Friday Hack Chat: LED Diffusion

A decade ago, the first Arduino projects featuring addressable RGB LEDs came on the scene, and the world hasn’t been the same since. Now we have full wall video displays with WS2812s and APA102s, wearable blinky, and entire suits of armor made of LEDs. The future is bright, and in RGB.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about how to maintain the blinky without eye-searing brightness. It’s the LED Diffusion Hack Chat, full of tips and tricks on how to get the glowey without it being imprinted on your retina.

Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat is the incredible Becky Stern. Becky is one of the most prolific makers around and has a long history of fabricating some really, really cool stuff. She’s published hundreds of tutorials on everything from microcontrollers to computerized knitting machines, and has been featured by dozens of media outlets including the BBC, CNN, The Late Show with Colbert, VICE, and Forbes. Right now, she’s working at Autodesk with Instructables.

During this Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about diffusing LEDs, with topics including:

  • Taking some sandpaper to LEDs
  • Light pipes
  • 3D printed LED enclosures
  • Looking into a bright blue LED with your remaining eye

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, August 17th. Need a countdown timer? Here ‘ya go.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

MIT Makes Washable LED Fabric

Let’s face it, one of the challenges of wearable electronics is that people are filthy. Anything you wear is going to get dirty. If it touches you, it is going to get sweat and oil and who knows what else? And on the other side it’s going to get spills and dirt and all sorts of things we don’t want to think about on it. For regular clothes, that’s not a problem, you just pop them in the washer, but you can’t say the same for wearable electronics. Now researchers at MIT have embedded diodes like LEDs and photodetectors, into a soft fabric that is washable.

Traditionally, fibers start as a larger preform that is drawn into the fiber while heated. The researchers added tiny diodes and very tiny copper wires to the preform. As the preform is drawn, the fiber’s polymer keeps the solid materials connected and in the center. The polymer protects the electronics from water and the team was able to successfully launder fabric made with these fibers ten times.

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Old LED Light Bulbs Give Up Filaments for Spider Web Clock

We love it when something common gets put to a new and unusual use, especially when it’s one of those, “Why didn’t I think of that?” situations. This digital clock with a suspended display is just such a thing.

The common items in this case were “filaments” from LED light bulbs, those meant to mimic the look of clear-glass incandescent light bulbs. [Andypugh] had been looking at them with interest for a while, and realized they were perfect as the segments for a large digital clock. The frame of the clock was formed from bent brass U-channel and mounted to an oak base via turned stanchions. The seven-segment displays were laid out in the frame and the common anodes of the LED filaments were connected together, with the cathode for each connected to a very fine wire. Each wire was directed through a random hole in the frame and channeled down into the base, to be hooked to one of the four DS8880 VFD driver chips. The anode wires form a lacy filigree behind the segments, which catch the light and make then look a little like a spider’s web. It looks great, but nicht für der gefingerpoken – the frame is at 80 VDC to drive the LED segments. The clock is synced to the UK atomic clock with a 60-kHz radio link; see the long, painful sync process in the video below.

We like the open frame look, which we’ve seen before with an equally dangerous sculptural nixie clock. And this gives us some ideas for what to do with those filament LEDs other than turning them back into a light bulb. And if [Andy] sounds familiar, it could be because he’s appeared here before. First of all resurrecting the parts bin for an entire classic motorcycle marque, and then as the designer of SMIDSY, a robot competitor in the first incarnation of the UK Robot Wars series.

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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].

Light Painting Animations Directly From Blender

Light painting: there’s something that never gets old about waving lights around in a long exposure photo. Whilst most light paintings are single shots, some artists painstakingly create frame-by-frame animations. This is pretty hard to do when moving a light around by hand: it’s mostly guesswork, as it’s difficult to see the results of your efforts until after the photo has been taken. But what if you could make the patterns really precise? What if you could model them in 3D?

[Josh Sheldon] has done just that, by creating a process which allows animations formed in Blender to be traced out in 3D as light paintings. An animation is created in Blender then each frame is automatically exported and traced out by an RGB LED on a 3D gantry. This project is the culmination of a lot of software, electronic and mechanical work, all coming together under tight tolerances, and [Josh]’s skill really shines.

