Cortex M0 Becomes Platform-Game Platform

The Arduino Uno is an incredibly popular microcontroller platform. By virtue of being simple to understand, and having just enough processing power to be dangerous, it’s won fans the world over. In recent times, there have been efforts to replace it with something more powerful. The Arduino Zero is just one such device attempting to take the crown, and [Nicola Wrachien] decided to try game development on the platform.

[Nicola] chose to use the uChip, which is a remix of the Arduino Zero into a smaller form factor. This was combined with a 160×128 TFT display and a handful of buttons for control. The uChip module, along with the TFT are fitted to [Nicola]’s custom PCB which ties everything together.

By overclocking the SPI port to 24 MHz, [Nicola] is able to run a basic 2D platformer in excess of 50 frames per second. The frame rate is capped at a round 40 fps to keep things smooth and stable, and the results are impressive. Gameplay is fluid and responsive, and the screen looks vibrant with 16 bits per pixel providing plenty of colors to play with.

We love to see game systems hewn out of raw microcontrollers and displays. [Nicola]’s work goes to show that with a little tinkering, significant performance improvements are yours for the taking. For similarly impressive DIY handheld hacks, check out Star Fox on the Arduboy. Video after the break.

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Mining Bitcoin on the ESP32 For Fun, Definitely Not Profit

Bitcoin’s great, if you sold at the end of 2017. If you’re still holding, your opinion might be a little more sour. The cost to compete in the great hashing race continues to rise while cryptocurrency values remain underwhelming. While getting involved at the top end is prohibitively expensive, you can still have some fun with the basic concepts – as [Jake] did, by calculating Bitcoin hashes on the ESP32.

It’s a project that is very much done for fun, rather than profit. [Jake] notes that even maxing out both cores, it would take 31 billion years to mine one block at current difficulty levels. Regardless, the underlying maths is nothing too crazy. Double-hashing the right data with the SHA256 algorithm is all that’s required, a task that is well within the ESP32’s capabilities. There’s hardware acceleration available, too – though this is weirdly slower than doing it in software.

Overall, you’re not going to get rich hashing Bitcoin on a cheap microcontroller platform. You might just learn something useful, though. If this isn’t weird enough though, you could always try the same thing on a 1970s Xerox Alto. 


FPGA NES Looks Sharp On Perfboard

FPGAs are wonderful things, packed with logic cells that can be reconfigured as your heart desires. They excel at signal processing, anything requiring speed, and recreating vintage hardware. In that vein, [Jon Thomasson] decided to bring back the original Nintendo Entertainment System, in perfboard form.

The build uses a Spartan 6 from Xilinx, which [Jon] uses in the form of his own development board design. The NES core is courtesy of code by [Brian Bennett], sourced from Github. Games are loaded from an SD card by a Parallax Propeller, which passes the data to the FPGA over a serial connection. Display is on a sharp 800×480 LCD, with the 4:3 video output of the NES being displayed in a pillarboxed fashion.

The project is assembled on perfboard, with a pleasing handheld formfactor. Control is via tactile pushbuttons in the classic NES layout. Current draw is approximately 400 mA, giving a runtime of around 5 hours when running off four AA batteries.

We’ve seen the venerable NES implemented on FPGA platforms before. As development boards get cheaper and devices get more capable, expect to see ever more complex systems being implemented. Video after the break.

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How To Interface Sega Controllers, And Make Them Wireless

The Sega Genesis, or Mega Drive as it was known outside North America, was a popular console for the simple fact that Sega did what Nintendidn’t. Anachronistic marketing jokes aside, it brought fast scrolling 16-bit games to a home console platform and won many fans over the years. You may find yourself wanting to interface with the old controller hardware, and in that case, [Jon Thysell] is here to help.

[Jon] has done the work required to understand the Sega controller interface, and has shared his work on Github. The interface is an interesting one, and varies depending on the exact console and controller hardware used. The original Master System, with its D-pad and two buttons, simply uses six pins for the six switches on the controller. The 3-button Genesis pad gets a little more advanced, before things get further complicated with the state-machine-esque 6-button pad setup.

