Jan 082021

If you are like me, you play around with Neopixel / WS2812-style LEDs a lot. Normally I solder my own custom-connectors and don’t use the ones that come with the reels I buy. But since we’ve been playing around with WS2812-compatible Xmas lights, I decided to make a “Neopixel Dev Kit” for easier experimenting with different LEDs and different ways of powering them. Most LED reels come with a 3-pin JST SM socket (female) connector installed with also maybe a 2.1mm DC barrel connector to inject power (see reel picture below). They’ll also throw in a pigtail JST SM plug (male) connector to attach to your controller. So I standardized on this. The kit as shown consists of (from bottom to top):

  • 3-pin JST SM socket (female) added to weird new WS2812-compatible Xmas lights
  • Known-good USB-powered WS2812 controller from those lights, rewired with JST SM plug
  • Standard 3-pin JST SM plug to JST SM socket, with 2.1mm DC barrel connector power injector
  • 3-pin JST SM plug (male) to header pins, for breadboarding
  • Known-good normal WS2812 strip with JST SM socket
  • 5V power supply with 2.1mm DC barrel connector
  • USB power meter for seeing voltage & amps drawn by any particular setup (see example below)
  • Arduino Pro Micro clone on tiny breadboard. This is a 5V microcontroller, so no need to worry about 3.3V -> 5V data issues. And it’s cheap in case we blow it up

Overall it’s working out okay. I need to add a few “sacrificial neopixels” to the mix to make using 3.3V-based microcontrollers and maybe some breadboard screw-terminals.

Jan 012021

I’ve not done much on our plotter Xmas tree this week because, well… if you follow me on Twitter, it’s likely you’ve seen me ramble on about these crazy new Christmas Tree lights we got for our tree (first tree ever!). I wasn’t able to find appropriate “Christmas Tree” light forms of the WS2812 lights, but Carlyn did! And they were even better than normal Xmas light styles. These were “fairy lights” with small beads of light connected by solid enamel-coated wire that almost disappear visually. The LED string appeared to maybe be WS2812 / Neopixel compatible and yup, they were! But the weird thing was, as I learned was discovered back in November, these LEDs remember their address when cut out of the strand. If you’re familiar with WS2812-style LEDs, this is bonkers. Normally these LEDs have four pins: +5V, Gnd, DataIn, and DataOut. To make an LED strip, the LEDs are wired in a chain, one LED’s DataOut going to next LED’s DataIn. This is great! It means you just have one wire to control hundreds of LEDs!

What’s going on with these LEDs? You cut them up, wire them in parallel (there’s no data “in” and “out”, just “data”) and they still know where they should be in the data stream, only picking the data for them. I’m still researching this with the help of some friends who can navigate Shenzhen better than me, but it’s looking like these LEDs have their address set OTP (one-time programmable) at the factory. No LED part number yet. If you’d like to get some to try yourself, here’s the 100-LED exact Amazon ASIN I bought as well as the 200-LED ASIN Carlyn originally found (both affil links).

Here’s some pics showing the box and how I took it apart to test on an Arduino Micro clone.

Dec 182020

We recently got some inexpensive multicolored 0.3mm technical markers (AmzAffil) for use on the AxiDraw and they are pretty good! For this week’s batch of days for our 31-box AxiDraw calendar, I wanted to play with doing “flood fill” / solid color fills. Normally the “hatch fill” extension part of the AxiDraw Inkscape extensions creates slanted lines to imply a filled color. I knew a true full fill would be touchy because the paper can tear when fully inked, but I wanted to try. It turns out to work great!

There’s not much of a trick to it, just adjust the “hatch fill” algorithm to have closely-spaced lines (“2” for a 0.3mm pen worked well) and “connect nearby ends” to go back-n-forth to minimize pen up/down messiness. Also orienting your hatch direction, optimizing for your object (0º in my case) can make the fill succeed better. Plotting does take a while (especially for multi-colors like the 12 ornaments) and does cause some bleed-through. But I think it looks awesome.

And the video of it is mesmerizing:

Dec 112020

For the month of December, Carlyn and I are making a vaguely tree-shaped “calendar” with 31 boxes, 30mm x 30mm each. This is a design exercise to get us more familiar with the very fun EMSL AxiDraw, an easy-to-use pen plotter. We each get half of the days, randomly, and each of those days’ boxes must be filled with a little 30mm^2 bit of art. You can see the on-going progress on our Deep Fried Neurons Happy Hour posts and livestreams.

