PS4 Controller Hack – Adding Auto-Run

After a long day it can be really nice to have a relaxing hobby to clear your head, and few activities shut down your brain as effectively as video games. However, a newly released video game is physically hurting me as my impulse to move quickly causes me to perpetually click the run button. After a few days of game-play and a really sore left thumb, I decided to do something about it: hack-in a microchip to automatically click the button for me. Modifying game controllers to do things like automatically rapid fire is nothing new. I once modified a USB computer mouse to add an extra “rapid fire” button (link). Hackaday ran a story about a guy who hacked a PS4 controller to add mouse and keyboard functionality. Today’s hack isn’t quite as elaborate, but it’s very effective. Here I show how I modified a PlayStation 4 controller to automatically click the L3 button so I am always running. This auto-run functionality mimics the auto-run feature built into many games (like Titanfall 2 which spoiled me to expect this), but I built the circuit so it can be toggled on and off by clicking the L3 button. After playing Titanfall 2 for the last few months, the recent release of the Call of Duty WWII beta is driving me crazy as it requires me to click the run button over and over (every two seconds) which, after an afternoon of playing, is actually painful.

Assessing the PS4 Controller

I started out by looking online to see what the PS4 controller looked like inside. Imgur has a great PS4 dualshock controller teardown photo collection which was an excellent starting place. From these photos I realized this hack would be pretty easy since the L3 “click” action is achieved by a through-hole SPDT tactile switch placed under the joystick.

I was surprised to find my PS4 controller (below) was a little different (green for starters), but the overall layout was the same. I quickly identified the 4 pins of the L3 tactile switch and got to work…

After probing around with a multimeter and an oscilloscope, I was able to determine which pins do what. Just from looking at the trace it’s pretty obvious that two of the pins are the positive voltage rail. In this controller the positive voltage (VCC) is about 3 volts, so keep that in mind and don’t hook-up a 5V power supply if you decide to debug this thing.

To test my idea I attached 3 wires to VCC, GND, and SENSE and ran into the other room where my PS4 was. As I held the left joystick up in a game, shorting the SENSE and GND wires (by tapping them together) resulted in running! At this point I knew this hack would work, and proceeded to have a microcontroller control voltage of the L3 sense line.

Simulating L3 Presses with a Microcontroller

I glued a microcontroller (ATTiny85) to the circuit board, then ran some wires to the points of interest. Visual inspection (and a double check with a multimeter when the battery was in) provided easy points for positive and ground which could power my microcontroller. The “L3 sense” pin (which toggles between two voltages when you press the L3 button) was run to pin 3 (PB4) of the microcontroller. In a production environment current limiting resistors and debounce capacitors would make sense, but in the spirit of the hack I keep things minimalistic.

The device could be easily reassembled, and there was plenty of room for the battery pack and its plastic holder to snap in place over the wires. Excellent!

While I was in the controller, I removed the light-pipe that carries light to the diffuser on the back. The PS4 has an embarrassingly poor design (IMO) where the far side of the controller emits light depending on the state of the controller (blue for in use, black for off, orange for charging, etc). This is a terrible design in my opinion because if you have a glossy and reflective TV screen like I do, you see a blue light reflect back in the screen and bobble up and down as you hold the controller. Dumb! Removing the light pipe dramatically reduced the intensity, but still retains the original functionality.

Programming the microcontroller was achieved with an in circuit serial programmer (USBtinyISP) with test clips. This is my new favorite way to program microcontrollers for one-off projects. If the pins of the microcontroller aren’t directly accessable, breaking them out on 0.1″ headers is simple enough and they make great points of attachment for test clips. The simplest code to continuously auto-run is achieved by just swinging the sense line between 5V and 0V. This is the code to do that:

for(;;){ // do this forever
	// simulate a button press
	PORTB|=(1<<PB4); // pull high
	_delay_ms(50); // hold it there
	// simulate a button release
	PORTB&=~(1<<PB4); // pull low
	_delay_ms(50); // hold it there

Sensing Actual Button Presses to Toggle Auto-Run On/Off

Simulating L3 presses was as simple as toggling the sense line between VCC and GND, but sensing manual L3 presses wasn’t quite as easy. After probing the output on the scope (see video) I realized that manual button presses toggle between voltages of about 2V and 3V, and the line never really goes down to zero (or below VCC/2) so it’s never read as “off” by the digital input pin. Therefore, I changed my strategy a bit. Instead of clamping between 5V and 0V, I toggled between low impedance and high impedance states. This seemed like it would be gentler on the controller circuit, as well as allow me to use the ADC (analog-to-digital controller) of the microcontroller to read voltage on the line. If voltage is above a certain amount, the microcontroller detects a manual button press is happening and toggles the auto-run functionality on/off. The new code is this:

for(;;){ // do this forever

	// simulate a button press
	PORTB|=(1<<PB4); // pull high
	DDRB|=(1<<PB4); // make output
	_delay_ms(50); // hold it there
	// simulate a button release
	DDRB&=~(1<<PB4); // make input
	PORTB&=~(1<<PB4); // pull low
	_delay_ms(50); // hold it there
	// check if the button is actually pressed to togggle auto press
	if (ADC>200) { // if the button is manually pressed
		_delay_ms(100); // wait a bit
		while (ADC>200) {} // wait until it depresses
		while (ADC<200) {} // then wait for it to be pressed again

It works! My Call of Duty character is running just like a Titan Pilot. After giving it a spin on the Call of Duty WWII Beta, I’m happy to report that this circuit is holding up well and I’m running forever effortlessly. I still suck at aiming, shooting, and not dying though.

Follow-up: After playing the fast-paced and highly dynamic Titanfall 2 for so long, I rapidly became disenchanted with the Call of Duty WWII game-play which now feels slow and monotonous in comparison. Although this auto-sprint controller hack works, I don’t really use it because I barely play the game I made it for! I’m going back to exclusively playing Titanfall 2 for now, and if you get the chance I highly recommend giving it a spin!




Microcontroller Action Potential Generator

Here I demonstrate how to use a single microcontroller pin to generate action-potential-like waveforms. The output is similar my fully analog action potential generator circuit, but the waveform here is created in an entirely different way. A microcontroller is at the core of this project and determines when to fire action potentials. Taking advantage of the pseudo-random number generator (rand() in AVR-GCC’s stdlib.h), I am able to easily produce unevenly-spaced action potentials which more accurately reflect those observed in nature. This circuit has a potentiometer to adjust the action potential frequency (probability) and another to adjust the amount of overshoot (afterhyperpolarization, AHP). I created this project because I wanted to practice designing various types of action potential measurement circuits, so creating an action potential generating circuit was an obvious perquisite.


The core of this circuit is a capacitor which is charged and discharged by toggling a microcontroller pin between high, low, and high-Z states. In the high state (pin configured as output, clamped at 5V) the capacitor charges through a series resistor as the pin sources current. In the low state (pin configured as output, clamped at 0V) the capacitor discharges through a series resistor as the pin sinks current. In the high-Z / high impedance state (pin configured as an input and little current flows through it), the capacitor rests. By spending most of the time in high-Z then rapidly cycling through high/low states, triangular waveforms can be created with rapid rise/fall times. Amplifying this transient and applying a low-pass filter using a single operational amplifier stage of an LM-358 shapes this transient into something which resembles an action potential. Wikipedia has a section describing how to use an op-amp to design an active low-pass filter like the one used here.

The code to generate the digital waveform is very straightforward. I’m using PB4 to charge/discharge the capacitor, so the code which actually fires an action potential is as follows:

// rising part = charging the capacitor
DDRB|=(1<<PB4); // make output (low Z)
PORTB|=(1<<PB4); // make high (5v, source current)
_delay_ms(2); // 2ms rise time
// falling part
DDRB|=(1<<PB4); // make output (low Z)
PORTB&=~(1<<PB4); // make low (0V, sink current)
_delay_ms(2); // 2ms fall time
_delay_us(150); // extra fall time for AHP

// return to rest state
DDRB&=~(1<<PB4); // make input (high Z)

Programming the microcontroller was accomplished after it was soldered into the device using test clips attached to my ICSP (USBtinyISP). I only recently started using test clips, and for one-off projects like this it’s so much easier than adding header sockets or even wiring up header pins.

