If you were to paint a few stereotypes surrounding our community, where would you start? Maybe in apparel habits: the t-shirt from a tech conference, or the ubiquitous hoodie. Or how about leisure pursuits: gaming, or even D&D? There’s one thing I can think of that unites most of us, we have a curious affinity for caffeine. Is it a propensity for working into the dark of the night that’s responsible, or perhaps those of us with ADHD find the alertness helpful, but whatever it is we like our coffee and energy drinks. Rare is the hackerspace without a coffee machine and a fridge full of energy drinks, and I have lost count of the times I have been derided by the coffee cognoscenti among my peers for my being satisfied with a mug of mere instant. Deprived of my usual socialisation over the festive period by the pandemic, and contemplating my last bottle of Club-Mate as I drank it, I took a while to ponder on our relationship with this chemical.
What better way to make a giant LED display than out of old empties and bottle crates? This is the Mate Light (pronounced Mah-Tay).
We were first introduced to the ever popular Club-Mate soda at one of the first hackerspaces we visited during our Hackerspacing in Europe Tour. It’s a soft drink produced in Germany, which seems to be the exclusive non-alcoholic drink of choice for almost all hackerspaces in Western Europe. The spaces in the Netherlands and Belgium would even make road trips to Germany just to load up a van with the drink to bring back home. Personally we didn’t really understand what was so special about it, but maybe we just didn’t drink enough!
Anyway, this impressive display makes use of 640 empties arranged in 4 rows of 8 crates for a decent 16 x 40 resolution. Each bottle is wrapped in aluminum foil and contains one RGB LED with a WS2801 driver. Each row of crates is connected to a TI Stellaris Launchpad, which has four hardware SPI interfaces — conveniently the number of rows of crates used! From there, an ancient ThinkPad T22 laptop runs the control program over USB to the microcontroller board. Their first software implementation used a Python script which was painfully slow — they’re now putting the finishing touches on using a C script instead.
Stick around to see the display in all of its awesomeness.