I’m not very experienced with pens and paper (when my 9th grade teach said I could turn my essays in on printout, my little dot matrix went into overdrive and I’ve never looked back). So messing around with pens and the AxiDraw (and just the aesthetics of plotters in general) has turned my eye towards 70s-era design. My “day 4” piece was the MICR check font I recall seeming so space-age when I saw it as a kid. Seeing the weird shapes of the MICR numbers without context makes them seem like alien symbology, which I guess they kind of are. For my “day 9” I went to 7-segment LED displays. I remember these displays being the epitome of high-tech with their otherworldly monochromatic red light. Now we’re so used to LED light it doesn’t seem strange. For my “day 6” I wanted to do something with hexagons (the bestagons). By now my design sense was firmly 40 years in the past. So I combined a very ’70s yellow-brown gradient (done with 4 marker types) and a six-unit pattern of hexagons. Hexagon grids was very space-age then, what with the hexagon-based space frames and geodesic domes.

By far the most difficult aspect of doing multicolor plots on the AxiDraw has been registering pens of different diameters. Carlyn came up with a clever trick of using transparency film to make re-zeroing easier, but I always am off a bit (see how the red of the “9” is a bit off) But one of the best aspects of the AxiDraw is the *tup* sound the pen makes as it drops to the surface. Listen to it in the video below.

 Posted by at 2:59 pm
Nov 202020

I’ve been very excited by CircuitPython’s move into the ESP32-S2 space. The ESP32-S2 is a WiFi-enabled microcontroller with built-in USB and a crypto engine so it can do HTTPS properly. And in Python! CircuitPython is much more pleasant than Arduino for network-based tasks, where there’s lots of string processing.

So for this week’s Deep Fried Neurons Happy Hour, I decided to take a cue from Carlyn’s revisiting a DFN project and revisit my “day of week” device. The first one was an orange 3d printed “week wheel”, partially seen above. Now it’s an ePaper- and ESP32-S2-based MagTag from Adafruit. The MagTag device is really nice. And it’s got little magnet feet! I put the code up on github. It’s basically a clock, but one that only updates once a day. Each day’s display is a typographic take on what I often feel on each day. Monday is serious and tilted up: “We’re gonna do this!”. Tuesday is a “work day, just work”. By Wednesday I’m starting to slip. Thursday my energy is regained! On Friday (above) I’m optimistic for all I’m going to do on the weekend, but with a little trepidation. (I usually just slack). Saturday is all relaxed, yup I’m slacking. And with Sunday, I’m worried about the upcoming week, I can’t believe the weekend’s already over!

Currently the code updates the display once an hour. Since ePaper displays require no power when not changing, it really could only wake up once-a-day. The battery should last for weeks. The CircuitPython team is continuing work on low-power modes to reduce power consumption, so battery life could get even better. It solves one of the main problems I had with my 3d printed “week wheel”: it required me to update it manually every day. Now the fridge can tell me what day it is because… what day is it?

 Posted by at 1:26 pm
Oct 302020
“The spice must flow”

I tried my hand at pixel art and discovered I cannot do it. But I wanted to honor Justin in a pixel arty way, so I instead tried my hand at converting some of his pixel art for display on a 32×64 RGB LED matrix driven by a Matrix Portal driving. This wasn’t so easy. First, scaling down the already abstracted ~250×250 pixel images to something around 32×64 doesn’t look right if you use normal resize techniques: the results are too fuzzy. Thankfully ImageMagick has an “–adaptive-resize” option that preserves the sharp color transitions of pixel art. Secondly, most of his art was relatively 1:1 square in proportion but the LED matrix is a 2:1. This means some editorial cropping of the images to keep the most salient parts visible. Not an easy task when every pixel counts. I hope I did them justice.

 Posted by at 1:15 pm
Oct 162020

Here’s two more “Spoooky CircuitPython Circuits” using the QT Py board and purposefully small programs, part of my QT Py Tricks series. Go there for the source code. The first circuit is a pair of OLED displays arranged like eyes. Behind a mask it looks really good!

The second circuit is the old trick of using capacitive touch sensors in an analog proximity mode. The result can be pretty twitchy and highly dependent on environment and power supply, but it looks good on camera! :-) And in a more defined use (like on a PCB) can give repeatable results, like the “analog” A input on my TrinketTrigger Eurorack module.

 Posted by at 1:52 pm