I am very pleased with how well this project turned out! I now have an easy way to make irregularly-spaced action potentials, and have a great starting point for future projects aimed at measuring action potential features using analog circuitry.

Project code (GitHub)


  • Action potential half-width (relating to the speed of the action potential) could be adjusted in software by reducing the time to charge and discharge the capacitor. A user control was not built in to the circuit shown here, however it would be very easy to allow a user to switch between regular and fast-spiking action potential waveforms.
  • I am happy that using the 1n4148 diode on the positive input of the op-amp works, but using two 100k resistors (forming a voltage divider floating around 2.5V) at the input and reducing the gain of this stage may have produced a more reliable result.
  • Action potential frequency (probability) is currently detected by sensing the analog voltage output by a rail-to-rail potentiometer. However, if you sensed a noisy line (simulating random excitatory and inhibitory synaptic input), you could easily make an integrate-and-fire model neuron which fires in response to excitatory input.
  • Discussion related to the nature of this “model neuron” with respect to other models (i.e., Hodgkin–Huxley) are on the previous post.
  • Something like this would make an interesting science fair project


Action Potential Generator Circuit

Few biological cells are as interesting to the electrical engineer as the neuron. Neurons are essentially capacitors (with a dielectric cell membrane separating conductive fluid on each side) with parallel charge pumps, leak currents, and nonlinear voltage-dependent currents. When massively parallelized, these individual functional electrical units yield complex behavior and underlie consciousness. The study of the electrical properties of neurons (neurophysiologically, a subset of electrophysiology) often involves the development and use of sensitive electrical equipment aimed at studying these small potentials produced by neurons and currents which travel through channels embedded in their membranes. It seems neurophysiology has gained an emerging interest from the hacker community, as evidenced by the success of Back Yard Brains, projects like the OpenEEG, and Hack-A-Day’s recent feature The Neuron – a Hacker’s Perspective.

In pondering designs for complex action potential detection and analysis circuitry, I realized that it would be beneficial to be able to generate action-potential-like waveforms on my workbench. The circuit I came up with to do this is a fully analog (technically mixed signal) action potential generator which produces lifelike action potentials.


Cellular Neurophysiology for Electrical Engineers (in 2 sentences): Neuron action potentials (self-propagating voltage-triggered depolarizations) in individual neurons are measured in scientific environments using single cell recording tools such as sharp microelectrodes and patch-clamp pipettes. Neurons typically rest around -70mV and when depolarized (typically by external excitatory input) above a threshold they engage in a self-propagating depolarization until they reach approximately +40mV, at which time a self-propagating repolarization occurs (often over-shooting the initial rest potential by several mV), then the cell slowly returns to the rest voltage so after about 50ms the neuron is prepared to fire another action potential. Impassioned budding electrophysiologists may enjoy further reading Active Behavior of the Cell Membrane and Introduction to Computational Neuroscience.

The circuit I describe here produces waveforms which visually mimic action potentials rather than serve to replicate the exact conductances real neurons employ to exhibit their complex behavior. It is worth noting that numerous scientists and engineers have designed more physiological electrical representations of neuronal circuitry using discrete components. In fact, the Hodgkin-Huxley model of the initiation and propagation of action potentials earned Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1936. Some resources on the internet describe how to design lifelike action potential generating circuits by mimicking the endogenous ionic conductances which underlie them, notably Analog and Digital Hardware Neural Models, Active Cell Model, and Neuromorphic Silicon Neuron Circuits. My goal for this project is to create waveforms which resemble action potentials, rather than waveforms which truly model them. I suspect it is highly unlikely I will earn a Nobel Prize for the work presented here.

The analog action potential simulator circuit I came up with creates a continuous series action potentials. This is achieved using a 555 timer (specifically the NE555) in an astable configuration to provide continuous square waves (about 6 Hz at about 50% duty). The rising edge of each square wave is isolated with a diode and used to charge a capacitor*. While the charge on the capacitor is above a certain voltage, an NPN transistor (the 2N3904) allows current to flow, amplifying this transient input current. The capacitor* discharges predictably (as an RC circuit) through a leak resistor. A large value leak resistor slows the discharge and allows that signal’s transistor to flow current for a longer duration. By having two signals (fast and slow) using RC circuits with different resistances (smaller and larger), the transistors are on for different durations (shorter and longer). By making the short pulse positive (using the NPN in common collector configuration) and the longer pulse negative (using the NPN in common emitter configuration), a resistor voltage divider can be designed to scale and combine these signals into an output waveform a few hundred mV in size with a 5V power supply. Pictured below is the output of this circuit realized on a breadboard. The blue trace is the output of the 555 timer.

*Between the capacitance of the rectification diode, input capacitance of the transistor, and stray parasitic capacitance from the physical construction of my wires and the rails on my breadboard, there is sufficient capacitance to accumulate charge which can be modified by changing the value of the leak resistor.

This circuit produces similar output when simulated. I’m using LTspice (free) to simulate this circuit. The circuit shown is identical to the one hand-drawn and built on the breadboard, with the exception that an additional 0.1 µF capacitor to ground is used on the output to smooth the signal. On the breadboard this capacitance-based low-pass filtering already exists due to the capacitive nature of the components, wires, and rails.

A few improvements naturally come to mind when considering this completed, functional circuit:

  • Action potential frequency: The resistor/capacitor network on the 555 timer determines the rate of square pulses which trigger action potentials. Changing these values will cause a different rate of action potential firing, but I haven’t attempted to push it too fast and suspect the result would not be stable is the capacitors are not given time to fully discharge before re-initiating subsequent action potentials.
  • Microcontroller-triggered action potentials: Since action potentials are triggered by any 5V rising edge signal, it is trivially easy to create action potentials from microcontrollers! You could create some very complex firing patterns, or even “reactive” firing patterns which respond to inputs. For example, add a TSL2561 I2C digital light sensor and you can have a light-to-frequency action potential generator!
  • Adjusting size and shape of action potentials: Since the waveform is the combination of two waveforms, you can really only adjust the duration (width) or amplitude (height) of each individual waveform, as well as the relative proportion of each used in creating the summation. Widths are adjusted by changing the leak resistor on the base of each transistor, or by adding additional capacitance. Amplitude and the ratio of each signal may be adjusted by changing the ratio of resistors on the output resistor divider.
  • Producing -70 mV (physiological) output: The current output is electirically decoupled (through a series capacitor) so it can float at whatever voltage you bias it to. Therefore, it is easy to “pull” in either direction. Adding a 10k potentiometer to bias the output is an easy way to let you set the voltage. A second potentiometer gating the magnitude of the output signal will let you adjust the height of the output waveform as desired.
  • The 555 could be replaced by an inverted ramp (sawtooth): An inverted ramp / sawtooth pattern which produces rapid 5V rising edges would drive this circuit equally well. A fully analog ramp generator circuit can be realized with 3 transistors: essentially a constant current capacitor charger with a threshold-detecting PNP/NPN discharge component.
  • This action potential is not all-or-nothing: In real life, small excitatory inputs which fail to reach the action potential threshold do not produce an action potential voltage waveform. This circuit uses 5V rising edges to produce action potential waveforms. However, feeding a 1V rising edge would produce an action potential 1/5 the size. This is not a physiological effect. However, it is unlikely (if not impossible) for many digital signal sources (i.e., common microcontrollers) to output anything other than sharp rising edge square waves of fixed voltages, so this is not a concern for my application.
  • Random action potentials: When pondering how to create randomly timed action potentials, the issue of how to generate random numbers arises. This is surprisingly difficult, especially in embedded devices. If a microcontroller is already being used, consider Make’s write-up on the subject, and I think personally I would go with a transistor-based avalanche nosie generator to create the randomness.
  • A major limitation is that irregularly spaced action potentials have slightly different amplitudes. I found this out the next day when I created a hardware random number generator (yes, that happened) to cause it to fire regularly, missing approximately half of the action potentials. When this happens, breaks in time result in a larger subsequent action potential. There are several ways to get around this, but it’s worth noting that the circuit shown here is best operated around 6 Hz with only continuous regularly-spaced action potentials.

