Yo Dawg, I Heard You Like FPGAs

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. And if your goal is to emulate the behavior of an FPGA but your only tools are FPGAs, then your nail-and-hammer issue starts getting a little bit interesting. That’s at least what a group of students at Cornell recently found when learning about the Xilinx FPGA used by a researcher in the 1990s by programming its functionality into another FPGA.

Using outdated hardware to recreate a technical paper from decades ago might be possible, but an easier solution was simply to emulate the Xilinx in a more modern FPGA, the Cyclone V FPGA from Terasic. This allows much easier manipulation of I/O as well as reducing the hassle required to reprogram the device. Once all of that was set up, it was much simpler to perform the desired task originally set up in that 90s paper: using evolutionary algorithms to discriminate between different inputs.

While we will leave the investigation into the algorithms and the I/O used in this project as an academic exercise for the reader, this does serve as a good reminder that we don’t always have to have the exact hardware on hand to get the job done. Old computers can be duplicated on less expensive, more modern equipment, and of course video games from days of yore are a snap to play on other hardware now too.

Thanks to [Bruce Land] for the tip!

Novice Coders Can Create Classic Game Boy Games

It takes a lot of work to build a modern video game. Typically an entire company will spend months (at least) developing the gameplay, selecting or programming an engine, and working out the bugs. This amount of effort isn’t strictly necessary for older video game systems though, and homebrew developers are quite often able to develop entire games singlehandedly for classic systems. In the past it would have taken some special software, programming knowledge, and possibly hardware, but now anyone can build games for the original Game Boy with minimal barriers of entry.

The project is known as GB Studio and allows people to develop homebrew games for the 8-bit handheld system without programming knowledge. Once built, the games can be played on any emulator or even loaded onto a cartridge and played on original hardware if a flash cart is available. Graphics can be created with anything that can create a .png image, and there are also some features that allow the game to be played over a web browser or on a mobile device.

While it seems like the gameplay is limited to RPG-style games, this is still an impressive feat, and highly useful for anyone curious about game development. It could also be an entry into more involved game programming if it makes the code of the games available to the user. It could even lead to things like emulating entire cartridges on the original hardware.

Thanks to [Thomas] for the tip!

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Bringing PalmOS Back To Life

Ten years is almost ancient history in the computing world. Going back twelve years is almost unheard of, but that’s about the time that Palm released the last version of their famed PalmOS, an operating system for small, handheld devices that predated Apple’s first smartphone by yet another ten years. As with all pieces of good software there remain devotees, but with something that hasn’t been updated in a decade there’s a lot of work to be done. [Dmitry.GR] set about doing that work, and making a workable Palm device for the modern times.

He goes into incredible detail on this build, but there are some broad takeaways from the project. First, Palm never really released all of the tools that developers would need to build software easily, including documentation of the API system. Since a new device is being constructed, a lot of this needs to be sorted out. Even a kernel was built from scratch for this project, since using a prebuilt one such as Linux was not possible. There were many other pieces of software needed in order to get a working operating system together running on an ARM processor, which he calls rePalm.

There are many other facets of this project that we aren’t able to get into in this limited space, but if you’re at all interested in operating systems or if you fondly remember the pre-smartphone era devices such the various Palm PDAs that were available in the late ’90s and early ’00s, it’s worth taking a look at this one. And if you’d like to see [Dmitry.GR]’s expertise with ARM, he is well-versed.

Thanks to [furre] for the tip!

Breakout Board Becomes Pogo Pin Programmer

Making a programming jig becomes exponentially more difficult after two pins and who would even consider building one if they were not setting up more than twenty boards? If it were easy for novices to construct jigs, we might all have a quiver of them on the shelf next to our microprocessors. Honestly, a tackle box full of homemade programming fixtures sounds pretty chic. The next advantage to ditching the demo boards is that bare processors take up less room and don’t draw power for unnecessary components like unused voltage regulators and LEDs. [Albert David] improves the return-on-time-investment factor by showing us how to repurpose a WeMos board to program a bare ESP8266 module.

