Hackaday Links: September 22, 2019

Of all the stories we’d expect to hit our little corner of the world, we never thought that the seedy doings of a now-deceased accused pedophile billionaire would have impacted the intellectual home of the open-source software movement. But it did, and this week Richard Stallman resigned from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, as well as from the Free Software Foundation, which he founded and served as president. The resignations, which Stallman claims were “due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations”, followed the disclosure of a string of emails where he perhaps unwisely discussed what does and does not constitute sexual assault. The emails were written as a response to protests by MIT faculty and students outraged over the university’s long and deep relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, the late alleged pedophile-financier. This may be one of those stories where the less said, the better. If only Stallman had heeded that advice.

They may be the radio stations with the worst programming ever, but then again, the world’s atomic clock broadcasting stations can really keep a beat. One of the oldest of these stations, WWV, is turning 100 this year, and will be adding special messages to its usual fare of beeps and BCD-encoded time signals on a 100-Hz subcarrier. If you tune to WWV at 10 past the hour (or 50 minutes past the hour for WWVH, the time station located in Hawaii) you’ll hear a special announcement. There was also talk of an open house at the National Institute of Standards and Technology complete with a WWV birthday cake, but that has since been limited to 100 attendees who pre-registered.

For the machinists and wannabes out there, the Internet’s machine shop channels all pitched in this week on something called #tipblitz19, where everyone with a lathe or mill posted a short video of their favorite shop tip. There’s a ton of great tip out there now, with the likes of This Old Tony, Abom79, Stefan Gotteswinter, and even our own Quinn Dunki contributing timesaving – and finger saving – tips. Don’t stop there though – there’s a playlist with 77 videos at last count, many of them by smaller channels that should be getting more love. Check them out and then start making chips.

Most of us know that DLP chips, which lie behind the lens of the projectors that lull us to sleep in conference rooms with their white noise and warm exhaust, are a series of tiny mirrors that wiggle around to project images. But have you ever seen them work? Now you can: Huygens Optics has posted a fascinating video deep-dive into the workings of digital light processors. With a stroboscopic camera and a lot of fussy work, the video reveals the microscopic movements of these mirrors and how that syncs up with the rotation of a color filter wheel. It’s really fascinating stuff, and hats off to Huygens for pulling off the setup needed to capture this.

And speaking of tiny optics, get a load of these minuscule digital cameras, aptly described by tipster David Gustafik as “disturbingly small.” We know we shouldn’t be amazed by things like this anymore, but c’mon – they’re ridiculously tiny! According to the datasheet, the smaller one will occupy 1 mm² on a PCB; the larger stereo camera requires 2.2 mm². Dubbed NanEye, the diminutive cameras are aimed at the medical market – think endoscopy – and at wearables manufacturers. These would be a lot of fun to play with – just don’t drop one.

Reverse Engineering CMOS

ICs have certainly changed electronics, but how much do you really know about how they are built on the inside? While decapsulating and studying a modern CPU with 14 nanometer geometry is probably not a great first project, a simple 54HC00 logic gate is much larger and much easier to analyze, even at low magnification. [Robert Baruch] took a die image of the chip and worked out what was going on, and shares his analysis in a recent video. You can see that video, below.

The CMOS structures are simple because a MOSFET is so simple to make on an IC die. The single layer of aluminum conductors also makes things simple.

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Friday Hack Chat: Logic Noise

If you like your synthesizers glitchy, squawky, or simply quick-and-dirty, you won’t want to miss this week’s Hack Chat with Hackaday’s own [Elliot Williams], because he’ll be brain-dumping everything he knows about making music with 4000-series CMOS logic chips. Break out your breadboards!

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An 8-Bit ALU, Entirely From NAND Gates

One of the things that every student of digital electronics learns, is that every single logic function can be made from a combination of NAND gates. But nobody is foolhardy enough to give it a try, after all that would require a truly huge number of gates!

Someone evidently forgot to tell [Notbookies], for he has made a complete 8-bit ALU using only 4011B quad NAND gates on a set of breadboards, and in doing so has created a minor masterpiece with his wiring. It’s inspired by a series of videos from [Ben Eater] describing the construction of a computer with the so-called SAP (Simple As Possible) architecture. The 48 4011B DIP packages sit upon 8 standard breadboards, with an extra one for a set of DIP switches and LEDs, and a set of power busbar breadboards up their sides. He leaves us with the advice borne of bitter experience: “Unless your goal is building a NAND-only computer, pick the best IC for the job“.