In the video I also demonstrate how to record the output of this circuit using a high-speed (44.1 kHz) 16-bit analog-to-digital converter you already have (the microphone input of your sound card). I won’t go into all the details here, but below is the code to read data from a WAV file and plot it as if it were a real neuron. The graph below is an actual recording of the circuit described here using the microphone jack of my sound card.

import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
Ys = np.memmap("recording.wav", dtype='h', mode='r')[1000:40000]
Ys = np.array(Ys)/max(Ys)*150-70
Xs = np.arange(len(Ys))/44100*1000
plt.title("Action Potential Circuit Output")
plt.ylabel("potential (mV)")
plt.xlabel("time (ms)")

Let’s make some noise! Just to see what it would look like, I created a circuit to generate slowly drifting random noise. I found this was a non-trivial task to achieve in hardware. Most noise generation circuits create random signals on the RF scale (white noise) which when low-pass filtered rapidly approach zero. I wanted something which would slowly drift up and down on a time scale of seconds. I achieved this by creating 4-bit pseudo-random numbers with a shift register (74HC595) clocked at a relatively slow speed (about 200 Hz) having essentially random values on its input. I used a 74HC14 inverting buffer (with Schmidt trigger inputs) to create the low frequency clock signal (about 200 Hz) and an extremely fast and intentionally unstable square wave (about 30 MHz) which was sampled by the shift register to generate the “random” data. The schematic illustrates these points, but note that I accidentally labeled the 74HC14 as a 74HC240. While also an inverting buffer the 74HC240 will not serve as a good RC oscillator buffer because it does not have Schmidt trigger inputs.

The addition of noise was a success, from an electrical and technical sense. It isn’t particularly physiological. Neurons would fire differently based on their resting membrane potential, and the peaks of action potential should all be about the same height regardless of the resting potential. However if one were performing an electrical recording through a patch-clamp pipette in perforated patch configuration (with high resistance between the electrode and the internal of the cell), a sharp microelectrode (with high resistance due to the small size of the tip opening), or were using electrical equipment or physical equipment with amplifier limitations, one could imagine that capacitance in the recording system would overcome the rapid swings in cellular potential and result in “noisy” recordings similar to those pictured above. They’re not physiological, but perhaps they’re a good electrical model of what it’s like trying to measure a physiological voltage in a messy and difficult to control experimental environment.

This project was an interesting exercise in analog land, and is completed sufficiently to allow me to move toward my initial goal: creating advanced action potential detection and measurement circuitry. There are many tweaks which may improve this circuit, but as it is good enough for my needs I am happy to leave it right where it is. If you decide to build a similar circuit (or a vastly different circuit to serve a similar purpose), send me an email! I’d love to see what you came up with.


UPDATE: add a microcontroller

I enhanced this project by creating a microcontroller controlled action potential generator. That article is here:


TTL Triggered Stimulus Generator

I was presented with a need to rapidly develop a pulse generator to take a TTL input and output a programmable output (for now 0.1 ms pulses at 20 Hz for as long as the input is high). I achieved this with a one-afternoon turnaround and the result looks great! This post documents the design and fabrication of this prototype device, with emphasis placed on design considerations and construction technique. It is also worth noting that by stocking large quantities of frequently-used items, inventors can build beautiful and functional prototypes for new ideas at the drop of a hat. While it’s easy to inexpensively accumulate tens of thousands of passive components (resistors, capacitors, etc.), it’s the slightly more expensive components that people tend to order only when they need it for a project. However, paying high shipping rates or waiting months for items to arrive from overseas dramatically increases the barrier for initiating new projects. In my own workshop I have noticed that stocking large volumes of slightly more costly items (inductors, microcontrollers, connectors, enclosures, LED bezels, etc.) lowers the barrier for me to start new projects, and has proved to be a good investment! Now I can build a product on the same day that I have the idea! Today’s idea takes the form of a TTL-controlled pulse generator for physiology applications.

I designed the enclosure before I designed the circuit. Metal enclosures are always expensive compared to their plastic counterparts. Steel enclosures are difficult to drill, and aluminum enclosures are expensive. My most cringe-worthy stocking expenditure is ordering metal enclosures in quantities of 10+. The last I checked this specific one is listed as, “Aluminum Instrument Box Enclosure Case+Screw For Project Electronic 26X71X110MM” and is a little under $4 each. Brass hex stand-off nuts and black steel screws don’t exactly match the aluminum, but they’re what I had on hand. I knew I would need power and a BNC input and output, so I put those 3 on the back. I wasn’t sure about the exact functionality of this device (and it may change after it is initially implemented) but I thought a single button and two LEDs would be a good starting point.

The circuit demonstrates the general flow of this device: a microcontroller-controlled project with a buffered output. I drew this schematic after I finished the build (I kept adding passives here and there as I tested it out) but before I started I knew the gist of how I would organize the project. Mentally I knew that as long as my microcontroller (ATTiny2313) could sense the TTL input and had control over all outputs (LEDs and BNC alike), I had a lot of flexibility to control the operation of this device in software. I used a generic LM7805 linear voltage regulator with a few decoupling capacitors to take a who-knows-what input voltage (up to 40V) and turn it into a stable 5V output. Note that both inputs (the BNC TTL input and the push-button) have decoupling capacitors near the microcontroller input pin to aid in debouncing.

I’m leaning on a 74HC541 inverting line driver to clamp the output voltage firmly at TTL levels. The microcontroller (an ATTiny2313) isn’t really designed to source of sink much current (I think it’s rated to 20 mA max) and I don’t know about the input circuitry of the stimulus isolator I intend to control (and don’t forget about the impedance of 50-ohm cable). The line driver helps me take some of the pressure off the microcontroller and help me feel better about reliably driving the output BNC.

Should I have optically isolated the input? Well, probably not… the application at hand is low importance. If I wanted to rely on optical isolation I would probably lean on the H11B1 as previously used in my opto-isolated laser build. In retrospect I kind of wish I had just because it would have been cooler!

I added a header to allow me to program the microcontroller with a programmer configured with test clip grabbers. I have an AVR ISP MKII (clone), and building a programming adapter that uses test clips was one of the best decisions I ever made! It makes programming (and the inevitable re-programming) a breeze.

The program isn’t too complex. It uses a polling method to continuously check for the state of the input TTL. When it’s high, it starts a new cycle (0.1 ms pulse, 49.9ms delay, yielding 20 Hz). The code is ready to add a “mode select” feature (which uses the front-panel push-button to select different stimulation protocols), but that functionality is not included in the example below. Note that a lot of the millisecond and microsecond delays are empirically determined by picking a value and checking its output on the oscilloscope. I should note that absolute timing isn’t critical for my application, as long as it’s consistent. For this reason I’m not relying on the internal RC clock (which is temperature sensitive), but instead am using an external 20MHz crystal as a time source. It’s still temperature sensitive (and so are the loading capacitors on each side of it), but dramatically less so than the RC option. Note that the crystal wasn’t in the original photos, but it was added for later photos.

Configure the ATTiny2313 to use an external crystal clock source

@echo off
avrdude -c usbtiny -p t2313 -U lfuse:w:0xff:m -U hfuse:w:0xdf:m -U efuse:w:0xff:m

The core program (main.c)

#define F_CPU 20000000UL
#include <avr/io.h>
#include <util/delay.h>

volatile char state=0;

void output_HIGH(){PORTB|=(1<<PB4);}
void output_LOW(){PORTB&=~(1<<PB4);}
void LED1_ON(){PORTB|=(1<<PB3);}
void LED1_OFF(){PORTB&=~(1<<PB3);}
void LED2_ON(){PORTB|=(1<<PB2);}
void LED2_OFF(){PORTB&=~(1<<PB2);}

void singlePulse_20Hz_100us(){

void poll(){
	if ((PIND&(1<<PD4))){singlePulse_20Hz_100us();}

int main(void){
	DDRB=255; // all outputs
	DDRD=0; // all inputs
	PORTD=(1<<PD5); // pull front button high

Compile “main” and load it onto the ATTiny2313

@echo off
del *.elf
del *.hex
avr-gcc -mmcu=attiny2313 -Wall -Os -o main.elf main.c -w
avr-objcopy -j .text -j .data -O ihex main.elf main.hex
avrdude -c usbtiny -p t2313 -U flash:w:"main.hex":a 

I didn’t think to check my height profile! I got lucky, and things fit fine. Socketed ICs can be close calls, and so can vertically-installed electrolytic capacitors. Now that it was programmed and everything fit, it was time to seal it up and make labels.

