Want Lower Power? Add More Cores!

[Jacob Beningo] over at Embedded.com recently posted his thoughts on how to do a low-power microcontroller design. On the surface, some of his advice seems a little counter-intuitive. Even he admits, “…I’m suggesting adding more cores! I must be crazy!” There are a few tips, but the part he’s talking about is that you can save power by using CPUs with multiple cores and optimizing for speed.

This seems strange since you think of additional cores and speed to consume more power. But the idea is that the faster you get your work done, the faster you can go to sleep. We’ve seen that in our own projects — faster work means more napping, and that’s good for power consumption.

Of course, it isn’t just that simple. Multiple cores don’t help you if you don’t use them. The overarching goal is to get done quickly so you can get back to sleep. You know, kind of like work. The other advice in the post is generally good, too. Measure your power consumption, respond to events, and — maybe slightly surprising — with modern CPUs, variations within the CPU family, according to [Jacob], isn’t very significant. Instead, he reports that the big changes are switching to the least-capable processor family.

Naturally, Hackaday readers are no strangers to low-power design. If you get your power consumption low enough, you can consider a low-tech battery or even a potato.

Adding Variometer Functionality To A GPS

Flying a glider, or similarly piloting a paraglider or hang glider, can all be pathways into aviation with a lower barrier of entry than powered flight. Sacrificing one’s engine does generate a few complexities, but can be rewarding as the pilot searches for various means of increasing altitude like ridge soaring or thermaling. You’ll need a special instrument called a variometer to know just how much altitude you’re gaining though, like this one which is built into commercially-available handheld GPS units.

These GPS units are normally intended for use on terra firma only, but [Oganisyan] has figured out a clever way to add this flight instrumentation to these units to help when operating a paraglider. An ATmega328 paired with a pressure sensor is added to the inside of the GPS units and communicates with an available serial interface within the units. To complete the modification, a patched firmware must be installed which adds the variometer function to the display. This upgrade is compatible with a handful of GPS units as well such as the BikePilot2+ or Falk Tiger.

For those who already own one of these GPS units, this could be a cost-effective way of obtaining a variometer, especially since commercially-available variometers tailored for this sort of application can cost around $200 to $500. It is an activity sensitive to cost, though, as it offers a much more affordable option for taking to the skies than any powered craft could, with an exception made for this powered paraglider which offers the ability for powered take off and flight extension using electric-powered props.

Thanks to [MartinO] for the tip!

The New Hotness

If there’s one good thing to be said about the chip shortage of 2020-2023 (and counting!) it’s that a number of us were forced out of our ruts, and pushed to explore parts that we never would have otherwise. Or maybe it’s just me.

Back in the old times, I used to be a die-hard Atmel AVR fan for small projects, and an STM32 fan for anything larger. And I’ll freely admit, I got stuck in my ways. The incredible abundance of dev boards in the $2 range also helped keep me lazy. I had my thing, and I was fine sticking with it, admittedly due to the low price of those little blue pills.

An IN-12B Nixie tube on a compact driver PCBAnd then came the drought, and like everyone else, my stockpile of microcontrollers started to dwindle. Replacements at $9 just weren’t an option, so I started looking around. And it’s with no small bit of shame that I’ll admit that I hadn’t been keeping up with the changes as much as I should have. Nowadays, it’s all ESP32s and RP2040s over here, and granted there’s a bit of a price bump, but the performance is there in abundance. But I can’t help feeling like I’m a few years back of the cutting edge.

So when I see work like what [CNLohr] and [Bitluni] are doing with the ultra-cheap CH32V003 microcontrollers, it makes me think that I need to start filling in gaps in my comfortable working-set of chips again. But how the heck am I supposed to keep up? And how do you? It took a global pandemic and silicon drought to force me out of my comfort zone last time. Can the simple allure of dirt-cheap chips get me out? We’ll see!

Holograms Display Time With ESP32

Holograms and holographic imagery are typically viewed within the frame of science fiction, with perhaps the most iconic examples being Princess Leia’s message to Obi-Wan in Star Wars, or the holodecks from Star Trek. In reality, holograms have been around for a surprising amount of time, with early holographic images being produced in the late 1940s. There are plenty of uses outside of imagery for modern holographic systems as well, and it’s a common enough technology that it’s possible to construct one using an ESP32 as well.

