VFD Character Display Turned Into Audio VU Meter

Humans love visualising music, whether it’s in the form of an inscrutable equation drawing squiggles in Winamp, or a simple VU meter pulsing with the beat. This build from [mircemk] is of the latter variety, repurposing a VFD display to do the job.

The project is built around a VFM202MDA vacuum fluorescent display, which provides that lovely green-blue glow we all know and love, driven by a PT6314 driver chip. This has the benefit that it can be readily driven by a microcontroller in much the same way as the familiar HD44780 character LCD driver chip. With some minor tweaks, the character set can be modified to allow the display to become a surprisingly-responsive VU meter.

An Arduino Nano runs the show, with an envelope follower circuit feeding a signal for the left and right channels into the analog inputs of the microcontroller. The Arduino then measures the voltage on those inputs and feeds the necessary commands to the PT6314 driver to update the display.

The resulting VU meter has 38 bars per channel, and is highly responsive. The fast flickering of the meter bars in response to the music make it compelling to watch, and the era-appropriate enclosure the project is built in adds plenty to the aesthetic.

We’ve seen other VU meter builds before too, like this one that uses a little physics knowledge to create a more realistic analog-like needle meter. Video after the break.
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Using Arduinos To Drive Undocumented Displays

For those of us old enough to remember the VCR (and the difficulty of programming one), the ubiquitous vacuum fluorescent display, or VFD, is burned into our memories, mostly because of their brightness and contrast when compared to the superficially-similar LCD. These displays are incredibly common even apart from VCRs, though, and it’s easy to find them for next to no cost, but figuring out how to drive one if you just pulled it out of a 30-year-old VCR is going to take some effort. In this build, [mircemk] shows us how he drives unknown VFD displays using an Arduino in order to build his own weather forecasting station.

For this demonstration [mircemk] decided to turn a VFD into a weather forecasting station. First of all, though, he had to get the VFD up and running. For this unit, which came from a point-of-sale (POS) terminal, simply connecting power to the device turned on a demo mode for the display which let him know some information about it. From there, and with the knowledge that most POS terminals use RS232 to communicate, he was able to zero in on the Rx and Tx pins on the on-board microcontroller and interface them with an Arduino. From there it’s a short step to being able to output whatever he wanted to this display.

For this project, [mircemk] wanted the display to output information about weather, but rather than simply pull data from some weather API he is actually using a sensor suite connected to the Arduino to measure things like barometric pressure in order to make a 12-hour forecast. The design is inspired by old Zambretti weather forecasters which used analog wheels to input local weather data. It’s an interesting build not only for the VFD implementation but also for attempting to forecast the weather directly with just a tiny sensor set instead of downloading a forecast to display. To do any better with your own forecasts, you’d likely need your own weather station.

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VFD clock with wood case

Captivating Clock Puts Endangered Displays On Display

The DT-1704A VFD is straight from the 1976 Radio Shack Catalog
The DT-1704 VFD as seen the 1976 Radio Shack Catalog. The “A” version has no substrate, making the VFD fully clear for added effect.

When you have a small stock of vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) straight out of the 1976 Radio Shack catalog, you might sit around wondering what to do with them. When [stepawayfromthegirls] found out that his stash of seven DT-1704A tubes may be the last in existence, there was no question. They must be displayed! [stepawayfromthegirls]’ mode of display is this captivating clock build. Four VFDs with their aqua colored elements are set against a black background in a bespoke wooden case. Looking under the hood, the beauty only increases.

VFD Clock Wiring is almost as stunning as the clock itself
VFD Clock Wiring is nearly as stunning as the clock itself.

Keeping the build organized was not an easy task because the tubes are designed in such a way that each segment must be individually controlled. The needed I/O duties are provided by an Arduino Mega 2560 Pro (Embed). 28 2n3904’s each with their two resistors serve as drivers for each VFD segment.

