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Hands-On Preview: Arachnid Labs' Tsunami

Gareth Halfacree

Nick Johnson's Tsunami is one of those all-too-rare creations: an Arduino-compatible which builds on the existing design but brings something entirely novel to the table, rather than yet-another-Uno-derivative. The creation of Nick's UK-based Arachnid Labs, the Tsunami is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for its first production run. Nick was kind enough to loan us one of only two prototype boards, and for those who have already backed the project we've got good news: you're in for a treat.

The Tsunami is a single-board standalone Arduino compatible, designed to be addressed by the Arduino IDE as a Leonardo. A glance at the circuit design reveals that the Tsunami is no knock-off, however: there's no sign of the usual IO pins found on an Arduino compatible, with instead three BNC connectors being located on the outer edges of the board. The Tsunami, you see, is an Arduino compatible designed specifically for audio and signals work.

The BNC connectors on the Tsunami provide a user-controllable input and output, along with a secondary square-wave output next to the micro-USB port which provides both power and data connectivity. The cheapest implementation of the board, priced at around a tenth the cost of a similarly-specified bench-top signal generator, is bare; a more expensive model includes a customised aluminium chassis which gives the tool real robustness and the feel of a true piece of signals equipment. Our prototype was provided in a case without markings, with Nick explaining that silk-screened labels for the inputs and outputs will be included on the finished models.

The Tsunami's hardware design is complete, with one final spin required to finish the board - as evidenced by the presence of a hand-soldered jumper wire on our prototype - but the software is still very much at the earliest stages. Despite that, we were able to get up and running quickly and easily via Nick's libraries and example code. Within minutes of connecting the board to our host PC we were able to upload a Sketch from an unmodified Arduino IDE which output a frequency-shifting sine wave, and a quick compile and upload of a separate example offered the ability to output a sine wave based on frequencies input via the Serial Monitor.

Making beeping noises is a basic use of the Tsunami, but its potential is significantly more impressive. Nick has promised that the board will launch with a cache of example code, and even at this early stage there are some impressive ideas to be found. The most fun of these is an implementation of the Kansas City standard, used by eight-bit computers for recording data to tape and playing it back into memory, which output tape audio data based on serial input - providing an easy way to interface classic computer hardware with modern systems.

The real power comes from the Tsunami's input connector, however. One example of its use demonstrated by Nick is to measure the response curve of audio equipment, easily within the 2MHz upper limit of the Direct Digital Synthesis (DDS) chip which lies at the heart of the Tsunami. It's even possible to use the Tsunami to measure the phase and frequency response of arbitrary electronic components, potentially giving the device a home on the workbench of electronics enthusiasts in place of significantly more expensive lab-grade equipment.

Even at this early stage, with only a handful of code examples and a non-final board design, we're excited about what the Tsunami has to offer. Our time with the prototype was smooth and painless, and there's no denying we were sad to see it go when it was time to box it back up and hand it off to the courier.

As with his previous creations, Nick is giving back to the community with the Tsunami: the code is open source, while the hardware design is also fully open with PCB design files readily downloadable - only the name Tsunami itself, used in the context of the Arduino-compatible signals tool, has restricted rights. It's far from fire-and-forget, too: throughout the Kickstarter campaign Nick has been posting frequent and lengthy updates covering everything from example projects through to deep-dive breakdowns of how exactly the Tsunami works, complete with schematics and step-by-step explanations which are a great place to learn about signals processing and generation regardless of your desire to pick up a unit for your own workbench.

The Tsunami Kickstarter is live now, and has already exceeded its funding goal. Nick is now aiming in the campaign's last days to meet several stretch goals in the last week of the campaign, including one which will upgrade the digital to analogue converter (DAC) hardware to support 10-bit rather than 8-bit resolution.

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