Make Logic Gates out of (Almost) Anything

Logic gates are the bricks and mortar of digital electronics, implementing a logical operation on one or more binary inputs to produce a single output. These operations are what make all computations possible in every device you own, whether it is your cell phone, computer, gaming console etc.  There are myriad ways of implementing logic gates; mechanically, electronically, virtually (think Minecraft), etc. Let’s take a look at what it takes to create some fun, out-of-the-ordinary gate implementations.

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Taking It To Another Level: Making 3.3V Speak with 5V

If your introduction to digital electronics came more years ago than you’d care to mention, the chances are you did so with 5V TTL logic. Above 2V but usually pretty close to 5V is a logic 1, below 0.8V is a logic 0. If you were a keen reader of electronic text books you might have read about different voltage levels tolerated by 4000 series CMOS gates, but the chances are even with them you’d have still used the familiar 5 volts.

This happy state of never encountering anything but 5V logic as a hobbyist has not persisted. In recent decades the demands of higher speed and lower power have given us successive families of lower voltage devices, and we will now commonly also encounter 3.3V or even sometimes lower voltage devices. When these different families need to coexist as for example when interfacing to the current crop of microcontroller boards, care has to be taken to avoid damage to your silicon. Some means of managing the transition between voltages is required, so we’re going to take a look at the world of level shifters, the circuits we use when interfacing these different voltage logic families.

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Two Pins for the Price of One

One of the most common problems in the world of microcontrollers is running out of resources. Sometimes it’s memory, where the code must be pared down to fit into the flash on the microcontroller. Other times, as [Fabien] found out when he ran out of pins, the limitations are entirely physical. Not one to give up, he managed to solve the problem by using one pin for two tasks. (Google Translate from French)
During a recent project, [Fabien] realized he had forgotten to add a piezo buzzer to his project. All of the other pins were in use, though, so his goal was to use one of the input pins to handle button presses but to occasionally switch to output mode when the piezo buzzer was needed. After all, the button is only used at certain times, and the microcontroller pin sits unused otherwise. After a few trials, he has a working solution that manages to neither burn out itself nor the components in the circuit, and none of the components interfere with the other’s normal operation.
While it isn’t the most technically advanced thing we’ve ever seen here, it is a great example of using the tools at your disposal to elegantly solve a problem. More than that, though, it’s a thorough look into the details of pull-up and pull-down resistors, how microcontrollers see voltage as logic levels, and how other pieces of hardware interact with microcontrollers of all different types. This is definitely worth a read, especially if you are a beginner in this world.

Fallout 4 Gets Logic Gates, Is Functionally Complete

Fallout logic. This is literally called Fallout logic. This is far more confusing than it should be.
Fallout logic. This is literally called Fallout logic. This is far more confusing than it should be.

Fallout 4, the latest tale of post-apocalyptic tale of wasteland wanderers, got its latest DLC yesterday. This add-on, Contraptions Workshop, adds new objects and parts to Fallout 4‘s settlement-building workshop mechanic. This add-on brings more building pieces, elevators, and most importantly logic gates to Commonwealth settlements.

The Fallout logic gates are used in conjunction with electric generators, lights, and automated sentries used to build settlements. Although a simple NAND would do, there are several types of logic gates including AND, OR, XOR, NOT, NAND, NOR, and XNOR.

The in-game explanation for these gates is very, very weird. AND, OR, and XOR “transmit power or not depending on the combination of power to their inputs”. NOT, NAND, NOR, and XNOR are apparently different, “only transmitting power if their inputs are connected directly to the output of other logic gates”. The reason for this arbitrary distinction between different sets of gates is currently unknown except to a few programmers and project leaders at Bethesda. It should be noted {AND, OR, XOR} is not functionally complete.

With implementations of logic gates in video games comes some very interesting if useless applications. Already Fallout 4 has light boxes, allowing for huge animated billboardsFallout speakers, the wasteland’s equivalent of Minecraft’s note block, can be used to play simple melodies. You can do anything with a NAND, so we would expect automated, sequenced versions of animated billboards and monophonic synthesizers to appear in short order.

Functional completeness can add a lot to a game. Since Minecraft added redstone logic to the game, we’ve seen some very, very impressive block-based builds. The Minecraft CPU generally regarded as being the first, most complete CPU took about three months to design and build. This build didn’t use later additions to the redstone toolbox like repeaters, pistons, and the now-cheaty command blocks.

When Difference Matters: Differential Signaling

We have talked about a whole slew of logic and interconnect technologies including TTL, CMOS and assorted low voltage versions. All of these technologies have in common the fact that they are single-ended, i.e. the signal is measured as a “high” or “low” level above ground.

This is great for simple uses. But when you start talking about speed, distance, or both, the single ended solutions don’t look so good. To step in and carry the torch we have Differential Signalling. This is the “DS” in LVDS, just one of the common standards throughout industry. Let’s take a look at how differential signaling is different from single ended, and what that means for engineers and for users.

Single Ended

Collectively, standards like TTL, CMOS, and LVTTL are known as Single Ended technologies and they have in common some undesirable attributes, namely that ground noise directly affects the noise margin (the budget for how much noise is tolerable) as well as any induced noise measured to ground directly adds to the overall noise as well.

By making the voltage swing to greater voltages we can make the noise look smaller in proportion but at the expense of speed as it takes more time to make larger voltage swings, especially with the kind of capacitance and inductance we sometimes see.



Enter Differential Signaling where we use two conductor instead of one. A differential transmitter produces an inverted version of the signal and a non-inverted version and we measure the desired signal strictly between the two instead of to ground. Now ground noise doesn’t count (mostly) and noise induced onto both signal lines gets canceled as we only amplify the difference between the two, we do not amplify anything that is in common such as the noise.

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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: MOSFETs, JFETs, IGFETS and More

CMOS opened the door for many if not most of the properties needed for today’s highly integrated circuits and low power portable and mobile devices. This really couldn’t happen until the speeds and current drive capabilities of CMOS caught up to the other technologies, but catch up they did.

Nowadays CMOS Small Scale Integration (SSI) logic families, I.E. the gates used in external logic, offer very fast speeds and high current drive capability as well as supporting the low voltages found in modern designs. Likewise the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) designs, or Very Very Large Scale if you like counting the letter V when talking, are possible due to low power dissipation as well as other factors.

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