New Part Day: Espressif ESP32-C6 Includes WiFi 6 And A RISC-V Core

If you’re a reader of Hackaday, then you’ve almost certainly encountered an Espressif part. The twin microcontroller families ESP8266 and ESP32 burst onto the scene and immediately became the budget-friendly microcontroller option for projects of all types. We’ve seen the line expand recently with the ESP32-C3 (packing a hacker-friendly RISC-V core) and ESP32-S3 with oodles of IO and fresh new CPU peripherals. Now we have a first peek at the ESP32-C6; a brand new RISC-V based design with the hottest Wi-Fi standard on the block; Wi-Fi 6.

There’s not much to go on here besides the standard Espressif block diagram and a press release, so we’ll tease out what detail we can. From the diagram it looks like the standard set of interfaces will be on offer; they even go so far as to say “ESP32-C6 is similar to ESP32-C3” so we’ll refer you to [Jenny’s] excellent coverage of that part. In terms of other radios the ESP32-C6 continues Espressif’s trend of supporting Bluetooth 5.0. Of note is that this part includes both the coded and 2 Mbps Bluetooth PHYs, allowing for either dramatically longer range or a doubling of speed. Again, this isn’t the first ESP32 to support these features but we always appreciate when a manufacturer goes above and beyond the minimum spec.

Welcome to the ESP32-C6

The headline feature is, of course, Wi-Fi 6 (AKA 802.11ax). Unfortunately this is still exclusively a 2.4GHz part, so if you’re looking for 5GHz support (or 6GHz in Wi-Fi 6E) this isn’t the part for you. And while Wi-Fi 6 brings a bevy of features from significantly higher speed to better support for mesh networks, that isn’t the focus here either. Espressif have brought a set of IoT-centric features; two radio improvements with OFDMA and MU-MIMO, and the protocol feature Target Wake Time.

OFDMA and MU-MIMO are both different ways of allowing multiple connected device to communicate with an access point simultaneously. OFDMA allows devices to slice up and share channels more efficiency; allowing the AP more flexibility in allocating its constrained wireless resources. With OFDMA the access point can elect to give an entire channel to a single device, or slice it up to multiplex between more than once device simultaneously. MU-MIMO works similarly, but with entire antennas. Single User MIMO (SU-MIMO) allows an AP and connected device to communicate using a more than one antenna each. In contrast Multi User MIMO (MU-MIMO) allows APs and devices to share antenna arrays between multiple devices simultaneously, grouped directionally.

Finally there’s Target Wake Time, the simplest of the bunch. It works very similarly to the Bluetooth Low Energy (4.X and 5.X) concept of a connection interval, allowing devices to negotiate when they’re next going to communicate. This allows devices more focused on power than throughput to negotiate long intervals between which they can shut down their wireless radios (or more of the processor) to extended battery life.

These wireless features are useful on their own, but there is another potential benefit. Some fancy new wireless modes are only available on a network if every connected device supports them. A Wi-Fi 6 network with 10 Wi-Fi 6 devices and one W-Fi 5 (802.11ac) one may not be able to use all the bells and whistles, degrading the entire network to the lowest common denominator. The recent multiplication of low cost IoT devices has meant a corresponding proliferation of bargain-basement wireless radios (often Espressif parts!). Including new Wi-Fi 6 exclusive features in what’s sure to be an accessible part is a good start to alleviating problems with our already strained home networks.

When will we start seeing the ESP32-C6 in the wild? We’re still waiting to hear but we’ll let you know as soon as we can get our hands on some development hardware to try out.

Thanks to friend of the Hackaday [Fred Temperton] for spotting this while it was fresh!

AN ESP32 Walkie-Talkie, For Those Spy Radio Moments

One of the most thrilling childhood toys for the adventurous 1970s or 1980s kid was probably the toy walkie-talkie. It didn’t matter that they were a very simple AM low-end-VHF radio with a range of about 500m and a Morse key of debatable utility, you could talk clandestinely with your friends, and be a more convincing spy, or commando, or whatever was the game of the moment. It’s a memory conjured up for grown-ups by [Chris G] with his ESP32 walkie-talkie, which replaces a shaky 49MHz connection with one a bit more robust through the magic of WiFi.

