Depending on the device in hand and one’s temperament, bringing up a new part can be a frolic through the verdant fields of discovery or an endless slog through the grey marshes of defeat. One of the reasons we find ourselves sticking with tried and true parts we know well is that interminable process of configuration. Once a new display controller is mostly working, writing convenience functions to make it easier to use can be very satisfying, but the very first thing is figuring out how to make it do anything at all. Friend of Hackaday [Dan Hienzsch] put together a post describing how to use a particular LED controller which serves as a nice walkthrough of figuring out the right bitmath to make things work, and includes a neat trick or two.
The bulk of the post is dedicated to describing the way [Dan] went about putting together his libraries for a 7-segment display demo board he makes. At its heart the board uses the IS31FL3728 matrix driver from ISSI. We love these ISSI LED controllers because they give you many channels of control for relatively low cost, but even with their relative simplicity you still need to do some bit twiddling to light the diodes you need. [Dan]’s post talks about some strategies for making this easier like preconfigured lookup tables with convenient offsets and masking bits to control RGB LEDs.
There’s one more trick which we think is the hidden star of the show; a spreadsheet which calculates register values based on “GUI” input! Computing the bit math required to control a display can be an exercise in frustration, especially if the logical display doesn’t fit conveniently in the physical register map of the controller. A spreadsheet like this may not be particularly sexy but it gets the job done; exactly the kind of hack we’re huge fans of here. We’ve mirrored the spreadsheet so you can peek at the formulas inside, and the original Excel document is available on his blog.
In the embedded world, twiddling a few bits is expected behavior. Firmware is far enough down the stack that the author may care about the number of bits and bytes used, or needs to work with registers directly to make the machine dance. Usually these operations are confined to the typical shifting and masking but sometimes a problem calls for more exotic solutions. If you need to descend down these dark depths you invariably come across the classic Bit Twiddling Hacks collected by [Sean Eron Anderson]. Here be dragons.
Bit Twiddling Hacks is exactly as described; a page full of snippets and suggestions for how to perform all manner of bit math in convenient or efficient ways. To our surprise upon reading the disclaimer at the top of the page, [Sean] observes that so many people have used the contents of the page that it’s effectively all been thoroughly tested. Considering how esoteric some of the snippets are we’d love to know how the darkest corners found use.
If you like nitpicking around C code and generated assembly language — and we’ll admit that we do — you shouldn’t miss [Scaramanga’s] analysis of what’s known as Kernighan’s trick. If you haven’t heard of the trick, it’s a pretty efficient way of counting bits.
Like the Wheatstone bridge and a lot of other things, the Kernighan trick is misnamed. Brian Kernighan made it famous, but it was actually first published in 1960 and again in 1964 before he wrote about it in 1988. The naive way to count bits would be to scan through each bit position noting how many one bits you encounter, but the problem is, that takes a loop for each bit. A 64-bit word, then, takes 64 loops no matter what it contains. You can do slightly better by removing each bit you find and stopping when the word goes to zero, but that still could take 64 cycles if the last bit you test is set.
Working with embedded systems usually involves writing code which will interface with hardware. This often means working on the register level. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a UART, an analog to digital converter, an LCD controller, or some other gizmo. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to break out the datasheets and figure out how to talk to an external device. To succeed at this you must become a master of bit manipulation.
Hardware designers don’t like wasting space, so modes, settings and other small pieces of information are often stored as packed bits. Our processors usually access things a byte (or a word) at a time, so what is the best way to handle this? Like so many other topics in software engineering, there are multiple ways to skin this cat. In C (and its derivatives) there are two major options: shift and mask, and bit fields.