Vulcan 74: A Masterpiece of Retro Engineering

[Radical Brad] has played around with FPGAs, video signals, and already has a few astonishing projects of bitbanged VGA on his resume. Now he’s gone insane. He’s documenting a build over on the forums of a computer with Amiga-quality graphics built out of nothing but a 65C02, a few SRAM chips, and a whole pile of logic chips.

The design goals for this project are to build a video game system with circa 1980 parts and graphics a decade ahead of its time. The video output is VGA, with 400×300 resolution, in glorious eight-bit color. The only chips in this project more complex than a shift register are a single 65c02 and a few (modern) 15ns SRAMs. it’s not a build that would have been possible in the early 80s, but the only thing preventing that would be the slow RAM chips of the era.

So far, [Radical] has built a GPU entirely out of 74-series logic that reads a portion of RAM and translates that to XY positions, colors, pixels, and VGA signals. There’s support for alpha channels and multiple sprites. The plan is to add sound hardware with support for four independent digital channels and 1 Megabyte of sample memory. It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and becomes even more impressive when you realize he’s doing all of this on solderless breadboards.

[Brad] will keep updating the thread on until he’s done or dies trying. So far, it’s looking promising. He already has a bunch of Boing balls bouncing around a display. You can check out a video of that below.

Continue reading “Vulcan 74: A Masterpiece of Retro Engineering”

New Part Day: SPI RAM and a Video Controller

Generating video signals with a microcontroller or old CPU is hard if you haven’t noticed. If you’re driving even a simple NTSC or PAL display at one bit per pixel, you’re looking at a minimum of around 64kB of RAM being used as a frame buffer. Most microcontrollers don’t have this much RAM on the chip, and the AVR video builds we’ve seen either have terrible color or relatively low resolution.

Here’s something interesting that solves the memory problem and also generates analog video signals. Yes, such a chip exists, and apparently this has been in the works for a very long time. It’s the VLSI VS23s010C-L, and it has 131,072 bytes of SRAM and a video display controller that supports NTSC and PAL output.

There are two chips in the family, one being an LQFP48 package, the other a tiny SMD 8-pin package. From what I can tell from the datasheets, the 8-pin version is only an SPI-based SRAM chip. The larger LQFP package is where the action is, with parallel and SPI interfaces to the memory, an input for the colorburst crystal, and composite video and sync out.

After looking at the datasheet (PDF), it looks like generating video with this chip is simply a matter of connecting an RCA jack, throwing a few commands to the chip over SPI, and pushing bits into the SRAM. That’s it. You’re not getting hardware acceleration, you’re going to have to draw everything pixel by pixel, but this looks like the easiest way to generate relatively high-resolution video with a single part.

Thanks [antibyte] for the tip on this one.

Expanded Memory For The Teensy++ 2.0


Sometimes with a microcontroller project you need to do some very RAM-hungry operations, like image and audio processing. The largish AVR chips are certainly fast enough to do these tasks, but the RAM on these chips is limited. [xxxajk] has come up with a library that allows the use of huge RAM expansions with the Teensy++ 2.0 microcontroller, making these RAM-dependant tasks easy on one of our favorite microcontroller board.

[xxajk]’s work is actually a port of XMEM2, an earlier project of his that added RAM expansion and multitasking to the Arduino Mega. Up to 255 banks of memory are available and with the supported hardware, the Teensy can address up to 512kB of RAM.

XMEM2 also features a preemptive multitasking with up to 16 tasks, the ability to pipe messages between tasks, and all the fun of malloc().

The build is fairly hardware independent, able to work with Rugged Circuits QuadRAM and MegaRAM expansions for the Arduino Mega as well as [Andy Brown]’s 512 SRAM expansion. With the right SRAM chip, etching a board at home for XMEM2 is also a possibility.

Playing around with MRAM

For the longest time, hardware tinkerers have only been able to play around with two types of memory. RAM, including Static RAM and Dynamic RAM, can be exceedingly fast but is volatile and loses its data when power is removed. Non-volatile memory such as EPROMS, EEPROMS, and Flash memory retains its state after power is removed, but these formats are somewhat slower.

There have always been competing technologies that sought to combine the best traits of these types of memory, but not often have they been available to hobbyists. [Majenko] got his hands on a few MRAM chips – Magneto-Resistive RAM – and decided to see what they could do.

