Linux Fu: The Infinite Serial Port

Ok, the title is a bit misleading. Like most things in life, it really isn’t infinite. But I’m going to show you how you can use a very interesting Linux feature to turn one serial port from a microcontroller into a bunch of virtual ports. In theory, you could create over 200 ports, but the reality is you will probably want to stick with fewer.

The feature in question is what’s known as pseudoterminal or sometimes a pty or pts. These special files were made to feed data to programs that expect to accept data from a terminal. The files provide two faces. To the client, it looks like any other terminal device. To the creator, though, it is just another file. What you write to that file goes to the fake terminal and you can read anything that is sent from the program connected to the terminal. You use these all the time, probably, without realizing it since running a shell under X Windows, for example, doesn’t attach to a real terminal, after all.

You could, of course, do the same trick with a composite USB device, assuming you have one. Also assuming you can find a working driver and get it working. However, many microcontrollers have a serial port — even one with a USB converter built-in — but fewer have full-blown USB hardware. Even the ones that do are often at odds with strange drivers on the PC side. Serial ports work and work well even on the simplest microcontrollers.

The Plan

The plan is simple enough. A Linux program listens to a real serial port and watches for special character sequences in the data stream. Those sequences will allow you to switch data so that the data stream will go to a particular terminal. Data coming back from the terminals will go to the real serial port after sending a sequence that identifies its source.

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SAMD11 Provides Two Serial Ports For Price Of One

While the average computer user likely hasn’t given much thought to the lowly serial port in decades, the same can’t be said for the hardware hacker. Cheap serial-to-USB adapters are invaluable for snooping debug ports or programming chips, and if you ask us, you can never have too many laying around the bench. [Quentin Bolsée] loves them so much that he’s even figured out how to build a dual-port adapter with a SAMD11C14 microcontroller.

As [Quentin] explains in the write-up, this isn’t just some kind of Y-cable. When connected to the host computer, the adapter shows up as two distinct serial ports, each with independent settings for things like baud rate and parity. This handy little gadget will let you tap into the serial ports of two devices simultaneously if you’re looking to do some Hollywood-style hacking, but more practically, it allows you to establish a debug and programming interface to the same board using just one USB connection.

[Quentin] milled a custom PCB for his adapter, which we have to say looks phenomenal, but those with more limited equipment at home should be able to send the MIT licensed board files off for production. He’s also provided the source code for the SAMD11C14’s firmware, so you’ve got everything you need to spin up your own version of this neat tool.

Two ports not enough for your parallel hacking needs? Believe it or not, we’ve also seen a quad USB-to-serial adapter that you can put together, though it’s a considerably more complex circuit.

Eight RS232 Ports, One Ethernet Port

When it comes to impromptu enclosures, [Paul Wallace] is a man after our own hearts, for his serial-to-Ethernet converters allowing him to control older test equipment were housed in takeaway curry containers. Once the test equipment pile had grown it became obvious that a pile of curry containers was a bit unwieldy, even if the curry had been enjoyable, so he set about creating an all-in-one multiway serial to Ethernet box.

Reminiscent of the serial terminal access controllers that were found in dumb terminal sites back in the day, it’s a box with eight DB-9 connectors for serial ports and a single RJ45 Ethernet port. Inside is a Teensy 4.1 which packs a PHY and eight hardware serial ports, and a pile of MAX232 level converter modules. These have a small modification to wire in the CTS and RTS lines, and the whole is clothed in a custom 3D printed case.

The result is a very neat, almost commercial standard box that should save him quite a bit of space. Not everyone has eight devices to drive, so if you have just one how about using an ESP8266?

Classic 80s Text-To-Speech On Classic 80s Hardware

Those of us who were around in the late 70s and into the 80s might remember the Speak & Spell, a children’s toy with a remarkable text-to-speech synthesizer. While it sounds dated by today’s standards, it was revolutionary for the time and was riding a wave of text-to-speech functionality that was starting to arrive to various computers of the era. While a lot of them used dedicated hardware to perform the speech synthesis, some computers were powerful enough to do this in software, but others were not quite able. The VIC-20 was one of the latter, but thanks to an ESP8266 it has been retroactively given this function.

This project comes to us from [Jan Derogee], a connoisseur of this retrocomputer, and builds on the work by [Earle F. Philhower] who ported the retro speech synthesis software known as SAM from assembly to C which made it possible to run on the ESP8266. Audio playback is handled on the I2S port, but some work needed to be done to get this to work smoothly since this port also handles the communication with the VIC-20. Once this was sorted out, a patch was made to be able to hear the computer’s audio as well as the speech synthesizer’s. Finally, a serial command interface was designed by [Jan] which allows for control of the module.

