It’s lasted a few years but sadly our old Christmas tree failed the strictest quality control standards required for indoor duties. Luckily there was an opening for front garden decoration, so it’s not out of work just yet. Doing a fine job too I think:

The lights are plugged in to a Home Easy socket, so I may be dusting off the arduino to control them, which would be an ideal excuse to give a Pachube Dashboard a try… as soon as I’ve finished the Christmas shopping that is!


Ambient ducks…

…and balls, and squares, and hearts, and stars! If you want to build your own amazing MQTT enabled duck, I spotted these LED lights in Homebase at the weekend which might be worth a try at £2.50 each:

No good if you want the full team of ducks but they look like they’d make decent ambient objects. I seem to have a collection of half finished projects already so I didn’t buy one… this time!

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)