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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Crash your code – Lessons Learned From Debugging Things That Should Never Happen™

Let’s be honest, no one likes to see their program crash. It’s a clear sign that something is wrong with our code, and that’s a truth we don’t like to see. We try our best to avoid such a situation, and we’ve seen how compiler warnings and other static code analysis tools can help us to detect and prevent possible flaws in our code, which could otherwise lead to its demise. But what if I told you that crashing your program is actually a great way to improve its overall quality? Now, this obviously sounds a bit counterintuitive, after all we are talking about preventing our code from misbehaving, so why would we want to purposely break it?

Wandering around in an environment of ones and zeroes makes it easy to forget that reality is usually a lot less black and white. Yes, a program crash is bad — it hurts the ego, makes us look bad, and most of all, it is simply annoying. But is it really the worst that could happen? What if, say, some bad pointer handling doesn’t cause an instant segmentation fault, but instead happily introduces some garbage data to the system, widely opening the gates to virtually any outcome imaginable, from minor glitches to severe security vulnerabilities. Is this really a better option? And it doesn’t have to be pointers, or anything of C’s shortcomings in particular, we can end up with invalid data and unforeseen scenarios in virtually any language.

It doesn’t matter how often we hear that every piece of software is too complex to ever fully understand it, or how everything that can go wrong will go wrong. We are fully aware of all the wisdom and cliches, and completely ignore them or weasel our way out of it every time we put a /* this should never happen */ comment in our code.

So today, we are going to look into our options to deal with such unanticipated situations, how we can utilize a deliberate crash to improve our code in the future, and why the average error message is mostly useless.

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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!

A Portal Port Programmed For Platforms Of The Past

If you still have a Commodore 64 and it’s gathering dust, don’t sell it to a collector on eBay just yet. There’s still some homebrew game development happening from a small group of programmers dedicated to this classic system. The latest is a Portal-like game from [Jamie Fuller] which looks like a blast.

The Commodore doesn’t have quite the same specs of a Playstation, but that’s no reason to skip playing this version. It has the same style of puzzles where the player will need to shoot portals and manipulate objects in order to get to the goals. GLaDOS even makes appearances. The graphics by [Del Seymour] and music by [Roy Widding] push the hardware to its limits as well.

If you don’t have a C64 laying around, there are some emulators available such as VICE that can let you play this game without having to find a working computer from the 80s. You can also build your own emulator if you’re really dedicated, or restore one that had been gathering dust. And finally, we know it’s not, strictly speaking, a port of Portal, but some artistic license in headlines can be taken on occasion.

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A Whole Other Kind Of Graphical Programming

Java isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. With all its boilerplate and overhead, you’re almost always better off with a proper IDE that handles everything under the hood for you. However, if you learn a new language, you don’t really want to be bothered setting up a clunky and complex IDE. If only you could use a simple, standard Windows program that you are most likely already familiar with. This wish led [RubbaBoy] to create the MSPaintIDE, a Java development environment that let’s you write your code in — yes — MS Paint.

If you’re thinking now that you will end up writing your program with MS Paint’s text tool and create a regular image file from it — then you are right. Once set up, MSPaintIDE will compile all your PNG source files into a regular Java JAR file. And yes, it has syntax highlighting and a dark theme. [RubbaBoy] uses a custom-made OCR to transform the image content into text files and wraps it all into few-button-click environment — including git integration. You can see a demonstration of it in the video after the break, and find the source code on GitHub.

One has to truly admire how far [RubbaBoy] went, considering the tongue-in-cheek nature of this project. And all joking aside, if you’re interested in OCR, this might just be simple enough to begin with. Or you could expand it with some text to speech functionality.
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Become The Rockstar Developer You’ve Always Dreamed Of Being

If you have ever worked in software-related industries, the chances are that the word “Rockstar” will elicit a visceral reaction. It’s a word used by a Certain Type Of Manager for an elite software developer who’s so 1337 they don’t play by the rules of ordinary mortals. In reality it’s use is invariably an indication of trouble ahead, either from clueless startups or troublesome rockstar developers making a toxic atmosphere for the mere members of the backing band. Hackaday has a team that brings together a huge breadth of experience, and we’ve been there.

Would you like to be a rockstar developer, but without the heartache? No silly incentives, or even guitars required! [Dylan Beattie] can help, because he’s come up with a specification for the Rockstar programming language, a Turing-complete programming language whose syntax follows the conventions of 1980s rock power ballads. Of course, it’s a joke, and an excuse of some “Certified Rockstar Developer” laptop stickers, but it’s also an entertaining journey into lyrical language and compiler parsing, and the discovery that yes indeed, a singable set of classic rock lyrics can also be a compilable program.

Our particular favourite comes from the scheme used to represent numbers, as sentences in which a decimal is built from the lengths of the sentence words, and poetic licence can be employed to the fullest. The example is

 My dreams were ice. A life unfulfilled; wakin' everybody up, taking booze and pills

which line of code places the value 3.1415926535 into a variable called “my dreams”.

There does not appear to be a working Rockstar compiler at the time of writing, but we are sure that the amazing community of Rockstar developers will shortly create one. And we would be hugely disappointed were we not to hear some performative coding from spandex-clad guitar-wielding developers as a result. After all, how else will they get their work noticed!

Esoteric languages have featured before here, but they have usually been far more challenging ones.