Sunday, December 27, 2015

Makevention 2015

Makevention went really well! I was able to show everything I have been working on, although I didn't have time to finish everything. I made a poster board explaining some concepts related to calculators like RPN, BCD, and CORDIC on the left side with information about my RPN Scientific Calculator on the right. I also had a print out of how my external RAM preprocessor works. A few of the people who came by my table were programmers and understood the solution.

On the table itself I had different calculators and projects laid out in roughly chronological order. The first was an MK-61 RPN calculator I added to my collection over 10 years ago. Of course I didn't make it but I wanted to show an example of an RPN calculator and what inspired me to first make calculators. When I first got the calculator out to test it, it didn't show anything on the screen and I was afraid it was broken. I took it completely apart and looked for burst capacitors. I also brushed off the battery contacts since they didn't look very clean. When I turned it on, it still didn't show anything but when I pressed a number it showed up! It seems the calculator just doesn't display anything when first turned on, instead of the zero I was expecting. Somehow I had forgotten that in the 10 years its been since I last used it.

The Casio Algebra FX 2.0 was included to show the RPN stack program I wrote for it in 2002 or so. That program was designed to make the calculator function more like the HP-48GX I had at the time which I admired so much. First, I had to buy a calculator to replace the Algebra FX 2.0+ I sold in college. Loading the program onto the calculator took quite a while to figure out! In 2002 I used a serial cable, which I think was an SB-87, to load programs without any trouble. Nowadays I don't have a serial port, so I bought an FA-124 USB cable. It turns out that this cable doesn't work on Windows 7. I also couldn't get it to work correctly under Windows XP running in an emulator. Next I tried a lot of different third-party software and finally got the program to load using FlashCOM 1.4v and an FTDI cable. For the link port I bought a 2.5mm plug that I could easily wire to the FTDI cable. After that, the program I loaded kept crashing and I thought the transfer was corrupt. After more fiddling I got Turbo C up and running in an emulator and compiled the program source myself, which produced a fairly stable program that was good enough for exhibiting, although it did crash a couple times during Makevention. Someday I would like to fix the program up and make it more stable.

The next thing I showed was a launchpad hooked up to a breadboard with a button and blinking LED to show how easy it is to get started with electronics. The next step was my binary LED calculator. I soldered a coin battery holder on to the board. After that I showed the RPN Scientific Calculator and explained that it was not too difficult to move to this stage after I managed to finish the binary LED calculator. The Programmable RPN Scientific Calculator was next. I printed temporary a colored keypad on poster paper which I taped to it, but it did not work very well. Unexpectedly, the calculator showed random keypresses when I put my hand near it. All the keys were in the same column on the keyboard, which makes me thing there is a bad connection in that row of the key matrix.

Next I showed the Improved 6502 Virtual Trainer up and running on my laptop, along with the first 6502 Virtual Trainer. I also showed what I had accomplished with the 6502 graphing calculator. So far, I have most of the hardware for it installed but I am having problems keeping the buffer chips for driving the LCD at the appropriate voltage level. Maybe the pins joining the sections of the calculator together aren't making a good connection. In any case, I showed the calculator taken apart into its sections. I also showed the Logic Tool I have been using to debug the graphing calculator and the EEPROM programmer I built. The last thing I showed was the TI-86 I bought to hook up to an ESP8266. My plan was to relay text from the calculator over WiFi to a computer running Matlab or similar software to allow the calculator to solve more complex equations. I still haven't gotten the ESP8266 voltage levels to work right, but I want to finish this project when I have time.

All in all it was a great day and I really enjoyed showing the public all the things I have been working

Friday, December 25, 2015

Summer Hackathon: Conclusion

The Summer Hackathon I started on in May came to an end in August when I displayed a lot of what I had been working on at Makevention. I finished some projects and abandoned some others. Here is the outcome of the projects I set out to work on.

EEPROM Computer
As I mentioned in the last update, a 4-bit version of this kind of computer has already been made by someone else. In the future I may make a 32-bit version, but for the time being I am done working on this.

8-bit Homebrew Computer
For this project, I designed a lot of the opcodes and most of how I want the computer to work. The chips I want to use don't seem to be simulated anywhere, so I will have to breadboard everything to test it out. So far I have one chip working just to test how it works.

Brainfuck Microcontroller
Apart from a few counters and status LEDs on a breadboard, I started soldering some boards with double row headers to hold everything. 

Juggalo Robot
During the summer I didn't make much real progress on this project. I spent most of my time working on projects for Makevention instead.

I got an ESP8266 up and running. At first I had problems with the power supply but the chip seems to run alright with those problems solved. It also lists and connects to networks. Next, I need to connect to a server and transfer data, which will be used for a calculator project.

Wireless Breadboard
This project was a failure. First of all I made a mistake with the spacing of the headers and it wouldn't fit the breadboard I was using. When I was working with it later I broke the entire header in half. The project wouldn't work anyway because the breadboard drops so much voltage. Unless I can find a breadboard that is much better, I don't intend to work on this project. 