Magneto-Resistive RAM uses tiny pairs of magnetic plates to read and write 1s and 0s. [Majenko] received a sample of four MRAM chips with an SPI bus (it might be this chip, 4 Megabits for $20, although smaller capacity chips are available for about $6). After wiring these chips up on a home-made breakout board, [Majenko] had 16 Megabits of non-volatile memory that was able to run at 40 MHz.

The result was exactly what the datasheet said: very fast write and read times, with the ability to remove power. Unlike EEPROMS that can be destroyed by repeated reading and writing, MRAM has an unlimited number of write cycles.

While MRAM may be a very young technology right now, it’s a wonderful portent of things to come. In 20 (or 30, or 40) years, it’s doubtful any computer from the largest server to the smallest microcontroller will have the artificial separation between disk space and memory. The fact that any hardware hacker is able to play around with this technology today is somewhat amazing, and we look forward to more builds using MRAM in the future.

Simple trick for replacing Game Boy cart batteries while retaining game saves

[Adr990] wants to make sure his Game Boy game saves aren’t lost to aging batteries. They’re stored in SRAM with a small coin cell inside the cartridge to keep the memory energized when the game is not being played. But if you pull out the battery in order to replace it the data will be lost in the process. It turns out that you can hot-swap the battery without too much effort. As shown in the video after the break, he disassembled the case of the cartridge, then replaced the battery while the Game Boy is switched on. The edge connector feeds power which will keep the SRAM active while the backup battery is removed. We’re sure this could be done with a bench supply as well, but you’ll need to do your own testing before risking those prized game saves.

The other option is to backup your SRAM before replacing the batteries. We’ve seen an AVR-based cartridge dumper, and also one that uses an Arduino. Both should be able to read and write SRAM data. Continue reading “Simple trick for replacing Game Boy cart batteries while retaining game saves”

Veronica gets VRAM and its own boot logo

[Quinn Dunki] just reported in on the latest iteration in her computer project which is called Veronica. This time she added RAM to increase the VGA performance of her build. Like just about every other part of the project, [Quinn] knew what she wanted to do, but had to overcome a lot of issues along the way.

The goal is to implement a 256×240 display with 8-bit color depth. [Quinn] says this is on par with game console technology from the 1980’s. The problem is that the 10MHz AVR controller can’t really keep up with the scan rate of this size of display. The answer is to add RAM which stores all of the color data, the microcontroller will simply advance the address pointer on the memory chips to match the sync rate of the VGA output.

After hooking up her hardware design she gets a screen full of uninitialized pixel data. But moving from there to the final product seen above was quite frustrating. It turns out that noise on the breadboard was most of the problem, further compounded by entire breadboard row which wasn’t contacting the wires to make the temporary connections. A bit of jockeying for position and by Jove, she’s got a boot screen.

That breadboard sure has become crowded since her first VGA experiments.

Building the worst Linux PC ever

Linux is generally considered the go-to OS for under powered computers. Wanting to challenge the preconceived notion that Linux requires ‘a computer made in the last 20 years,’ [Dmitry] built the worst Linux PC ever around a simple 8-bit microcontroller.

The ATMega1284p [Dmitry] used doesn’t have a lot to offer as far as RAM and storage goes; just 16 kilobytes of SRAM and a paltry 128 kilobytes of Flash storage. While this may be voluminous in the embedded world, it’s peanuts compared to the gigabytes of RAM and hard drive space on even a low-end netbook. To solve this problem, [Dmitry] threw an antique 30-pin RAM SIMM at the problem. It’s wired up directly to the microcontroller, as is the 1 Gigabyte SD card that serves as the PC’s hard drive.

Linux requires a 32-bit CPU and a memory management unit, something the puny microcontroller doesn’t have. For [Dmitry], the best course of action was emulating an ARM processor on an AVR. We’re not sure if we’re dealing with genius or madness here, but it did prove to be a valuable learning exercise in writing a modular ARM emulator.

How fast is it? [Dmitry] tells us it takes two hours to boot up to a bash prompt, and four more to load up Ubuntu and login. If you want a Megahertz rating, good luck; the effective clock speed is about 6.5 kilohertz. While the worst Linux PC ever won’t win any races, its simple construction puts it within the reach of even the klutziest of hardware builders; the entire device is just a microcontroller, RAM, SD card, a few resistors, and some wire.

If you’d like to build your own worst Linux PC, [Dmitry] has the firmware and disk image available to download. If you want to watch the time-lapse of this thing booting, check out the video after the break.

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