Digital Light Pipes Clock various view of seven-segment display using illuminated light-pipes

LED Clock Has Its Pipes On Display

For most hackers and makers, building a clock is a rite of passage. Few, though, will be as unusual and engaging as this design by [TerraG2].

By combining addressable LEDs, light pipes and 7-segment displays, [TerraG2] has built a timepiece that looks great and will surely be a great conversation starter as well. It’s packed full of features such as automatic brightness control, an accelerometer controlled user interface, and WiFi to make sure it’s always accurate.

partial rear view of the clock showing illuminated light pipes
Partial rear view of the clock showing illuminated light pipes

The decision to leave the light pipes visible behind the main display really makes the project stand out from other clock builds, and the methods [TerraG2] has used to achieve this look will no doubt be transferable to a host of other projects.

The LEDs are courtesy of a standard 8×8 RGB matrix, with a custom 3D-printed shroud to hold the light pipes in place and a clever connector at the other end to illuminate the segments. With two LEDs per segment, seven segments per digit, and four digits, there’s even room for some extra features down the line if you can think of a use for those eight spare LEDs.

The brain of the project is an ESP8266 D1 with an MPU6050 inertial measurement unit (IMU) to detect when it’s flipped over to change the color scheme.

Full documentation is on Github, and a video of the clock in use is after the break.

Light pipes have been used to great effect in some other clock projects we’ve seen, such as this modern Nixie clock and this “clock of clocks”, as well as in this light organ that we showed recently.

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The Light Guide Hiding In Your Extrusion

There should be a line of jokes that start “A physicist and an engineer walk into a bar…”. In my case I’m an engineer and my housemate is a physicist, so random conversations sometimes take interesting turns. Take the other day for example, as one does when talking she picked up a piece of aluminium extrusion that was sitting on our coffee table and turned it over in her hands. It has a hole down its centre and it’s natural to peer down it, at which point her attention was caught by the appearance of a series of concentric rings of light. Our conversation turned to the mechanism which might be causing this, and along the way took us into cameras, waveguides, and optical fibres.

The light reaching us after traveling along a straight narrow tube should at a cursory glance be traveling in a straight line, and indeed when I point the extrusion out of my window and look down it I can see a small segment of the tree in the distance I’ve pointed it at. It didn’t take us long to conclude that the concentric rings were successive reflections of the light coming into the end hole from off-centre angles.

In effect, the extrusion is a pinhole camera in which the image is projected onto the inside of a cylinder stretching away from the pinhole rather than onto a flat piece of film, and we were seeing the successive reflections of the resulting distorted image as they bounced to and fro down the tube towards us. It’s likely the imperfect mirror formed by the aluminium wall allowed us to see each image, as light was being diffused in our direction. Adding a piece of tape with a small pinhole at the end accentuated this effect, with the circles becoming much more sharply defined as the projected image became less blurry. Continue reading “The Light Guide Hiding In Your Extrusion”

fiber matrix

Big LED Matrix Becomes Tiny LED Matrix Thanks To Fiber Optics

Everyone loves LED matrices, and even if you can’t find what you like commercially, it’s pretty easy to make just what you want. Need it big? No problem; just order a big PCB and some WS2812s. Need something tiny? There are ridiculously small LEDs that will test your SMD skills, as well as your vision.

But what if you want a small matrix that’s actually a big matrix in disguise? For that, you’ll want to follow [elliotmade]’s lead and incorporate fiber optics into your LED matrix. The build starts with a 16×16 matrix of WS2812B addressable LEDs, with fairly tight spacing but still 160 mm on a side. The flexible matrix was sandwiched between a metal backing plate and a plastic bezel with holes directly over each LED. Each hole accepts one end of a generous length of flexible 1.5-mm acrylic light pipe material; the other end plugs into a block of aluminum with a 35 by 7 matrix of similar holes. The small block is supported above the baseplate by standoffs, but it looks like the graceful bundle of fibers is holding up the smaller display.

A Raspberry Pi Pico running a CircutPython program does the job of controlling the LEDs, and as you can see in the video below, the effect is quite lovely. Just enough light leaks out from the fibers to make a fascinating show in the background while the small display does its thing. We’ve seen a few practical uses for such a thing, but we’re OK with this just being pretty. It does give one ideas about adding fiber optics to circuit sculptures, though.

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Parts Shortage Forces Creativity For This Recursive Clock Of Clocks

We’ve been seeing a lot of metaclocks lately — a digital clock whose display is formed by the sweeping hands of an array of individual analog clocks. They can look fantastic, and we’ve certainly seen some great examples.

