Propeller Games (P1): Hi Lo

Welcome to the Propeller Games! In a few installments, I’ll present several gaming projects that use the Parallax Propeller chip. The Propeller is perfect for gaming with its multiple CPU cores to handle simultaneous gaming activities and its on-board video generation circuitry.

My first game project is the classic “higher/lower” game, where the computer thinks of a number between 0 and 99 and you guess it. You have probably seen this played as the “Clock Game” on The Price is Right TV show, though some contestants struggle with a basic binary search algorithm. (You can watch videos of the game at

This entire project is built on a solderless breadboard. If you are new to the Propeller, this is the perfect project to get acquainted with the hardware and programming. If you are a Propeller guru, you will enjoy the nostalgia of gaming on LEDs and push buttons. Grab your breadboard and follow along.


What you’ll need:

  • Breadboard and wire
  • 9-VDC wall transformer
  • Parallax PropStick USB
  • Two-digit 7-segment LED display
  • Five SPST pushbuttons
  • Audio speaker
  • Sixteen 200-Ω resistors
  • Five 10-kΩ resistors

The board and basic parts

The Parallax Propeller chip requires a few external components. You need a 3.3-VDC power regulator, a crystal, and a USB-to-serial converter. You also need a serial EEPROM if you want the Propeller to run your program at power up. You can buy all these separately and wire them up on the breadboard. Or you can save time and space with the Parallax PropStick USB. It combines all these external parts on the same footprint as the 40-pin Propeller chip.

I bought the LED display for this project from Mouser Electronics (part number 630-HDSP-521E). The large red segments are common anode (common ground). You supply positive voltage from a propeller port pin through a 220-Ω resistor to light the segments.

I bought the push buttons from Pololu Robotics & Electronics (part number 1400). They are specially designed for mounting on a breadboard. One side of each switch is connected to 3.3 V and the other is connected to a propeller port pin and pulled to ground with a 10-kΩ resistor.

I bought the speaker from Digi-Key (part number 668-1140-ND). The negative terminal of the speaker hooks to the breadboard’s ground. The positive terminal hooks directly to a Propeller port pin.

A speaker, one LED segment, and one switch wired to the Propeller

I placed four of the switches on the corners of the display. These switches are used as up/down inputs for each digit allowing the player to select a number from 00 to 99. The fifth button to the right of the display is the “Enter” button.

The photo above shows the speaker, one LED segment, and one switch wired to the Propeller. I tested the hardware and software incrementally as I hooked it up instead of trying to debug the final system as a whole.

The Parallax Propeller Tool is the free graphical Integrated Development Environment (IDE) you use to develop code for the Propeller. The code editor colors and highlights your work making it easy to see functions and keywords. It also manages indentation. The SPIN programming language uses indentation to identify code blocks much as Python does.

Basic hardware test

The code above is my basic hardware test. The CON (constants) section at the top configures the clock speed of the chip: 5 MHz × 16 = 80 MHz. The OBJ (object) section pulls in the serial terminal driver library. This library object allows you to use the USB cable for both programming and an input/output terminal. The one second pause on line 12 gives you time to switch from the IDE program to the terminal program on your PC once the code is downloaded. The Propeller tool download includes the parallax serial terminal for your PC.

Line 10 sets general I/O pin 0 (P0) as an output (they are inputs by default). Line 17 reads the switch connected to P11 and turns the LED segment on or off accordingly. Line 18 prints the state of the input pins to the PC terminal in an infinite loop.

Parallax serial terminal

It took me a while to warm up to the SPIN programming language. It is syntactically very different from C and its derivatives. But conceptually it is familiar: you break your software up into functions and local/global variables. In the end the simplicity of the syntax and the friendliness of the IDE won me over!

I really like the “Propeller font” used in the Propeller Tool IDE. It includes special symbols you can use to draw circuits and timing diagrams in your code comments. For instance:

Check out the font

Now to wire up the rest of the LEDs and switches. I thought about wiring the left digit to the first port byte and the right digit to the second port byte so that the segments are laid out the same way in each byte. This would make the software easier to write. But the pins for the segments on the display are kind of scattered around at random. The wiring is easier and neater if you wire the segments from the bottom of the display to the bottom of the propeller and from the top of the display to the top of the propeller. You can make up for the scattered pattern with software.

Two tips: Wire the segments from the bottom of the display to the bottom of the Propeller. Wire from the top of the display to the top of the Propeller.

Hi/Lo breadboard layout

That’s it for this installment. Now I’ll clean up all the little wire stripping sprinkles I left around my workbench. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll switch modes from hardware to software and write the Hi/Lo game. Hopefully you are following along. Until next time, may the COGs be ever in your favor.

Chris Cantrell earned an MSEE from the University of Alabama. He writes Java and Flex for Emerson Network Power in Huntsville, Alabama. Circuit Cellar published 10 of his articles between 2002 and 2012: Issue 145, Issue 152, Issue 161, Issue 184, Issue 187, Issue 193, Issue 205, Issue 209, Issue 139, and Issue 260.

