Two pairs of boards described in the article, with toggle switches and RCA jacks, shown interconnected, LEDs on all four boards lit up.

Boards For Playful Exploration Of Digital Protocols

Teaching people efficiently isn’t limited to transmitting material from one head to another — it’s also about conveying the principles that got us there. [Mara Bos] shows us a toolkit (Twitter,
nitter link
) that you can arm your students with, creating a small playground where, given a set of constraints, they can invent and figure communication protocols out on their own.

This tool is aimed to teach digital communication protocols from a different direction. We all know that UART, I2C, SPI and such have different use cases, but why? Why are baud rates important? When are clock or chip select lines useful? What’s the deal with the start bit? We kinda sorta figure out the answers to these on our own by mental reverse-engineering, but these things can be taught better, and [Mara] shows us how.

Gently guided by your observations and insights, your students will go through defining new and old communication standards from the ground up, rediscovering concepts like acknowledge bits, bus contention, or even DDR. And, as you point out that the tricks they just discovered have real-world counterparts, you will see the light bulb go on in their head — realizing that they, too, could be part of the next generation of engineers that design the technologies of tomorrow.

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The Virtue Of Wires In The Age Of Wireless

We ran an article this week about RS-485, a noise resistant differential serial multidrop bus architecture. (Tell me where else you’re going to read articles like that!) I’ve had my fun with RS-485 in the past, and reading this piece reminded me of those days.

You see, RS-485 lets you connect a whole slew of devices up to a single bundle of Cat5 cable, and if you combine it with the Modbus protocol, you can have them work together in a network. Dedicate a couple of those Cat5 lines to power, and it’s the perfect recipe for a home, or hackerspace, small-device network — the kind of things that you, and I, would do with WiFi and an ESP8266 today.

Wired is more reliable, has fewer moving parts, and can solve the “how do I get power to these things” problem. It’s intrinsically simpler: no radios, just serial data running as voltage over wires. But nobody likes running cable, and there’s just so much more demo code out there for an ESP solution. There’s an undeniable ease of development and cross-device compatibility with WiFi. Your devices can speak directly to a computer, or to the whole Internet. And that’s been the death of wired.

Still, some part of me admires the purpose-built simplicity and the bombproof nature of the wired bus. It feels somehow retro, but maybe I’ll break out some old Cat5 and run it around the office just for old times’ sake.

Retro Serial Terminal Uses Modern Chips To Get CP/M Machine Talking

The hobbyists of the early days of the home computer era worked wonders with the comparatively primitive chips of the day, and what couldn’t be accomplished with a Z80 or a 6502 was often relegated to complex designs based on logic chips and discrete components. One wonders what these hackers could have accomplished with the modern components we take for granted.

Perhaps it would be something like this minimal serial terminal for the current crop of homebrew retrocomputers. The board is by [Augusto Baffa] and is used in his Baffa-2 homebrew microcomputer, an RC2014-esque Z80 machine that runs CP/M. This terminal board is one of many peripheral boards that plug into the Baffa-2’s backplane, but it’s one of the few that seems to have taken the shortcut of using modern microcontrollers to get its job done. The board sports a pair of ATmega328s; one handles serial communication with the Baffa-2 backplane, while the other takes care of running the VGA interface. The card also has a PS/2 keyboard interface, and supports VT-100 ANSI escapes. The video below shows it in action with a 17″ LCD monitor in the old 4:3 aspect ratio.

We like the way this terminal card gets the job done simply and easily, and we really like the look of the Baffa-2 itself. We also spied an IMSAI 8080 and an Altair 8800 in the background of the video. We’d love to know more about those.

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You Can Send MIDI Over I2C If You Really Need To

The Musical Instrument Digital Interface has a great acronym that is both nice to say and cleanly descriptive. The standard for talking to musical instruments relies on a serial signal at 31250 bps, which makes it easy to transmit using any old microcontroller UART with a settable baud rate. However, [Kevin] has dived into explore the utility of sending MIDI signals over I2C instead.

With a bit of hacking at the Arduino MIDI library, [Kevin] was able to get the microcontroller outputting MIDI data over the I2C interface, and developed a useful generic I2C MIDI transport for the platform. His first tests involved using this technique in concert with Gravity dual UART modules. After he successfully got one running, [Kevin] realised that four could be hooked up to a single Arduino, giving it 8 serial UARTS, or, in another way of thinking, 8 MIDI outputs.

At its greatest level of development, [Kevin] shows off his I2C MIDI chops by getting a single Raspberry Pi Pico delivering MIDI signals to 8 Arduinos, all over I2C. All the Arduinos are daisy-chained with their 5V and I2C lines wired together, and the system basically swaps out traditional MIDI channels for I2C addresses instead.

There’s not a whole lot of obvious killer applications for this, but if you want to send MIDI data to a bunch of microcontrollers, you might find it easier daisy-chaining I2C rather than hopping around with a serial line in the classic MIDI-IN/MIDI-THRU fashion.

