That TRS Jack On Your Graphing Calculator Does More Than You Think

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.

A Calculator With 3G Inside

For many of us, a calculator is something we run as an app on our mobile phones. Even the feature phones of a couple of decades ago bundled some form of calculator, so that particular task has joined the inevitable convergence of functions into the one device.

For [Scott Howie] though, a mobile phone is something to run as an app on his calculator. He’s integrated a cellphone module into his TI-84 calculator, and though perhaps it won’t be knocking Apple or Samsung off their pedestals just yet, it’s fully functional and both makes and receives calls.

To perform this feat he’s taken the cellphone module and one of the tiniest of Arduino boards, and fitted them in the space beneath the TI-84’s keyboard by removing as much extraneous plastic as he could. The calculator’s 4 AAA cells could not supply enough power on their own, so he’s supplemented them with a couple more, and replaced the alkaline cells with rechargeables. A concealed switch allows the cellphone to be turned off to preserve battery life.

The calculator talks to the Arduino via a slightly unsightly external serial cable, and all his software is handily available in a GitHub repository. His video showing the whole build in detail is below the break, so if you fancy a calculator with cellular connectivity, here’s your opportunity. Hang on — couldn’t you use a device like this for exam cheating?

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Animated GIFs On A Graphing Calculator

The TI-84 Plus graphing calculator has a Z80 processor, 128 kilobytes of RAM, and a 96×64 resolution grayscale LCD. You might think a machine so lean would be incapable of playing video. You would be right. Animated GIFs, on the other hand, it can handle and [searx] is here to tell you how.

Before assembling his movie, [searx] first needed to grab some video and convert it to something the TI-84 could display. For this, he shot a video and used Premiere Pro to reduce the resolution to 95 by 63 pixels. These frames were saved as BMPs, converted to monochrome, renamed to pic0 through pic9, and uploaded to the calculator’s RAM.

To display the animated GIF, [searx] wrote a small program to cycle through the images one at a time. This program, like the images themselves, were uploaded to the calculator over the USB connector. Playing these animated GIFs is as simple as calling the program, telling it how fast to display the images, and standing back and watching a short flip-book animation on a calculator.

ArTICam Interfaces Game Boy Camera with TI Calculators

[Christopher Mitchell] has given Texas Instruments calculators the ability to capture images through a Game Boy Camera with ArTICam. First introduced in 1998, The Game Boy Camera was one of the first low-cost digital cameras available to consumers. Since then it has found its way into quite a few projects, including this early Atmel AT90 based hack, and this Morse code transceiver.

TI calculators don’t include a Game Boy cartridge slot, so [Christopher] used an Arduino Uno to interface the two. He built upon the Arduino-TI Calculator Linking (ArTICL) Library  to create ArTICam. Getting the Arduino to talk with the Game Boy Camera’s M64282FP image sensor turned out to be easy, as there already are code examples available. The interface between the camera sensor and the Arduino is simple enough. 6 digital lines for an oddball serial interface, one analog sense line, power and ground. [Christopher] used a shield to solder everything up, but says you can easily get away with wiring directly the Arduino Uno’s I/O pins. The system is compatible with the TI-83 Plus and TI-84 Plus family of calculators. Grabbing an image is as simple as calling  GetCalc(Pic1) from your calculator program.

So, If you have an old calculator lying around, give it a try to enjoy some 128×123-pixel grayscale goodness!

Super Smash Bros on a Calculator

Move over, BlockDude! There’s a new calculator game in town. [Hayleia] and a few other programmers have been hard at work on a clone of Super Smash Bros for graphing calculators that is sure to keep you busy in your next calculus class.

The game, called Smash Bros Open, is based on the Nintendo fighting game and is written specifically for monochrome z80 calculators (the TI-83 and TI-84 being the most ubiquitous of these). The game runs in 6 MHz mode with a simple background, or it can run in 15 MHz mode with a more complicated background. The programmers intend for the game to be open source, so that anyone can add anything to the games that they want, with the hopes of making the game true to its namesake.

Anyone who is looking to download a copy of this should know that Smash Bros Open is currently a work-in-progress. Right now both players need to play on the same calculator (with different keys), and Fox is the only playable character. The programmers hope to resolve the two player issue by using a second calculator as a game pad, or by linking the two calculators using Global CalcNet. As for the other characters, those can be added by others based on the existing code which is available on the project’s forum post!

Thanks to [Chris] for the tip.

Internet-Connected TI-84

Just before the days where every high school student had a cell phone, everyone in class had a TI graphing calculator. In some ways this was better than a cell phone: If you wanted to play BlockDude instead of doing trig identities, this was much more discrete. The only downside is that the TI calculators can’t easily communicate to each other like cell phones can. [Christopher] has solved this problem with his latest project which provides Wi-Fi functionality to a TI graphing calculator, and has much greater aspirations than helping teenagers waste time in pre-calculus classes.

The boards are based around a Spark Core Wi-Fi development board which is (appropriately) built around a TI CC3000 chip and a STM32F103 microcontroller. The goal of the project is to connect the calculators directly to the Global CALCnet network without needing a separate computer as a go-between. These boards made it easy to get the original Arduino-based code modified and running on the new hardware.

After a TI-BASIC program is loaded on the graphing calculator, it is able to input the credentials for the LAN and access the internet where all kinds of great calculator resources are available through the Global CALCnet. This is a great project to make the math workhorse of the classroom even more useful to students. Or, if you’re bored with trig identities again, you can also run a port of DOOM.

GPS For A Graphing Calculator

GPS [Chris], graphing calculator hacker extrordinaire, has seen a few of his projects show up on the front page of Hackaday, mostly involving builds that turn graphing calculators like the TI-84 Plus shown above into something that copies a few features from a smartphone. His latest build, a hardware GPS module attached to the TI-84 Plus, is yet another feather in his cap of awesome and impractical addition to a classic piece of hardware.

There were two major technical challenges behind adding GPS to a graphing calculator. The first of these was powering a GPS sensor. Many a calculator modder has put a lot of work into documenting the USB port on the 84 Plus, revealing it is a USB OTG port, capable of serving as a host or device. It also supplies 5V of power to just about anything, burning through batteries as a result.

The next challenge was reading the data coming off the GPS sensor at 4800bps.The TI-84 Plus series of calculators have a series of interrupts that can fire at fractions of the 15MHz clock. By setting the timer up to fire every 197 clock ticks and dividing again by 16, [Chris] can read data at 4758.9bps. It’s close enough to get most of the data, and the checksum included in the NMEA protocol allows the software to discard bad messages.

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