Big, Interactive LED Art!

I thought it might be fun to learn how some of the really big, interactive, inspiring LED art was built. I’m talking about things like:

All of these great works of art were build with dedicated, smart teams, custom hardware, and amazing code. I realized I had to learn about pixel-addressable LEDs, electrical engineering, embedded microcontrollers, and a lot more.

The common denominator of these LED projects is little pixels that can show any color. Each pixel consists of three LEDs very close to each other: one red, one green, and one blue. There’s a little tiny integrated circuit for each one that reads a signal from a wire telling it what color to be, and then blinks the red, green, and blue at high speeds. Your eye doesn’t notice the blinking so it feels like you’re just seeing different colors. Here’s what a strip of them looks like, close up:

There are various versions of these pixels. If you’re getting started you may want to look at the NeoPixels and DotStar versions sold by Adafruit, but once you need thousands of pixels or variants that Adafruit doesn’t stock, you can buy them pretty cheaply from manufacturers in China (in particular Ray Wu’s store, on Aliexpress, is considered very reliable and has good customer service).

The version of chip I like is called the WS2815. If you’re interested in why, I wrote a more detailed review of the popular options.

In order to set the color of these things you need to send a digital signal with all the RGB values of the colors that you want on the entire strip. The first pixel reads the first color, shows that color itself, and sends the rest of the signal down the line to the next pixel, which does the same thing until you get to the end of the strip.

How do you make such a digital signal? You need an electrical circuit!

At the heart of the circuit is a microcontroller. This is basically just a tiny computer that is so small it doesn’t even have an operating system, but it can be programmed in languages like C++ and has a decent amount of memory. If you’ve heard of Arduino, that is a common microcontroller family that is a popular learning platform.

I built some custom hardware that can generate the signals for up to 8 different LED strips with up to 550 pixels each. It’s called Branch Controller and it looks like this:

The microcontroller I decided to use was the Teensy 3.2. If you rummage around this site you can see the various explorations I went through before I settled on the Teensy. You can see the green Teensy board in the bottom. It is plugged into MicroUSB which is where it gets power from. This USB port can also be used to download new code that you compiled on your computer, which is then stored in flash memory. One nice feature of microcontrollers is that as soon as they get power, they just start working instantly. You don’t have to wait for the operating system to boot up first like you would have with a Raspberry Pi.

What else is in that picture? In the bottom right you can see two jacks which accept standard CAT 6 cables. Each cable has eight wires in it, and it can feed data into four LED strips.

In the bottom left is a little ethernet network adapter. This basically just puts the Teensy on a local area network. You can connect to it with a web browser to configure various options. You can also run a program on a more powerful PC on the network to feed color data, over ethernet, to the controller.

This is subtle but it’s the reason why I built Branch Controller in the first place! A microcontroller is not very powerful; it can make pretty colors but it doesn’t have any kind of graphics processor (GPU) to do really fancy stuff. My theory is, you can run fancy interactive graphics programs on your powerful PC, using its GPU for high performance, and then calculate the color of every pixel and ship that, over a TCP connection, to the Branch Controller which will send it to the pixels.

Remember how I said each Branch Controller could handle up to 8 strips of 550 pixels? That turns out to be the maximum number of pixels you can drive with one Teensy 3.2 if you still want to update each pixel 60 times a second (for fast “persistence of vision” effects that look really smooth). But if you need more than 4400 pixels, no problem: just use multiple Branch Controllers! Then you are only limited by how many pixels a fast computer with a good graphics card can pump out, which is probably in the millions.

My Branch Controller has a tiny little OLED display screen on it which is handy for status information. It has a blinking green LED just so you know that it’s working. And, it has an infrared sensor which lets you control it via a remote control for frequent operations like setting the brightness.

Here’s what it all looks like in the test setup on my desk:

If you’re interested in more details, check out the github repository!