The finished product looks great! Never underestimate the power of clear labels and square outlines. Following deployment, a couple screws will let me open it up and access the programming header in case I need to change the stimulation protocols stored in the microchip. I am pleased with how professional of a result I was able to achieve in one sitting! I look forward to seeing how this device works for my application.

PS: Microcontroller code for this project (and many others) is stored in my ever-growing AVR-Projects GitHub page:

PPS: I smiled when a Google search revealed the PulsePal, “A low-cost programmable pulse generator for physiology and behavior”.


Controlling Speakers with RADAR

I just finished building a device that uses RADAR to toggle power to my speakers when it detects my hand waiving near them! I have some crummy old monitor speakers screwed to a shelf, and although their sound is decent the volume control knob (which also controls power) is small and far back on my work bench and inconvenient to keep reaching for. I decided to make a device which would easily let me turn the speakers on and off without having to touch anything. You could built a device to detect a hand waive in several different ways, but RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging) has got to be the coolest!


This project centers around a 5.8 GHz microwave radar sensor module (HFS-DC06, $5.22 from, + 15% discount code haics) which senses distance (sensitivity is adjustable with a potentiometer) and in response to crossing a threshold it outputs a TTL pulse (the duration of with is adjustable with another potentiometer). I ran the output of the module through divide-by-two circuit (essentially a flip-flop) so that an object-detect event would toggle a line rather than pull the line high for each detection. I didn’t have a cheap flip-flop IC on hand (the 74HC374 comes to mind, $0.54 on Mouser) but I did have a 74HC590 8-bit binary counter on hand ($0.61 on Mouser) which has a divide-by-two output. I used the radar sensor and this IC to produce a proximity-toggled TTL signal which enabled/disabled current flowing through a power n-channel MOSFET. All together this let met create a device with two DC barrel jacks (an input and an output), and current delivery on the output could be toggled with proximity sensing.


I wanted this device to be extremely simple, with a single input DC jack and single output jack and no buttons or knobs. It’s a funny feeling making a user input device with no drill holes in the enclosure! The design is so simple it’s not worth reviewing in detail. The 15V line (which in reality could be almost anything) is brought to 5V with a LM7805 linear voltage regulator. Decoupling capacitors are commonly placed on the input and output of the regulator, but since the function is to toggle a switch I didn’t find it necessary (there is no downstream signal I wish to preserve the integrity of). The radar module has only 3 connectors: +5v, GND, and OUT. Out produces a high pulse when it detects something close. The output of the OUT signal is fed into a divide-by-two stage which is really just a 74HC590 8-bit binary counter taking output of the div/2 pin. That output is fed into an IRF510 N-channel MOSFET to switch current flow on the “DC output” on and off. A Darlington transistor (i.e., TIP122) would probably work fine too, but there would be a slightly greater voltage drop across it. Any power MOSFET would have worked, but I had a box of IRF510s on hand so I used one although they are more expensive ($0.82 on Mouser). Not shown is a status LED which is also on the output of the divide-by-2 chip (with a current limiting series resistor).


glued the radar module to the wall of a plastic enclosure. Isn’t radar messed-up by glue and plastic? Yes! But I’m not sensing things 50 feet away. I’m sensing a hand moving a few inches away. To this end, I experimented with how much glue and how thick plastic I needed to distort the signal enough so that it would only activate when I put my hand near it (as opposed to sitting down at my desk, which could also trigger the sensor without these attenuating structures). I found that aluminum tape further dampened the response, but luckily for the aesthetics of the build I didn’t have to use it. Also, rather than take time making a PCB (or even using perfboard), I found point-to-point construction quite sufficient. I hot glued the counter IC to the radar module, wired it all together, and it was done! A little black plastic LED bezel was a nice touch with the diffuse blue LED.

Alternative Designs

RADAR was a cool way to accomplish this task, but there certainly are additional methods which could achieve a similar result:

  • IR (infrared) – By pulsing IR and sensing the reflected signal intensity with an IR-filtered photo-transistor, you could invisibly detect presence of an object in front of the sensor. Adjusting the amplification of the photo-transistor (and/or diffusion of its lens or enclosure) could adjust for distance. In fact, many companies make paired IR-LED / IR-phototransistor modules specifically for this task. However, if you have a TV remote control or other device which uses IR to communicate, it could screw with this signal.
  • Sonar – Instead of light, pressure waves (sound) could be used to sense distance due to the time delay between an audio emission and detection of its reflection. Presumably an ultrasonic transducer would be used to prevent perpetual annoyance of those living in the area. Ultrasonic distance sensor modules can also be found online for this purpose. These technologies are what is commonly used by vehicles to detect objects in their path while backing-up, alerting the driver with a beep. The downside of this method is that it would not work inside an enclosure. Aesthetically, I didn’t want to have two silver screen-covered cans staring at me.

Radar Module Teardown

I had two of these modules on hand, so after I got this project working with one I used the other to conduct a destructive teardown. What I found inside was interesting! If someone were really interested, there may be some potential for hackability here. Aside from the microwave PCB goodness I found two primary ICs: the LM2904 dual op-amp and an ATTiny13 8-bit microcontroller. I was really surprised to find a microcontroller in here! With so much analog on these boards, it seemed that a timed pulse could be accomplished by a 555 or similar. A single-quantity ATTiny13 is $0.58 on Mouser (as compared to $0.36 for a 555) but maybe when you add the extra discrete components (plus cost of board space) it makes sense. Also, I’m not entirely sure how this circuit is sensing distance and translating it into pulses so perhaps there is some more serious computation than I’m giving it credit for.

The presence of an ATMEL AVR in this RADAR module is a potential site for future hacks. I’d be interested to solder some wires to it and see if I could extract the firmware. In any large scale commercial products the read/write access would be disabled, but with small run modules like this one seems to be there’s a chance I could reprogram it as-is. If I really wanted to use this layout but write a custom program for the micro I could desolder it and lay my own chip on the board. For now though, I’m really happy with how this project came out!


Precision Pressure Meter Project

I just completed building a device capable of measuring temperature to one hundredth of a degree Celsius and pressure to one ten-thousandth of a PSI! This project is centered around an ICstation MS5611 temperature sensor breakout board which was small enough to fit inside of a plastic syringe. The result is a small and inexpensive pressure sensor in a convenient form factor with a twist connector (a Luer-Lok fitting) that can be rapidly attached to existing tubing setups. Although the screw attachment would work well for industrial or scientific applications, I found that the inner connector (the non-threaded plastic nub with 6% taper) made a snug and air-tight connection with my CO2-impermanent aquarium tubing.

this MS5611 breakout board is small enough to fit inside a 10 mL syringe

I documented this project thoroughly so others can learn about the design process that goes into making one-off prototypes like this. The video is quite long considering how simple the task seems (read a number from a sensor and display it on a screen), but it gives a lot of tips and insights into rapidly making professional looking one-off projects like this. Reading datasheets can be intimidating for newcomers too, and this video walks through how to figure out how to bang out I2C commands to a new sensor using a Bus Pirate – a really convenient skill to have for hobby electrical engineers like me! After it’s working well with the sensor/computer interface you can move to the microcontroller level with confidence. Since no one has posted code for how to interface this sensor directly with the microcontroller platform I intended to use (AVR-GCC, notably not Arduino), my build process started by poking around with a Bus Pirate to learn how to interact with the device using  I2C commands. Once I was able to initiate temperature and pressure readings and pull its values by hand using the Bus Pirate, I wrote a Python script to automate the process (using PySerial to interact with the Bus Pirate) and allow recording and graphing of real-time pressure and temperature information. I then used a logic analyzer to glance at the data exchanged between the Bus Pirate and the pressure sensor (mostly for my own satisfaction, and to help with debugging in the future). Finally, I ditched the computer and had an ATMega328 microcontroller pull temperature/pressure readings and display them on a 16×2 HD44780 character LCD display beautifully framed with a laser-cut LCD bezel (from Tindie user widgeneering). I used a USB connector to give the device power (though there’s no reason it couldn’t run off of 3xAA batteries) and CAT5 cable as a convenient connector between the display and the sensor. After assembling everything and making some labels, the final product looks quite professional!

