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New 3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot with graphical display!

Posted by Kevin on 11 August 2021

We are very excited to announce that the 3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot is now available! This is an updated version of the original 3pi+ 32U4 Robot that replaces the old LCD with a monochrome 128×64 OLED display, giving it the ability to display fancy high-contrast graphics while following a line course, navigating a maze, or doing whatever it is that you want this compact but versatile mobile platform to do.

3pi+ 32U4 Robot, rear view.

3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot, rear view.

For more than 16 years, starting with some of our oldest products (from well before I joined Pololu), we have used HD44780-compatible alphanumeric liquid crystal displays on our robots and robot controllers. These LCDs have been around forever and are limited to displaying simple text on a fixed grid, but they are also ubiquitous: there are plenty of manufacturers still making displays that use the standard HD44780 interface.

Pololu Orangutan Robot Controller connected to an AVR ISP (serial version).

It’s unlikely that we would have much difficulty sourcing this kind of display any time soon (as long as the pandemic doesn’t mess things up too badly), so using them in our products has always been a safe option despite their graphical limitations. The original 3pi+ 32U4 that we released late last year was our most recent design to include LCD support.

Meanwhile, monochrome organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays have become increasingly popular in electronics over the last decade or so, and it’s not hard to see why: you can draw graphics on them, they can fit more information on the screen, they’re easier to read in the dark, and they just plain look cooler. But even though you might be able to go to eBay or Amazon and order a cheap OLED display for your project when you want one, it’s critical that we find a dependable supplier for a component like this before we can start to design it into our products.

That is why the availability of the 1.3″ OLED module we announced recently was actually a pretty big deal for us: it means that we finally have a source that we can rely on for larger quantities of these displays. The 3pi+ 32U4 OLED is the first of what we hope will be many robots and control boards that make use of the graphical capabilities offered by an OLED screen.

Like the original 3pi+ 32U4, the newer OLED version is available with three different motor options, either fully assembled or as a kit:

3pi+ 32U4 OLED Version Products Micro Metal Gearmotor Top Speed Comments
Standard Edition assembled or kit 30:1 MP 6V 1.5 m/s good combination of speed and controllability
Turtle Edition assembled or kit 75:1 LP 6V 0.4 m/s longest battery life, easiest to control, good for swarm robots or introductory robotics courses
Hyper Edition assembled or kit 15:1 HPCB 6V ~4 m/s very fast and difficult to control, easy to damage; only recommended for advanced users

For anyone who wants to use different motors than the options above, the 3pi+ 32U4 OLED control board is likewise available separately and can be combined with a 3pi+ chassis and a pair of motors to build a custom robot.

We will be phasing out the original 3pi+ 32U4 robots and kits (they will remain available by special order), but that does not mean the old versions are suddenly obsolete or that you will have to learn an entirely new platform to use the new OLED version. Aside from the display interface, the hardware on the LCD and OLED versions is exactly the same, with features including encoders, line sensors, front bump sensors, and a full IMU (inertial measurement unit).

From a software perspective, it can actually be pretty challenging to work with graphics, especially on a small processor like the ATmega32U4. The simplicity of a text LCD can be an advantage in that you can essentially just ask it to do something like printing the letter “A” on the first column of the second row. On a graphical display, even if you just want to show some text, you have to define the shape of the letter in pixels; optionally composite that shape into a memory buffer; and then send the complete pixel data to the display. That means you have a lot more control over how that letter “A” is shown, but it takes a lot more work to do it.

To help get you started, we’ve developed an LCD compatibility layer as part of our Arduino library for the 3pi+ 32U4. This makes it easier to use the OLED screen for common display tasks, and it’s straightforward to write programs that will work on either version of the robot with minimal changes, since you can update an existing program to run on the OLED version by changing just a single line of code.

A 3pi+ 32U4 OLED and an original 3pi+ 32U4 running nearly identical programs and displaying the same text.

Additionally, the same library makes it trivial to get the benefit of a higher-density text area: you can easily “upgrade” from an 8×2 character grid to an 11×4 or 21×8 layout.

Higher-density text layouts on the displays of some 3pi+32U4 OLED robots.

We plan to continue improving our libraries to give you more options for efficiently working with both text and graphics on an OLED display; stay tuned for updates!

3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot, front view.

3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot, side view.

3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot, rear view.

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3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot - Standard Edition (30:1 MP Motors), Assembled
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3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot Kit with 30:1 MP Motors (Standard Edition Kit)
3pi+ 32U4 OLED Robot Kit with 75:1 LP Motors (Turtle Edition Kit)
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