Flip-Dot Oscilloscope Is Flippin’ Awesome

Oscilloscope displays have come a long way since the round phosphor-coated CRTs that adorned laboratories of old. Most modern scopes ship with huge, high-definition touch screens that, while beautiful, certainly lack a bit of the character that classic scopes brought to the bench. It’s a good thing that hackers like [bitluni] are around to help remedy this. His contribution takes the form of what may be both the world’s coolest and least useful oscilloscope: one with a flip-dot display.

Yup — a flip-dot display, in all it’s clickedy-clacky, 25×16 pixel glory. The scope can’t trigger, its maximum amplitude is only a couple of volts, and its refresh rate is, well, visible, but it looks incredible. The scope is controlled by an ESP32, which reads the analog signal being measured. It then displays the signal via an array of driver ICs, which allow it to update the dots one column at a time by powering the tiny electromagnets that flip over each colored panel.

Even better, [bitluni] live-streamed the entire build. That’s right, if you want to watch approximately 30 hours of video covering everything from first actuating a pixel on the display to designing and assembling a PCB to drive it, then you’re in luck. For the rest of us, he was kind enough to make a much shorter summary video you can watch below. Of course, this scope doesn’t run Doom like some others, but its probably only a matter of time.

Thank to [Zane Atkins] for the tip!

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Soil Sensor Shows Flip-Dots Aren’t Just For Signs

Soil sensors are handy things, but while sensing moisture is what they do, how they handle that data is what makes them useful. Ensuring usefulness is what led [Maakbaas] to design and create an ESP32-based soil moisture sensor with wireless connectivity, deep sleep, data logging, and the ability to indicate that the host plant needs watering both visually, and with a push notification to a mobile phone.

A small flip-dot indicator makes a nifty one-dot display that requires no power when idle.

The visual notification part is pretty nifty, because [Maakbaas] uses a small flip-dot indicator made by Alfa-Zeta. This electromechanical indicator works by using two small coils to flip a colored disk between red or green. It uses no power when idle, which is a useful feature for a device that spends most of its time in a power-saving deep sleep. When all is well the indicator is green, but when the plant needs water, the indicator flips to red.

The sensor itself wakes itself up once per hour to take a sensor measurement, which it then stores in a local buffer for uploading to a database every 24 measurements. This reduces the number of times the device needs to power up and connect via WiFi, but if the sensor ever determines that the plant requires water, that gets handled immediately.

The sensor looks great, and a 3D-printed enclosure helps keep it clean while giving the device a bit of personality. Interested in rolling your own sensor? The project also has a page on Hackaday.io and we’ve previously covered in-depth details about how these devices work. Whether you are designing your own solution or using existing hardware, just remember to stay away from cheap probes that aren’t worth their weight in potting soil.

Artwork Spans Fifty Years Of Display Technology

Swiss artist and designer [Jürg Lehni] was commissioned to create an artwork called Four Transitions which has been installed in the HeK (House of electronics Arts) in Basel. This piece visually depicts the changes in technologies used by public information displays, such as those in airports and train stations. As the title of the installation suggests, four different technologies are represented:

  • Flip-Dot, early 1960s, 15 each 7 x 7 modules arrayed into a 21 x 35 pixel panel
  • LCD, 1970s and 1980s, two each 36 x 52 modules arrayed into 52 x 76 pixel panel
  • LED, 2000s, six each 16 x 16 RGB modules arrayed into a 32 x 48 pixel panel
  • TFT, current, one 24 inch module, 1200 x 1920 pixel panel

The final work is quite striking, but equally interesting is the summary of the the design and construction process that [Jürg] provides on Twitter. We hope he expands this into a future, more detailed writeup — if only to learn about reverse engineering the 20 year old LCD controller whose designer was in retirement. His tweets also gives us a tantalizing glimpse into the software, controllers, and interconnections used to drive all these displays. There is quite a lot of interesting engineering going on in the background, and we look forward to future documentation from [Jürg].

You may recognize [Jürg] as the creator of Hektor, a graffiti output device from 2002 which we’ve referenced over the years in Hackaday. Check out the short video below of the displays in operation, and be sure to unmute the volume so you can listen to the satisfying sound of 735 flip-dots changing state. [Jürg] also gives in interview about the project in the second video below. Thanks to [Niklas Roy] for sending in the tip about this most interesting exhibition.

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30 FPS Flip-Dot Display Uses Cool Capacitor Trick

Most people find two problems when it comes to flip-dot displays: where to buy them and how to drive them. If you’re [Pierre Muth] you level up and add the challenge of driving them fast enough to rival non-mechanical displays like LCDs. It was a success, resulting in a novel and fast way of controlling flip-dot displays.

