Ceiling clocks were a bit of a thing back in the days when clock radios were a fixture of nightstands. The idea was to project the time onto the ceiling so you’d only have to roll over onto your back and open your eyes to check the time, instead of potentially disturbing your slumber by craning your neck around to see the front of the clock.
As we recall, what sounded like a good idea was iffy in practice, with low-end optics and either weak incandescent bulbs or blazing LEDs. This nifty VFD projection clock by [Thomas Shupfs] seeks to fix those problems, and from the look of it does a pretty good job. It takes advantage of something else that fell out of favor with consumers — analog photography — by tapping into the ready supply of unwanted lenses. He paired that up with an IVL2-7/5 vacuum fluorescent display inside a 3D printed case with a cone-shaped extension to hold the lens at the right distance above the display. [Thomas] says that the STM32 software only supports JSON-RPC over USB at this time, and includes a couple of Python programs with examples of how to set the time and check the accuracy of the clock.
[Thomas] compares the clock head-to-head against his old LED projection clock, as seen in the featured image above; we flipped it for a better idea of what it would look like from bed. We’ve got to say the soft blue glow of the VFD would be a lot more pleasant to wake up to than the bright red LED projection. But this soft white projection clock is nice too.
Small in size, low-resolution, blocky segments, and a limited color palette — all characteristics of the typical vacuum fluorescent display, any of which would seem to disqualify them as the display of choice for a lot of applications. But this is Hackaday, and we don’t really pay much attention to what we’re supposed to do, but rather to what’s fun and cool to do. So when we see something like a VFD game console, we just have to sit up and take notice.
In a lot of ways, the design of [Simon Boak]’s Arduino-based VFD console is driven by his choice of display. The Noritake Itron GU20X8-301 VFD is a “tricolor” display with eight rows of 20 rectangular pixels. Each pixel is composed of six short linear segments, with alternating red and blue colors. Turning on either set of segments yields one of the two base colors, while turning on both yields a sorta-kinda whitish color, if you squint a bit.
[Simon] chose a two-piece design for his console, with a separate controller and display. The controller holds the Arduino Nano and all the controls, plus a piezo buzzer for fun. The display case connects to the controller with a ribbon cable and holds the VFD power supply and driver. To celebrate the retro look of the VFD, both cases are decked out with woodgrain side panels. [Simon] chose appropriately blocky games for the console, like Snake, Conway’s Game of Life, and the venerable snow demo. We’d imagine Pong would be a good choice too, as well as perhaps Tetris if the display were flipped on its side.
We really like the look of this console, and we appreciate putting an otherwise obsolete display to use in a creative way. If you want to learn a little more about these displays, check out this love letter to the VFD.
Everyone knows we’re big fans of displays that differ from the plain old flat-panel LCDs that seem to adorn most devices these days. It’s a bit boring when the front panel of your widget is the same thing you stare at hour after hour while using your phone. Give us the chunky, blocky goodness of a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) any day of the week for visual interest and retro appeal.
From the video below, it seems like [Posy] certainly is in the VFD fandom too, rolling out as he does example after example of unique and complicated displays, mostly from audio equipment that had its heyday in the 1990s. In some ways, the video is just a love letter to the VFD, and that’s just fine with us. But the teardowns do provide some insights into how VFDs work, as well as suggest ways to tweak the overall look of a VFD.
For example, consider the classy white VFDs that graced a lot of home audio gear back in the day. It turns out, the phosphors used in those displays weren’t white, but closer to the blue-green color that VFDs are often associated with. But put a pink filter between the display and the world, and suddenly those turquoise phosphors look white. [Posy] does a lot of fiddling with the stock filters to change the look of his VFDs, some to good effect, others less so.
As for the internals of VFDs, [Posy]’s look at a damaged display reveals a lot about how they work. With a loose scrap of conductor shorting one of the cathodes inside the tube, the damaged VFD isn’t much to look at, and is beyond reasonable repair, but it’s kind of cool to examine the spring mechanisms that take up slack as the cathodes heat up and expand.
Thanks to [Posy] for this heartfelt look into the VFDs of yesterday. If you need more about how VFDs work, we’ve covered that before, too.
It’s safe to say that most projects that feature a VFD emphasize the “D” aspect more than anything. Vacuum fluorescent displays are solid performers, after all, with their cool blue-green glow that’s just the right look for lots of retro and not-so-retro builds. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t applications that leverage the “V” aspect, such as this nifty audio preamp using VFDs as active components.
