Fetch ferrofluid display

Ferrofluid Display Gets New, Better Driver Circuitry

In 2019 [Simen] and [Amud], two students from the University of Oslo, set out to design a unique open-source display. The result was Fetch, a display that uses electromagnets to suspend ferrofluid on 252 “pixels” across the screen. After some delays due to COVID, they have recently unveiled version 2.0 of the display on their project’s page.

While the duo managed to overcome the mechanical challenges associated with using ferrofluids fairly easily, they were quickly bottlenecked by their electronics. The use of electromagnets holding up a liquid presented a unique challenge; the magnets could not be switched off, even for a millisecond, or else the “pixel” would fall down to the bottom of the screen. That immediately ruled out any sort of multiplexing and meant everything would have to be driven in parallel. As if that wasn’t already difficult enough to work around, the effect of having multiple electromagnets activated next to each other would change how the ferrofluid flows. This meant that the strength of each electromagnet would have to be adjusted based on what is currently being displayed, rather than just being on or off.

The mess of connections were not helped with the layout of the old driver boards shown here. The new design puts the connections closer to each individual electromagnet.

All of this, paired with other overhead like generating pulse-width modulation for the inputs, was just too much for a single microcontroller to handle. So, the pair set out to design a better version of their electronics that would offload a lot of the hard work. At the same time, they decided a bit of mechanical optimization was in order; they redesigned the boards to be longer and thinner, allowing them to fit cleanly behind the row of electromagnets they controlled.

The new boards feature a PCA9685 IC, which allows for the control of up to 16 channels of 12-bit PWM over i2C, perfect for the size of the display. Since this IC can’t source enough current to drive the electromagnets, it was paired with a ULN2803 Darlington Transistor Array, capable of delivering up to 500mA to each electromagnet.

With prototypes in hand (and a few bodge wires here and there), [Simen] and [Amud] had the new driver boards running beautifully, displaying text in a mesmerizing way that no ordinary display could match. Watch the video after the break for a demonstration of the new controllers in action, as well as a deeper dive into the process of developing them.

Want to learn more? Check out our previous article about Fetch! Or if you’re looking for another cool way to use ferrofluids, how about making it dance in a custom speaker!

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PNG Image Decoding Library Does It With Minimal RAM

Want to display a PNG file on a display attached to an Arduino or other microcontroller board? You’ll want to look at [Larry Bank]’s PNGdec, the Arduino-friendly PNG decoder library which makes it much easier to work with PNG files on your chosen microcontroller.

The PNG image format supports useful features like lossless compression, and was generally developed as an improved (and non-patented) alternative to GIF files. So far so great, but it turns out that decoding PNG files on a microcontroller is a challenge due to the limited amount of memory compared to desktop machines. When the PNG specification was developed in the 90s, computers easily had megabytes of memory to work with, but microcontrollers tend to have memory measured in kilobytes, and lack high-level memory management. [Larry]’s library addresses these issues.

PNGdec is self-contained and free from external dependencies, and also has some features to make converting pixel formats for different display types easy. It will run on any microcontroller that can spare at least 48 K of RAM, so if that sounds useful then check out the GitHub repository for code and examples.

We’ve seen [Larry]’s wonderful work before on optimizing GIF playback as well as rapid JPEG decoding, and these libraries have increasing relevance as hobbyists continue to see small LCD and OLED-based displays become ever more accessible and affordable.

[PNG logo: PNG Home Site]

A Mini USB Display For Your PC Desktop

By now it’s likely that most Hackaday readers will be used to USB display adapters, in their most common form channeling DisplayPort over the ubiquitous serial interface. Connecting to projectors and other screens with a laptop becomes a breeze, and gone are the days of “Will my laptop work in the venue” stress for people delivering presentations. [Avra Mitra]’s STM32 tiny monitor may not ascend to these giddy heights, but it does at least live up to the promise of reproducing a desktop onto a small colour LCD hooked up through a USB port.

Not through any DisplayPort wizardry though, instead it relies on a Python script that takes successive screen grabs and streams them through USB to the microcontroller, which in tun puts them on the display. It’s claimed to achieve 6 to 7 frames per second as you can see in the video below, with an admission that there remains a huge scope for improvement.

Notwithstanding its limited utility at the moment, we can see that maybe this idea could have its uses in a very basic display after a few improvements. Meanwhile, more conventional monitors take the established route of pairing a dedicated controller board with an LCD panel.

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Using Heaters To Display Time

We’re always fans of interesting clock builds around here, whether it’s a word clock, marble clock, or in this case a clock using a unique display method. Of course, since this is a build by Hackaday’s own [Moritz v. Sivers] the display that was chosen for this build was a custom thermochromic display. These displays use heat-sensitive material to change color, and his latest build leverages that into one of the more colorful clock builds we’ve seen.