In this build, [Fiberpunk] demonstrates the construction and operation of a holographic clock. The image is three-dimensional and somewhat transparent and is driven by an ESP32 microcontroller. The display is based around a beamsplitter prism which, when viewed from the front, is almost completely invisible to the viewer. The ESP32 is housed in a casing beneath this prism, and [Fiberpunk] has two firmware versions available for the device. The first is the clock which displays an image as well as the time, and the second is more of a demonstration which can show more in-depth 3D videos using gcode models and also has motion sensing controls.

For anyone interested in holography, a platform like this is might make an excellent entry point to explore, and with the source for this build available becomes even easier. It’s almost certainly less expensive than these 3D printers that can turn out custom holographic images, and has the added benefit of being customizable and programmable as well.

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Pi Microcontroller Still Runs A Webserver

At first glance, the Raspberry Pi Pico might seem like a bit of a black sheep when compared to the other offerings from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. While most of the rest of their lineup can run Linux environments with full desktops, the Pico is largely limited to microcontroller duties in exchange for much smaller price tags and footprints. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be coerced into doing some of the things we might want a mainline Pi to do, like run a web server.

The project can run a static web page simply by providing the Pico with the project code available on the GitHub page and the HTML that you’d like the Pico to serve. It can be more than a static web page though, as it is also capable of running Python commands through the web interface as well. The server can pass commands from the web server and back as well, allowing for control of various projects though a browser interface. In theory this could be much simpler than building a physical user interface for a project instead by offloading all of this control onto the web server instead.

The project not only supports the RP2040-based Raspberry Pi Pico but can also be implemented on other WiFi-enabled microcontroller boards like the ESP8266 and ESP32. Having something like this on hand could greatly streamline smaller projects without having to reach for a more powerful (and more expensive) single-board computer like a Pi 3 or 4. We’ve seen some other builds on these boards capable of not only running HTML and CSS renderers, but supporting some image formats as well.

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Magic 8 Ball Provides Tech Support

ChatGPT might be making the news these days for being able to answer basically any question it’s asked, those of us who are a little older remember a much simpler technology that did about the same thing. The humble “Magic 8 Ball” could take nearly the same inputs, provided they were parsed in simple yes/no form, and provide marginal help similar to the AI tools of today. For a toy with no battery or screen, this was quite an accomplishment. But the small toy couldn’t give specific technical support help, so [kodi] made one that can.

The new 8 Ball foregoes the central fluid-filled chamber for an STM32 Blue Pill board with a few lithium batteries to power it. The original plastic shell was split in two with a hacksaw and fitted with a 3D printed ring which allows the two halves to be reconnected and separated again when it needs to charge. It uses a circular OLED to display the various messages of tech support, which are displayed when an accelerometer detects that the toy has been shaken.

Granted, most of the messages are about as helpful to solving a tech support issue as the original magic 8 Ball’s would have been, but we appreciate the ingenuity and carefree nature of a project like this. It also did an excellent job at operating in a low-power state as well, to avoid needing to charge it often. There have been a few other digital conversions of these analog fortune tellers as well, like this one which adds GIFs to each of the original answers.

New Part Day: TI Jumps In To The Cheap MCU Market

One of the interesting areas in the world of new parts recently has been at the lower end of the microcontroller market. Not because the devices there have new capabilities or are especially fast, but because they are cheap. There are now quite a few parts from China under 10 cents apiece, but have the Western manufacturers been able to follow suit? Not quite, but Texas Instruments has a new line of ARM Cortex M0+ parts that get under 40 cents in volume in their cheapest form.

That bottom-of-the-range chip is the MSPM0L1105, a single-core 32 MHz part with 32k of Flash and 4k of RAM. It’s got all the usual peripherals you’d expect on a small microcontroller, but the one which made our heads turn was the on-board 1.45-Msps ADC. On a cheap chip, that’s much faster than expected.

So there’s another microcontroller, and it’s not as cheap as some of its competition, so what? Aside from that ADC there are several reasons to be interested, it has TI’s developer support if you’re in that ecosystem, and inevitably it will find its way on to the dev boards and SBCs we use in our community. It remains to be seen how it will fare in terms of the chip shortage though.

Meanwhile, here’s a reminder of that cheaper competition.

Thanks to the several friends who delivered this tip.