The hardware is a collection of modules on a custom PCB, aside from the ESP32 there’s an I2S microphone and I2S audio amplifier, which along with battery and speaker are housed in a neat 3D printed case. I2S is used for simplicity, but there is no reason why analogue components couldn’t be used with a few code changes. Connection is made via UDP over a WiFi network, or should there be no network via ESP-NOW. We’re not sure the range will be brilliant with those little on-board chip antennas, but with the wide range of 2.4GHz antennas to be had it’s likely a better result could easily be achieved if the stock item disappoints.

We like this project, and it’s one that’s especially pleasing to see given that we saw the potential a few years ago in a less successful walkie-talkie using the ESP8266.

USB Comes To The ESP32

Since the ESP8266 came on the scene a few years ago and revolutionized the way microcontrollers communicate with other devices, incremental progress on this chip has occurred at a relatively even pace. First there was the realization that code could be run on the chip itself. Next the ESP32 was released which built more on that foundation. The next step in that process of improvement may be here now as well, with this project which turns the ESP32 into a USB host.

USB is not a native feature on all microcontrollers or even Arduino-compatible boards. While some do have it built in like those based on the 32u4 for example, most either don’t have it at all or rely on a separate on-board chip to do some form of translating. The ESP32 is lacking this advanced feature so the USB needs to be cobbled together from scratch if you want this specific board to be able to interface directly with peripherals. This project does just that, allowing for four USB 1.1 devices to be connected directly to the ESP32 without a separate dedicated chip.

If you’ve been waiting for USB on this tiny, capable microcontroller this might be your chance to try it out. All of the project’s code is available on the project page. And, while it is limited in scope, it’s easily able to handle a keyboard or mouse. This might be a more cost-effective way of doing something like a KVM switch rather than doing it with three Arduinos.

 

Cycling Cadence Display With ESP32

Terry Pratchett once said “Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.” This is as true with technical skills as it is with the rest of life, and you won’t truly understand a specific topic unless you’ve struggled with it a bit. [publidave] wanted a simple wireless display for a bluetooth cycling cadence sensor, and soon found himself deep down the rabbit hole of Micropython and Bluetooth Low Energy on the ESP32.

[publidave] had converted his bicycle for indoor training during lockdown and winter, and realized he can’t use the guided training app and view his cadence simultaneously, so he needed a dedicated cadence display. Since [publidave] was comfortable with Python, he decided to give Micropython on the ESP32 ago. Bluetooth Low Energy can be rather confusing if you haven’t implemented it before, especially if good examples are hard to come by. In short, the ESP32 needs to find the sensor, connect to it, select the right service, and listen for the notifications containing the data. The data is then converted to RPM and displayed on a small OLED display. [publidave] does an excellent job of describing what exactly he did, highlighting the problems he encountered, and how he solved them.

In the end, he had a functional display, a good idea of what he would do differently next time, and a lot of additional knowledge and understanding. In our book that’s a successful project.

Since so much of the health related devices work with Bluetooth Low Energy, it could be handy to know the technology and how to interface with it. It would allow you to do things like unbrick a $2000 exercise bike,

Laser Galvos And An ESP32 Recreate Old-School Asteroids

Playing Asteroids now isn’t quite what it used to be when it came out 40 years ago. At the time, the vector-scan display was part of the charm; making do with an emulator running on a traditional raster display just doesn’t quite do it for purists. But if you manage to build your own laser-projector version of the game like [Chris G] did, you’re getting close to capturing some of the original magic of the game.

There’s a lot to unpack about this project, and the video below does a good job explaining it. Where the original game used a beam of electrons flashing inside a CRT to trace out each object in the game, [Chris] substituted an off-the-shelf two-axis galvanometer from eBay and a 5-mW laser LED. This can project a gamefield on a wall up to two meters on a side, far bigger than any version of the machine ever built. The galvos are driven by op-amp drivers and an SPI DAC on a custom PCB. And in comparison to the discrete logic chips and 6502 running the original game, [Chris] opted for an ESP32.

As interesting as the hardware for this is, the real story is in the software. [Chris] does an excellent job running through his design, making the bulk of the video feel like a master class in game programming. His software is from scratch — no emulations here. As such it doesn’t perfectly reproduce the original games — no flying saucers and no spaceship explosion animations (yet) — but when coupled with the laser vector display, it certainly captures the feel of the original.

Being devoted Asteroids fans from back in the day, this one really pushes our buttons. We’ve seen laser-based recreations of the game before, but this one makes us think we can finally afford to recapture the glory of our misspent youth.