We have covered countless processors and processor components manufactured from discrete logic chips over the years, though this makes them no less impressive a feat. The NedoNAND has been a recent example, a modular PCB-based design. TTL and CMOS logic chips made their debut over 50 years ago so you might expect there to be nothing new from that direction, however we expect this to be  well of projects that will keep flowing for may years more.

Via /r/electronics/.

Quick And Dirty Driver Tips For Surplus VFDs

Sometimes it seems like eBay is the world’s junk bin, and we mean that in the best possible way. The variety of parts available for a pittance boggles the mind sometimes, especially when the parts were once ordered in massive quantities but have since gone obsolete. The urge to order parts like these in bulk can be overwhelming, and sooner or later, you’ll find yourself with a fistful of old stuff but no idea how to put it to use.

Case in point: the box of Russian surplus seven-segment vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) that [w_k_fay] had to figure out how to use. The result is a tutorial on quick and dirty VFD drivers that looks pretty handy. [w_k_fay] takes pains to point out that these are practical tips for putting surplus VFDs to work, as opposed to engineered solutions. He starts with tips on characterizing your surplus tubes in case you don’t have a pinout. A 1.5 V battery will suffice for the hot cathode, while a 9 V battery will turn on the segments. The VFDs can be treated much like a common cathode LED display, and a simple circuit driving the tube with a 4026 decade counter can be seen below. He also covers the challenges of driving VFDs from microcontrollers, and promises a full build of a frequency counter wherein the mysteries of multiplexing will be addressed.

Sounds like it’s time to stock up on those surplus VFDs and put them to work. For inspiration, take a look at this minimalist VFD clock, or perhaps mix VFDs with Nixies to satisfy your urge for all things glowy.

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Glitchy Synthesizer Meets Honeycomb LED Matrix

Don’t watch [Jason Hotchkiss]’s video if flashing lights or bleepy-bloopy synthesizer noises give you seizures. Do watch, however, if you’re interested in a big honeycomb-shaped LED matrix being driven at audio frequencies through a dedicated square-wave synthesizer that’s built in.

The LED panel in question is housed in a snazzy laser-cut, honeycomb-shaped bezel: a nice change from the standard square in our opinion. The lights are 1/2 watt (whoa!) whites, and the rows and columns are driven by transistor drivers that are in turn controlled by shift registers. We’re not entirely sure how the matrix is driven — we’d love to see a circuit diagram — but it looks like it’s some kind of strange, non-scanning mode where all of the column and row drives are on at once. Whatever, it’s art.

And it’s driven by logic chips making audio-frequency square waves. Two of these are fed into an LFSR and into an R-2R DAC and then into the shift registers. The output is chaos, but the audio and the visuals do seem to influence each other. It’s an audio-visual embodiment of some of my wildest Logic Noise fantasies. Pretty cool. Enjoy the video.

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The Megapixel Race And Its Clear Winner

Like any Moore’s Law-inspired race, the megapixel race in digital cameras in the late 1990s and into the 2000s was a harsh battleground for every manufacturer. With the development of the smartphone, it became a war on two fronts, with Samsung eventually cramming twenty megapixels into a handheld. Although no clear winner of consumer-grade cameras was ever announced (and Samsung ended up reducing their flagship phone’s cameras to sixteen megapixels for reasons we’ll discuss) it seems as though this race is over, fizzling out into a void where even marketing and advertising groups don’t readily venture. What happened?

The Technology

A brief overview of Moore’s Law predicts that transistor density on a given computer chip should double about every two years. A digital camera’s sensor is remarkably similar, using the same silicon to form charge-coupled devices or CMOS sensors (the same CMOS technology used in some RAM and other digital logic technology) to detect photons that hit it. It’s not too far of a leap to realize how Moore’s Law would apply to the number of photo detectors on a digital camera’s image sensor. Like transistor density, however, there’s also a limit to how many photo detectors will fit in a given area before undesirable effects start to appear.

cmos_image_sensor_mechanism_illustration
CMOS Image Sensor Mechanism Illustration, By User:たまなるたみ – drawing created myself, GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=371238. Note that each pixel has its own amplifier.

