Pushing Pixels To A Display With VGA Without A PC

[Ben Eater] is back with the second part of his video series on building a simple video card that can output 200×600 pixels to a display with nothing but a VGA connection, a handful of 74-logic chips and a 10 MHz crystal. In this installment we see how he uses nothing but an EEPROM and a handful of resistors to get an image onto the screen.

The interesting part is in how the image data is encoded into the EEPROM, since it has to be addressable by the same timing circuit as what is being used for the horizontal and vertical timing. By selecting the relevant inputs that’d make a valid address, and by doubling the size of each pixel a few times, a 100 x 75 pixel image can be encoded into the EEPROM and directly addressed using this timing circuit.

The output from the EEPROM itself not fed directly into the monitor, as the VGA interface expects a 0 V to 0.7 V signal on each RGB pin, indicating the brightness. To get more than three colors out of this setup, [Ben] builds up a simple 2-bit DAC that allows for two bits per channel, meaning four brightness levels per color channel or 64 colors effectively.

See the video after the link for the full details. While pretty close to perfect, a small issue remains at the end in the forms of black vertical lines. These are caused by a timing issue in the circuit, with comments on the YouTube video suggesting various other potential fixes. Have you breadboarded your own version yet to debug this issue before [Ben]’s next video comes out?
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A PDP Laptop, For Various Definitions Of A Laptop

Digital Equipment Corp.’s PDP-11 is one of the most important computers in history. It’s the home of Unix, although that’s arguable, and it’s still being used in every application, from handling nuclear control rods to selling Ed Sheeran tickets on Ticketmaster. As the timeline of PDP-11 machines progressed, the hardware did as well, and by the time the PDP was eclipsed by the VAXxen, there were PDP-11s on a single chip. The Eastern Bloc took notice and produced their own PDP-11 on a chip. This is the 1801-series CPU, and like most soviet electronics from the Cold War, they’re readily available on eBay.

[SHAOS] has an interesting project in mind for this PDP-on-a-chip. It’s a standalone computer built around the Soviet re-implementation of the PDP-11, built into a form factor that could be described as a single board computer.

This project is the outgrowth of [SHAOS]’ project for last year’s Hackaday Prize, the PDPii. This was a computer built around a backplane that replicated the PDP-11 using a KR1801VM2 CPU, the Soviet not-a-clone clone of the PDP-11. This project is basically a PDP-11/03 system, except it was made in this century, and you can put it in any computer case, with bonus points awarded for RGB lighting and liquid cooling.

This year’s project, the PDPjr, eschews standardization to something that is far more unique. This build is more or less a single board computer with a character LCD display and a real keyboard. Think of this as the PDP-11 equivalent of the TRS-80 Model 100, a machine widely regarded as being the first laptop.

There’s still a lot of work to go, but [SHAOS] has written a ‘Hello World’ for this chip, and is getting those words to display on the character LCD. That’s a great first step and we can’t wait to see where this project ends up.

Minivac 601 Replica Gets A Custom Motorized Rotary Switch

One of the joys of electronics as a hobby is how easy it is to get parts. Literally millions of parts are available from thousands of suppliers and hundreds of distributors, and everyone competes with each other to make it as easy as possible to put together an order from a BoM. If you need it, somebody probably has it.

But what do you do when you need a part that doesn’t exist anymore, and even when it did was only produced in small numbers? Easy – you create it yourself. That’s just what [Mike Gardi] did with this unique motorized rotary switch he needed to complete his replica of a 1960s computer trainer. We covered his build of the Minivac 601, a trainer from the early computer age that let experimenters learn the ropes of basic digital logic. It used mostly relays, lamps, and switches connected by jumpers, but it had one critical component – a rotary control that was used for input and, with the help of a motor, as an output indicator.

[Mike]’s version of the switch is as faithful to the original as possible, at least in terms of looks. The parts are mostly 3D-printed, with 16 reed switches embedded in the walls and magnets placed in the rotor. The motor to operate the rotor is a simple gear motor mounted to a hinged bracket; when the rotor needs to move, a solenoid pulls the motor’s friction drive wheel up against the rotor.

The unique control slots right into the Minivac replica and really completes the look and feel. Hats off to [Mike] for a delightful replica of a lost bit of computer history and the dedication to see it through to completion.

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Low Res Video Card Is Still Amazing Since It’s Made Out Of Logic Chips

[Ben Eater] has been working on building computers on breadboards for a while now, alongside doing a few tutorials and guides as YouTube videos. A few enterprising hackers have already duplicated [Ben]’s efforts, but so far all of these builds are just a bunch of LEDs and switches. The next frontier is a video card, but one only capable of displaying thousands of pixels from circuitry built entirely on a breadboard.

This review begins with a review of VGA standards, eventually settling on an 800×600 resolution display with 60 MHz timing. The pixel clock of this video card is being clocked down from 40 MHz to 10 MHz, and the resulting display will have a resolution of 200×150. That’s good enough to display an image, but first [Ben] needs to get the horizontal timing right. This means a circuit to count pixels, and inject the front porch, sync pulse, and back porch at the end of each horizontal line.

