Reverse Engineering A Topfield VFD Front Panel

Hackers love the warm glow of a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD), and there’s no shortage of dead consumer electronics from which they can be pulled to keep our collective parts bins nicely stocked. Unfortunately, figuring out how to actually drive these salvaged modules can be tricky. But thanks to the efforts of [Lauri Pirttiaho], we now have a wealth of information about a VFD-equipped front panel used in several models of Topfield personal video recorders.

The board in question is powered by a Hynix HMS99C52S microcontroller and includes five buttons, a small four character 14-segment display, a larger eight character field, and an array of media-playback related icons. There’s also a real-time clock module onboard, as well as an IR receiver. [Lauri] tells us this same board is used in at least a half-dozen Topfield models, which should make it relatively easy to track one down.

After determining what goes where in the 6-pin connector that links the module with the recorder, a bit of poking with a logic analyzer revealed that they communicate over UART. With the commands decoded, [Lauri] was able to write a simple Python tool that lets you drive the front panel with nothing more exotic than a USB-to-serial adapter. Though keep in mind, you’ll need to provide 17 VDC on the appropriate pin of the connector to fire up the VFD.

What’s that? You don’t need the whole front panel, and just want to pull the VFD itself off the board? Not a problem. Our man [Lauri] was kind enough to document how data is passed from the Hynix microcontroller to the display itself; critical information should you want to liberate the screen from its PVR trappings.

If you manage to get your hands on one of these modules, it would be an ideal addition to a custom media streamer. Though we suppose simply turning it into a network-controlled clock would be a suitable alternative if you’re looking for something a bit easier.

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A Physical Front Panel For Oscilloscope Software

For hackers on a tight budget or with limited bench space, a USB oscilloscope can be a compelling alternative to a dedicated piece of hardware. For plenty of hobbyists, it’s a perfectly valid option. But while the larger discussion about the pros and cons of these devices is better left for another day, there’s one thing you’ll definitely miss when the interface for your scope is a piece of software: the feel of physical buttons and knobs.

But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? The ScopeKeypad by [Paul Withers] looks to recreate the feel of a nice bench oscilloscope when using a virtual interface. Is such a device actually necessary? No, of course not. Although one could argue that there’s a certain advantage to the feedback you get when spinning through the detents on a rotary encoder versus dragging a slider on the screen. Think of it like a button box for a flight simulator: sure you can fly the plane with just the keyboard and mouse, but you’re going to have a better time with a more elaborate interface.

The comparison with a flight simulator panel actually goes a bit deeper, since that’s essentially what the ScopeKeypad is. With an STM32 “Blue Pill” microcontroller doing its best impression of a USB Human Interface Device, the panel bangs out the prescribed virtual key presses when the appropriate encoder is spun or button pressed. The project is designed with PicoScope in mind, and even includes a handy key map file you can load right into the program, but it can certainly be used with other software packages. Should you feel so inclined, it could even double as a controller for your virtual spaceship in Kerbal Space Program.

Affordable USB oscilloscopes have come a long way over the years, and these days, using one is hardly the mark of shame it once was. But the look and feel of the classic bench scope is about as timeless as it gets, so we can certainly see the appeal of a project that tries to combine the best of both worlds.

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Altair Front Panel Tutorials

If you aren’t old enough to remember when computers had front panels, as [Patrick Jackson] found out after he built a replica Altair 8800, their operation can be a bit inscrutable. After figuring it out he made a pair of videos showing the basics, and then progressing to a program to add two numbers.

Even when the Altair was new, the days of front panels were numbered. Cheap terminals were on their way and MITS soon released a “turnkey” system that didn’t have a front panel. But anyone who had used a minicomputer from the late 1960s or early 1970s really thought you needed a front panel.

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Building A Front Panel For The RC2014 Computer

The RC2014 is a slick Z80 computer kit that’s graced these pages a number of times in the past. It allows anyone with a soldering iron and a USB-to-serial adapter to experience the thrill of early 1980s desktop computing. But what if you’re looking for an even more vintage experience? In that case, this custom RC2014 front panel from [James Stanley] might be just the thing to scratch that Altair itch.

The front panel allows you to view and alter the contents of memory with nothing more complex than toggle switches and LEDs, just like on the early microcomputers of the 1970s. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how a computer works on the most basic level, single-stepping through instructions and reading them out in binary is a great way to do it.

[James] says he was inspired to take on this project after reading a 1978 issue of Kilobaud Magazine (as one does), and seeing an article about building a homebrew Z80 machine with a front panel. Obviously he had to modify the approach a bit to mate up with this relatively modern variation on the venerable CPU, but the idea was essentially the same.

His documentation for the project is sure to be fascinating for anyone enamored with those iconic computers of yesteryear, but even readers with more modern sensibilities will likely find some interesting details. The way [James] coaxes the data and various status states out of the kit computer takes up the bulk of the write-up, but afterwards he talks about how he designed the PCB and wraps up with his tips for creating a professional looking front panel.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a modern Z80 computer kitted out with blinkenlights, but it’s certainly one of the most professional looking. If you combine the RC2014 kits available on Tindie with the details provided by [James], you’ll soon be learning the fine art of programming a computer with toggle switches.

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A Mobile Terminal For The End Of The World

If civilization goes sideways and you need to survive, what are the bare essentials that should go in your bunker? Food and fresh water, sure. Maybe something to barter with in case things go full on The Postman. That’s all sensible enough, but how’s that stuff going to help you get a LAN party going? If you’re anything like [Jay Doscher], you’ll make sure there’s a ruggedized Raspberry Pi system with a self-contained network with you when the bombs drop.