[Albert]’s concept can apply to many other surface-mount chips and modules. The first step is to buy a demo board which hosts a programmable part and remove that part. Since you’ve exposed some solder pads in the process, put pogo pins in their place. Pogo pins are small spring-loaded probes that can be surface mounted or through-hole. We’ve used them for programming gorgeous badges and places where the ESP8266 has already been installed. When you are ready to install your software, clamp your Franken-porcupine to the controller and upload like normal. Rinse, wash, repeat. We even get a view of the clamp [Albert] uses.

Play Tetris On A Transistor Tester, Because Why Not?

[Robson] had been using the same multimeter since he was 15. It wasn’t a typical multimeter, either. He had programmed it to also play the Google Chrome jumping dinosaur game, and also used it as a badge at various conferences. But with all that abuse, the ribbon cable broke and he set about on other projects. Like this transistor tester that was just asking to have Tetris programmed onto its tiny screen.

The transistor tester is a GM328A made for various transistor testing applications, but is also an LCR meter. [Robson]’s old meter didn’t even test for capacitance but he was able to get many years of use out of that one, so this device should serve him even better. Once it was delivered he set about adding more features, namely Tetris. It’s based on an ATmega chip, which quite easy to work with (it’s the same chip as you’ll find in the Arduino Uno but [Robson’s] gone the Makefile route instead of spinning up that IDE). Not only did he add more features, but he also found a mistake in the frequency counter circuitry that he fixed on his own through the course of the project.

If you’ve always thought that the lack of games on your multimeter was a total deal breaker, this project is worth a read. Even if you just have a random device lying around that happens to be based on an ATmega chip of some sort, this is a good primer of getting that device to do other things as well. This situation is a fairly common one to be in, too.

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How To Program A Really Cheap Microcontroller

There are rumors of a cheap chip that does USB natively, has an Open Source toolchain, and costs a quarter. These aren’t rumors: you can buy the CH552 microcontroller right now. Surprisingly, there aren’t many people picking up this cheap chip for their next project. If there’s no original projects using this chip, no one is going to use this chip. Catch 22, and all that.

Like a generous god, [Aaron Christophel] has got your back with a working example of programming this cheap chip, and doing something useful with it. It blinks LEDs, it writes to an I2C display, and it does everything you would want from a microcontroller that costs a few dimes.

The CH552, and its friends the small CH551 all the way up to the CH559, contain an 8051 core, somewhere around 16 kB of flash, the high-end chips have a USB controller, there’s SPI, PWM, I2C, and it costs pennies. Unlike so many other chips out there, you can find SDKs and toolchains. You can program the chip over USB. Clearly, we’re looking at something really cool if someone writes an Arduino wrapper for it. We’re not there yet, but we’re close.

To program these chips, [Aaron] first had to wire up the microcontroller into a circuit. This was just a bit of perf board, a resistor, a few caps, and a USB A plug. That’s it, that’s all that’s needed. This is a fairly standard 8051 core, so writing the code is relatively easy. Uploading is done with the WCHISPTool software, with options available for your favorite flavor of *nix.

But it gets better. One of the big features of the CH552 is USB. That means no expensive or weird programmers, yes, but it also means the CH552 can emulate a USB HID device. The CH552 can become a USB keyboard. To demo this, [Aaron] programmed a CH552 board (DE, here’s the Google translatrix) loaded up with touch pads and LEDs to become a USB keyboard.

If you don’t feel like soldering up one of these yourself, there are some suppliers of CH554 dev boards, and the files for [Aaron]’s projects are available here. Check out the videos below, because this is the best tutorial yet on programming and using some very interesting chips that just appeared on the market.

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Build Retro Games With Script-8

A whole generation of programmers learned to program by writing — or at least typing in — game programs for relatively simple computers like a TRS-80, a Commodore 64, or any of a handful of similar machines. These days, games are way more complicated and so are computers. Sure, it is more fun to play Skyrim than Snake, but for learning, you are probably going to get more out of starting with a simple game. If you want to learn programming today — or maybe start someone else on that same journey, you should check out Script-8, a project by [Gabriel Florit]. You can get a taste of how it looks in the video below, or just surf over to the site and play or modify a game (hint: press “a” to launch the ball).

Instead of paraphrasing, here’s the excellent elevator speech from the web site:

SCRIPT-8 is a fantasy computer for making, sharing, and playing tiny retro-looking games (called cassettes). It’s free, browser-based, and open-source. Cassettes are written in JavaScript.

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