32 Shades Of Gray

The ATtiny85 is an incredible piece of engineering. In just eight pins, you get a microcontroller with just enough oomph to do some really heavy lifting. You get an Open Source toolchain, and if you’re really good, you can build your own programmer. It does have its limits though; there isn’t a whole lot of Flash, and of course you’re always going to need a few extra pins.

For his Hackaday Prize entry, [danjovic] is pushing whatever limits are left with the ‘tiny85. He’s using it as a test pattern generator, pushing out pixels to any old TV. The entire circuit is powered by a coin cell, and the entire thing fits in a Tic-Tac box.

The heart of the project, as you would expect, is a resistor ladder using all six available pins, using five for luminance and one for the sync. That is thirty-two shades of gray, if you’re keeping track. The trick is using the internal PLL and a bit of math to calculate the proper resistor values. The result is just a test pattern, yes, but [danjovic] managed to get a test pattern that has a resolution of 850 pixels across. That’s not bad by any measure.

Of course, if grayscale isn’t your thing, you can also use the ‘tiny85 to send Never The Same Color over the air or even push out the jams over a VGA port.

Software Defined Television on an ESP32

Composite video from a single-board computer? Big deal — every generation of Raspberry Pi has had some way of getting composite signals out and onto the retro monitor of your choice. But composite video from an ESP32? That’s a thing now too.

There are some limitations, of course, not least of which is finding a monitor that can accept a composite input, but since [bitluni]’s hack uses zero additional components, we can overlook those. It really is as simple as hooking the monitor up to pin 25 and ground because, like his recent ESP32 AM radio station, the magic is entirely in software. For video, [bitluni] again uses his I²S tweaks to push a lot of data into the DAC really fast, reproducing the sync and image signals in the 0-1 volt range of the PAL composite standard. His code also supports the NTSC standard, but alas because of frequency limitations in the hardware it’s monochrome only for both standards, at least for now. He’s also got a neat trick to improve performance by running the video signal generation and the 3D-rendering on separate cores in the ESP32. Check out the results in the video below.

It looks like the ESP32 is getting to be one of those “Is there anything it can’t do?” systems. Aside from radio and video, we’ve seen audio playback, vector graphics, and even a Basic interpreter easter egg.

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Know Your Video Waveform

When you acquired your first oscilloscope, what were the first waveforms you had a look at with it? The calibration output, and maybe your signal generator. Then if you are like me, you probably went hunting round your bench to find a more interesting waveform or two. In my case that led me to a TV tuner and IF strip, and my first glimpse of a video signal.

An analogue video signal may be something that is a little less ubiquitous in these days of LCD screens and HDMI connectors, but it remains a fascinating subject and one whose intricacies are still worthwhile knowing. Perhaps your desktop computer no longer drives a composite monitor, but a video signal is still a handy way to add a display to many low-powered microcontroller boards. When you see Arduinos and ESP8266s producing colour composite video on hardware never intended for the purpose you may begin to understand why an in-depth knowledge of a video waveform can be useful to have.

The purpose of a video signal is to both convey the picture information in the form of luminiance and chrominance (light & dark, and colour), and all the information required to keep the display in complete synchronisation with the source. It must do this with accurate and consistent timing, and because it is a technology with roots in the early 20th century all the information it contains must be retrievable with the consumer electronic components of that time.

We’ll now take a look at the waveform and in particular its timing in detail, and try to convey some of its ways. You will be aware that there are different TV systems such as PAL and NTSC which each have their own tightly-defined timings, however for most of this article we will be treating all systems as more-or-less identical because they work in a sufficiently similar manner.

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Fully-functional Oscilloscope on a PIC

When troubleshooting circuits it’s handy to have an oscilloscope around, but often we aren’t in a lab setting with all of our fancy, expensive tools at our disposal. Luckily the price of some basic oscilloscopes has dropped considerably in the past several years, but if you want to roll out your own solution to the “portable oscilloscope” problem the electrical engineering students at Cornell produced an oscilloscope that only needs a few knobs, a PIC, and a small TV.

