The Pi Pico, An SDR Receiver Front End

Making a software defined radio (SDR) receiver is a relatively straightforward process, given the right radio front end electronics and analogue-to-digital converters. Two separate data streams are generated using clocks at a 90 degree phase shift, and these are passed to the software signal processing for demodulation. But what happens if you lack a pair of radio front ends and a suitable clock generator? Along comes [Mordae] with an SDR using only the hardware on a Raspberry Pi Pico. The result is a fascinating piece of lateral thinking, extracting something from the hardware that it was never designed to do.

The onboard RP2040 ADC is of course far too slow for the task, so instead an input is used, with a negative feedback arrangement from another GPIO to form a crude 1-bit ADC. A PIO peripheral is then used to perform the quadrature mixing, resulting in the requisite pair of data streams. At this point these are sent over USB to GNU Radio for demodulating, mainly for convenience rather than necessarily because the microcontroller lacks the power.

The result is a working SDR front end, demonstrated pulling in an FM broadcast station. The Pico has to be overclocked to reach that frequency and it’s more than a little noisy, but we’re extremely impressed with how much has been done with so little. Oddly it isn’t the first Pico SDR we’ve seen, but the previous one was a much more conventional and lower-frequency affair for the European Long Wave band.

A Single Board Computer, With Vacuum Tubes

We have occasionally featured vacuum tube computers here at Hackaday and we’ve brought you many single board computers, but until now it’s probable we haven’t brought you a machine that combined both of these things. Now thanks to [Usagi Electric] we can see just such a board, in the form of his UE-0.1, a roughly 260 by 210 mm PCB with 24 6AU6 pentodes on board that implements a simple one-bit CPU.

The architecture starts with the MC14500B 1-bit microcontroller, which was the subject of a previous vacuum tube computer. People found the unusual architecture difficult to understand, so this board is an even simpler take. It doesn’t have all the features of the Motorola original but it is (just) enough to be a CPU.

The tubes are arranged in groups of four with heaters in series from a 24 V supply, while the inputs and clock come in the form of on-board suitably retro-looking switches. The final touch is a VFD of the type used in bar graphs, were used to show the state of the various bits. It’s a fully working computer in the simplest sense, and definitely worth a look in the video below the break.

It would be interesting to see whether the tube count could be reduced further, or is this a record. The number of physical devices could be cut by using tubes with more than one device in them such as double-triodes, but perhaps that would be cheating.

Meanwhile, if you think vacuum computing is all about the old stuff, perhaps you should look at the state of the art.

Continue reading “A Single Board Computer, With Vacuum Tubes”

Game Boy-Style Camera For Playdate

The Game Boy Camera, while perhaps not the most technologically advanced piece of equipment, left a huge mark on video game and electronics culture. The grayscale photographs are still highly prized, and there are an untold number of projects which interface with original hardware to download authentic Game Boy Camera pictures to modern computers. There are others that look to recreate the feel and style of these images, and the latest comes to us on a Game Boy-like platform as well, the Playdate.

[t0mg] is the creator of this project, utilizing a OV7670 camera module sending data to a Teensy 4.1 which interfaces with the Playdate via USB. The images recorded on the Playdate are 1-bit, slightly different than the 2-bit images the Game Boy Camera was capable of. The case of the camera also physically matches up well with the small console, using magnets to secure it to the device either in normal camera mode, in reverse for selfie mode, and can also support the console in “cover” mode as a way of storing the console to protect the screen. A companion application needs to run on the Playdate to get this all up and running, but with that and a battery plenty of retro-style images are ready to be captured.

All of the source for this project is available on the project’s GitHub page for anyone ready to experience some nostalgia or just experiment with a small camera like this. It’s a clean build that takes advantage of the Playdate’s open-source nature, through which we’ve seen the console turned into a typewriter and inspire other builds like this one-off handheld with a crank-style controller.

Continue reading “Game Boy-Style Camera For Playdate”

When A Single Bit Was Enough, Into The Sound Of The ZX Spectrum

It’s normal for a computer in 2022 to come with a fully-featured sound card containing a complete synthesizer as well as high-quality PCM sound recording and playback. It’s referred to as a sound card after the way the hardware first appeared in the world of PCs, but in fact it’s now considered so essential as to be a built-in part of most mainboards. There was a time when computers boasted considerably less impressive sound hardware, and among the chorus of SIDs and AY chips of the perhaps the least well-featured was the original Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Its one-bit sound, a single line on an I/O port, is the subject of a thorough investigation from [Forgotten Computer]. It’s a long video which we’ve placed below the break, but for those with an interest in 8-bit music it should make a for a fascinating watch.

