Detail of an LED display made using ping-pong balls

Modular Design Enables Huge Ping-Pong Ball LED Displays

Ping-pong balls have many uses: apart from playing table tennis, they have been used for countless art projects, science experiments, and even to raise ships from the bottom of the ocean. As it turns out, they also come in handy as diffusers for LED pixels, allowing the construction of large-size displays without requiring large individual LEDs.

[david] designed an LED ping-pong ball display using 3D printed components, which allows for the construction of arbitrarily-large LED displays thanks to a strictly modular design. The basic unit is a small piece that holds a single LED module and has a cup-like structure for attaching a standard table tennis ball. Twenty-five of these basic units combine together into a panel that also contains wiring ducts. Finally, any number of these panels can be combined into a display, thanks to clips that give the structure rigidity in the out-of-plane direction.

A 3D-printed frame for making an LED display
A single panel holds 25 LEDs and comes with cable ducts. On the right is a clip for connecting multiple frames together.

Of course, simply mounting LED modules is not enough to create a display: the LEDs also need to be connected to power and data lines. [david] didn’t relish the thought of having to cut and strip 1,800 pieces of wire, and therefore devised a clever way of automating this process: he put a bunch of wires onto a piece of card stock and used a laser cutter to burn off the insulation at regular intervals. Then it was simply a matter of soldering these wires onto the LEDs and snipping off pieces along the data bus.

The finished panel is driven by a combination of a Teensy 3.2 to generate the data signals and a Raspberry Pi to process the images. You can see the rather impressive result in the video embedded below; if this inspires you to build your own, you’ll be happy to hear that the STL files and all code are available on [david]’s project page.

Massive LED displays are always fun to watch, and although this is not the first one to use ping-pong balls as diffusers, its modularity and open-source design makes this one perhaps the easiest to replicate. Assuming you have a good supplier of ping-pong balls, of course.

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Amazing Analysis Of A 350,000 LED Airport Art Project

Before you zip to the comments to scream “not a hack,” watch a few minutes of this teardown video. This 48 minute detailed walkthrough of a one-off art piece shows every aspect of the project: every requirement, design decision, implementation challenge, and mistake. Some notable details:

  • PCBs that are 1 meter wide (all one piece!)
  • 350,000 white LEDs
  • Carbon fiber enclosures
  • 1-wire serial bus (like the WS2812 only not quite) with 12 bit resolution (TLC5973)
  • Customized cable test jigs, PCB test jigs, and test modes
  • An exploration on ESD issues in production

It’s not often that one sees teardowns of professional projects like this, and there’s quite a bit to learn from in here, besides it being a beautiful piece of art. See more about the Caviar House “Emergence” project at the Heathrow Airport, along with stunning pictures and video of the display in action.

If you’re thinking about how you’d control 350,000 individual LEDs with 12 bit grayscale and have it look smooth, check out the processor requirements behind the megascroller, which only handles 98,000 LEDs. More recently, we asked how many LEDs are too many, and the answer was quite a bit lower than 350k.

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Doubling Down On A Big LED Display

Last year at the 2014 NC Maker Faire, Manical Labs brought a large LED display. Blinking LEDs and pixel animations are always welcome, but at 24 inches square this build was impressive, but it wasn’t impressive enough. This year, [Adam] at Manacal Labs wanted to go bigger. Much bigger. This build is called Colossus, and at two square meters and with 1250 individual LEDs, this LED display is a colossal build.

When building a big LED display, an enormous amount of planning pays off in dividends. The backbone of this project is a sheet of 3/8″ plywood, ripped down to 1 meter by 2 meters. 1250 half-inch holes are drilled in this sheet over four or five very long and very tedious evenings. The LEDs are installed in the thousand or so holes, and a grid of foam core board encases each individual LED.

One of the biggest problems with large arrays of LEDs is the sheer scale of it all. If one LED pixel draws 60mA, 1250 pixels means a draw of 75 Amps. This current will melt most wires, so the power is delivered over custom made copper bus bars. Driving this display with a reasonable refresh rate is another important consideration; WS2812 lights, with an 800kHz signal over one wire, is far too slow for a huge display. Instead of the 2812s, [Adam] went with LPD8806 LEDs that can be clocked at 30MHz. This is controlled with two AllPixels, effectively making this two displays acting as one. It all comes together in a very big LED display. You can check out a video of it below.

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