Are Patent Claims Coming For Your WS2812?

There are some components which are used within our sphere so often as to become ubiquitous, referred to by their part number without the need for a hasty dig through a data sheet to remind oneself just what we are talking about. You can rattle a few of them off, the 555, the 741, the ESP8266, and so on.

In the world of LEDs, the part that most immediately springs to mind is the Worldsemi WS2812 addressable LED. This part consists of three LEDs in red, green, and blue, all in the same package with a serial interface allowing a chain of individually addressable multicolour lights to be created. We’ve seen them in all sorts of places, and if you don’t recognise the part number then perhaps you will by one of the names they’re sold under: Neopixel.

Yesterday we received an email from our piratical friends at Pimoroni, the British supplier of all forms of electronic goodies. Among their range they have a reasonable number of products containing WS2812s, and it was these products that had formed the subject of an unexpected cease-and-desist letter. APA Electronic are the manufacturer of the APA102 addressable LED (which you may know as the Dotstar), and their cease-and-desist asking for the products to be withdrawn from sale rests on their holding a patent for an addressable multicolour LED. We’d be very interested to hear whether any other suppliers of WS2812-based parts have received similar communications.

US patent number 8094102B2 is indeed a patent for a “Single full-color LED with driving mechanism”, which does look a lot like a WS2812. But as always, such things are not as cut-and-dried as they might first appear. The LED in the patent for example relies upon a clock line for its operation, while the Worldsemi part doesn’t. I am not a lawyer so I’d hesitate to call this a baseless and speculative move, but I suspect that there will be plenty over which the two semiconductor companies can duke it out in the courtroom.

It’s fair to say that a large part of the ethos of our movement shares something with that of the world of open-source, so news of legal manoeuvres such as this are never likely to go down well. We’re small fry in this context and our commercial influence on APA102 or WS2812 sales will be minimal, but inevitably APA’s standing in our eyes will be diminished. Companies such as Pimoroni are not the target but a piece of collateral damage in a battle between manufacturers.

Whether the patent has been violated or not can only be decided by the courts. It is not uncommon for patent holders to go after companies selling the “infringing” products in hopes that rather than risk a costly court battle, they simply adhere to the demands, in this case buying parts from APA and not from Worldsemi.

So, if you rely on addressable LEDs, watch out! There may be trouble ahead.

Header image: Tristan Robitaille [CC BY-SA 4.0].

BlinkBox: Debugging Tool For Addressable LEDs

How often do you find yourself having to pause a project to make a test circuit or write some test code to find the source of a problem? Do enough variations of the same test and you’ll eventually make a dedicated test tool. That’s just what [Devon Bray] found himself doing.

[Devon] does a lot of work with addressable LEDs of different types and after much experience, created the BlinkBox, a dedicated test tool for addressable LEDs. It supports multiple LED chipsets, you can give it a count of the LEDs you want to light up, and you can choose a test animation.  It even writes your settings to an EEPROM so you that don’t have to repeat yourself when you next turn it on.

He’s also done a very nice job packaging it all up, creating a 3D printed case, using backlit buttons for working in the dark, and even added a contrast knob for the LCD screen. Kudos to him for all the effort he’s put making this polished. Everything you need to duplicate it is available on his webpage, along with the schematic for the curious. Watch it in action, or just admire his handiwork in the video below.

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ShakeIt – An Interactive Light Game

Learning becomes interesting when you make it fun, interactive and entertaining. [Arkadi] built ShakeIt – an interactive game for the Mini MakerFaire in Jerusalem to demonstrate to kids and grownups how light colors are mixed. It is a follow up to his earlier project – Smart juggling balls which we featured earlier.

The juggling balls consist of a 6 dof sensor (MPU 6050), a micro controller, transmitter (NRF24L01+), some addressable RGB LED’s and a LiPo battery. An external magnet activates a reed switch inside the balls and triggers them in to action. The ShakeIt light fixture consists of an Arduino Nano clone, NRF24L01+ with SMA Antenna, buck converter, 74 addressable RGB LED’s, and a bluetooth module. The bluetooth module connects to a smartphone app.

[Arkadi] starts out by handing three juggling balls, each with a predefined color (Red, Green, Blue). When the ball is shaken, the light inside the ball becomes stronger. The ShakeIt light fixture is used as a mixer. It communicates with the balls and receives the value of how strong the light inside each of the smart balls is, mixing them up, and generating the mixed color.

The fun starts when the interactive game mode is enabled. Instead of just mixing the light, the Light fixture generates patterns based on how strong the balls are shaken. At first the light fixture shows all three colors filling up the central ball. The three contenders then fight out to get their color to fill up the sphere completely until only one color remains and the winner is declared.

The kids might be learning some color theory here, but it seems the adults are having a “ball” playing the crazy game. If you’d like to build your own shoulder dislocating ShakeIt game, head over to [Arkadi]’s github repository for the ShakeIt and the Juggling Balls. Check the video below to see the adults having fun.

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LEDs Strips Tell You The Trains Aren’t Running

[James] is a frequent user of the London Underground, a subway system that is not immune to breakdowns and delays. He wanted a way to easily tell if any of the trains were being disrupted, and thanks to some LEDs, he now has that information available at a glance without having to check a webpage first.

Inspired by the Blinky Tape project at FT Engineering, [James] thought he could use the same strip of addressable LEDs to display information about the tube. A Raspberry Pi B+ gathers data from the London Underground’s TfL API and does a few calculations on the data. If there is a delay, the LEDs in the corresponding section of the strip will pulse, alerting the user to a problem with just a passing glance.

The project is one of many that displays data about the conditions you’ll find when you step outside the house, without having to look at a computer or smartphone. We recently featured an artistic lamp which displays weather forecasts for 12 hours into the future, and there was an umbrella stand which did the same thing. A lot is possible with LEDs and a good API!

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