[Jon] helpfully breaks down the various interfaces, and makes it possible to interface them with Arduinos relatively easily. Sharing such work allows others to stand on the shoulders of giants and build their own projects. This nets us work such as [Danilo]’s wireless Genesis controller build. By combining the knowledge of the Sega protocol with a few off-the-shelf Arduinos and Bluetooth parts, it makes whipping up a wireless controller easy.

In this day and age, most console controllers can be readily interfaced with a PC with a variety of simple solutions – usually USB. You might feel like trying something harder though, for instance interfacing modern Nintendo controllers to a C64. Video after the break.

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Origami Gripper Is Great For Soft And Heavy Objects

Robotic arms are fascinating devices, capable of immense speed and precision when carrying out their tasks. They’re also capable of carrying great loads, and a full-sized industrial robot in operation at maximum pace is a sight to behold. However, while it’s simple to design grippers to move strong metal objects, picking up delicate or soft objects can be much harder. A team at MIT CSAIL have been working on a solution to this problem, which they call the Origami gripper.

The gripper is highly capable at lifting objects with complex shapes.

The gripper consists of a flexible, folding skeleton surrounded by an airtight skin. When vacuum is applied, the skeleton contracts around the object to be picked up. The gripper is capable of grasping objects sized up to 70% of its diameter, and over 100 times its weight.

Fabrication of the device involved the creation of 3D printed molds to produce the silicone rubber skeleton. Combined with precise lasercutting and advanced layering techniques, this created a part that can self-fold itself into shape under the right conditions. The structure was inspired by a “magic ball” origami design. The outer skin is remarkably simple in comparison – consisting of a regular latex balloon.

The team show off the gripper performing some impressive feats, with the robot able to pick up objects of all shapes, sizes, and weights without damage. The paper is available to read for the full story on the device. The use of vacuum for delicate gripping tasks is something we’ve seen before, too.



Vintage Atari Becomes Modern Keyboard

The modern keyboard enthusiast is blessed with innumerable choices when it comes to typing hardware. There are keyboards designed specifically for gaming, fast typing, ergonomics, and all manner of other criteria. [iot4c] undertook their own build for no other reason than nostalgia – which sounds plenty fun to us.

An Arduino Leonardo is pressed into service for this hack. With its USB HID capabilities, it’s perfectly suited for custom keyboard builds. It’s built into a working Atari 65XE computer, and connected to the keyboard matrix. The Keypad and Keyboard libraries are pressed into service to turn keypresses on the 80s keyboard into easily digseted USB data.

There’s plenty of room inside the computer for the added hardware, with the USB cable neatly sneaked out the rear. [iot4c] notes that everything still works and the added hardware does not cause any problems, as long as it’s not used as a computer and a keyboard at the same time.

It’s possible to do a similar hack on the Commodore 64, too. If you’re doing tricky keyboard builds yourself, you know where to send ’em.

Building A Magnetic Loop Antenna

Antennas come in many shapes and sizes, with a variety of characteristics making them more or less suitable for various applications. The average hacker with only a middling exposure to RF may be familiar with trace antennas, yagis and dipoles, but there’s a whole load more out there. [Eric Sorensen] is going down the path less travelled, undertaking the build of a self-tuning magnetic loop antenna. 

[Eric]’s build is designed to operate at 100W on the 20 meter band, and this influences the specifications of the antenna. Particularly critical in the magnetic loop design is the voltage across the tuning capacitor; in this design, it comes out at approximately 4 kilovolts. This necessitates the careful choice of parts that can handle these voltages. In this case, a vacuum variable capacitor is used, rated to a peak current of 57 amps and a peak voltage of 5 kilovolts.

The magnetic loop design leads to antenna which is tuned to a very narrow frequency range, giving good selectivity. However, it also requires retuning quite often in order to stay on-band. [Eric] is implementing a self-tuning system to solve this, with a controller using a motor to actuate the tuning capacitor to maintain the antenna at its proper operating point.

If you’re unfamiliar with magnetic loop builds, [Eric]’s project serves as a great introduction to both the electrical and mechanical considerations inherent in such a design. We’ve seen even more obscure designs though – like these antennas applied with advanced spray techniques.