Retro LED Displays

When I saw this post on Hackaday, I thought the display looks cool. Even the people who commented on the post thought so too. This board that you see in the post monitors the bus for the Z80 in the RC2014 retro Z80 computer kit.

After some searching and the wisdom of the Hackaday crowd, I bought a few of them from eBay. It turns out that these displays are no longer being manufactured anymore. These used to be made by Texas Instruments, the TIL311 or DIS1417.

TIL311 / DIS1417 Displays

I like how the display looks like a pseudo LED matrix, forming a 7-segment display. They could have made the edges totally flat, just like a 7-segment display, but they chose to round the corners of certain digits and letters, like 0, 2, 8, A and others.

TIL311 font map

Each display has a built-in chip at the bottom of the digit, which you can see under bright lighting in close-up photos. The chip handles the latching and display logic, and contains a constant-current driver for all the LEDs to output a single hex digit (0-9, A-F). This was handy for old-school logic systems (like the Z80) because each display handles 4 bits, exactly a single hexadecimal digit. You could also interface this display easily without a microcontroller, as opposed to a display that that speaks I2C.

From the date code in the photos, you can that these displays were made in Korea in 1998. The pins look like they are made of gold, or gold-plated.

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X-CTF 2016 Badge Firmware

As promised, we are releasing the source code for the X-CTF badge, about 1 month after the event to give interested participants the chance to take a crack at it. If you are interested in the badge design process, check out my previous post on the hardware aspects.

Jeremias and Jeremy gave a talk at one of the Null Security meetups. Check out the slides if you haven’t already. In one part, Jeremy talks about the custom firmware he wrote for his badge and the additional challenges he set up for partipants to get more points. The 2nd part of the talk covers the electronic badge and challenges.

The Challenges

The challenges try to exploit the nature of being a self-contained electronic device. Rather than trying to replicate more CTF puzzles and simply placing them into the badge, we specially designed them for the badge.

You can find the answers to the badge puzzles (and the main CTF puzzles) in the X-CTF GitHub repo, which was released shortly after the event.

Since there’s only a single entry point into the set of challenges (meaning you must solve each puzzle before getting to the next), the puzzles must be designed with increasing levels of difficulty; too difficult and the participants will totally give up.

Stage 1: Catch Me If You Can

animation of challenge 1

I particularly like this one. Unlike a program running on the computer, you can’t easily snapshot the state of the program, nor try to influence (slow down) its execution.

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Designing the X-CTF 2016 Badge

X-CTF 2016 badge with Lithium-ion battery attached

I had the opportunity to collaborate with some NUS students to design the electronic badge for their X-CTF event this year.

The purpose of the badge was to inspire more people to take an interest in hardware hacking, or to get them started on electronics. With so much hype on the Internet-of-Things (IoT) these days, what better idea than to let participants take home their very own IoT device. The super low cost WiFi chip, Expressif’s ESP8266, made this possible. We also wanted it to be shaped like a gaming device, with a D-pad and an LCD.

You can see the final badge design above: a ESP8266-based board with a backlit monochrome Nokia LCD, D-pad and a SELECT button. Powered by a lithium-ion battery, charged via the USB port, which also provides a serial connection to the ESP8266.

I was inspired by the SyScan 2015 badge. It was so simple and spartan: a monochrome LCD, an LED, a 5-way joystick switch and a 32-bit ARM processor (on the back). As the regulator was built-in and it runs all the way down to 2.4V, there was no need for an external regulator.

SyScan 2015 electronic badge

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Quick Update: Mailbag and WIP

Sorry I haven’t been updating the blog often enough.

I have been busy helping out with an electronics project, which will be in the hands of users very soon. There will be a detailed post on the project when that happens this coming weekend. For now, here’s a mysterious peek at its progress:

Ever since I made my first purchase on AliExpress, I have been buying random stuff and they’ve been arriving in batches. On a particular week, they might all combine to form a small pile, somewhat like this:

small pile of mailbag items

If you enjoy watching people buy stuff on AliExpress, eBay, or wherever else and taking them to bits, check out these YouTube channels I subscribe to:

I prefer bigclivedotcom because he shares a lot of insight from his previous job during the teardowns and draws the schematic for most of the items he takes apart.

A protip when buying on AliExpress is to read the reviews first. This may be obvious, but I didn’t do it for the first few items and managed to get away with it, until one incident when my luck apparently ran out. Now I prefer sellers with better reviews over those who offer the lowest price for a particular item. I also pay it forward by contributing to reviews with photos and technical details of the items, to help buyers like myself.

So what can you get on AliExpress?

  • Tools like spudgers, device openers, anti-static poking sticks
  • Soldering iron tips, to complement the soldering iron I just bought
  • Chinese components, like the popular ESP8266
  • Breakout boards
  • Alternative ARM boards, like the Orange Pi One that rivals the Raspberry Pi 2 in terms of price & performance

I bought quite a lot of stuff to work on and I’ll be writing about those projects in time.

A surprise package also came in last week. Unlike the other packages delivered via regular mail, this one was shipped via FedEx.

MPLAB Xpress on the FedEx Small Box it came in

Inside the FedEx Small Box was an even smaller box — the Microchip MPLAB Xpress Evaluation Board. I signed up shortly after I saw the announcement on Hackaday in February and heard nothing back. It took 4 months but I’m supposedly one of the lucky 2,000 sign-ups who received the board for free.

On the evaluation board there’s a PIC16F18855 microcontroller, together with a very under-utilized PIC18F25K50, which presents itself as a USB mass storage device when plugged in and serves to programs the PIC16F. MPLAB Xpress is a cloud-based IDE requiring no installation, and using this mass storage programming approach you don’t need any special USB drivers for the programmer. I’ll give that a go and report back here in a separate blog post.

In the meantime, stay tuned for the post on the mystery project this weekend!

CXG 936d Temperature-Controlled Soldering Iron

A few weeks ago, I watched a Mike’s Electric Stuff video in which he was talking about options for portable soldering irons:

The first soldering iron he talked about seems to be interesting. It’s a soldering iron with temperature control, but everything is built into the form factor of a regular soldering iron. He also showed the insides of the iron, which uses a triac to control the supply, hence eliminating the need for the bulky 24V transformer found in most soldering stations.

Ever since my temperature-controlled soldering station died, I was left without one and fell back to using my cheap 20W iron. I was previously using the Duratool D00673 from element14, which is actually just a re-branded Zhongdi ZD-916. It was really expensive (S$120), so when it died after very infrequent use, I didn’t think it was worth it to get a replacement unit.

The 24V transformer is quite heavy and accounts for most of the weight of this unit, so trying to ship it from overseas was also not worth it. After it died, I tore it down and found that its construction was pretty crappy:

If you want to see more teardown photos and a review of sorts, check out
this EEVBlog forum thread. Of course I have verified that this crappy connector job wasn’t the cause of failure. My preliminary troubleshooting found that the power supply seemed to be working, but there was nothing on the LCD display nor was it responding (no beeps on keypresses).

Thanks to this video, I realized that there are alternative products that combine the best of both worlds.

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