When you think of analog computing, it’s possible you don’t typically think of FPGAs. Sure, a few FPGAs will have specialized analog blocks, but usually they are digital devices. [Bruce Land] — a name well-known to Hackaday — has a post about building a digital differential analyzer using an FPGA and it is essentially an analog computer simulated on the digital fabric of an FPGA.
Whereas traditional analog computers use operational amplifiers to do mathematical integration, on the FPGA [Land] uses digital summers The devices simulate a system of differential equations, which can be nonlinear.
[Mike Harrison] produces so much quality content that sometimes excellent material slips through the editorial cracks. This time we noticed that one such lost gem was [Mike]’s reverse engineering of the 6th generation iPod Nano display from 2013, as caught when the also prolific [Greg Davill] used one on a recent board. Despite the march of progress in mobile device displays, small screens which are easy to connect to hobbyist style devices are still typically fairly low quality. It’s easy to find fancier displays as salvage but interfacing with them electrically can be brutal, never mind the reverse engineering required to figure out what signal goes where. Suffice to say you probably won’t find a manufacturer data sheet, and it won’t conveniently speak SPI or I2C.
After a few generations of strange form factor exploration Apple has all but abandoned the stand-alone portable media player market; witness the sole surviving member of that once mighty species, the woefully outdated iPod Touch. Luckily thanks to vibrant sales, replacement parts for the little square sixth generation Nano are still inexpensive and easily available. If only there was a convenient interface this would be a great source of comparatively very high quality displays. Enter [Mike].
This particular display speaks a protocol called DSI over a low voltage differential MIPI interface, which is a common combination which is still used to drive big, rich, modern displays. The specifications are somewhat available…if you’re an employee of a company who is a member of the working group that standardizes them — there are membership discounts for companies with yearly revenue below $250 million, and dues are thousands of dollars a quarter.
Fortunately for us, after some experiments [Mike] figured out enough of the command set and signaling to generate easily reproduced schematics and references for the data packets, checksums, etc. The project page has a smattering of information, but the circuit includes some unusual provisions to adjust signal levels and other goodies so try watching the videos for a great explanation of what’s going on and why. At the time [Mike] was using an FPGA to drive the display and that’s certainly only gotten cheaper and easier, but we suspect that his suggestion about using a fast micro and clever tricks would work well too.
It turns out we made incidental mention of this display when covering [Mike]’s tiny thermal imager but it hasn’t turned up much since them. As always, thanks for the accidental tip [Greg]! We’re waiting to see the final result of your experiments with this.
We really love when hacks of previous hacks show up in the tip line. It shows how the hardware hacking community can be a feedback loop, where one hack begets the next, and so on until great things are everywhere. This hacked joystick port for an FPGA Pac Man game is a perfect example of that creative churn.
The story starts with Pano Man, a version of the venerable arcade game ported to a Pano Logic FPGA thin client by [Skip]. We covered that story when it first came out, and it caught the attention of [Tom Verbeure], particularly the bit in the GitHub readme file which suggested there might be a better way to handle the joystick connections. So [Tom] took up the challenge of using the Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) circuit in the VGA connector to support an Atari 2600 joystick. The EDID system is an I²C bus, so the job needed the right port expander. [Tom] chose the MCP23017, a 16-bit device that would have enough GPIO for dual joysticks and a few extra buttons. Having never designed a PCB before, [Tom] fell down that rabbit hole for a bit, but quickly came up with a working design, and then a better one, and then the final version. The video below shows it in action with Pano Man.
We think the creative loop between [Skip] and [Tom] was great here, and we can’t wait to see who escalates next. And it’s pretty amazing how much IO can be stuffed over two wires if you have the right tools. Check out this VGA sniffing effort to learn more about EDID and I²C.
Glowing and blinking things are some of our favourite projects around these parts, and the bigger, the better. [Thomas] wrote to us recently to share the design and construction of a large LED wall at the Oregon Museum of Science, and the results are nothing short of impressive.
The concept involved a large LED wall that would be completely hidden when switched off. The team decided to approach this by hiding high-brightness LED panels using APA102 strings behind milky-white plexiglass panels covered with a woodgrain print. The screen has a total of 90,000 pixels, arranged in a 408×220 resolution display.
A lot of bespoke LED displays have some pre-coded patterns, or perhaps some basic reactive features. In this case, FPGA grunt was brought to bear on the problem and the display accepts standard HDMI input. Four Spartan 6 Mojo FPGA boards split up the task of addressing the panels, each receiving the same HDMI signal, but only crunching the pixels relevant to their area of the display. To make sure clean SPI signals get to each panel, special RS485 driver chips are used to send the signal over a differential pair from the FPGA, before breaking the signal back out to standard SPI at the destination.
