thursday, 4 march 2010

posted at 09:51

Nothing big to report, just work plodding along, so here's an update in pictures.

Here's the fully assembled N64 RGB DAC board:

It's not currently working though, so some debugging is required. When I hook it up I get no picture, and occassionally it seems to short out the whole console. I haven't really had time to diagnose it properly yet. I'm mostly waiting to figure out a systematic approach, since its all a bit confusing right now.

My other project is the USB-to-N64 controller bridge. I've written a lot of AVR assembly for this so far but haven't done any actual hardware work. Its coming very soon though, so I very carefully removed the cable from one of my controllers (so I have the option of putting it back together later) and added some pins to the end so I can connect up a breadboard:

This is my first outing with shrinkwrap tube and it was a breeze. My wife has a hot air gun that she uses for her craft work, mostly with embossing inks, so I borrowed it and it worked brilliantly. I was surprised at how much physical strength it actually gives.

This is the insides of my N64:

The large ribbon is the digital signal tap for the RGB DAC, soldered to the inputs on the existing composite DAC chip (easier to solder to that chip than to the much narrower output pins on the video chip. The brown/black pair in the left is the 3.3v power feed for the RGB DAC. Over there on the right under everything is a DE9 D-sub connector with lines for the outputs from the RGB DAC (the narrower ribbon), audio from under the multi-out (the purple/gray/white ribbon) and a 5v line that's needed for some SCART signalling (the fat red wire). Right now its actually hooked to a 3.3v line under the board because I was testing something. Soon I'll hook it instead to the 5V regulator you see just to the right of the composite DAC.

Finally, some recent ebay loot:

Clockwise from top left: a pack of 78L33 3.3v voltage regulators; a sheet of 6 74HC374 8-bit latches and 4 74HC04 inverters; an anti-static pack containing two ATmega88 microcontrollers; a giant roll of 560-ohm 1% resistors (190 left on the roll); a tube of 74HC04 inverters; and a pack of 10n ceramic capacitors (which I use for IC bypass caps).

As I've mentioned before, ebay is an incredible source of cheap parts. There's less than $30 of parts in this picture, and that's not everything I've bought recently. I love getting home every second day and there's a little parcel waiting for me!

friday, 29 january 2010

posted at 09:28

Ok, so what am I working on. Part two of my N64 modernisation project is to arrange it so that USB controllers can be used with the Nintendo 64.

The reasoning here is pretty simple. N64 controllers have a design flaw. I don't fully understand it, but the gist is that there's a magic powder inside the analog sticks that gives them their "springiness" and makes them return to centre. As the controllers wear, the powder escapes and it gets to the point where the sticks won't return to centre anymore as well as losing their sensitivity. Mine have held up pretty well, mostly because I've gone to great pains to take care of them, but they're fifteen years old now and they're starting to show it.

Obviously these controllers aren't manufactured anymore. Its not enough to buy used ones, for obvious reasons, and new ones are difficult to come by. Not impossible - I've seen them on eBay and in shops like Gametraders and Cash Converters, and I guess I wouldn't need to buy many of them, but still, they aren't exactly cheap or plentiful.

A better option is USB gamepads. As you'd expect from any PC peripheral, they're common as dirt and the good ones (eg Logitech or XBox) are comfortable, sturdy and responsive. So my thought has been to arrange it so that these sticks can be used with the N64.

First stop: Google. There's lots of projects where people have interfaced N64 controllers to something else (USB, parallel, Gamecube/Wii) or interfaced similar controllers (Gamecube) to the N64. As far as I've been able to tell though, nobody has ever got a USB stick going on a N64. Great, new territory - seems I can't avoid it.

I've spent the last couple of weeks researching and thinking and while I haven't yet done any testing with real hardware, I think I have a rough concept for how an interface might work. There's three aspects to it:

  • Acting as a USB host controller and HID class implementation.
  • Translating USB gamepad data into equivalent N64 button/position data
  • Speaking the proprietary N64 controller protocol.

The translation is fairly straight forward. The gamepads I'm interested in (I'll be using a Logitech Dual Action pad for my testing) have (at least) two sticks, a direction pad, four buttons and two shoulder buttons. There's enough here to map to the N64 layout, which is one stick, a direction pad, two buttons (A and B), a second directional pad (C) and two shoulder buttons. The left shoulder maps to the Z trigger or the real left shoulder, as they were never used together on the N64 due to the structure of the controller. The second stick on the Logitech pad will map to the C buttons, with some threshold to determine if the analog stick is considered "pushed" or not.

