Will MiSTer Fool You Into Learning FPGAs?

What’s the killer app for FPGAs? For some people, the allure is the ultra-high data throughput for parallelizable tasks, which can enable some pretty gnarly projects. But what if you’re just starting out? How about 1980s style video games?

The MiSTer FPGA project created a bit of FPGA hardware that makes it easy to build essentially any old school video game or computer platform. That’s a massive clean slate. Of course, you can simply download someone else’s Atari ST or Commodore 64 setup and load it up, but if you want to learn FPGAs while recreating old-school video game machines, you’re going to want to get your hands dirty.

[Mister Retro Wolf] started up a video series last winter (trailer embedded below) where he’s embarked on a project to recreate a classic video game machine from the ground up using the MiSTer FPGA platform. In particular, he’s going to recreate the Namco Tank Battalion arcade game, from the schematics, in Verilog.

This is literally building a 6502-based video game machine from scratch (in gateware), so if you’re interested in retrocomputing or FPGAs, you’ll have something to learn here. He’s gotten through the CPU, screen, tilemap graphics, and memory so far, but it’s not done yet. To follow along, get yourself some hardware and you can probably catch up.

We’ve covered the MiSTer FPGA project before, of course, because we think it’s cool. And if a video game arcade machine is going to be your gateway drug into the seedy world of programmable gates, then so be it.

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Remoticon 2021 // Rob Weinstein Builds An HP-35 From The Patent Up

Fifty years ago, Hewlett-Packard introduced the first handheld scientific calculator, the HP-35. It was quite the engineering feat, since equivalent machines of the day were bulky desktop affairs, if not rack-mounted. [Rob Weinstein] has long been a fan of HP calculators, and used an HP-41C for many years until it wore out. Since then he gradually developed a curiosity about these old calculators and what made them tick. The more he read, the more engrossed he became. [Rob] eventually decided to embark on a three year long reverse-engineer journey that culminated a recreation of the original design on a protoboard that operates exactly like the original from 1972 (although not quite pocket-sized). In this presentation he walks us through the history of the calculator design and his efforts in understanding and eventually replicating it using modern FPGAs.

The HP patent ( US Patent 4,001,569 ) contains an extremely detailed explanation of the calculator in nearly every aspect. There are many novel concepts in the design, and [Rob] delves into two of them in his presentation. Early LED devices were a drain on batteries, and HP engineers came up with a clever solution. In a complex orchestra of multiplexed switches, they steered current through inductors and LED segments, storing energy temporarily and eliminating the need for inefficient dropping resistors. But even more complicated is the serial processor architecture of the calculator. The first microprocessors were not available when HP started this design, so the entire processor was done at the gate level. Everything operates on 56-bit registers which are constantly circulating around in circular shift registers. [Rob] has really done his homework here, carefully studying each section of the design in great depth, drawing upon old documents and books when available, and making his own material when not. For example, in the course of figuring everything out, [Rob] prepared 338 pages of timing charts in addition to those in the patent. Continue reading “Remoticon 2021 // Rob Weinstein Builds An HP-35 From The Patent Up”

Al Williams Tells All In The Logic Simulation Hack Chat

The list of requirements for hosting one of our weekly Hack Chats is pretty short: you’ve got to be knowledgeable, passionate, and above all else, willing to put those two quantities on display for a group of like-minded strangers. Beyond that, we’re not too picky. From industry insider to weekend hobbyist, high school dropout to double doctorate, if you’ve got something interesting to talk about, we’re ready to listen.

But in casting a such a wide net, we occasionally forget that we’ve got a considerable collection of potential hosts within our own worldwide roster of contributors. Among this cast of characters, few can boast the same incredible body of knowledge as Al Williams, who was able to pencil in some time this week to host the Logic Simulation Hack Chat.