After a lot of trouble and replacing a bricked chip, I eventually found a way to reliably program this chip. I also soldered a board to use for testing. This should be everything I need for the project I will use it in. 

BASIC Interpreter
I also didn't make any progress on this project either. It would have been used with the Wireless Breadboard project if I had finished it. I will keep it for a later project I might need BASIC for.

LCD Programming
I got an LCD working for the 6502 Graphing Calculator project, as well as a VFD (technically not an LCD) for the Improved RPN Calculator. I did not get the LCD on the STM32F429 Discovery board working because I didn't need it for the Improved 6502 Trainer. I also haven't gotten the monochrome 5.5 inch LCD that requires -27v working yet. It will probably be easier to get a color LCD of that size instead.

Improved 6502 Trainer
I finished just about everything I wanted to for this project. It is much faster than the first 6502 Trainer. I will use it to develop for the 6502 Graphing Calculator.

Improved RPN Calculator
I finished almost everything for this project except a permanent keypad. I also renamed the project "Programmable RPN Calculator." The keystroke programming can repeat keystrokes, but it can't do any testing or branching. I will add those features eventually, but not in this version of the hardware. I shrank the size of numbers from 255 bytes down to 140. This lets me store all the temporary registers used during calculations on the chip, which makes calculations about five times faster. When I make a keypad I will be finished.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

RPN Scientific Calculator on Hackaday

In August my RPN Scientific Calculator was featured on Hackaday in Hacklet 70 - Calculator Projects. It was really great to see my project on Hackaday! There was also a small scientific calculator running a 6502 emulator, a KIM-1 replica with a calculator form factor, and a project called CalcHack that adds functionality to TI graphing calculators. CalcHack is an awesome idea and one thing it adds is a 2.4GHz radio. One of my ideas for Makevention was adding an ESP8266 to the inside of a TI-86, but this solution is much better! Hackaday also created a page for calculator projects where I added my RPN Scientific Calculator, Improved RPN Scientific Calculator, and 6502 Graphing Calculator.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Progress Update

The past few months I have not had enough time to update this blog because I had so much to do in school this semester. My laptop also stopped working properly and I haven't had time to fix it, so I have not done anything with my projects. The only thing I have done related to programming is a few problems on Project Euler, which I recommend to anyone who enjoys programming. In August, a lot of things happened leading up to Makevention. Now that I have some time during the holidays, I am going to try to catch up on some posts. Hopefully I will have more time this semester to work on projects.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

New Project: Logic Tool

Since my plan to make a wireless breadboard did not work out, I decided to use the MCP23S17 shift registers I bought for it to make something similar. It is similar to a logic analyzer but shows information in real time rather than recording a short period of time at high resolution. It has female headers for 64 pins but so far I have only soldered 32 of them in. As time gets closer to Makevention, I'm trying to save time however I can to get my last few projects working.

With 64 pins I will have enough to monitor all of the lines of my 6502 project. Unlike a logic analyzer, I can
also switch any of the pins to be outputs. Now I am doing this with a simple GUI I made that shows or controls the lines with virtual LEDs. This saves me from hanging loads of LEDs on all the lines of my project. Later I would like to add other forms of input and output that I can drag and drop to the dark gray area in the middle of the form. This could include buttons, sliders or hex readouts like I had for my 6502 Virtual Project. At the moment, only the LEDs work and I am using them to drive the address and data lines of the 6502 socket for my graphing calculator project. This lets me check the control signals of the CPLD fairly quickly.

In the end I think this project will work out better than the plan I had for the Wireless Breadboard. When I tried the breadboard I was going to use with another project, it showed a big voltage drop across the rails. I did not know this could happen and it would have been unfortunate to build the whole project and then find out the board was not very good.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

New Project: 6502 Graphing Calculator

One of the last things I want to make progress on before Makevention in a few weeks is a graphing calculator I have been planning for quite a while. It will use a 65C02 and is the main reason I started on my 6502 Virtual Trainer last year. Most models of Texas Instrument's graphing calculators use a Z80, which was a competitor to the 6502 in the past. Those models have a 6 or 15MHz clock. The Z80 needs roughly three times more cycles than a 6502 to accomplish the same task, so running this calculator at 5MHz should be as fast as one of those calculators at 15MHz. At the maximum speed of 14MHz, it should be nearly three times as fast. Interestingly, Hewlett Packard did produce several non-graphing calculators like the HP-35S, which used a 8502 chip based on the 6502. Later models of TI calculators used the Motorola 68000 and the latest use ARM processors. These will certainly outperform anything I could make with a 6502. My hope is to make something in power between the Z80 and 68000 series with a few added features.

