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Kickstarter

The Light Ball is now a Kickstarter project!

Background

Having worked in electronics an various forms for many years, I'll admit that I like to visit Hackaday quite frequently. This last year there were two entries there that piqued my interest.

The first was a ball made of LEDs that displayed various patterns. I liked it but was disappointed in the size and the fact that the LEDs could only be on or off. (I was also disappointed in that the design itself was not readily available.)

The second was Extreme Halloween. (Use right mouse click to get around a framing problem for now!) This showed how simple graphics could be combined with audio for some really neat effects!

Since it was the Holloween season, these two ideas combined in my mind and I thought of a larger ball with orange LEDs that would look like a pumpkin. One could animate the face and do some fairly neat displays! I started looking at how large I could make a balls with the larger (standard) LEDs and figured I could make it so that there were 48 LEDs in one arc. The ball would be about 17 inches in diameter! However, when I started looking at the costs of just the printed circuit boards (PCBs), the cost was prohibitive and this lead me to start looking at something smaller.

Of course, time was passing by and by the time I worked out that a ball with 32 LEDs in the arc would be about 11 inches in diameter, Halloween was almost forgotten. The cost of the PCBs was still high, but I felt that I might be able to afford it as a "fun" project and the work has continued. Since it was past Halloween, I now envision this in other colors for other occasions. Right now, red for Christmas, but it shows how this could have broader interest.

Concept

The basic concept is that each arc of the ball is formed by a "Sector Board" that has the LEDs mounted on the edge. (Just like the original as seen in Hackaday.) There would be 32 of these mounted to form the total ball. However, in order to get over the earlier limitation of the LEDs being only on or off, control of the LEDs would be done with a newer chip that allows various intensities for each individual LED. Now, it becomes possible to display rudimentary (low resolution) images!

To hold all these together, my first concept was to use a cable of sorts to get the power and control signals out to the LEDs, but this had the problem that it was not rigid and the ball could "squish". I looked around and found a possible solution that would allow two other boards to hold all the "Sector Boards" in place. In the concept drawing below, I've shown a "Control Board" at the top and a "Power Board" at the bottom. In the drawing, these are shown 'edge-on' and they form a platform to hold the "Sector Boards". The "Power Board" is rather boring, but it takes care of getting power evenly distributed to all of the "Sector Boards."

The "Control Board" is more interesting. It forms the heart of the LED ball and would allow generation of various light patterns on the "Sector Boards", but there are several design challenges that must be satisfied. The first of these is to get the pattern out to the "Sector Boards" fast enough that the image does not flicker. Choosing a more capable processor with more memory and high speed I/O, I think I have that one licked. The second is where to get the image. Sure, a lot can be held in memory, but it needs to allow for external storage such as a USB stick, SD Card, or a communications line to get the image in.

The following is an attyempt to show what it might look like as a 3-D rendering, but this does not show the supporting structure or the 'back half' of the ball. The main purpose of this is to show the approximate resolution provided.

There are other areas that may make this much more interesting. For example, how about putting in a speaker so that sound files could be played at the same time that the image is being displayed? One that intrigues me is the ability to play "White Cristmas" while the LEDs depict gently falling snow!

Another interesting idea is to allow video to be fed into the unit to be displayed! Of course, it would be the opposite of today's trend towards HD, but I think it has possibilies. For example, could the video be converted to the low resolution and then be recorded for playback later?

Summary

The current state of the project is that the ideas are in place and the design has progressed to the point where all of this is definitely feasible, but I need the commitment to purchase the parts for the prototype and begin programming. Both of these objectives must be achieved before the fun can begin!

The Future?

For me personally, I see this as a great way to exercise my creative ability through my professional expertise. It's fun and rewarding in itself, but is there a potential commercial market for this? I think so, but that is not the driving motivation. For example, this might be attractive to "hackers" who just like to have fun with electronics and programming. If that happens, then a support community could be built to generate various applications. One of these might be to use this as an advertising gimick - sy scroll text and simple images to attract attention. Another might be just to have as decorative display. (A little large to hang on the Christmas tree, but you get the idea.)

Last updated: February 12, 2012
©2012 David J. Pfaltzgraff