Rickroll meme immortalized in custom ASIC that includes 164 hardcoded programs

We're never going to give you up...

An ASIC designed to display the infamous Rickroll meme is here, alongside 164 other assorted functions.

The project is a product of Matthew Venn's Zero to ASIC Course, which offers prospective chip engineers the chance to "learn to design your own ASIC and get it fabricated." Since 2020, Zero to ASIC has accepted several designs that are incorporated into a single chip called a multi-project wafer (MPW), a cost-saving measure as making one chip for one design would be prohibitively expensive.

Zero to ASIC has two series of chips: MPW and Tiny Tapeout. The MPW series usually includes just a handful of designs, such as the four on MPW8 submitted in January 2023. By contrast, the original Tiny Tapeout chip included 152 designs, and Tiny Tapeout 2 (which arrived last October) had 165, though could bumped up to 250.

Of the 165 designs, one in particular may strike a chord: Design 145, or the Secret File, made by engineer and YouTuber Bitluni. His Secret File design for the Tiny Tapeout ASIC is designed to play a small part of Rick Astley's music video for Never Gonna Give You Up, also known as the Rickroll meme.

Bitluni was a late inclusion on the Tiny Tapeout 2 project, having been invited just three days before the submission deadline. He initially just made a persistence-of-vision controller, which was revised twice for a total of three designs.

"At the end, I still had a few hours left, and I thought maybe I should also upload a meme project," Bitluni says in his video documenting his ASIC journey. His meme of choice was of course the Rickroll. One might even call it an Easter egg.

However, given that there were 250 total plots for each design, there wasn't a ton of room for both the graphics processor and the file it was supposed to render, a short GIF of the music video. Ultimately, this had to be shrunk from 217 kilobytes to less than half a kilobyte, making its output look similar to games on the Atari 2600 from 1977.

Accessing the Rickroll rendering processor and other designs isn't simple. Bitluni created a custom circuit board to mount the Tiny Tapeout 2 chip, creating a device that could then be plugged into a motherboard capable of selecting specific designs on the ASIC. Unfortunately for Bitluni, his first PCB had a design error on it that he had to correct, but the revised version worked and was able to display the Rickroll GIF in hardware via a VGA port.

Other designs in Tiny Tapeout 2 include an FPGA, a 4-bit CPU, and a calculator that estimates pi to 1,000 decimal places. The chip is fabricated by Efabless's ChipIgnite shuttle program using the Skywater 130nm open source PDK.

While there's no serious practical functionality for any of these designs, they can serve as useful proofs of concept for aspiring chip designers who want to see their designs on real silicon. It's very expensive to fab a single wafer of chips, and far out of reach for the average student or hobbyist to do so.

Though, even with what is essentially crowdfunding, the minimum buy-in cost for the Zero to ASIC course is $650, far more expensive than $100 FPGAs that are capable of being programmed to do far more complicated things. That's certainly a big premium just so a chip can be considered custom-made.

It's also worth pointing out that the submitted designs themselves are open source and can be inspected by anyone, which means those of you interested in the low-level design of chips and hardware languages can dive in and check it all out.

While Tiny Tapeout 2 has only just arrived, its successors are already well underway. In fact, Tiny Tapeout 3 to 6 have already closed submissions, and all are expected to arrive over the course of the year. Submissions for Tiny Tapeout 7, 8, and 9 are open, with Tiny Tapeout 7 slated for a December launch, and 8 and 9 for mid-2025.

Since the submissions for Tiny Tapeout are publicly available, we can see Tiny Tapeout 3 won't be free of memes either. Design 16, Bad Apple, plays the Touhou-based Bad Apple song over a piezo speaker, and design 77 is an AI decelerator that is "guaranteed to slow down your AI model training." Tiny Tapeout 2's Rickroll design is also ported over to Tiny Tapeout 3. ®

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