Badge board bring-up

The badge PCB’s arrived! With more than a little trepidation parts were gradually added (checking for the magic smoke at each step) and in the end, everything worked!

Next steps are to make a couple more of them (to test the BLE mesh functionality) and then comes the arguably larger task of developing some games that will exercise the capabilities of the system.

Dublin Maker Badge PCB design

Well, Dublin Maker is coming up on the 23rd of July this year. The unofficial electronic badge design is coming along well. I think (hope!) that the PCB design is fine and it will be sent off for manufacture soon. You can see the 3D viewer output from KiCad below. U3 is the pin header for the display, U2 is a pin header for the boost converter. U1 is an NRF52833 module. SW7 is shown as a pin header but is in fact an on/off switch with the same pin pitch. A “Simple Add-On” connector (SAO1) is also provided. This nearly conforms to the BadgeLife SAO 1.69 standard. It provides power, I2C and a single GPIO (rather than 2). I ran out of GPIO port bits in the design as I will not be using the pads underneath the NRF52833 module (can’t hand solder them). The IDC socket for the SAO interface will not be populated in the final badge but will instead be left to anyone who cares to solder one on.

All components for the build have now arrived except for the battery cases. These can hold a single AA battery and are mounted on the back of the badge. One last check and it will be off to PCBWay with the design!

DMB2022 Graphics subsystem

DMB2022 (Dublin Maker Badge for 2022 (not official)) is an electronic badge consisting of an NRF52833 module and a display. The display for the badge is an ST7789 module. It has an SPI interface that is operated at 32MHz. It is configured to use 16 bit RGB colour values arranged as follows:

5 most significant bits : Red

6 middle bits : Green

5 least significant bits : Blue

The NRF52833’s SPI3 is used to drive the display as SPI0 and SPI1 are limited to 8Mbs. SPI3 can operate up to 32Mbs.

The display.cpp module handles all interaction with the ST7789. Lots of LCD displays of this type have a similar pattern of operations.

At startup, the display is first configured which typically involves bringing the device out of low power mode and configuring its colour mode, orientation and optionally its colour palette. The initialization code achieves this by sending commands and data to the display. The D/C signal tells the display whether a command or data byte is being transmitted. If it is Low then a command is being sent; a High level implies data is being sent.

In order to put pixels on the display, the controlling program must first open up an aperture for drawing in. This aperture can range from the entire display to just a single pixel. Once opened, data can be written to the aperture as a continuous stream of bytes. The display performs a raster like operation on the incoming data with display lines auto-wrapping when the data stream reaches the right-hand side of the aperture.

All of the remaining graphic primitives are built on top of this mechanism (with a few performance optimizations). The display class includes the following functions (for now):

int begin();
	void command(uint8_t cmd);
	void data(uint8_t data);
	void openAperture(uint16_t x1, uint16_t y1, uint16_t x2, uint16_t y2);
	void putPixel(uint16_t x, uint16_t y, uint16_t colour);
	void putImage(uint16_t x, uint16_t y, uint16_t width, uint16_t height, uint16_t *Image);
	void drawLine(uint16_t x0, uint16_t y0, uint16_t x1, uint16_t y1, uint16_t Colour);
	int iabs(int x); // simple integer version of abs for use by graphics functions        
	void drawRectangle(uint16_t x, uint16_t y, uint16_t w, uint16_t h, uint16_t Colour);
	void fillRectangle(uint16_t x,uint16_t y,uint16_t width, uint16_t height, uint16_t colour);
	void drawCircle(uint16_t x0, uint16_t y0, uint16_t radius, uint16_t Colour);
	void fillCircle(uint16_t x0, uint16_t y0, uint16_t radius, uint16_t Colour);
	void print(const char *Text, uint16_t len, uint16_t x, uint16_t y, uint16_t ForeColour, uint16_t BackColour);
	void print(uint16_t number, uint16_t x, uint16_t y, uint16_t ForeColour, uint16_t BackColour);
	uint16_t RGBToWord(uint16_t R, uint16_t G, uint16_t B);
	void drawLineLowSlope(uint16_t x0, uint16_t y0, uint16_t x1,uint16_t y1, uint16_t Colour);
	void drawLineHighSlope(uint16_t x0, uint16_t y0, uint16_t x1,uint16_t y1, uint16_t Colour);    

I will not do a deep dive on all of the functions, instead I will just focus on two of them : putPixel and fillRectangle.

Getting a dot on the screen : putPixel

This badge uses Zephyr OS as the underlying operating system (principally to make use of its Bluetooth Low Energy features). As a result it makes use of Zephyr’s peripheral device drivers to interface with the onboard peripherals of the NRF52833.

// Configuration for the SPI port.  Note the 32MHz clock speed possible only on SPI 3
// Pin usage by SPI bus defined in app.overlay.
static const struct spi_config cfg = {
	.frequency = 32000000,
	.operation = SPI_WORD_SET(8) | SPI_TRANSFER_MSB |  SPI_MODE_CPOL | SPI_MODE_CPHA,
	.slave = 0,
};
void display::putPixel(uint16_t x, uint16_t y, uint16_t colour)
{
    this->openAperture(x, y, x + 1, y + 1);
	struct spi_buf tx_buf = {.buf = &colour, .len = 2};
	struct spi_buf_set tx_bufs = {.buffers = &tx_buf, .count = 1};
	DCHigh();
	spi_write(spi_display, &cfg, &tx_bufs);
}

The SPI configuration structure cfg sets the SPI mode, bit order and role. It also specifies the transfer speed of 32Mbps. This is used in calls to spi_write.

