Pac-Man Fever Comes to the Pano Logic FPGA

If you’ve been reading Hackaday for a while now, you might recall the tale of Pano Logic that we first covered all the way back in 2013. They were a company that put out some very interesting FPGA-based thin clients, but as occasionally happens in situations like this, the market wasn’t ready and the company went belly up. These thin clients, now without official support, invariably got dumped onto the second-hand market. Shame for Pano Logic and their staff, but good news for hackers like [Skip Hansen].

After seeing a few posts about the Pano Logic devices and general FPGA hacking, he decided to grab a few on eBay and dive in. Using open source tools and the wealth of information that’s available [Skip] was able to get a Pac-Man simulator up and running over his holiday break, and he tells us his life may never be the same again. FPGA hacking is a fascinating subject with a lot of activity right now, and since you can get these Pano Logic boxes on eBay for less than $10 USD in some cases, now is as good a time as ever to get your feet wet.

Like many open source projects, [Skip] says his code is built upon the existing work of a number of other programmers, which let him get up and running much faster than if he had to start from scratch. He describes his code as the “glue” that mashes these projects together, but we think he’s being somewhat modest there. It took more than copying and pasting some code into an IDE to get Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde doing their thing on the Pano Logic.

The biggest challenge was the lack of I/O. The Pano Logic thin clients have USB ports, but it seems nobody has quite figured out how to get them working yet. To talk to the outside world, you’ve got to get a little more creative. Eventually [Skip] was able to track down four lines he could effectively use as GPIO: two which are used to drive the LEDs on the device, and two which are used for the VGA port’s Display Data Channel (DDC) pins. Soldering jumpers from the LEDs to the unused pins in the device’s VGA connector meant he was even able to get these four GPIO lines accessible from the outside of the Pano Logic without having to cut any holes in the case.

Anyone with a Pano Logic client that has a VGA port, an Atari 2600 joystick, and who doesn’t mind soldering a couple of wires can now play Pac-Man with the bitstream [Skip] has provided. But where do we go from here? How long until we see DOOM running on it? Perhaps one of you fine readers should pick one up and see what you can do to advance the state of Pano Logic hacking. Just be sure to let us know about it.

We’ve previously covered one of the projects used to get this Pac-Man simulator off the ground, a very cool ray tracing demo for the Pano Logic developed by [Tom Verbeure]. In fact, [Skip] says that project was what got him interested in FPGA hacking in the first place. If you’re thinking of following his lead, you might also want to check out our FPGA Boot Camp.

Ask Hackaday: We might have some FPGAs to hack

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[Chris] is an IT guy for a medical clinic up in Alaska, and until very recently the systems he monitored, fixed, and beat with a wrench included over 100 Pano Logic “Zero Client” thin clients. Pano Logic just went out of business and all support for these little boxes have been cut off, leaving [Chris] with a hundred or so very interesting pieces of hardware.

The idea behind these “zero clients” is the ideal of a thin client – take all the storage, processing, RAM, and other goodies and move them to a server. Pano Logic took this one step further than other thin clients, removing the CPU, memory, and basically everything you’d find in a thin client. What was left was a Spartan-6 FPGA, a few chips to drive the USB ports, a pair of HDMI chips, and a few DDR2 modules. Basically, [Chris] has about 150 FPGA dev boards just sitting in a storage room. The only thing that is needed is a bunch of software and an extreme amount of cleverness.

After opening one of these zero clients, [Chris] found a Spartan-6 FPGA right next to what he thinks is a 6-pin programming port. Along with the FPGA are a few other chips that would make any FPGA dev board a very neat tool:

We’re going to agree with [Chris] these Pano Logic zero clients show a lot of potential. If you’re up to the challenge of creating a very, very cheap FPGA dev board out of some discarded hardware, head on over to ebay or chat up your local IT guy.