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Tutorial – Arduino and the MAX7219 LED Display Driver IC

Use the Maxim MAX7219 LED display driver with Arduino in Chapter 56 of our Arduino Tutorials. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here.


Sooner or later Arduino enthusiasts and beginners alike will come across the MAX7219 IC. And for good reason, it’s a simple and somewhat inexpensive method of controlling 64 LEDs in either matrix or numeric display form. Furthermore they can be chained together to control two or more units for even more LEDs. Overall – they’re a lot of fun and can also be quite useful, so let’s get started.

Here’s an example of a MAX7219 and another IC which is a functional equivalent, the AS1107 from Austria Microsystems. You might not see the AS1107 around much, but it can be cheaper – so don’t be afraid to use that instead:

MAX7219 AS1107

 At first glance you may think that it takes a lot of real estate, but it saves some as well. As mentioned earlier, the MAX7219 can completely control 64 individual LEDs – including maintaining equal brightness, and allowing you to adjust the brightness of the LEDs either with hardware or software (or both). It can refresh the LEDs at around 800 Hz, so no more flickering, uneven LED displays.

You can even switch the display off for power saving mode, and still send it data while it is off. And another good thing – when powered up, it keeps the LEDs off, so no wacky displays for the first seconds of operation. For more technical information, here is the data sheet: MAX7219.pdf. Now to put it to work for us – we’ll demonstrate using one or more 8 x 8 LED matrix displays, as well as 8 digits of 7-segment LED numbers.

Before continuing, download and install the LedControl Arduino library as it is essential for using the MAX7219.

Controlling LED matrix displays with the MAX7219

First of all, let’s examine the hardware side of things. Here is the pinout diagram for the MAX7219:

MAX7219 pinout

The MAX7219 drives eight LEDs at a time, and by rapidly switching banks of eight your eyes don’t see the changes. Wiring up a matrix is very simple – if you have a common matrix with the following schematic:

LED matrix pinoutsconnect the MAX7219 pins labelled DP, A~F to the row pins respectively, and the MAX7219 pins labelled DIG0~7 to the column pins respectively. A total example circuit with the above matrix  is as follows:

MAX7219 example LED matrix circuit

The circuit is quite straight forward, except we have a resistor between 5V and MAX7219 pin 18. The MAX7219 is a constant-current LED driver, and the value of the resistor is used to set the current flow to the LEDs. Have a look at table eleven on page eleven of the data sheet:

MAX7219 resistor tableYou’ll need to know the voltage and forward current for your LED matrix or numeric display, then match the value on the table. E.g. if you have a 2V 20 mA LED, your resistor value will be 28kΩ (the values are in kΩ). Finally, the MAX7219 serial in, load and clock pins will go to Arduino digital pins which are specified in the sketch. We’ll get to that in the moment, but before that let’s return to the matrix modules.

In the last few months there has been a proliferation of inexpensive kits that contain a MAX7219 or equivalent, and an LED matrix. These are great for experimenting with and can save you a lot of work – some examples of which are shown below:

MAX7219 LED matrix modules

At the top is an example from tronixlabs.com, and the pair on the bottom are the units from a recent kit review. We’ll use these for our demonstrations as well.

Now for the sketch. You need the following two lines at the beginning of the sketch:

The first pulls in the library, and the second line sets up an instance to control. The four parameters are as follows:

  1. the digital pin connected to pin 1 of the MAX7219 (“data in”)
  2. the digital pin connected to pin 13 of the MAX7219 (“CLK or clock”)
  3. the digital pin connected to pin 12 of the MAX7219 (“LOAD”)
  4. The number of MAX7219s connected.

If you have more than one MAX7219, connect the DOUT (“data out”) pin of the first MAX7219 to pin 1 of the second, and so on. However the CLK and LOAD pins are all connected in parallel and then back to the Arduino.

Next, two more vital functions that you’d normally put in void setup():

The first line above turns the LEDs connected to the MAX7219 on. If you set TRUE, you can send data to the MAX7219 but the LEDs will stay off. The second line adjusts the brightness of the LEDs in sixteen stages. For both of those functions (and all others from the LedControl) the first parameter is the number of the MAX7219 connected. If you have one, the parameter is zero… for two MAX7219s, it’s 1 and so on.

Finally, to turn an individual LED in the matrix on or off, use:

which turns on an LED positioned at col, row connected to MAX7219 #1. Change TRUE to FALSE to turn it off. These functions are demonstrated in the following sketch:

And a quick video of the results:

How about controlling two MAX7219s? Or more? The hardware modifications are easy – connect the serial data out pin from your first MAX7219 to the data in pin on the second (and so on), and the LOAD and CLOCK pins from the first MAX7219 connect to the second (and so on). You will of course still need the 5V, GND, resistor, capacitors etc. for the second and subsequent MAX7219.

You will also need to make a few changes in your sketch. The first is to tell it how many MAX7219s you’re using in the following line:

by replacing X with the quantity. Then whenever you’re using  a MAX7219 function, replace the (previously used) zero with the number of the MAX7219 you wish to address. They are numbered from zero upwards, with the MAX7219 directly connected to the Arduino as unit zero, then one etc. To demonstrate this, we replicate the previous example but with two MAX7219s:

And again, a quick demonstration:

Another fun use of the MAX7219 and LED matrices is to display scrolling text. For the case of simplicity we’ll use the LedControl library and the two LED matrix modules from the previous examples.

First our example sketch – it is quite long however most of this is due to defining the characters for each letter of the alphabet and so on. We’ll explain it at the other end!

The pertinent parts are at the top of the sketch – the following line sets the number of MAX7219s in the hardware:

The following can be adjusted to change the speed of text scrolling:

… then place the text to scroll in the following (for example):

Finally – to scroll the text on demand, use the following:

You can then incorporate the code into your own sketches. And a video of the example sketch in action:

Although we used the LedControl library, there are many others out there for scrolling text. One interesting example is Parola  – which is incredibly customisable.

Controlling LED numeric displays with the MAX7219

Using the MAX7219 and the LedControl library you can also drive numeric LED displays – up to eight digits from the one MAX7219. This gives you the ability to make various numeric displays that are clear to read and easy to control. When shopping around for numeric LED displays, make sure you have the common-cathode type.

Connecting numeric displays is quite simple, consider the following schematic which should appear familiar by now:

MAX7219 7-segment schematic

The schematic shows the connections for modules or groups of up to eight digits. Each digit’s A~F and dp (decimal point) anodes connect together to the MAX7219, and each digit’s cathode connects in order as well. The MAX7219 will display each digit in turn by using one cathode at a time. Of course if you want more than eight digits, connect another MAX7219 just as we did with the LED matrices previously.

The required code in the sketch is identical to the LED matrix code, however to display individual digits we use:

where A is the MAX7219 we’re using, B is the digit to use (from a possible 0 to 7), C is the digit to display (0~9… if you use 10~15 it will display A~F respectively) and D is false/true (digit on or off). You can also send basic characters such as a dash “-” with the following:

Now let’s put together an example of eight digits:

and the sketch in action:


We have only scratched the surface of what is possible with the MAX7219 and compatible parts. They’re loads of fun and quite useful as well. And finally a plug for our own store – tronixlabs.com – which along with being Australia’s #1 Adafruit distributor, also offers a growing range and Australia’s best value for supported hobbyist electronics from DFRobot, Freetronics, Seeedstudio and much much more.

visit tronixlabs.com

Posted in arduino, as1107, COM-09622, LED matrix, lesson, max7219, part review, tronixlabs, tronixstuff, tutorial

May 2011 Competition Results

Competition over!

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Kit review – nootropic design Hackvision

Hello readers

Time for another kit review – the nootropics design Hackvision,  a nice change from test equipment. The purpose of the Hackvision is to allow the user to create retro-style arcade games and so on that can be played on a monitor or television set with analogue video input. Although the display resolution is only 128 by 96 pixels, this is enough to get some interesting action happening. Frankly I didn’t think the Arduino hardware environment alone was capable of this, so the Hackvision was a pleasant surprise.

