Hackaday Links: December 27, 2020

We’re always pleased to see one of our community’s projects succeed, and we celebrate that success in whatever what it comes. But seeing a company launched to commercialize an idea that started as a Hackaday.io project and a Hackaday Prize entry is especially gratifying. So we were pleased as punch to see that MAKESafe Tools has managed to bring the idea of add-on machine tool braking to market. We’d love to add this to several tools in our shop. Honestly, of all the terrifying ways machine tools can slice, dice, and shred human flesh asunder, we always considered the lowly bench grinder fairly low-risk — and then we had a chance to “Shake Hands with Danger.”

Another great thing about the Hackaday community is the way we all try to keep each other up to speed on changes and news that affects even our smallest niches. Just last week Tom Nardi covered a project using the venerable TI eZ430-Chronos smartwatch as a makeshift medical alert bracelet for a family member. It’s a great application for the proto-smartwatch, but one eagle-eyed commenter helpfully pointed out that TI is shutting down their processors wiki in just a couple of weeks. The banner at the top of each page warns that the wiki is not read-only and that any files needed should be downloaded by January 15. Also helpfully, subsequent comments include instructions to download the entire wiki and a torrent link to the archive. It’s always sad to see a platform lose support, especially one that has gained a nice following, but it’s heartening to see the community pull together to continue to support each other like this.

We came across an interesting article this week that’s was a fascinating glimpse into how economic forces shape  and drive technological process, and vice versa. It turns out that some of the hottest real estate commodities these days are the plots of land occupied by AM radio stations serving metropolitan markets. It’s no secret that terrestrial radio in general, and AM radio in particular, are growing increasingly moribund, and the infrastructure needed to keep them on the air is getting harder and harder to justify. Chief among these are the large tracts of land devoted to antenna farms, which are often located in suburban and exurban areas near major cities. They’re tempting targets for developers looking to plunk down the physical infrastructure needed to support “New Economy” players like Amazon, which continue to build vast automated warehouses in areas that are handy to large customer bases. It’s a bit sad to watch a once mighty industry unravel and be sold off like this, but such is the nature of progress.

And finally, you may recall a Links article mention a few weeks back about a teardown of a super-sized IBM processor module. A quarter-million dollar relic of the 1990s, the huge System/390 module was an engineering masterpiece that met an unfortunate end at the hands of EEVblog’s Dave Jones. As a follow-up, Dave teamed up with fellow YouTuber CPU Galaxy to take a less-destructive tour of the module using X-ray analysis. The level of engineering needed for a 64-layer ceramic backplane is astonishing, and Dave’s play-by-play is pretty entertaining too. As a bonus, CPU Galaxy has some really interesting stuff; his place is basically a museum of vintage tech, and he just earned a new sub.

TI And Cadence Make PSpice Free

We like simulation software. Texas Instruments long offered TINA, but recently they’ve joined with Cadence to make OrCAD PSpice available for free with some restrictions. You’ve probably heard of PSpice — it’s widely used in academia and industry, but is usually quite costly. You can see a promotional overview video below.

The program requires registration and an approval step to get a license key. The downloaded program has TI models along with other standard models. There seem to be few limits as long as you stick to the supplied library. According to the datasheet, there are no size or simulation complexity limitations in that case. If you want to use other models, you can, but that’s where the limitations hit you:

There is no limitation of how many 3rd party models can be imported into the design. However, if 3rd party models are imported, a user will be able to plot a maximum of 3 signals at a time of their choice when any 3rd party model is imported from web.

We aren’t completely sure what “from web” means there, but presumably they just mean from other sources. In any event, you still get AC, DC, and transient analysis with plenty of options like worst-case timing analysis. Mixed signal designs are supported and there is a wealth of data plotting options, as you would expect.

This is a great opportunity to drive some serious software that is widely used in the industry. The only thing that bummed us out? It runs under Windows. We couldn’t get it to work under Wine, but a Windows 10 VM handled it fine, although we really hate running a VM if we don’t have to.

Still, the price is right and it is a great piece of software. We also liked the recent Micro-Cap 12 release, but we don’t expect any updates for that. Of course, LTSpice is quite capable, too.

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Two Vintage Calculators In One

The FPGA revolution that occurred within the past few decades was a boon to many people interested in “antique” electronics. The devices “wire together” logic elements as needed rather than emulating chips completely in a software layer, which makes them uniquely suited for replicating chips that are rare, no longer in production, damaged, or otherwise lost. They also make it easy to experiment with hardware, like this project which combines two antique calculators into one single unit.

The two calculators used in this combination device are the TI Datamath and the Sinclair Scientific, both released in the early 1970s, the former of which has been extensively documented and reverse engineered on at least one occasion. The reproduction from [zpekic] has a toggle that allows the user to switch between the two “modes”. This showcases the power of microprogramming and microcode, and of the FPGA platform itself. Although both modes are functional, there are still a few bugs resulting from how different the two pieces of hardware were, which is really more of an interesting facet of this project than anything.

