USB Adaptor Isolates Multiple Serial Interfaces

You need a Swiss Army knife of serial communications? Ollie is a compact isolated USB adaptor that provides USB, CAN bus, and two UARTs at logic, RS-232, and RS-485 signaling levels, as well as an isolated power supply.  [Slimelec] has managed to squeeze all this into a package the size of a harmonica.  We like the technique of making the enclosure from PCB material, complete with clearly labeled switch, LED and connector pinout names.

So far, only the compiled firmware is available for this project, but hardware files, and presumably the source code and documentation, are coming soon.

The central themes here are  isolation and flexibility. We can’t find the isolation voltage in the project specifications, but the CANable project on which this adaptor is based provides 2.5 kV galvanic isolation.  A single isolated USB interface is also provided over a standard Type A connector. The four-wire logic-level UART signals are available on a 2 x 7 box header, and are voltage selectable.  The RS-232, RS-485, and CAN signals are on an 8-pin pluggable screw terminal block, or you can use a DB9 connector with a pluggable adaptor board.

Whether you need a troubleshooting aid for field testing, are using CAN bus on your projects, or just want to isolate your expensive computer from sketchy prototype hardware, have a look at this project.

Vintage Plotter Gets Bluetooth Upgrade

Recently [iot4c] stumbled upon this gorgeous Robotron Reiss plotter from 1989, brand-new and still in its original box. Built before the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, it would be a crime to allow such a piece of computing history to go unused. But how to hook it up to a modern system? Bad enough that it uses some rather unusual connectors, but it’s about to be 2020, who wants to use wires anymore? What this piece of Cold War hardware needed was an infusion of Bluetooth.

While the physical ports on the back of the Robotron certainly look rather suspect, it turns out that electrically they’re just RS-232. In practice, this means converting it over was fairly straightforward. With a Bolutek BK3231 Bluetooth module and an RS-232 to UART converter, [iot4c] was able to create a wireless adapter that works transparently on the plotter by simply connecting it to the RX and TX pins.

A small DC buck converter was necessary to provide 3.3 V for the Bluetooth adapter, but even still, there was plenty of room inside the plotter’s case to fit everything in neatly. From the outside, you’d have no idea that the hardware had ever been modified at all.

But, like always, there was a catch. While Windows had no trouble connecting to the Bluetooth device and assigning it a COM port, the 512 byte buffer on the plotter would get overwhelmed when it started receiving commands. So [iot4c] wrote a little script in Node.js that breaks the commands down into more manageable chunks and sends them off to the plotter every 0.1 seconds. With this script in place the Robotron moved under its own power for the first time in ~30 years by parsing a HP-GL file generated by Inkscape.

If you’re interested in a plotter of your own but don’t have a vintage one sitting around, never fear. We’ve seen an influx of DIY plotters recently, ranging from builds that use popsicle sticks and clothespins to customizable 3D printed workhorses.

Vintage Speech Synthesizer Croons The Oldies

If you listened to the National Weather Service Weather Radio in the US about 25 years ago, you’ll no doubt remember [Perfect Paul], one of the synthesized voices used to read current conditions and weather forecasts. The voice came from a DECtalk DTC01, a not inexpensive voice synthesizer first made in 1984 that also gave voice to [Stephen Hawking] for many years.

Long obsolete, the DECtalk boxes have a devoted following with hobbyists who like to stretch what the device can do. Some even like to make it sing, after a fashion, and [Michael] decided that making a DECtalk sing “Xanadu”, the theme song from the 1980 [Olivia Newton-John] musical extravaganza, was a good idea. Whether it actually was is debatable, and we’ll take exception with having that particular ditty stuck in our head as a result, but we don’t judge except on the merits of the hack.

It’s actually easy if you have a DECtalk; the song is a straight ASCII file with remarkably concise instructions on which phonemes the box needs to generate. Along with inflection, tone, and timing instructions, the text file looks almost completely unlike English while still somehow being readable. The DECtalk accepts the file over RS-232, which would be easy enough to do with a modern computer, but [Michael] upped his game a bit by using a TRS-80 Model 100 computer as a serial terminal. The synthesized song is in the video below, with the original included for reference by those who didn’t experience endure the late disco-era glory days.

DECtalks seem pretty rare in the wild, so we appreciate this glimpse at what they can do. There are other retro speech synthesizer hacks, though: the simulated walnut goodness of the Votrax and the MicroVox come to mind, as does the venerable TI Speak and Spell.

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Bargain Bin Barcode Scanner Keeps Track Of Shopping Needs

For most people, a Post-It note or dry-erase board suffices to ensure that household consumables are replenished when they’re used up. But hackers aren’t like most people, so this surplus barcode scanner turned kitchen inventory manager comes as little surprise. After all, if something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.

