Spit Out VGA with Non-Programmable Logic Chips

It’s not uncommon to bitbang a protocol with a microcontroller in a pinch. I2C is frequently crunched from scratch, same with simple serial protocols, occasionally complex systems like Ethernet, and a whole host of other communication standards. But VGA gets pretty tricky because of the timing requirements, so it’s less common to bitbang. [Sven] completely threw caution to the wind. He didn’t just bitbang VGA on an Arduino, but he went one step further and configured an array of 7400 logic chips to output a VGA signal.

[Sven]’s project is in two parts. In part one, he discusses choosing a resolution and setting up the timing signal. He proceeds to output a simple(-ish) VGA signal that can be displayed on a monitor using a single gate. At that point only a red image was displayed, but getting signal lock from the monitor is a great proof of concept and [Sven] moved on to more intricate display tricks.

With the next iteration of the project [Sven] talks about adding in more circuitry to handle things like frame counting, geometry, and color. The graphics that are displayed were planned out in a simulator first, then used to design the 7400 chip configuration for that particular graphic display. It made us chuckle that [Sven] reports his monitor managed to survive this latest project!

We don’t remember seeing non-programmable integrated circuits used for VGA generation before. But bitbanging the signal on an Arduino or from an SD card slot is a great test of your ability to calculate and implement precise timings with an embedded system. Give it a try!

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How CMOS Works: Some Final Words About CMOS

Finishing up on the topic of CMOS bus logic I am going to show a couple of families with unique properties that may come in handy one day.

High Voltage Tolerant Family: AHC/AHCT

AHCT w/o high side diode
Note the missing diode to VDD

First up is a CMOS logic family  AHC/AHCT that has one of the protection diodes on the input removed.  This allows a 5V input voltage to be applied to a device powered by 3.3V so that I don’t have to add a gate just for the translation.  Any time I can translate and do it without any additional gate delays I am a happy engineer.

Of course the example above works in a single direction and bidirectional does start to get more complicated. Using a bidirectional buffer such as a 74AHCT245 will work for TTL translation when going from 3.3V back to 5V providing there is a direction control signal present.

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Using a Laser Cutter to Decap ICs

The black blob IC is of a particular annoyance to the modern hacker. There is no harm in peeking under the hood to see how the IC works. But when it’s covered in a mountain of seemingly indestructible epoxy, this can be a bit difficult. And such was the case for [Jamie], who had found an old electronic pocket dictionary whose main PC board boasted not one, but two of the black blob ICs.

ICThe lack of traces between the two pushed [Jamie’s] curiosity past the tipping point. He didn’t have access to any nitric acid which is used in the customary chemical decapping process. He did, however, have access to a laser cutter. It turns out that decapping ICs with a laser cutter is not only possible, it’s not that difficult.

100% power at 300mm per seconds on a cheap 40 Watt “eBay” laser cutter is all it takes. Three passes did the trick for [Jamie], but this will be dependent on the thickness of the black blob epoxy. Each case will likely be unique.

Got a laser cutter? Then take a peek at a few black blob ICs and let us know what you find.

Thanks to [ex-parrot] for the tip!

Upgrading an Old Camera with a New Light Meter

[Marc] has an old Voigtländer Vito CLR film camera. The camera originally came with an analog light meter built-in. The meter consisted of a type of solar panel hooked up to a coil and a needle. As more light reached the solar panel, the coil became energized more and more, which moved the needle farther and farther. It was a simple way of doing things, but it has a down side. The photo panels stop working over time. That’s why [Marc] decided to build a custom light meter using newer technology.

[Marc] had to work within the confines of the tiny space inside of the camera. He chose to use a LM3914 bar display driver IC as the primary component. This chip can sense an input voltage against a reference voltage and then display the result by illuminating a single LED from a row of ten LEDs.

[Marc] used a photo cell from an old calculator to detect the ambient light. This acts as a current source, but he needed a voltage source. He designed a transimpedence amplifier into his circuit to convert the current into a voltage. The circuit is powered with two 3V coil cell batteries, regulated to 5V. The 5V acts as his reference voltage for the display driver. With that in mind, [Marc] had to amplify this signal further.

It didn’t end there, though. [Marc] discovered that when sampling natural light, the system worked as intended. When he sampled light from incandescent light bulbs, he did not get the expected output. This turned out to be caused by the fact that incandescent lights flicker at a rate of 50/60 Hz. His sensor was picking this up and the sinusoidal output was causing problems in his circuit. He remedied this by adding two filtering capacitors.

The whole circuit fits on a tiny PCB that slides right into position where the original light meter used to be. It’s impressive how perfectly it fits considering everything that is happening in this circuit.

[Thanks Mojay]

Boiling acid used to see chip die

When a project starts off by heating acid to its boiling point we say no thanks. But then again we’re more for the projects that use ones and zeros or a hot soldering iron. If you’re comfortable with the chemistry like [Michail] this might be right up your alley. He used boiling acid to expose and photograph the die from several integrated circuits.

The title of our feature is a play on words. In this case, die refers to the silicone on which the IC has been etched. To protect it the hardware manufacturer first attaches the metal pins to the die, then encapsulates it in plastic. [Michail] removes that plastic case by heating sulfuric acid to about 300 degrees Celsius (that’s 572 Fahrenheit) then submerges the chips in the acid inside of a sealed container for about forty minutes. Some of the larger packages require multiple trips through the acid bath. After this he takes detailed pictures of the die and uses post processing to color enhance them.

This isn’t the only way to get to the guts of a chip. We’ve seen nitric acid and even tree sap (in the form of bow rosin) do the trick.

A Briefing on Integrated Circuits

Although technology is constantly racing to faster / smaller / more, so many of the fundamentals of how it is made remains similar, if not the same. This interesting 30 minute video clip [thanks to The Computer History Museum] was made in 1967 by Fairchild Semiconductor as a briefing on integrated circuits, and shows the different steps to produce ICs including:

Design, making the photo masks, manufacturing the silicon ingots, preparing the wafers, building of the circuit and its components (like transistors, resistors, and capacitors), testing, and final packaging. Add in some other cool items of interest such as a 1960’s pick n place machine, wave soldering, an automatic wirewrap machine, and toss in some retro computer action and it’s surely a video worth watching, with something for everyone.

So join us after the break, kick back and enjoy the show!

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Lazarus-64, not actually 64 bit but still blows our minds

Lazarus-64, breadboard game system; certainly sounds like something from the 1980s. We were surprised to find out not only the name, but also all the ICs used are only those available from the retro age of 30 years back (Save for the AVR controlling everything, of course). Even more amazing is how it has 256 flicker free color support, while not using NTSC chips. Which Goes to show that even if there are common solutions out there for cheap, building or compiling your own is not necessarily a bad thing or a waste of time.

There is a whole lot more to Lazarus, including double buffering and VMS, but sadly it appears progress has stopped on the Lazarus-64 breadboard game system, with the last update being last year. But we can still bask in the amazing glow that currently is.