Microcontroller Merriment
December 3, 2010 10:41 AM   Subscribe

Robert Quattlebaum shows how to hack GE Color Effects Christmas lights and makes the source code for his work available.
posted by Jpfed (30 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
It would be pretty cool to make a 2D array and drive it with video.
posted by exogenous at 10:47 AM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you want to see how lame the built-in effects are, go here. Click the "Function" button to cycle through the different settings.
posted by mhum at 10:49 AM on December 3, 2010


This guy gets bonus points for appropriate use of the word 'hack'.
posted by empath at 10:53 AM on December 3, 2010


It would be pretty cool to make a 2D array and drive it with video.

I thought about that. Even a really low-res display like the Atari 2600's 192x160 would be prohibitively expensive for personal use. Assuming you could buy these in bulk for $50 (compared to $60 retail) it would be $1 per pixel. That's almost $31,000 for an Atari 2600 display.

A pretty decent game of Pong can be done in 128x64, but even that would be over $8,000, and the color effects would be kind of an afterthought / waste.

However, a basic game of Tetris requires only the 10x18 well. Since they come in strings of 50, that would be 4 strings or $240 retail and you'd have 20 pixels left over for a "next piece" display that requires a 4x3 block of 12 pixels. Plug it into an Arduino running a basic Tetris AI and you'd have a nifty, nerdy Christmas light display. Hmm....
posted by jedicus at 10:59 AM on December 3, 2010 [8 favorites]


Christmas nerds?
posted by Pecinpah at 11:02 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and you could use the last 8 pixels to show the current level, at least in binary.
posted by jedicus at 11:10 AM on December 3, 2010


Assuming you could buy these in bulk for $50 (compared to $60 retail) it would be $1 per pixel.

But a one-pixel display would only cost $1, which is pretty cheap. Or $100 for a 10x10 display, which could be pretty cool.
posted by DU at 11:11 AM on December 3, 2010


Why not just get rid of the xmas light crap and use the LED's to light your house?
posted by empath at 11:19 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


"PLAIN WHITE?!??"
posted by crunchland at 11:26 AM on December 3, 2010


I've seen some amazing video art with small numbers of pixels, for example this monochrome piece with a 32x24 display by Jim Campbell. But even that resolution would require about a thousand bucks in lights.
posted by exogenous at 11:26 AM on December 3, 2010


At a distance of 50km, a 1-pixel display would be indistinguishable from a million-pixel display. Therefore: save money, buy 1.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:28 AM on December 3, 2010


Or $100 for a 10x10 display, which could be pretty cool.

Indeed it would be, and there's all kinds of cool things you could do with it. Video, though, not so much. I'm not sure what the lowest resolution usable video display would be. As I recall from the bad old days of analog TV, picture-in-picture on a standard definition (approximately 640x480) TV took up about 10% of the screen. That's actually the same resolution as the Atari 2600. I'll bet you could take another 10% of that and still have a very grainy but usable 60x50 display, but it would cost $3,000.

I've seen some amazing video art with small numbers of pixels

Yeah, but that's a carefully animated sequence that takes advantage of the brain's ability to fill in the gaps when looking at (what appears to be) a person moving in a natural way. For anything close to arbitrary video you'd need a significantly higher resolution, I think.
posted by jedicus at 11:32 AM on December 3, 2010


You could always use it as, you know, a Christmas light string but with a less lame animation than the native ones.
posted by localroger at 11:55 AM on December 3, 2010


I just want a pixellated grandma getting run over by a reindeer to accompany the song blasting out at my neighbors.
posted by exogenous at 11:57 AM on December 3, 2010


$60 bucks. Ouch.
I wonder if there's a coupon...
posted by madajb at 11:58 AM on December 3, 2010


I'm not sure what the lowest resolution usable video display would be.

Define "usable".
posted by DU at 12:01 PM on December 3, 2010


There are other ways to do LED video
posted by warbaby at 12:07 PM on December 3, 2010


Any speculation on the lameness of the original displays (though they aren't that bad)? Cost limitation of the controller? Lack of time/funding/competence for the software/firmware engineer?

Granted, they could be so much more, but the Arduino controller itself is what, about $65 retail? The controller puts a 50 light strand well over a hundred bucks.

Think about support as well. The controller interface would have to support the controller's ability - how many phone calls do you want to have from customers who are saying...uuuhhh wtf, I don't understand. That, or you design a hardware interface that looks like a Moog - making the cost high, and still having customer support issues.