User Interface Innovation: Collaborative Navigation in Virtual Search and Rescue

An engineering team from Virginia Tech’s Center of HCI and Department of Computer Science recently won first place in the IEEE’s 2012 3DUI Contest the for their Collaborative Navigation in Virtual Search and Rescue Escort (CARNAGE) project. The project was designed to enable emergency responders to collaborate and safely navigate a dangerous environment such as a disaster area.

The contest was open to researchers, students, and professionals working on 3-D user interface technologies. Entrants were challenged to design an application to enable two users—situated in different locations with his or her own UI—to navigate a 3-D environment without speaking to each other.

Collaborative Augmented Rescue Navigation and Guidance Escort UI (Source: Virginia Tech News, YouTube)

The Virginia Tech team—comprising Felipe Bacim, Eric Ragan, Siroberto, and Cheryl Stinson—described their design in a concise system description, which is currently available on the 3DUI 2012 contest website:

Our task specifically looks at communication between a scene commander and a disaster relief responder during a search and rescue operation. The responders inside the environment have great difficulty navigating because of hazards, reduced visibility, disorientation, and lack of survey knowledge of the environment. Observing the operation from outside of the disaster area, scene commanders work to help coordinate the response effort  [1, 2]. With the responder’s notifications about the environment, scene commanders can provide new instructions, alert the responders to risks, and issue evacuation orders. Since neither the commander nor the responder has complete information about the environment, effective communication is essential.

As technology advances, the incorporation of new tools into search and rescue protocols shows promise for improving  operation efficiency and safety. In this research, we explore the  use of 3D user interfaces to assist collaborative search-and-rescue. Ideally, users should be able to focus on their primary tasks in the VE, rather than struggle with travel and way finding. Using virtual reality (VR) as a prototyping testbed, we implemented a proof-of-concept collaborative guidance system. Preliminary evaluation has demonstrated promising results for efficient rescue operations.

The team also created an explanatory 6:16-minute project video:

Click here for more information about the IEEE Symposium on 3D User Interfaces in Costa Mesa, CA.

Source: Virginia Tech News


FPGA-Based VisualSonic Design Project

The VisualSonic Studio project on display at Design West last week was as innovative as it was fun to watch in operation. The design—which included an Altera DE2-115 FPGA development kit and a Terasic 5-megapixel CMOS Sensor (D5M)—used interactive tokens to control computer-generated music.

at Design West 2012 in San Jose, CA (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

I spoke with Allen Houng, Strategic Marketing Manager for Terasic, about the project developed by students from National Taiwan University. He described the overall design, and let me see the Altera kit and Terasic sensor installation.

A view of the kit and sensor (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

Houng also he also showed me the design in action. To operate the sound system, you simply move the tokens to create the sound effects of your choosing. Below is a video of the project in operation (Source: Terasic’s YouTube channel).

Raspberry Pi: Is It for You?

Unless you’ve been locked in your lab or design studio for the past several weeks, you’ve likely heard about Raspberry Pi, which is a compact, affordable computer that has been creating a buzz on the ‘Net for some time now. The group behind the computer is the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which is a UK-based charity that has an ever-growing following of more than 52,000 followers on Twitter!

(Source: and The Raspberry Pi Foundation)

According to the Raspberry Pi Foundation, “The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.”

The 85.60 mm × 53.98 mm × 17 mm Raspberry Pi weighs in at 45 g. It features a Broadcom BCM2835, including an ARM1176JZFS and a Videocore 4 GPU.

So, how can Circuit Cellar members use Raspberry Pi? Well, look at it in three ways. One, you can use it in a design of your own. Grab one and start building as soon as you can get your hands on one. Two, you can learn from the “story” of the Raspberry Pi Foundation—how it formed, how it works as a charity—and consider launching a tech foundation of your own. Three, you can design a low-cost embedded design platform or rapid prototyping solution—something distinguishable from the usual suspects of Arduino and mbed—and bring it to market.

In a recent post titled “What Are You Doing!?” at, Tessel Renzenbrink detailed an interview with Eben Upton, a founder and trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Tessel writes:

Raspberry Pi is grabbing the attention with a $25 computer ($35 for a networked model). In the middle of the storm is Eben Upton. Why is he convinced that a computer which has no casing, no keyboard, no HD and no screen, will be successful? It is time to put the question to him: ‘what are you doing?’

‘We wanted to have a computer especially for Python, and there is a great tradition of naming computers after fruit: like Apricot, Acorn and even today there are computers named after fruit. So Raspberry is following the line of a rich tradition with the Pi, and yes, we wanted this connection with Python. That is where the Pi comes in’, explains Eben when asked for the name Raspberry Pi. And why is it a charity that brings this computer to the market? ‘That all has to do with value creation’, Eben continues. ‘I’ve been involved in several start-ups and then you always end up with the question; how will this create value?’. ‘In this case I do not have to worry about creating value. I can concentrate on designing and producing the board. The Raspberry Pi can be seen as a ‘white label’ product. If there are people out there with a commercial idea for this product, they are more then welcome’.