Or at least, that was the idea. In reality the Chat covered a wide range of topics, and was peppered with fascinating anecdotes pulled from Al’s decades of experience in the field. Though to be fair, we expected no less. He was building hardware before many of us were born, and can take credit for designs that have been at the bottom of the ocean as well as launched into orbit. He’s been writing about it just as long too, with articles of his appearing in iconic print magazines such as Dr. Dobb’s Journal.

Al has seen and done so much that he still surprises us with the occasional nugget, and we’ve been working with him for years. It was only a week or two back that he started a story with “Back when I used to manage a gas pipeline…” in the middle of a conversation about utility metering.

Of course, that’s not to say some technical discussion didn’t sneak in there from time to time. Sure Al’s  recollection of how they used to literally crawl over the schematics for the 68000 back at Motorola might stick out as a particular high point, but he also explains his personal preference for vendor-specific software tools over their more generic open source counterparts. He also draws comparisons between hardware description languages (HDLs) like Verilog and parametric CAD tools such as OpenSCAD in the way that they help model complex relationships in ways that can’t be easily done by more traditional means.

At one point the conversation lingers on the design and production of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), and how they compare to field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). Traditionally ASICs have been out of reach for the hobbyist, but with the recent collaboration between Google and SkyWater Technology to create an open source process design kit (PDK), they’re now within the capabilities of a dedicated individual. Matt Venn spoke on the topic during Remoticon 2021, and it’s good to see more folks in the community openly discussing the possibilities of custom silicon designed by hackers.

From there, things start really getting wild. From dreaming of virtual reality circuit simulators that let you fly amongst your creations like in Tron, to salivating over high-end technologies such as reflective memory, this Chat really runs the gamut. But then, that’s sort of why we hold them in the first place. Whether you actively participate or are just along for the ride, the Hack Chat gives everyone in the community a chance to gather around a virtual water cooler with fascinating characters that you won’t find anywhere else.

The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

FPGA Starter Videos To Help Soften That Learning Curve

Digi-Key have been producing YouTube videos for a number of years now, and if you weren’t aware, they’re definitely worthy of some viewing time. The playlist we’re highlighting here is a pretty good introduction to FPGAs, specifically those supported by open source tools, with low cost hardware. If you’ve always wanted to get into hacking FPGA platforms, but don’t know where to start, this is going to be a big help. After first covering what an FPGA is and is not, and why you want to use one, [Shawn Hymel] dives in to the toolchain.

We’re really lucky that the bitstream for the Lattice iCE40 was reverse engineered by the super talented Claire (née Clifford) Wolf (AMP hour interview) which enabled the project ICEstorm toolchain to be created. Leveraging Yosys for synthesis and logic mapping, Icarus verilog coupled with GTKwave for simulation, netpnr for place and route and finally the project ICEstorm bitstream tools for packing into iCE40 format and loading onto the hardware. The whole toolchain flow is managed by APIO for simplicity, that is, provided your FPGA board is supported!

Of course, [Shawn] is using the low cost (for an FPGA) ICEStick by Lattice for this tutorial series, and they’re currently hard to get (you know why by now!) but, there are many other boards you could use. If you want to play with applications coupling a ARM micro to an FPGA, then the excellent BlackIce Mx is an option, but there are many other boards now with an decent micro nestled next to an FPGA and a few peripherals for convenience.

We should mention here, that project ICEstorm and the iCE40 is not the only show in town. Project Trellis has had our eye for a while, which targets the more complex Lattice ECP5 device. Yosys and friends do support more architectures, but the available flows usually require at least some vendor tool support at this time (looking straight at you, Xilinx) but as more devices get decoded, the open source tools will grow, and we will bring you that news!

What’s nice about this Digi-Key YT series, is that it doesn’t just cover the basic toolchain flow, then drop you in at the deep end of a big learning curve. There are videos covering subjects such as finite state machines (FSMs), test-benching and simulation, using embedded (block) memories, PLLs, harder subjects like dealing with metastability and clock-domain crossing (OK, he covers one technique – there’s more than one way to skin that particular cat) before finally looking at soft cores like the RISC-V. Lots to learn, and pretty well executed if you ask us! A Github version is available, for those who can’t stand watching the videos!