The first step was to export the animations out of Blender. Thanks to its open source nature, Python Blender add-ons were written to create light paths and convert them into an efficient sequence that could be executed by the hardware. To accommodate smooth sliding camera movements during the animation, a motion controller add-on was also written.

The gantry which carried the main LED was hand-made. We’d have been tempted to buy a 3D printer and hack it for this purpose, but [Josh] did a fantastic job on the mechanical build, gaining a solidly constructed gantry with a large range. The driver electronics were also slickly executed, with custom rack-mount units created to integrate with the DragonFrame controller used for the animation.

The video ends on a call to action: due to moving out, [Josh] was unable to continue the project but has done much of the necessary legwork. We’d love to see this project continued, and it has been documented for anyone who wishes to do so. If you want to check out more of [Josh]’s work, we’ve previously written about that time he made an automatic hole puncher for music box spools.

Thanks for the tip, [Nick].

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Custom ATTiny85 Board Powers Kids’ Light Show

We’ve often said that kids with hackers and makers for parents must be some of the luckiest kids in the world. While all the other children have to settle for some mass produced drivel from Toys“R”Us Amazon, they’ve got some of the most thoughtfully engineered and built toys and gadgets on the planet. After all, there’s no way any hacker worth their salt is going to give anything less than 110% for their own child.

A case in point is this RGB star nightlight that [Unexpected Maker] built for his children. The star itself is simple enough, just a basic shape printed in transparent PLA on his Prusa i3. The impressive part is how he lights it up. Rather than stick an Arduino or ESP8266 in there as we have seen plenty of times before, he’s put together his own custom ATTiny85 board specifically for controlling the RGB LED strips.

The board, which he calls TinyDev, is designed to be the same thickness as NeoPixel style LED strips so it can fit inside tight spaces. He solders it onto the tail end of his LED strip, adds a photoresistor so the star can tell when it’s time to light up, and then snakes the whole arrangement through a channel printed in the star itself. There’s a battery pack in the middle, but that’s about it. It really does allow for a remarkably clean LED strip implementation, and the mind can’t help but start thinking of interesting possibilities when you can tuck the controller into the same space as the lights themselves.

[Unexpected Maker] has made the TinyDev completely open source for anyone who wants to build their own, but it’s also available on Tindie if you want to get one to play with quickly. If you’re looking to light up the little one’s room with somewhat more mainstream methods, we’ve got that covered too.

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ESP8266 Internet Controlled LED Dimmer

There’s no shortage of debate about the “Internet of Things”, largely centered on security and questions about how much anyone really needs to be able to turn on their porch light from the other side of the planet. But while many of us are still wrestling with the realistic application of IoT gadgets, there’s undoubtedly those among us who have found ways to put this technology to work for them.

One such IoT devotee is [Sasa Karanovic], who writes in to tell us about his very impressive custom IoT LED dimmer based on the ESP8266. Rather than rely on a commercial lighting controller, he’s designed his own hardware and software to meet his specific needs. With the LED strips now controllable by any device on his network, he’s started working on Python scripts which can detect what he’s doing on his computer and react accordingly. For example, if he’s watching a movie the lights will automatically dim, and come back up when he’s done.

[Sasa] has provided all the files necessary to follow in his footsteps, from the Gerber files for his PCB to the Arduino code he’s running on the ESP. The source code is especially worth checking out, as he’s worked in a lot of niceties that we don’t always see with DIY projects. From making sure the ESP8266 gets a resolvable DNS hostname on the network to using websockets which update all connected clients with status info in real-time, he’s really put a lot of work into making the experience as complete as possible.

He’s explains in his blog post what needs to be edited to put this code to work in your own environment, and there’s even some descriptive comments in the code and a helpful debug mode so you can see how everything works. It’s always a good idea to consider that somebody else down the road might be using your code; taking a few minutes to make things clear can save them hours of stumbling around in the dark.

If you need more inspiration for your ESP8266 lighting project, check out this ambient lighting controller for a kid’s room, or this professional under-cabinet lighting controller.