Project Summary Video

This video is quite extensive. It explores the design process for one-off projects like this, with extra time spent on the difficult parts that often pose the greatest challenges to newcomers (exploring datasheets, banging out I2C commands with a new sensor). I don’t see this part of the design process discussed too often in engineering videos, so I hope it will be an insightful and inspiring resource to people just starting to work with custom electronics and prototype design. Another group of people who benefit from watching the video are those who don’t know much about the design process of embedded devices, but will quickly realize that building a prototype device to do something as simple as reading a number from a sensor and displaying it on a screen can take an immense amount of insight, work, troubleshooting, and effort to create.


About the MS5611 Temperature and Pressure Sensor

The breakout board I’m using provides 5V access to the I2C interface of the MS5611. This is convenient because the MS5611 requires 3.3V and many microcontroller applications run at 5V. The MS5611 itself is the small (5mm by 3mm) silver rectangle on the side of the board. The MS5611 datasheet has all the information we need to know to get started poking around its I2C bus! The general idea is that it has an imperfect pressure sensor on board. During production the pressure sensors are produced with slightly different offsets and gains. Further, the pressure sensor varies its output as a function of temperature. They included a temperature sensor on there too, but that also varies by offset and gain due to production! To yield highly precise absolute pressure readings, the factory calibrates every device individually by storing six 16-bit calibration values in a program memory. They represent the sensitivities and offsets of these sensors.

When run through an algorithm (given a whole page in the datasheet), the 6 factory-programmed calibration values (16-bit integers) can be combined with the raw temperature and pressure readings (24-bit integers) to yield incredibly accurate and precise temperature and pressure readings down to 0.01 degree Celsius and 0.012 millibar (0.00017 PSI). This accuracy is enough to be able to measure changes in altitude of 10 centimeters!

These are some photos of the break-out board from the company’s product page and a few more taken from my USB microscope zoomed in on the sensor itself. If I feel inspired, I may use my hot air tool to lift the sensor off the board and incorporate into a future, smaller design. I’ll save that project for another day!

Using a Bus Pirate to Communicate with the Sensor

After reading the datasheet I learned the general flow of how to read data from this sensor. It was a three step command process for both temperature and pressure:

  • Tell the device what to measure and with what precision [by sending 1 byte]
    This is in the commands section (page 9/20) of the datasheet. Command 0x48 will tell it to use maximum oversampling ratio (OSR) to convert D1 (the digital pressure value). Highest OSR (4096) means the most precise reading but a slightly slower reading (9.04 ms) with higher current draw (12.5 µA at 1 Hz) as compared to the lowest OSR (256, 0.6 ms, 0.9 µA). 
  • Tell the device you are ready to perform an ADC read [by sending 1 byte]
    The byte you send to read the ADC is always 0x00. Don’t proceed to this step until the conversion has been given time to complete or your reading will be zero.
  • Read the ADC result [by reading 3 bytes]
    The ADC result will always be an 18-bit integer.

This was a great use for my Bus Pirate! Without the Bus Pirate in order to debug this device I would have needed to make a circuit board, wire-up a microcontroller, figure out how to program that microcontroller to interact with the sensor (with very limited hardware debug tools), and send readings (and debug messages) to a computer via a USB serial port. Also, I’d have to add bidirectional serial communication code if I wanted it to be interactive. What a nightmare! Recently I started really valuing my Bus Pirate as a way to immediately hook up to a new sensor out of the box and interactively pull data from it within a few seconds. To hack this to my Bus Pirate I soldered-on female headers (instead of soldering on the pins that came with the breakout board). The Bus Pirate pin descriptions page shows how to hook up an I2C device. It’s important to note that the sensor board will not receive power (and its LED won’t light up) until you send the “W” command to the Bus Pirate.

Here are the commands I use with the Bus Pirate to connect with the sensor. If you can’t get this part to work, I don’t recommend challenging using a microcontroller to pull I2C data from this part! This is kind of fool proof, so this stage not working means you’ve read the datasheet incorrectly and don’t know how to interact with the sensor as well as you thought you did, or that there is a hardware or connectivity issue with the circuit. All of this is in the video posted above, so watching that part of the video may help you get an idea of what it looks like interacting with circuits like this with a Bus Pirate. Also, be sure to review the Bus Pirate I2C guide.

  • Open RealTerm and connect to the Bus Pirate
    • change display mode to Ansi
    • set baud to 115200 baud (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit)
  • # to reset the Bus Pirate (optional)
  • m to set mode
  • 4 to select I2C
  • 3 to select 100 KHz
  • W to enable power (the red LED on the sensor should light up)
  • P to enable pull-up resistors (no errors should be displayed)
  • (1) scan for I2C devices (the sensor should be displayed, likely as oxEE)
  • Let’s make a read! This is how to read raw pressure:
    • [0xEE 0x48] to do the 4096 OCR D1 read
    • [0xEE 0x00] to prepare to read the ADC
    • [0xEF r:3] to read 3 bytes

For the most accurate readings, use the algorithms on page 7/20 of the datasheet to use the calibration variables (C1-C6) in combination with pressure (D1) and temperature (D2) to produce an accurate temperature and pressure measurement.

Enclosing the Pressure Sensor

My application requires me to sense pressure in air-tight tubing. My solution was to insert this sensor inside a 10 mL syringe and seal it up with epoxy such that the only opening would be the twist connector I could attach to the air line. I accomplished this by cutting the syringe with a rotary tool, removing the rubber stopper from the plunger and puncturing it so I could pass the wires through, then sealing it up as tightly as I could. I crossed my fingers and hoped it wouldn’t leak as I mixed-up some epoxy and poured it in. After an hour of setting time, I was delighted to learn that it sealed air tight! I could now attach needles and tubes with the screw connector, or leave it disconnected to measure atmospheric pressure.

Sniffing I2C with a Logic Analyzer

Right off the bat my Bus Pirate could pull sensor data but the C code I wrote running on a microcontroller could not. What gives? Was the sensor hooked up wrong? Was the microcontroller sending the wrong commands? Were the commands not being read by the microcontroller properly? Were the messages not being transmitted to the LCD display properly? There are so many points for failure and such limited hardware debugging (I’m not using JTAG) that my first go-to was my logic analyzer. As you can probably tell by the video I don’t use this thing too often, but good gosh when I do it usually saves me hours of head scratching.

logic analyzer sniffing functional I2C between Bus Pirate and sensor board

In this case, I immediately saw that the I2C lines were always low (!) and realized that the problem was my reliance on microcontroller pull-up resistors to keep those lines continuously high. That was a rookie mistake. I guess I could have seen this with an oscilloscope, but at the time I hooked it up I thought it was a protocol issue and not a dumb hardware issue. I slapped on a few 10K resistors to the VCC line and it worked immediately. Regardless, it was nice to have the capability. See the video for details.

Building the Enclosure

I still can’t get over how good the silver aluminium looks against the black laser-cut display bezel in combination with the dark backbit LCD display. I couldn’t have done this without the LCD bezels I just found being sold on Tindie! Mounting character LCD displays on metal or plastic enclosures is a chore and usually looks awful. I cringe at some of my old projects which have displays loosely meshed with square cut-outs. My square holes look nicer now that I use a hand nibbler tool, but there’s just no way that I know of to make an LCD display look good in a square cut-out without a good bezel. Another advantage of a large bezel is you don’t have to make a perfectly square cut-out, since it will all get covered-up anyway!

I then proceeded to epoxy the connectors I wanted (USB and Ethernet) and drill holes for the PCB mount. I added the microcontroller (ATMega328) and the circuit is so simple I’m not even going to display it here. If you’re really interested, check out the video. My logic is that a 5V noisy power supply is fine since all we are doing is simple, slow, digital signaling, and that the sensitive stuff (analog pressure/temperature sensing) is done on a board which already has a linear regulator on it presumably filtering-out almost all of the supply line noise. Plus, my application is such that 0.1 PSI is good enough and measuring it to a ten-thousandth of a PSI is quite overkill and I didn’t even end-up displaying the last digit of precision.