The clock’s display is built around a piece of thermochromic film encased in clear acrylic. The way the film operates is based on an LCD display, but using heat to display the segments. For this build, as opposed to his previous builds using larger displays, he needed to refine the method he used for generating the heat required for the color change. For that he swapped out the Peltier devices for surface mount resistors and completely redesigned the drivers and the PCBs around this new method.

Of course, the actual clock mechanism is worth a mention as well. The device uses an ESP8266 board to handle the operation of the clock, and it is able to use its wireless capabilities to get the current time via NTP. All of the files needed to recreate this are available on the project page as well, including code, CAD files, and PCB layouts. It’s always good to have an interesting clock around your home, but if you’re not a fan of electronic clocks like this we can recommend any number of mechanical clocks as well.

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A Dual Monitor Setup For The C64, And Yes, It’s VGA Compatible

Few in the 1980s were too fussed about their home computer only supporting a single monitor; indeed, most were satisfied enough by the brand new capabilities on offer at the time. That said, it’s many decades hence, and we really do deserve more. Fear not, for [Ryan Brooks] is here to help with his VG64 VGA Card for the Commodore 64.

The card sits in the cartridge slot of the Commodore 64, and packs a Xilinx CPLD which is responsible for generating the video output signals. It’s hooked up to an SRAM chip which acts as a frame buffer for the video output. Programs can then be loaded on the Commodore 64 which write to the frame buffer, that can then be sent out to an attached VGA monitor hooked up to the cartridge.

It’s not the most useful cart at the moment, as it’s only capable of working with software designed specifically for the hardware. Additionally, it could prove difficult to shift enough data to it to do any kind of fast animation or updates. With that said, it’s an awesome example of just what can be achieved in terms of expanding the Commodore 64, and we’d love to see how far work in this space can go. We’ve seen similar work before, too, albeit with a somewhat smaller 16×2 character LCD. Video after the break.

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LED Matrix Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, June 9 at noon Pacific for the LED Matrix Hack Chat with Garrett Mace!

It’s pretty amazing how quickly light-emitting diodes went from physics lab curiosity to a mainstream commodity product made in the millions, if not billions. Everything about LEDs has gotten better, smaller, and cheaper over the years, going from an “any color you want as long as it’s red” phase to all the colors of the rainbow and beyond in a relatively short time. LEDs have worked their way into applications that just didn’t seem likely not that long ago, like architectural lighting, automotive applications, and even immense displays covering billboards, buildings, and sporting venues with multicolor, high-resolution displays.

It’s that latter application that seems to have provided a boon to electronics hobbyists, in the form of cheap and plentiful LED matrix modules. These are easily sourced at the usual places, and with their tightly packed pinpoints that can show any color at any intensity, they have a ton of fun and useful applications for the hacker. But how exactly do you put them to use? Usually the electronics end is pretty straightforward, but some of the math involved in figuring out how to address all these LEDs can be a little mind-bending.

To help us sort all this out, Garrett Mace will drop by the Hack Chat. You’ve probably seen Garrett’s cool LED matrix shades, which have gone through a ton of revisions and are a much-copied fashion accessory among the cool hackers. They look simple, but there are tricks to making them work right, and Garrett will share his secrets. Come with your questions on putting LED matrix modules to work, especially those odd-size modules and strange arrangements that defy simple Cartesian coordinates.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 9 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, 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.

Reverse-Engineering An Unknown Microcontroller In E Ink Displays

For a monochrome display where refresh rate isn’t particularly important, there’s almost no better option than an E Ink display. They’re available in plenty of sizes and at various price points, but there’s almost no option cheaper than repurposing something mass-produced and widely available like an E Ink (sometime also called eInk or ePaper) price tag. At least, once all of the reverse engineering is complete.

[Dmitry Grinberg] has been making his way through a ton of different E Ink modules, unlocking their secrets as he goes. In this case he set about reverse engineering the unknown microcontroller on the small, cheap display show here. Initial research showed an obscure chip from the ZBS24x family, packaged with a SSD1623L2 E Ink controller. From there, he was able to solder to the communications wires and start talking to the device over ISP.

This endeavor is an impressive deep dive into the world of microcontrollers, from probing various registers to unlocking features one by one. It’s running an 8051 core so [Dmitry] gives a bit of background to help us all follow along, though it’s still a pretty impressive slog to fully take control of the system.

If you happen to have one of these price tags on hand it’s an invaluable resource to have to reprogram it, but it’s a great read in general as well. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in reverse-engineering various displays, take a look at this art installation which spans 50 years of working display technologies.