Driving a VGA Monitor Using an FPGA

Learning how to directly drive a VGA monitor with an FPGA opens up a window for many potential projects: video games, image processing, a terminal window for a custom processor, and many more. To get started, we will need to learn how to drive the necessary signals to display things on a VGA monitor. We will then use a test circuit to display some colors on the screen. In future posts I will detail how to design pixel generating circuits for displaying custom graphics and animations. More on that soon!

Computer monitors used to be bulky cathode ray tube (CRT) devices. VGA technology was developed with driving the physical CRT in mind, so knowing how that device works can be instructive in understanding why VGA signals are driven the way they are. That being said, computer monitors nowadays are LCD monitors without a CRT, yet the VGA interfaces for these monitors still use the same signals to display images on their screens. Instead of going into the details of CRTs in this post, we will instead inspect the necessary signals for a VGA monitor and their timing diagrams, and implement a synchronization circuit in Verilog HDL.

Keep in mind that different FPGA development boards have different color depth capabilities. I will focus here on using the Basys 2 which has 8-bit color and the Basys 3 which has 12-bit color. While I am covering the Basys 2 here, in the future I will focus on and use the more capable Basys 3 for my VGA projects.
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FIFO Buffer Using Block RAM on a Xilinx Spartan 3 FPGA

A FIFO (first in first out) buffer allows for temporary storage for transmission of data between subsystems. It is a very common construct used in digital systems, but why do we need them?

As an example, let’s say that we have a keyboard subsystem that, when a key is pressed, sends corresponding ASCII data to a UART subsystem, which then serially passes the data on to a receiving PC. Assuming that data is directly relayed between the keyboard and UART subsystems, there is risk of data corruption if another key is pressed before the last  key’s ASCII data has been processed by the UART subsystem. This condition is known as data overrun, and can be avoided by inserting a data buffer such as a FIFO between the keyboard and UART subsystems. If the baud rate for a UART is high enough, then the likelihood of data overrun occurring is limited by how fast a user can mash the keyboard’s keys (which for the previous implementation was unlikely). Regardless, it is a good idea to provide data buffers between subsystems that are not instantaneous in their processing of sent and received data.

In this post I will briefly detail how to implement a FIFO buffer in Verilog HDL using the Block RAM on a Xilinx Spartan 3 FPGA. The implementation will allow us to specify the number of words (pieces of data) in the FIFO as well as word width (number of bits per word). We will be able to read from and write to the FIFO, assuming it isn’t in an empty or full state, which we will keep track of and signal out from the FIFO to make the utilizing subsystem aware.

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UART Controlled Stopwatch Using an FPGA

Being able to interface an FPGA project with a device that has a serial port allows for a basic means of sending and receiving data between the FPGA and a PC. For this we need to implement a Universal Asynchronous Receiver Transmitter (UART) circuit within the FPGA system. You can then use a PC with an RS232 Serial port (shown above) to interface the FPGA with a PC, assuming your development board has the port and voltage conversion circuitry.

Because RS232 is a dated protocol that sometimes isn’t available on modern PC’s, another option is to use a USB-Serial converter chip, which connects to a USB port.

In this post I will detail a UART controlled stopwatch, designed for the Basys 2, using the same stopwatch implementation as in my previous post. To communicate with the PC through serial  we will implement a UART receiver and transmitter circuit, as well as a master control circuit that routes all the pieces together. We will then be able to control the stopwatch’s start, stop, and clear functions by sending ascii characters from the PC to the FPGA’s UART receiver circuit, and also send the current stopwatch time from the FPGA’s Transmitter circuit to the PC for viewing.

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FPGA Reaction Timer

Reaction time is the duration of time it takes for the brain to interpret a stimulus and do something in reaction to it. The stimulus may be something visual such as a light turning on, something auditory such as a beep, or a touch cue such as a poke. The time it takes for the brain to interpret a stimulus and respond to it can be used as a basic benchmark to measure and compare mental acuity.

We will be implementing a reaction timer on an FPGA that turns on an LED after a psuedorandom period of time, and uses a pushbutton as a reaction input. There will be 3 input buttons: clear, start, and stop. The system will begin in an idle state waiting for the user to press the start button. When the start button is pressed, a random time interval will elapse before the LED turns on. When the LED turns on a reaction timer will begin counting the number of milliseconds until the user presses the stop button. When the stop button is pressed, the reaction time will be shown on a 4 digit 7-segment display in the format “0.000” seconds, up to a value of 9.999 seconds. The user can then press the clear button to reset the time display and go back to the idle state.

For this project we will be using the Basys 2 FPGA development board to implement the design, as it has the 4 digit display, pushbuttons, and LED that we need onboard.

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Square Wave Generator and PWM with a Numato Elbert v2 FPGA

Last time we outlined how to divide down an FPGAs clock frequency using a basic counter circuit. This allowed us to have varying blinking frequencies for our LEDs depending on which bits of the counter register we tied them to.

What if we needed to adjust for a specific frequency of blinking, of wanted to adjust the time the LED is on vs off? What we are looking for is a programmable square wave generator. I will show you how we can program an FPGA in Verilog to act as one that takes two 4-bit inputs to control the on/off periods of the square wave.

Once we have went through the process of adjusting the on/off timing of a square wave, creating an adjustable PWM output for an LED comes naturally. We will see how to program an FPGA to output a PWM signal that allows us to adjust the brightness of an LED based on a 4 bit input signal.

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Blinking LEDs with a Numato Elbert V2 FPGA

FPGA Development boards usually run on a high frequency oscillator in the tens or hundreds of Megahertz range. One way to toggle an IO line at a slower frequency is to use a counter circuit. I will show you how to write some Verilog code that divides down a high clock frequency to a more human friendly time scale, and blink some LEDs!

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