Racing the Beam on a Thin Client, in FPGAs

Hackaday
Racing the Beam on a Thin Client, in FPGAs
Racing the Beam on a Thin Client, in FPGAs

A few years back, a company by the name of Pano Logic launched a line of FPGA-based thin clients. Sadly, the market didn’t eventuate, and the majority of this stock ended up on eBay, to eventually be snapped up by eager hackers. [Tom] is one of those very hackers, and decided to try some raytracing experiments with the hardware.

[Tom] has one of the earlier Pano Logic clients, with VGA output and a Xilinx Spartan-3E 1600 FPGA under the hood. Due to limited RAM in the FPGA, and wanting to avoid coding a custom DRAM controller for the memory on the board, there just wasn’t room for a framebuffer. Instead, it was decided that the raytracer would instead “race the beam” – calculating each pixel on the fly, beating the monitor’s refresh rate.

This approach means that resource management is key, and [Tom] notes that even seemingly minor changes to the raytracing environment require inordinately large increases in calculation. Simply adding a shadow and directional light increased core logic utilisation from 66% to 92%!

While the project may not be scalable, [Tom] was able to implement the classic reflective sphere, which bounces upon a checkered plane and even added some camera motion to liven things up through an onboard CPU core. It’s a real nuts-and-bolts walkthrough of how to work with limited resources on an FPGA platform. Code is available on Github if you fancy taking a further peek under the hood.

If you’re new to FPGAs yourself, why not check out our FPGA bootcamp?

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Racing the Beam on a Thin Client, in FPGAs