Yeah, better to slap a $5 firmware on there with some presets. Now, they could have made some more imaginative presets, but again, you might be looking at a couple of bucks to tens of dollars per unit. And of course, paying a little more to the design engineer and maybe delaying your time to market.

I am guessing they set their price point, and built something that would fit under that.

The hack is a sweet, sweet, hack. It's wonderful to see technology improved with a little love and effort.
posted by Xoebe at 12:11 PM on December 3, 2010


Applications for one or two strings: spectrum analyzer / visualization for music; countdown timer til the holiday; really simple animations and pixel art (simple snowflakes, presents, trees). Three strings would be enough for a non-silly-looking menorah (you could do it with two strings but it'd be really squat, though serviceable).

Define "usable".

Usable for displaying real-world scenes as opposed to animations or pixel art. The Peggy 2.0 is better than I would've guessed for 25x25 monochrome, though, and no doubt more-or-less full color would help a lot. $650 worth of lights is almost approaching a non-crazy price range.
posted by jedicus at 12:18 PM on December 3, 2010


Any speculation on the lameness of the original displays (though they aren't that bad)? Cost limitation of the controller? Lack of time/funding/competence for the software/firmware engineer?

Just seems like the standard Christmas string light sequences transposed to LED with some color-changing thrown in for variety.
posted by madajb at 12:21 PM on December 3, 2010


@xoebe - You can build an arduino compatible board for < $10

http://www.instructables.com/id/uDuino-Very-Low-Cost-Arduino-Compatible-Developme/

http://www.appliedplatonics.com/breaduino/
posted by zeoslap at 12:26 PM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Usable for displaying real-world scenes as opposed to animations or pixel art. The Peggy 2.0 is better than I would've guessed for 25x25 monochrome, though, and no doubt more-or-less full color would help a lot. $650 worth of lights is almost approaching a non-crazy price range.

Low res giant LED displays are really good for clubs. I've seen a club with maybe a 30x100 display that looks great just piping generic windows screensavers and winamp visualizations through it. The 'fuzziness' actually makes it work.
posted by empath at 12:31 PM on December 3, 2010


I wonder if I can use this to place an animated fire or similar in my yard that lines up perfectly for people driving by with my neighbors giant illuminated cross. Hm.
posted by maxwelton at 12:55 PM on December 3, 2010


PeggyLE too much? How about LOL Shield?
posted by warbaby at 1:18 PM on December 3, 2010


Since there's so much discussion in the comments here about arduinos and displays, this is the one I'm kinda drooling over (if it beomes a cheap enough kit.)
posted by Catblack at 2:38 PM on December 3, 2010


Christmas Wrapping - The Waitresses - Lightorama 16 channels
posted by mrgrimm at 3:32 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Adafruit sells these guys for $1 or less per pixel. Pretty!
posted by moonmilk at 3:55 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everyone dreaming of video should also remember that according to the hacker, the lights "glitch" if their brightness is changed more than 1 level per command, a flash that's normally not noticeable but becomes so when you're pounding them with rapidly changing values at 24 Hz.
posted by localroger at 3:56 PM on December 3, 2010


madajb : $60 bucks. Ouch. I wonder if there's a coupon...

I can't help but notice that you've all forgotten from last year (and the year before, and the year before, and so on ad infinitum) how this works.

$60 now.

$30 starting December 20th.
$14.99 on Xmas eve.
$2.99 from the 26th onward...

And really, how many people will shell out $60 for a crappy string of lights? You can expect a lot of these left over after the big day.


...Until everywhere sells out, then around $9.99 slowly creeping up to $30ish on EBay until next Halloween or so.
posted by pla at 8:23 PM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Agree with zeoslap. For OSH, the arduino proper is overloaded, inelegant, expensive, and difficult to tinker with due to the (qualification: I'm USian) weird pin pitch. Owing to the lattermost consideration, its second- and third-party peripherals (er, um, shields) tend to be proprietary and correspondingly overpriced.

That being said, the arduino firmware and development environment are facile and handy as hell. Avail yourself of these benefits, without the above-noted drawbacks, by going with one of zeoslap's recommendations, or with my personal favorite, the Modern Device RBBB. For USD12.50 ea, I keep a stock inventory four or five on hand at all times for any such needs as may arise.

Note: with the onboard LDO VR, you can drop one of these in to the system discussed in the article entirely without regard to the voltage issue raised therein.

Note further: I have no relationship with Modern Device, other than that I love the shit out of this product.

posted by 7segment at 11:15 PM on December 3, 2010


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