So far I have finished most of the decoding logic in the ATF1508 CPLD I have been working on. It has 57
IO pins and I have managed to use them all without finishing all the functionality I need. My plan is to use a 512kB SRAM chip with the first 2kB of address space always mapped to the first 2kB of the SRAM. The next two 30kB chunks of address space will point to two windows in the SRAM controlled by the CPLD. This will let me copy large chunks of data between two parts of the SRAM without changing the window between copies. Hopefully 30kB is enough for any single program the calculator will need to run. The last 2kB will be the EEPROM. This is hopefully enough space for a small bootloader that will copy firmware from an SD card and into the SRAM banks. The peripherals like the keyboard and LCD are mapped into the last few bytes of the first 2kB of SRAM.

For the LCD I found a fairly cheap 3.2 inch 320x240 color LCD on eBay. It is the perfect size for a calculator like this. It was also easy to get working with an MSP430 and some shift registers. The only downside is that I did not get an SPI version and I do not have enough CPLD pins to drive the 16 bit data port. The good news is that the LCD seems to expect 3v signals, so I will need some shift registers for level shifting anyway, which frees up a lot of pins. I don't think I will be able to finish very much more of this project for Makevention but I would like to get it drawing to the LCD from a program stored on an EEPROM by then. If I do have extra time, I will work on getting it to read a keypad.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

New Project: Programmable RPN Calculator

One of the projects I started on for my Summer Hackathon is a new version of my RPN calculator. This version uses an LPC1114 instead of the two MSP430s the last version used. Hopefully this version will be much smaller and faster. Even though I'm not yet at a good stopping place I wanted to make a post about it so that the last post is not overly long.

Porting the code from the MSP430 was not too difficult. The only real trouble was moving some of the memory registers from the external RAM to the internal RAM of the LPC1114. This really increases calculation speed since it eliminates the bottleneck of accessing external memory. On the MSP430 version I used a preprocessor function to identify and replace any array access to the external RAM with functions calls. This worked well since all of the registers were stored externally but caused a few headaches on the new version since internally stored registers need to be handled differently. One idea I had was to use 32 bit pointers, which wouldn't cause the performance hit they do on a 16-bit system, to somehow encode not only the memory address, but also the memory bank and whether an address is stored externally or internally. It also seems like it would make more sense to allocate memory buffers on a stack as they are needed, rather than hardcoding them in memory. This got me thinking about how other systems handle this problem and I decided to add a way to do that to my 6502 project with a CPLD.

Along the way I also noticed a few areas where I could improve my code. For some reason I got in the habit of reusing generic counter variables like x or i in an effort to save memory. This just makes everything harder to read and does not save any memory since GCC optimizes how variables are used anyway. BCD numbers should also be stored with the smallest places first since that way extending the number by a decimal place only involves incrementing the length field rather than moving every byte of the number one space. In retrospect 255 decimal places is probably way too much for such a simple calculator. This didn't make much difference when I had lots of external RAM but is inconvenient now that I am trying to fit as many registers as I can into the LPC1114's memory.

To read and write the external RAM I'm using the chip's SPI peripheral. It turned out to be somewhat difficult to configure since several of the steps to get it to work have to be done in a certain order. Debugging this was a lot easier with a logic analyzer. After I had it working and got the memory registers straightened out, I was a little surprised to see that calculating sine was slower than on the MSP430. This was a shock since it was so much faster in my microcontroller comparison. I tried raising the SPI peripheral speed to 24MHz, even though the max speed of the RAM is 20MHz, but it was still slower. My next step is to try and measure the clock speed of the SPI with the logic analyzer to make sure it really is going that fast. After I got sine to work, I uncommented other parts of the program in parts to see how much would fit in the flash. Compiling with GCC's -O3 option for speed optimization quickly overflowed the flash but all of it fit in less than 20kB with -Os. One of my gripes with GCC is that it doesn't tell you by how much the firmware is too large, so you have no clue how much you would need to shave off for it to fit.

Initializing and toggling the pins of the LPC1114 is a bit more complicated than on the MSP430 since different pins have different configuration bits and the pins themselves are not mapped into memory in order. I had a look at the HAL library and it seems to use quite a bit of code for what I want to accomplish so I wrote a simple class for handling pins. Luckily I can use C++ since I am just compiling with GCC, unlike with OpenSTM32 where I was stuck with plain C. One neat thing someone showed me was how to use operator overloading so that something like "Pin=1;" does the same as "Pin.high();"

Since I have so much space left over in the flash, I started adding a keystroke programming function. This was one of the neat things I have always liked about earlier calculators. I am nearly done with the editor on the screen for it, which I'm working on with the PC version of the program since it is much faster to test. The next time I do a project like this I will put the PC and embedded version in the same file and enable them with include statements instead of copying the changed sections of the PC version. So far I am only adding the ability to repeat keys and not loop or branch since I want to finish this and at least one other project in time for Makevention in August. When I have more time I hope to add that functionality.