Reverse Engineer An X-Ray Image Sensor

If you think of a medical x-ray, it is likely that you are imagining a photographic plate as its imaging device. Clipped to your tooth by your dentist perhaps, or one of the infamous pictures of the hands of [Thomas Edison]’s assistant [Clarence Madison Dally].

As with the rest of photography, the science of x-ray imaging has benefited from digital technology, and it is now well established that your hospital x-ray is likely to be captured by an electronic imaging device. Indeed these have now been in use for so long that their first generation can even be bought by an experimenter for an affordable sum, and that is what the ever-resourceful [Niklas Fauth] with the assistance of [Jan Henrik], has done. Their Trophy DigiPan digital x-ray image sensor was theirs for around a hundred Euros, and though it’s outdated in medical terms it still has huge potential for the x-ray experimenter.

The write-up is a fascinating journey into the mechanics of an x-ray sensor, with the explanation of how earlier devices such as this one are in fact linear CCD sensors which track across the exposed area behind a scintillator layer in a similar fashion to the optical sensor in a flatbed scanner. The interface is revealed as an RS422 serial port, and the device is discovered to be a standalone unit that does not require any commands to start scanning. On power-up it sends a greyscale image, and a bit of Sigrok examination of the non-standard serial stream was able to reveal it as 12-bit data direct from the sensor. From those beginnings they progressed to an FPGA-based data processor and topped it all off with a very tidy power supply in a laser-cut box.

It’s appreciated that x-rays are a particularly hazardous medium to experiment with, and we note from their videos that they are using some form of shielding. The source is a handheld fluoroscope of the type used in sports medicine that produces a narrow beam. If you remember the discovery of an unexpected GameBoy you will be aware that medical electronics seems to be something of a speciality in those quarters, as do autonomous box carriers.

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FPGA Magic Puts Little Embedded Screens Up On The Big Screen

Old-school handheld gaming platforms have a certain charm, but it’s fair to say that their relatively tiny screens don’t lend themselves to wider viewing. This presented a problem to [uXe] who wanted to display Arduboy games on the big screen, so he took a MyStorm BlackIce FPGA board and created a converter that emulates a SSD1306 OLED display and has a VGA output.

Having proved the viability of the idea, it was ported to a dedicated PCB with onboard ancillaries such as a level shifter for a 5 volt input. In an exciting twist, with a few modifications it’s also emulated a GameBoy screen, allowing full-sized playable games from that platform too. But the power of this hack isn’t relegated to gaming. SSD1306 is just one of a few different common standards for embedded displays. The FPGA work in this project is the blueprint for building a VGA adapter for any number of display replacements. We’d love to see an HD44780 mod of this!

The result as you can see in the video below the break is very much more in the spirit of the OLED than an HD immersive experience. But it does have a very pleasing air of an older arcade machine about it.

Several projects starting on a MyStorm BlackIce board have made it here in the past. Pretty memorable is the BBC Micro clone using one.

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FPGA Makes ASCII Video

Human beings like pictures which is probably why there’s the old adage “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” We take computer graphic output for granted now, but even in the earliest days for Teletypes and line printers, there was artwork made from characters ranging from Snoopy to Spock. [Wenting Z] continues the tradition by creating an FPGA that converts VGA video to ASCII art and outputs it via DVI.

The device uses a Xilinx Virtex device and uses about 500 LUT (look up tables) which is not much at all. You can see a video (that includes an overlay of the source video) of the device in action below.

In fact, we think of art like this as a computer phenomenon, but [Flora Stacey] created a butterfly on a typewriter in 1898 and ham radio operators were doing art using paper tape for the last half of the twentieth century. Even before that, In 1865, Alice in Wonderland had a certain passage that was typeset to suggest a mouse’s tail. Perhaps the pinnacle is the famous ASCII version of Star Wars.

This is decidedly less mechanical than some of the other ASCII art projects we’ve seen. If you have a taste for more text art, have a look at some other examples, including a very old advertisement that uses character art.

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Caped Beagle is FPGA Superhero

We miss the days when everything had daughterboards. Now, Arduinos have shields and Raspberry Pis have hats. The BeagleBone has capes. Whatever. However, regardless of the name, the open source BeagleWire cape/shield/hat/daughterboard connects to a BeagleBone and provides a Lattice iCE40HX FPGA, some support hardware, and common I/O connectors like Pmod and Grove. You can see a video about the board below.

In addition to the FPGA, the board contains a EEPROM, RAM, flash memory, an oscillator, and a few buttons, switches and LEDs. The buttons even feature hardware debouncing. The parts list and design files are all available and — depending on a successful crowdfunding campaign — you might be able to buy one for $75 in the future.

The board is configured to communicate over the 100 MHz 16-bit GPMC port. Linux software and example drivers are available so it should be fairly simple to get the FPGA and CPU talking to each other for your own purposes.

If you decide to build your own, there’s a one-click button that will populate a DigiKey cart for you with most of the components. Although the DigiKey site complained about an error, it did seem to order 24 of the 26 components and the total came to just over $50. Of course, you’d still need to source the missing parts and the board.

We’ve talked about the Lattice iCE FPGAs quite a bit in the past. Not only do you have our tutorial videos, but there are plenty of others, too.

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Another Introduction to FPGAs

FPGAs can have a steep learning curve, so getting started tutorials are a popular topic. Intel recently published a video titled “Basics of Programmable Logic: FPGA Architecture” and you can see it below. Of course, Intel bought Altera, so the material has a bit of Altera/Intel flavor to it, but the course is generic enough that the concepts will apply to just about any FPGA.

Of course, if you do want to use Quartus, there are quite a few follow-on courses, including the wonderfully named “Become a [sic] FPGA Designer in 4 Hours.” We’d really like to see a sequel titled “Become a Proficient FPGA Designer in 9 Months” but Google didn’t turn that one up.

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FPGA Calculator Uses Joystick

FPGAs are great fun, but sometimes you need a few starter projects under your belt. These projects might be something you could just as well do with a CPU, but you have to start somewhere. [LambdaPI] recently shared a 4-bit calculator created using an FPGA, and you can see it in the video below.

The calculator uses a Papilio FPGA board and a LogicStart accessory board for the display and switches. The Papilio normally uses schematic-based entry and Arduino code, but [LambdaPI] used VHDL. You enter the two 4-bit numbers on the 8 switches and then the joystick selects one of four operations (add, subtract, multiply, and divide).

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Forth System-On-Chip Takes Us Back to the 80s

For anyone who has dealt with the programming language Forth, odds are good that you picked it up back in the 80s. Since the language is still in use for many applications, though, you might not have this sort of nostalgic feeling for the language that some might have. For that, though, you might want to try out [Richard]’s implementation which simulates the microcomputers of the 80s using this unique language.

The system has an FPGA-based CPU written in Verilog. It runs on a Nexys-3 board and features PS/2 Keyboard input, a VGA output with a VHDL VT100 terminal emulation module, access to the Flash and onboard SRAM, and a UART. With all of that put together it’s virtually a Forth-based time machine. It’s also extremely well documented even if you’re just curious how it works and aren’t planning on building your own.

The project also includes a CPU simulator written in C which can model the entire computer if you don’t have the hardware for building the actual computer. [Richard] also released everything that you’d need to roll out your own Forth computer on the GitHub page. There are other ways of heading way back to the 1980s, though, like using the quirky Parralax Propeller.