Vintage BBC Computer Gets FPGA Buddies

The BBC Microcomputer System (or BBC Micro) was an innovative machine back in the early 1980’s. One feature that impressed reviewers was a “tube” interface that allowed the machine to become an I/O processor for an additional CPU. When the onboard 6502 became too slow, it could become a slave to a Z-80 or even an ARM processor. The bus was actually useful for any high-speed device, but its purpose was to add new processors, a feature Byte magazine called “innovative.”

[Hoglet67] has released a very interesting set of FPGA designs that allows a small board sporting a Xilinx Spartan 3 to add a 6502, a Z80, a 6809, or a PDP/11 to a BBC Micro via the tube interface. There’s something satisfying about a classic computer acting as an I/O slave to a fairly modern FPGA that implements an even older PDP/11.

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Micro:bit — BBC Gets A Million Kids Into Embedded Dev

In the Early 1980s, the BBC launched a project to teach computer literacy to a generation of British schoolchildren. This project resulted in the BBC Micro, a very capable home computer that showed a generation exactly what a computer could do. These children then went home, turned on their ZX Spectrums, and became a generation of software engineers. Still, the BBC Micro is remembered fondly.

The computer revolution is long over, but today we suffer a sea change of embedded processors and microcontrollers. With Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, the BBC has decided it’s time to put the power of an ARM microcontroller into the hands of a million 11- and 12-year olds. The result is the Micro:bit. It’s a small microcontroller board with an ARM processor, an IMU, buttons, Bluetooth and a 5×5 LED array – exactly what you need if you’re teaching a million kids how to blink an LED.

Although the BBC has finalized the design for the Micro:bit, there are no specs at all. However, a few educated guesses can be made. The USB controller is provided by Freescale, who also provide the digital compass and magnetometer. Programming is done through a web-based, Arduino-like IDE with what appears to be a decent Micro:bit specific library. The board is also mbed compatible. Bluetooth, and apparently the ARM Cortex M0 core, is provided by a Nordic nRF51822. There are only three alligator clip-compatible I/Os, and its doubtful any student will be building anything that would be too complex for an entry level ARM. It’s also 3V logic; finally, the tyranny of 5V has fallen.

The Micro:bit is best seen as a tool that enables the relatively recent addition of a computer science curriculum in UK schools. There is now a requirement for seven-year-olds to understand algorithms and create simple programs. Previously computer education in the UK has consisted of PowerPoint. Now, secondary school students will be learning Boolean logic.

While the Micro:bit is utterly useless as a tool for doing real work, education is not real work. For blinking a few LEDs, having a device react to movement, playing with Bluetooth, and other lesser evils of electronics, the Micro:bit is great. Not everyone will become the digital technologists this initiative is trying to create, but for those who have an inclination towards semicolons and electrons, this is a great introduction to technology.

Hackaday Links: July 5, 2015

It’s the fifth of July. What should that mean? Videos on YouTube of quadcopters flying into fireworks displays. Surprisingly, there are none. If you find one, put it up in the comments.

The original PlayStation was a Nintendo/Sony collaboration. This week, some random dude found a prototype in his attic. People were offering him tens of thousands of dollars on the reddit thread, while smarter people said he should lend it to MAME and homebrewer/reverse engineer groups. This was called out as a fake by [Vadu Amka], one of the Internet’s highly skilled console modders. This statement was sort of semi retracted. There’s a lot of bromide staining on that Nintendo PlayStation, though, and if it’s a fake, the faker deserves thousands of dollars. Now just dump the ROMs and reverse engineer the thing.

Remember BattleBots? It’s back. These are my impressions of the first two episodes: Flamethrowers are relatively common now, ‘parasitic bots’ – small, auxilliary bots fighting alongside the ‘main’ bot are now allowed. KOs only count for the ‘main’ bot. Give it a few more seasons and every bot will be a wedge. One of the hosts is an UFC fighter, which is weird, but not as weird as actually knowing some of the people competing.

Ceci n’est pas un Arduino, which means it’s from the SRL camp. No, wait. It’s a crowdfunding campaign for AS200 Industries in Providence, RI.

Wanna look incredibly sketchy? Weld (or braze, or solder) your keys to a screwdriver.

The UK’s National Museum of Computing  is looking for some people to help maintain 80 BBC Micros. The museum has a ‘classroom’ of BBC micro computers still in operation. Caps dry out, switching power supplies fail, and over the years these computers start to die. If you have the skills and want to volunteer, give it a shot.

USA-made Arduinos are now shipping. That’s the Massimo Arduino, by the way.

Win $1000 for pressing a buttonWe’re gauranteed to give away a thousand dollar gift card for the Hackaday store next Wednesday to someone who has participated in the latest round of community voting for the Hackaday Prize.