Huge water and light VU meter plus more

This is the senior design project for a group at the University of Vermont. It’s a wet, bubbly, blinky, interactive thing. Each column is a clear tube filled with water, with a string of fully addressable RGB LEDs suspended in the center. In idle mode, the lights scroll through a series of interesting patterns while the water is filled with bubbles to add some depth to the presentation. There is also a VU meter function, as seen here and during the Portal theme song that ends the video demo after the break.

A Teensy++ board is used to address the display. It’s set up to receive serial commands from a Processing script which is responsible for generating the animations. At the top of the frame you can see there’s a Kinect sensor. By standing in the standard post (we think it should be called the Kinect mug shot) the installation will automatically switch over to body control. We could see this thing making its way into a long airplane terminal hallway, following the travelers along their trek from one terminal to the next.

[via Reddit]


  1. Hirudinea says:

    Man, that would make some wicked bongs!

  2. BLuRry says:

    So what is the point of the water with bubbles?

    • Isaac says:

      The intention is to diffuse the light, its a bit more obvious with the lights off near the end of the video.

      • BLuRry says:

        Ah, I see what you mean. It probably looks better when you’re in the room. They might consider making the water a tad bit cloudy so that the diffusion effect is more enhanced.

      • Bryan says:

        I’m from the group that made this and Isaac is correct, the water/bubbles were used to diffuse the light. Unfortunately, all the videos and pictures we’ve taken of the LED strips in action just haven’t been able to them justice, especially when combined with water. The diffusion of the lights through the PVC tubes alone made an awesome effect that the camera just wasn’t able to capture fully. The visuals from our project are much more vibrant in person.

    • Colin says:

      Co-creator of this project here. There was a trade-off when working with the cloudyness of the water. Increased cloudy-ness decreased the effect of the bubbles since you couldn’t see them. We are still working on trying to find the correct balance of cloudy-ness and transparency. That’s why we nixed the airstones in the beginning, the bigger bubbles were more visible in the cloudy solution than using an airstone. Though it is still something worth experimenting with. Thanks for the idea.

  3. Liteworx says:

    awesome, love it, one suggestion…… use a fish tank airstone on the bottom of each tube, and maybe increase the air pump size, result would be thousands of smaller bubbles and would give a diffused look to the leds and would make the whole tube glow as opposed to just seeing the strips of led. cool thou ;-)

    • Garbz says:

      Just add a cup of milk to each cylinder would have the same diffuse effect.

    • Bryan says:

      Thanks for your compliment, we appreciate it! Our initial idea was to have the bubbles pumping from the bottom of each tube, it caused quite a few issues though with the tubes. With all that water pressure pushing down our first trial run with one tube kept springing leaks. Also, by the time we started working on pumping bubbles into all of the tubes, we had just about reached our budget and really couldn’t afford the pumps needed. Because of this, we decided a few larger pumps would be cheaper and easier for us to implement.

      As for light diffusion, we have discussed extensively adding an agent to the water to diffuse the light more, however some issues also came with that. As our end goal is for this to be an public long-term art installation, we need to find a solution that will remain cloudy for an extended amount of time. We messed around with milk and while it gave off an excellent effect, it made the bubbles difficult to see as well after a bit of time I’m sure it’d start to get pretty gross.

  4. Marc Daigneault says:

    University final project? This is a high school level difficulty.

    • Graham says:

      Let’s remember to leave constructive criticism. Anyway, I really like it but I agree with Liteworx, more bubbles would diffuse better and create a nice effect.

  5. johncohn says:

    Hey folks, thanks for picking up on this. I mentored the group at U of VT. I’ve asked them to post on the questions/suggestions.

  6. Liteworx says:

    if you want cloudy water , the easiest way is just add salt, dont know about milk thou…………….

    • Colin says:

      Haven’t tried salt, but milk works great for testing purposes (not for long term though!)
      We are looking for a solvent that doesn’t completely dissolve. Not sure if this exists, but when we added milk, it swirled to some really cool shapes as it dissolved. (think adding a drop of food dye to water) It was really cool until it fully distributed, then it was ok. Any thoughts on where a solvent could produce the swirls and shapes without dissolving fully? The bubbles could continuously provide agitation if that was an issue.

      Your input is greatly appreciated!

      • Liteworx says:

        I have a 3meter tall bubble tube in my lounge, It was a proffessional bubble tube made by a company called Clay Paky, I restored it as it was in a bad shape when i got it, I used to put salt into the tube to get the cloudy milky look and it worked a treat for a long period of time 1 year +, The bubble tube came origianlly with just a small air jet at the bottom but I found the bubbles where too large and made a lot of noise with not a lot of affect, so I added an airstone to the bottom of the tube on a long piece of rigid clear plastic tube, the result now is millions of smaller bubbles creating an excellent diffusion effect,so much so that you cant even see the plastic tube feeding the airstone. I dont add salt any more as the increased amaount of bubbles creates the desired effect, I also rememeber a long time ago that I had some plastic fish in the bubble tube but found they would always just sink to the bottom of the tube, by adding the salt the plastic fish floated and moved around the tube (that was my initial reason for adding the salt) as far as air pumps are involved I used a Koi air pump for ponds /commercial fish tanks, you can pick them up for around £40 / £60 and they come with a large output nozzle that can be split 8 ways, I personally only use 2 outputs, 1 for the airstone and 1 for th original jet at the bottom of the tube, I light my tube with a 12watt RGB fitting which lights the tube perfectly, although if i turn the airstone up to much the amount of bubbles is that dense it blocks the light coming up the tube from the bottom, this wouldnt be a problem for you guys as your light source is at the back of the tube and only has to shine thru a few inches of water…… have a play with some salt and maybe a few large airstones and some bugger pumps if budget suits. also if you plan to leave this working for months at a time you will find the water will eventually start going green with algae, i find a very small sprinkle of chlorine powder from my hot tubs elliminates this and keeps the water sparkling clear, and I only add a tiny amount of chlorine about once every 8 months or so, look forward to seeing some more pics of your efforts,,

  7. Benjamin says:

    Do you have plans for the design to be publicly available? Something on a smaller scale would look sweet in a man-cave!

  8. Stephen says:

    is the code going to be open source ever?

    • johncohn says:

      I spoke with the students and they are happy to make the code open source. Where is the best place to do that ? Would putting it on instructables be a good place ?

      • Rob says:

        I think Instructables would be good for visibility, but their terms of use are pretty stiff (there was some recent internet buzz about this, perhaps someone with a functional memory can post a useful link). It might be better to post the code to an opensource repository (GitHub, for example), then perhaps post a version of the project to Instructables with a link to the sourcecode repository. This way, at least, I think your code would be protected. I hope someone with experience in this sort of matter will post…

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