Optical Theremin Makes Eerie Audio With Few Parts

[Fearless Night]’s optical theremin project takes advantage of the kind of highly-integrated parts that are available to the modern hacker and hobbyist in all the right ways. The result is a compact instrument with software that can be modified using the Arduino IDE to take it places the original Theremin design could never go.

The design is based on a ‘Blue Pill’ STM32 MCU development board and two Avago APDS-9960 gesture sensor breakout boards, along with a few other supporting components. Where the original Theremin sensed hand proximity using two antenna-like capacitive sensors to control note frequency and volume, this design relies on two optical sensors to do the same job.

[Fearless Night] provides downloads for the schematic, code, parts list, and even 3D models for the enclosure. PCB files are also included for a convenient assembly, but since the component count is fairly low, a patient hacker should be able to get away with soldering it up by hand without much trouble.

This project creates the audio using the STM32’s Direct Digital Synthesis (DDS) capability and a simple low-pass filter, and has several ways to fine-tune the output. What’s DDS? Our own Elliot Williams explains it in terms of audio output for microcontrollers, and if you’d like a more comprehensive overview, Bil Herd will happily tell you all about it.

Test Your ‘Blue Pill’ Board For A Genuine STM32F103C8 MCU

With the market for STM32F103C8-based ‘Blue Pill’ boards slowly being overrun with boards that contain either a cloned, fake or outright broken chip, [Terry Porter] really wanted to have an easy, automated way to quickly detect whether a new board contains genuine STM32 silicon, or some fake that tries to look the part. After more than a year of work, the Blue Pill Diagnostics project is now ready for prime time.

We have covered those clone MCUs previously. It’s clear that some of those ‘Blue Pill’ boards obviously do not have a genuine STM32 MCU on them, as they do not have the STM32 markings on them, while others fake those markings on the package and identifying can be hard to impossible. Often only testing the MCU’s actual functionality can give clarity on whether it’s a real STM32 MCU.

These diagnostics allow one to test not only the 64 kB of Flash, but also the 64 kB of ‘hidden’ Flash that’s often found on these MCUs (rebadged 128 kB STM32F103 cores). It further checks the manufacturer JDEC code and uses a silicon bug in genuine STM32F1xx MCUs where the BGMCU_IDCODE cannot be read without either SWD or JTAG connected.

Another interesting feature of Blue Pill Diagnostics is using Mecrisp-Stellaris Forth as its foundation, which allows for easy access to a Forth shell via this firmware as well, not unlike MicroPython and Lua, only in a fraction of the Flash required by those. We have previously written about using Mecrisp-Stellaris in your projects.

Portable, Digital Scoreboard Goes Anywhere

It’s that time of year in both hemispheres — time to get outside and play before it gets unbearably hot (or cold). No matter what your game, don’t keep score in your head or with piles of rocks — make yourself a portable, fold-able scoreboard like [LordGuilly] did and be on the bleeding edge of display technology. It’s really more roll-able than fold-able, which is awesome because you get to unfurl it like a boss.

All you need is a place to hang it up and you’re good to go. This thing runs on a beefy 10,000 mAH USB power bank, and [LordGuilly] says that it’s easy to read even on really sunny days. As you may have guessed, those are WS2812 strips and they are set into rectangular PVC bars. The bars are set equidistant from each other in a frame made from modified version of cable tracks — plastic chain links for cable management.

Good looks aside, we especially like that there are two controller options here. If you want to assign a dedicated scorekeeper, there’s a handled version that uses an STM32 blue pill and is wired to the display. But if you’re short on people, use the ESP8266 version and update the score with the accompanying app. Check out the demo after the break so you can see it in action.

We’ve seen a few scoreboards over the years, including this beauty that’s meant for indoor games.

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Reliable Frequency Reference From GPS

GPS technology is a marvel of the modern world. Not only can we reliably locate positions on the planet with remarkable accuracy and relatively inexpensive hardware, but plenty of non-location-based features of the technology are available for other uses as well. GPS can be used for things like time servers, since the satellites require precise timing in order to triangulate a position, and as a result they can also be used for things like this incredibly accurate frequency reference.

This project is what’s known as a GPSDO, or GPS-disciplined oscillator. Typically they use a normal oscillator, like a crystal, and improve its accuracy by pairing it with the timing signal from a GPS satellite. This one is a standalone model built by [Szabolcs Szigeti] who based the build around an STM32 board. The goal of the project was purely educational, as GPSDOs of various types are widely available, but [Szabolcs] was able to build exactly what he wanted into this one including a custom power supply, simple standalone UI, and no distribution amplifier.

The build goes into a good bit of detail on the design and operation of the device, and all of the PCB schematics and source code are available on the projects GitHub page if you want to build your own. There are plenty of other projects out there that make use of GPS-based time for its high accuracy, too, like this one which ties a GPS time standard directly to a Raspberry Pi.