Assembly is quick and relatively simple, the instructions are online and easy to follow. All the parts required are included:


The microcontroller is pre-loaded with two games so you can start playing once construction has finished. However you will need a 5V FTDI cable if you wish to upload new games as the board does not have a USB interface. The board is laid out very clearly, and with the excellent silk-screen and your eyes open construction will be painless. Note that you don’t need to install R4 unless necessary, and if your TV system is PAL add the link which is between the RCA sockets. Speaking of which, when soldering them in, bend down the legs to lock them in before soldering, as such:

Doing so will keep them nicely flush with the PCB whilst soldering. Once finished you should have something like this:


All there is to do now is click the button covers into place, plug in your video and audio RCA leads to a monitor, insert nine volts of DC power, and go:


Nice one. For the minimalist users out there, be careful if playing games as the solder on the rear of the PCB can be quite sharp. Included with the kit is some adhesive rubber matting to attach to the underside to smooth everything off nicely. However only fit this once you have totally finished with soldering and modifying the board, otherwise it could prove difficult to remove neatly later on. Time to play some gamesin the following video you can see how poor my reflexes are when playing Pong and Space Invaders:

[ … the Hackvision also generates sounds, however my cheap $10 video capture dongle from eBay didn’t come through with the audio … ]

Well that takes me back. There are some more contemporary games and demonstration code available on the Hackvision games web page. For the more involved Hackvision gamer, there are points on the PCB to attach your own hand-held controls such as paddles, nunchuks and so on. There is a simple tutorial on how to make your own paddles here.

Those who have been paying attention will have noticed that although the Hackvision PCB is not the standard Arduino Duemilanove-compatible layout, all the electronics are there. Apart from I/O pins used by the game buttons, you have a normal Arduino-style board with video and audio out. This opens up a whole world of possibilities with regards to the display of data in your own Arduino sketches (software). From a power supply perspective, note that the regulator is a 78L05 which is only good for 100mA of current, and the board itself uses around 25mA.

To control the video output, you will need to download and install the hackvision-version arduino-tvout library. Note that this library is slightly different to the generic arduino-tvout library with regards to function definitions and parameters. To make use of the included buttons easier, there is also the controllers library. Here is a simple, relatively self-explanatory sketch that demonstrates some uses of the tvout functions:

And the resulting video demonstration:

I will be the first to admit that my imagination is lacking some days. However with the sketch above hopefully you can get a grip on how the functions work. But there are some very good game implementations out there, as listed on the Hackvision games page. After spending some time with this kit, I feel that there is a lack of documentation that is easy to get into. Sure, having some great games published is good but some beginners’ tutorials would be nice as well. However if you have the time and the inclination, there is much that could be done. In the meanwhile you can do your own sleuthing with regards to the functions by examining the TVout.cpp file in the Hackvision tvout library folder.

For further questions about the Hackvision contact nootropic design or perhaps post on their forum. However the Hackvision has a lot of potential and is an interesting extension of the Arduino-based hardware universe – another way to send data to video monitors and televisions, and play some fun games.If you are looking for a shield-based video output device, perhaps consider the Batsocks Tellymate.

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts, follow me on twitter or facebook, or join our Google Group for further discussion.

High resolution images are available on flickr.

[Note – The kit was purchased by myself personally and reviewed without notifying the manufacturer or retailer]

Posted in arduino, games, hackvision, kit review, LCD, microcontrollers, notropicsComments (2)

Tutorial: Arduino and the SPI bus

Learn how to use the SPI data bus with Arduino in chapter thirty-four of a series originally titled “Getting Started/Moving Forward with Arduino!” by John Boxall – A seemingly endless tutorial on the Arduino universe. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here

[Updated 10/01/2013]

This is the first of two chapters in which we are going to start investigating the SPI data bus, and how we can control devices using it with our Arduino systems. The SPI bus may seem to be a complex interface to master, however with some brief study of this explanation and practical examples you will soon become a bus master! To do this we will learn the necessary theory, and then apply it by controlling a variety of devices. In this tutorial things will be kept as simple as possible.

But first of all, what is it? And some theory…

SPI is an acronym for “Serial Peripheral Interface”. It is a synchronous serial data bus – data can travel in both directions at the same time, as opposed to (for example) the I2C bus that cannot do so. To allow synchronous data transmission, the SPI bus uses four wires. They are called:

  • MOSI – Master-out, Slave-in. This line carries data from our Arduino to the SPI-controlled device(s);
  • MISO – Master-in, Slave out. This line carries data from the SPI-controlled device(s) back to the Arduino;
  • SS – Slave-select. This line tells the device on the bus we wish to communicate with it. Each SPI device needs a unique SS line back to the Arduino;
  • SCK – Serial clock.

Within these tutorials we consider the Arduino board to be the master and the SPI devices to be slaves. On our Arduino Duemilanove/Uno and compatible boards the pins used are:

  • SS – digital 10. You can use other digital pins, but 10 is generally the default as it is next to the other SPI pins;
  • MOSI – digital 11;
  • MISO – digital 12;
  • SCK – digital 13;

Arduino Mega users – MISO is 50, MOSI is 51, SCK is 52 and SS is usually 53. If you are using an Arduino Leonardo, the SPI pins are on the ICSP header pins. See here for more information. You can control one or more devices with the SPI bus. For example, for one device the wiring would be:

Data travels back and forth along the MOSI and MISO lines between our Arduino and the SPI device. This can only happen when the SS line is set to LOW. In other words, to communicate with a particular SPI device on the bus, we set the SS line to that device to LOW, then communicate with it, then set the line back to HIGH. If we have two or more SPI devices on the bus, the wiring would resemble the following:

Notice how there are two SS lines – we need one for each SPI device on the bus. You can use any free digital output pin on your Arduino as an SS line. Just remember to have all SS lines high except for the line connected to the SPI device you wish to use at the time.

Data is sent to the SPI device in byte form. You should know by now that eight bits make one byte, therefore representing a binary number with a value of between zero and 255. When communicating with our SPI devices, we need to know which way the device deals with the data – MSB or LSB first. MSB (most significant bit) is the left-hand side of the binary number, and LSB (least significant bit) is the right-hand side of the number. That is:

Apart from sending numerical values along the SPI bus, binary numbers can also represent commands. You can represent eight on/off settings using one byte of data, so a device’s parameters can be set by sending a byte of data. These parameters will vary with each device and should be illustrated in the particular device’s data sheet. For example, a digital potentiometer IC with six pots:


This device requires two bytes of data. The ADDR byte tells the device which of six potentiometers to control (numbered 0 to 5), and the DATA byte is the value for the potentiometer (0~255). We can use integers to represent these two values. For example, to set potentiometer number two to 125, we would send 2 then 125 to the device.

How do we send data to SPI devices in our sketches?

First of all, we need to use the SPI library. It is included with the default Arduino IDE installation, so put the following at the start of your sketch:

Next, in void.setup() declare which pin(s) will be used for SS and set them as OUTPUT. For example,

where ss has previously been declared as an integer of value ten. Now, to activate the SPI bus:

and finally we need to tell the sketch which way to send data, MSB or LSB first by using


When it is time to send data down the SPI bus to our device, three things need to happen. First, set the digital pin with SS to low:

Then send the data in bytes, one byte at a time using:

Value can be an integer/byte between zero and 255. Finally, when finished sending data to your device, end the transmission by setting SS high:

Sending data is quite simple. Generally the most difficult part for people is interpreting the device data sheet to understand how commands and data need to be structured for transmission. But with some practice, these small hurdles can be overcome.

Now for some practical examples!

Time to get on the SPI bus and control some devices. By following the examples below, you should gain a practical understanding of how the SPI bus and devices can be used with our Arduino boards.

