Bixel, An Open Source 16×16 Interactive LED Array

The phrase “Go big or go home” is clearly not lost on [Adam Haile] and [Dan Ternes] of Maniacal Labs. For years they’ve been thinking of creating a giant LED matrix where each “pixel” doubled as a physical push button. Now that they’ve built up experience working on other LED projects, they finally decided it was time to take the plunge and create their masterpiece: the Bixel.

Creating the Bixel (a portmanteau of button, and pixel) was no small feat. The epic build is documented in an exceptionally detailed write-up on the team’s site, in addition to the time-lapse video included after the break. [Adam] tells us the Bixel took around 100 hours of assembly, and we don’t doubt it. This is truly one of those labors of love which is unlikely to be duplicated, though all of the source files for both the hardware and software are available if you’re feeling brave enough.

The write-up contains a lot of fascinating detail about the design and construction of the Bixel, but perhaps the least surprising of all of them is that the final product ended up being very different from what they originally envisioned. The plan was to simply use lighted arcade buttons in a 16×16 grid, as they were purpose-built for exactly what the guys had in mind. But when they priced them out, the best they could do was $2 a pop. That’s $500 for just the buttons alone, before they even got into the enclosure or electronics. Like any good hackers, [Adam] and [Dan] decided to ditch the ready-made solution and come up with something of their own.

In the end, they cut the individual LEDs out of RGB strips, and soldered them down to their custom designed 500mmx500mm PCB. To the sides of each section of strip are two tactile switches, and above is a “sandwich” made of laser cut acrylic. The sheet closest to the LEDs has a 25mm hole, the top sheet has a 20mm hole, and between them is a circle of acrylic that acts as the “button”. Once it’s all screwed together, the button can’t fall out of the front or move from side to side, but it can be pushed down to contact the tactile switches.

To wire it all up they took a cue from the DIY keyboard scene and used a Teensy, some 595 shift registers, and 256 1N4148 diodes. A Raspberry Pi running their Python framework does the heavy computational lifting, leaving the Teensy to just handle talking to the hardware. Overall it’s a fantastic design to emulate if you’re looking to create large arrays of buttons on the cheap; such as whenever you get around to building that starship simulator.

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Less is More: A Micromatrix Display in a Square Inch

In your living room, the big display is what you want. But in an embedded project, often less is more. We think [bobricius] will agree since he submitted a tiny 4×5 LED display into our square inch challenge. The board features an ATtiny CPU and twenty SMD LEDs in a nice grid. You can see them in action, scrolling to some disco music in the video below.

There is plenty of room left in the CPU for bigger text strings — the flash memory is just over 10% full. A little side-mounted header makes it easy to program the chip if you want to change anything.

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LED “Candle” Gets the 555 Treatment

Regular readers may recall we recently covered a neat Arduino trick that allowed you to “blow out” an LED as if it was a candle. The idea was that the LED itself could be used as a rudimentary temperature sensor, and the Arduino code would turn the LED on and off when a change was detected in its forward voltage drop. You need to oversample the Arduino’s ADC to detect the few millivolt change reliably, but overall it’s pretty simple once you understand the principle.

But [Andrzej Laczewski], like many of our beloved readers, feels the Arduino and other microcontrollers can be a crutch if used exclusively. So he set out to replicate this hack with that most cherished of ICs, the 555 timer. In the video after the break, he demonstrates his “old-school” LED candle for anyone who thinks the only way to control an LED is with digitalWrite.

Not to say it’s easy to replicate the original Arduino project with a 555, or that it’s even practical. [Andrzej] simply wanted to show it was possible, which is something we always respect around these parts. He goes into great detail on how he developed and tested the circuit, even including oscilloscope screenshots showing how the different components work together in real-time. But the short version is that a MOSFET is used to turn the LED on and off, a comparator detects change in the LED’s voltage drop, and the 555 is used to control how long the LED stays off for.

Ever the traditionalist, [Andrzej] wrapped up this build by etching his own PCB using a variation of the classic laser toner transfer method. If this all looks a bit too much like Black Magic to you, there’s no shame in sticking with the Arduino version. At 1/20th of the parts count, and with no calibration required, who’s to say which version is “simpler”.

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When are Dumb LEDs the Smart Choice?

A couple years ago I got into making electronic conferences badges by building a device for DEFCON 25 shaped like a dragonfly. Like all badges the most important design factor was quite literally how flashy it was, and two years ago I delivered on that with ten RGB LEDs. At the time I planned to hand-assemble each and every of the 105 badges at my kitchen table. Given those constraints, and a desire for electrical and programmatic simplicity, I landed on using APA102s (DotStar’s in Adafruit parlance) in the common 5050 sized package. They were easy to place, easy to design with electrically, simple to control, and friendly to a human pick-n-place machine. Though by the end of the production run I had discovered a few problems, the APA102s were a success.

This year I made a new and improved version of the dragonfly, but applying my lessons learned led me to choose a very different LED architecture than 2017. I swapped out the smart LEDs for dumb ones.

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LED-ifying A Guitar

Say you have a guitar, an expensive guitar – one of only three like it. And say this guitar sounds great, but it’s missing something. It needs something, but something that won’t ruin the finish. Over at Sparkfun, [Englandsaurus] was asked to come up with a really cool looking mod to a three-of-a-kind guitar – covering the body with LED strips to create light patterns on the guitar.

