These are the times that we live in: the Raspberry Pi Zero comes out — a full freaking Linux computer on a chip for $5 — and people complain that it doesn’t have this or that. Top place on the list of desiderata is probably a tie between audio out and WiFi connectivity. USB is a solution for both of these, but with one USB port it’s going to be a scarce commodity, so any help is welcome.
Hackaday.io hacker [ajlitt] is looking for a way out of the WiFi bind. His solution? The Raspberry Pi series of chips has a special function on a bunch of the GPIO pins that make it easier to talk to SDIO devices. SDIO is an extension of the SPI-like protocol that’s used with SD memory cards. The idea with SDIO was that you could plug a GPS or something into your PDA’s SD card slot. We don’t have PDAs anymore, but the SDIO spec remains.
[ajlitt] dug up an SDIO driver for the ESP8089 chip, and found that you can liberate the ESP8266’s SPI bus by removing a flash memory chip that’s taking up the SPI lines. Connect the SPI lines on the ESP8266 to the SDIO lines on the Raspberry Pi, and the rest is taken care of by the drivers. “The rest”, by the way, includes bringing the ESP’s processor up, dumping new firmware into it over the SPI/SDIO lines to convince it to act as an SDIO WiFi adapter, and all the rest of the hardware communication stuff that drivers do.
The result is WiFi connectivity without USB, requiring only some reasonably fine-pitch soldering, and unlike this hack you don’t have to worry about USB bus contention. So now you can add a $2 WiFi board to you $5 computer and you’ve still got the USB free. It’s not as fast as a dedicated WiFi dongle, but it gets the job done.