Engineer’s Primer on DIY Christmas Light Shows

Each year brings new Christmas light shows, with synchronised music and wild blinking decorations to light your eyeballs ablaze. Now, many of us have dabbled in the dark arts of blinken, tinkering with LEDs or flashing a neon bulb or two. There’s plenty of tutorials on how to control all manner of lights, but they’re often written for novices. Learning the basics of electronics for the nth time when you just need to know the specifics of a protocol or what IC you need can be a total drag. That’s why [Bill Porter] has written the Engineer’s Guide to DIY Computer Controlled Holiday Lights.

[Bill] covers the topic from start to finish – not just the technical side of things, but practical considerations about where to source components, and timescales for keeping your project on track. It’s no coincidence this is coming out in January – if you want to get something big up and running for Christmas, it’s time to start now! The guide gives links to forum communities that put in large group orders for parts early, and ship them slow to save money.

Other areas covered include software for creating advanced sequences for your lighting setup, which allow you to map animations over your entire layout. There’s also tips on which controller hardware to use for incandescent lights and the now-ubiquitous WS2811 strings. Even better, [Bill] shares specific tips on how to avoid common problems like voltage drop over long pixel runs and communication issues.

It’s a testament to [Bill] and his experience – the guide is an excellent way to get right up to speed with the state of the art in DIY Christmas light shows, and will save you from all manner of pitfalls. If you need to build something big this year and don’t want to reinvent the wheel, this is for you.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard from [Bill] either – check out his stunning wedding invitations or his repair of a science museum exhibit.

Wifi-Controlled Christmas Ornaments!

Trimming one’s Christmas tree can be an enjoyable tradition year after year, but every once in a while some variation on  the established order can be just as fun. Seeking some new ornaments to and desiring to flex his skills, Instrucables user [Gosse Adema] created a LED-illuminated, phone-controlled, deltrahedron Christmas tree ornaments.

Wemos DI Mini Pros are the brains of these little guys, WS2182b RGB LED strips — being the superb go-to’s that they are — light the ornament, and a 5 V power supply keep them lit. [Adema] used the Wemos specifically to create a web server unique to each ornament, and goes into incredible detail on how to program each one — now there’s an arrangement of words you wouldn’t expect to see — providing all the code he used, as well as the models to 3D print the deltahedron.

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3D Printed Greeting Cards

T’is the season to hack, and the maker brigade won’t disappoint — there’s no better way to crank out a few cute holiday tchotchkes than to fire up the 3D printer. [Niklas Roy] has released gDraw, a software package that creates G-code to print out 2D drawings on your 3D printer.

The interface is simple, allowing the quick and easy creation of basic vector drawings. The program then converts the paths in the drawing to a G-code representation that your printer follows to squirt them out in plastic. Think of it as the 3D printed equivalent of the “Stroke Path” tool in Photoshop.

[Niklas] chose to demonstrate the software by creating some interesting greeting cards that Big Christmas is sure to rip off next year and sell for $30 a pop. The printed plastic drawings give a fun 3D effect to the cards, and we’d love to see more examples of art created with this technique. The software was designed to work with the Ultimaker 2, but with tweaks, it should be able to generate code for other printers, too.

We’ve seen plenty of great festive hacks over the years — like this awesome laser projection setup.

Arduino Lighting Controller With Remote Twist

The time for putting up festive lights all around your house is nigh, and this is a very popular time for those of us who use the holiday season as an excuse to buy a few WiFi chips and Arduinos to automate all of our decorations. The latest in this great tradition is [Real Time Logic]’s cloud-based Christmas light setup.

In order to give public access to the Christmas light setup, a ESP8266 WiFi Four Relay board was configured with NodeMCU. This allows for four channels for lights, which are controlled through the Light Controller Server software. Once this is setup through a domain, all anyone has to do to change the lighting display is open up a web browser and head to the website. The creators had homeowners, restaurants, and church displays in mind, but it’s not too big of a leap to see how this could get some non-holiday use as well.

The holidays are a great time to get into the hacking spirit. From laser-projected lighting displays to drunk, animatronic Santas, there’s almost no end to the holiday fun, and you’ve still got a week! (Or 53!)

More Blinky = More Better – The WS2812FX Library

The WS2812 is an amazing piece of technology. 30 years ago, high brightness LEDs didn’t even exist yet. Now, you can score RGB LEDs that even take all the hard work out of controlling and addressing them! But as ever, we can do better.

