Cheap-Ass PC Interface for Digital LED Pixels

July 1st, 2011

I have an unhealthy obsession with LEDs. I also have an unhealthy obsession with frugality…

Total Control Lighting is a system of individually-addressible full-color LED “pixels” that can be shaped into any display imaginable. It’s a new offering from Funhouse Productions, who’ve been marketing their Cool Neon electroluminescent wire to creative types for years now, practically defining the after-dark aesthetic of the Burning Man arts festival.

The appeal of the Total Control Lighting system is that it scales linearly…just chain one strand of LEDs after the next, like Christmas lights. One end plugs into a controller box, which can issue preprogrammed color sequences, or others can load animation data from an SD card. In more sophisticated setups, the controller in turn connects to a computer, which can then command every LED individually and in real time. That’s where this project comes in…

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Old Mandrills Never Die…

December 17th, 2009

Are you a “retrocomputing” geek? Do salvaged bits of computer history turn you on? You might appreciate the VintageCG channel on YouTube, containing over 100 videos of early computer graphics and user interface research.

The selections were culled from about 80 total hours of footage, a collection I’ve been meaning to digitize for years now. Even the plan itself is vintage: 100MHz PowerPC Macs and the VideoCD format were cutting edge when the scheme was first hatched, but the process proved so tedious on then-current hardware that the idea was shelved until the source tapes resurfaced during a recent cleaning. Fortunately all but a couple still played. So glad I waited! Not only is the process now painless, but resources like YouTube—with bandwidth and capacity beyond anything we could imagine at the time—make it possible to share these clips with the world.

Rather than blindly upload the kitchen sink, I’ve tried to select particularly historical, unusual or prescient work, and wherever possible have included a bit of background or even some interesting trivia in the video descriptions; quality over quantity.

Visit the VintageCG channel on YouTube.

FTDI Serial Adapter as a Simple Digital Interface

September 22nd, 2009

I’ve had the good fortune to be accepted as an occasional contributor to the Hack a Day blog. (Hack being slang for an informal method of engineering, not criminal acts!)

My first substantive tutorial for the site describes the use of FTDI Bitbang Mode, a method of using a common, inexpensive USB-to-serial adapter as a quick & dirty GPIO interface. This facilitates the sort of prototyping typically done using microcontrollers, but in the comfortable and unconstrained development environment of mainstream PCs. The technique is particularly well-suited to SPI-type protocols; I’ve had this communicating with shift registers, LED driver chips and even video overlay ICs, as well as reading various optical rotary and linear encoders.

You can read the full article over at

Posted in Hardware

Hacking the Microchip Explorer 16 Development Board

November 8th, 2008

Disclaimer and caution: some of the changes outlined in this article involve soldering and modifications to a fairly costly circuit board, which always runs some small risk of damage or mayhem. While I suspect that most anyone with the inclination to buy and use one of these boards is well-versed in soldering and related precautions, maybe that’s not actually the case, and I assume no liability for any damage that might occur to the board, yourself or your belongings.

The Explorer 16 Development Board is Microchip’s mainline trainer/project board for 16-bit (and lately now, 32-bit) microcontrollers. The modular design of this board allows use of three different microcontroller families along with add-ons for networking, storage, audio, LCD graphics and more, and providing a common point of reference that allows Microchip to provide working example software templates for these different types of projects.

For all its virtues, this is not to say the experience can’t be improved. What follows are a few simple tidbits I’ve learned for enhancing the functionality of this kit.

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Microchip PIC Development Using Mac OS X or Linux

July 19th, 2008

Developing code for Microchip 8-bit PIC microcontrollers using any alternative to Microsoft Windows used to be a frustrating and often futile proposition. Fortunately this situation has since changed, and everyone can now jump on the PIC bandwagon regardless of their operating system of choice.

This article is not a comprehensive survey of every Microchip PIC development option for Mac and Linux, just a summary of the particular hardware and a few software choices I’ve found that most reliably meet my own criteria.

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The 25¢ I2C Adapter

April 1st, 2008

This project demonstrates a novel repurposing of the existing display control lines present on many graphics cards as an inexpensive method of interfacing computers with a variety of sensors and devices.

I2C (Inter-Integrated Circuit) is a two-wire serial bus typically used inside computers for low-level communication between components, but it’s also seen in robotics and hobbyist electronics for interfacing all manner of sensors, displays and actuators. I2C connections are often readily available on microcontrollers and esoteric embedded systems, but there’s traditionally little call for end-user access to this bus on mainstream personal computers. Lately though, netbooks and other small form-factor systems are increasingly being put to use as the high-powered “brains” of many homebrew projects. To sense and react in the physical world, a USB to I2C adapter (or “bridge”) device is typically used, often at considerable expense.

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Posted in Hardware
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