Throwback: Designing Addressable LEDs From Scratch

These days, addressable LEDs are all the rage. A little chip paired with each LED receives signals and modulates the light output as needed. [John Peterson] was working on a project along these very lines, designing his Curilights back in 2008!

[John] wasn’t the first to come up with the idea; he designed the Curilights to replicate a string of programmable LEDs he’d seen called Triklits. His design involved each RGB LED being fitted with a Microchip PIC 16F688 microcontroller, which could receive serial data and control the LED channels with PWM. These LEDs could then be strung up to create an addressable chain. It’s fundamentally the same concept as the WS2812, just in a larger format and built by hand. His design also had the benefit of non-volatile memory onboard the PICs, so animations could be stored even after power off. [John] later went on to build a controller for his lights, complete with sensors. It could be triggered by a motion sensor or light sensor, and would run animations on the string without the use of a computer.

While [John]’s design didn’t go on to bigger things or commercial success, it did win first place at the Third Annual Lantronix Wireless Design Contest. It also goes to show that many people will come around to the same idea when it makes good sense!

If you’re interested in the wider world of addressable LEDs, check out our breakdown on some of the products out there. Meanwhile, if you’re brewing up your own flashing, glowing projects, be sure to notify the tipsline!

9 thoughts on “Throwback: Designing Addressable LEDs From Scratch

    1. I used the A6281 (one of the first fully integrated 3-channel PWM + constant current shift register LED drivers) to create the ShiftBrite and my business materialized. It was a different world, when Color Kinetics was around $10 a pixel so a product in the $5/pixel range was feasible.

  1. I was always curious how Christmass lights work. How are you able to simultaneously control so many lights on a single cable. These days, the lights are all LEDs. Are they addressable LEDs? This is a mystery to me, however the fact that this is being used for decades now. If someone has a link on the technology behind it, please post it. Thank you.

    1. If you go to, there’s a link to a PDF file with more details on how this string of LEDs worked.

      These days, most strings of LEDs are done with WS2812 (and follow on) parts. These operate with a much lower-level protocol to set the color & brightness. If you google “WS2812 tutorial” you’ll find more details.

  2. I still have a ton of ATTiny45’s i bought for making “diy neopixels” but as i started the project somebody pointed me to a cheap string of addressable leds wich saved me several days, so i never used them :P

    1. Before that there was the L2K project, which appeared at Burning Man 1999. It was a ring of 2000 addressable LEDs that were placed around “the man”. I was at the first test lighting of L2k on a beach in San Francisco in probably 1998.

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