Example 34.1

Our first example will use a simple yet interesting part – a digital potentiometer (we also used one in the I2C tutorial). This time we have a Microchip MCP4162-series 10k rheostat:

Here is the data sheet.pdf for your perusal. To control it we need to send two bytes of data – the first byte is the control byte, and thankfully for this example it is always zero (as the address for the wiper value is 00h [see table 4-1 of the data sheet]).  The second byte is the the value to set the wiper, which controls the resistance. So to set the wiper we need to do three things in our sketch…

First, set the SS (slave select) line to low:

Then send the two byes of data:

Finally set the SS line back to high:

Easily done. Connection to our Arduino board is very simple – consider the MCP4162 pinout:

Vdd connects to 5V, Vss to GND, CS to digital 10, SCK to digital 13, SDI to digital 11 and SDO to digital 12. Now let’s run through the available values of the MCP4162 in the following sketch:

Now to see the results of the sketch. In the following video clip, a we run up through the resistance range and measure the rheostat value with a multimeter:

Before moving forward, if digital potentiometers are new for you, consider reading this short guide written by Microchip about the differences between mechanical and digital potentiometers.

Example 34.2

In this example, we will use the Analog Devices AD5204 four-channel digital potentiometer (data sheet.pdf). It contains four 10k ohm linear potentiometers, and each potentiometer is adjustable to one of 256 positions. The settings are volatile, which means they are not remembered when the power is turned off. Therefore when power is applied the potentiometers are all pre set to the middle of the scale. Our example is the SOIC-24 surface mount example, however it is also manufactured in DIP format as well.


To make life easier it can be soldered onto a SOIC breakout board which converts it to a through-hole package:


In this example, we will control the brightness of four LEDs. Wiring is very simple. Pinouts are in the data sheet.pdf.


And the sketch:

The function allOff() and allOn() are used to set the potentiometers to minimum and maximum respectively. We use allOff() at the start of the sketch to turn the LEDs off. This is necessary as on power-up the wipers are generally set half-way. Furthermore we use them in the blinkAll() function to … blink the LEDs. The function setPot() accepts a wiper number (0~3) and value to set that wiper (0~255). Finally the function indFade() does a nice job of fading each LED on and off in order – causing an effect very similar to pulse-width modulation.

Finally, here it is in action:

Example 34.3

In this example, we will use use a four-digit, seven-segment LED display that has an SPI interface. Using such a display considerably reduces the amount of pins required on the micro controller and also negates the use of shift register ICs which helps reduce power consumption and component count. The front of our example:


and the rear:


Thankfully the pins are labelled quite clearly. Please note that the board does not include header pins – they were soldered in after receiving the board. Although this board is documented by Sparkfun there seems to be issues in the operation, so instead we will use a sketch designed by members of the Arduino forum. Not wanting to ignore this nice piece of hardware we will see how it works and use it with the new sketch from the forum.

Again, wiring is quite simple:

  • Board GND to Arduino GND
  • Board VCC to Arduino 5V
  • Board SCK to Arduino D12
  • Board SI to Arduino D11
  • Board CSN to Arduino D10

The sketch is easy to use, you need to replicate all the functions as well as the library calls and variable definitions. To display numbers (or the letters A~F) on the display, call the function

where a is the number to display, b is the base system used (2 for binary, 8 for octal, 10 for usual, and 16 for hexadecimal), and c is for padded zeros (0 =off, 1=on). If you look at the void loop() part of the example sketch, we use all four number systems in the demonstration. If your number is too large for the display, it will show OF for overflow. To control the decimal points, colon and the LED at the top-right the third digit, we can use the following:

After all that, here is the demonstration sketch for your perusal:

And a short video of the demonstration:

So there you have it – hopefully an easy to understand introduction to the world of the SPI bus and how to control the devices within. As always, now it is up to you and your imagination to find something to control or get up to other shenanigans. In the next SPI article we will look at reading and writing data via the SPI bus.


In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS usng the links on the right-hand column? And join our friendly Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in AD5204, arduino, COM-09767, education, learning electronics, lesson, MCP4162, microcontrollers, SPI, tutorialComments (32)

Discovering Arduino’s internal EEPROM lifespan

How long does the internal EEPROM of an Atmel ATmega328 last for? Let’s find out…

Updated 18/03/2013

Some time ago I published a short tutorial concerning the use of the internal EEPROM  belonging to the Atmel ATmega328 (etc.) microcontroller in our various Arduino boards. Although making use of the EEPROM is certainly useful, it has a theoretical finite lifespan – according to the Atmel data sheet (download .pdf) it is 100,000 write/erase cycles.

One of my twitter followers asked me “is that 100,000 uses per address, or the entire EEPROM?” – a very good question. So in the name of wanton destruction I have devised a simple way to answer the question of EEPROM lifespan. Inspired by the Dangerous Prototypes’ Flash Destroyer, we will write the number 170 (10101010 in binary) to each EEPROM address, then read each EEPROM address to check the stored number. The process is then repeated by writing the number 85 (01010101 in binary) to each address and then checking it again. The two binary numbers were chosen to ensure each bit in an address has an equal number of state changes.

After both of the processes listed above has completed, then the whole lot repeats. The process is halted when an incorrectly stored number is read from the EEPROM – the first failure. At this point the number of cycles, start and end time data are shown on the LCD.

In this example one cycle is 1024 sequential writes then reads. One would consider the entire EEPROM to be unusable after one false read, as it would be almost impossible to keep track of  individual damaged EEPROM addresses. (Then again, a sketch could run a write/read check before attempting to allocate data to the EEPROM…)

If for some reason you would like to run this process yourself, please do not do so using an Arduino Mega, or another board that has a fixed microcontroller. (Unless for some reason you are the paranoid type and need to delete some data permanently). Once again, please note that the purpose of this sketch is to basically destroy your Arduino’s EEPROM. Here is the sketch:

If you are unfamiliar with the time-keeping section, please see part one of my Arduino+I2C tutorial. The LCD used was my quickie LCD shield – more information about that here. Or you could always just send the data to the serial monitor box – however you would need to leave the PC on for a loooooong time… So instead the example sat on top of an AC adaptor (wall wart) behind a couch (sofa)  for a couple of months:

The only catch with running it from AC was the risk of possible power outages. We had one planned outage when our house PV system was installed, so I took a count reading before the mains was turned off, and corrected the sketch before starting it up again after the power cut. Nevertheless, here is a short video – showing the start and the final results of the test:

So there we have it, 1230163 cycles with each cycle writing and reading each individual EEPROM address. If repeating this odd experiment, your result will vary.

Well I hope someone out there found this interesting. Please refrain from sending emails or comments criticising the waste of a microcontroller – this was a one off.

In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column? And join our friendly Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in arduino, atmega328, atmel, EEPROM, hardware hacking, lesson, microcontrollers, projects, tutorialComments (5)

May 2011 Competition

Competition over!

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April 2011 Competition – Results

Competition over!

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Kit review – High Accuracy LC Meter

Hello readers

Time for another kit review. Lately one of my goals has been to make life easier and in doing so having some decent test equipment. One challenge of meeting that goal is (naturally) keeping the cost of things down to a reasonable level. Unfortunately my eyesight is not the best so I cannot read small capacitor markings – which makes a capacitance meter necessary. Although I have that function within my multimeter, it is often required to read resistors in the same work session.

Thus the reason for this kit review – the High Precision LC Meter kit. The details were originally published in the May 2008 issue of Australia’s Silicon Chip magazine. The meter specifications are:

  • Capacitance – 0.1pF to over 800 nF with four-digit resolution;
  • Inductance – 10 nH to over 70 mH with four-digit resolution;
  • Accuracy of better than +/- 1% of the reading;
  • Automatic range selection, however only non-polarised capacitors can be measured.