The build is a great showcase of FPGA technology, not to mention a great read-through for understanding these two calculators and their fundamental differences in data entry and manipulation, clock cycles, memory, and everything in between. It’s worth checking out, even if you don’t plan on using a decades-old calculator in your day-to-day life.

Replicating 1970s LED Displays

In 1971, Texas Instruments released something no one else had ever seen before. The TIL305 was an alphanumeric display, powered by LEDs. Sure, the technology of the early 70s meant the LEDs weren’t very bright, and the displays were expensive, but if you want a display that’s simply classic, and relatively low-power, you won’t be able to do better than a vintage alphanumeric LED display.

As you would expect, new old stock TIL305s are still pricey, and now everybody has access to cheap PCB manufacturing capabilities and really small LEDs. The DIYTIL305 is an attempt to replicate the vintage stuff, and it looks great.

The vintage, TI-made TIL305 is a printed circuit board that clips into a DIP-14 socket. The LED array is 5×7 pixels, with an extra dot for a decimal point, set on a 0.05″ grid, and a translucent red diffuser. A PCB is easy, and with 0201 LEDs you can get the LED pitch you need. Turning a PCB into a DIP-14 only requires a few machine pin headers, and for the diffuser, this project is using laser cut cast acrylic. It’s simple if you have a pick and place machine or a steady hand, and assembly is a snap.

The final DIYTIL305 boards are being tested right now, but so far the results are great. With the right code on a microcontroller, these displays will blink through the digits 0 through 9, and the alphabet is just a little more code. Since this project is using 0201 LEDs, it also means green, white, blue, orange, and yellow displays are possible, something no one could have dreamed of in 1971.

TI-83 Gets CircuitPython Upgrade

Graphing calculators are an interesting niche market these days. They’re relatively underpowered, and usually come with cheap, low resolution screens to boot. They remain viable almost solely due to their use in education and the fact that their limited connectivity makes them suitable for use in exams. The market is starting to hot up, though – and TI have recently been doing some interesting work with Python on their TI-83.

Rumor has it that TI have been unable to get Python to run viably directly on the TI-83 Premium CE. This led to the development of the TI-Python peripheral, which plugs into the calculator’s expansion port. This allows users to program in Python, with the TI-Python doing the work and the calculator essentially acting as a thin client. The chip inside is an Atmel SAMD21E18A-U, and is apparently running Adafruit’s CircuitPython platform.

This discovery led to further digging, of course. With some hacking, the TI-Python can instead be replaced with other boards based on Atmel SAMD21 chips. For those of you that aren’t in Atmel’s sales team, that means it’s possible to use things like the Adafruit Trinket M0 and the Arduino Zero instead, when flashed with the appropriate CircuitPython firmware. It’s a tricky business, involving USB IDs and some other hacks, but it’s nothing that can’t be achieved in a few hours or so.

This is a hack in its early days, so it’s currently more about building a platform at this stage rather then building fully-fledged projects just yet. We’re fully expecting to see Twitter clients and multiplayer games hit the TI-83 platform before long, of course. When you’ve done it, chuck us a link on the tip line.

[Thanks to PT for the tip!]

High Voltage Measurement Is Shockingly Safe

With the right equipment and training, it’s possible to safely work on energized power lines in the 500 kV range with bare hands. Most of us, though, don’t have the right equipment or training, and should take great care when working with any appreciable amount of voltage. If you want to safely measure even the voltages of the wiring in your house there’s still substantial danger, and you’ll want to take some precautions like using isolated amplifiers.

While there are other safe methods for measuring line voltage or protecting your oscilloscope, [Jason]’s isolated amplifier method uses high voltage capacitors to achieve isolation. The input is then digitized, sent across the capacitors, and then converted back to an analog signal on the other side. This project makes use of a chip from TI to provide the isolation, and [Jason] was able to build it on a perfboard while making many design considerations to ensure it’s as safe as possible, like encasing high voltage sections in epoxy and properly fusing the circuit.

[Jason] also discusses the limitations of this method of isolation on his site, and goes into a lot of technical details about the circuit as well. It probably wouldn’t get a UL certification, but the circuit performs well and even caught a local voltage sag while he was measuring the local power grid. If this method doesn’t meet all of your isolation needs, though, there are a lot of other ways to go about solving the problem.

Explore Low-Energy Bluetooth By Gaming

For several years now, a more energy-efficient version of Bluetooth has been available for use in certain wireless applications, although it hasn’t always been straightforward to use. Luckily now there’s a development platform for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) from Texas Instruments that makes using this protocol much easier, as [Markel] demonstrates with a homebrew video game controller.

The core of the project is of course the TI Launchpad with the BLE package, which uses a 32-bit ARM microcontroller running at 48 MHz. For this project, [Markel] also uses an Educational BoosterPack MKII, another TI device which resembles an NES controller. To get everything set up, though, he does have to do some hardware modifications to get everything to work properly but in the end he has a functioning wireless video game controller that can run for an incredibly long time on just four AA batteries.

If you’re building a retro gaming console, this isn’t too bad a product to get your system off the ground using modern technology disguised as an 8-bit-era controller. If you need some inspiration beyond the design of the controller, though, we have lots of examples to explore.

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