Firmware Factory: Bit Fields vs Shift and Mask

Working with embedded systems usually involves writing code which will interface with hardware. This often means working on the register level. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a UART, an analog to digital converter, an LCD controller, or some other gizmo. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to break out the datasheets and figure out how to talk to an external device. To succeed at this you must become a master of bit manipulation.

Hardware designers don’t like wasting space, so modes, settings and other small pieces of information are often stored as packed bits. Our processors usually access things a byte (or a word) at a time, so what is the best way to handle this? Like so many other topics in software engineering, there are multiple ways to skin this cat. In C (and its derivatives) there are two major options: shift and mask, and bit fields.

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Designing a CPU in VHDL for FPGAs: OMG.

If you’ve been thinking about playing around with FPGAs and/or are interested in CPU design, [Domipheus] has started a blog post series that you should check out. Normally we’d wait until the whole series is done to post about it, but it’s looking so good, that we thought we’d share it with you while it’s still in progress. So far, there are five parts.

minispartan6In Part One, [Domipheus] goes through his rationale and plans for the CPU. If you’re at all interested in following along, this post is a must-read. The summary, though, is that he’s aiming to make a stripped-down 16-bit processor on a Spartan 6+ FPGA with basic arithmetic and control flow, and write an assembler for it.

In Part Two, [Domipheus] goes over the nitty-gritty of getting VHDL code rendered and uploaded to the FPGA, and as an example builds up the CPU’s eight registers. If you’re new to FPGAs, pay special attention to the test bench code at the end of the post. Xilinx’s ISE package makes building a test suite for your FPGA code pretty easy, and given the eventual complexity of the system, it’s a great idea to have tests set up for each stage. Testing will be a recurring theme throughout the rest of the posts.

In Part Three, [Domipheus] works through his choices for the instruction set and starts writes up the instruction set decoder. In Part Four, we get to see an ALU and the jump commands are implemented. Part Five builds up a bare-bones control unit and connects the decoder, ALU, and registers together to do some math and count up.


We can’t wait for further installments. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, and are following [Domipheus]’s progress, be sure to let him know: we gotta keep him working.

Of course, this isn’t the first time anyone’s built a soft-CPU in an FPGA. (The OMG was added mostly to go along with the other TLAs.) Here’s a tiny one, a big one, and a bizarre one.

Using a Voltage Regulator as a Constant Current Source

[Afroman] contacted us to share his new video on the LM317. The humble LM317 adjustable voltage regulator is everywhere. From wifi routers, to high spec lab equipment. Given a noisy input and a variable load, a voltage regulator will give a nice clean, stable output voltage. We’ve covered the basic operation and usage of the LM317 many times. But even the most common of parts can be used in new and interesting ways.

In his video [Afroman] describes how the LM317 can be used to regulate current rather than voltage to provide a constant current source under varying load. This can useful for a number of applications including driving LEDs and laser diodes. While this circuit may not be as efficient as an LED driver module or a switching solution the LM317 is cheap and readily available. [Afroman] also describes how the circuit works in detail allowing us to enjoy this ubiquitous part in this slightly unusual application.

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How to Directly Program an Inexpensive ESP8266 WiFi Module

The ESP8266 is the answer to “I want something with Wifi.” Surprisingly, there are a number of engineers and hobbyists who have not heard of this chip or have heard of it but don’t really understand what it is. It’s basically the answer to everything IoT to so many engineering problems that have plagued the hobbyist and commercial world alike.

The chip is a processor with integrated RAM, some ROM, and a WiFi radio, and the only external components you will need are 4 capacitors, a crystal and an external flash! It’s CHEAP, like $4/ea cheap! Or $5 if you want it on a nice, convenient carrier board that includes all these components. The power consumption is reasonable (~200mA)1, the range is insane ~300m2 without directional equipment, and a PCB trace antenna and ~4km if you want to be ridiculous.

One place thing that more people need to know about is how to program directly for this chip. Too many times projects use it as a crutch via the AT commands. Read on and find out how to hello world with just this chip.

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Ask Hackaday: Your Very First Microcontroller

Necessity is the mother of invention. It is also true that invention necessitates learning new things. And such was the case on the stormy Tuesday morning our story begins.  Distant echos of thunder reverberated in the small 8 x 16 workshop, drawing my attention to the surge suppressor powering my bench.  With only a few vacation days left, my goal of finishing the hacked dancing Santa Claus toy was far from complete. It was for a Secret Santa gift, and I wanted to impress. The Santa moved from side to side as it sang a song. I wanted to replace the song with a custom MP3 track. In 2008, MP3 players were cheap and ripe for hacking. They could readily be picked up at local thrift shops, and I had picked up a few. It soon became clear, however, that I would need a microcontroller to make it do what I wanted it to do.

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Hackaday Links: The Last One Of 2014

The guy behind the Microslice, a tiny Arduino-controlled laser cutter, has a new Kickstarter out. It’s called the Multibox PC, and it’s exactly what you need if you want to turn a Raspi, Banana Pi, HummingBoard, or Odroid U3 into an all-in-one desktop. 14″ 1366 x 768 LCD, and speakers turns dev boards into a respectable little Linux box.

If you’re learning to design schematics and lay out PCBs, you should really, really think about using KiCAD. It’s the future. However, Eagle is still popular and has many more tutorials. Here’s another. [Mushfiq] put together a series of tutorials for creating a library, designing a schematic, and doing the layout.

Another kickstarter wristwatch. But wait, this thing has a circular display. That’s really cool. It’s a 1.4″ 220×220 pixel, 262k color display. No, the display doesn’t use a polar coordinate system.

[Jari] wrote a digital logic simulator, Atanua, started selling licenses, and figured out it wasn’t worth developing on his own anymore. As promised, Atanua is now open source. If you want to look at the finances behind Atanua, here you go.

In 1970, you didn’t have a lot of options when it came to memory. One of the best options was Intel’s 1405 shift register – 512 bits of storage. Yes, shift registers as memory. [Ken Shirriff] got his hands on a memory board from a Datapoint 2200 terminal. Each of the display boards had 32 of these shift registers. Here’s what they look like on the inside

There’s a lot of talk about North Korean hackers, and a quick review of the yearly WordPress stats for Hackaday puts a tear in our eye. This year, there were fifty-four views from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. That’s just great. It’s awesome to see the hacker ethos make it to far-flung lands and through highly restricted firewalls. There’s still a long road ahead of us, though, and we’ll redouble our efforts on bringing the hacker mindset to Tuvalu and Saint Helena in the year 2015.

Offset Unicycle Built Mostly from a Single Bicycle

[Lou’s] friends all said that it would be impossible to build a unicycle that had offset pedals. Moving the pedals to the front of the unicycle would throw off the balance and prevent the user from being able to ride it. [Lou] proved them wrong using mostly components from a single donor bicycle.

The donor bike gets chopped up into a much smaller version of itself. The pedals stay attached in the original location and end up being out in front of the rider. The seat is moved backwards, which is the key to this build. Having the rider’s legs out in front requires that there be a counter balance in back. Moving the seat backwards gets the job done with relative ease.

To prevent the hub from free wheeling, [Lou] lashes the sprocket directly to the wheel spokes using some baling wire. He also had to remove the derailer and shorted the chain. All of this gives the pedals a direct connection to the wheel, allowing for more control. The video does a great job explaining the build quickly and efficiently. It makes it look easy enough for anyone to try. Of course, actually riding the unicycle is a different matter. Continue reading “Offset Unicycle Built Mostly from a Single Bicycle”