The inspiration behind [JGJMatt]’s build came from the Korg Nutube line of VFD-based low-voltage dual-triode vacuum tubes. Finding these particular components a little on the expensive side, [JGJMatt] turned to the old standby DM160 VFD indicator tube, which is basically just a triode, to see how it would fare as an amp. The circuit takes advantage of the low current and voltage requirements of the VFDs — the whole thing runs from a USB boost converter — by wedging them between a 2N3904 input stage and a 2N2007 MOSFET output. There’s a mix of SMD and through-hole components on the custom-etched PCB, with a separate riser card to show off the VFDs a little bit through the front panel of the 3D printed case.
All in all, we find this little amp pretty cool, and we love the way it puts a twist on the venerable VFD. We’ve seen similar VFD amps before, but this one’s fit and finish really pays off.
Humans love visualising music, whether it’s in the form of an inscrutable equation drawing squiggles in Winamp, or a simple VU meter pulsing with the beat. This build from [mircemk] is of the latter variety, repurposing a VFD display to do the job.
The project is built around a VFM202MDA vacuum fluorescent display, which provides that lovely green-blue glow we all know and love, driven by a PT6314 driver chip. This has the benefit that it can be readily driven by a microcontroller in much the same way as the familiar HD44780 character LCD driver chip. With some minor tweaks, the character set can be modified to allow the display to become a surprisingly-responsive VU meter.
An Arduino Nano runs the show, with an envelope follower circuit feeding a signal for the left and right channels into the analog inputs of the microcontroller. The Arduino then measures the voltage on those inputs and feeds the necessary commands to the PT6314 driver to update the display.
The resulting VU meter has 38 bars per channel, and is highly responsive. The fast flickering of the meter bars in response to the music make it compelling to watch, and the era-appropriate enclosure the project is built in adds plenty to the aesthetic.
For those of us old enough to remember the VCR (and the difficulty of programming one), the ubiquitous vacuum fluorescent display, or VFD, is burned into our memories, mostly because of their brightness and contrast when compared to the superficially-similar LCD. These displays are incredibly common even apart from VCRs, though, and it’s easy to find them for next to no cost, but figuring out how to drive one if you just pulled it out of a 30-year-old VCR is going to take some effort. In this build, [mircemk] shows us how he drives unknown VFD displays using an Arduino in order to build his own weather forecasting station.
For this demonstration [mircemk] decided to turn a VFD into a weather forecasting station. First of all, though, he had to get the VFD up and running. For this unit, which came from a point-of-sale (POS) terminal, simply connecting power to the device turned on a demo mode for the display which let him know some information about it. From there, and with the knowledge that most POS terminals use RS232 to communicate, he was able to zero in on the Rx and Tx pins on the on-board microcontroller and interface them with an Arduino. From there it’s a short step to being able to output whatever he wanted to this display.
For this project, [mircemk] wanted the display to output information about weather, but rather than simply pull data from some weather API he is actually using a sensor suite connected to the Arduino to measure things like barometric pressure in order to make a 12-hour forecast. The design is inspired by old Zambretti weather forecasters which used analog wheels to input local weather data. It’s an interesting build not only for the VFD implementation but also for attempting to forecast the weather directly with just a tiny sensor set instead of downloading a forecast to display. To do any better with your own forecasts, you’d likely need your own weather station.
When you have a small stock of vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) straight out of the 1976 Radio Shack catalog, you might sit around wondering what to do with them. When [stepawayfromthegirls] found out that his stash of seven DT-1704A tubes may be the last in existence, there was no question. They must be displayed! [stepawayfromthegirls]’ mode of display is this captivating clock build. Four VFDs with their aqua colored elements are set against a black background in a bespoke wooden case. Looking under the hood, the beauty only increases.
Keeping the build organized was not an easy task because the tubes are designed in such a way that each segment must be individually controlled. The needed I/O duties are provided by an Arduino Mega 2560 Pro (Embed). 28 2n3904’s each with their two resistors serve as drivers for each VFD segment.
The output of a 24 V AC transformer left over from the 1980s is rectified to 34 V of DC power which is then regulated to 27 V to power the tubes. Switching power supplies provide 6 V to the Arduino and 1.3 V to the filaments. If you look closely, you’ll also see a GPS module so that the clock doesn’t need to be set. To future-proof the clock against daylight savings time adjustments, a potentiometer on the back of the case allows the user to set custom hour offsets without editing any code.
We think the end result is a remarkably clean, simple, and elegant clock that he will be proud of for many years to come!