AVR Microcontroller Prototype Board


The folks at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories whipped up an elegant little kit that includes an ATmega168 AVR Micro-controller, 4 or 5 discrete components, and a circuit board.

The Atmel AVR micro-controllers are awesome. They cross three particular barriers to entry that I arbitrarily chose prior to screwing around with micro-controllers.


  • Price: $10 per useful part The Atmel series ranges from less than $1/part to a bit north of $10/part for the über-deluxe controllers. The ATmega168 in this kit can be had for less than $5/each and includes 23 I/O lines (6 of which can be used for ADC), 16K of program memory, and can run up at speeds up to 20MHZ.
  • USB based Programmer less than $50 LadyAda sells a simple USB programmer (based on the Atmel chips — it implements a USB stack in software!) for $22. It works great, once you fix this particular bug (which involves replacing two resistors with wires; not hard).
  • Easy & Powerful Programmability (on a Mac) Code for the Atmel series of chips is written in C and compiled quite easily via gcc. The ObDev folks have made an easy to install package available. It just works. Better, the chips support in system programming (without sacrificing pins for I/O!) and, thus, “build and run” in Xcode re-loads the code on the target chip without having to either power down the board or remove the chip from the circuit. Edit-compile-run is very very fast.

    The code, itself, is pretty straightforward. The header files provide all the #defines needed to deal with all the random I/O based hardware functionality quite straightforward. The chips, themselves, are exceptionally flexible, with the ability to reconfigure what pins do what in software.

    The hardest part is remembering which pin maps to what random #define’d symbol.

    Mooninites & Lemur

    The Atmel chips are, in fact, the same chips (almost the same exact chip — the proto boards use a slightly less expensive part in that it doesn’t have quite as many I/O ports) used in the Peggy Board (also from EMSL). I picked up the ladyada programmer and grabbed the source from EMSL.

    I had simple animation up and running within a couple of hours, most of that time being consumed by dealing with the now fixed USBTiny programmer bug. Not much longer after that and I had a pretty neat line based animation.

    Jamie over at Noise Land Arcade else has grabbed the code and made a neat animated pacman sign (video here).

Which brings me to this kit: This credit card sized board is designed quite specifically for prototyping ATmega168 (and several others) based projects. Beyond including a bit of room for adding a couple of 8-pin DIPs (or other random components), the silk screen fully documents the various mnemonics associated with each pin.

First project?

I’m going to build modern style flipper replacement for ’80s and early ’90s Williams/Bally pinball machines. The old school flippers require more maintenance and tend to fail gracelessly, taking out other discrete components upon failure.

This board is total overkill. I really only need an 8 pin Atmel controller per flipper; maybe one chip for both flippers, if I optimize.

But at $9/each for the board, controller and discrete components (including shipping and CA tax) in lots of 10, I might just stick with building it out on the EMSL prototype board.

As with many EMSL projects, everything is open source. The board is single sided and easy to etch, but silk screening on the various documentation bits would be difficult.

4 Responses to “AVR Microcontroller Prototype Board”

  1. Luke Burton says:

    Are these microcontrollers made with any animal by-products?

  2. Bob Jones says:

    You’ve probably also seen Arduino: http://www.arduino.cc/

    It’s similar, but it’s geared more towards people who would find GCC too daunting.

  3. David says:

    As a guy who was about to renovate the flippers on an early 80’s pinball machine I am interested in more details on this project and possibly joining you in it.

  4. bbum’s weblog-o-mat » Blog Archive » AVR: Programming the EMSL Target Board from Mac OS X says:

    […] is an extremely easy to use and surprisingly powerful micro-controller. If it weren’t so convenient, I wouldn’t be writing […]

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