Displaying text on random strings of Christmas lights


With the help of a microcontroller, a few strings of GE Color Effect Christmas lights can be easily turned into a fully programmable LED strip, or if you are so inclined, a huge RGB LED display. [Hubbe] had a few strings of these Color Effect Christmas lights, but didn’t want to spend the time arranging his light strings in an array simply to get a programmable display. His solution to this problem – the Chaos Display – turns strings of Christmas lights randomly thrown on a tree into a fully programmable display capable of displaying text and images.

[Hubbe] was inspired by QC Co-Lab’s light wall powered by GE Color Effect lights. Having a huge RGB LED display is very cool, but requires building a frame for each of the Christmas light pixels. [Hubbe] had a different idea – just throw the lights on a tree and use a web cam to figure out where each Christmas light is on the display.

The actual build consists of six strings of Color Effect lights. After throwing them on the tree, [Hubbe] set his phone on a tripod to record an image for each individual light. With some computing power, he was able to create a virtual display made of tangled strings of Christmas lights.

You can see a video of [Hubbe]‘s work after the break.


  1. SavannahLion says:

    Holy smokes. I ran into the same problem about six months ago (not Christmas related) and painstakingly hand coded tables with every LED location and their mappings. It works, but every time one of the light positions changes, I had to change the mappings. Annoying as hell, even after creating a PERL script to do some of the calculations.

    I have all the tools at my disposal and it never once crossed my mind to do it this way. Not once. I don’t need to do any further mappings with the above mentioned project but I am definitely going to have to keep this in my repertoire.

  2. n0lkk says:

    I assume the text was the slack of light scrolling across, assume because I couldn’t make out any distinct characters at all.

    • n0lkk says:

      OK Lack of light

    • nick says:

      In French: JOYEUX NOEL

    • Brian Neeley says:

      This is an awesome hack. I cannot say that enough. This is an awesome hack.

      @n0lkk: I had the same problem. It helps to sit back from your monitor. I could make out letters better that way, but it was still a pain to READ the text.

      I really liked pacman chasing (and being chased by) ghosts. Ghosts…, wouldn’t that be more of a Halloween theme?

      I have often thought of doing something like this, but in reverse. Have all the lights lit, and then turn off lights to make shapes that move across. I always imagined a well lighted hedge that has a Christmas elf run in front of it. I guess the elf would be invisible, but he would still block the light.

  3. Dion says:

    Geeenius. So well hidden too.

  4. I like the video…the light with the music so beautiful

  5. Greenaum says:

    It is a great idea, but I, like many others, I think, couldn’t make head nor tail of his displays. I caught an “o”, an “L”, and a sort-of triangular blob.Something that might’ve been Santa’s head. If it was, it would benefit from doing the proper colours, white beard, red hat. Or even working a way of putting bitmaps up there.

    Constantly whirling the colours makes it impossible to make out what may or may not be there. Using the proper colours could make up for the poor resolution, and irregular placement. They’re 24-bit so it can’t be hard.

    Basically great idea but 1/10 for the execution. Apart from a few stripes and what looked like a gas flame, you can’t make anything out! Hopefully should just be a software / designing some better graphics issue.

  6. Frank says:

    A++ on how he created the display. Truly excellent idea and great execution.

    C- on what he used it for. Truly horrible design of what to display.

    Seriously, I could barely make out anything, just looked like lights flowing here and there and some vague forms now and then. I spotted one or two letters after squinting and using plenty of imagination.

  7. Sheff says:

    i think a little less random placement would have done wonders to make it more legible.
    simply up and down in a somewhat even pattern and your good to go, this is a great idea but with so many voids it is hard to make out anything.
    plus i see the front of the house at the roof with the single candy cane a great spot to place them and make a much better “display” with the lights .

    P.S. …Happy Holidays HAD !!

  8. steve.eh says:

    with eyes squinted it is infinitely easier to read…also….Great job

  9. willaim says:


    I’m sure being there in person would make it far easier to see

  10. gmcurrie says:
  11. Tim says:

    Ignore the haters, this is an awesome hack. I too have done the place-RGB-LEDs-in-an-irregular-nongrid-and-code-their-coordinates-by-hand thing, and never thought of this!

  12. James says:

    I love the thought of this. With more lights would bring more resolution. But using a webcam to calculate the light’s position and use it is genius.

  13. James says:

    I’d suggest just spelling of the words character by character rather than scrolling them, it’s the scrolling that makes it hard to read, just displaying a single character each half-second would be much easier I think.

  14. Gorlath says:

    I didn’t see any discernible text the first time i watched expecting it to be easier to see. But once you watch it knowing it is scrolling across you can catch it spelling out “MERRY XMAS”

    • adamhixon says:

      This either doesn’t work very well, or it is a live action color blindness test. (I’m color blind)

      • codin' cody says:

        Move a bit further away from the monitor and watch the first 15 seconds. MERRY XMAS in huge white caps letters moving quickly from the right and dissappearing on the left.

        The effect might be easier to se IRL.

        But the underlying hack is great. I bet we’ll see a lot bigger and more elaborated chaos displays using the same method in 3, 2, 1….

  15. wirrbeltier says:

    Pretty cool for off-season as well: Get a large cloth, a couple of these LED systems, sow them on there in a semi-random pattern, and with webcam & laptop you have a low-cost, foldable, rugged LED display. Perhaps apply solar cells on the other side of the cloth to charge batteries over day?

    • Le Samourai says:

      For something semi-permanent like that, you wouldn’t need to go so “chaotic,” but convenient, rather. Sew on the lights as they are stringed, conveniently. Then map and go.

      But the large cloth sheet idea is great.

  16. Cold_Turkey says:

    I don’t seewhy everyone is being so negative about this hack! it’s a truly ingenious way of random pixel mapping and the effect (I think) is quite prominent! There are a couple of characters that I had a little trouble making out but the rest were crystal clear! Think maybe some you guys have been sittin too close to your screens!

    • Greenaum says:

      The idea is great! That’s why it’s such a shame the execution doesn’t work so well. Like I said, I think if he dropped the colour-swirling, and maybe displayed some better, still images, it would be great.

  17. Dynamo Dan says:

    @allyoufolkswithtroubleseeing: Hint: You kind of have to sit back and unfocus your eyes to see it.

  18. Tim says:

    This hack would have been cool with a better tree.

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