In this week’s podcast, editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys look back on favorite hacks and articles from the week. Highlights include a deep dive in barn-door telescope trackers, listening in on mains power, the backstory of a supercomputer inventor, and crazy test practices with new jet engine designs. We discuss some of our favorite circuit sculptures, and look at a new textile-based computer and an old server-based one.
This week, a round table of who’s-who in the Open Source FPGA movement discusses what’s next in 2019. David Shah, Clifford Wolf, Piotr Esden-Tempski, and Tim Ansell spoke with Elliot at 35C3.
The hackers over at Radiona.org, a Zagreb Makerspace, have been hard at work designing the ULX3S, an open-source development board for LATTICE ECP5 FPGAs. This board might help make 2019 the Year of the Hacker FPGA, whose occurrence has been predicted once again after not quite materializing in 2018. Even a quick look at the board and the open-source development surrounding it hints that this time might be different.
The ULX3S was developed primarily as an educational tool for undergraduate-level digital logic classes. As such, it falls into the “kitchen sink” category of FPGA boards, which include a comprehensive suite of peripherals and devices for development, as opposed to more bare-bones FPGA breakouts. The board includes 32 MB SDRAM, WiFi via an ESP-32 (supporting over-the-air update), a connector for an SPI OLED display, USB, HDMI, a microSD slot, eight channels of 12-bit ADC (1 MS/s), a real-time-clock, 56 GPIO pins, six buttons, 11 LEDs, and an onboard antenna for 433 MHz FM/ASK. This seems like a great set of I/Os for both students and anyone else starting FPGA development.
The ULX3S supports members of the Lattice ECP5 FPGA family, ranging from the 12F (12 k LUTs) to the 85F (84 k LUTs). What can you do with this much FPGA horsepower? Have a look at the long list of examples curated in the ULX3S Links repo. There, you’ll find code from retro-computing to retro-gaming, the usual LED and HDMI demos, and even Linux running on a mor1kx OpenRISC core. Maybe the most interesting links in the repo, however, are those that show how to program the FPGA with a completely open-source toolchain. Proprietary toolchains are the last link keeping some vendor’s FPGAs from wider adoption in the OSHW community, and it’s great to see people chipping away at them.
The board itself is completely open-source. In the GitHub repo, you’ll find the KiCAD 5 design files for the PCB released under an MIT-style license. Even more impressive is the advice in the README, which not only welcomes independent production of the boards, but gives some solid advice on dealing with PCBA vendors during manufacture. Our own advice is to do the right thing and offer the developers a cut if you decide to independently market this board, even though you aren’t required to by the license. If want one, but don’t want to manufacture your own, you can contact the developers using the email or gitter links at the bottom of the ULX3S page: they’re currently doing a small production run.
The Radiona Org folks have created a few videos showcasing example code. Check out how the on-board ESP-32 runs a web server that can load bitstreams into the FPGA (in this case for some retro-gaming), after the break.
If you’ve been reading Hackaday for a while now, you might recall the tale of Pano Logic that we first covered all the way back in 2013. They were a company that put out some very interesting FPGA-based thin clients, but as occasionally happens in situations like this, the market wasn’t ready and the company went belly up. These thin clients, now without official support, invariably got dumped onto the second-hand market. Shame for Pano Logic and their staff, but good news for hackers like [Skip Hansen].
After seeing a few posts about the Pano Logic devices and general FPGA hacking, he decided to grab a few on eBay and dive in. Using open source tools and the wealth of information that’s available [Skip] was able to get a Pac-Man simulator up and running over his holiday break, and he tells us his life may never be the same again. FPGA hacking is a fascinating subject with a lot of activity right now, and since you can get these Pano Logic boxes on eBay for less than $10 USD in some cases, now is as good a time as ever to get your feet wet.
Like many open source projects, [Skip] says his code is built upon the existing work of a number of other programmers, which let him get up and running much faster than if he had to start from scratch. He describes his code as the “glue” that mashes these projects together, but we think he’s being somewhat modest there. It took more than copying and pasting some code into an IDE to get Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde doing their thing on the Pano Logic.
The biggest challenge was the lack of I/O. The Pano Logic thin clients have USB ports, but it seems nobody has quite figured out how to get them working yet. To talk to the outside world, you’ve got to get a little more creative. Eventually [Skip] was able to track down four lines he could effectively use as GPIO: two which are used to drive the LEDs on the device, and two which are used for the VGA port’s Display Data Channel (DDC) pins. Soldering jumpers from the LEDs to the unused pins in the device’s VGA connector meant he was even able to get these four GPIO lines accessible from the outside of the Pano Logic without having to cut any holes in the case.
Anyone with a Pano Logic client that has a VGA port, an Atari 2600 joystick, and who doesn’t mind soldering a couple of wires can now play Pac-Man with the bitstream [Skip] has provided. But where do we go from here? How long until we see DOOM running on it? Perhaps one of you fine readers should pick one up and see what you can do to advance the state of Pano Logic hacking. Just be sure to let us know about it.