• Frame-skipping at 109FPS to turn 8 colours into 15 'dazzling' colours the hard way, on the world's second worst video card?

    08/07/2019 at 10:30 0 comments

    When I first dipped my toe into the world of FPGAs and designed the VGA1306 (also known as 'easy_VGA') board, it was with the set goal of emulating the ubiquitous 128x64 pixel SSD1306 monochrome OLED screen – using a Lattice iCE40 FPGA to read in the SPI signals meant for the little screen, and then output up-scaled black and white VGA signals to a big screen instead. And so with this goal in mind, using a 25MHz oscillator for 640x480 pixels @ 60FPS and only a single resistor on each of the red / green / blue lines was more than enough – the fact that the RGB signals could then also be set in different combinations to achieve all eight glorious colours of the 3-bit RGB rainbow was a pure bonus!

    But as I learned more over time and developed a taste for FPGAs, I have been able to squeeze more and more potential out of this minimal PCB – using it as a VGA output for the Nintendo GameBoy, as an old-school Snake or Breakout game, and even as an 80x60 character 'text-mode' video card for Arduino BASIC or a VT100 terminal emulator.

    Inspired by Ben Eater's recent “world's worst video card” project where he used a 10MHz oscillator to output four-pixels-at-a-time within a standard 40MHz pixel clock timing, I started thinking about ways to work within the limitations of my fixed 25MHz oscillator (with no PLL available on the FPGA), and the hard-wired 3-bit RGB palette, and how I might be able the push it a little further... it occurred to me that I could possibly double my 8 colours, up to 16 colours, if I set it up so that some pixels only appeared every second frame – so they would then appear as a darker shade of that colour? At first this just resulted in a lot of flickering, and I quickly realised that the frame rate would need to be much higher in order for a pixel that was only appearing every other frame to be perceived as a steady pixel of a darker shade, rather than as a quickly flickering pixel of the same shade!

    I found details for standard VGA timings running at up to 100FPS, and figured out that if I could divide my 25MHz clock by one-and-a-half, then I would be close to the right frequency for pushing out those four-pixels-at-a-time. I managed to find some handy divide-by-1.5 verilog code in an old comp.lang.verilog newsgroup post from 2005, but at this point another problem popped up – none of the MANY flat-screen monitors in the house were actually capable of running at 100Hz! But, I remembered an old IBM CRT monitor that had been sitting in a corner gathering dust at work, and I brought it home with me the next day – still in the box, including user manual and 3½ inch floppy disk.

    Happily, this monitor has a scanning frequency of up to 120Hz vertical and 69kHz horizontal – now that's more like it! After some experimenting I was able to push it up to 109Hz / 69.4kHz, and the flickering went away, and my 15 colours were on screen 😃 (not 16 colours – no darker shade of black, sadly).

    Recording video of CRT monitors is difficult at the best of times, but the frequency I am running it at here makes it even more troublesome – I was eventually able to get some good recordings though using an iPhone app that allows for manual adjustment of the shutter speed (also, by setting the shutter speed to 1/110 you can actually see the bars for the darker colours switching off and on).

    Wondering what a good application of this new capability may be, I found David Hansel's Altair 8800 simulator for the Arduino Due – specifically the extension for simulating the original Cromemco Dazzler graphics card! The Dazzler gave an Altair 8800 the ability to output RGBI (15 colour) video at 64x64 pixels and was 'cutting-edge' at the time. After some time studying David's...

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  • DVI / HDMI Pmod for an iCE40 FPGA

    12/11/2018 at 02:09 11 comments

    Here is a proof-of-concept for DVI / HDMI output implemented on an iCE40 FPGA:

    I set myself the challenge (masochistically, says the wife) of designing a DVI / HDMI Pmod to translate the iCE40's 3.3V LVCMOS / single-ended outputs into the TMDS (Transition-Minimised Differential Signalling) / CML (Current Mode Logic) signals used by DVI / HDMI.

    Mike Field's work showed how to achieve DVI output on an FPGA that has built-in TMDS outputs, or even LVDS outputs (at 720p over a 1.5m HDMI cable). The problem is that while the iCE40 FPGAs do have LVDS inputs, they do not actually have LVDS outputs. They can 'emulate' LVDS outputs using two LVCMOS outputs and three external resistors, that "should be surface mounted as close as possible to the FPGA output pins" - which would mean designing an entire custom FPGA board, not just a custom Pmod add-on!

    So, in search of an alternative I started out by posting a question on reddit, and one answer led me to a helpful article (written over 15 years ago in 2003!) with a nice clear table outlining what I had been fruitlessly searching for - the electrical characteristics of CML!

    Another answer mentioned Black Mesa Labs, who do have two designs for DVI Pmods - but they use RGB signalling and rely on a conversion chip (TFP410) to generate the digital DVI data (a chip which costs around five times more than the combined cost of the two chips I am using here), and they require 7 to 16 FPGA outputs depending on the colour depth - whereas my concept manually generates the DVI data and uses only 4 FPGA outputs regardless of colour depth.

    I also found another project working towards DVI on an iCE40 using AC-coupling, but with no voltage-level conversion? The link from there to an application note discussing the use of AC-coupling when translating between single-ended and differential signalling was another important bread-crumb on the path though.

    The design that I landed on was to use the fastest 3.3V to 1.2V level-shifter I could find (SN74AXC8T245), and then feed the 1.2V outputs into a dedicated DVI / HDMI level-shifter (PTN3366) to achieve proper TMDS / CML outputs. The single-ended to differential conversion happens by connecting the 1.2V signals (AC-coupled through capacitors) to the PTN3366's positive inputs, with the PTN3366's negative inputs (AC-coupled through capacitors) connected to ground. There is an LDO onboard to provide the 1.2V supply needed, and a step-up converter to provide the 5V required on the HDMI connector. There is a solder-jumper to optionally tie the connector's shield to ground, only because I had read so much conflicting information on whether it should be grounded or not.

    The code is based on Mike Field's work and uses the iCE40's DDR output mode to get 250MHz outputs from a 125MHz clock. As a proof-of-concept, it works! But only very experimentally at the moment - small changes here and there in the code sometimes throw the whole thing off... at first I was getting some weird interference / glitchy vertical lines, until I switched to using a short 0.5m HDMI cable. The one monitor I have here with a HDMI input now displays the test pattern no problem, but my TV does not like it - a lot seems to depend on the tolerance of the screen being used...

    Anyway, even though this is definitely right at the edge of what both the iCE40 and I seem capable of, I'm glad to have at least met the challenge set for myself!