puzzles. Now, we’re happy to present that interview today, available below.

While we very much doubt many people could — or would — take four conference badges and rick roll the entire Superconference for the badge hacking session, we’re still looking for eager and capable presenters. The Call for Proposals is now open for the 2017 Hackaday Superconference. If you have a story of hardware heroics, creativity in CPLDs, a passion for prototyping, or an ambition for technological art, we want you to share your story. Even if you don’t, that’s fine, too: tickets are still available for the Superconference in Pasadena, California on November 11th and 12th.

Tiniest Game Boy Hides in Your Pocket

This is likely the world’s smallest fully-functional Game Boy Color, able to play all of the games using the tiny direction pad and buttons, with onboard display and battery and in the original form factor. This is an incredible hack which presents a tour de force in hardware and software. This will easily rank in the top five hacks you’ve seen this year.

keychain-redactedI’m sure that many of you have fond memories of your first handheld games. This will be Game Boy for most, and we admit they had fairly decent portability and battery life that puts many smart phones to shame. Despite this, Sprite_TM always dreamed of an eminently more portable version and to his adolescent delight he discovered a key chain version of the Game Boy. Unfortunately, he was duped. The keychain looked like a Game Boy but only functioned as a clock.

But now, decades later, technology has progressed as have his own skills. For his talk at the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference, Sprite_TM actually built his childhood dream.

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Tiny Game Boy (That Plays Witcher 3) and Other Things That Blew My Mind

For years Sprite_TM has been my favorite hacker, and yet he continues to have an uncanny ability to blow my mind with the hacks that he pulls off even though I’m ready for it. This weekend at the Hackaday SuperConference he threw down an amazing talk on his tiny, scratch-built, full-operational Game Boy. He stole the badge hacking show with a Rick Roll, disassembled the crypto challenge in one hour by cutting right to the final answer, and managed to be everywhere at once. You’re a wizard Harry Sprite!

Here’s what’s crazy: these are the antics of just one person of hundreds who I found equally amazing at the conference. It feels impossible to convey to you the absolute sincerity I have when I say that SuperCon was far and away the best conference I’ve ever been to or have even heard about. It managed to outpace any hyperbole I constructed leading up to the weekend. This morning felt like I was waking up from a dream and desperately wanted to fall asleep again.

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Porting NES to the ESP32

There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to the Raspberry Pi Zero. The Pi Zero is an immensely popular single board computer, but out of stock issues for the first year may be due to one simple fact: you can run a Nintendo emulator on it. Instead of cool projects like clusters, CNC controllers, and Linux-based throwies, all the potential for the Pi Zero was initially wasted on rescuing the princess.

Espressif has a new chip coming out, the ESP32, and it’s a miraculous Internet of Things thing. It’s cheap, exceptionally powerful, and although we expect the stock issues to be fixed faster than the Pi Zero, there’s still a danger: if the ESP32 can emulate an NES, it may be too popular. This was the hypothetical supply issue I posited in this week’s Hackaday Links post just twenty-four hours ago.

Hackaday fellow, Hackaday Supercon speaker, Espressif employee, and generally awesome dude [Sprite_tm] just ported an NES emulator to the ESP32. It seems Espressif really knows how to sell chips: just give one of your engineers a YouTube channel.

This build began when [Sprite] walked into his office yesterday and found a new board waiting for him to test. This board features the ESP-WROOM-32 module and breaks out a few of the pins to a microSD card, an FT2232 USB/UART module, JTAG support, a bunch of GPIOs, and a 320×240 LCD on the back. [Sprite]’s job for the day was to test this board, but he reads Hackaday with a cup of coffee every morning (like any civilized hacker) and took the links post as a challenge. The result is porting an NES emulator to the ESP32.

The ESP-32-NESEMU is built on the Nofrendo emulator, and when it comes to emulation, the ESP32 is more than capable of keeping the frame rate up. According to [Sprite], the display is the bottleneck; the SPI-powered display doesn’t quite update fast enough. [Sprite] didn’t have enough time to work on the sound, either, but the source for the project is available, even if this dev board isn’t.

Right now, you can order an ESP32; mine are stuck on a container ship a few miles from the port of Long Beach. Supply is still an issue, and now [Sprite] has ensured the ESP32 will be the most popular embedded development platform in recent memory. All of this happened in the space of 24 hours. This is awesome.

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Hacking A Fluke Multimeter To Serve Readings Over WiFi

Your multimeter is probably your most useful instrument if you work regularly with electronics. It goes with you everywhere, and is your first port of call in most cases when you are presented with a piece of equipment. And when you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing instrument. Multimeter technology has advanced to the point at which even an inexpensive modern device has functions that would have required a hefty budget a few decades ago.

There is still one thing affordable multimeters remain unable to do: they can’t log their readings for analysis on a computer. They’re an instantaneous instrument, just as they always have been.

