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.

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Tiny x86 Systems With Graphics Cards

The Intel Edison is out, and that means there’s someone out there trying to get a postage-stamp sized x86 machine running all those classic mid-90s games that just won’t work with modern hardware. The Edison isn’t the only tiny single board computer with an x86 processor out there; the legends told of another, and you can connect a graphics card to this one.

This build uses the 86Duino Zero, a single board computer stuffed into an Arduino form factor with a CPU that’s just about as capable as a Pentium II or III, loaded up with 128 MB of RAM, a PCI-e bus, and USB. It’s been a while since we’ve seen the 86Duino. We first saw it way back at the beginning of 2013, and since then, barring this build, nothing else has come up.

The 86Duino Zero only has a PCI-e x1 connector, but with an x16 adapter, this tiny board can drive an old nVidia GT230. A patch to the Coreboot image and a resistor for the Reset signal to the VGA was required, but other than that, it’s not terribly difficult to run old games on something the size of an Arduino and a significantly larger graphics card.

Thanks [Rasz] for sending this one in.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: An Open Source Graphics Card

For last year’s Hackaday Prize, [PK] tried to build a video card for microcontrollers and headless Linux systems. It was only 640×480 resolution VGA, but the entire project was designed around a CPLD communicating with a microcontroller over SPI. This prize entry was, by [PK]’s own admission, a failure. It was late, but now he’s had an entire year to perfect his design. That means he can enter version two of his VGATonic in The Hackaday Prize.

The VGATonic version 2 uses a Xilinx XC95144XL CPLD for the VGA timing, and an ATTiny 2313a to read the SPI bus. Video memory is four megabits of static RAM. That’ls pretty much all you need for the most basic VGA graphics card, and all of this is packed onto a 3×3 inch PCB.

You can do a lot with 640×480 8-bit graphics running at 25FPS. In the video below, [PK] has a ‘hello world’ of sorts, Doom, running on a Raspberry Pi 2 with his SPI graphics card. Yes, it’s a graphics card for the Raspberry Pi, and it looks really good.

Further refinements of the design will include some primitive graphics routines. Not OpenGL or anything fancy, just something to reduce the number of writes on the SPI bus. It’s a great project, and perfect if you want to add video out to an Intel Galileo or other microcontroller project. [PK] has a video demo, you can check that out below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Better VGA On The STM32F4

[Cliff] is pushing VGA video out of a microcontroller at 800×600 resolution and 60 frames per second. This microcontroller has no video hardware. Before we get to the technical overview, here’s the very impressive demo.

The microcontroller in question is the STM32F4, a fairly powerful ARM that we’ve seen a lot of use in some pretty interesting applications. We’ve seen 800×600 VGA on the STM32F4 before, with a circles and text demo and the Bitbox console. [Cliff]’s build is much more capable, though; he’s running 800×600 @ 60FPS with an underclocked CPU and most (90%) of the microcontroller’s resources free.

This isn’t just a demo, though; [Cliff] is writing up a complete tutorial for generating VGA on this chip. It begins with an introduction to pushing pixels, and soon he’ll have a walkthrough on timing and his rasterization framework.

Just because [Cliff] has gone through the trouble of putting together these tutorials doesn’t mean you can’t pull out an STM Discovery board and make your own microcontroller video hacks. [Cliff] has an entire library of for graphics to allow others to build snazzy video apps.

Using Cheap Displays With The Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi B+ has a native VGA connection. Sure, it’s hidden away in binary blobs and device trees, and you need to wire up the GPIO pins just right, but it’s possible to connect a VGA monitor to a Raspi B+ natively. For the brave, smart, or foolish, this means you can also drive raw DPI displays. [Robert] had a few of these dirt cheap displays sitting around and decided to give the entire thing a go. It worked, and he’s written down how to do it.

One of the chip architects for the Raspberry Pi, [Gert van Loo], was exceedingly clever when designing the Pi. There’s a parallel interface in the chip that, when combined with a few dozen resistors, can drive a VGA display in addition to the HDMI display. Screens with a Display Parallel Interface are actually pretty similar to what the VGA spec calls for. The problem is, hardly any of this is documented for the Raspberry Pi, and finding it means trawling through forums.

[Robert]’s example circuit uses a 5″ display from Adafruit, a 40-pin breakout, and a bunch of prototyping wires. Setup requires grabbing a cut down version of the device tree used for the Raspi VGA breakout board, setting the output format, rgb order, and aspect ratio of the display, and wiring everything up.

What’s interesting here is that [Robert] reproduced this project from scratch, and found that any display with a 40-pin DPI connector will work with the Raspi, provided you have a datasheet. That’s pretty cool; these displays can be cheap, and since we don’t yet have a proper DSI display for the Pi, this will have to do for now.

Video below of [Robert]’s inspiration for this build, [Ladyada].

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800 x 600 VGA With the STM32F4

Generating VGA is a perennial favorite on the Hackaday tips line, and it’s not hard to see why. Low-res video games, of course, but sending all those pixels out to a screen is actually a pretty challenging feat of coding. The best most project have attained is the original VGA standard, 640×480. Now that we have fast ARMs sitting around, we can bump that up to 800×600, like [Karl] did with an STM32F4 Discovery board.

The problem with generating VGA on a microcontroller is the pixel frequency – the speed at which pixels are shoved out of the microcontroller and onto the screen. For an 800×600 display, that’s 36 MHz; faster than what the 8-bit micros can do, but a piece of cake for the STM32F4 [Karl] is using.

[Karl] started his build by looking at the VGA project Artekit put together. It too uses an STM32, but a 36-pin F103 part. Still, it was fast enough to generate a line-doubled 800×600 display. [Karl] took this code and ported it over to the F4 part on the Discovery board that has enough space for a full 800×600 frame buffer.

With all that RAM on board the F4 part, [Karl] was able to expand the frame buffer and create a relatively high-resolution display with DMA and about a dozen lines of code. It looks great, and now we just need a proper application for high-resolution VGA displays. Retrocomputing? A high-resolution terminal emulator? Who knows, but it’s a great use for the STM32.

If circles and some text aren’t your thing, Artekit also has Space Invaders running on the 36-pin STM32.

ZX81 Emulated on an mbed

This is a wonderful example of the phenomenon of “feature creep”. [Gert] was working on getting a VGA output running on an mbed platform without using (hardly) any discrete components. Using only a few resistors, the mbed was connected to a VGA display running at 640×480. But what could he do with something with VGA out? He decided to emulate an entire Sinclair ZX81 computer, of course.

With more than 1.5 million units sold, the Sinclair ZX81 was a fairly popular computer in the early ’80s. It was [Gert]’s first computer, so it was a natural choice for him to try to emulate. Another reason for the choice was that his mbed-VGA device could only output monochrome color, which was another characteristic of the ZX81.

[Gert] started by modifying a very lean Z80 emulator to make the compiled code run as efficiently as possible on the mbed. Then he went about getting a picture to display on the screen, then he interfaced an SD card and a keyboard to his new machine. To be true to the original, he built everything into an original ZX81 case.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a ZX81, but it is one of the better implementations of an emulated version of this system we’ve seen.

Thanks to [Jeroen] for the tip!