The power drain is quite low,  between 8 (measurement) and 17 milliamps (calibration). Using a fresh 9V alkaline battery you should realise around fifty to sixty hours of continuous use. At this point some of you may be wondering if it is cheaper to purchase an LC meter or make your own. A quick search found the BK Precision 875B LCR meter with the same C range and a worse L range for over twice the price of the kit. Although we don’t have resistance measurement in our kit, if you are building this you already have a multimeter. So not bad value at all. And you can say you built it 🙂

Speaking of building, assembly time was just under two hours, and the kit itself is very well produced. The packaging was the typical retail bag:


The first thing that grabs your attention is the housing. It is a genuine, made in the US Hammond enclosure – and has all the required holes and LCD area punched out, so you don’t need to do any drilling at all:


The enclosure has nice non-slip rubberised edging (the grey area) and also allows for a 9V battery to be housed securely. The team at Altronics have done a great job in redesigning the kit for this enclosure, much more attractive than the magazine version. The PCB is solder-masked and silk-screened to fine standard:


There are two small boards to cut and file off from the main PCB. We will examine them later in the article. All required parts for completion were included, and it is good to see 1% resistors and an IC socket for the microcontroller:


At first I was a little disappointed to not have a backlit LCD module, however considering the meter is to be battery operated (however there is a DC socket for a plugpack) and you wouldn’t really be using this in the dark, a backlight wouldn’t be necessary. Construction was easy enough, the layout on the PCB is well labelled, and plenty of space between pins. Lately I have started using a lead-former, and can highly recommend the use of one:


Assembly was quite simple, just start with the lower profile components:



… then mount the LCD and the larger components:


… the switches and others – and we’re done:


The only problem at this point was the PCB holes for the selector switch, one hole was around 1mm from where it needed to be. Instead of drilling out the hole, it was easier to just bend up the legs of the switch and keep going:


At this stage one has to cut out two supports from the enclosure, which can be done easily. Then insert the PCB and solder to the sockets and power (9V battery snap). Initial testing was successful (after adjusting the LCD contrast…


If you look at the area of PCB between the battery and the left-hand screw there are eight pins – these are four pairs of inputs used to help calibrate and check operation of the meter. For example, by placing a jumper over a pair you can display the oscillator frequency at various stages:


Furthermore, those links can also be used to fine-tune the meter. For example one can increase or decrease the scaling factor and the settings are then stored in the EEPROM within the microcontroller. However my example seemed ok from the start, so it was time to seal up the enclosure and get testing. Starting with a ceramic capacitor, the lowest value in stock:


Spot-on. That was a good start, however trying to bend the leads to match the binding posts was somewhat inconvenient, so I cut up some leads and fitted crocodile clips on the end. The meter’s zero button allows you to reset the measurement back to zero after attaching the leads, so stray capacitance can be taken into account.

Next, time to check the measurement with something more accurate, a 1% tolerance silvered-mica 100 picofarad capacitor:


Again, the meter came through right on specification. My apologies to those looking for inductor tests – I don’t have any in stock to try out. If you are really curious I could be persuaded to order some in, however as the capacitance measurement has been successful I am confident the inductance measurement would also fall within the meter’s specifications.

As shown earlier, there were two smaller PCBs included:


The top PCB is a shorting bar used to help zero the inductance reading, and the lower PCB is used to help measure smaller capacitors and also SMD units. A nice finishing touch that adds value to the meter. The only optional extra to consider would be a set of short leads with clips or probes to make measurement physically easier.

When reading this kit review it may appear to be somewhat positive and not critical at all. However it really is a  good instrument, considering the accuracy, price, and enjoyment from doing it yourself. It was interesting, easy to build, and will be very useful now and in the future. So if you are in the market for an LC meter, and don’t mind some work – you should add this kit to your checklist for consideration. It is available from our store – Tronixlabs.com


visit tronixlabs.com

… which along with being Australia’s #1 Adafruit distributor, also offers a growing range and Australia’s best value for supported hobbyist electronics from DFRobot, Freetronics, Seeedstudio and much much more.

As always, have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column, or join our forum – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website.

Posted in K2533, kit review, LC meter, test equipment, tronixlabsComments (18)

Tutorial: Control AC outlets via SMS

Learn how to control AC outlets via SMS text message. This is chapter thirty-three of a series originally titled “Getting Started/Moving Forward with Arduino!” by John Boxall – A tutorial on the Arduino universe. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here.

Updated 02/03/2013

Assumed understanding for this article is found in part one. If you have not already done so, please read and understand it.

In this chapter we will continue with the use of the SM5100 cellular shield to turn digital outputs on and off via SMS. However please read chapters twenty-six and twenty-seven first if you are unfamiliar with using the GSM shield with Arduino. As an extension of chapter twenty-seven, we will use our Arduino to turn on or off AC outlets via a common remote-control AC outlet pack. Please note this is more of a commentary of my own experience, and not an exact tutorial. In other words, by reading this I hope you will gain some ideas into doing the necessary modifications yourself and in your own way.

Firstly, we need some remote-control AC outlets. Most electrical stores or giant retail warehouses may have something like this:


Nothing too original, just a wireless remote control that can switch on or off receiver outlets on a choice of four radio frequencies. Before moving forward I would like to acknowledge that this article was inspired by the wonderful book Practical Arduino – Cool Projects for Open Source Hardware by Jon Oxer and Hugh Blemings. In chapter two an appliance remote-control system is devised using a similar system.

At first glance the theory behind this project is quite simple – using the hardware in example 27.2, instead of controlling LEDs, activate the buttons on the wireless remote control for the AC outlets – leaving us with AC outlets controlled via SMS. However there are a few things to keep in mind and as discovered during the process, various pitfalls as well.

Before voiding the warranty on your remote control, it would be wise to test the range of the remote control to ensure it will actually work in your situation. I found this was made a lot easier by connecting a radio to the remote outlet – then you can hear when the outlet is on or off. If this is successful, make a note of the amount of time required to press the on and off buttons – as we need to control the delay in our Arduino sketch.

The next step is to crack open the remote control:


… and see what we have to work with:


Straight away there are two very annoying things – the first being the required power supply – 12 volts; and the second being the type of button contacts on the PCB. As you can see above we only have some minute PCB tracks to solder our wires to. It would be infinitely preferable to have a remote control that uses actual buttons soldered into a PCB, as you can easily desolder and replace them with wires to our Arduino system. However unless you can casually tear open the remote control packaging in the store before purchase, it can be difficult to determine the type of buttons in the remote.

As you can see in the photo above, there is an off and on pad/button each for four channels of receiver. In my example we will only use two of them to save time and space. The next question to solve is how to interface the Arduino digital outputs with the remote control. In Practical Arduino, the authors have used relays, but I don’t have any of those in stock. However I do have a quantity of common 4N25 optocouplers, so will use those instead. An optocoupler can be thought of as an electronic switch that is isolated from what is it controlling – see my article on optocouplers for more information.

Four optocouplers will be required, two for each radio channel. To mount them and the associated circuitry, we will use a blank protoshield and build the Arduino-remote control interface onto the shield. The circuitry for the optocoupler for each switch is very simple, we just need four of the following:

As the LED inside the optocoupler has a forward voltage of 1.2 volts at 10mA, the 390 ohm resistor is required as our Arduino digital out is 5 volts. Dout is connected to the particular digital out pin from the Arduino board. Pins 4 and 5 on the optocoupler are connected to each side of the button contact on our remote control.

The next consideration is the power supply. The remote control theoretically needs 12 volts, however the included battery only measured just over nine. However for the optimum range, the full 12 should be supplied. To save worrying about the battery, our example will provide 12V to the remote control. Furthermore, we also need to supply 5 volts at a higher current rating that can be supplied by our Arduino. In the previous GSM chapters, I have emphasised that the GSM shield can possibly draw up to two amps in current. So once again, please ensure your power supply can deliver the required amount of current. From experience in my location, I know that the GSM shield draws around 400~600 milliamps of current – which makes things smaller and less complex.

