Creating a UI on a microcontroller: Part 1

A chunk of my work has always been about building things with microcontroller boards (either classic Arduino AVR or ESP8266/ESP32) that you interact with directly.

For our (postponed) LARP event in March I had created a fake 'computer terminal' that you interacted with, where all the work is done on an ESP8266. RFID cards log a user on and there was a chat application, file viewing and so on, all using my ESP-Now mesh network to allow the individual terminals to send messages to each other.

In order to make this I used ANSI/VT100 escape sequences to create a very simple 'application' that you accessed using a terminal emulator, PuTTY, running on old laptops.

It's not wrong to argue this is the 'tail wagging the dog' when there's a much more powerful computer just running PuTTY but the guiding factor was the mesh networking, not the application itself. It also meant anything you could run PuTTY on could quickly and easily be pressed into service as a terminal and PuTTY is available for Windows and Linux. Likewise any other terminal emulator that supported a broad range of terminal capabilities could be used, but all my testing has been with PuTTY.

In the weeks before the event, I was in a 'crunch' working on various props and technology for the game 14+ hours a day until suddenly we postponed due to the pandemic.

As irritating as this was it's given me time to turn this work into a re-usable Arduino library. Such things already exist to place the cursor, change colours and so on but the one I've been working on has 'widgets' like mouse-clickable buttons and does the work of drawing/updating them for you.

The idea is if you have an Arduino project that needs a user interface, perhaps one that's infrequently used, you can build this with minimal pain. Then to access it you just connect a USB cable and there's a terminal UI available over the serial connection. Sadly it does not work in the Arduino console monitor as it's not a proper terminal application, but PuTTY isn't onerous to install.

I have an aspiration this would be usable over the network on microcontrollers with Wi-Fi such as the ESP8266 but it probably has more value on those without. If you've got Wi-Fi, basic web server front ends are going to be more flexible.

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