Reverse Engineer a VFD after Exploring How They Work

[Dave Jones] got his hands on a really wide, 2-row Vacuum Fluorescent Display. We’ve come across these units in old equipment before and you can get them from the usual sources, both new and used, but you need to know how to drive them. This recent installment of the EEVblog reverse engineers this VFD.

The function of these displays is pretty easy to understand, and [Dave] covers that early in the video after the break. There is a cathode wire and phosphorescent coated anodes. When current is applied the anodes glow. To add control of which anodes are glowing a mesh grid is placed between the anodes and the cathode wire. Applying negative potential to the grid prevents the electrons from traveling to the anode so that area will not be lit.

Now driving this low-level stuff is not easy, but rest assured that most VFDs you find are going to have a driver attached to them. The reverse engineering is to figure out the protocol used to control that driver. On this board there is a 2-pin connector with a big electrolytic filtering cap which is a dead giveaway for power rails. Looking at the on-board processor which connects directly he ascertains that the input will be 5V regulated since this is what that chip will expect. Connecting his bench supply yields a blinking cursor! [Dave] goes on to pump parallel data and test out the control pins all using an Arduino. He finds success, sharing many great reverse engineering tips along the way.

We often call this type of thing a dark art, but that’s really just because there aren’t a lot of people who feel totally comfortable giving it a try. We think that needs to change, so follow this example and also go look at [Ben Heckendorn’s] recent LCD reverse engineering, then grab some equipment and give it a try for yourself. We want to hear about your accomplishments!

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The ChronodeVFD Wristwatch

Not just another steampunk fashion statement, [Johngineer’s] ChronodeVFD wristwatch is as intricate as it is beautiful. Sure, we’ve seen our share of VFD builds (and if you want a crash course in vacuum fluorescent displays, check out Fran’s video from earlier this year) but we seldom see them as portable timepieces, much less ones this striking.

The ChronodeVFD uses a IVL2-7/5 display tube, which in addition to being small and low-current is also flat rather than rounded, and features a transparent backing. [Johngineer] made a custom board based around an AtMega88 and a Maxim DS3231 RTC (real time clock): the latter he admits is a bit expensive, but no one complains about left-overs that simplify your design.

The VFD runs off a Maxim MAX6920 12-bit shift register and is powered by a single alkaline AA battery. A rechargable NiMH would have been preferable, but the lower nominal voltage meant lower efficiency for his boost converters and less current for the VFD. [Johngineer] won’t get much more than 6-10 hours of life, but ultimately the ChronodeVFD is a costume piece not meant for daily wear. Swing by his blog for a number of high-res photos and further details on how he built the brass tubing “roll cage” enclosure as well as the mounts for the leather strap.

Never Miss a Thing With This Programmable Vacuum Fluorescent Display Ticker

VFD Ticker

[Coyt] wanted a more convenient way to keep up to date with the ever-changing Bitcoin exchange rates, as well as weather and other useful information. He realized that the vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) he had purchased a couple of years ago would be perfect to display small amounts of information.

[Coyt] discovered that the VFD had a serial interface. The problem was that the VFD was looking for a 12V serial signal but the Raspberry Pi he wanted to use runs at a 3.3V. Upon closer inspection [Coyt] discovered that the VFD actually ran at lower levels as well, but it had a level converter chip installed in front of the main connector. He simply bypassed the level converter and was then able to get the RasPi speaking directly to the VFD.

The brain running this display is a Raspberry Pi. The Pi runs a Python script that pulls down all of the relevant information from the internet and displays it on the VFD. [Coyt] didn’t stop there, though. He knew that having the screen on all of the time would be somewhat of a waste, so he hooked up a PIR sensor to automatically turn on the display only when needed. The PIR sensor can detect motion in the room and will disable the display after a set period of inactivity. Most of this is powered by an LM7805 voltage regulator. While [Coyt] admits a linear regulator is not his ideal solution, it does get the job done. The metal stand acts as a nice heat sink for the regulator.

[Coyt] also wanted his project to have a certain aesthetic. He started by bending a metal plate into a stand for the electronics. He then mounted the VFD on the front of the stand and the RasPi on the back. He also mounted green LEDs between the two plates to light up the edges for a little extra pizzazz. [Coyt] believes he can use the RasPi to PWM the LEDs but this has not yet been implemented. This would allow him to pulse the light for added effect.

Since the whole thing is run by a Python script, it would be trivial to modify it to display other kinds of information. What would you do if you had a motion sensitive automatic ticker?

 

VFD as a sound amplifier

[Alessandro Lambardi] had some vacuum flourescent displays that he pulled from junked VCRs. His latest project is an experiment to use one of the VFDs as a headphone amplifier (Wayback Machine Cache). This means he’s trying to use them as vacuum triode amplifiers, aka vacuum tubes. He did get it to work but as he suspected, the output is fairly low power. It may be possible to use this setup as a preamp and build an actual tube amp to use along with it.

Update: Thanks to [Fallen] for mentioning that we’ve covered this concept in the past.

[Thanks Muris]