Gorgeous Specimen Is The Final Word In Word Clocks

At this point, it’s safe to say that word clocks aren’t quite as exciting as they once were. We’ve seen versions that boil the concept down to what amounts to a parts bin build, which for better or for worse, takes a lot of the magic out of it. You just get an array of LEDs, put some letters in front of it, write some code, and you’re done.

But then [Mark Sidell] sent in his build, and we remembered why we collectively fell in love with these clocks in the first place. It wasn’t the end result that captivated us, although the final clock is indeed gorgeous, but the story of its painstaking design and construction. The documentation created for this project is unquestionably some of the best we’ve seen in a very long time, and whether or not you have any desire to build a word clock of your own, you won’t regret sitting down and reading through it.

If you can somehow come away from reading through that build log and not be impressed, surely the clock’s feature set will put you over the edge. The ability to show time in just five minute increments makes this one of the most practical word clocks we’ve seen, and the quality of life features such as automatic brightness control based on ambient light level, and a smartphone-controlled web interface for configuring the clock are just a few of its standout features.

Incidentally the glow behind the clock, provided by a dedicated array of WS2812 RGB LEDs, isn’t just for ambiance. It indicates the position of the sun in the sky as calculated by the Python astral package, as well as mimicking the colors of the sunrise and sunset. There’s even a compass onboard to make sure the LEDs are properly aligned with their astronautical counterpart.

[Mark] actually made several of these clocks, most of which were given away as gifts. Some of the lucky recipients lived far enough away that the clock had to be shipped, so he designed a custom shipping case to hold everything securely during the trip. It also meant he had to come up with a way of remotely maintaining the code on these clocks without user intervention, so he created a firmware update and telemetry gathering backend with Amazon Web Services that they check into periodically. Honestly, the attention to detail put into every element of this project is just staggering.

If you’re interested in seeing what all the fuss is about with these word clocks, but aren’t quite at [Mark]’s level, don’t worry. As we said earlier, you can build a small version with little more than an LED array and a microcontroller. Just don’t blame us if it ends up turning into an obsession.

14 thoughts on “Gorgeous Specimen Is The Final Word In Word Clocks

  1. I really like how much thought has gone into the backlight of this. The backlight feels like a project in its own right, even without the word clock itself.
    The fact that it doesn’t just illuminate a segment for each hour but actually measures it’s own orientation puts a smile on my face. I’m surprised there’s not an option to allow for a magnetic pole flip/emigrating to another hemisphere, just because, why not. It wouldn’t even feel like feature creep with this clock. Simplicity is, after all, the height of sophistication, apparently.

  2. Hm. I mean, this is definitely the most over-thought clock I’ve seen in some time. But what happens if someone hangs it facing west? Is it always going to show the sun on the right side of the clock, and does it take latitude and date into account?

    1. There are answers for all that in the video and write-up, meaning that he’s thought about all of those, and compensated for some of them (with the magnetometer and accelerometer), while leaving the door open for others with the software update mechanism. See starting from 2:47 in the video, or “Calibrating the Compass” in the write-up.

      1. I paid pretty close attention to both the article and the video. He does say that the orientation is used to determine which magnetometers to use, but does not give any indication of the backlight’s behavior when the clock is aligned facing east or west. If you knew the answer to this, you could have just answered my question instead of the more annoying “it’s in the article” non-answer. So DO you know the answer?

        1. If the clock is facing exactly East (90 degrees), the sun rises on the right. If the clock is facing exactly West (270), it rises on the left. These are those toss-up situations, where the choice is arbitrary. But the compass never reports exactly 90 or 270. It jitters. When I first ran the software, the clock happened to be facing approximately East, and I was amused to find that the sun bounced back and forth as the compass reading bounced between just below and just above 90. That’s when I realized I needed to add hysteresis to the calculation.

          1. Okay. I was a little worried that with as much effort as you spent on the rest of this, you’d have figured out the actual position of the sun, and with the clock facing east or west, it would do something really .. special. Great job overall.

    2. The clock knows its lat/lon and the date, which allows it to calculate sunrise/set. When the clock face is oriented between 90 and <270 degrees (facing south-ish), the sun rises on the right side. Between 270 and <90 (facing north-ish), it rises on the left. At near 90 or 270, compass jitter could cause the clock to change its mind randomly about which side to use. So the software adds hysteresis to the compass output, require the direction to change at least 10 degrees for the clock to change its mind.

      1. It’s rather silly, of course, needing all of that machinery to decide where to have the sun rise and set. And the owner can ignore what the clock thinks and force left or right. OTOH, if you’re ever lost in the woods and have your word clock and iPhone with you, the clock can point the way home.

  3. I currently have 3 versions of this on my tinkering table in different methods and degrees of abandon.. one plays pacman via bluetooth..

    None are “Right” yet tho. Meby v4 is the winner.

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