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A guide to the Neuron controller for current FAST Pinball users

We're just about to release the FAST Neuron Controller, which will replace the current FAST Nano Controller which we've been selling since 2016.

This new Neuron is a big deal—it's so much more than just replacing a controller with a newer model! The release of the Neuron is a major update and refinement of the entire FAST Modern Platform, with several new and updated boards which all work together with the Neuron to provide a complete "Generation 2" FAST Modern Platform.

Here's a glance at everything that will make up the FAST Modern Platform now:

For those who are already familiar with FAST Pinball, and for people who've built machines based on the FAST Nano Controller, this blog post will highlight what's changed and what's the same with Neuron-based machines compared to Nano-based machines.

The good news is if you've worked with FAST hardware in the past, the Neuron platform is an advancement of our existing platform and concepts. It's a bunch of small changes and improvements, so you don't have to forget everything you've learned. In fact, many of the existing FAST modern boards you have are still used with the Neuron controller.

And for those of you who have existing machines (or who are building a machine) based on our FAST Nano controller, we've tried to deliver as much of the new capabilities for you as well. For example, we will soon release a "hat" you can plug into your Nano Controller to add the Expansion and Display Bus capabilities. We also use the same FAST Serial Protocol for both the Neuron and Nano, meaning that your existing investments into game code and software frameworks can run machines powered by either controller. (If you're using MPF, you can swap out a Nano for a Neuron with just a few changes to your machine config file.)

So, let's jump into what's new with the Neuron, what's new with machines powered by the Neuron, and what all these new boards are about.

What's new/different with the Neuron?

Check out the Neuron product page for photos, diagrams, and more details. But the high level of what's new and different:

  • Designed to be located in your backbox. (Not a hard requirement, but the whole ecosystem is designed with that location in mind.)
  • Only requires 12 volts (e.g. 5V power supply no longer needed)
  • Adds two RJ-45 ports for the Expansion Bus
  • Adds one RJ-45 port for the Display Bus
  • Adds three expansion breakout connectors (one connects to the smart power filter board. Other two can add more LEDs, servos, etc.)
  • Adds soft power switch machine power feature (easier wiring, allows Neuron and host PC to control overall machine power)
  • Adds host PC power control (power on / off / sleep / resume / shut down)
  • Adds Raspberry Pi plug-in capability, if your host PC is a Raspberry Pi, plug it directly into the Neuron with full power, fan, and port support. (This is optional, you can still use any host PC and connect to the Neuron via USB.)
  • Updates the FAST I/O Loop to version 2.x (same boards, improved protocol)
  • Reduces on-board supported LEDs from 256 to 128 (Expansion boards, or breakouts connected to the Neuron, add more)
  • Adds 12V barrel jack (in addition to proper power header), which is nice for initial testing so you don't have to build a cable

What's different in Neuron-powered machines versus Nano machines?

The list above looked at specifics of the Neuron Controller versus the Nano Controller. Now let's zoom out and look at the entire machine. If you've built a Nano-based machine in the past, what will be new and different as you move to a Neuron-powered machine?

  • Generally-speaking, there's now more of a "complete system" approach, where all the various FAST boards are designed to work together to create a complete system, rather than a bunch of random boards you need to cobble together yourself.
  • The Neuron, when combined with the new Smart Power Filter Board and soft power switch feature, now offers intelligent, machine-wide system control including AC power, DC power, host PC control, LCD power, and audio—all managed and controlled centrally.
  • No more 5-volt power supply, which means no more 5-volt distribution wires. 12 volts is used instead, and boards that need other voltages (like 5V for LEDs, 6V for servos, etc.) generate those voltages locally from the 12V input power.
  • The backbox is now the preferred location for most system guts. The Neuron, power supplies, smart power filter board, audio interface, and host PC are intended to be in your backbox. (This is not a hard requirement, but it's how we thought about things when we designed the integrated system.)
  • All of the boards are more "prescriptive" in how their connections work and how they integrate together.
  • "Fast Action" switch+driver pairs no longer need to be connected to the same I/O board. (e.g. now you can plug your flipper buttons into the cabinet I/O board and your flipper coils and EOS switches into a playfield I/O board, or plug a pop bumper coil into one I/O board while its switch is connected to another.)
  • The FAST I/O Loop is only used for switches and drivers. Other things, like LEDs, servos, steppers, etc. come from "Expansion Boards" connected to the new Expansion Bus.
  • The LED ports on the Neuron are intended to be used for LEDs in your backbox. Playfield LEDs will most likely be connected to expansion boards mounted under the playfield.
  • Max LED chain lengths have been reduced from 64 to 32. (This doesn't change the overall number of LEDs, rather creates more shorter chains which help with power fade.)
  • New support for APA-102 RGB and RGBW LEDs. (Support for these additional types of LEDs will be added in a future firmware update.)

What has not changed?