Vintage Calculator Design Shows Just How Much We Take For Granted Today

[Amen]’s Rockwell 920 calculator from the 70s was a very impressive piece of hardware for its time. It sported a 16-digit display, a printer, and it could run programs. It even had a magnetic card reader/writer that could be used to store programs and data externally. Seen through today’s eyes, it was less like a calculator and more like what we would call a single-board computer. They are also a window into another era, a time when many of the electrical design assumptions we take for granted hadn’t happened yet. When the time came to dig into what made the calculator tick, [Amen] had a lot of work to do just to get basic tools running.

For example, [amen]’s Blue Pill (an open-source, multipurpose test and measurement tool) is, on one hand, the perfect tool to snoop on the inner workings. However, those inner workings happen to use negative logic at -17 Volts, which means a logical zero is -17 V and a one is 0 V. Oh, and it uses an oddball clock rate, to boot. Since the Blue Pill doesn’t support -17 V negative logic (does anything?) a bit of custom work was needed to craft an interface. Once that was working, the Blue Pill was off to the races.

The unfamiliar elements didn’t end there. The pins on each IC, for example, are in a staggered layout quite unlike the DIP pattern most of us (and our tools, breadboards, and IC clips) are familiar with. As for the processor itself, [amen] has access to low-level documentation on Rockwell processors and instruction sets, but the timing diagrams are puzzling until one realizes the processor has two clock inputs at two different frequencies, resulting in what [amen] describes as four separate “clock phases”.

These design decisions were certainly made for good reasons at the time, and they even have a certain internal harmony to them, but it’s still a window into an era when the elements underpinning much of what we now have and work with had not yet happened.

Check out the video embedded below to see [amen] explain what it took to hook the Blue Pill up to a Rockwell 920. Also, if you’d like to see one of these vintage machines demonstrated in all its functioning glory, here’s a video of one being put through its paces.

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A Physical Front Panel For Oscilloscope Software

For hackers on a tight budget or with limited bench space, a USB oscilloscope can be a compelling alternative to a dedicated piece of hardware. For plenty of hobbyists, it’s a perfectly valid option. But while the larger discussion about the pros and cons of these devices is better left for another day, there’s one thing you’ll definitely miss when the interface for your scope is a piece of software: the feel of physical buttons and knobs.

But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? The ScopeKeypad by [Paul Withers] looks to recreate the feel of a nice bench oscilloscope when using a virtual interface. Is such a device actually necessary? No, of course not. Although one could argue that there’s a certain advantage to the feedback you get when spinning through the detents on a rotary encoder versus dragging a slider on the screen. Think of it like a button box for a flight simulator: sure you can fly the plane with just the keyboard and mouse, but you’re going to have a better time with a more elaborate interface.

The comparison with a flight simulator panel actually goes a bit deeper, since that’s essentially what the ScopeKeypad is. With an STM32 “Blue Pill” microcontroller doing its best impression of a USB Human Interface Device, the panel bangs out the prescribed virtual key presses when the appropriate encoder is spun or button pressed. The project is designed with PicoScope in mind, and even includes a handy key map file you can load right into the program, but it can certainly be used with other software packages. Should you feel so inclined, it could even double as a controller for your virtual spaceship in Kerbal Space Program.

Affordable USB oscilloscopes have come a long way over the years, and these days, using one is hardly the mark of shame it once was. But the look and feel of the classic bench scope is about as timeless as it gets, so we can certainly see the appeal of a project that tries to combine the best of both worlds.

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Blue Pill Vs Black Pill: Transitioning From STM32F103 To STM32F411

For many years now, the so-called ‘Blue Pill’ STM32 MCU development board has been a staple in the hobbyist community. Finding its origins as an apparent Maple Mini clone, the diminutive board is easily to use in breadboard projects thanks to its dual rows of 0.1″ pin sockets. Best of all, it only costs a few bucks, even if you can only really buy it via sellers on AliExpress and EBay.

Starting last year, boards with a black soldermask and an STM32F4 Access (entry-level) series MCUs including the F401 and F411 began to appear. These boards with the nickname ‘Black Pill’ or ‘Black Pill 2’. F103 boards also existed with black soldermask for a while, so it’s confusing. The F4xx Black Pills are available via the same sources as the F103-based Blue Pill ones, for a similar price, but feature an MCU that’s considerably newer and more powerful. This raises the question of whether it makes sense at this point to switch to these new boards.

Our answer is yes, but it’s not entirely clearcut. The newer hardware is better for most purposes, really lacking only the F103’s dual ADCs. But hardware isn’t the only consideration; depending on one’s preferred framework, support may be lacking or incomplete. So let’s take a look at what it takes to switch. Continue reading “Blue Pill Vs Black Pill: Transitioning From STM32F103 To STM32F411”