While not many of us have VIC-20s sitting at home, it’s still an interesting project that shows the broad scope of a small and inexpensive chip like the ESP8266 which would have had a hefty price tag back in the 1980s. If you have other 80s hardware laying around waiting to be put to work, though, take a look at this project which brings new vocabulary words to that old classic Speak & Spell.

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Digital Audio For Microcontrollers Doesn’t Come Much Simpler Than A WART

Adding an audio channel to your microcontroller project can mean a pile of extra components and a ton of processing power, as a compressed stream must be retrieved and sent to a dedicated DAC. Or if you are [rdpoor], it can mean hooking up a low-pass filter to the UART that’s present on even the simplest of devices, and constructing a serial data stream that mimics PWM audio.

Sound on your microcontroller, it’s this simple!

WART is a Python script that converts a WAV file into a C formatted byte array that can be baked into your microcontroller code, and for which playback is as simple as streaming it to the UART. The example uses a Teensy and a transistor to drive a small speaker, we’re guessing that better quality might come with using a dedicated low-pass filter rather than relying on the speaker itself, but at least audio doesn’t come any simpler.

The code can be found in a GitHub repository and there’s a few recordings of the output in the files section Hackaday.io page, one is embedded below. It’s better than we might have expected given that the quality won’t be the best at the PWM data rate of even the fastest UART. But even if you won’t be incorporating it into your music system any time soon we can see it being a useful addition for such things as small warning sounds. Meanwhile if persuading serially driven speakers to talk is of interest, there’s always the venerable PC speaker.

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C64 Demo, No C64

Never underestimate the ingenuity of the demoscene. The self-imposed limitations lead to incredible creativity, and, the range of devices they manage to get their demos running on never ceases to amaze us. But we never thought we’d see a C64 demo without one central component: the C64.

Full disclosure: [Matthias Kramm]’s demo, called “Freespin”, does need a C64 to get started. The venerable 6502-based computer runs a loader program on a 1541 disk drive.  But from then on, it’s all floppy drive. And [Matthias] has laid bare all his tricks.

The video below shows the demo in full, including a heart-stopping on-camera cable mod. By adding a single 100 Ω resistor, [Matthias] turned the serial clock and data lines into a two-bit digital-to-analog converter, good enough to generate signals for both black and white pixels and the sync pulses needed for the display.

No demo would be complete without sound, and Freespin’s tunes come from controlling the drive’s stepper motor, like a one-voice Floppotron.

Watching nothing but a floppy drive run a cool demo is pretty amazing. Yes, we know there’s a full-fledged computer inside the floppy, but the bit-banging needed to make this work was still mighty impressive. It might be cool to see what you could do with multiple drives, but we understand the minimalistic aesthetic as well. And speaking of tiny little demos:  the 256 bytes of [HellMood]’s “Memories” or [Linus Åkesson]’s “A Mind is Born” still leave us speechless.

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DIY Wireless Serial Adapter Speaks (True) RS-232

There is a gotcha lurking in wait for hackers who look at a piece of equipment, see a port labeled “Serial / RS-232”, and start to get ideas. The issue is the fact that the older the equipment, the more likely it is to be a bit old-fashioned about how it expects to speak RS-232. Vintage electronics may expect the serial data to be at bipolar voltage levels that are higher than what the typical microcontroller is used to slinging, and that was the situation [g3gg0] faced with some vintage benchtop equipment. Rather than deal with cables and wired adapters, [g3gg0] decided to design a wireless adapter with WiFi and Bluetooth on one end, and true RS-232 on the other.

The adapter features an ESP32 and is attached to a DB-9 plug, so it’s nice and small. It uses the ST3232 chip to communicate at 3 V logic levels on the microcontroller side, supports bipolar logic up to +/-13 V on the vintage hardware side, and a rudimentary web interface allows setting hardware parameters like baud rate. The nice thing about the ST3232 transceiver is that it is not only small, but can work from a 3 V supply with only four 0.1 uF capacitors needed for the internal charge pumps.

As for actually using the adapter, [g3gg0] says that the adapter’s serial port is exposed over TCP on port 23 (Telnet) which is supported by some programs and hardware. Alternately, one can connect an ESP32 to one’s computer over USB, and run firmware that bridges any serial data directly to the adapter on the other end.

Design files including schematic, bill of materials, and PCB design are shared online, and you can see a brief tour of the adapter in the video, embedded below.

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