I used CAT5 to carry I2C, which I understand is a bit iffy. I2C is designed to be sent over small distances (like across a circuit board), and not really for long distance transmission. That’s not to say long distance I2C isn’t possible; it just requires a few extra design considerations. The basic idea is that a long line has a lot of capacitance, so it would take a lot of current (sinking and sourcing) to rapidly pull that line fully high and fully low at the high speeds that I2C could use. The longer the cable, the greater the capacitance, and the lower speed I2C you have to use and/or higher current you need to drive it. I2C drivers exist to help with this purpose, and although I have some I found I didn’t actually need to use them. For more information, google on the topic of sending I2C over twisted pair. This Hackaday article on sending I2C over long distances is also quite nice. For the purposes of this prototype, it’s working with straight-through wiring (sensor-to-microcontroller) so let’s call it good and move on.

I had to use a slightly larger aluminum enclosure than I initially wanted because there was limited vertical space with the LCD risers as well as the risers I used for my own board. It was a tight squeeze when all was said and done, but it worked great!

Programming the Microcontroller

Let’s just say I programmed the microchip to do exactly what we did with the Bus Pirate. The code is messy as heck (and even is using two different I2C libraries to signal on the same I2C line!) but it works and the prototype is done and sealed so I don’t really have a lot of reason to fine-tune the software. The full project can be found on the GitHub page, and a few relevant lines of code are below.

Here are a few key points about the microcontroller software:

  • I added a “baseline reset” which resets the current pressure to 0.000 PSI.
  • I’m intentionally not showing full precision because I don’t need it for my application.
  • I hard-coded the calibration values in C rather than look them up each time. This is fine since this code will only run on this one microchip with this one sensor. If this were a production device, obviously they would be read on startup.
  • I am not using the formula provided in the datasheet to integrate the calibration values with temperature to calculate pressure. Instead, I came up with my own formula (essentially just Y=mX+b) which was fit to an ADC/PSI curve I plotted myself using the calibration values for this one sensor and the temperature (72F) where I know the device will be held.
  • Since I’m controlling for temperature and hard-coded my calibration values, I can get good enough precision without the need for floating point math. Adding floating point libraries to an 8-bit AVR consumes a lot of memory and can be slow. However, in a production unit this would probably be a must.
  • Adding logging / PC connectivity would be really easy since there’s already a USB connection there! In this circuit I’m just using it for the +5V power, but there’s no reason we couldn’t attach to the data lines and send our temperature and pressure readings via USB. The easiest way to do this would be by adding an FTDI TTL serial USB adapter such as the FT232 or its breakout board. The microcontroller already has TTL USART capability so it would only be a few extra lines of code.

Code to pull 16-bit calibration values from program memory:

volatile unsigned int prog[8]; // holds calibration values
uint8_t data[2];
char i,j;
for (i=0;i<8;i++){
	data[0]=160+i*2; // addresses from datasheet
	prog[i]+=data[1]; // prog[1] will be C1

Code to pull a 24-bit pressure sensor reading:

uint8_t data[3];
data[0]=72; // command 72 is "set register to pressure"
_delay_ms(10); // time for conversion to complete
data[0]=0; // command 0 is "ADC read"
pressure+=data[0]; // pull in a byte
pressure=pressure<<8; // and shift its significance
pressure+=data[1]; // pull in another byte
pressure=pressure<<8; // shit it all again
pressure+=data[2]; // add the last byte

Example Application

It’s great to have an inexpensive precision temperature and pressure sensor design ready to go for any application I want to use it for in the future. This is a project I’ve been wanting to build for a long time for an aquarium purpose involving monitoring the rate of CO2 injection through the intake valve of an aquarium filter (which I am aware is discouraged because bubbles can be rough on the impeller) as part of a DIY yeast reactor, all to encourage aquatic plant growth. Botany in a sentence: plants use light to grow and metabolize carbon dioxide (CO2) while producing oxygen (O2). By supplementing (but not saturating) the water with CO2, I get better plants. There’s also an application to monitor the positive pressure (rather than negative pressure / suction) of a microcontroller-pressure-controlled reaction chamber this way. If I code it wrong, and the pressure isn’t released, 1 gallon of sugary yeasty water will end up bursting over my living room floor. (I guess this means the pressure is on to get the design right?) Alternatively this prototype may serve a role as a pressure sensor for scientific applications such as electrophysiology to monitor fluid pressure, pipette pressure, or incubator pressure and temperature. Most importantly, this project encouraged me to check out some new hardware I am really glad I found (laser-cut character LCD bezels), read-up on I2C transmission lines and power drivers, and get experience with a new type of sensor that a lot of the Internet has not seen before.

my aquarium
Test configuration measuring filter intake suction (negative pressure)

Components Used

Tools Used


Additional Resources


Logging I2C Data with Bus Pirate and Python

I’m working on a project which requires I measure temperature via a computer, and I accomplished this with minimal complexity using a BusPirate and LM75A I2C temperature sensor. I already had some LM75A breakout boards I got on eBay (from China) a while back. A current eBay search reveals these boards are a couple dollars with free shipping. The IC itself is available on Mouser for $0.61 each. The LM75A datasheet reveals it can be powered from 2.8V-5.5V and has a resolution of 1/8 ºC (about 1/4 ºF). I attached the device to the Bus Pirate according to the Bus Pirate I/O Pin Descriptions page (SCL->CLOCK and SDA->MOSI) and started interacting with it according to the Bus Pirate I2C page. Since Phillips developed the I2C protocol, a lot of manufacturers avoid legal trouble and call it TWI (two-wire interface).

Here I show how to pull data from this I2C device directly via a serial terminal, then show my way of automating the process with Python. Note that there are multiple python packages out there that claim to make this easy, but in my experience they are either OS-specific or no longer supported or too confusing to figure out rapidly. For these reasons, I ended up just writing a script that uses common Python libraries so nothing special has to be installed.

Reading data directly from a serial terminal

Before automating anything, I figured out what I2C address this chip was using and got some sample temperature readings directly from the serial terminal. I used RealTerm to connect to the Bus Pirate. The sequence of keystrokes I used are:

  • # – to reset the device
  • m – to enter the mode selection screen
    • 4 – to select I2C mode
    • 3 – to select 100KHz
  • W – to turn the power on
  • P – to enable pull-up resistors
  • (1) – to scan I2C devices
    • this showed the device listening on 0x91
  • [0x91 r:2] – to read 2 bytes from I2C address 0x91
    • this showed bytes like 0x1D and 0x20
    • 0x1D20 in decimal is 7456
    • according to datasheet, must divide by 2^8 (256)
    • 7456/256 = 29.125 C = 84.425 F

Automating Temperature Reads with Python

There should be an easy way to capture this data from Python. The Bus Pirate website even has a page showing how to read data from LM75, but it uses a pyBusPirateLite python package which has to be manually installed (it doesn’t seem to be listed in pypi). Furthermore, they only have a screenshot of a partial code example (nothing I can copy or paste) and their link to the original article is broken. I found a cool pypy-indexed python module pyElectronics which should allow easy reading/writing from I2C devices via BusPirate and Raspberry Pi. However, it crashed immediately on my windows system due to attempting to load Linux-only python modules. I improved the code and issued a pull request, but I can’t encourage use of this package at this time if you intend to log data in Windows. Therefore, I’m keeping it simple and using a self-contained script to interact with the Bus Pirate, make temperature reads, and graph the data over time. You can code-in more advanced features as needed. The graphical output of my script shows what happens when I breathe on the sensor (raising the temperature), then what happens when I cool it (by placing a TV dinner on top of it for a minute). Below is the code used to set up the Bus Pirate to log and graph temperature data. It’s not fast, but for temperature readings it doesn’t have to be! It captures about 10 reads a second, and the rate-limiting step is the timeout value which is currently set to 0.1 sec.

