Reverse Engineering A Topfield VFD Front Panel

Hackers love the warm glow of a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD), and there’s no shortage of dead consumer electronics from which they can be pulled to keep our collective parts bins nicely stocked. Unfortunately, figuring out how to actually drive these salvaged modules can be tricky. But thanks to the efforts of [Lauri Pirttiaho], we now have a wealth of information about a VFD-equipped front panel used in several models of Topfield personal video recorders.

The board in question is powered by a Hynix HMS99C52S microcontroller and includes five buttons, a small four character 14-segment display, a larger eight character field, and an array of media-playback related icons. There’s also a real-time clock module onboard, as well as an IR receiver. [Lauri] tells us this same board is used in at least a half-dozen Topfield models, which should make it relatively easy to track one down.

After determining what goes where in the 6-pin connector that links the module with the recorder, a bit of poking with a logic analyzer revealed that they communicate over UART. With the commands decoded, [Lauri] was able to write a simple Python tool that lets you drive the front panel with nothing more exotic than a USB-to-serial adapter. Though keep in mind, you’ll need to provide 17 VDC on the appropriate pin of the connector to fire up the VFD.

What’s that? You don’t need the whole front panel, and just want to pull the VFD itself off the board? Not a problem. Our man [Lauri] was kind enough to document how data is passed from the Hynix microcontroller to the display itself; critical information should you want to liberate the screen from its PVR trappings.

If you manage to get your hands on one of these modules, it would be an ideal addition to a custom media streamer. Though we suppose simply turning it into a network-controlled clock would be a suitable alternative if you’re looking for something a bit easier.

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34C3: North Korea’s Consumer Technology

[Will Scott] and [Gabe Edwards] shed some light on the current state of consumer computing technology at 34C3 in their talk DPRK Consumer Technology. The pair has also created a website to act as a clearinghouse for this information — including smartphone OS images up at koreaComputerCenter.org.

Not a whole lot is known about what technology North Korean citizens have available to them. We have seen Red Star OS, the Mac-like Linux based operating system used on PC based desktops. But what about other systems like smartphones?

[Will] and [Gabe] found that cell phones in North Korea are typically manufactured by Chinese companies, running a custom version of the Android Operating system. The phone hardware is common — the phone sold as the Pyongyang 2407 in North Korea is also sold in India as the Genie v5. If you can get your hands on the Genie, you can run the Korean version of the Android OS on that hardware.

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Stay Scrappy, Hackers! Hardware Startups Versus Goliath

A toast to all the hackers out there who like to do it scrappy, who fight hard to get your products to work, who make your own tools and testing jigs and assembly lines in your basement, and who pound the pavement (and the keyboards) to get your product out there. Here’s to you (*clink*).

I had the fortune of a job interview recently in a big faceless company that you may have never heard of but probably use their stuff all the time. They make billions. And it was surreal. This article is about what it’s like for a scrappy start-up engineer to walk into the belly of the beast of an organization that counts its engineers in the tens of thousands. For obvious reasons, I can’t go into specific details, but let me paint for you in broad strokes what you, the hacker and entrepreneur, are up against.

When you have a company that’s been around for decades and whose yearly sales volume has more digits than some countries, everything is a few orders of magnitude bigger in scale. People, resources, volumes, everything.

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The Junk Bins Of Akihabara

Akihabara, Tokyo has transformed over the years. In its present form Akihabara emerged from the ruins of a devastated Tokyo after World War 2 when the entire district was burnt to the ground. The area was rebuilt in the shadow of the Akiba Jinja (dedicated to the god of fire prevention), and a new breed of street vendors began to appear. Huddling under the protection of railway bridges, and dealing mostly in Black market radio parts, these vendors set a new tone to what would become Japan’s “Electric Town”. And as Japanese manufacturing prowess grew so too did Akihabara.

maid
Maids touting for business

Now of course Akihabara is also home to Otaku culture, and is perhaps best known in this regard for its maid cafes. Streets are littered with maids touting their cafes, somewhat incongruously among computer outlets and precision tooling stores.

My interests however lie squarely in Akihabara’s glorious junk bins. Of all places I think I’m happiest¬† digging through this mass of discarded technology from Japan’s manufacturing past.

A tour through the junks bins is like an archaeological dig. And in this article I will present some recent finds, and ponder on their relevance to Japanese manufacturing.

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