Image sensors have come a long way since video camera tubes. In the ’70s, the charge-coupled device (CCD) replaced the cathode ray tube as the dominant video capturing technology. A CCD works by arranging capacitors into an array and biasing them with a small voltage. When a photon hits one of the capacitors, it is converted into an electrical charge which can then be stored as digital information. While there are still specialty CCD sensors for some niche applications, most image sensors are now of the CMOS variety. CMOS uses photodiodes, rather than capacitors, along with a few other transistors for every pixel. CMOS sensors perform better than CCD sensors because each pixel has an amplifier which results in more accurate capturing of data. They are also faster, scale more readily, use fewer components in general, and use less power than a comparably sized CCD. Despite all of these advantages, however, there are still many limitations to modern sensors when more and more of them get packed onto a single piece of silicon.

While transistor density tends to be limited by quantum effects, image sensor density is limited by what is effectively a “noisy” picture. Noise can be introduced in an image as a result of thermal fluctuations within the material, so if the voltage threshold for a single pixel is so low that it falsely registers a photon when it shouldn’t, the image quality will be greatly reduced. This is more noticeable in CCD sensors (one effect is called “blooming“) but similar defects can happen in CMOS sensors as well. There are a few ways to solve these problems, though.

cockfield-minco
A sunrise picture taken with an entry-level DSLR at 1600 ISO. At this sensitivity, noise in the clouds can be seen in the form of random fluctuations of some pixels. This effect would be mitigated by a camera with a larger sensor, a lower sensor sensitivity with a longer shutter speed (which would blur the turbine blades) or a scene with more light. Photo  © 2016 by Bryan Cockfield

 

First, the voltage threshold can be raised so that random thermal fluctuations don’t rise above the threshold to trigger the pixels. In a DSLR, this typically means changing the ISO setting of a camera, where a lower ISO setting means more light is required to trigger a pixel, but that random fluctuations are less likely to happen. From a camera designer’s point-of-view, however, a higher voltage generally implies greater power consumption and some speed considerations, so there are some tradeoffs to make in this area.

Another reason that thermal fluctuations cause noise in image sensors is that the pixels themselves are so close together that they influence their neighbors. The answer here seems obvious: simply increase the area of the sensor, make the pixels of the sensor bigger, or both. This is a good solution if you have unlimited area, but in something like a cell phone this isn’t practical. This gets to the core of the reason that most modern cell phones seem to be practically limited somewhere in the sixteen-to-twenty megapixel range. If the pixels are made too small to increase megapixel count, the noise will start to ruin the images. If the pixels are too big, the picture will have a low resolution.

There are some non-technological ways of increasing megapixel count for an image as well. For example, a panoramic image will have a megapixel count much higher than that of the camera that took the picture simply because each part of the panorama has the full mexapixel count. It’s also possible to reduce noise in a single frame of any picture by using lenses that collect more light (lenses with a lower f-number) which allows the photographer to use a lower ISO setting to reduce the camera’s sensitivity.

Gigapixels!

Of course, if you have unlimited area you can make image sensors of virtually any size. There are some extremely large, expensive cameras called gigapixel cameras that can take pictures of unimaginable detail. Their size and cost is a limiting factor for consumer devices, though, and as such are generally used for specialty purposes only. The largest image sensor ever built has a surface of almost five square meters and is the size of a car. The camera will be put to use in 2019 in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in South America where it will capture images of the night sky with its 8.4 meter primary mirror. If this was part of the megapixel race in consumer goods, it would certainly be the winner.

design_of_the_lsst_camera
LSST Image Sensor, By Todd Mason, Mason Productions Inc. / LSST Corporation – https://www.lsst.org/sites/default/files/photogallery/Camera_CU-full.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52230238

With all of this being said, it becomes obvious that there are many more considerations in a digital camera than just the megapixel count. With so many facets of a camera such as physical sensor size, lenses, camera settings, post-processing capabilities, filters, etc., the megapixel number was essentially an easy way for marketers to advertise the claimed superiority of their products until the practical limits of image sensors was reached. Beyond a certain limit, more megapixels doesn’t automatically translate into a better picture. As already mentioned, however, the megapixel count can be important, but there are so many ways to make up for a lower megapixel count if you have to. For example, images with high dynamic range are becoming the norm even in cell phones, which also helps eliminate the need for a flash. Whatever you decide, though, if you want to start taking great pictures don’t worry about specs; just go out and take some photographs!

(Title image: VISTA gigapixel mosaic of the central parts of the Milky Way, produced by European Southern Observatory (ESO) and released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This is a scaled version of the original 108,500 x 81,500, 9-gigapixel image.)