The USB side is interesting. Its pretty easy to build a AVR-based USB device. V-USB is a very good software stack to turn an AVR into a USB device controller, or you can use one of the numerous chips from FTDI. For a USB host however, the options are far less compelling. As far as I'm able to tell, V-USB does not implement a USB host controller at all. I had intended to use the FTDI Vinculum VDIP1, but as I mentioned previously, the cost of shipping is prohibitive. After some more searching yesterday I found SIAM32, a software USB host controller implemented by a student project team at Cornell. I think some combination of their code and the V-USB code should be enough to implement a minimal host controller and HID class, which is all I need.

On the other side is the N64 controller protocol. Although its proprietary, its long been studied and is pretty well understood. The most useful sources of information have been tzanger's n64dev page and Micah Dowty's Cube64 project.

Its a command based protocol. The N64 sends a command, and the controller sends the response. There's no provision for the controller to initiate a data send - the N64 regularly polls the controller by sending a "get status" command, to which the controller response by sending a data packet containing the current state of the buttons and stick. There's also commands in there ask the controller if its there and what peripherals it has attached (such as a rumble or memory pak), as well as reading and writing to the memory card. Its pretty simple really, which is good - I like simple.

The connection to the N64 has three lines - +3.3V, ground and data. Obviously the power lines play no part in the communication. All that happens on the data line.

The most difficult thing about the data protocol itself is its strict timing requirements, as it typical of a serial protocol without a seperate clock. The line begins in a high (logical 1) state, held there by a pull-up resistor in the controller itself (the line is never explicitly driven high by either end).

A single byte consists of eight data bits and one stop bit. A single bit is 4 microseconds wide. To start the bit, the sender pulls the line low for 1us. The next two microseconds are either high or low, depending on the value of the bit. The final microsecond is high, then it goes again. After all eight bits are sent, the final 4us are all high to signal the end of the byte. See tzanger's page - it has some diagrams that make it easier to follow.

What this means is that however I implement this I need to be able to sample or transition the data line every microsecond. At 16MHz, that means I need to do something every sixteen cycles. Most instructions on the AVR take a single cycle to execute, so there's plenty of time to do things in between, but because I need to be able to respond to the N64 sending data within 2us, its pretty much impossible to run the USB host out of the same AVR.

So my interface has two AVRs - one doing the N64 comms, the other managing USB. This complicates things as now some mechanism is required for the two AVRs to communicate with each other.

This is the bit I'm not quite sure about. I originally thought to have the AVR ports tied together such that the USB AVR could just chuck the current state on the port and the N64 AVR could read it whenever it wanted. This is no good though because the entire controller state is 32 bits wide - sixteen for the button state, eight for the analog stick X axis and eight more for the Y axis. I don't really have the bandwidth available to do it that way, not even with the larger AVRs, which would be overkill in every other way anyway.

I've been thinking about perhaps using eight lines and sending the data a byte at a time, but at that point I've now got the two AVRs needing to coordinate communication when they could both be interrupted at any moment, breaking the whole thing. It might work if I allowed the transfer to be interrupted and in that case the N64 AVR will just use the last button state, but then this means that the USB AVR would have to be constantly streaming the current state rather than just sending updates when transitions occur. If it didn't then a state transition could be lost if the transfer is interrupted.

There's always the option of putting four eight-bit latches in between the two AVRs and storing the state there, as they can effectively be thought of as memories with seperate read and write channels. This however means slower access (external memories access instructions take two cycles in most cases instead of one) which might present timing problems, as well as requiring more board space.

I need to study the AVR datasheets to figure out if any of the peripherals it comes with can help me out. I'm sure a simple solution will present itself, I just have to find it. Fortunately the need for it is quite a way off. The USB and N64 comms need to be developed first, and they need to be done in isolation to ensure they work correctly.

So that's where I'm at. So far I'm just getting my development environment setup. This week I've built myself an AVR programmer which is working nicely, so next I need to write a few basic programs and make sure my laptop is setup properly and I know what I'm doing. Then the real work can begin :)

thursday, 28 january 2010

posted at 09:05

I was supposed to blog more often, but as usual I missed it. I'm not just going to dump everything though, but rather try and break things up a bit into more logical chunks. So today lets talk about shopping!

I've been looking around for local suppliers of parts and toys. In the past I've always just taken a trip down to my local Jaycar for whatever I needed, but I'm increasingly coming to understand that their range is actually quite limited for what I want and the prices are quite expensive. So I've naturally turned to the internet for help.

The first stop was RS Electronics. They're one of the big industry suppliers, and have a warehouse in Port Melbourne (which means fast shipping). Somehow they also offer free delivery. I placed an order with a couple of weeks ago as a tester, though still for stuff I needed: a couple of AVRs, a PIC, and some 20Mhz crystals. They had the chips in stock and they arrived by courier the next day. The crystals were only available in their UK warehouse, so they didn't arrive, but neither did they bill for them straight away either. I was a little confused as to whether or not they were still on order or if I had to do something else, so I sent an email. A couple of hours later I got a phone call from a lovely lady who apologised for the confusion and said she'd make sure the order was still good. Obviously it worked, because a week later my parts arrived. So +1 to RS. Mid-range prices, fast free shipping, excellent customer support.