Inside putPixel we see that a 1 pixel size aperture is opened on the display. Next, an spi_buf structure is prepared which contains a pointer to the data being written as well as it’s length. This is wrapped in an spi_buf_set structure required by the spi_write function. Finally, the D/C line is driven high indicating to the ST7789 that data is being written. The spi_write function handles the actual write operation. The first parameter for spi_write is a Zephyr device structure called spi_display which identifies the SPI device being used. This was obtained when the SPI interface was initialized and is used in a manner similar to a FILE structure in C file operations

As you can see from the above there is a bit of overhead associated with writing a pixel to the display. Functions in display.cpp that write multiple pixels don’t necessarily call putPixel as this would be too slow. Instead they interface directly with Zephyr’s I/O functions. An example of this is fillRectangle.

Filling large areas of the screen: fillRectangle

void display::fillRectangle(uint16_t x,uint16_t y,uint16_t width, uint16_t height, uint16_t colour)
{
	// This routine breaks the filled area up into sections and fills these.
	// This allows it to make more efficient use of the control lines and SPI bus
#define PIXEL_CACHE_SIZE 64
	static uint16_t fill_cache[PIXEL_CACHE_SIZE]; // use this to speed up writes
	uint32_t pixelcount = height * width;
	uint32_t blockcount = pixelcount / PIXEL_CACHE_SIZE;
	
	this->openAperture(x, y, x + width - 1, y + height - 1);
	DCHigh();
	struct spi_buf tx_buf = {.buf = &colour, .len = 2};
	struct spi_buf_set tx_bufs = {.buffers = &tx_buf, .count = 1};   

	if (blockcount)
	{
  		  for (int p=0;p<PIXEL_CACHE_SIZE;p++)
		  {
			fill_cache[p]=colour;
		  }
	}
	while(blockcount--)
	{
	   tx_buf.buf=fill_cache;
	   tx_buf.len = PIXEL_CACHE_SIZE*2;
	   spi_write(spi_display, &cfg, &tx_bufs);
	}

	pixelcount = pixelcount % PIXEL_CACHE_SIZE;
	while(pixelcount--) 
	{
	  tx_buf.buf = &colour;
 	  tx_buf.len = 2;		
		  spi_write(spi_display, &cfg, &tx_bufs);
	}	
}

Filling a rectangle on screen consists of two steps:

Open an aperture for the rectangle

Write pixel values to the display.

In an attempt to reduce the number of Zephyr API function calls this function divides the pixel data into chunks of size PIXEL_CACHE_SIZE. This allows that number of pixels to be written in a single call to spi_write (and maybe to leverage any optimization within the driver such as DMA). For example, suppose you want to fill an area of the screen consisting of 200 pixels. Using the value of 64 as a block size this would require the writing of three 64 pixel block and 8 individual pixel writes. So 200 calls to spi_write have been reduced to 11. If the function were to use putPixel then it would suffer from the additional overhead of opening an aperture for each individual pixel as well as controlling the D/C line for each of them. The above mechanism is a lot faster.

Code for all of this is very much a work in progress and is available over here on github. It will be changing a lot over the next few weeks

Testing an NRF52833 Module

The (unofficial) Dublin Maker Badge for 2022 will hopefully be based on an NRF52833 module. I got hold of couple and asked a colleague to make a breakout PCB for it to allow me experiment.

The PCB is a little rough but is OK for evaluation purposes. I won’t be using the inner layer of contacts for the module as I can’t solder on to them manually however I should have enough pins in what remains. Luckily the extremely flexible NRF52833 allows for routing of signals to just about any pin. Next step is to the module to the board.

The drill holes for the pin headers have more or less wiped out all of the pads for the pin headers but with some careful soldering I think I got everything wired up. Next step Blinky!

VDD and VDDH are connected to a 3.3V DC supply; the SWD interface is connected to a JLink EDU probe. A simple Zephyr based LED Blinky program was downloaded and tested. The JLink software complained a little about the SWD interface being unstable and it automatically dropped its speed to a lower value. Blinky seemed to work fine; how about a simple BLE example I previously used on the BBC Microbit V2? Well that worked fine too without any changes 🙂

Next step: Interface with a display to see if the SPI interface can be operated at full speed.

Dublin maker badge 2022

It looks like Dublin Maker will actually happen this year :). I had planned a second badge for 2020 but that never happened. I initially thought that I might simply move that plan to this year however testing of the radio link proved to be inadequate for my needs (it used an NRF24L01 module). In the meantime I have been working with Zephyr OS and the BBC Microbit V2. The Microbit is based on an NRF52833 MCU which is capable of doing BLE Mesh networking. This looks quite attractive so I have begun moving my design to this platform. Basic Mesh networking seems to be ok and the graphics routines are working. I need to do a full hardware prototype next using some NRF52833 modules before a batch of badges is produced.

This is the first in a set of posts that will follow the development of the badge.