A Miniature VT102 Running A Miniature PDP11

We spend a lot of time looking at retrocomputing in the form of gaming and home computers, but it’s true to say that minicomputers are less common than hardware projects. Perhaps it’s the size, cost, or even relative rarity of the original machines, but DEC minicomputers are a bit unusual around here. [Sprite_TM] hasn’t bought us a PDP11 or a VT102 terminal, but he’s done the next best thing in the form of a miniature working VT102 that also conceals a PDE11 emulator. It runs Tetris, which was originally developed on a Russian clone of the PDP11 architecture, and the 2.1BSD operating system.

Powering it all is an ESP32 module, and the PDP11 emulator is the well-known SIMH software. Porting this to the slightly limited environment of the microcontroller required a few compromises, namely the network stack and the configuration interface. In a particularly clever move [Sprite_TM] enabled BSD networking by writing an ESP32 layer that takes network packets via SIMD directly from BSD. It includes its own DHCP client and wireless network configuration tool, allowing an ancient UNIX-derived operating system from the 1970s to connect to the 21st century Internet through an emulator with its network code stripped out.

The case is a masterwork in OpenSCAD, a complete VT102 unit in miniature with a tiny LCD screen that when printed on a resin printer is a remarkable facsimile of the real thing. It doesn’t have a keyboard counterpart, but even with a miniature Bluetooth ‘board it still looks pretty impressive. In the video below the break he boots it into 2.1BSD, and importantly since it is a server operating system, logs into it from his laptop and plays a game of Zork.

[Sprite_TM] has brought us so many impressive projects over the years using the ESP32 and other parts. Maybe you have a favorite, but for us it’s the PocketSprite Game Boy-like tiny handheld console.

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Machine Inside Of A Chip: How Sprite_TM Built The FPGA Game Boy Badge

Kids of the 1990’s would call you a liar if you told them that within thirty years you’d go to a conference and be handed a Super Nintendo Entertainment System to wear around your neck. But that’s what happened with the badge Jeroen Domburg, aka [Sprite_TM], designed for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference. It’s built in the Game Boy form factor, complete with a cartridge slot, beautiful screen, and the familiar button layout. But there’s so much more here, like the HDMI port on the bottom and the ability to completely reconfigure the device by dropping a binary file onto it over USB.

Of course what makes this possible is the FPGA at the heart of the design. The story of how the badge was developed is shared in great detail during Sprite’s Supercon talk. The timeline, the hardware choices, and the oopses along the way make for a great story. But what you really don’t want to miss is how he built the machine inside of the FPGA — the collection of Verilog code known as “gateware” that brings together the System-on-a-Chip (SoC). From his delight at being able to spawn more processor cores by changing a single variable, to the fascinating SNES-inspired graphics subsystem, the inside story shared below is even more interesting than the physical device itself.

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A Wedding Gift Fit For A Hardware Hacker

If you read Hackaday on a regular basis, there are some names you will have seen more than once. People who continually produce fascinating and inventive projects that amaze and delight us, and who always keep us coming back for more. One such hacker is [Jeroen Domburg], perhaps better known in these pages by the handle [Sprite_TM], who has never failed to delight us in this respect.

Today is a special day for [Jeroen] for it is his wedding day, and his friend [Maarten Tromp] has decided to surprise him and his wife [Mingming] with a special gift. At first sight it is simply a pair of blinky badges in the shape of a bride and groom, but closer examination reveals much more. The PCBs are studded with WS2812 addressable LEDs controlled by an ESP32 module and powered by a small LiPo battery, and the clever part lies in the software. The two badges communicate via Bluetooth, allowing them to both synchronise their flashing and flash ever faster as the couple come closer to each other.

The write-up is an interesting tale of the tribulations of designing a badge, from which we take away that buying cheap LEDs may be a false economy. A surprise was that the black-cased and white-cased versions of the LEDs had different timings, and they proved prone to failure.

We wish the happy couple all the best, thank [Sprite_TM] for all he has given us over the years, and look forward to seeing his future projects.

Years Don’t Dim The Shine Of These Curious Gadgets

[Maarten Tromp] recently took the time to document some of the unusual and creative electronic projects he received as gifts over the years. These gadgets were created in the early 2000’s and still work flawlessly today. Two of our favorites are shown here: Hardware Tetris Unit (shown in the image above) and Heap of Electronic Parts.

The “Heap of Electronic Parts” makes sounds when in sunlight.

Heap of Electronic Parts was a kind of hardware puzzle and certainly lives up to its name. It’s a bunch of parts soldered in a mystifying way to the backs of four old EPROMs — the chips with the little window through which UV is used to erase the contents. Assured that the unit really did have a function, [Maarten] eventually figured out that when placed in sunlight, the device ticks, buzzes, and squeals. [Jeroen] had figured out that the EPROMs could act like tiny solar cells when placed in sunlight, and together the four generate just enough power to drive an oscillator connected to a piezo speaker. It still chirps happily away, even today.

Hardware Tetris plays in a terminal window.

Hardware Tetris Unit was a black box intended to be plugged into a serial port. With a terminal opened using the correct serial port settings, a fully-functional Tetris game using ASCII-art graphics could be played. It was even self-powered from the serial port pins.