NOTE: The Bus Pirate has a convenient binary scripting mode which can speed all this up. I’m not using that mode in this script, simply because I’m trying to closely mirror the functionality of directly typing things into the serial console.

import serial
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

BUSPIRATE_PORT = 'com3' #customize this! Find it in device manager.

def send(ser,cmd,silent=False):
    send the command and listen to the response.
    returns a list of the returned lines. 
    The first item is always the command sent.
    ser.write(str(cmd+'\n').encode('ascii')) # send our command
    for line in ser.readlines(): # while there's a response
    if not silent:
    return lines

def getTemp(ser,address='0x91',silent=True,fahrenheit=False):
    """return the temperature read from an LM75"""
    unit=" F" if fahrenheit else " C"
    lines=send(ser,'[%s r:2]'%address,silent=silent) # read two bytes
    for line in lines:
        if line.startswith("READ:"):
            line=line.split(" ",1)[1].replace("ACK",'')
            while "  " in line:
                line=" "+line.strip().replace("  "," ")
            line=line.split(" 0x")
            # conversion to C according to the datasheet
            if val < 2**15:
                val = val/2**8
                val =  (val-2**16)/2**8
            if fahrenheit:
            return val
# the speed of sequential commands is determined by this timeout
ser=serial.Serial(BUSPIRATE_PORT, 115200, timeout=.1)

# have a clean starting point
send(ser,'#',silent=True) # reset bus pirate (slow, maybe not needed)
#send(ser,'v') # show current voltages

# set mode to I2C
send(ser,'m',silent=True) # change mode (goal is to get away from HiZ)
send(ser,'4',silent=True) # mode 4 is I2C
send(ser,'3',silent=True) # 100KHz
send(ser,'W',silent=True) # turn power supply to ON. Lowercase w for OFF.
send(ser,'P',silent=True) # enable pull-up resistors
send(ser,'(1)') # scan I2C devices. Returns "0x90(0x48 W) 0x91(0x48 R)"

    print("reading data until CTRL+C is pressed...")
    while True:
    print("exception broke continuous reading.")
    print("read %d data points"%len(data))

ser.close() # disconnect so we can access it from another app

plt.title("LM75 data from Bus Pirate")
plt.xlabel("number of reads")

print("disconnected!") # let the user know we're done.

Experiment: Measuring Heater Efficacy

This project now now ready for an actual application test. I made a simple heater circuit which could be driven by an analog input, PWM, or digital ON/OFF. Powered from 12V it can pass 80 mA to produce up to 1W of heat. This may dissipate up to 250 mW of heat in the transistor if partially driven, so keep this in mind if an analog signal drive is used (i.e., thermistor / op-amp circuit). Anyhow, I soldered this up with SMT components on a copper-clad PCB with slots drilled on it and decided to give it a go. It’s screwed tightly to the temperature sensor board, but nothing special was done to ensure additional thermal conductivity. This is a pretty crude test.

I ran an experiment to compare open-air heating/cooling vs. igloo conditions, as well as low vs. high heater drive conditions. The graph below shows these results. The “heating” ranges are indicated by shaded areas. The exposed condition is when the device is sitting on the desk without any insulation. A 47k resistor is used to drive the base of the transistor (producing less than maximal heating). I then repeated the same thing after the device was moved inside the igloo. I killed the heater power when it reached the same peak temperature as the first time, noticing that it took less time to reach this temperature. Finally, I used a 1k resistor on the base of the transistor and got near-peak heating power (about 1W). This resulted in faster heating and a higher maximum temperature. If I clean this enclosure up a bit, this will be a nice way to test software-based PID temperature control with slow PWM driving the base of the transistor.

Code to create file logging (csv data with timestamps and temperatures) and produce plots lives in the ‘file logging’ folder of the Bus Pirate LM75A project on the GitHub page.

Experiment: Challenging LM7805 Thermal Shutdown

The ubiquitous LM7805 linear voltage regulator offers internal current limiting (1.5A) and thermal shutdown. I’ve wondered for a long time if I could use this element as a heater. It’s TO-220 package is quite convenient to mount onto enclosures. To see how quickly it heats up and what temperature it rests at, screwed a LM7805 directly to the LM75A breakout board (with a dab of thermal compound). I soldered the output pin to ground (!!!) and recorded temperature while it was plugged in.

Power (12V) was applied to the LM7805 over the red-shaded region. It looks like it took about 2 minutes to reach maximum temperature, and settled around 225F. After disconnecting power, it settled back to room temperature after about 5 minutes. I’m curious if this type of power dissipation is sustainable long term…

Update: Reading LM75A values directly into an AVR

This topic probably doesn’t belong inside this post, but it didn’t fit anywhere else and I don’t want to make it its own post. Now that I have this I2C sensor mounted where I want it, I want a microcontroller to read its value and send it (along with some other data) via serial USART to an FT232 (USB serial adapter). Ultimately I want to take advantage of its comparator thermostat function so I can have a USB-interfaced PC-controllable heater with multiple LM75A ICs providing temperature readings at different sites in my project. To do this, I had to write code to interface my microcontroller to the LM75A. I am using an ATMega328 (ATMega328P) with AVR-GCC (not Arduino). Although there are multiple LM75A senor libraries for Arduino [link] [link] [link] I couldn’t find any examples which didn’t rely on Arduino libraries. I ended up writing functions around g4lvanix’s L2C-master-lib.

Here’s a relevant code snippit. See the full code (with compile notes) on this GitHub page:

uint8_t data[2]; // prepare variable to hold sensor data
uint8_t address=0x91; // this is the i2c address of the sensor
i2c_receive(address,data,2); // read and store two bytes
temperature=(data[0]*256+data[1])/32; // convert two bytes to temperature



This project lives on my growing GitHub page for microcontroller projects:



1 Rotary Encoder, 3 Pins, 6 Inputs

Rotary encoders are a convenient way to add complex input functionality to small hardware projects with a single component. Rotary encoders (sometimes called shaft encoders, or rotary shaft encoders) can spin infinitely in both directions and many of them can be pressed like a button. The volume knob on your car radio is probably a rotary encoder.

With a single component and 3 microcontroller pins I can get six types of user input: turn right, turn left, press-and-turn right, press-and-turn left, press and release,  and press and hold. Let’s pretend “press and hold and turn” is not a thing…

A few years ago I [posted a video] on YouTube discussing how rotary shaft encoders work and how to interface them with microcontrollers. Although I’m happy it has over 13,000 views, I’m disappointed I never posted the code or schematics on my website (despite the fact I said on the video I would). A few years later I couldn’t find the original code anymore, and now that I’m working on a project using these devices I decided to document a simple case usage of this component. This post is intended to be a resource for future me just as much as it is anyone who finds it via Google or YouTube. This project will permanently live in a “rotary encoder” folder of my AVR projects GitHub page: AVR-projects. For good measure, I made a follow-up YouTube video which describes a more simple rotary encoder example and that has working links to this code.

At about $.50 each, rotary encoders are certainly more expensive than other switches (such as momentary switches). A quick eBay search reveals these components can be purchased from china in packs of 10 for $3.99 with free shipping. On Mouser similar components are about $0.80 individually, cut below $0.50 in quantities of 200. The depressible kind have two pins which are shorted when the button is pressed. The rotary part has 3 pins, which are all open in the normal state. Assuming the center pin is grounded, spinning the knob in one direction or the other will temporarily short both of the other pins to ground, but slightly staggered from each other. The order of this stagger indicates which direction the encoder was rotated.

I typically pull these all high through 10k series resistors (debounced with a 0.1uF capacitor to ground to reduce accidental readings) and sense their state directly with a microcontroller. Although capacitors were placed where they are to facilitate a rapid fall time and slower rise time, their ultimate goal is high-speed integration of voltage on the line as a decoupling capacitor for potential RF noise which may otherwise get into the line. Extra hardware debouching could be achieved by adding an additional series resistor immediately before the rotary encoder switch. For my simple application, I feel okay omitting these. If you want to be really thorough, you may benefit from adding a Schmidt trigger between the output and the microcontroller as well. Note that I can easily applying time-dependent debouncing via software as well.

