Texas Instruments is a world-class semiconductors company, but unfortunately what they are best known for among the general public is dated consumer-grade calculators thanks to entrenched standardized testing. These testing standards are so entrenched, in fact, that TI has not had to update the hardware in these calculators since the early 90s. They still run their code on a Z80 microcontroller, but [Ben Heck] found himself in possession of one which has a modern ARM coprocessor in it and thus can run Python.
While he’s not sure exactly what implementation of Python the calculator is running, he did tear it apart to try and figure out as much as he could about what this machine is doing. The immediately noticeable difference is the ARM coprocessor that is not present in other graphing calculators. After some investigation of test points, [Ben] found that the Z80 and ARM chips are communicating with each other over twin serial lines using a very “janky” interface. Jankiness aside, eventually [Ben] was able to wire up a port to the side of the calculator which lets him use his computer to send Python commands to the device when it is in its Python programming mode.
While there are probably limited use cases for 1980s calculators to run Python programs, we can at least commend TI for attempting to modernize within its self-built standardized testing prison. Perhaps this is the starting point for someone else to figure out something more useful to put these machines to work with beyond the classroom too. We’ve already seen some TI-84s that have been modified to connect to the Internet, for example.
Something being impractical isn’t any reason not to do it, which is why just about anything with a CPU in it can run Doom by now. For the same reason there obviously is a way to do ray tracing of 3D scenes on a modern-day TI-84 Plus CE graphical calculator. This is excellent news for anyone who has one of these calculators, along with a lot of time, perhaps during boring classes, to spare.
As [TheScienceElf] demonstrates in a video, also embedded after the break, it’s not quite the real-time experience one would expect from an NVidia RTX 30-series GPU. Although the eZ80-based CPU in the calculator is significantly more efficient than a Z80 as found in many 1980s home computers, the demo scene at standard resolution takes about 12 minutes to render, as also noted on the GitHub project page.
Perhaps the most interesting part about this project is its use of the Clang-based C & C++ toolchain for the TI-84 Plus CE which gives easy access to the calculator’s hardware and related, including graphics, file I/O, fonts, keypad input and more. Even if using a TI-84 Plus CE to render the next Pixar-level movie isn’t the most productive use imaginable for these devices, this project and the CE toolchain make it all too easy to tinker with these $150 devices.
It would also offer a nice change of pace from writing Snake in TiBASIC, a BASIC dialect in which [TheScienceElf] incidentally has also written a ray tracer.
Even before the creation of these graphing calculators, the z80 processor behind them was first produced over four decades ago and was ubiquitous in the computer scene at the time, which also lends to its hackability. There’s plenty to catch up on here, too, from custom TI games that trick the two-tone display into grayscale to Game Boy emulators that can play Zelda since the TI and Game Boy share the same processors. There are also several methods of running native code or otherwise “jailbreaking” these devices to run arbitrary code.
It looks like the world of TI hacking is alive and well now, and with several decades of projects to browse there’s always something new to find. As it stands, there may be more decades of these types of projects to come, since neither TI nor the various testing standardization companies and government agencies show any signs of changing any time soon.
The epicenter of the Chinese electronics scene drew a lot of attention this week as a 70-story skyscraper started wobbling in exactly the way skyscrapers shouldn’t. The 1,000-ft (305-m) SEG Plaza tower in Shenzhen began its unexpected movements on Tuesday morning, causing a bit of a panic as people ran for their lives. With no earthquakes or severe weather events in the area, there’s no clear cause for the shaking, which was clearly visible from the outside of the building in some of the videos shot by brave souls on the sidewalks below. The preliminary investigation declared the building safe and blamed the shaking on a combination of wind, vibration from a subway line under the building, and a rapid change in outside temperature, all of which we’d suspect would have occurred at some point in the 21-year history of the building. Others are speculating that a Kármán vortex Street, an aerodynamic phenomenon that has been known to catastrophically impact structures before, could be to blame; this seems a bit more likely to us. Regardless, since the first ten floors of SEG Plaza are home to one of the larger electronics markets in Shenzhen, we hope this is resolved quickly and that all our friends there remain safe.
In other architectural news, perched atop Building 54 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge for the last 55 years has been a large, fiberglass geodesic sphere, known simply as The Radome. It’s visible from all over campus, and beyond; we used to work in Kendall Square, and the golf-ball-like structure was an important landmark for navigating the complex streets of Cambridge. The Radome was originally used for experiments with weather radar, but fell out of use as the technology it helped invent moved on. That led to plans to remove the iconic structure, which consequently kicked off a “Save the Radome” campaign. The effort is being led by the students and faculty members of the MIT Radio Society, who have put the radome to good use over the years — it currently houses an amateur radio repeater, and the Radio Society uses the dish within it to conduct Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) microwave communications experiments. The students are serious — they applied for and received a $1.6-million grant from Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC) to finance their efforts. The funds will be used to renovate the deteriorating structure.