To generate a single horizontal line, [Ben]’s circuit first has to count out 200 pixels, send a blanking interval, then set the sync low, and finally another blanking interval before rolling down to the next line. This is done with a series of 74LS161 binary counters set up to simply count from 0 to 264. To generate the front porch, sync, and back porch, a trio of 8-input NAND gates are set up to send a low signal at the relevant point in a horizontal scan line.

The entire build takes up four solderless breadboards and uses twenty logic chips, but this isn’t done yet: all this confabulation of chips and wires does is step through the pixel data for the horizontal and vertical lines. A VGA monitor detects it’s in the right mode, but there’s no actual data — that’ll be the focus of the next part of this build where [Ben] starts pushing pixels to a monitor.

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The Augmented Reality Breadboard Of The Future

You’d be hard pressed to find a carpenter who didn’t own a hammer, or a painter that didn’t have a couple of brushes kicking around. Some tools are simply so fundamental to their respective craft that their ownership is essentially a given. The same could be said of the breadboard: if you’re working with electronics on the hobby or even professional level, you’ve certainly spent a decent amount of time poking components and wires into one of these quintessential prototyping tools.

There’s little danger that the breadboard will loose its relevance going forward, but if [Andrea Bianchi] and her team have anything to say about it, it might learn some impressive new tricks. Developed at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, VirtualComponent uses augmented reality and some very clever electronics to transform the classic breadboard into a powerful mixed-reality tool for testing and simulating circuits. It’s not going to replace the $3 breadboard you’ve got hiding at the bottom of your tool bag, but one day it might be standard equipment in electronics classrooms.

The short version is that VirtualComponent is essentially a dynamic breadboard. Holes in the same row are still electrically linked like in the classic breadboard, but with two AD75019 cross-point switch arrays and an Arduino in the base, it has the ability to virtually “plug in” components at arbitrary locations as selected by the user. So rather than having to physically insert a resistor, the user can simply tell the software to connect a resistor between two selected holes and the cross-point array will do the rest.

What’s more, many of those components can be either simulated or at least augmented in software. For example, by using AD5241 digital potentiometers, VirtualComponent can adjust the value of the virtual resistor. To provide variable capacitance, a similar trick can be pulled off using an array of real capacitors and a ADG715 digital switch to connect them together; essentially automating what the classic “Decade Box” does. In the demonstration video after the break, this capability is extended all the way out to connecting a virtual function generator to the circuit.

The whole system is controlled by way of an Android tablet suspended over the breadboard. Using the tablet’s camera, the software provides an augmented reality view of both the physical and virtual components of the circuit. With a few taps the user can add or edit their virtual hardware and immediately see how it changes the behavior of the physical circuit on the bench.

People have been trying to improve the breadboard for years, but so far it seems like nothing has really stuck around. Given how complex VirtualComponent is, they’ll likely have an even harder time gaining traction. That said, we can’t help but be excited about the potential augmented reality has for hardware development.

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Paperclip Breadboard

TV’s MacGyver would love the breadboard arrangement we saw recently: it uses paperclips and crimping to make circuits that can be more or less permanent with no soldering. The basic idea is simple. A cardboard base has a piece of paper affixed. Metal paperclips are bent straight and glued to the paper using PVA glue (you know, like ordinary Elmer’s; hot glue would probably work, too). You could probably salvage wires out of old house wiring that would work for this, too.

The scheme uses two sizes of paper clips. Large ones are made straight and form the rails, while small paperclips make connections. The rails are bent to have a little “ear” that pushes into the cardboard base to hold them still. A little glue stabilizes them. The ears poke out the back, so the author suggests covering them with duct tape, hot glue, or another piece of cardboard. Using the top of a shoebox would also solve the problem.

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CPU Made From 74HC Chips Is A Glorious Mess

Did you ever start a project that you felt gained a life of its own? This project by [Paulo Constantino] is an entire CPU named dreamcatcher on breadboards, and is a beautiful jungle of digital. On top of that, it works to connect to an analog VGA display. How cool is that!

Designing an ALU and then a CPU is a typical exercise for students of digital design and is done using VerilogHDL or VHDL. It involves creating an ALU that can add, subtract etc while a control unit manages data moves and the like. There is also a memory fetch and instruction decode made up of de-mulitiplexers and a bunch of flip-flops that make up registers and flags. They are as complex as they sound if not more.

[Paulo Constantino] went ahead and designed the whole thing in Eagle as a schematic using 74HC logic chips. To build it though instead of a PCB he used breadboards. Everything from bus decoders to controlling an external VGA display is done using jumper wires. We did cover a video on the project a while back, but this update adds a video card interface to the build.

The CPU updates the display buffer on the VGA card, and in the video below shows the slow and steady update. The fact that the jungle of wires can drive a display is awesome. He has since started working on a 16-bit version of the processor and we’d love to see someone take it up a notch.

For those more accustomed to the PCB, the Z80 membership card project is a great build for 8-bit computer fans.

Thanks to [analog engineer] for the tip.

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