Broadcaster: The Story

The precursor of the Broadcaster board was born such as a didactic project for the Italian Elettronica IN magazine, file numbers 144/145 [1]. It was a communication system designed to create a single point-to-point audio stream. Given the limited availability of microcontrollers able to implement TCP/IP based communications, this board may be considered as a pioneer of Internet-of-Things. To honor this, the Italian magazine Elettronica IN dedicated the cover page to that project.
The first Broadcaster was based on the microcontroller PIC18F67J60 produced by Microchip Technology Inc. The PIC18F67J60 is an 8-bit microcontroller with 128 kBytes of internal Flash, 3,808 Bytes of RAM, and an integrated MAC and PHY 10 Base-T interface in a 64-Pin TQFP package. In other words, all you need to create simple TCP or UDP connections but no more. However, with some tricks, it was possible to interface the VS1053 single-chip audio decoder. This chip is designed by the VLSI Solution in Finland that is a leader in producing single-chip audio encoder and decoder. It is a versatile “MP3 decoder chip” able to playback several audio formats such as MP3Ogg Vorbis, WAV, and FLAC, but also able to encode a high-quality audio stream by using the Ogg Vorbis format. The latter was the lossy compression format chose to stream audio between 2  Broadcaster boards, where one board acts such as transmitter by encoding the audio input and the second board serves as receiver decoding the audio stream received from the TCP connection.

Although that project was no more than an amateur experiment, it obtained a discrete success. Indeed, a lot of readers started to play with it, and the Futura Group was encouraged to commercialize a pre-assembled board with the old code: FT859M. A crucial point that made the project famous was the accessibility to the source code for the magazine readers. That stimulated people to experiment and customize the source code making the board suitable for customizations. However, having a single channel communication was not enough. For this reason, a second version of the Broadcaster series has been designed later. Following the winning strategies, the new Broadcaster was again designed such as an educational project. The Italian Elettronica IN magazine dedicated the first page to the project, file numbers 148/149 [2].
This time, the board integrates a multicolor display, 2 VS1053 chips, and the same PIC18F67J60 microcontroller. The 2 encoding/decoding chips were used to create a bi-directional audio stream with a high-quality lossy codec to emulate a VoIP call. It allowed users to have bi-directional calls without using a computer. In a period where the diffusion of apps, as well as, smartphones were limited it has been a great innovation. Nevertheless, the realization of the project was really expensive due to the presence of 2 VS1053 chips. The cost limited the success and the diffusion of this project.

At this point, the story is just beginned. The success of these educational projects made the basis to create the third version of the Broadcaster board.  In 2015, Elettronica IN magazine dedicated the cover page, file numbers 195/196 [3] again. This time the project was driven with the aim of creating a ready-to-use product. A new look, more power, and an easy-to-use interface were the priority for defining both hardware and software. The FT1185M and are the commercial codes associated with these projects for the ethernet and Wi-Fi versions, respectively. In addition, with the diffusion of 3D printers and CNC machines a dedicated box has been created to make the project a real product.
The Broadcaster has a PIC32MX695F512H with a dedicated Ethernet PHY; the LAN8720 interfaced in RMII mode. The latter extends the communication to 10/100 Mbps networks increasing the throughput. The MCU, instead, is a 32-bit microcontroller running at 80 MHz with 512 and 128 kBytes of Flash and RAM, respectively. A real leap forward regarding computational power. Moreover, the project uses the VS1063 that is a hardware encoder and decoder for lossy and lossless audio codecs.

The Broadcaster benefits from a huge success, a lot of customers all over the world are regularly using it in the most different scenarios such as dedicated shopping radio, museum theme, backup radio system, broadcast messages diffusion, etc.

For years LP Systems has collected suggestions, feedback, and complaints. In 2019, incentivized by this success and to thank their customers, LP Systems designs a new line of Broadcaster boards. This set of powerful and versatile boards wants to expand the previous success. For this reason, new hardware components such as, LAN8740ATWINC1500, etc. with up to 8 MBytes of Flash space and 32 Mbytes of DRAM has been chosen.

[1] Elettronica IN #144 and Elettronica IN #145
[2]  and Elettronica IN #149
[3] Elettronica IN #195 and Elettronica IN #196