How many I/Os are needed to drive electronic dice?

I recently bought a very low cost electronic dice kit on an impulse. Assembling it was good retro-fun for a while. The circuit design is was purely 70ies style: A CD4017, a NE555 and a couple of transistors. Of course, this got me thinking: How would it be done today in a most efficient way? Of course this means using a microcontroller, and, of course this means using as few resources as possible. Will an ATiny10 with 3 I/Os pins do?

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Tear down of a cheap external USB battery

I recently received an external USB battery as a promotional gift (see image below). While I always thought of these as a superfluous gimmick, I realized that these devices could be quite useful as mobile power source for various projects. After all, dealing with lithium ion batteries in your own projects can be dangerous and you need additional circuitry to ensure charging and voltage conversion.

External USB batteries can be charged with a normal micro-b USB charger and are supposed to output stabilized 5V at above 1A. And they come fully integrated at a price point where it is difficult to get even the battery alone. See Aliexpress for example and many others. Since there is little reason to trust hardware at this price point, I decided to tear the device down to see whether all the necessary parts are there.

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µ-Wire – USB on an ATtiny 10

Atmels AVR ATtiny10 are surprisingly powerful devices that come in an extremely tiny SOT23 package with only 6 pins. The have 1kb of flash, 32 bytes of SRAM and use the reduced AVR core which only supports 16 instead of 32 register. It seems like Atmels idea of these devices is to use them as an advanced blinker, and to replace tiny logic circuits. But other people have shown that much more is possible. For example the noiseplug (video), a chiptune player, and a Simon Says game.

I previously used the ATtiny10 in the TinyTouchbutton, a touchbutton controlled light with WS2812 LEDs. This time I aimed higher: Is it possible to turn the ATtiny10 into a USB compatible device? My goal was to implement a subset of the little-wire functionality to control a WS2812 LED by USB. This takes 3 I/O lines, which is exactly the number of free pins on the ATtiny10.

Littlewire supports several functions to control WS2812 LEDs on arbitrary I/O ports. I simplified this to only supporting a single LED on a specific pin, however still retained protocol compatibility. This means that all the little-wire host-programs still work. The finished device can, for example, be used as an RGB indicator LED similar to the Blink(1).

My test setup is shown below. The ATtiny10 is almost the smallest part of the circuit. There are some discrete components on the rear-side of all PCBs, so do not be surprised about missing decoupling capacitors, zener diodes and resistors.

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Interrupt free V-USB

Starting with V2.0, Micronucleus is going to use an interrupt free modification of the software USB implementation V-USB. This provides significant benefits for the bootloader, as it is not necessary anymore to patch the interrupt vector of the user program. A surprising side effect was a speed up of the V-USB data transmission,  which may also be helpful in other applications. Here, I try to give a rough overview about the meandering work that led to this achievement.

Previous versions of Micronucleus (and also the Trinket bootloader) use an ingenious mechanism devised by Louis of embedded creations to patch the interrupt vector transparently to the user program. Although this approach works very well, it still adds a lot of complexity to the bootloader, will add a couple of cycles of interrupt delay, and carries the risk of breaking the user program in a few rare cases. Removing this burden allows for a drastic reduction in code size and improved robustness. Continue reading

Follow up on Candle Flicker LEDs

I previously reported on reverse engineering a candle flicker LED. My approach was to extract the “flicker” pattern from the input current variation and to deduce the algorithm from statistical analysis.

Reverse engineering the controller chip

Of course there is another, more involved, approach. And that is to reverse engineer the circuit directly from the die. Andrew Zonenberg from Siliconpr0n decapsulated and imaged the controller chip from one of my LEDs. You can find his report here.

He managed to obtain very high-resolution optical microscopy images of the top-level metal. It turns out that the controller chip is manufactured in a relatively coarse CMOS process with one metal layer and 1-2 µm resolution. This is 1980ies technology. But of course, that is all that is needed for a circuit as simple as a flicker-LED.

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Hacking a Candleflicker LED

Let’s reverse-engineer a LED, pedantic mode.

Lately, cheap electronic candles seem to be everywhere. I never paid much attention to them until recently it came to my attention that they actually use a special type of light emitting diode with integrated “candleflicker” controller. Now this is something different – who doesn’t like obscure LEDs? Half an hour later I had managed to score a bag of candleflicker-LEDs from the chinese manufacturer.

Very nice, you can not do that with real candles. But the interesting part is of course: How do they work? Considering that they literally sell for a few cents a piece, there can not be very expensive electronics involved. This raises another question: Are these cheap LEDs really worse than all the self-made microcontroller based LED-candles around the web?

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