For Sir Clive Sinclair the 1-bit audio must have been welcome as it removed the need for an expensive sound chip and kept the Spectrum to its low price point, but on the face of it there was little more it could do than create simple beeps using Sinclair BASIC’s built-in BEEP command. The video gives us an in-depth look at how interleaving and PWM could be used to create much more complex sounds such as the illusion of multiple voices and even sampled sounds. In particular his technique of comparing the audio output with its corresponding pin on the Sinclair ULA shows the effect of the machine’s simple low-pass filter, though the music was often so close to the edge of what the interface could do that aliasing sounds are often very obvious.

As he demonstrates the various ingenious techniques that game and demo developers used to extract performance from such limited hardware that could even try to compete with the more sophisticated machines even at the same time as their code was running whatever was on the screen, it’s difficult not to come away with immense respect for their skills. If you’ve ever experimented with computer audio then you should try hardware this simple for yourself.

Continue reading “When A Single Bit Was Enough, Into The Sound Of The ZX Spectrum”

Gorgeous Perfboard Build Puts 1-Bit Controller Back To Work

Eight-bit computers are all the retro rage these days, with people rushing to build computers either from chips like the 6502 or the Z80, or even recreating these chips from a collection of TTL logic chips. And while we respect and covet those builds immensely, 8-bit computers aren’t the only game going on. To wit we present this lovely single-board computer sporting a 1-bit CPU.

The machine, which creator [Simon Boak] cheekily dubs “the world’s least-powerful computer,” is based on the Motorola MC14500B, a chip from the 1970s that was aimed at the industrial controls market. There, the chip’s limited instruction set and narrow bus width were not as limiting as they would be in a general-purpose computer. In fact, since the chip requires an external program counter, it offers a great degree of design flexibility. [Simon] chose a 4-bit address space, but with a little wizardry he was able to get eight bits of input in the form of DIP switches and eight bits of output LEDs. It’s not good for much past making lights blink, but it does that with nary an Arduino in view — although it does sport a couple of 555s.

[Simon]’s goal for the build was simply to build cool from an unusual chip, and we think he succeeded. In fact, we can’t recall seeing a neater perfboard build — it’s almost to the level of circuit sculpture. We especially like the hybrid solder and wirewrap construction. We’ve seen builds based on this chip before, but never one so neat and attractive.

[via r/electronics]

What Everyone Else Did With Eight Bits, The Germans Did With Only One

In the 1980s there was an impetus for the first time for young people to be equipped with computer literacy. A variety of different educational programmes were launched, typically involving a collaboration between a computer manufacturer and a broadcaster, and featuring BASIC programming on one of the 8-bit home computers of the day. One such educational scheme was a bit different though, the German broadcaster WDR produced an educational series using a modular computer featuring an unusual 1-bit processor that was programmed in hexadecimal machine code. [Jens Christian Restemeier] has produced a replica of this machine, that is as close to the original as he can make it. (Video, in German, embedded below.)

The computer is called the WDR-1, and had its origin in a kit machine before it was taken up by the broadcaster. The unusual 1-bit processor is a Motorola MC14500, which was produced from 1977 onwards for industrial control applications. He takes the viewer in the video below the break through the machine’s parts, explaining the purpose of each daughter card and the motherboard. Lacking an original to copy he instead worked from photographs to replicate the chip placements of the original, substituting pin headers for the unusual sockets used on the 1980s machines. Take a look at his video, below the break.

More information on the WDR-1 can be found online in German (Google translate link). Meanwhile we’ve featured the MC14500 before, in a small embedded computer.

Continue reading “What Everyone Else Did With Eight Bits, The Germans Did With Only One”

[Jeri] Shows Off A Delta Sigma ADC

[Jeri] has had a bear of a time moving up to Valve Software, but electron microscope is safely in her garage (!) and her electronics lab is slowly taking shape. Since she can’t bring out the real-life gravity gun she’s working on, she decided to show off a one-bit ADC¬†that uses just a flip-flop to sample an analog waveform ¬†into digital data.

By toggling the clock input of a 74xx74 (or any flip-flop, really) and feeding the complimentary output to back into the data input, [Jeri] can get an output that is a 50% duty cycle feeding into the input of the chip. Adding an audio input to this data input with 10k pot to this feedback loop will cause the duty cycle to change in relation to the analog input, making a one-bit ADC.

As with any electronic shortcut, there are a few drawbacks: the clock cycle feeding into the flip-flop has to be pretty fast; at least a few dozen kilohertz if you’re sampling audio. Still, if you don’t have a free ADC pin, or you’d just like to build a bitcrushing guitar pedal, it’s a very simple (and cheap) way to get analog into a digital micro.

Continue reading “[Jeri] Shows Off A Delta Sigma ADC”