[Brian Carrigan]’s project began with a chance discovery of an old barcode scanner in his local scrap store. Questions as to why we can never find bargains like a $500 scanner for six bucks aside, [Brian] took the scanner home for a bit of reverse engineering. He knew it used RS-232 but it had been unceremoniously ripped from its connectors, so identifying pins took some detective work. With power and data worked out and the scanner talking to a Raspberry Pi, [Brian] set about integrating it into Wunderlist,  a cloud-based list management app. Now when someone eats the last Twinkie, a quick scan of the package looks up the product name via an API call to the UPC database and posts it to Wunderlist. And we’ll bet the red laser beams bouncing around the kitchen make a great nightlight too.

With smartphone barcode reading apps, this might seem a bit like overkill, but we like it just the same. And if barcodes leave you baffled, check out our introduction to these studies in black and white that adorn just about everything.

Dummies Guide To Reverse Engineering

[Juan Carlos Jiménez] has reverse engineered a router — specifically, a Huawei HG533. While that in itself may not sound substantial, what he has done is write a series of blog posts which can act as a great tutorial for anyone wanting to get started with sniffing hardware. Over the five part series, he walks through the details of identifying the hardware serial ports which open up the doors to the firmware and looking at what’s going on under the hood.

The first part deals with finding the one or several debug ports on the hardware and identifying the three important pins – Rx, Tx and GND. That’s when he shows novices his first trick – shining a flashlight from under the PCB to find the pins that have trace connections (most likely Rx and Tx), those that don’t have any connections (most likely CTS and DTR) and those that have connections to the copper pour planes (most likely VCC and GND). The Tx signal will be pulled up and transmitting data when the device is powered up, while the Rx signal will be floating, making it easy to identify them. Finding the Baud rate, though, will require either a logic analyser, or you’ll have to play a bit of a guessing game.

Once you have access to the serial port and know its baud rate, it’s time to hook it up to your computer and use any one of the several ways of looking at what’s coming out of there — minicom, PuTTY or TeraTerm, for example. With access to the devices CLI, and some luck with finding credentials to log in if required, things start getting interesting.

Over the next part, he discusses how to follow the data paths, in this case, looking at the SPI signals between the main processor and the flash memory, and explaining how to use the logic analyser effectively and decode the information it captures. Moving further, he shows how you can hook up a USB to SPI bridge, connect it to the flash memory, take a memory dump of the firmware and read the extracted data. He wraps it up by digging in to the firmware and trying to glean some useful information.

It’s a great series and the detailed analysis he does of this particular piece of hardware, along with providing a lot of general tips, makes it a perfect starting point for those who need some help when getting started on debugging hardware.

Thanks, [gnif] for posting this tip.

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IoT-ifying An Old LED Signboard

Scrolling LED signs were pretty keen back in the day, and now they’re pretty easy to come by on the cheap. Getting a signboard configured for IoT duty can be tricky, but as [kripthor] shows us, it’s not that bad as long as security isn’t your top concern and you can tweak a serial interface.

dec-16-2016-10-57-pm-edited[kripthor] chanced upon an Amplus AM03127 signboard that hails from the days when tri-color LEDs were the big thing. The unit came with a defunct remote thanks to leaking batteries, but a built-in serial interface offered a way to connect. Unfortunately, the RS-232 standard on the signboard wants both positive and negative voltages with respect to ground to represent the 1s and 0s, and that wouldn’t work with the ESP8266 [kripthor] was targeting. The ubiquitous MAX-232 transceiver was enlisted to convert logic levels to RS-232 signals and a small buck converter was added to power the ESP. A little scripting and the signboard is online and ready for use and abuse by the interwebz — [kripthor] says he’ll regret this, but we’re pleased with the way the first remote access turned out. Feel free to check out the live video feed and see what the current message is.

Personally, we don’t have much use for a signboard, but getting RS-232 devices working in the Arduino ecosystem is definitely a trick we’ll keep in mind. If asynchronous serial protocols aren’t your strong suit, you might want to check out this guide to what can go wrong by our own [Elliot Williams].

Fixing A Multimeter’s Serial Interface

[Shane] bought a multimeter with the idea of using its serial output as a source for data logging. A multimeter with a serial port is a blessing, but it’s still RS-232 with bipolar voltage levels. Some modifications to the meter were required to get it working with a microcontroller, and a few bits of Python needed to be written, but [Shane] is getting useful data out of his meter.

The meter in question is a Tenma 72-7735, a lower end model that still somehow has an opto-isolated serial output. Converting the bipolar logic to TTL logic was as easy as desoldering the photodiode from the circuit and tapping the serial data out from that.

With normal logic levels, the only thing left to do was to figure out how to read the data the meter was sending. It’s a poorly documented system, but [Shane] was able to find some documentation for this meter. Having a meter output something sane, like the freaking numbers displayed on the meter would be far too simple for the designers of this tool. Instead, the serial port outputs the segments of the LCD displayed. It’s all described in a hard to read table, but [Shane] was able to whip up a little bit of Python to parse the serial stream.

It’s only a work in progress – [Shane] plans to do data logging with a microcontroller some time in the future, but at least now he has a complete understanding on how this meter works. He can read the data straight off the screen, and all the code to have a tiny micro parse this data.