In order not to damage or modify the guitar [Englandsaurus] sandwiched the body between two plexiglass sheets, connected together by 3D printed clips. The clips have a dual purpose – they hold the plexiglass pieces to the guitar and also act as conduits for a pair of fiber optic tubes that run around the edge of the body. In order that the color goes all the way around the guitar’s edge without a break in the light, the fiber optic cables are offset. At each clip light is fed into them. One cable runs between two clips, skipping one in between, and the second cable runs between the skipped clips. This allows light to flow around the guitar’s body.

At nearly 500W at full-white, these LEDs draw a lot of power, however, at full brightness they’re overpoweringly bright, so [Englandsaurus] used some WonderFlex, a moldable, diffuse plastic sheet, to cover them. Even with this, the LEDs aren’t run at full brightness. The fiber optic cables, though, need full brightness due to their covering.

Around 1600 LEDs went in to this mod and the guitar itself hasn’t been modified.  Everything is removable, and the guitar would go back to its original self if the strips were taken off. Take a look at Strumbot, another project where the original guitar wasn’t modified, or a really cool scrap metal guitar.

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Laser Arm Cannon Scares More than Metroids

There’s an interesting side effect of creating a popular piece of science fiction: if you wait long enough, say 30 or 40 years, there’s a good chance that somebody will manage to knock that pesky “fiction” bit off the end. That’s how we got flip phones that looked like the communicators from Star Trek, and rockets that come in for a landing on a tail of flame. Admittedly it’s a trick that doesn’t always work, but we’re not in the business of betting against sufficiently obsessed nerds either.

Coming in right on schedule 32 years after the release of Metroid on the Nintendo Entertainment System, we now have a functional laser arm cannon as used by the game’s protagonist Samus Aran, courtesy of [Hyper_Ion]. It’s not quite as capable as its video game counterpart, but if your particular corner of the solar system is under assault from black balloons you should be in good shape. Incidentally no word yet on a DIY Power Suit that folds the wearer up into a tiny ball, but no rush on that one.

Modeled after the version of the weapon Samus carried in 2002’s iconic Metroid Prime, [Hyper_Ion] 3D printed the cannon in a number of pieces that screw together in order to achieve the impressive final dimensions. He printed it at 0.3 mm layers to speed up the process, but as you can probably imagine, printing life-size designs like this is not for the faint of heart or short of time. While the use of printed threads does make the design a bit more complex, the fact that the cannon isn’t glued together and can be broken down for maintenance or storage is a huge advantage.

Ever popular NeoPixel strips give the cannon a bit of flash, and a speaker driven by a 2N2222 transistor on an Arduino Nano’s digital pin allows for some rudimentary sound effects with nothing more than a PWM signal. In the video after the break you can see how the lights and sounds serve as a warning system for the laser itself, as the cannon can be seen “charging up” for a few seconds before emitting a beam.

Of course, this is the part of the project that might have some readers recoiling in horror. To provide some real-world punch, [Hyper_Ion] has equipped his arm cannon with a 2.5W 450nm laser module intended for desktop engraving machines. To say this thing is dangerous is probably an understatement, so we wouldn’t blame you if you decided to leave the laser module off your own version. But it certainly looks cool, and as long as you’ve got some proper eye protection there’s (probably) more dangerous things you can do in the privacy of your own home.

Shame this kind of technology wasn’t really practical back when [Ryan Fitzpatrick] made this fantastic Power Suit helmet for a Metroid fan production.

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Blink A Pi, Win A Prize

You can plug in a Raspberry Pi, and you can blink a LED. You can visualize data, and now there’s a contest on to show off your skills. Right now, we’re opening up the Visualize It With Pi contest on The challenge? Visualize data with LED strips and panels. Is that ‘data’ actually just a video of Never Gonna Give You Up? We’ll find out soon enough.

The goal of this contest is to combine a Raspberry Pi and its immense processing power and the blinky goodness of LED strips and panels to visualize and interpret data in novel and artistic ways. We’re looking for animation. clarity, and flamboyant flickering. Want some ideas? Check out the World of Light or the American Constitution Candle. We’re looking for the most blinky you can do with a Pi, and yes, there will be prizes.


BlinkyTile Explorers Kit

Prizes for the best blinky include, of course, more blinky. The best visualizations from a directly connected sensor, data from an Internet Source, and data from an esoteric data source will each receive some Blinkytape. This is a strip of WS2812b LEDs with an ATMega32u4 embedded on the end. Plug a USB power supply into the Blinkytape, and you get a strip of LEDs in whatever color you want with the ability to push animation frames to the chip on the strip. The Grand Prize winner for this contest will also receive Blinkytile Explorers Kit, a Serpentine LED strip, a LED ring, and two meters of ultra thin LED strip.

Let’s Do This!

The requirements for the contest are simple: just use a Raspberry Pi to drive LED strips or panels, post it as a new project on, and submit the project to the contest. We’re looking for a full description, source, schematics, and photos and videos of the finished version of the project — do everything you can to show off your work! The contest is open right now, and ends at 08:00 Pacific on October 1st. We know you like to blink those LEDs, so get crackin’.