That TRS Jack On Your Graphing Calculator Does More Than You Think

It’s not Apple IIs, and it’s not Raspberry Pis. The most important computing platform for teaching kids programming is the Texas Instruments graphing calculator. These things have been around in one form or another for almost three decades, and for a lot of budding hackers out there, this was the first computer they owned and had complete access to.

As hacking graphing calculators is a favorite for Maker Faires, we were pleased to see Cemetech make it out to this year’s World Maker Faire in New York last weekend. They’re the main driving force behind turning these pocket computers with truly terrible displays into usable computing platforms.

As you would expect from any booth, Cemetech brought out the goods demonstrating exactly what a graphing calculator can do. The most impressive, at least from a soldering standpoint, is their LED cube controlled by a graphing calculator. The electronics are simple, and just a few 595s and transistors, but this LED cube is taking serial data directly from the link cable on a graphing calculator. Of course, the PCB for the LED cube is designed as an Arduino shield for ease of prototyping, but make no mistake: this is an LED cube controlled by a calculator.

If you can send serial data to a shift register from a graphing calculator, that means you can send serial data to anything, bringing us to Cemetech’s next great build featured this year. It’s an N-gauge model train, with complete control over the locomotive.

There’s a lot more to controlling model trains these days than simply connecting a big ‘ol variac to the tracks. This setup uses Direct Cab Control (DCC), a system that modulates commands for locomotives while still providing 12-15V to the tracks. There’s a good Arduino library, and when you have that, you can easily port it to a graphing calculator.

Cemetech is one of the perennial favorites at Maker Faire, and over the years we’ve seen everything from the Ultimate TI-83+ sporting an RGB backlight and a PS/2 port to a game of graphing calculator Whac-A-Mole. It’s all a great example of what you can do with the programmable computer every 90s kid had, and an introduction to computer programming education, something Cemetech is really pushing out there with some hard work.

Open Source Calculator Teaches us about Quality Documentation

Graphing calculators are one of those funny markets that never seem to change. Standardized testing has created a primordial stew of regulatory capture in which ancient technology thrives at modern retail prices while changing little. The NumWorks calculator certainly isn’t the first competitor to challenge the Texas Instruments dynasty with a more modern interface (and a design from this decade), but behind it’s subtle color pops and elegant lines lies the real gem; a fantastically well documented piece of open source hardware. The last time we wrote about the NumWorks, it was to demonstrate a pretty wild hack that embedded an entire Pi Zero but it’s worth drawing attention to the calculator itself.

Hackaday readers traveling to the NumWorks website might spy the section at the bottom of the page titled “Developers” with tantalizing links like “Hardware,” “Software,” and “GitHub.” These lead to a wealth of knowledge about how the product is put together and sources to build the enclosure and firmware yourself (the PCB schematic and layout sources seem to be missing, though there is this handy gerber viewer). However merely posting sources is a low bar NumWorks far exceeds.

How is the firmware put together? Here’s a handy architecture guide! Why did they choose C++ and what tradeoffs were made to fit everything in a resource constrained embedded system? Here’s a design guide! How exactly does the math engine take in text, comprehend the expression contained therein, and evaluate it? There’s a document for it! There’s even a multi-platform SDK setup guide.

Firmware documentation is old hat; we’ve come to expect (or at least hope!) for it. For us the most interesting documentation is actually for the mechanical and electrical systems. The EE guides start with part selection (with datasheet links) then move on to walkthroughs of major areas of the schematic. At this point is should be no surprise that the board has pads for a completely standard 10 pin ARM debug connector and documented test points for UART, SPI, and an SD card.

The mechanical pages read like a quick primer on design for injection molding and tricks to reduce assembly errors (called “poka-yoke“). Ever wondered what that funny frame plastic models come in is called? The NumWorks calculator’s buttons are made in one, and it’s called a “sprue”. There are pages describing each piece of the housing one at a time.

Treat yourself to a reading of NumWorks’ excellent documentation. And if you need a new calculator, maybe consider the open source option.

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Graphing Calculator Dual Boots With Pi Zero

The nearly limitless array of consumer gadgets hackers have shoved the Raspberry Pi into should really come as no surprise. The Pi is cheap, well documented, and in the case of the Pi Zero, incredibly compact. It’s like the thing is begging to get grafted into toys, game systems, or anything else that could use a penguin-flavored infusion.

But this particular project takes it to the next level. Rather than just cramming the Pi and a cheap LCD into his Numworks graphing calculator, [Zardam] integrated it into the device so well that you’d swear it was a feature from the factory. By exploiting the fact that the calculator has some convenient solder pads connected to its SPI bus, he was able to create an application which switches the display between the Pi and the calculator at will. With just a press of a button, he’s able to switch between using the stock calculator software and having full access to the internal Pi Zero.

In a very detailed write-up on his site, [Zardam] explains the process of getting the Pi Zero to output video over SPI. The first part of the battle was re-configuring the GPIO pins and DMA controller. After that, there was the small issue of writing a Linux SPI framebuffer driver. Luckily he was able to find some work done previously by [Sprite_TM] which helped him get on the right track. His final driver is able to push 320×240 video at 50 FPS via GPIO, more than enough to kick back with some DOOM.

With video sorted out, he still needed a way to interface the calculator’s keyboard with the Pi. For this, he added a function in his calculator application that echoed the keys pressed to the calculator’s UART port. This is connected to the Pi, where a daemon is listening for key presses. The daemon then generates the appropriate keycodes for the kernel via uinput. [Zardam] acknowledges this part of the system could do with some refinement, but judging by the video after the break, it works well enough for a first version.

