All You Need To Know About I2S

Last month we marked the 40th birthday of the CD, and it was as much an obituary as a celebration because those polycarbonate discs are fast becoming a rarity. There is one piece of technology from the CD age that is very much still with us though, and it lives on in the standard for sending serial digital audio between chips. The protocol is called I2S and comes as a hardware peripheral on many microcontrollers. It’s a surprisingly simple interface that’s quite easy to work with and thus quite hackable, so it’s worth a bit of further investigation.

It’s A Simple Enough Interface

Don’t confuse this with the other Philips Semiconductor protocol: I2C. Inter-Integrated Circuit protocol has the initials IIC, and the double letter was shortened to come up with the “eye-squared-see” nomenclature we’ve come to love from I2C. Brought to life in 1982, this predated I2S by four years which explains the somewhat strange abbreviation for “Inter-Integrated Circuit Sound”.

The protocol has stuck around because it’s very handy for dealing with the firehose of serial data associated with high-quality digital audio. It’s so handy that you’ve likely heard of it being used for other purposes than audio, which I’ll get to in a little bit. But first, what does I2S actually do?

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ESP32 Video Tricks Hack Chat With Bitluni

Join us Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the ESP32 Video Tricks Hack Chat!

The projects that bitluni works on have made quite a few appearances on these pages over the last couple of years. Aside from what may or may not have been a street legal electric scooter, most of them have centered around making ESP32s do interesting tricks in the analog world. He’s leveraged the DACs on the chip to create an AM radio transmitter, turned an oscilloscope into a video monitor, and output composite video. That last one was handy for turning a Sony Watchman into a retro game console. He’s also found ways for the ESP32 to output VGA signals. Looks like there’s no end to what he can make the versatile microcontroller do.

Although the conversation could (and probably will) go anywhere, we’ll start with video tricks for the ESP32 and see where it goes from there. Possible topics include:

  • Tricks for pushing the ESP32 DACs to their limits;
  • When to use an external DAC;
  • Optimizing ESP32 code by running on separate cores; and
  • What about HDMI on the ESP32?

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the ESP32 Video Tricks Hack Chat and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, March 27, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

The Multichannel Field Recorder You Can Build Right Now

Field recorders, or backpackable audio recorders with a few XLR jacks and an SD card slot, are a niche device, and no matter what commercial field recorder you choose you’ll always compromise on what features you want versus what features you’ll get. [Ben Biles] didn’t feel like compromising so he built his own multichannel audio DSP field recorder. It has a four channel balanced master outputs, with two stereo headphone outputs, eight or more inputs, digital I/O, and enough routing for multitrack recording.

Mechanically, the design of the system is a 3D printed box studded on every side with various connectors and patch points. This is what you get when you want a lot of I/O, and yep, those are panel mount connectors so get ready to pony up on the price of your connectors. The analog front end is a backplane sort of thing on a piece of perfboard, containing an eight channel differential I/O.

Of course any audio recorder is awful to use unless there’s a great user interface, and for that you can’t get any better than a high-resolution touchscreen on a phone. This led [Ben] to use Bluetooth to connect to an app showing the gain, levels, a toggle for phantom power, and a checkbox for line or microphone. If that’s not enough there are also some MIDI knobs for volume, because MIDI is still great for user input. It’s everything you want in a portable recording rig, and yes, there is a soundcloud demo. You can also check out a demo video below.

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Back To Video Basics With An ESP32 VGA Display

In a world where standards come and go with alarming speed, there’s something comforting about VGA. It’s the least common denominator of video standards, and seeing that chunky DB15 connector on the back of a computer means that no matter what, you’ll be able to get something from it, if you can just find a VGA cable in your junk bin.

But that’s the PC world; what about microcontrollers? Can you coax VGA video from them? Yes, you can, with an ESP32, a handful of resistors, and a little bit of clever programming. At least that’s what [bitluni] has managed to do in his continuing quest to push the ESP32 to output all the signals. For this project, [bitluni] needed to generate three separate signals – red, green, and blue – but with only two DACs on board, he had to try something else. He built external DACs the old way using R/2R voltage divider networks and addressed them with the I2S bus in LCD mode. He needed to make some compromises to fit the three color signals and the horizontal and vertical sync pulses into the 24 available bits, and there were a few false starts, but the video below shows that he was able to produce a 320×240 signal, and eventually goosed that up to a non-native 460×480.