[Junpeng] and [Kevin] are taking their design class, and built this prototype to be inexpensive and portable while still maintaining a high sample rate and preserving all of the core functions of a traditional oscilloscope. The scope can function anywhere under 100 kHz, and outputs NTSC at 30 frames per second. The user can control the ground level, the voltage and time scales, and a trigger. The oscilloscope has one channel, but this could be expanded easily enough if it isn’t sufficient for a real field application.

All in all, this is a great demonstration of what you can accomplish with a microcontroller and (almost) an engineering degree. To that end, the students go into an incredible amount of detail about how the oscilloscope works since this is a design class. About twice a year we see a lot of these projects popping up, and it’s always interesting to see the new challenges facing students in these classes.

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Never Twice the Same Color: Why NTSC is so Weird

Ever wonder why analog TV in North America is so weird from a technical standpoint? [standupmaths] did, so he did a little poking into the history of the universally hated NTSC standard for color television and the result is not only an explanation for how American TV standards came to be, but also a lesson in how engineers sometimes have to make inelegant design compromises.

Before we get into a huge NTSC versus PAL fracas in the comments, as a resident of the US we’ll stipulate that our analog color television standards were lousy. But as [standupmaths] explores in some depth, there’s a method to the madness. His chief gripe centers around the National Television System Committee’s decision to use a frame rate of 29.97 fps rather than the more sensible (for the 60 Hz AC power grid) 30 fps. We’ll leave the details to the video below, but suffice it to say that like many design decisions, this one had to do with keeping multiple constituencies happy. Or at least equally miserable. In the end [standupmaths] makes it easy to see why the least worst decision was to derate the refresh speed slightly from 30 fps.

Given the constraints they were working with, that fact that NTSC works as well as it does is pretty impressive, and quite an epic hack. And apparently inspiring, too; we’ve seen quite a few analog TV posts here lately, like using an SDR to transit PAL signals or NTSC from a microcontroller.

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Hand Gestures Play Tetris

There are reports of a Tetris movie with a sizable budget, and with it come a plentiful amount of questions about how that would work. Who would the characters be? What kind of lines would there be to clear? Whatever the answers, we can all still play the classic game in the meantime. And, thanks to some of the engineering students at Cornell, we could play it without using a controller.

This hack comes from [Bruce Land]’s FPGA design course. The group’s game uses a video camera which outputs a standard NTSC signal and also does some filtering to detect the user. From there, the user can move their hands to different regions of the screen, which controls the movement of the Tetris pieces. This information is sent across GPIO to another FPGA which uses that to then play the game.

This game is done entirely in hardware, making it rather unique. All game dynamics including block generation, movement, and boundary conditions are set in hardware and all of the skin recognition is done in hardware as well. Be sure to check out the video of the students playing the game, and if you’re really into hand gesture-driven fun, you aren’t just limited to Tetris, you can also drive a car.

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Color TV Broadcasts are ESP8266’s Newest Trick

The ESP8266 is well known as an incredibly small and cheap WiFi module. But the silicon behind that functionality is very powerful, far beyond its intended purpose. I’ve been hacking different uses for the board and my most recent adventure involves generating color video from the chip. This generated video may be wired to your TV, or you can broadcast it over the air!

I’ve been tinkering with NTSC, the North American video standard that has fairly recently been superseded by digital standards like ATSC. Originally I explored pumping out NTSC with AVRs, which lead to an entire let’s learn, let’s code series. But for a while, this was on the back-burner, until I decided to see how fast I could run the ESP8266’s I2S bus (a glorified shift register) and the answer was 80 MHz. This is much faster than I expected. Faster than the 1.41 MHz used for audio (its intended purpose), 2.35 MHz used for controlling WS2812B LEDs or 4 MHz used to hopefully operate a reprap. It occasionally glitches at 80 MHz, however, it still works surprisingly well!

The coolest part of using the chip’s I2S bus is the versatile DMA engine connected to it. Data blocks can be chained together to seamlessly shift the data out, and interrupts can be generated upon a block’s completion to fill it in with new data. This allows the creation of a software defined bitstream in an interrupt.

Why NTSC? If I lived in Europe, it would have been PAL. The question you’re probably thinking is: “Why a dead standard?” And there’s really three reasons.

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