The project will be supplied 12 volts via a small TO-92 style 78L12 regulator, and 5 volts via a standard TO-220 style 7805 regulator. You could always use a 7812, the 78L12 was used as the current demand is lower and the casing is smaller. The power for the whole project will come from a 15V DC 1.5A power supply. So our project’s power supply schematic will be as follows:

Now to mount the optocouplers and the power circuitry on the blank protoshield. Like most things in life it helps to make a plan before moving forward. I like to use graph paper, each square representing a hole on the protoshield, to plan the component layout. For example:

It isn’t much, but it can really help. Don’t use mine – create your own, doing so is good practice. After checking the plan over, it is a simple task to get the shield together. Here is my prototype example:


It isn’t neat, but it works. The header pins are used to make connecting the wires a little easier, and the pins on the right hand side are used to import the 15V and export 12V for the remote. While the soldering iron is hot, the wires need to be soldered to the remote control. Due to the unfortunate size of the PCB tracks, there wasn’t much space to work with:


But with time and patience, the wiring was attached:


Again, as this is a prototype the aesthetics of the modification are not that relevant. Be careful when handling the remote, as any force on the wiring can force the soldered wire up and break the PCB track. After soldering each pair of wires to the button pads, use the continuity function of a multimeter to check for shorts and adjust your work if necessary.

At this stage the AC remote control shield prototype is complete. It can be tested with a simple sketch to turn on and off the related digital outputs. For example, the following sketch will turn on and off each outlet in sequence:

Now to get connected with our GSM shield. It is a simple task to insert the remote shield over the GSM shield combination, and to connect the appropriate power supply and (for example) GSM aerial. The control sketch is a slight modification of example 27.2, and is shown below

The variable pressdelay stores the amount of time in milliseconds to ‘press’ a remote control button. To control our outlets, we send a text message using the following syntax:

Where a/b are remote channels one and two, and x is replaced with 0 for off and 1 for on.

So there you have it – controlling almost any AC powered device via text message from a cellular phone. Imagine trying to do that ten, or even five years ago. As always, now it is up to you and your imagination to find something to control or get up to other shenanigans.


Have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column, or join our Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in AC power, arduino, CEL-00675, CEL-09607, cellphone hacking, cellular, GSM, hardware hacking, lesson, SM5100, SMS, tutorial

Kit review – Evil Mad Science Larson Scanner

Hello readers

Time yet again for another kit review. Today’s kit is the Larson Scanner from Evil Mad Science. What a different name for a company; their byline is “DIY and open source hardware for art, education and world domination”. Art? Yes. Education? Definitely. World domination? Possibly – you could use the blinking LEDs to hypnotise the less intelligent world leaders out there.

Anyhow, what is a Larson Scanner? Named in honour of Glen A. Larson the creator of television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider – as this kit recreates the left and right blinking motion used in props from those television shows. For example:

The kit itself is quite inexpensive, easy to assemble – yet can be as complex as you want it to be. More about that later, for now let’s put one together and see how it performs. There are two versions of the kit, one with 5mm clear LEDs and our review model with 10mm diffused red LEDs. The kit arrives inside a huge resealable anti-static bag, as such:


Upon opening the bag we have the following parts (there was an extra LED and resistor, thanks):


… the PCB:


… which is nicely done with a good silk-screen and solder mask. And finally:


A very handy item – a battery box with power switch. The kit is powered by 2 x AA cells (not included!). And finally, the instructions:


At this point you can see that this kit is designed for the beginner in mind. The instructions are easy to read, clear, and actually very well done. If you are looking for a kit to get someone interested in electronics and to practice their soldering, you could do a lot worse than use this kit. Construction was very easy, starting with the resistors:


followed by the capacitor and button:


then the microcontroller:


… no IC socket. For a beginners’ kit, perhaps one should have been included. Next was the battery box. Some clever thinking has seen holes in the PCB to run the wires through before soldering into the board – doing so provides a good strain relief for them:


… and finally the LEDs. Beginners may solder them in one at a time:


however it is quicker to line them up all at once than solder in one batch:


… which leaves us with the final product:


Operation is very simple – the power switch is on the battery box. The button on the PCB controls the speed of LED scrolling, and if held down switches the brightness between low and high. Now for some action video of the Larson Scanner in operation:

Well that really was fun, a nice change from the usual things around here.

But wait, there’s more… although the Larson Scanner is a good training kit, it can also function in other interesting ways. The kit is completely open-source, you can download the PCB layout file, circuit schematic and microcontroller code. Get two or more and link them together to make a really wide LED display – expansion instructions are available from here. If you solder in a 6-pin PCB header to the area marked J1 on the PCB, you can reprogram the microcontroller using an STK500-compatible programmer.

After sitting my Larson Scanner next to the computer tower for a few minutes, I had contemplated fitting it into a 5.25″ drive bay to make my own Cylon PC, however that might be a little over the top. However my PC case has some dust filters on the front, which would allow LEDs to shine through in a nicely subdued way. Mounting the Larson Scanner PCB inside the computer case will be simple, and power can be sourced from the computer power supply – 5V is available from a disk drive power lead.

If you are going to modify your PC in a similar fashion, please read my disclaimer under “boring stuff” first.

The Larson Scanner can run on 3.3V without any alteration to the supplied components. What needs to be done is to use a voltage regulator to convert the 5V down to 3.3V. My example has used a 78L33 equivalent, the TI LP2950 as it is in stock. The power comes from a drive power cable splitter as such:


You may have a spare power plug in your machine, so can tap from that. 5V is the red lead, and GND is the adjacent black lead. Don’t use yellow – it is 12V. It is then a simple matter of running 5V from the red lead to pin 1 of the regulator, GND from the Larson Scanner and PC together to pin 2, and 3.3V out from the regulator to the PCB 3.3V. Insulation is important with this kind of work, so use plenty of heatshrink:


… then cover the whole lot up:


Now to locate a free power plug in the machine. It has been a while since opening the machine – time for a dust clean up as well:


Mounting the PCB is a temporary affair until I can find some insulated mounting  standoffs:


However it was worth the effort, the following video clip shows the results in action:

So there you have it. The Larson Scanner is an ideal kit for the beginner, lover of blinking LEDs, and anyone else that wants to have some easy blinking fun. You can buy Larson Scanner kits in Australia from Little Bird Electronics, or directly from Evil Mad Science for those elsewhere.

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts, follow me on twitter or facebook, or join our Google Group for further discussion.

High resolution images are available on flickr.

[Note – The kit was purchased by myself personally and reviewed without notifying the manufacturer or retailer]

Posted in evil mad science, kit review, larson scanner, learning electronics, tutorialComments (0)

April 2011 Competition

Competition over!

Posted in competition, games, microcontrollersComments (0)

Review – Agilent U1272A True-RMS Digital Multimeter

This is our review of the Agilent Technologies U1272A water and dust resistant digital multimeter. It’s an extremely well specifed instrument, and according to the Agilent promotional material a better alternative to the venerable Fluke 87V. We also have examined the Bluetooth module.

Initial impression

The retail box as always is impressive and well decorated. Opening it up reveals a range of items:


including the meter itself, a calibration certificate and calibration results sheet, probe set, thermocouple, quick start guide and four AAA cells. It was a little disappointing to not find alligator clip adaptors nor a carrying case. For those interested, a full range  of documentation is available here.

The meter measures 207 x 92 x 59 mm (hwd) and is quite solid, not too heavy and surrounded by a good orange non-slip rubber layer. This no doubt helps provide some shock resistance, as this unit has survived a 2.5 meter drop from my ceiling to the concrete. It is refreshing to see that the keypad is laid out in an organised way, much better than the random-looking layout on the U1250 series:


The meter

Installing or changing the the battery (four AAA cells) is easily accomplished, and thankfully the fuses are also in the same compartment. The included AAA cells are thecheaper “GP brand”, and should do for the first few months. The dust and moisture protection is evident as shown by the o-ring seal around the perimeter of the compartment:


As mentioned earlier, the U1272A is water and dust resistant to IP54 specifications – 54 meaning “protected against dust limited ingress”/”protection against water sprayed from all directions – limited ingress permitted.”.

For more information about IP ratings and what they all mean, check out this IP-rating chart.

