In 2019 [Simen] and [Amud], two students from the University of Oslo, set out to design a unique open-source display. The result was Fetch, a display that uses electromagnets to suspend ferrofluid on 252 “pixels” across the screen. After some delays due to COVID, they have recently unveiled version 2.0 of the display on their project’s page.
While the duo managed to overcome the mechanical challenges associated with using ferrofluids fairly easily, they were quickly bottlenecked by their electronics. The use of electromagnets holding up a liquid presented a unique challenge; the magnets could not be switched off, even for a millisecond, or else the “pixel” would fall down to the bottom of the screen. That immediately ruled out any sort of multiplexing and meant everything would have to be driven in parallel. As if that wasn’t already difficult enough to work around, the effect of having multiple electromagnets activated next to each other would change how the ferrofluid flows. This meant that the strength of each electromagnet would have to be adjusted based on what is currently being displayed, rather than just being on or off.
All of this, paired with other overhead like generating pulse-width modulation for the inputs, was just too much for a single microcontroller to handle. So, the pair set out to design a better version of their electronics that would offload a lot of the hard work. At the same time, they decided a bit of mechanical optimization was in order; they redesigned the boards to be longer and thinner, allowing them to fit cleanly behind the row of electromagnets they controlled.
The new boards feature a PCA9685 IC, which allows for the control of up to 16 channels of 12-bit PWM over i2C, perfect for the size of the display. Since this IC can’t source enough current to drive the electromagnets, it was paired with a ULN2803 Darlington Transistor Array, capable of delivering up to 500mA to each electromagnet.
With prototypes in hand (and a few bodge wires here and there), [Simen] and [Amud] had the new driver boards running beautifully, displaying text in a mesmerizing way that no ordinary display could match. Watch the video after the break for a demonstration of the new controllers in action, as well as a deeper dive into the process of developing them.