We’ve seen the Pi Zero get transplanted into everything from a 56K modem to the venerated Game Boy, and figured nothing would surprise us at this point. But we’ve got to say, this is one of the cleanest and most practical builds we’ve seen yet.

[Thanks to EdS for the tip]

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Hackaday Links: September 3, 2017

The TI-83, TI-84, and TI-86 have been the standard graphing calculators in classrooms for two decades. This is the subject of an xkcd. Now, hopefully, there’s a contender for the throne. Numworks is a graphing calculator that looks like it was designed in at least 2006 (so very modern), and apparently, there’s a huge community behind it.

Juicero is shutting down. No one could have seen this one coming. The Juicero was a $700 press that turned proprietary, DRM’ed juice packs into juice and garbage. It was exquisitely engineered, but it turns out very few people want to spend thousands of dollars per year on DRM’ed juice. Oh, since the Juicero phones home, those $700 presses probably won’t work in the future.

Are you in the Bay area? Do you need test equipment? There’s a gigantic auction happening somewhere around San Jose. [Dave] tipped everyone off to this one, and this auction is pretty freakin’ spectacular. Spectrum analyzers, signal gens, a ‘mega zoom’ oscilloscope, and 4-channel, 500 MHz scopes for $50. There are a thousand lots in this auction. It’s nuts.

Everybody loves PCB art, and [Uri] has a guide for designing custom, functional electronic circuit boards. The toolchain used in this guide is Inkscape and KiCad, with blinky hearts, blinky pandas, and other blinky PCBs.

This one is a little out there even for us. Here’s how you build your own AA batteries. It’s a dozen #10 copper washers, a dozen or so #10 zinc washers, some cardboard, vinegar, salt, and some heat shrink tubing. The assembly of this battery is exactly what you would expect, and yes, it does work. Here’s the thing, though: The very crude tests suggest these batteries have a capacity of about 800-1000 mAh, which is far more than we would expect. Who has a programmable load and wants to do a few experiments? Also, these batteries are ‘rechargeable’ by taking them apart, sanding the crud off each washer, and adding new electrolyte.

[Jan] has made a name for himself stuffing synthesizers into tiny little microcontrollers. The latest project is the Infinity37, a polyphonic synth with MIDI, envelopes, and a whole bunch of cool stuff. Check out the video.

[rctestflight] is building a solar powered aircraft. It’s has a beautiful wing studded with solar panels. The latest flight was four hours, long enough to make piloting a plane through some FatSharks extremely tedious. Future developments will probably include a MPPT charging solution, and probably an autopilot.

The Newest Graphing Calculator Game

Certainly everyone remembers passing time in a boring high school class playing games on a graphing calculator. Whether it was a Mario-esque game, Tetris, or BlockDude, there are plenty of games out there for pretty much all of the graphing calculators that exist. [Christopher], [Tim], and their colleagues from Cemetech took their calculator game a little bit farther than we did, and built something that’ll almost surely disrupt whatever class you’re attempting to pay attention in: They built a graphing calculator whac-a-mole game.

This game isn’t the standard whac-a-mole game, though, and it isn’t played on the calculator’s screen. Instead of phyiscal “moles” the game uses LEDs and light sensors enclosed in a box to emulate the function of the moles. In order to whack a mole, the player only needs to interrupt the light beam which can be done with any physical object. The team made extensive use of the ArTICL library which allows graphing calculators to interface with microcontrollers like the MSP432 that they used, and drove the whole thing with a classic TI-84.

This project is a fun way to show what can be done with a graphing calculator and embedded electronics, and it was a big hit at this past year’s World Maker Faire. Calculators are versatile in other ways as well. We’ve seen them built with open hardware and free software, And we’ve even seen them get their own Wi-Fi.

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Animated GIFs On A Graphing Calculator

The TI-84 Plus graphing calculator has a Z80 processor, 128 kilobytes of RAM, and a 96×64 resolution grayscale LCD. You might think a machine so lean would be incapable of playing video. You would be right. Animated GIFs, on the other hand, it can handle and [searx] is here to tell you how.

Before assembling his movie, [searx] first needed to grab some video and convert it to something the TI-84 could display. For this, he shot a video and used Premiere Pro to reduce the resolution to 95 by 63 pixels. These frames were saved as BMPs, converted to monochrome, renamed to pic0 through pic9, and uploaded to the calculator’s RAM.

To display the animated GIF, [searx] wrote a small program to cycle through the images one at a time. This program, like the images themselves, were uploaded to the calculator over the USB connector. Playing these animated GIFs is as simple as calling the program, telling it how fast to display the images, and standing back and watching a short flip-book animation on a calculator.

A Calculator with Free Software and Open Hardware

We’re fond of open source things here. Whether it’s 3D printers, circuit modeling software, or a global network of satellite base stations, the more open it is the more it improves the world around us. [Pierre Parent] and [Ael Gain] have certainly taken these values to heart with their open handheld graphing calculator.

While the duo isn’t giving away the calculators themselves, they are releasing all of the hardware designs so that anyone can build this calculator. It’s based on a imx233 processor because this chip (and most everything else about this calculator) is easy to source and easy to use. That, and there is a lot of documentation on it that is in the public domain. All of the designs, including the circuit board and CAD files for the case, are available to anyone who is curious, or wants to build their own.

The software on the calculator (and the software that was used to design the calculator) is all free software too. The calculator runs Linux (of course) and a free TI simulator environment in the hopes of easing the transition of anyone who grew up using TI’s graphing calculators. The project is still in a prototype phase, but it looks very promising. Even though the calculator can already run Pokemon, maybe one day it will even be able to run Super Smash Bros as well!