It is possible to turn the function selector with one hand whether you have the meter standing up or laying on your desk. The included test leads are just over 1200mm in length and are rated at Cat III 1000V, 15A. Two pairs of probes are included, with 4mm and 19mm tips:


Again, it is unfortunate that alligator-clip adaptors nor probes are included – these are very useful especially to those who are colourblind and need to sort resistors or measure tiny through-hole capacitors. Furthermore, a K-tyle thermocouple and non-compensation transfer adaptor are also included:


The thermocouple’s temperature range is -20~200 degrees Celsius, however with an optional thermocouple the maximum temperature can be increased to 1200 degrees C. As for the othermeasurement ranges, they are detailed in the data sheet which you can download here (.pdf).

Furthermore there is a diode test  function, and a continuity beeper. The backlight also flashes when using the continuity function which would be very convenient for those working in a noise environment. There has been some discussion around various forums as to the speed of the continuity function, so here is a small video demonstration of it in action:

In use

Although readers would not have any problem using the meter without reading the manual, doing so will illustrate the particular features of the U1272A as well as operation of the menu system that allow various settings to be changed. These can include: beep frequency (!), backlight duration, data communication parameters, default temperature units, scale conversion values, and activating the low-pass filter available when measuring DC voltage and current.

At the risk of shortening the battery life, I extended the backlight duration immediately to thirty seconds; and set temperature units to degrees Celsius. When taking measurements that only require the main numeric display, the ambient temperature is shown in the secondary numeric display. I must admit to discovering another feature by accident, if the leads are in the current and COM terminals and you select a non-current measurement function – the meter will beep like crazy, blink the backlight and show an error message. This is useful when you’re tired and probably should be doing something else.

Measuring AC voltage provides various data upon request. Apart from the RMS voltage value, you can also turn on a low-pass filter which blocks unwanted voltage above 1 kHz.

The frequency measurement function allows the display the frequency, duty cycle and pulse-width when measuring AC or DC current or voltage. Furthermore, you can display both voltage/current and also display the frequency, pulse-width and duty cycle at the same time, for example:


In a previous article the U1272A was used to measure frequency and duty cycle, which you can observe in the following short clip:

Measuring DC voltage is straightforward, and there is also the option to measure both AC and DC components and display them combined or separately, for example:


You can also display voltage as a decibel value relative to 1 mW (dBm) or a reference value of 1V (dBv). And the dB reference impedance can also be set to fall between 1 and 9999 ohms. Another interesting voltage measurement function is “Zlow”. Using this function, the meter changes to a very low input impedance, and can remove “ghost” voltages from the measurement by dissipating the coupling voltage. This function can also be used to test if a battery is still usable, if the voltage of the battery under test decreases slowly, it doesn’t have the capacity to deliver the required voltage. However I wouldn’t put a battery under this test method for too long due to the meter acting close to a short circuit.

Measuring resistance is simply done with the U1272A, and for more precise measurements one can short the probes to measure their resistance then set a null point so your measurements will not be affected by probe resistance. There is also an Agilent feature called SmartOhm which can be used to remove unexpected DC voltages that can add errors to resistance measurements. You can also use SmartOhm to measure leakage current or reverse current for junction diodes. I look forward to spending more time examining SmartOhm.

Furthermore, one can also measure conductance (the reciprocal of resistance) which is measured in Siemens. According to the manual one can measure extremely high resistance values up to 100 gigaohms. Interesting.

Diode measurement works as expected, the standard setting displays the voltage drop across the diode. However by pressing Shift on the meter, you can use the “Auto-diode” function which forward and reverse bias simultaneously using both numeric displays. For example, measuring a 1N4004 diode produces the following display, the forward voltage and the Good/Not good result:


Measuring capacitance is also quite simple, and the manual recommends setting a null value while the probes are open to compensate for residual capacitance. Interestingly the LCD shows when it is charging and discharging the capacitor under test, using the following segments:


Temperature measurement is possible with the included thermocouple and adaptor. Note that the included K-type thermocouple is only rated for up to 200 degrees Celsius, however with an optional unit the meter can measure up to 1372 degrees C. The display can show Fahrenheit as well as Celsius. The meter also shows ambient temperature using the secondary numeric display when it is not in use with other measurement display functions. Finally, measuring AC or DC current is completed as expected, and as noted earlier when switching to another non-current function, the meter will remind you to change the positive lead.

Compared to other meters, there are a few things that irritated me slightly with this unit. The auto-ranging can be somewhat slower than other meters, especially the frequency measurement – it can take around four seconds to measure a constant frequency… my old Tektronix CFC-250 is faster than that. And the exclusion of alligator-clip adaptors and case was disappointing considering the price of the meter. However on a positive note, the meter is supplied with minimal paper documentation, and a full range of manuals, service guides and so on are available for download from the Agilent website.

Update – 14th June 2011

Turns out that many people had similar (and other problems) to myself with their U1272A. They can be solved by updating the firmware via the USB cable. Agilent will send owners of early versions with the affected firmware a free USB cable in order to fix it up. Download this .pdf file with the instructions on how to receive the cable.

Update – 20th June 2011

The USB>DMM cable has arrived and the firmware updated to v2.0. The meter now works as expected – very well. Kudos for Agilent for taking ownership of the problem and sorting it out so rapidly.

Over the last three months I have been using the U1272A and would call it a success. The dual line LCD display really is useful, as well as the low current measurement and especially the Zlow function. There is a short video you can watch that explains a few of the unique features very well. Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of fragility which gives you one less thing to worry about when looking after your tools. Finally there is also the data-logging, however this does require an optional cable. If you are in the market for a full-function electronics multimeter, put this meter on your evaluation list.

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts, follow on twitter, facebook, or join our Google Group.

High resolution images are available from flickr.

[Disclaimer – the Agilent U1272A in this review is a sample made available by Agilent Technologies via element-14]

Posted in agilent, android, bluetooth, multimeter, review, test equipment, tutorial, U1177A, U1272AComments (2)

March 2011 Competition Results

Competition over!

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Update – Upcoming Electronics Industry Documentary

Hello readers

Today I am going to introduce something quite different, yet hopefully interesting to you out there. The renowned director and cinematographer Karl von Muller has just released the roll-call trailer for his upcoming documentary titled “State of Electronics” – a discussion on the Electronics Industry in Australia. Although the focus is on the Australian electronics scene, much of the content and discourse within the documentary can be related to by those from many other countries.

However, Karl can explain it better:

After several months of researching, interviewing and filming, I’m excited to present the first public Trailer to my new Documentary “State of Electronics” – A discussion on the Electronics Industry in Australia. Even though the documentary is focused on Australian Electronics Design and Manufacture, much of it applies to all countries from around the world.

The discussion is focused initially on the world of Hobby Electronics and how it’s decline could affect the Electronics Industry in the future. The Documentary then discusses many issues that face industry including the issue of “Repair and Recycle”, “Education”, “Surface Mount Technology”, “Globalisation”, “Opportunities” and many many more off the cuff & candid comments from Industry professionals.

The Documentary features interviews with famous Australians and Industry professionals including Dick Smith, Dave L Jones, Doug Ford, Leo Simpson, Grant Petty, Matthew Pryor, Jonathan Oxer, Andy Gelme, Andrew Griffiths, Eugene Ruffolo & Bill Petreski. In the future, I am planning to interview just a few more before the final release of the Documentary soon.

Shot completely on the Canon 5DMK2, using the Zoom H4N Audio recorder. Directed, Edited and shot by Karl von Moller, this version of the trailer is largely ungraded and only has an FCP sound mix applied. Music track is composed by Karl von Moller also. Enjoy!

Please visit karlvonmoller.com for more on the progress and information on “State of Electronics”

Here is the new roll-call trailer:

… and the original trailer for those unfamiliar with the project:

This will surely be a fascinating and insightful documentary that we are all looking forward to. Nice one Karl!

Posted in education, electronics, historyComments (0)

Tutorial: Arduino and Infra-red control

Learn how to use Arduino and infra-red remote controls in chapter thirty-two of a series originally titled “Getting Started/Moving Forward with Arduino!” by John Boxall – A tutorial on the Arduino universe. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here.

Updated 10/07/2013

In this article we will look at something different to the usual, and hopefully very interesting and useful – interfacing our Arduino systems with infra-red receivers. Why would we want to do this? To have another method to control our Ardiuno-based systems, using simple infra-red remote controls.