Inside Hardware Tetris is an AVR microcontroller with some level shifters, and the source code and schematics are available for download. 14 years later, computers no longer have hardware serial ports but [Maarten] says a USB-to-serial converter worked just fine and the device still functions perfectly.

There are a couple more devices documented on [Maarten]’s gifts page, including a Zork-inspired mini text adventure and a hardware board that does some trippy demos on an old Nokia color LCD.  [Maarten]’s friend [Jeroen Domburg] (aka Sprite_tm) had a hand in creating most of the gadgets, and he’s someone whose brilliant work we have had the good fortune to feature many times in the past.

Sprite_TM’s Magic Paintbrush

When it comes to hackers we love, there’s no better example than Jeroen Domburg, a.k.a. Sprite_TM. Sprite’s now working for Espressif, makers of the fantastic ESP8266 and ESP32, where he created a miniature Game Boy and turned this PocketSprite into a real product. He’s installed Linux on a hard drive, and created a Matrix of virtualized Tamagotchis. In short, if you’re looking for someone who’s building the coolest, most technical thing of sometimes questionable utility, you need look no further than Sprite_tm.

Sprite was back at this year’s Superconference, and again he’s bringing out the big guns with awesome hardware hacks. This time, though, Sprite is tapping into his artistic side. Sprite is very accomplished in making PCB art and DaveCAD drawings, but actual art is something that’s been out of reach. No problem, because you can just buy an inkjet printer and make your own art. Sprite’s doing something different, and he’s turning his inkjet into a Magic Paintbrush.

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Friday Hack Chat: Everything About The ESP

When the ESP-8266 first arrived, it was a marvel. For two dollars, you could buy a simple module that could serve as a bridge between WiFi networks and microcontroller projects. It understood the Hayes command set, it didn’t use much power, and, as noted before, it only cost two dollars. The idea of cheap and accessible Internet of Things things was right there for the taking.

Then hackers figured out what was actually going on inside the ESP-8266. It was a full-blown microcontroller. There was Lua stuff you could put on it. You could program it with the Arduino IDE. It had WiFi. This was the greatest microcontroller release in the last decade, and it came from a company no one had ever heard of.

Since then, the ESP ecosystem has bloomed, and there’s a new ESP on the block. The ESP-32 is an even more powerful WiFi and Bluetooth-enabled chip that’s just as easy to program, and it costs three dollars. Microcontrollers have never been cooler.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about the ESP. Our guest for this Hack Chat should need no introduction, but if you’re unfamiliar, [Sprite_tm] plays video games on his keyboard and has installed Linux on a hard drive. He also works at Espressif, the company behind the ESP-8266 and ESP-32, where he’s applied his skills towards tiny Game Boys and miniature Macs.

During this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be covering everything about the ESP, including peripherals, ultra-low power consumption, SIP packages, and what’s coming up for the ESP family. You are, as always, welcome to submit your questions for [Sprite]; just add those as a comment on the Hack Chat page.


Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. [Sprite]’s in China, so we’re not doing this one at the usual time: This week, the Hack Chat will happen at 7:00 am, Pacific, Friday, March 9th. Want to know what time this is happening in your neck of the woods? Have a countdown timer!

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Graphing Calculator Dual Boots With Pi Zero

The nearly limitless array of consumer gadgets hackers have shoved the Raspberry Pi into should really come as no surprise. The Pi is cheap, well documented, and in the case of the Pi Zero, incredibly compact. It’s like the thing is begging to get grafted into toys, game systems, or anything else that could use a penguin-flavored infusion.

But this particular project takes it to the next level. Rather than just cramming the Pi and a cheap LCD into his Numworks graphing calculator, [Zardam] integrated it into the device so well that you’d swear it was a feature from the factory. By exploiting the fact that the calculator has some convenient solder pads connected to its SPI bus, he was able to create an application which switches the display between the Pi and the calculator at will. With just a press of a button, he’s able to switch between using the stock calculator software and having full access to the internal Pi Zero.

In a very detailed write-up on his site, [Zardam] explains the process of getting the Pi Zero to output video over SPI. The first part of the battle was re-configuring the GPIO pins and DMA controller. After that, there was the small issue of writing a Linux SPI framebuffer driver. Luckily he was able to find some work done previously by [Sprite_TM] which helped him get on the right track. His final driver is able to push 320×240 video at 50 FPS via GPIO, more than enough to kick back with some DOOM.

With video sorted out, he still needed a way to interface the calculator’s keyboard with the Pi. For this, he added a function in his calculator application that echoed the keys pressed to the calculator’s UART port. This is connected to the Pi, where a daemon is listening for key presses. The daemon then generates the appropriate keycodes for the kernel via uinput. [Zardam] acknowledges this part of the system could do with some refinement, but judging by the video after the break, it works well enough for a first version.

We’ve seen the Pi Zero get transplanted into everything from a 56K modem to the venerated Game Boy, and figured nothing would surprise us at this point. But we’ve got to say, this is one of the cleanest and most practical builds we’ve seen yet.

[Thanks to EdS for the tip]

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