Gorgeous stackup of the completed display. [Pierre] says soldering the 2500 components kept him sane during lockdown.
If you’re lucky, you can get a used flip-dot panel decommissioned from an old bus destination panel, or perhaps the arrivals/departures board at a train station. But it is possible to buy brand new 1×7 pixel strips which is what [Pierre] has done. These come without any kind of driving hardware; just the magnetized dots with coils that can be energized to change the state.

The problem comes in needing to reverse the polarity of the coil to achieve both set and unset states. Here [Pierre] has a very interesting idea: instead of working out a way to change the connections of the coils between source and sink, he’s using a capacitor on one side that can be driven high or low to flip the dot.

Using this technique, charging the capacitor will give enough kick to flip the dot on the display. The same will happen when discharged (flipping the dot back), with the added benefit of not using additional power since the capacitor is already charged from setting the pixel. A circuit board was designed with CMOS to control each capacitor. A PCB is mounted to the back of a 7-pixel strip, creating modules that are formed into a larger display using SPI to cascade data from one to the next. The result, as you can see after the break, does a fantastic job of playing Bad Apple on the 24×14 matrix. If you have visions of one of these on your own desk, the design files and source code are available. Buying the pixels for a display this size is surprisingly affordable at about 100 €.

We’re a bit jealous of all the fun displays [Pierre] has been working on. He previously built a 384 neon bulb display that he was showing off last Autumn.

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Watch Conway’s Game Of Life Flutter Across A Flip-Dot Display

Like many of us, [John Whittington] was saddened with the news that John Horton Conway passed away a little earlier this year, and in honor of his work, he added the Game of Life to a flip-dot display that he has been working on. The physicality of an electromechanical display seems particularly fitting for cellular automata.

Like what you see? If you’re curious about what makes it all tick, the display shown is an Alfa-Zeta XY5 28×14 but [John] is currently working on building them into a much larger 256 x 56 display. GitHub hosts the flip-dot simulator and driver software [John] is using, and the Game of Life functions are here.

If you’re new to the Game of Life and are not really sure what you’re looking at, [Elliot Williams] tells you all you need to know in his writeup celebrating its profound impact and lasting legacy. Watch the flip-dot display in action in the video embedded below.

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The Clickiest Game Of Tetris You’ll Ever Play, On A Flip-Dot

Like many other classics it’s easy to come up with ways to ruin Tetris, but hard to think of anything that will make it better. Adding more clickiness is definitely one way to improve the game, and playing Tetris on a flip-dot display certainly manages to achieve that.

The surplus flip-dot display [sinowin] used for this version of Tetris is a bit of an odd bird that needed some reverse engineering to be put to work. The display is a 7 x 30 matrix with small dots, plus a tiny green LED for each dot. Those LEDs turned out to be quite useful for replicating the flashing effect used in the original game when a row of blocks was completed, and the sound of the dots being flipped provides audio feedback. The game runs on a Teensy through a custom driver board and uses a Playstation joystick for control. The video below, in perfectly acceptable vertical format, shows the game in action and really makes us want to build our own, perhaps with a larger and even clickier flip-dot display.

The best thing about Tetris is its simplicity: simple graphics, simple controls, and simple gameplay. It’s so simple it can be played anywhere, from a smartwatch to a business card and even on a transistor tester.

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Dozens Of Servos Flip The Segments Of This 3D-Printed Digital Clock

A digital clock based on seven-segment displays? Not exciting. A digital clock with seven-segment displays that’s really big and can be read across a football field? That’s a little more interesting. A large format digital clock that uses electromechanical seven-segment displays? Now that’s something to check out.

This clock comes to us by way of [Otvinta] and is a nice example of what you can do with 3D-printing and a little imagination. Each segment of the display is connected to a small hobby servo which can flip it 90°. Mounted in a printed plastic frame, the segments are flipped in and out of view as needed to compose the numerals needed to display the time. The 28 servos need two Pololu controller boards, which talk to a Raspberry Pi running Windows IoT, an interesting design choice that we don’t often see. You’d think that 28 servos clattering back and forth might be intolerable, but the video below shows that the display is actually pretty quiet. We’d love to see this printed all in black with white segment faces, or even a fluorescent plastic; how cool would that look under UV light?

We’re not saying this is the only seven-segment servo clock we’ve seen, but it is a pretty slick build. And of course there’s more than one way to use servos to tell the time.

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