We’ve seen [Kevin]’s work before too, like the wonderful Lo-Fi Orchestra. Video after the break.

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A pinout diagram of the new Pi 4, showing all the alternate interfaces available.

Did You Know That The Raspberry Pi 4 Has More SPI, I2C, UART Ports?

We’ve gotten used to the GPIO-available functions of Raspberry Pi computers remaining largely the same over the years, which is why it might have flown a little bit under the radar: the Raspberry Pi 4 has six SPI controllers, six I2C controllers, and six UARTs – all on its 40-pin header. You can’t make use of all of these at once, but with up to four different connections wired to a single pin you can carve out a pretty powerful combination of peripherals for your next robotics, automation or cat herding project.

The datasheet for these peripherals is pleasant to go through, with all the register maps nicely laid out – even if you don’t plan to work with the register mappings yourself, the maintainers of your preferred hardware enablement libraries will have an easier time! And, of course, these peripherals are present on the Compute Module 4, too. It might feel like such a deluge of interfaces is excessive, however, it lets you achieve some pretty cool stuff that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

Having multiple I2C interfaces helps deal with various I2C-specific problems, such as address conflicts, throughput issues, and mixing devices that support different maximum speeds, which means you no longer need fancy mux chips to run five low-resolution Melexis thermal camera sensors at once. (Oh, and the I2C clock stretching bug has been fixed!) SPI interfaces are used for devices with high bandwidth, and with a few separate SPI ports, you could run multiple relatively high-resolution displays at once, No-Nixie Nixie clock style.

As for UARTs, the Raspberry Pi’s one-and-a-half UART interface has long been an issue in robotics and home automation applications. With a slew of devices like radio receivers/transmitters, LIDARs and resilient RS485 multi-drop interfaces available in UART form, it’s nice that you no longer have to sacrifice Bluetooth or a debug console to get some fancy sensors wired up to your robot’s brain. You can enable up to six UARTs. Continue reading “Did You Know That The Raspberry Pi 4 Has More SPI, I2C, UART Ports?”

Turn On Sarcasm With The Flip Of A Switch

Sarcasm is notoriously difficult to distinguish in online communities. So much, in fact, that a famous internet rule called Poe’s Law is named after the phenomenon. To adapt, users have adopted several methods for indicating implied sarcasm such as the /s tag, but more recently a more obvious sarcasm indicator has appeared that involves random capitalization througout the sarcastic phrase. While this looks much more satisfying than other methods, it is a little cumbersome to type unless you have this sarcasm converter for your keyboard.

The device, built by [Ben S], is based around two Raspberry Pi Pico development boards and sits between a computer and any standard USB keyboard. The first Pi accepts the USB connection from the keyboard and reads all of the inputs before sending what it reads to the second Pi over UART. If the “SaRcAsM” button is pressed, the input text stream is converted to sarcasm by toggling the caps lock key after every keystroke.

For communicating in today’s online world with rapidly changing memes, a device like this is almost necessary for making sure you aren’t misunderstood on whichever popular forum you like to frequent. We don’t know how long this trend will continue, either, but until something else replaces it to more concisely communicate sarcasm we expect it to remain relevant. The build is also a reminder of the various interesting ways that microcontrollers can be programmed to act as keyboards.

Thanks to for the tip!

Reverse Engineering A Topfield VFD Front Panel

Hackers love the warm glow of a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD), and there’s no shortage of dead consumer electronics from which they can be pulled to keep our collective parts bins nicely stocked. Unfortunately, figuring out how to actually drive these salvaged modules can be tricky. But thanks to the efforts of [Lauri Pirttiaho], we now have a wealth of information about a VFD-equipped front panel used in several models of Topfield personal video recorders.

The board in question is powered by a Hynix HMS99C52S microcontroller and includes five buttons, a small four character 14-segment display, a larger eight character field, and an array of media-playback related icons. There’s also a real-time clock module onboard, as well as an IR receiver. [Lauri] tells us this same board is used in at least a half-dozen Topfield models, which should make it relatively easy to track one down.

After determining what goes where in the 6-pin connector that links the module with the recorder, a bit of poking with a logic analyzer revealed that they communicate over UART. With the commands decoded, [Lauri] was able to write a simple Python tool that lets you drive the front panel with nothing more exotic than a USB-to-serial adapter. Though keep in mind, you’ll need to provide 17 VDC on the appropriate pin of the connector to fire up the VFD.

What’s that? You don’t need the whole front panel, and just want to pull the VFD itself off the board? Not a problem. Our man [Lauri] was kind enough to document how data is passed from the Hynix microcontroller to the display itself; critical information should you want to liberate the screen from its PVR trappings.

If you manage to get your hands on one of these modules, it would be an ideal addition to a custom media streamer. Though we suppose simply turning it into a network-controlled clock would be a suitable alternative if you’re looking for something a bit easier.

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