Talking to Hardware
Several years ago, a company called Future Technology Devices International (FTDI) sold what may have been the most popular USB / Serial converter on the market at the time, called the FT232R. But this post is not about the
FT232R, because that chip is now known for its sordid history. Year after year, FTDI enjoyed their successful chip’s market position – some would say that they rested too long on their laurels without innovating or reducing prices. Eventually, small microcontrollers advanced to the point where it was possible to program a cheap MCU to identify itself as an
FT232R chip and do the same work, so a number of manufacturers with questionable ethics did just that. FTDI took issue with the blatant counterfeiting, but they were unable to resolve their dispute through the legal system to their satisfaction, possibly because most of the counterfeiters were overseas and difficult to definitively trace down. Eventually, they had the bright idea of publishing a driver update which caused the counterfeit chips to stop working when they were plugged into a machine with the newest drivers.
FTDI may have technically been within their rights to do that, but it turned out to be a mistake as far as the market was concerned – as a business case study, this shows why you should not target your customers in retaliation for the actions of a 3rd party. Not many of FTDI’s customers were aware that they had counterfeit chips in their supply lines – many companies don’t even do their own purchasing of individual components – so companies around the world started to get unexpected angry calls from customers whose toy/media device/etc mysteriously stopped working after being plugged into a Windows machine. You might say that this (and the ensuing returns) left a bad taste in their mouths, so while FTDI has since recanted, a large vacuum opened up in the USB / Serial converter market almost overnight.
Okay, that might be a bit of a dramatized and biased take, but I don’t like it when companies abuse their market positions. Chips like the
CH330 were already entering the low end of the market with ultra-affordable and easy-to-assemble solutions, but I haven’t seen them much outside of Chinese boards, possibly due to a lack of multilingual documentation or availability from Western distributors. So at least in the US, the most popular successor to the
FT232R seems to have been Silicon Labs’
It’s nice to have a cheap-and-cheerful way to put a USB plug which speaks UART onto your microcontroller boards, so in this post, I’ll review how to make a simple USB / UART converter using the
CP2102N. The chip comes in 20-, 24-, and 28-pin variants – I’ll use the 24-pin one because it’s smaller than the 28-pin one and the 20-pin one looks like it has some weird corner pads that might be hard to solder. We’ll end up with a simple, small board that you can plug into a USB port to talk UART:
It’s worth noting that you can buy minimal CP2102N boards from AliExpress or TaoBao for about $1, but where’s the fun in that?
Whenever I talk to someone about FPGAs, the conversation seems to follow a familiar routine. It is almost a catechism to say that ‘FPGAs are very interesting niche products that, sadly, rarely make sense in real-world applications’. I often hear that organizations with Money can afford to develop ASICs, while hobbyists are usually better served by today’s affordable and powerful microcontrollers except in some very specific circumstances like emulating old CPU architectures. I don’t have enough experience to know how accurate this is, but I do have a couple of projects that seem like they could benefit from an FPGA, so I decided to bite the bullet and learn the basics of how to use one.
I chose a popular $25 development board called the ‘Icestick‘ to start with. It uses one of Lattice’s iCE40 chips, which is nice because there is an open-source toolchain called Icestorm available for building Verilog or VHDL code into an iCE40 bitstream. Most FPGA vendors (including Lattice) don’t provide a toolchain that you can build from source, but thanks to the hard work of Clifford Wolf and the other Icestorm contributors, I can’t use “maddeningly proprietary tools” as a reason not to learn about this anymore.
One thing that FPGAs can do much better than microcontrollers is running a lot of similar state machines in parallel. I’d eventually like to make a ‘video wall’ project using individually-addressable LEDs, but the common ‘Neopixel’ variants share a maximum data rate of about 800kbps. That’s probably too slow to send video to a display one pixel at a time, but it might be fast enough to send a few hundred ‘blocks’ of pixel data in parallel. As a small step towards that goal, I decided to try lighting up a single strip of WS2812B or SK6812 LEDs using Verilog. Here, I will try to describe what I learned.
And while this post will walk through a working design, I’m sorry that it will not be a great tutorial on writing Verilog or VHDL; I will try to gloss over what I don’t understand, so I would encourage you to read a more comprehensive tutorial on the subject like Al Williams’ series of Verilog and Icestorm tutorials on Hackaday. Sorry about that, but I’m still learning and I don’t want to present misleading information. This tutorial’s code is available on Github as usual, but caveat emptor.
In previous tutorials, I covered how to use the STM32 line of microcontrollers to draw to small displays using the SPI communication standard. First with software functions and small ‘SSD1331’ OLED displays, and then with the faster SPI hardware peripheral and slightly larger ‘ILI9341’ TFT LCD displays. Both of those displays are great for cheaply displaying data or multimedia content, because they can show 16 bits of color per pixel and have enough space to present a moderate amount of information. But if you want to design a very low-power application, you might want a display which does not need to constantly drain energy to maintain an image.
Enter ‘E-Ink’ displays, sometimes called “Electrophoretic Displays“. As the name implies, they use the same basic operating principle as techniques like Gel Electrophoresis, which separates polarized molecules such as DNA based on their electric charge. Each pixel in one of these displays is a tiny hollow sphere filled with oppositely-charged ink molecules, and they are separated between the top and bottom of their capsules to make the pixel light or dark. The ink remains in place even after power is removed; I think that they are suspended in a solid gel or something. Modern E-Ink modules sometimes have a third color such as red or yellow, but this post will only cover a humble monochrome display.
In a previous post, I wrote about designing a ‘breakout board’ for an
SSD1331 OLED display with 96×64 pixels and 16 bits of color per pixel. With the hardware already put together, this post will cover writing a basic software driver for the displays. To keep things simple, we will talk to the display using software SPI functions instead of the STM32’s SPI hardware peripheral.
If you want to skip assembling your own boards, you can also buy a pre-made display such as this one sold by Adafruit. They have also written a library for these displays which works with several common types of microcontrollers, if you just want to use them without worrying about the display settings. But if you want to try understanding this sort of communication at a lower level, read on!
Since many small microcontrollers – including the
STM32F031K6 discussed in this example – don’t have 12KB of RAM available to store a 96×64 display at 16 bits per pixel, I’ll use a framebuffer with just 4 bits per pixel in this example (3KB), and map those 16 values to a palette. This example builds on the first few “Bare Metal STM32 Programming” tutorials that I’ve been writing, so here is a Github repository with the entire example project (including supporting files) if you don’t want to read those.