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FreeTouchDeck Upgrades Its Hardware And Its Name: ESP32 Touchdown

With many folks continuing to work from home for far longer than they ever thought, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing the rise of small DIY devices to make that video call or virtual presentation a little easier. [Dustin Watts] was interested in the functionality of the Elgato Stream Deck — a macro keyboard where each key is its own screen. But that kind of fancy hardware comes with a formidable price tag. So he built his own, and made it open source!

His first iteration — FreeTouchDeck — was built using commonly available modules but has since evolved into the ESP32 Touchdown which does it all with a single PCB. It’s a highly-customizable touchscreen macro keyboard which provide easy access shortcuts and macros for quick actions. Need a quick mute button, want to switch camera views on OBS, or maybe you want smarter shortcut keys for your CAD of choice. This will can get you there.

There a few key differences from the first version (FreeTouchDeck). The ESP32 dev board was ditched for a tidy PCB the directly integrates the module. This one has a capacitive touch controller (FT6236) rather than a resistive one as the capacitive screens deliver a far nicer user experience. A built-in battery and charger circuit (which the FreeTouchDesk didn’t have) allows for the extra bit of flexibility to stream from anywhere (within wireless range of course). Multiple case designs are available in STL form that allows it to be placed on a wall or desk with ease.

Datasheets, gerbers, kicad files, BOMs, and example firmware is provided on GitHub. The software is easily configurable so it can be set up to do any sort of macro, key combination, or action. This isn’t just limited to emulating a Bluetooth keyboard as there are examples showing how to connect to Home Assistant. All in all, this is a wonderful example of continued iteration on a project.

Thanks [Timothy Gregory] for sending this one in!

Hands-On: The RISC-V ESP32-C3 Will Be Your New ESP8266

We just got our hands on some engineering pre-samples of the ESP32-C3 chip and modules, and there’s a lot to like about this chip. The question is what should you compare this to; is it more an ESP32 or an ESP8266? The new “C3” variant has a single 160 MHz RISC-V core that out-performs the ESP8266, and at the same time includes most of the peripheral set of an ESP32. While RAM often ends up scarce on an ESP8266 with around 40 kB or so, the ESP32-C3 sports 400 kB of RAM, and manages to keep it all running while burning less power. Like the ESP32, it has Bluetooth LE 5.0 in addition to WiFi.

Espressif’s website says multiple times that it’s going to be “cost-effective”, which is secret code for cheap. Rumors are that there will be eight-pin ESP-O1 modules hitting the streets priced as low as $1. We usually require more pins, but if medium-sized ESP32-C3 modules are priced near the ESP8266-12-style modules, we can’t see any reason to buy the latter; for us it will literally be an ESP8266 killer.

On the other hand, it lacks the dual cores of the ESP32, and simply doesn’t have as many GPIO pins. If you’re a die-hard ESP32 abuser, you’ll doubtless find some features missing, like the ultra-low-power coprocessor or the DACs. But it does share a lot of the ESP32 standouts: the LEDC (PWM) peripheral and the unique parallel I2S come to mind. Moreover, it shares the ESP-IDF framework with the ESP32, so despite running on an entirely different CPU architecture, a lot of code will run without change on both chips just by tweaking the build environment with a one-liner.

One of these things is not like the other

If you were confused by the chip’s name, like we were, a week or so playing with the new chip will make it all clear. The ESP32-C3 is a lot more like a reduced version of the ESP32 than it is like an improvement over the ESP8266, even though it’s probably destined to play the latter role in our projects. If you count in the new ESP32-S3 that brings in USB, the ESP32 family is bigger than just one chip. Although it does seem odd to lump the RISC-V and Tensilica CPUs together, at the end of the day it’s the peripherals more than the CPUs that differentiate microcontrollers, and on that front the C3 is firmly in the ESP32 family.

Our takeaway: the ESP32-C3 is going to replace the ESP8266 in our projects, but it won’t replace the ESP32 which simply has more of everything when we need it. The shared codebase and peripheral architecture makes it easier to switch between the two when we don’t need the full-blown ESP32. In that spirit, we welcome the newcomer to the family.

But naturally, we’ve got a lot more to say about it. Specifically, we were interested in exactly what the RISC-V core brought to the table, and ran the module through power and speed comparisons with the ESP32 and ESP8266 — and it beats them both by a small margin in our benchmarks. We’ve also become a lot closer friends with the ESP-IDF SDK that all of the ESP32 family chips use, and love how far it has come in the last year or so. It’s not as newbie-friendly as ESP-Arduino, for sure, but it’s a ton more powerful, and we’re totally happy to leave the ESP8266 SDK behind us.

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