“Brain In A Vat” 6502

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“Brain In A Vat” 6502

The 6502 was a revolutionary processor for its time. Offered at a small fraction of the cost of other processors available when it was released, it became adopted in such iconic computers at the Atari 2600, the Apple II, the NES, and the Commodore 64. For that reason it’s still extremely popular among retrocomputing enthusiasts who will often go to great lengths to restore these computers or build them from scratch. [jamesbowman] had an idea to build a 6502-based computer with the processor only, leaving the rest of the computer up to an FPGA.

He describes the system as a “brain in a vat” since a real 6502 is used as the “brain” and all other functions are passed off to the FPGA. In his build he uses an FPGA board with built-in graphics abilities, but the truly interesting part of this build is how the FPGA handles memory. If a particular value is placed on the data bus of the 6502, it loops forever through the entire memory and executes all of the instructions it finds. This saved a lot of time getting this system up and running, and he is able to demonstrate it by showing a waveform on the video output of the device.

Of course you can take an FPGA and emulate an entire computer based on a 6502, but using the actual silicon in a build like this really ensures that the user can learn and understand the hardware involved without some of the other tedium of doing things such as converting old video signals to HDMI for example. It’s a great take on retrocomputing that we expect to see more of in the future.