Well, this looks like fun: Python on a graphing calculator. Texas Instruments has announced that their TI-84 Plus CE Python graphing calculator uses a modified version of CircuitPython. They’ve included seven modules, mostly related to math and time, but also a suite of TI-specific modules that interact with the calculator hardware. The Python version of the calculator doesn’t seem to be for sale in the US yet, although the UK site does have a few “where to buy” entries listed. It’ll be interesting to see the hacks that come from this when these are readily available.
Did you know that PCBWay, the prolific producer of cheap PCBs, also offers 3D-printing services too? We admit that we did not know that, and were therefore doubly surprised to learn that they also offer SLA resin printing. But what’s really surprising is the quality of their clear resin prints, at least the ones shown on this Twitter thread. As one commenter noted, these look more like machined acrylic than resin prints. Digging deeper into PCBWay’s offerings, which not only includes all kinds of 3D printing but CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, and even injection molding services, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify keeping those capabilities in-house, even for the home gamer. Although with what we’ve learned about supply chain fragility over the last year, we don’t want to give up the ability to make parts locally just yet.
And finally, how well-calibrated are your fingers? If they’re just right, perhaps you can put them to use for quick and dirty RF power measurements. And this is really quick and really dirty, as well as potentially really painful. It comes by way of amateur radio operator VK3YE, who simply uses a resistive dummy load connected to a transmitter and his fingers to monitor the heat generated while keying up the radio. He times how long it takes to not be able to tolerate the pain anymore, plots that against the power used, and comes up with a rough calibration curve that lets him measure the output of an unknown signal. It’s brilliantly janky, but given some of the burns we’ve suffered accidentally while pursuing this hobby, we’d just as soon find another way to measure RF power.
The TI-84 uses a simple resistor capacitor circuit to generate its clock, making it overclocking it a cinch. By changing the resistor value in the circuit, the clock can be made to run faster. The team have some issues with pads delaminating from the PCB, but manage to sub in a trimpot which lets the clock be changed on the fly. A boost of 10MHz over stock gets the calculator operating at 26MHz, with notably quicker performance in the TI port of Doom 2. Without accurate measurement of CPU temps, it’s hard to say whether watercooling the calculator is justified. However, the team do a great job of entirely overengineering the solution, with a custom-made cooling block hooked up to a massive spherical reservoir.
With the stability issues inherent in overclocking, and the unwieldy watercooling tubes, it’s not a good hack in the practicality sense. It is, however, quite amusing, and that’s always worth something. TI calculators have long been targets for hackers, and you can even get them online if you so desire. Video after the break.
TI certainly have certainly seen off rivals such as HP or Casio to capture the lion’s share of the calculator market. The TI-84 is a real staple, and with as many units as there are out there, hacking them is a given. However, selecting an operating system for the machine can be a hassle. TI-OS is proprietary and doesn’t really want to let you do everything you’d like to. There are alternatives, but many of them won’t let you easily use your calculator to be — well — a calculator.
[Siraben] has zkeme80 which is essentially ANS Forth (mostly) with extensions for the TI hardware. You can easily extend the system, of course, because it is Forth. You can also use the machine for its intended purpose easily.
It’s not Apple IIs, and it’s not Raspberry Pis. The most important computing platform for teaching kids programming is the Texas Instruments graphing calculator. These things have been around in one form or another for almost three decades, and for a lot of budding hackers out there, this was the first computer they owned and had complete access to.
As hacking graphing calculators is a favorite for Maker Faires, we were pleased to see Cemetech make it out to this year’s World Maker Faire in New York last weekend. They’re the main driving force behind turning these pocket computers with truly terrible displays into usable computing platforms.
As you would expect from any booth, Cemetech brought out the goods demonstrating exactly what a graphing calculator can do. The most impressive, at least from a soldering standpoint, is their LED cube controlled by a graphing calculator. The electronics are simple, and just a few 595s and transistors, but this LED cube is taking serial data directly from the link cable on a graphing calculator. Of course, the PCB for the LED cube is designed as an Arduino shield for ease of prototyping, but make no mistake: this is an LED cube controlled by a calculator.
If you can send serial data to a shift register from a graphing calculator, that means you can send serial data to anything, bringing us to Cemetech’s next great build featured this year. It’s an N-gauge model train, with complete control over the locomotive.
There’s a lot more to controlling model trains these days than simply connecting a big ‘ol variac to the tracks. This setup uses Direct Cab Control (DCC), a system that modulates commands for locomotives while still providing 12-15V to the tracks. There’s a good Arduino library, and when you have that, you can easily port it to a graphing calculator.
Cemetech is one of the perennial favorites at Maker Faire, and over the years we’ve seen everything from the Ultimate TI-83+ sporting an RGB backlight and a PS/2 port to a game of graphing calculator Whac-A-Mole. It’s all a great example of what you can do with the programmable computer every 90s kid had, and an introduction to computer programming education, something Cemetech is really pushing out there with some hard work.