But in this time of supply pinches, it’s not always possible to gather the parts one needs for a full-scale build. Happily, that didn’t stop [Erich Styger] from executing this circular multi-metaclock with only thirteen of his custom dual-shaft stepper analog movements. Normally, his clocks use double that number of movements, which he arranges in a matrix so that the hands can be positioned to form virtual seven-segment displays. By arranging the movements in a circle, the light-pipe hands can mimic an analog clock face, or perform any of [Erich]’s signature “intermezzo” animations, each of which is graceful and engaging to watch. Check out a little of what this charmingly recursive clock has to offer in the video below.

[Erich] could easily have gotten stuck on the original design — he’s been at this metaclock game for a while, after all. The fact that the reduced part count forced him to get creative on the display is the best part of this build, at least to us.

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Digital X-Ray Scanner Teardown Yields Bounty Of Engineering Goodies

We’ll just go ahead and say it right up front: we love teardowns. Ripping into old gear and seeing how engineers solved problems — or didn’t — is endlessly fascinating, even for everyday devices like printers and radios. But where teardowns really get interesting is when the target is something so odd and so specialized that you wouldn’t normally expect to get a peek at the outside, let alone tramp through its guts.

[Mads Barnkob] happened upon one such item, a Fujifilm FCR XG-1 digital radiography scanner. The once expensive and still very heavy piece of medical equipment was sort of a “digital film system” that a practitioner could use to replace the old-fashioned silver-based films used in radiography, without going all-in on a completely new digital X-ray suite. It’s a complex piece of equipment, the engineering of which yields a lot of extremely interesting details.

The video below is the third part of [Mads]’ series, where he zeroes in on the object of his desire: the machine’s photomultiplier tube. The stuff that surrounds the tube, though, is the real star, at least to us; that bent acrylic light pipe alone is worth the price of admission. Previous videos focused on the laser scanner unit inside the machine, as well as the mechatronics needed to transport the imaging plates and scan them. The video below also shows experiments with the PM tube, which when coupled with a block of scintillating plastic worked as a great radiation detector.

We’ve covered a bit about the making of X-rays before, and a few of the sensors used to detect them too. We’ve also featured a few interesting X-ray looks inside of tech, from a Starlink dish to knock-off adapters.

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Clock-of-Clocks Adds Light-Pipe Hands For Beauty And Function

We’ve gotten used to seeing “meta clocks,” clocks that use an array of analog clock faces and piece together characters using the hands of the clocks. They’re very clever, and we always like to see them, especially when they come with detailed build instructions like this one does.

What’s also nice about [Erich Styger]’s “MetaClockClock” display is the twist on the original concept. Where most clock-of-clocks depend on the contrast between the hands and the faces of the analog movements, [Erich] added light to the mix. Hidden inside the bezel of each clock is a strip of RGB LEDs; coupled with the clear acrylic hands of the clock, which act as light pipes, each clock can contribute different shapes of different colors to the display. Each clock is built around a dual-shaft stepper motor of the kind used in car dashboard gauges; the motors each live on a custom PCB, while the LEDs are mounted on a ring-shaped PCB of their own. Twenty-four of the clocks are mounted in a very nice walnut panel, which works really well with the light-pipe hands. The video below shows just some of the display possibilities.

[Erich] has documented his build process in extreme detail, and has all the design files up on GitHub. We won’t say that recreating his build will be easy — there are a lot of skills needed here, from electronics to woodworking — but at least all the information is there. We think this is a beautiful upgrade to [Erich]’s earlier version, and we’d love to see more of these built.

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Fail Of The Week: How Not To Light Pipe

You’d think that something made out of glass and epoxy would transmit a decent amount of light. Unfortunately for [Jeremy Ruhland], it turns out that FR4 is not great light pipe material, at least in one dimension.

The backstory on this has to do with #badgelife, where it has become popular to reverse mount SMD LEDs on areas of PCBs that are devoid of masking, allowing the light to shine through with a warm, diffuse glow – we’ve even featured a through-PCB word clock that uses a similar technique to wonderful effect. [Jeremy]’s idea was to use 0603 SMD LEDs mounted inside non-plated through-holes to illuminate the interior of the board edgewise. It seems like a great idea, almost like the diffusers used to illuminate flat displays from the edge.

Sadly, the light from [Jeremy]’s LEDs just didn’t make it very far into the FR4 before being absorbed – about 15 mm max. That makes for an underwhelming appearance, but all is certainly not lost. Valuable lessons about PCB design were had, like exactly how to get a fab to understand what you’re trying to do with non-plated holes and why you want to fence the entire edge of the board in vias. But best of all, [Jeremy] explored what’s possible with Oreo construction, and came away with ideas for other uses of the method. That counts as a win in our book.