  • The FAST Serial Protocol is the same. A few commands have been added / changed to address new functionality in the Neuron, but any existing game code you have for a Nano-controlled machine should also work for Neuron-controlled machines with minimal changes.
  • Existing Playfield I/O boards (3208, 1616, 0804) continue to work with the Neuron. (They will require a firmware update from 1.x to 2.x firmware, which the Neuron will automatically do when I/O boards with older firmware are connected.)
  • Existing auxillary boards, such as LED inserts, trough optos, opto sender/receivers, etc. all continue to work with Neuron-controlled machines.

New & updated boards

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the release of the Neuron is so much bigger than "just" the Neuron—it's the evolution of our entire FAST Modern Platform. As such, we are releasing (or will soon release) several new and updates boards and products which work in concert with the Neuron to provide the most modern, high-tech, and safest control system in pinball!

Let's do a quick rundown of all those new or updated boards.

Updated: Smart Power Filter Board replaces the existing power filter board

A new Smart Power Filter Board for Neuron-controlled machines replaces the regular Power Filter Board used in Nano-controlled machines. The new board is conceptually similar to the prior one, but with several specific changes:

  • New filter board is 48V and 12V only. It removes the 5V circuit.
  • Refined design allows it to also act as your power distribution board and DC ground tie point.
  • "Smart" features will allow your host PC to talk to the power filter board, for remote current monitoring, fuse status, 48V enable/disable, short detection, bad MOSFET detection, and a fuse-saver feature.
  • The hardware for the smart control is complete and on the boards, but this capability will be enabled via a future firmware update.
  • Physical fuse sizes have been reduced from 6x30mm to 5x20mm.

New: Expansion Boards

New expansion boards are a series of small-footprint boards which connect to the Expansion Bus and are used for driving LEDs and servos. Future boards will support more types of devices, such as steppers, flashers, shaker motors, etc.

  • Different expansion boards have different sets of capabilities. (e.g. FP-EXP-0071 supports 256 RGB LEDs. FP-EXP-0081 supports 128 RGB LEDs and 4 servos.)
  • Expansion boards connect to the Expansion Bus. The Neuron Controller and FAST Retro Controllers have Expansion Bus ports. An daughter board also adds Expansion Bus support to Nano controllers.
  • Expansion boards are designed to be placed in multiple "local" positions in your machine (similar to I/O boards). You might have one under your playfield to run LEDs, another in a topper to power LEDs and servos, and a third in your cabinet for under cabinet or embedded cabinet stadium lighting.
  • Expansion boards can have "breakout" ports too which add more capabilities to a specific board.
  • Machine-specific custom breakout boards can be designed for LED boards or other unique devices which can connect directly to expansion breakout headers.

New: Cabinet I/O Board

A new "cabinet" I/O board is similar to the existing playfield I/O boards (3208, etc.), except it's specifically designed to go into the left front corner of your cabinet for all cabinet switch and driver needs. (Flipper buttons, start, launch, lockdown bar, tilts, service buttons, coin mechs, etc.)

  • 24 switch inputs, divided into left side, right side, and coin door interface headers.
  • Contains the I/O to drive the coin door, coin mechs, bill validators, ticket dispensers, smart payment cards, etc.
  • 7 low current drivers used for LED lighting in cabinet buttons (flashing start button, coin reject mechs, etc.)
  • 1 high current driver output used to drive a knocker or other 48V mech in your cabinet
  • 12V and 48V power input, 12V power output

New: Playfield Interchange Board

A new playfield interchange board is installed at the back of your playfield and provides the interface point for all wiring between your playfield and backbox.

  • Provides a distribution point for all playfield power, with multiple power outputs for 48V, 12V high current, and 12V low current needs.
  • Quickly unplug (4 plugs only) your playfield and completely remove it from your machine.
  • Develop and build your playfield on your bench or rotisserie, e.g. somewhere other than installed you cabinet.
  • Helps ensure wiring best practices are followed.

New: Audio Interface Board

Finally, we created a new pinball machine audio interface. Think of this like a sound card and amp, but specifically designed for use in a pinball machine.

  • Audio amp for main speakers, subwoofer, and headphones.
  • Soft controls for everything. (Volume, fade, balance, etc.) No more opening your machine to change these various settings.
  • Headphone support with automatic cross fading to silence volume when headphones are inserted.
  • LCD panel control (delay the turn on of the LCD, set the proper input, etc.)
  • Host PC and Raspberry Pi support. (Most likely used for conversion kits for classic machines with FAST Retro Controllers.)

What next?

As of this writing, the Neuron and our new boards are not yet available for sale, but our plan is to open the order banks next week. In the meantime, you can read our Neuron unboxing & first steps guide, or browse through the wiring guides which we're completely rewriting for Neuron-controlled systems. You can also check out the changes needed for MPF when used with Neuron-controlled machines.

You'll hear more from us next week once we start shipping these new products. Yay for pinball!!

Documentation Feedback? Requests? Confused?

Hi! I'm Brian, and I'm responsible for the documentation at FAST Pinball. If you have any feedback, requests, corrections, ideas, or any other thoughts about this documentation, please let me know! You can email me at brian@fastpinball.com. Thanks!

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