Now I had 20Mhz crystals for the PIC, but I was still looking for 16Mhz crystals for the AVRs. I couldn't initially find anyone that stocked them locally, but eBay had the answer. The ALLEPARTS store operates out of China and has bulk components for a pittance and free shipping (how do folks afford this, I don't get it). The paltry sum of $8 resulted in a pack of 20 crystals arriving a couple of weeks later. That's an insane price - Jaycar charge $5 PER CRYSTAL! There are other very similar stores on eBay, but I'll probably end up back there because now I know them.

At this point I had enough to get on with the first stages of my next project, which I'll write about soon. While waiting for parts I spent a lot of time trawling for other suppliers, and found all sorts of stuff along the way.

First, the venerable SparkFun. They seem to be near the centre of the hobbyist electronic world, supplying lots of common and uncommon parts and kits, and working hard to make parts that are difficult to get or to work with accessible to mortals (eg by building breakout boards). There's tutorials and forums and all manner of things. I've spent a lot of time here reading things (particularly the Eagle tutorials) and generally lusting after things, and I probably would have laid down a chunk of cash pretty quickly if it wasn't for the insane price of shipping to Australia, a topic I'll rant about soon. Not being able to just buy stuff immediately forced me to continue looking locally for suppliers, but also to really consider what I actually need.

For example: I'm mesmerised by the Arduino, and I'm of course not the only one. My first thought was that it would be the perfect platform for learning AVR stuff, and so I determined that this was what I needed. Upon further study, I started to realise that while it is very very cool, its not at all what I want. Its a great tool for rapid development, and its been positioned so that non-technical people can use it too, but from what I can gather, its has way more overheard than I want. I'll get into it more when I talk about my new project next time, but I need some very specific hardware with insanely quick response times. The code is likely going to need to be cycle-counted to work properly.

I could do this with the Arduino by bypassing its firmware and development environment and else and just using it as an AVR board, but by the time I do that I've removed all the things that make it special and worth the extra cash. Its not hideously expensive but if you hadn't already gathered, I am (for a variety of reasons) working on less than a shoestring budget. I can't justify the cost. But I'm still very interested in the platform, and I'm thinking about buying the starter kit for a tech-savvy friend that hasn't done any kind of electronics stuff before.

Lets talk about international shipping. Its insane. There's a world of interesting and reasonably priced parts that become inaccessible because the price of shipping is often more than the price of the part itself! My current hate is the FTDI Vinculum VDIP1. Its a brilliant little module that acts as a USB host controller. This week I could just find $40 for the part itself, but I can't justify $80 once shipping from the UK is factored in. I haven't yet found a local supplier that prices it reasonably; RS have it for $70 which is slightly better but still more than I want to spend. Honestly, the freight plane pilot could put this thing in his pocket; that's how small it is. How can that kind of cost be justified?

PCB manufacture is another thing that's going to hurt. I've been spending a lot of time in Eagle and it makes preparing PCBs a snap. As I mentioned previously, I planned to try BatchPCB to get my DAC board fabricated. I sent the order in a couple of weeks ago. The board itself came to a quite reasonable US$15. By the time handling and shipping was factored in, it blew out to a cool US$50. I made the order anyway, because I want/need the board and I'm treating it as a trial, but its only going to be something I can do for complex designs. This seems to just be the nature of the industry though; board manufacture isn't cheap on small scales. I have heard good things about Seeed Studio and their efforts to make this sort of thing more accessible, but I haven't quite figured out how they work yet.

That's the shipping news. Lets get back on to buying things.

So local stores! I've managed to get a few recommendations from the local HackerSpace group (what an awesome idea, can't wait to get more involved with this). Little Bird Electronics appear to be a local SparkFun reseller, though I think they have a few other bits. I'm intending to buy a Bus Pirate from them soon, as it looks like an incredibly useful bit of kit to have on the desk.

Via Jon Oxer at Practical Arduino I found ProtoStack. They don't have a huge range, but they do have all the "essentials" for microcontroller hacking. Here's a tip though - make it clear on your website which country you're in. If I'd come across this site on my own, I probably wouldn't have looked at it in any great depth because the prices are in US dollars, the site is a .com, etc - I would have gone "crap range, US = crazy shipping, ignore". It was only because Jon's video mentioned that they're in Australia that I took the time to look at them in depth. Shipping is only $5 so on the occassion that I need something they have, I will be buying from them.

