Home Easy ambient orb

After a long wait, I finally have a TLC5940 LED driver chip, so I’ve been making a bit of progress on my ambient orb project. The LED driver works well with the little RGB PCBs in the B&Q disco light after a bit of hacking, cutting tracks to the original controllers and soldering a few wires on to the LED leads. The final ingredients are a Freeduino Nano to squeeze inside the box, along with a 433MHz AM receiver.

So the hardware is mostly sorted, but what about the software? That I’m not quite so sure about. Here’s a vague list of requirements:

  • I want the orbs to work when they are connected to a computer directly via USB, or remotely using the 433MHz AM wireless
  • It should be possible to use the three orbs as separate ambient indicators, or together in more complex animations, like the weather beacon in Toronto for example
  • It should be possible to cycle through several ambient animations, such as a traffic indicator and weather forecast for example
  • The information the orbs can display should be easy to modify without reprogramming

My current thinking is that the home easy protocol might be sufficient to send information to the orbs. It is limited, but I think there is also a limit to how much information the ambient device can convey before it stops being ambient. If I have to spend time decoding what it’s trying to tell me, I may as well have messages on a screen. The other potential advantage of using the home easy protocol is the possibility of using home easy remotes to select the information being displayed. A simple protocol also means that simple devices could control the ambient display directly, without requiring an always on server in between.

That covers the wireless connection. My plan is to use the USB connection to send animation information to the device, since this is beyond the home easy protocol. For example, to indicate traffic problems; top orb is alternating dim red and bright red, middle orb is dim amber, and bottom orb is dim green.

Simples! Well, in theory. I’m still thinking about a protocol that would capture the kind of ambient animations that I’m after. If there were several single orb animations, and several multiple orb animations, how would these be shown? Automatically? Based on some notion of priority? Manually using a remote, even though this seems less ambient?

I would love to hear if you have any comments or suggestions.

Update: The disco lights are almost back in one piece, and glowing a bit like they did originally! Just need to solder on the wireless module and get on to the software side! (16 April 2010)


B&Q ambient orb kit

It’s not quite the sort of do it yourself which B&Q is traditionally known for but ‘Lights by B&Q‘ is looking like a perfect ambient orb kit. I almost managed to resist getting one while buying paint for the bathroom, but it just looked too tempting…


Getting inside was easy, with just a few screws holding the back in place. Once in, there’s a simple string of little circuit boards glued to plastic balls. A bit of levering popped the first one off to reveal a set of three LEDs, and it looks like they’re soldered on in a common anode arrangement…


You could just ditch the RGB circuits completely and pop in a few blinkms but I’d like to reuse what’s already in B&Q’s handy kit. I think it should be possible to cut the tracks to the colour changing circuit and wire the LEDs up to an Arduino instead. The problem is that there aren’t enough PWM outputs on a single Arduino to drive three RGB orbs. Fortunately a combination of a TLC5940 LED driver chip, and the Arduino library to go with it, should solve that problem.

Here are a few other links which look like they could be useful for this little  project:

If I get the simple version working, I’d eventually like to get it working wirelessly. It would be much more useful if the orbs could be plugged in anywhere in the house rather than being connected to my home server via USB the whole time.

Update: not to be outdone, it looks like Homebase have a selection of (far cheaper) ambient orb kits as well now! (23 August 2010)

Impulse buy

I was only in B&Q to buy some paint, but spotted this on a slightly scenic route to the paint aisle…


I almost had enough will power not to buy it but it was too tempting. It’s just too perfect for some hacking; 1 arduino + 1 B&Q LED disco lamp = 3 ambient orbs I’m thinking. The back even has four screws for easy access… which I’m not going to touch until after painting the bathroom, getting married and having a honeymoon!

Home very easy

Since Graham posted about the Home Easy range I’ve been wondering whether to give it a try. Well, okay, it was always more like a question of when not if, so when we were in the vicinity of the Home Easy shelf in B&Q (just the next aisle or so over… the other side of the store) I had a quick look. To have a better look, I bought a pack to take home!

My first purchase wasn’t all that successful. I had been seduced by the wiz-bang timer remote control pack, which comes with two dimable sockets. Unfortunately, while the pack says you can switch on and off as well as dim, it lies; the sockets are not dimable, they only dim. Fortunately one of the great things about B&Q is their customer service, so I took my first attempt back and got a refund.

I played it safe with my second attempt and got the simple controller and three socket pack from the on-off part of the range. It’s probably better value, even though I currently only need two of the three sockets. Pairing the remote and sockets is pleasingly simple and the group function is very nice; you get the everything off function even without buying the switch that Graham did. (Not that I’ve ruled out extra bits in the future of course!)

Jo and I discovered an extra use for the remote control yesterday when she wasn’t feeling well: instead of yelling downstairs to ask me to do anything, she could just flash the lamp on and off! I might regret suggesting that idea!

Definitely very happy with my delayed impulse buy but there are one or two niggles…


  • Very easy to use
  • The basic pack is pretty good value
  • Really very easy to use


  • Doesn’t do exactly what it says on the tin (box); check what you’re buying will do what you want it to
  • There’s no way to switch a socket on or off without using the remote. I guess the excuse is to keep costs down, but slightly bigger button could easily do press on/off and hold to pair
  • The dimable sockets can’t do simple on/off as well. Actually the dimming is fairly naff all round: press on, wait until it dims to the right level and press on again