Do Other Things Besides Output Video

Small microcontrollers and tiny systems-on-chips are getting more and more popular these days as the price comes down and the ease of programming goes up. A Raspberry Pi is relatively inexpensive and can do pretty much everything you need, but not every chip out there can do something most of us take for granted like output video. For a lot of platforms, it’s next to impossible to do while saving any processor or memory for other tasks besides the video output itself.

[Dave] aka [Mubes] has been working on the Blue Pill platform which is a STM32F103C8 board. While they don’t natively output video, it’s a feature that provides a handy tool to have for debugging in order to see what’s going on in your code. However, if the video code takes up all of the processor power and memory there’s not much point. [Dave]’s video output program, on the other hand, takes up only 1200 bytes of RAM and 24% of the processor for a 50×18 text display over VGA, leaving a lot of room left for whatever else you need the tiny board to do.

Video output on a device this small and lightweight is an impressive feat, especially while saving room for other tasks. This brings it firmly out of the realm of novelty and into the space of useful tools to keep around. If you want to try the same thing on an ATtiny, though, you might have to come up with some more impressive tricks.

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Preventing Embedded Fails with Watchdogs

Watchdog timers are an often overlooked feature of microcontrollers. They function as failsafes to reset the device in case of a software failure. If your code somehow ends up in an infinite loop, the watchdog will trigger. This is a necessity for safety critical devices. If the firmware in a pacemaker or a aircraft’s avionics system gets stuck, it isn’t going to end well.

In this oldie-but-goodie, [Jack Ganssle] provides us with a great write up on watchdog timers. This tells the story of a failed Clementine spacecraft mission that could have been saved by a watchdog, and elaborates on the design and implementation of watchdog techniques.

If you’re designing a device that needs to be able to handle unexpected failures, this article is definitely worth a read. [Jack] explains a lot of traps of using these devices, including why internal watchdogs can’t always be trusted and what features make for a great watchdog.

Thanks to [Jan] for the tip!

Portable Pi Teensy Thumboard

Even on the go, there is no substitute for a physical keyboard with buttons that move and click. Sure, you could solder a bunch of tactile switches to some perfboard, but how about going all out and making something robust as [Anthony DiGirolamo] did for his Teensy Thumboard. Everything is insertion-mount so it is an approachable project for anyone who knows the dangerous end of a soldering iron, and that also makes it easy to hack on.

Each pin of the Teensy has an adjacent empty hole tied to it for easy access, and the serial data pins are exposed at the top of the board. All the holes use standard 0.1″ (2.54mm) spacing. The I/O points used by the keyboard are labeled, and the rest of them can use the space under the controller where proto-board style holes add some extra space for an IMU or whatever sensors suit your slant.

Most impressive is the shell, which is freely available on Thingiverse, where you can also find a bill of materials with links to everything you will need in case you don’t have drawers full of those tactile switches.

If this looks familiar, you have probably seen the PocketCHIP, and it is no secret that this project is an homage to that versatile pocket computer. We appreciate this kind of love for PocketCHIP, especially since they are now a limited commodity.

Machine Learning on Tiny Platforms Like Raspberry Pi and Arduino

Machine learning is starting to come online in all kinds of arenas lately, and the trend is likely to continue for the forseeable future. What was once only available for operators of supercomputers has found use among anyone with a reasonably powerful desktop computer. The downsizing isn’t stopping there, though, as Microsoft is pushing development of machine learning for embedded systems now.

The Embedded Learning Library (ELL) is a set of tools for allowing Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, and the like to take advantage of machine learning algorithms despite their small size and reduced capability. Microsoft intended this library to be useful for anyone, and has examples available for things like computer vision, audio keyword recognition, and a small handful of other implementations. The library should be expandable to any application where machine learning would be beneficial for a small embedded system, though, so it’s not limited to these example applications.

There is one small speed bump to running a machine learning algorithm on your Raspberry Pi, though. The high processor load tends to cause small SoCs to overheat. But adding a heatsink and fan is something we’ve certainly seen before. Don’t let your lack of a supercomputer keep you from exploring machine learning if you see a benefit to it, and if you need more power than just one Raspberry Pi you can always build a cluster to get your task done just a little bit faster, too.

Thanks to [Baldpower] for the tip!

“DB” = Abbreviated Microcontroller Debugging

We’ve all been there. When debugging a microcontroller project, we just want to put in a print statement to figure out what’s going on with the microcontroller in real time. However, advanced embedded programmers know that printf statements are verboten: they’re just too SLOW. While not fixing this plight entirely, [Atakan Sarioglu] has come up with a clever way to create readable debug messages with minimal runtime overhead.

[Atakan Sarioglu]’s innovation, called BigBug (Github), is a dynamically-generated codebook. The codebook translates abbreviated messages sent over serial (UART here) to longer-form human-readable messages. To generate the codebook, BigBug automatically parses your comments to create a lookup between an abbreviation and the long-form message. When you are running your program on the microcontroller, BigBug will translate the short codes to long messages in real-time as you send log/debug data over serial. Continue reading ““DB” = Abbreviated Microcontroller Debugging”

A Scratch Instrument For Ants

If you think that this scratch instrument looks as though it should be at least… three times larger in order to be useful, you’d be wrong. This mighty pocket-sized instrument can really get the club hopping despite its diminuitive size. Despite that, the quality of the build as well as its use of off-the-shelf components for almost every part means that if you need a small, portable turntable there’s finally one you can build on your own.

[rasteri] built the SC1000 digital scratch instrument as a member of the portabilist scene, focusing on downsizing the equipment needed for a proper DJ setup. This instrument uses as Olimex A13-SOM-256 system-on-module, an ARM microprocessor, and can use a USB stick in order to load beats to the system. The scratch wheel itself uses a magnetic rotary encoder to sense position, and the slider is miniaturized as well.

If you want to learn to scratch good and learn to do other things good too, there’s a demo below showing a demonstration of the instrument, as well as a how-to video on the project page. All of the build files and software are open-source, so it won’t be too difficult to get one for yourself as long as you have some experience printing PCBs. If you need the rest of the equipment for a DJ booth, of course that’s also something you can build.

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From SPIDriver to I2CDriver

Communicating with microcontrollers and other embedded systems requires a communications standard. SPI is a great one, and is commonly used, but it’s not the only one available. There’s also I2C which has some advantages and disadvantages compared to SPI. The problem with both standards, however, is that modern computers don’t come with either built-in. To solve that problem and allow easier access to debugging in SPI, [James Bowman] built the SPIDriver a few months ago, and is now back by popular demand with a similar device for I2C, the I2CDriver.

Much like the SPIDriver, the I2C driver is a debugging tool that can be used at your computer with a USB interface. Working with I2C is often a hassle, with many things going on all at once that need to sync up just right in order to work at all, and this device allows the user to set up I2C devices in a fraction of the time. To start, it has a screen built in that shows information about the current device, like the signal lines and a graphical decoding of the current traffic. It also shows an address space map, and has programmable pullup resistors built in, and can send data about the I2C traffic back to its host PC for analysis.

The I2CDriver is also completely open source, from the hardware to the software, meaning you could build one from scratch if you have the will and the parts, or make changes to the code on your own to suit your specific needs. If you’re stuck using SPI still, though, you can still find the original SPIDriver tool to help you with your debugging needs with that protocol as well.