The Raspberry Pi is a bare PCB board; no keyboard, no HD, no screen.. how will this product become successful? ‘Basically, there is no reason why a computer has to cost more than $50. The peripherals like a screen and keyboard and storage will create a higher price, but with the Raspberry Pi we have taken another route – a normal TV can be used as a screen’, comments Eben. ‘Combine that with a ‘charity shop’ keyboard for a few dollars and you have a full working system’. He further emphazises that ‘the Raspberry is specifically aiming at youngsters learning to program’.

And how about the Raspberry Pi being ‘the next big thing’ after Arduino? There are many hints in that direction on the Internet? ‘The Raspberry Pi is different from the Arduino. The Arduino is great for direct applications and there are dozens of programs available. The Raspberry Pi is a computer system – designed to work with a screen and keyboard, a completely different idea. You can even watch videos with this thing. What might be interesting is the possibility to use the Raspberry Pi as a host for the Arduino board – the combination of these two, resulting in low priced systems can be very interesting and useful’.

‘There is also a difference the flexibility and usability, adds Eben. We have chosen for Broadcom chips and they are not easy to get in the market, making it very difficult to call the Raspberry Pi an ‘open source’ project. We are hoping to take this development into the open source direction, but that will require a new design’.

Can designers use the Raspberry Pi for different applications? ‘Yes, no problem. There is plenty of I/O (I2C and UART) to start using it for whatever challenges you’.

The first batch of 10,000 Pi’s has now arrived from the factory – what will be the next step? ‘Another 10,000 we hope and that is all just the start of it…’

You can read the entire post at

If you want to check out other kits and modules, visit the CC Webshop. is part of the Elektor group.


Robot Design with Microsoft Kinect, RDS 4, & Parallax’s Eddie

Microsoft announced on March 8 the availability of Robotics Developer Studio 4 (RDS 4) software for robotics applications. RDS 4 was designed to work with the Kinect for Windows SDK. To demonstrate the capabilities of RDS 4, the Microsoft robotics team built the Follow Me Robot with a Parallax Eddie robot, laptop running Windows 7, and the Kinect.

In the following short video, Microsoft software developer Harsha Kikkeri demonstrates Follow Me Robot.

Circuit Cellar readers are already experimenting Kinect and developing embedded system to work with it n interesting ways. In an upcoming article about a Kinect-based project, designer Miguel Sanchez describes a interesting Kinect-based 3-D imaging system.

Sanchez writes:

My project started as a simple enterprise that later became a bit more challenging. The idea of capturing the silhouette of an individual standing in front of the Kinect was based on isolating those points that are between two distance thresholds from the camera. As depth image already provides the distance measurement, all the pixels of the subject will be between a range of distances, while other objects in the scene will be outside of this small range. But I wanted to have just the contour line of a person and not all the pixels that belong to that person’s body. OpenCV is a powerful computer vision library. I used it for my project because of function blobs. This function extracts the contour of the different isolated objects of a scene. As my image would only contain one object—the person standing in front of the camera—function blobs would return the exact list of coordinates of the contour of the person, which was what I needed. Please note that this function is a heavy image processing made easy for the user. It provides not just one, but a list of all the different objects that have been detected in the image. It can also specify is holes inside a blob are permitted. It can also specify the minimum and maximum areas of detected blobs. But for my project, I am only interested in detecting the biggest blob returned, which will be the one with index zero, as they are stored in decreasing order of blob area in the array returned by the blobs function.

Though it is not a fault of blobs function, I quickly realized that I was getting more detail than I needed and that there was a bit of noise in the edges of the contour. Filtering out on a bit map can be easily accomplished with a blur function, but smoothing out a contour did not sound so obvious to me.

A contour line can be simplified by removing certain points. A clever algorithm can do this by removing those points that are close enough to the overall contour line. One of these algorithms is the Douglas-Peucker recursive contour simplification algorithm. The algorithm starts with the two endpoints and it accepts one point in between whose orthogonal distance from the line connecting the two first points is larger than a given threshold. Only the point with the largest distance is selected (or none if the threshold is not met). The process is repeated recursively, as new points are added, to create the list of accepted points (those that are contributing the most to the general contour given a user-provided threshold). The larger the threshold, the rougher the resulting contour will be.

By simplifying a contour, now human silhouettes look better and noise is gone, but they look a bit synthetic. The last step I did was to perform a cubic-spline interpolation so contour becomes a set of curves between the different original points of the simplified contour. It seems a bit twisted to simplify first to later add back more points because of the spline interpolation, but this way it creates a more visually pleasant and curvy result, which was my goal.


(Source: Miguel Sanchez)
(Source: Miguel Sanchez)

The nearby images show aspects of the process Sanchez describes in his article, where an offset between the human figure and the drawn silhouette is apparent.

The entire article is slated to appear in the June or July edition of Circuit Cellar.