Lord of Hackaday [Sprite_TM] decided to hack his multimeter to serve its readings over Wi-Fi. Rather than start with a throwaway meter from the bargain bin, he did it with a Fluke. The meter he chose was a Fluke 15B+, the company’s budget offering for the Indian and Chinese markets, since he had one spare.

Opening up the 15B+, he was presented with its processor concealed under a blob of epoxy and thus unidentifiable. Armed with the knowledge that other similar Flukes contain Fortune Semiconductor parts, he investigated as many data sheets as he could find from the same company and finally identified it as an FS98O24 one-time-programmable microprocessor. Sadly this chip has no serial port, but he did find an I2C EEPROM which he correctly guessed held calibration settings. Removing this chip gave him a meter with slightly off calibration, but also gave him a serial port of sorts.

Further detective work allowed him to identify the baud rate, and supplying random commands delivered him some that returned data packets. Eventually he identified a packet containing the states of the LCD’s segments, from which he could derive its displayed value. Connecting an ESP8266 module with appropriate software left him with a Wi-Fi connected multimeter. There was a little more refinement to his hack, he created a power management board to activate the ESP when needed, and a neat hack to display its IP address on the screen.

Multimeter hacks have featured several times here at Hackaday. We’ve had another serial port hack, or how about a remote display for another Fluke on a Gameboy Advance?

[Sprite_tm] Gives Near Death VFD a Better Second Life

[Sprite_tm] picked up some used VFD displays for cheap, and wanted to make his own custom temperature and air-quality display. He did that, of course, but turned it into a colossal experiment in re-design to boot. What started out as a $6 used VFD becomes priceless with the addition of hours of high-powered hacking mojo.

You see, the phosphor screen had burnt-in spots where the old display was left static for too long. A normal person would either live with it or buy new displays. [Sprite_tm] ripped off the old display driver and drives the row and column shift registers using the DMA module on a Raspberry Pi2, coding up his own fast PWM/BCM hybrid scheme that can do greyscale.

He mapped out the individual pixels using a camera and post processing in The Gimp to establish the degradation of burnt-in pixels. He then re-wrote a previous custom driver project to compensate for the pixels’ inherent brightness in firmware. After all that work, he wrapped the whole thing up in a nice wooden frame.

There’s a lot to read, so just go hit up his website. High points include the shift-register-based driver transplant, the bit-angle modulation that was needed to get the necessary bit-depth for the grayscale, and the PHP script that does the photograph-based brightness correction.

Picking a favorite [Sprite_tm] hack is like picking a favorite ice-cream flavor: they’re all good. But his investigation into hard-drive controller chips still makes our head spin just a little bit. If you missed his talks about the Tamagotchi Singularity from the Hackaday SuperCon make sure you drop what you’re doing and watch it now.

Building the Infinite Matrix of Tamagotchis

Tamagotchi is a digital pet, living in and cared for through a key-chain size piece of hardware. The mid-90’s toy lives in pop culture, but now it lives well beyond. A limitless network of Tamagachi has been created using some amazing tricks to feed, socialize, and monitor the beast now known as the Tamagachi Singularity.

Last weekend at the Hackaday SuperConference we were graced with a talk by [Jeroen Domburg], a.k.a. [Sprite_tm]. [Sprite] is a favorite of ours and over the years his hacker cred includes everything from reverse engineering hard drive controller chips to putting video games in his keyboard.

[Sprite] is also something of an Architect, and like all Architects he only wants what is best for the system he created. In this case, it’s a Matrix of Tamagotchis. [Sprite] created a hive of Tamagotchis that are able to interact with each other in their own separate world. The best part about this Matrix? There’s no allusions to violating the laws of thermodynamics in the exposition.

Like all good hacks, a Tamagotchi Matrix wasn’t created in a vacuum. A few years ago at 29C3, [Natalie Silvanovich] dumped the ROM in the current generation of Tamagotchis. This is an incredible feat of reverse engineering, that allows anyone to use the full capabilities of the 6502-based microcontroller that controls these digital pets

After [Sprite] figured out how to read and run the code in the Tamagotchi, the next obvious step towards a world of egg-shaped pods containing an entire population of Tamagotchis is virtual Tamagotchis. [Sprite] used a hard-coded state machine that takes care of pooping, flushing, training, feeding, and turning the lights off at bedtime.

With a single Tamagotchi described as a state machine, it’s a simple matter to build another. This is where things get interesting and Matrix-ey. Tamagotchis don’t live alone; they have an IR LED and receiver that allows them to interact with each other, eat, play, marry, and have kids. Emulating a single Tamagotchi is one thing, but controlling multiples is another thing entirely; some sort of protocol was needed to breed Tamagotchis and keep them happy and well-fed.

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