Or at least, it certainly looks the part. He’s managed to design the entire project so it doesn’t require drilling holes through the Pelican case that serves as the enclosure, meaning it’s about as well sealed up as a piece of electronics can possibly be. The whole system could be fully submerged in water and come out bone dry on the inside, and with no internal moving parts, it should be largely immune to drops and shocks.

But we imagine [Jay] won’t actually need to wait for nuclear winter before he gets some use out of this gorgeous mobile setup. With the Pi’s GPIO broken out to dual military-style panel mount connectors on the front, a real mechanical keyboard, and an integrated five port Ethernet switch, you won’t have any trouble getting legitimate work done with this machine; even if the closest you ever get to a post-apocalyptic hellscape is the garage with the heat off. We especially like the 3D printed front panel with integrated labels, which is a great tip that frankly we don’t see nearly enough of.

This is actually an evolved version of the Raspberry Pi Field Unit (RPFU) that [Jay] built back in 2015. He tells us that he wanted to update the design to demonstrate his personal growth as a hacker and maker over the last few years, and judging by the final product, we think it’s safe to say he’s on the right path.

VCF West: Adding A Front Panel To The 6502

When you think about vintage computers from the 1970s, the first thing that should spring to mind are front panels loaded up with switches, LEDs, and if you’re really lucky, a lock with a key. Across all families of CPUs from the ’70s, you’ll find front panel setups for Z80s and 8080s, but strangely not the 6502. That’s not to say blinkenlights and panel switches for 6502-based computers didn’t exist, but they were astonishingly rare.

If something hasn’t been done, that means someone has to do it. [Alexander Pierson] built The Cactus, a  6502-based computer that can be controlled entirely through toggle switches and LEDs.

If you’re wondering why something like this hasn’t been built before, you only have to look at the circuitry of the 6502 CPU. The first versions of this chip were built with an NMOS process, and these first chips included bugs, undefined behavior, and could not be run with a stopped clock signal. These problems were fixed with the next chip spin using a CMOS process (which introduced new bugs), but the CMOS version of the 6502 would retain the contents of its registers with a stopped clock signal.

The specs for the Cactus computer are what you would expect from a homebrew 6502 system. The chip is a WDC 65C02S running at 1MHz, there’s 32k of RAM and a 16k EPROM, dual 6551s give serial access at various baud rates, and there are 16 bits of parallel I/O from a 65C22 VIA. The ROM is loaded up with OSI Basic. The real trick here is the front panel, though. Sixteen toggle switches allow the front panel operator to toggle through the entire address space, and eight flip switches can set any bit in the computer. Other controls include Run, Halt, Step, Examine, and Deposit, as you would expect with any front panel computer.

It’s a fantastic piece of work which I missed seeing at VCF East so I’m really glad [Alexander] made the trip between coasts. Cactus is truly something that hasn’t been done before. Not because it’s impossible, but simply because the state of the art technology from when the 6502 was new didn’t allow it. Now we have the chips, and the only limitation is finding someone willing to put in the work.

Cheap Front Panels With Dibond Aluminium

The production capability available to the individual hacker today is really quite incredible. Even a low-end laser engraver can etch your PCBs, and it doesn’t take a top of the line 3D printer to knock out a nice looking enclosure. With the wide availability of these (relatively) cheap machines, the home builder can churn out a very impressive one-off device on a fairly meager budget. Even low volume production isn’t entirely out of the question. But there’s still one element to a professional looking device that remains frustratingly difficult: a good looking front panel.

Now if your laser is strong enough to engrave (and ideally cut) aluminum sheets, then you’ve largely solved this problem. But for those of us who are plodding along with a cheap imported diode laser, getting text and images onto a piece of metal can be rather tricky. On Hackaday.io, [oaox] has demonstrated a cost effective way to create metal front panels for your devices using a print service that offers Dibond aluminum. Consisting of two thin layers of aluminum with a solid polyethylene core, this composite material was designed specifically for signage. Through various online services, you can have whatever you wish printed on a sheet of pre-cut Dibond without spending a lot of money.

As explained by [oaox], the first step is putting together the image you’ll send off to the printer using a software package like Inkscape. The key is to properly define the size of the Dibond plate in your software and work within those confines, otherwise the layout might not look how you expected once the finish piece gets back to you. It’s also important to avoid lossy compression formats like JPEG when sending the file out for production, as it can turn text into a mushy mess.

When you get the sheet back, all you need to do is put your holes in it. Thanks to the plastic core, Dibond is fairly easy to cut and drill as long as you take your time. [oaox] used a step drill for the holes, and a small coping saw for the larger openings. The final result looks great, and required very little effort in the grand scheme of things.

But how much does it cost? Looking around online, we were quoted prices as low as $7 USD to do a full-color 4×4 inch Dibond panel, and one site offered a 12×12 panel for $20. For a small production run, you could fit several copies of the graphics onto one larger panel and cut them out with a bandsaw; that could drop the per-unit price to only a couple bucks.

We’ve seen some clever attempts at professional looking front panels, from inkjet printing on transparencies to taking the nuclear option and laser cutting thin plywood. This is one of those issues the community has been struggling with for years, but at least it looks like we’re finally getting some decent options.