Experimentation and Engineering

Frederic Vecoven is software engineer living in Luxembourg who enjoys experimenting with everything from his home’s central heating controller to FPGAs. He has been designing micrcontroller-based projects for more than a dozen years and is currently working on an EPROM emulator.—Nan Price, Associate Editor


NAN: What is your current occupation?

FREDERIC:: I am a software principal engineer at Oracle.

NAN: Your website Vecoven.com features projects involving capacitors, microcontrollers, and EEPROM and hardware emulators. Tell us a little about the projects and your design process.

vecovenFREDERIC: At work I design firmware for high-end servers. At home I like to design my own stuff, so I have full control and can create new devices and/or enhance existing ones. I work on various projects and I don’t find enough time to document all of them on the website. For example, I designed a controller for the central heating in my house, but never documented it (it’s too “custom”). I love retrocomputing, which is how my FreHD project started. This is a hard-drive emulator for TRS-80 computers.

My design process starts from an idea (I have too many, so I must carefully select one) then a lot of thinking about the future implementation (as always, designing something is about compromises). Once I have a clear view in my mind about how things should work, I start prototyping. If possible, I use a breadboard or I create a PCB. Sometimes I do a lot of simulation before starting the prototyping, as this will save a lot of time. However, that cannot be done for all projects.

NAN: How long have you been designing microcontroller-based systems?

FREDERIC: More than 15 years.

NAN: How did you become interested in technology?

FREDERIC: When I was 13 years old I fell in love with computers when I saw a TRS-80 model in high school. I am thankful to my parents, who gave me a computer one year later.
I went to college and got a master’s degree in computer science. But I wasn’t satisfied, so I studied some more years to get another master’s degree, this time in electrical engineering. The combination of software and hardware is really powerful. A few years later, I relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, but I am back in Europe now.

NAN: Describe the first embedded system you designed. Where were you at the time? What did you learn from the experience?

FREDERIC: My first big experience with a real embedded system was when I was working for Sun Microsystems. My group was writing the firmware for the system controllers of the SunFire 3800-6900 line. The embedded system was a small SPARC CPU running Wind River Systems’s VxWorks and the firmware was almost entirely written in Java.

NAN: What was the last electronics design-related product you purchased and how did you use it?

FREDERIC: I bought some FPGAs recently. I haven’t released any project with it yet, it is still a work in progress. My hobby time is very limited.

My idea is to use a CPU core and enhance it with new instructions to enable the generation of real-time signals. FPGAs are very powerful in that area, where a microcontroller would spend most of its time processing interrupts.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any projects?


This is Frederic’s PWM prototype for his Roland Super JX synthesizer.

FREDERIC: Yes, I have rewritten the Roland JX-10/MKS-70 firmware from scratch because I wanted to add PWM waveforms. This quickly turned into a big project. Currently, the prototype setup involves a simulator running the “assigner” code on my laptop. The laptop sends the sound board commands in System Exclusive (SysEx) Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) messages, which go to a microcontroller that extracts the payload from the SysEx. The payload is then sent to the sound board, which believes it got its instructions directly from the assigner. The sound board (which runs its own microcontroller) uses an EPROM emulator connected over USB, so I can easily modify the assigner code (running in the simulator) or the sound board code (running in the EPROM emulator) without having to program any chip. Note that I didn’t have an EPROM emulator, so I designed mine.


This oscilloscope capture shows the generated PWM signal.

FREDERIC: The power of CPUs and GPUs are really exciting. You can pretty much do everything with software now (a 32-bit core costs less than $5).
On the other side, people don’t pay enough attention to optimization, so I am sad anytime I see poorly written code. I am also excited with all the tools and hardware available today for so little cost. That wasn’t the case in the past, so it opens door to students and hobbyists.

NAN: Last question. Let’s say you had a full year and a nice budget to work on any embedded design project you wanted. Call it your “dream project.” What would it be?

FREDERIC: I would love to do some robotic design, but I am not an expert in mechanics and I don’t have the tools (e.g., lathe, milling machine, etc.). That would fill the gap: hardware, software, and mechanics.