It’s a pretty impressive hack, and we learned a lot about both the ESP32 and the VGA standard by watching the video. He’s previously used the ESP32 to build an AM radio station and to output composite PAL video, and even turned his oscilloscope into a vector display with it. They’re all great learning projects too.

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Arduino Nitrox Analyzer For The Submarine Hacker

For Hackaday readers who don’t spend their free time underwater, nitrox is a blend of nitrogen and oxygen that’s popular with scuba divers. Compared to atmospheric air, nitrox has a higher concentration of oxygen; which not only allows divers to spend more time underwater but also reduces the risk of decompression sickness. Of course when fiddling with the ratio of gases you breathe there’s a not inconsequential risk of dying, so nitrox diving requires special training and equipment to make sure the gas mixture is correct.

Divers can verify the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen in their nitrox tanks with a portable analyzer, though as you might expect, they aren’t exactly cheap. But if you’re confident in your own hacking skills, [Eunjae Im] might have the solution for divers looking to save some cash. He’s come up with an Arduino based nitrox analyzer that can be built for considerably less than the cost of a commercial unit.

Now before you get the torches lit up, we should be clear: ultimately the accuracy, and therefore safety, of this device depends on the quality of the oxygen sensor used. [Eunjae] isn’t suggesting you get a bottom of the barrel sensor for this build, and in fact links to a replacement sensor that’s intended for commercial nitrox analyzers as a way to verify the unit is up to the task. The downside is that the sensor alone runs $80. If you want to go with something cheaper, you do so at your own risk.

With a suitable sensor in hand, the project really boils down to building up an interface and enclosure for it. [Eunjae] is using an Arduino Nano, a 128×64 OLED screen, and a battery inside of a rugged waterproof case. He also added an ADS1115 16 Bit DAC between the oxygen sensor and the Arduino for fast and accurate readings over I2C. With the hardware assembled, calibrating the device is as simple as taking it outside and making sure you get an oxygen reading of 20.9% (the atmospheric normal).

While [Eunjae] is happy with his analyzer on the whole, he does see a few areas which could be improved in future revisions. The case is bulky and rather unattractive, something that could be addressed with a custom 3D printed case (though waterproofing it might be an issue). He also says the only reason he used a 9V alkaline battery was because he had it on hand, a small rechargeable battery pack would be a much more elegant solution.

We’ll go out on a limb and say that most Hackaday readers aren’t avid scuba divers. For better or for worse, we’re the sort of folks who stay in the shallow end of the pool. But when one of our ilk does dip below the waves, they really seem to go all out.

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3000W Unicycle’s Only Limitation Is “Personal Courage”

Electric vehicles are fertile ground for innovation because the availability of suitable motors, controllers, and power sources makes experimentation accessible even to hobbyists. Even so, [John Dingley] has been working on such vehicles since about 2009, and his latest self-balancing electric unicycle really raises the bar by multiple notches. It sports a monstrous 3000 Watt brushless hub motor intended for an electric motorcycle, and [John] was able to add numerous touches such as voice feedback and 1950’s styling using surplus aircraft and motorcycle parts. To steer, the frame changes shape slightly with help of the handlebars to allow the driver’s center of gravity to shift towards one or the other outer rims of the wheel. In a test drive at a deserted beach, [John] tells us that the bike never went above 20% power; the device’s limitations are entirely by personal courage. Watch the video of the test, embedded below.

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Software Defined Television On An ESP32

Composite video from a single-board computer? Big deal — every generation of Raspberry Pi has had some way of getting composite signals out and onto the retro monitor of your choice. But composite video from an ESP32? That’s a thing now too.

There are some limitations, of course, not least of which is finding a monitor that can accept a composite input, but since [bitluni]’s hack uses zero additional components, we can overlook those. It really is as simple as hooking the monitor up to pin 25 and ground because, like his recent ESP32 AM radio station, the magic is entirely in software. For video, [bitluni] again uses his I²S tweaks to push a lot of data into the DAC really fast, reproducing the sync and image signals in the 0-1 volt range of the PAL composite standard. His code also supports the NTSC standard, but alas because of frequency limitations in the hardware it’s monochrome only for both standards, at least for now. He’s also got a neat trick to improve performance by running the video signal generation and the 3D-rendering on separate cores in the ESP32. Check out the results in the video below.

It looks like the ESP32 is getting to be one of those “Is there anything it can’t do?” systems. Aside from radio and video, we’ve seen audio playback, vector graphics, and even a Basic interpreter easter egg.

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