The output of a  24 V AC transformer left over from the 1980s is rectified to 34 V of DC power which is then regulated to 27 V to power the tubes. Switching power supplies provide 6 V to the Arduino and 1.3 V to the filaments. If you look closely, you’ll also see a GPS module so that the clock doesn’t need to be set. To future-proof the clock against daylight savings time adjustments, a potentiometer on the back of the case allows the user to set custom hour offsets without editing any code.

We think the end result is a remarkably clean, simple, and elegant clock that he will be proud of for many years to come!

If VFD clock builds are your thing, then you’ll enjoy this Network Attached VFD Clock and a Mini VFD Clock with floating display.  And while not VFD based, we’d be silly to leave out the Boat Anchor Nixie Clock with enough knobs, switches, and buttons to delight even the fussiest of hacker.


Upcycling A VFD

A lot of electronics wind up in landfills, and when [Playful Electronics] saw an old cash register heading for the dump, he decided to give its VFD display a new life as an Arduino peripheral. While you might not find the exact same parts, it is still fun to watch him work through the process, and you might find some tips for doing your own upcycle project next time you see some old tech heading out to pasture.

The project was relatively straightforward since data for the display was available. It is meant to connect via RS232 with a point of sale printer, so working with it is pretty straightforward.

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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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Vintage Displays Hack Chat With Fran Blanche

Join us on Wednesday, August 11 at noon Pacific for the Vintage Displays Hack Chat with Fran Blanche!

In terms of ease of integration and density of the information that can be shown, it’s hard to argue with the fact that modern displays like LCD panels are anything but superior to the character-based displays of yore. Throw one into a project, add a little code from a few off-the-shelf libraries to drive it, and you’re on to the next job.

Efficient, yes, but what does this approach do for the engineer’s soul? What design itch does it scratch; what aesthetic does it celebrate? Nostalgic questions, true, and not every project lends itself to exploring old display technologies. But some still do, thankfully, and when the occasion calls for it, we’re glad that there are those out there who are still actively involved in the retro display community, making sure that what was once state-of-the-art technology is still able to be added to modern projects.

There’s no doubt that Fran Blanche is one of those passing the torch of vintage displays down to the next generation. You’ll certainly know Fran from her popular Fran Lab channel on YouTube, where in addition to about a million other interests, she has explored some really cool vintage displays: the Nimo cathode-ray tube, super-bright incandescent seven-segment displays, the delightfully strange “Bina-View”, and many, many more. Fran will stop by the Hack Chat to talk about all these retro displays, what she’s learned from collecting them, and how they shaped the displays we take so much for granted these days. Oh, and perhaps we’ll also talk about her upcoming ride on “G-Force 1” as well.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 11 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Z80 Family Reunion Discovered In Old PoS Card Swiper

[Ben Heck] found an old card-swipe point-of-sale box at the Goodwill store, took it home, and tore it down to see what was inside. He found a completely serviceable single board computer based on the Z80. In fact, there’s a whole family of four Z80 chips: the CPU itself, the DART chip (dual UART), the PIO chip (parallel input/output interface), and the CTC chip (counter/timer circuit). That’s not all — there’s a landline telephone modem, a real time clock, 32K of RAM and UV-EPROM. The second PCB of this assembly holds a hefty sixteen-key keypad and a sixteen-character vacuum fluorescent alphanumeric display. All this for the bargain price of $2.99.

Surely [Ben] will dig into the Z80 system in the future, but in this video he tries to make the display work. An OKI Semiconductor controller drives the VFD. After tracking down the data sheet, [Ben] wires it up to an Arduino and writes a quick program. Only a few YouTube minutes later, he conquers the display, drawing sample text anywhere he wants on the screen with any brightness he desires.

You never know what you may find lurking inside old equipment like this. You might find a proprietary ASIC with no documentation, or like [Ben] did here, you could find a fully functioning embedded computer. If [Ben] can whip up a RAM-based emulator to replace the 32K UV-EPROM, he’ll have a perfect evaluation board for Z80 projects.

Let us know in the comments if you have found any treasures like this. Also, how would you use this board if you had found it? Thanks to reader [Nikša Barlović] for sending in the tip.

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