Quick Code Notes

Setting-up PWM on ATTiny2313

I chose to use the 16-bit Timer/Counter to generate the PWM. 16-bits of duty control feels excessive for controlling an LED brightness, but my ultimate application will use a rotary encoder to finely and coarsely adjust a radio frequency, so there is some advantage to having this fine level of control. To round things out to a simple value, I’m capping the duty at 10,000 rather than the full 65,535. This way I can set the duty to 50% easily by setting OCR1A to 5,000. Similarly, spinning left/right can adjust duty by 100, and push-and-turn can adjust by 1,000.

void setupPWM_16bit(){
    DDRB|=(1<<PB3); // enable 16-bit PWM output on PB3
	TCCR1A|=(1<<COM1A1); // Clear OC1A/OC1B on Compare Match
	TCCR1B|=(1<<WGM13); // enable "PWM, phase and frequency correct"
	TCCR1B|=(1<<CS10); // enable output with the fastest clock (no prescaling)
	ICR1=10000; // set the top value (could be up to 2^16)
	OCR1A=5000; // set PWM pulse width (starts at 50% duty)

Simple (spin only) Rotary Encoder Polling

void poll_encoder_v1(){
	// polls for turns only
	if (~PINB&(1<<PB2)) {
		if (~PINB&(1<<PB1)){
			// left turn
		} else {
			// right turn
		_delay_ms(2); // force a little down time before continuing 
		while (~PINB&(1<<PB2)){} // wait until R1 comes back high

Simple (spin only) Rotary Encoder Polling

void poll_encoder_v2(){
	// polls for turns as well as push+turns
	if (~PINB&(1<<PB2)) {
		if (~PINB&(1<<PB1)){
			if (PINB&(1<<PB0)){
				// left turn
			} else {
				// left press and turn
		} else {
			if (PINB&(1<<PB0)){
				// right turn
			} else {
				// right press and turn
		_delay_ms(2); // force a little down time before continuing 
		while (~PINB&(1<<PB2)){} // wait until R1 comes back high

What about an interrupt-based method?

A good compromise between continuous polling and reading pins only when we need to is to take advantage of the pin change interrupts. Briefly, we import avr/interrupt.h, set GIMSK, EIFR, and PCMSK (definitely read the datasheet) to trigger a hardware interrupt when a pin state change is detected on any of the 3 inputs. Then we run sei(); to enable global interrupts, and our functionality is identical without having to continuously call our polling function!

// run this only when pin state changes

int main(void){
	// set up pin change interrupts
	GIMSK=(1<<PCIE); // Pin Change Interrupt Enable 
	EIFR=(1<<PCIF); // Pin Change Interrupt Flag
	PCMSK=(1<<PCINT1)|(1<<PCINT2)|(1<<PCINT3); // watch these pins
	sei(); // enable global interrupts
	for(;;){} //forever

All code for this project is available on the GitHub:



Raspberry Pi RF Frequency Counter

I build a lot of RF circuits, and often it’s convenient to measure and log frequency with a computer. Previously I’ve built standalone frequency counters, frequency counters with a PC interface, and even hacked a classic frequency counter to add USB interface (twice, actually). My latest device uses only 2 microchips to provide a Raspberry Pi with RF frequency measurement capabilities. The RF signal clocks a 32-bit counter SN74LV8154 ($1.04 on Mouser) connected to a 16-bit IO expander MCP23017 ($1.26 on Mouser) accessable to the Raspberry Pi (via I²C) to provide real-time frequency measurements from a python script for $2.30 in components! Well, plus the cost of the Raspberry Pi. All files for this project are on my GitHub page.


The entire circuit is only two microchips! I have a few passives to clean up the RF signal (the RF input is loaded with a 1k resistor to ground, decoupled through a series 100 nF capacitor, and balanced at VCC/2 through a voltage divider of two 47k resistors), but if the measured signal is already a strong square wave they could be omitted. The circuit requires a gate pulse which typically will be 1 pulse per second (1PPS) and can be generated by dividing-down a 32.768kHz oscillator, a spare pin on a microcontroller, a fancy 1PPS time reference, or like in my case a GPS module (Neo-6M) with 1PPS output to provide an extremely accurate gate.


The connections are intuitive! The I2C address is 0x20 when A0, A1, and A2 are grounded. GPB(1-4) control the register select of the counter, and GPA(0-7) reads each bit of the selected register. The whole thing is controlled from Python, but could be trivially written in any language.


Here’s a quick summary describing how the code works: First I send bytes to address 0 and 1 to set all pins of GPIO A as inputs, and GPIO B as outputs. Note that only 4 of 8 pins are used for the output, so technically 4 extra pins could be used for things like blinking LEDs or controlling other devices. I then set the register select pins by sending a value to 0x13 (GPIO B), and read the entire GPIO A bus (INTCAPB, 0x18). For address details, consult the datasheet. I do this 4 times (1 for each byte of the 32-bit counter), do a little math to turn it into a frequency value, and compare the current value with the last value and take the difference to display as the measured frequency.


An advantage of this continuously running mode is that no clock cycles are lost, so a gate which accidentally fires a bit early due to jitter and cuts-off a cycle will compensate for it on a subsequent read. This is shown above, as a very stable 10MHz frequency reference is measured with this method. A “slow” 1PPS clock tick causes a reading slightly higher, compensated-for by the next reading being slightly lower. In this way, clock sources which are extremely accurate but suffer from low precision (like GPS time sources) are able to maximize the long-term measurement of frequency. Combining this frequency measurement technique with the ability to generate an analog voltage with a Raspberry Pi will allow me to perform some interesting experiments with a voltage controlled crystal oscillator.

Useful Links:



Generating Analog Voltage with Raspberry Pi

I recently had the need to generate analog voltages from the Raspberry PI, which has rich GPIO digital outputs but no analog outputs. I looked into the RPi.GPIO project which can create PWM (which I wanted to smooth using a low pass filter to create the analog voltage), but its output on the oscilloscope looked terrible! It stuttered all over the place, likely because the duty is continuously under software control. I ended up solving my problem with a MCP4921 12-bit DAC chip (about $1.50 on eBay). It’s controlled via SPI, and although I could have written a python program to bit-bang its protocol with RPi.GPIO I realized I could write directly to the Raspberry Pi SPI device using the echo command. Dividing 3.3V into 12-bits (4096) means that I can control voltage in steps of less than 1mV each, right from the bash console!


Video: The Problem (RPi PWM jitters)

Video: My Solution (SPI DAC)

Hardware Connection

There’s very little magic in how the microchip is connected to the Pi. It’s a straight shot to its SPI bus! Here’s a quick drawing showing which pins to connect. Check your device against the Raspberry Pi GPIO pinout diagram for different devices.


Controlling the DAC with a Bus Pirate

Before I used a Raspberry Pi to control the DAC chip, I tested it out with a Bus Pirate. I don’t have a lot of pictures of the project, but I have a screenshot of a serial console used to send commands to the chip. One advantage of the Bus Pirate is that I can type bytes in binary, which helps to see the individual bits. I don’t have this ability when I’m working in the bash console.


I’m less familiar with the Bus Pirate, but this was a good opportunity to get to know it a little better. It look me a long time (requiring I pull out the logic analyzer) to realize that I had to manually enable/disable the chip-select line, using the “[” and “]” commands. When I set up the SPI mode (command m5) I told it to use active low, but I wasn’t sure how to reverse the active level of the chip-select commands, so I just did ]this[ instead of [this] and it worked great.


This is the signal probed when it was controlled by the Raspberry Pi, but it looked essentially identical when values were sent via the Bus Pirate. The only difference is there was an appreciable delay between the “]” commands and each of the bytes. It worked fine though.

Controlling the DAC with Console Commands

Once the hardware was configured, the software was trivial. I could control analog voltages by sending two properly-formatted bytes to the SPI hardware device. Importantly, you must use raspi-config to enable SPI.

# set analog voltage to minimum value (about 0V)
echo -ne "\x30\x00" > /dev/spidev0.0 # minimum

# set analog voltage to something a little higher
echo -ne "\x30\xAB" > /dev/spidev0.0 

# set analog voltage to maximum value (about 3.3V)
echo -ne "\x3F\xFF" > /dev/spidev0.0

Helpful Links: