Color TV Broadcasts are ESP8266’s Newest Trick

The ESP8266 is well known as an incredibly small and cheap WiFi module. But the silicon behind that functionality is very powerful, far beyond its intended purpose. I’ve been hacking different uses for the board and my most recent adventure involves generating color video from the chip. This generated video may be wired to your TV, or you can broadcast it over the air!

I’ve been tinkering with NTSC, the North American video standard that has fairly recently been superseded by digital standards like ATSC. Originally I explored pumping out NTSC with AVRs, which lead to an entire let’s learn, let’s code series. But for a while, this was on the back-burner, until I decided to see how fast I could run the ESP8266’s I2S bus (a glorified shift register) and the answer was 80 MHz. This is much faster than I expected. Faster than the 1.41 MHz used for audio (its intended purpose), 2.35 MHz used for controlling WS2812B LEDs or 4 MHz used to hopefully operate a reprap. It occasionally glitches at 80 MHz, however, it still works surprisingly well!

The coolest part of using the chip’s I2S bus is the versatile DMA engine connected to it. Data blocks can be chained together to seamlessly shift the data out, and interrupts can be generated upon a block’s completion to fill it in with new data. This allows the creation of a software defined bitstream in an interrupt.

Why NTSC? If I lived in Europe, it would have been PAL. The question you’re probably thinking is: “Why a dead standard?” And there’s really three reasons.

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Breaking Out The ATtiny10

Atmel’s ATtiny10 is the one microcontroller in their portfolio that earns its name. It doesn’t have a lot of Flash – only 1 kilobyte. It doesn’t have a lot of RAM – only thirty two bytes. It is, however, very, very small. Atmel stuffed this tiny microcontroller into an SOT-23 package, more commonly used for surface mount transistors. It’s small, and unless your ideal application is losing this chip in your carpet, you’re going to need a breakout board. [Dan] has just the solution. He could have made this breakout board smaller, but OSHpark has a minimum size limit. Yes, this chip is very, very small.

Because this chip is so small, it doesn’t use the normal in-system programming port of its larger brethren. The ATtiny10 uses the Tiny Programming Interface, or TPI, which only requires power, ground, data, clock, and a reset pin. Connecting these pins to the proper programming header is easy enough, and with a careful layout, [Dan] fit everything into a breakout board that’s a hair smaller than a normal 8-pin DIP.

The board works perfectly, but simply soldering the ATtiny10 to a breakout board and using it as is probably isn’t the best idea. The reason you use such a small microcontroller is to put a microcontroller into something really, really small like ridiculous LED cufflinks. A breakout board is much too large for a project like this, but SOT23 test adapters exist, and they’re only $25 or so.

Either way, [Dan] now has a very, very small microcontroller board that can fit just about anywhere. There’s a lot you can do with one kilobyte of Flash, and with an easy way to program these chips, we can’t wait to see what [Dan] comes up with.

Boldport tribute to Bob Pease

We have lost something in PCB design over the last few decades. If you open up a piece of electronics from the 1960s you’ll see why. A PCB from that era is a thing of beauty, an organic mass of curving traces, an expression of the engineer’s art hand-crafted in black crêpe paper tape on transparent acetate. Now by comparison a PCB is a functional drawing of precise angles and parallel lines created in a CAD package, and though those of us who made PCBs in both eras welcome the ease of software design wholeheartedly we have to admit; PCBs just ain’t pretty any more.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. Notable among the rebels are Boldport, whose latest board, a tribute to the late linear IC design legend [Bob Pease], slipped out this month. They use their own PCBmodE design software to create beautiful boards as works of art with the flowing lines you’d expect from a PCB created the old-fashioned way.

The board itself is an update to an earlier Boldport design, and features Pease’s LM331 voltage to frequency converter IC converting light intensity to frequency and flashing an LED. It’s one of the application circuits from the datasheet with a little extra to drive the LED. Best of all the kit is a piece of open-source hardware, so you can find all its resources on GitHub.

We are fans of Boldport’s work here at Hackaday, and it should come as no surprise that we have featured them before. From one of their other kits through several different pieces of PCB wall art, to their work making an appearance in Marie Claire magazine they have graced these pages several times, and we hope this latest board will be one of many more.