Riffing on the ever popular Adafruit NeoPixel library, [Harm] created the WS2812FX library. The library has a whole laundry list of effects to run on your blinkenlights – from the exciting Hyper Sparkle to the calming Breathe inspired by Apple devices. The fantastic thing about this library is that it can greatly shorten development time of your garden-variety blinkables – hook up your WS2812s, pick your effect, and you’re done.

[Harm]’s gone and done the hard yards, porting this to a bevy of platforms – testing it on the Arduino Nano, Uno, Micro and ESP8266. As a proof of concept, they’ve also put together a great demonstration of the software – building some cute and stylish Christmas decorations from wood, aluminium, and hacked up Christmas light housings. Combining it with an ESP8266 & an app, the effects can be controlled from a smartphone over WiFi. The assembly video on YouTube shows the build process, using screws and nails to create an attractive frame using aluminium sheet.

This project is a great example of how libraries and modern hardware allow us to stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s quicker than ever to build amazingly capable projects with more LEDs than ever. Over the years we’ve seen plenty great WS2812 projects, like this sunrise alarm clock or this portable rave staff.
As always, blink hard, or go home. Video after the break.

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Christmas Lights Done the Hard Way

It’s that time of the year again when you gotta start worrying if you’ve been naughty enough to not receive any gifts. Hopefully, Blinky Lights will appease St. Nick. Grab a strip of RGB LEDs, hook them up to an Arduino and a Power supply, slap on some code, and Bob’s your Uncle. But if you want to retain your hacker cred, you best do it the hard way. Which is what [roddersblog] did while building his Christmas Starburst LED Stars this year — and bonus points for being early to the party.

christmas-lights-the-hard-wayFor starters, he got panels (as in PCB panels) of WS2812 boards from eBay. The advantage is it lets you choose your own pitch and strand length. The flip side is, you need to de-panel each board, mount it in a jig, and then solder three lengths of hook up wire to each LED. He planned for an eight sided star with ten LED’s each. And he built three of them. So the wiring was, substantial, to say the least. And he had to deal with silicone sealant that refused to cure and harden. But nothing that some grit and determination couldn’t fix.

For control, he choose the PIC16F1509 microcontroller. This family has a feature that PIC calls the “Configurable Logic Cell” and this Application Note describes how to use CLC to interface the PIC to a WS2811. He noticed processing delays due to C code overheads that caused him some grief. After some experimentation, he re-wrote the entire program in assembly which produced satisfactory results. You can check out his code on the GitHub repository.

Also well worth a look, he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve to improve the quality of his home-brew PCB’s. He’s built his own UV exposure unit with timer, which is an interesting project in itself. The layout is designed in Eagle, with a flood fill to minimize the amount of copper required to be etched away. He takes a laser print of the layout, applies vegetable oil to the paper to make it more translucent to UV, and doubles up the prints to get a nice contrast.

Once the sensitized board has been exposed in the UV unit, he uses a weak but fresh and warm solution of Sodium Hydroxide as a developer to remove the unexposed UV photo-resist. To etch the board, he uses standard Feric Chloride solution, which is kept warm using an aquarium heater, while an aquarium air-pump is used to agitate the solution. He also describes how he fabricates double sided boards using the same technique. The end result is quite satisfying – check out the video after the break.

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Break Your Wrist? Twitter-Enable That Plaster Cast

Plaster casts are blank canvases for friends and family to post their get well messages. But if it’s holiday season, adding blinky LED lights to them is called for. When [Dr Lucy Rogers] hurt her hand, she put a twitter enabled LED Christmas tree on her cast.

The hardware is plain simple – some RGB LEDs, an Arduino, a blue tooth module and a battery. The LEDs and wires formed the tree, and all the parts were attached to the plaster cast using Velcro. This allowed the electronics to be removed during future X-ray scans. The fun part was in connecting the LEDs to the #CheerLights project. CheerLights is an “Internet of Things” project that allows people’s lights all across the world to synchronize to one color set by a Tweet. To program the Arduino, she used code written by [James Macfarlane] which allowed the LED color to be set to any Cheerlights color seen in blue tooth UART data.

Connectivity is coordinated using MQTT — lightweight standard popular with connected devices. By connecting the MQTT feed to the cheerlights topic from [Andy Stanford-Clark’s] MQTT feed (mqtt://iot.eclipse.org with the topic cheerlights) the lights respond to tweets (Tweet #cheerlights and a color). The LED colors can also be selected via the phone from the color picker tool in the controller, or directly via the UART. If the Bluetooth connection is lost, the LEDs change colors randomly. Obviously, delegates had great fun when she brought her Twitter enabled LED blinky lights plaster cast arm to a conference. It’s not as fun unless you share your accomplishments with others!