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Tilting At Windmills Nine Bits At A Time

In the old days — we are talking like the 1960s and 1970s — computers were often built for very specific purposes using either discrete logic or “bit slice” chips. Either way, more bits meant more money so frequently these computers were made with just enough bits to meet a required precision. We don’t think that was what was on [Mad Ned’s] mind, though, when he decided to implement a 9-bit CPU called QIXOTE-1 on an FPGA.

Like many hobby projects, this one started with an FPGA board in search of a problem. At first, [Ned] had a plan to create a custom computer along with a custom language to then produce a video game. A quick search on the Internet led to that being a common enough project with one guy that we’ve talked about here on Hackaday before knocking it out of the park.

[Ned] then thought about just doing a no-software video game. Too late to be the first to do that. Not to be deterred, he decided to duplicate the PDP-8. Whoops. That’s been done before, too. Wanting something original, he finally decided on a custom CPU. Since bytes are usually — if not technically — 8 bits, this CPU calls its 9-bit words nonads and uses octal which maps nicely to three digits per nonad.

This first post talks about the story behind the CPU and gives a short overview of its capabilities, but we are waiting for future posts to show more of what’s behind the curtain in what [Ned] calls “Holy Nonads, Part 010.”

The downside to doing a custom CPU is you have to build your own tools. You can always, of course, duplicate something and steal your toolchain. Or go universal.

DE10-Lite Dev Board / Game Controller

DE10-Lite-Ful FPGA Dev Board Hack Plays The 1981 Classic Defender

We’re not sure what the assignment was, but the results of [Garret Carter]’s homework for his Digital System Design class at Tennessee Tech couldn’t help but capture our attention. Below the break you can see what [Garrett] describes as a “simplified stylized version” of the 1981 arcade hit “Defender”.

With the goal of keeping the price low but keeping performance as high as possible, [Garrett] set forth to program the DE10-Lite FPGA development board in VHDL. The results are convincing, and while not perfect, came in under budget.

The DE10-Lite board gave [Garrett] the opportunity to get even more creative, using the dev board’s onboard switches, buttons, 7-segment LED’s and accelerometer to full effect. In this case, the dev board is not only the game, but also the controller and status display. A very neat hack indeed!

If you want to make your own, you can get the full project details at [Garrett]’s Github page. And [Garrett], we don’t know what marks your professor will give, but we give you an A+, would definitely play again.

While FPGA development boards aren’t necessarily inexpensive, our own Jenny List shows where you might be able to find a used but workable FPGA board for a fraction of the cost, If you know where to look.

Continue reading “DE10-Lite-Ful FPGA Dev Board Hack Plays The 1981 Classic Defender”

A 1981 Centaur pinball table rebuilt into a coffee table.

Clear Off The Coffee Table, It’s Pinball Time

Like many of us, [BuildXYZ] has always wanted to own a pinball machine, but doesn’t have the space to justify buying such a big and heavy toy. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. [BuildXYZ] figured that if they could build a pinball machine into a coffee table form factor, they’d be at least halfway to justification.

[BuildXYZ] didn’t choose just any pin. After doing a bunch of research, they settled on 1981’s Bally Centaur because it’s an early solid-state machine, and it’s one of the best. It has no secondary playfield levels to deal with, making it much easier to do this project.

Where do we even start to describe this beautiful labor of love? There are too many details to list, but know that it seems to be equal amounts of restoration work and custom work that brought this table together. The build video after the break is definitely worth your time, and you’ll gain a much better appreciation of the amount of time that went into this, from the custom score decoder chip built on an FPGA to the 3D printed replacement drop targets and new acrylic bits to replace the yellowing ones from the playfield.

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