Anyway, that's about all I have about shopping for now. I have a bunch of other local sites bookmarked, but I haven't done anything more than a cursory search on most of them. I'm starting to get a list of affordable places to buy things together, though there's still a couple of bits I need to find. Fortunately I now have enough parts to do a good portion of my prototyping. That's a story for next time!

monday, 3 september 2007

posted at 15:43
  • mood: shiny

Had a great Father's day weekend. Saturday I went out and bought my AVR and a 74HC573 for the memory latch. I have a couple of 8K RAMs that I picked up on eBay last year and some "ladder" LEDs and other interesting lights, so I should now have everything I need to start experimenting. I'm short a power supply though: it'll be a race to see whether I hack up an old plugpack or drive over to Rosanna to pick up my bench supply from my mate's place.

Sunday I awoke to Francesca awkwardly trying to climb into bed holding her Father's Day loot. I helped her up and she helped me unwrap a copy of Settlers DS (a port of Settlers II). Its got some pretty lousy reviews, and I can see why - the interface is clunky, the gameplay is sluggish and there's obvious bugs. Its still Settlers though, which was a game I was addicted to back in the day, so I'm happy. The girl also gave me a nice picture book about a Daddy bear and his kid bear and all the things they do together, and we had a great time reading it together. I do like being a Dad :) Today I found this presentation about Git, which I've been hearing lots about but decided was too much of a leap away from Subversion for my brain to handle. At the time I opted for SVK instead, and I love it, but lately I've found its starting to run out of steam which seems to be tracable back to its Subversion roots. The presentation was fascinating and enough to convince me that Git is worth my effort, so right now I have git-svn running to pull in the AROS repository. It won't be done before I go home so it'll probably be tomorrow before I can really experiment with it properly. I hope its a good as everyone claims.

monday, 27 august 2007

posted at 14:10
  • mood: distracted

Another week of not much. The weather is glorious at the moment; yesterday I spent a couple of hours outside mowing the grass, which is a pretty huge undertaking. It looks fantastic and has got me motivated to tidy the rest of the garden and finally get the garage sorted out, which I'll probably try to do a bit in the evenings this week, particularly if it stays warm(er) after the sun goes down.

I've finished reading the AVR book, and have most of the design for the graphics driver done in my head. I'm pretty much settled on the ATmega162 for starting out, as it should have everything I need - too much program memory, plenty of internal RAM, a JTAG mode and enough pins to hook up an external SRAM. Jaycar have them for $20, so I have a cheap supply without having to do crappy mail-order stuff. I still have to sit down and write down the whole design to produce a parts list, but once thats done I can go shopping. The plan is to do that on Saturday morning, taking the girl to Ringwood on the train. She's been begging for a train ride for a while now, so that should take care of both.

Gub recently our services to MOPS Australia (of which she is the coordinator of group at our church) to bring their website out of 1996. To this end I've installed Joomla! and am trying to learn a bit about what makes it tick. PHP is horrible, and the community is weird, but it looks like I'm not going to have to write too much code, which is good - this really has to be off the ground before the baby arrives.

I got my AROS tree up to date and building this morning, as I really need to write some code again soon, my brain is ready for it I think. At the moment I'm just fiddling, getting a feel for the code again and seeing if there's anything that I really feel like playing with. I'm not committing to anything yet, nor am I soliciting suggestions, gentle reader ;)

Back to work. We're on a tight deadline. Don't ask.

tuesday, 21 august 2007

posted at 09:17

Third week without writing any code has been and gone, so very little to report or show. I've been researching this hardware stuff. I have a reasonably good book from the library about the AVR (Programming and Customizing the AVR Microcontroller). Its not brilliant but is good for a skim through. The library didn't have anything better. I've also printed off a bunch of datasheets which look very comprehensive and will take me ages to get through.

The other book I grabbed (on recommendation from the forum) is The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill. I've only read a few pages of the first chapter, but already I can tell this book is exceptional - incredibly detailed but gently takes you from fundamentals through to hard stuff without an equation in sight. I'll study it a little over the next couple of weeks but I have a feeling I may spring for a copy, and thats rare - I never buy reference books because the internet is usually so much better. This book should bring me up to speed on the fundamentals and fill the many gaps in my theoretical knowledge, which I'm really starting to feel.

I zoomed over to Jaycar on Friday and bought their AVR programmer kit, and built it on Sunday. The board was a cinch, but I suck at cables so I'll have to buy a few new connectors to replace the ones I broke. Haven't tested the circuit yet; I need an AVR and its associated board and whatever else, and some code written, before I can try that. This is why I'm buiing (mostly) prebuilt tools - designing something like this is too hard right now, as I'd have no real way to tell if it was working or not.

This project is going to be very slow, as I can only buy parts just after payday, which comes around every couple of weeks. Thats probably all right though - I'm having some serious pain in my right shoulder, which is aggravated by using the laptop, so I'm planning to spend my bus trips for the next little while catching up on my reading, and spending any computer time in the evening working on some web stuff (that I'll write about later, maybe today even).