A goal of this article is to make things as easy as possible, so we will not look into the base detail of how things work – instead we will examine how to get things done. If you would like a full explanation of infra-red, perhaps see the page on Wikipedia. The remote controls you use for televisions and so on transmit infra-red beam which is turned on and off at a very high speed – usually 38 kHz, to create bits of serial data which are then interpreted by the receiving unit. As the wavelength of infra-red light is too high for human eyes, we cannot see it. However using a digital camera – we can. Here is a demonstration video of IR codes being sent via a particularly fun kit – the adafruit TV-B-Gone:

Now to get started. You will need a remote control, and a matching IR receiver device. The hardware and library used in this tutorial only  supports NEC, Sony SIRC, Philips RC5, Philips RC6, and raw IR protocols. Or you can purchase a matching set for a good price, such as this example:


Or you may already have a spare remote laying around somewhere. I kept this example from my old Sony Trinitron CRT TV after it passed away:


It will more than suffice for a test remote. Now for a receiver – if you have purchased the remote/receiver set, you have a nice unit that is ready to be wired into your Arduino, and also a great remote that is compact and easy to carry about. To connect your receiver module – as per the PCB labels, connect Vcc to Arduino 5V, GND to Arduino GND, and D (the data line) to Arduino digital pin 11.

Our examples use pin 11, however you can alter that later on. If you are using your own remote control, you will just need a receiver module. These are very cheap, and an ideal unit is the Vishay TSOP4138 (data sheet .pdf). These are available from element-14 and the other usual retail suspects. They are also dead-simple to use. Looking at the following example:

From left to right the pins are data, GND and Vcc (to Arduino +5V). So it can be easily wired into a small breadboard for testing purposes. Once you have your remote and receiver module connected, you need to take care of the software side of things. There is a new library to download and install, download it from here. Please note that library doesn’t work for Arduino Leonardo, Freetronics Leostick, etc with ATmega32U4. Instead, use this library (and skip the modification steps below). Extract the IRremote folder and place into the ..\arduinoxxx\libraries folder. Then restart your Arduino IDE if it was already open.

Using Arduino IDE v1.0 or greater? Open the file “IRRemoteInt.h” in the library folder, and change the line

Then save and close the file, restart the Arduino IDE and you’re set.

With our first example, we will receive the commands from our remote control and display them on the serial monitor:

Open the serial monitor box, point your remote control to the receiver and start pressing away. You should see something like this:

What have we here? Lots of hexadecimal numbers. Did you notice that each button on your remote control resulted in an individual hexadecimal number? I hope so. The number FFFFFFFF means that the button was held down. The remote used was from a yum-cha discount TV. Now I will try again with the Sony remote:

This time, each button press resulted in the same code three times. This is peculiar to Sony IR systems. However nothing to worry about. Looking back at the sketch for example 32.1, the

section is critical – if a code has been received, the code within the if statement is executed. The hexadecimal code is stored in the variable

with which we can treat as any normal hexadecimal number. At this point, press a few buttons on your remote control, and take a note of the matching hexadecimal codes that relate to each button. We will need these codes for the next example…

Now we know how to convert the infra-red magic into numbers, we can create sketches to have our Arduino act on particular commands. As the IR library returns hexadecimal numbers, we can use simple decision functions to take action. In the following example, we use switch…case to examine each inbound code, then execute a function. In this case we have an LCD module connected via I2C, and the sketch is programmed to understand fifteen Sony IR codes. If you don’t have an LCD you could always send the output to the serial monitor. If you are using the DFRobot I2C LCD display, you need to use Arduino v23.

Furthermore you can substitute your own values if not using Sony remote controls. Finally, this sketch has a short loop after the translateIR(); function call which ignores the following two codes – we do this as Sony remotes send the same code three times. Again. you can remove this if necessary. Note that when using hexadecimal numbers in our sketch we preced them with 0x:

And here it is in action:

You might be thinking “why would I want to make things appear on the LCD like that?”. The purpose of the example is to show how to react to various IR commands. You can replace the LCD display functions with other functions of your choosing.

At the start working with infra-red may have seemed to be complex, but with the previous two examples it should be quite simple by now. So there you have it, another useful way to control our Arduino systems. Hopefully you have some ideas on how to make use of this technology. In future articles we will examine creating and sending IR codes from our Arduino. Furthermore, a big thanks to Ken Shirriff for his Arduino library.


Have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column, or join our Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

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Arduino Game: Tic-Tac-Toe

[Updated 19/02/2013]

Let’s recreate the game of Tic-tac-toe with our Arduino systems. This game is also known as Noughts and Crosses or Three-in-a-row. Whatever we call it, I’m sure you will be familiar with the game from your childhood or general messing about. For the uninitiated, there is an excellent explanation of the game over at Wikipedia.


In the following examples, a human will play against the machine (Arduino). The demonstration sketches are almost identical except for one function – machineMove();. This function contains the method of deciding a move for the machine. By localising the machine’s decision making into that function we can experiment with levels of intelligence without worrying about the rest of the sketch. In writing this article it is assumed the reader has some basic Arduino or programming experience. If not, perhaps read some of my Arduino tutorials indexed here.

However first we will examine the hardware. I have used my well-worn Freetronics Eleven board, which is equivalent to the Arduino Uno. For a display, the Sparkfun LCD shield is used. For user input we have two buttons connected to digital pins 6 and 7, using 10k pull-down resistors as normal. The buttons are wired via a ScrewShield set. To save time I have used my generic button-board, whose schematic is below:



If you were to construct a more permanent example, this could be easily done. One could possibly use a DS touch-screen over their LCD. Perhaps for mark II? Nevertheless, time to move on. Now to explain how the sketch works – please download a copy from here so you can follow along with the explanation.

I have tried to make the sketch as modular as possible to make it easy to follow and modify. The sketch itself is relatively simple. We use an array board[] to map the pieces of the game board in memory – board[0] being the top-left and board[8] being the bottom-right position. We create a graphical representation of the board by drawing rectangles for the horizontal and vertical lines, lines to form crosses, and circles for … circles. The function drawBoard(); takes care of the board lines and calls drawPiece(); to place the players’ pieces. drawBoard(); reads the board[] array to determine if a position is blank (zero), a nought (1) or a cross (2).

The flow of the sketch is easy to follow. First the function introScreen() is called – it displays the introductory screen. Then drawBoard() is called to draw the initially-blank game board. Then the main function playGame(); is called. We have a global variable winner, whose value determine the winner of the game (0 – game still in play, 1 – human, 2 – machine, 3 – draw). playGame(); and other functions will refer to winner throughout the sketch. Within playGame();, the human and machine take turns placing their pieces. The function humanMove(); accepts the human’s choice in piece position, storing it into board[], and not allowing false moves. The function machineMove(); controls the decision-making process for the machine’s moves. In the first example, the machine moves by randomly selecting a board position. If the position is taken, another random position is selected (and so on) until a valid move can be made.

After each instance of humanMove(); and machineMove();, the function checkWinner(); is called. This function compares the contents of the array board[] against all possible scenarios for a win by either player, and calls the function drawTest(); – which checks for a draw – and stores the result in the variable winner as described earlier. Checking for a win is simple, however checking for a draw was a little more complex. This involves counting the number of 1s and 2s in the board[] array. If there are five 1s and four 2s or four 1s and five 2s ( in other words, the board is full) there is a draw. Easy!

If, after the function checkWinner(); is called, the varible winner >0 – then something to end the game has happened – either a win or a draw. This is determined using the switch…case function at the end of checkWinner();. At this point a function relative to the game status is called, each of which display the outcome and wait for the user to press button A to start a new game. At the end of each of these functions, we call the function clearBoard(); – which resets the array board[] and winner back to zero, ready for the next battle of wits.

Now for our first example in action. The function machineMove() is an example of the simplest form of play – the machine randomly selects blank positions on the board until the game ends. In the following video clip you can see this in action:

For the forthcoming examples, we will allow the choice of who moves first. This is accomplished with the function moveFirst(); which sets the variable whofirst to 1 for human first, or 2 for machine first. This is read by playGame() to determine the first move. Now let’s inject some strategy into our machineMove(); function to give the machine a slight edge above sheer randomness.