Traveling With a “Portable Workspace”

As a freelance engineer, Raul Alvarez spends a lot of time on the go. He says the last four or five years he has been traveling due to work and family reasons, therefore he never stays in one place long enough to set up a proper workspace. “Whenever I need to move again, I just pack whatever I can: boards, modules, components, cables, and so forth, and then I’m good to go,” he explains.

Raul_Alvarez_Workspace _Photo_1

Alvarez sits at his “current” workstation.

He continued by saying:

In my case, there’s not much of a workspace to show because my workspace is whichever desk I have at hand in a given location. My tools are all the tools that I can fit into my traveling backpack, along with my software tools that are installed in my laptop.

Because in my personal projects I mostly work with microcontroller boards, modular components, and firmware, until now I think it didn’t bother me not having more fancy (and useful) tools such as a bench oscilloscope, a logic analyzer, or a spectrum analyzer. I just try to work with whatever I have at hand because, well, I don’t have much choice.

Given my circumstances, probably the most useful tools I have for debugging embedded hardware and firmware are a good-old UART port, a multimeter, and a bunch of LEDs. For the UART interface I use a Future Technology Devices International FT232-based UART-to-USB interface board and Tera Term serial terminal software.

Currently, I’m working mostly with Microchip Technology PIC and ARM microcontrollers. So for my PIC projects my tiny Microchip Technology PICkit 3 Programmer/Debugger usually saves the day.

Regarding ARM, I generally use some of the new low-cost ARM development boards that include programming/debugging interfaces. I carry an LPC1769 LPCXpresso board, an mbed board, three STMicroelectronics Discovery boards (Cortex-M0, Cortex-M3, and Cortex-M4), my STMicroelectronics STM32 Primer2, three Texas Instruments LaunchPads (the MSP430, the Piccolo, and the Stellaris), and the following Linux boards: two BeagleBoard.org BeagleBones (the gray one and a BeagleBone Black), a Cubieboard, an Odroid-X2, and a Raspberry Pi Model B.

Additionally, I always carry an Arduino UNO, a Digilent chipKIT Max 32 Arduino-compatible board (which I mostly use with MPLAB X IDE and “regular” C language), and a self-made Parallax Propeller microcontroller board. I also have a Wi-Fi 3G TP-LINK TL-WR703N mini router flashed   with OpenWRT that enables me to experiment with Wi-Fi and Ethernet and to tinker with their embedded Linux environment. It also provides me Internet access with the use of a 3G modem.

Raul_Alvarez_Workspace _Photo_2

Not a bad set up for someone on the go. Alvarez’s “portable workstation” includes ICs, resistors, and capacitors, among other things. He says his most useful tools are a UART port, a multimeter, and some LEDs.

In three or four small boxes I carry a lot of sensors, modules, ICs, resistors, capacitors, crystals, jumper cables, breadboard strips, and some DC-DC converter/regulator boards for supplying power to my circuits. I also carry a small video camera for shooting my video tutorials, which I publish from time to time at my website (www.raulalvarez.net). I have installed in my laptop TechSmith’s Camtasia for screen capture and Sony Vegas for editing the final video and audio.

Some IDEs that I have currently installed in my laptop are: LPCXpresso, Texas Instruments’s Code Composer Studio, IAR EW for Renesas RL78 and 8051, Ride7, Keil uVision for ARM, MPLAB X, and the Arduino IDE, among others. For PC coding I have installed Eclipse, MS Visual Studio, GNAT Programming Studio (I like to tinker with Ada from time to time), QT Creator, Python IDLE, MATLAB, and Octave. For schematics and PCB design I mostly use CadSoft’s EAGLE, ExpressPCB, DesignSpark PCB, and sometimes KiCad.

Traveling with my portable rig isn’t particularly pleasant for me. I always get delayed at security and customs checkpoints in airports. I get questioned a lot especially about my circuit boards and prototypes and I almost always have to buy a new set of screwdrivers after arriving at my destination. Luckily for me, my nomad lifestyle is about to come to an end soon and finally I will be able to settle down in my hometown in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The first two things I’m planning to do are to buy a really big workbench and a decent digital oscilloscope.

Alvarez’s article “The Home Energy Gateway: Remotely Control and Monitor Household Devices” appeared in Circuit Cellar’s February issue. For more information about Alvarez, visit his website or follow him on Twitter @RaulAlvarezT.