In the following example, the machine will first only use the centre or corners until those positions have been taken. This is accomplished by placing the position numbers into another array strategy1[]={0,2,4,6,8} which the machine will randomly select from until those positions are used.  Once all those positions have been filled, the machine will revert to random positioning to attempt a win. You can download this example sketch from here. Do you think the machine can win if allowed to move first? Let’s see what happens in the following video clip:

In the second example the player who moves first will generally have the advantage. From this point, how could we strengthen the machine’s level of intelligence to improve its strategy? If you have a better method, and can integrate it into the example sketch, and are happy to publish it under Creative Commons – email the sketch to john at tronixstuff dot com.

So there you have it, some variations on a classic game translated for our Arduino systems. I hope you found it interesting… or at least something different to read about.

In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column? And join our friendly Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in arduino, education, games, LCD-09363, lesson, microcontrollers, tutorialComments (4)

Tutorial: Your Arduino’s inbuilt EEPROM

This is chapter thirty-one of a series originally titled “Getting Started/Moving Forward with Arduino!” by John Boxall – A tutorial on the Arduino universe. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here 

[Updated 09/01/2013]

Today we are going to examine the internal EEPROM in our Arduino boards. What is an EEPROM some of you may be saying? An EEPROM is an Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory. It is a form of non-volatile memory that can remember things with the power being turned off, or after resetting the Arduino. The beauty of this kind of memory is that we can store data generated within a sketch on a more permanent basis.

Why would you use the internal EEPROM? For situations where data that is unique to a situation needs a more permanent home. For example, storing the unique serial number and manufacturing date of a commercial Arduino-based project – a function of the sketch could display the serial number on an LCD, or the data could be read by uploading a ‘service sketch’. Or you may need to count certain events and not allow the user to reset them – such as an odometer or operation cycle-counter.

What sort of data can be stored? Anything that can be represented as bytes of data. One byte of data is made up of eight bits of data. A bit can be either on (value 1) or off (value 0), and are perfect for representing numbers in binary form. In other words, a binary number can only uses zeros and ones to represent a value. Thus binary is also known as “base-2″, as it can only use two digits.

How can a binary number with only the use of two digits represent a larger number? It uses a lot of ones and zeros. Let’s examine a binary number, say 10101010. As this is a base-2 number, each digit represents 2 to the power of x, from x=0 onwards:

binary2 binary12

See how each digit of the binary number can represent a base-10 number. So the binary number above represents 85 in base-10 – the value 85 is the sum of the base-10 values. Another example – 11111111 in binary equals 255 in base 10.


Now each digit in that binary number uses one ‘bit’ of memory, and eight bits make a byte. Due to internal limitations of the microcontrollers in our Arduino boards, we can only store 8-bit numbers (one byte) in the EEPROM. This limits the decimal value of the number to fall between zero and 255. It is then up to you to decide how your data can be represented with that number range. Don’t let that put you off – numbers arranged in the correct way can represent almost anything!

There is one limitation to take heed of – the number of times we can read or write to the EEPROM. According to the manufacturer Atmel, the EEPROM is good for 100,000 read/write cycles (see the data sheet). One would suspect this to be a conservative estimate, however you should plan accordingly. *Update* After some experimentation, the life proved to be a lot longer

Now we know our bits and and bytes, how many bytes can be store in our Arduino’s microcontroller? The answer varies depending on the model of microcontroller. For example:

  • Boards with an Atmel ATmega328, such as Arduino Uno, Uno SMD, Lilypad or the Freetronics KitTen/Eleven – 1024 bytes (1 kilobyte)
  • Boards with an Atmel ATmega1280 or 2560, such as the Arduino Mega series – 4096 bytes (4 kilobytes)
  • Boards with an Atmel ATmega168, such as the original Arduino Lilypad, old Nano, Diecimila etc – 512 bytes.

If y0u are unsure have a look at the Arduino hardware index or ask your board supplier.

If you need more EEPROM storage than what is available with your microcontroller, consider using an external I2C EEPROM as described in the Arduino and I2C tutorial part two.

At this point we now understand what sort of data and how much can be stored in our Arduino’s EEPROM. Now it is time to put this into action. As discussed earlier, there is a finite amount of space for our data. In the following examples, we will use a typical Arduino board with the ATmega328 with 1024 bytes of EEPROM storage.

To use the EEPROM, a library is required, so use the following library in your sketches:

The rest is very simple. To store a piece of data, we use the following function:

The parameter a is the position in the EEPROM to store the integer (0~255) of data b. In this example, we have 1024 bytes of memory storage, so the value of a is between 0 and 1023. To retrieve a piece of data is equally as simple, use:

Where z is an integer to store the data from the EEPROM position a. Now to see an example.

This sketch will create random numbers between 0 and 255, store them in the EEPROM, then retrieve and display them on the serial monitor. The variable EEsize is the upper limit of your EEPROM size, so (for example) this would be 1024 for an Arduino Uno, or 4096 for a Mega.

The output from the serial monitor will appear as such:

So there you have it, another useful way to store data with our Arduino systems. Although not the most exciting tutorial, it is certainly a useful.


Have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column, or join our Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

Posted in arduino, education, EEPROM, lesson, microcontrollers, tutorialComments (33)

The DFRobot LCD4884 LCD Shield

Learn how to use the DFRobot LCD4884 Arduino LCD shield.

Updated 19/03/2013

This needs to be updated for use with Arduino IDE v1.0.1 and greater… however we no longer have a shield to test it. Stay tuned via twitter to find out when this is updated.

This article is my response to a request on how to use the LCD4884 LCD shield from DFRobot in China. It is a simple way of displaying text and the odd graphic, as well as another way to accept user input. Here is the shield in question:


From a hardware perspective the LCD has a resolution of 84 by 48 pixels, with a blue back light. It can easily display six rows of fourteen alphanumeric characters, or two rows of six very large characters. Furthermore, it can display bitmap images that are appropriately sized. At the top-left of the shield digital pins eight to thirteen have been expanded with matching Vcc and GND pins, and at the bottom right the same has been done with analogue pins one through to five. Therefore if using this shield, you will lose digital pins two through to seven and analogue zero.

Along the bottom-left of the shield are solder pads for some other I/O options, however I couldn’t find any documentation on how these are used. Below the LCD is a small four-way joystick that also has an integral button. This is connected to analog pin zero via a resistor network. This joystick can be used for user input and also to create some nifty menu systems. To the right is a power-on LED which is really too bright, I would recommend sanding it a little to reduce the intensity, or just melting it off with a soldering iron.

The shield requires an Arduino library which can be downloaded from the shield’s wiki page. There is also a good demonstration sketch on the wiki, however some of our readers may find this to be somewhat complex. Therefore where possible I will break down and explain the functions in order to simplify use of the shield, then use them in a demonstration sketch.

Controlling the backlight is very easy, just use:

digitalWrite(7, HIGH/LOW)

to turn it on and off. Don’t forget to put

pinMode(7, OUTPUT) in void setup();.

Reading the joystick position is accomplished via analogRead(0);. It returns the following values as such:

  • Up – 505
  • Down – 0
  • Left – 740
  • Right – 330
  • pressed in – 144
  • Idle (no action) – 1023

By using analogRead(0) and if… statements you can read the joystick in a simple way. Don’t forget to allow for some tolerance in the readings. Attempts to press the button while forcing a direction did not return any different values. In the example sketch later on, you can see how this is implemented. Always remember to insert:

in void setup() to create an instance of the LCD, and

at the start of your sketch to enable the library.

Now to display text on the LCD. Here is an example of the standard font text:


Using the standard font, we can position text using the following function:

The parameter x is for the x-coordinate of the first character – measured in pixels, not characters. However y is the coordinate in character lines (!). The screen can display six lines of fourteen characters. To display the larger font, for example:


use the following: