Feb 072011

A few days before Christmas 2010, we were contacted by an LED vendor who was supplying product to a special effects studio that designed costumes for the halftime show of the 2011 Superbowl.

They requested a single channel, variable speed [1 Hz – 10 Hz] LED flashing driver which could be battery powered and switch about 40 watts of LED light.  There were to be two performer-accessible switches: one for power and a second for selecting between constant and flashing output.

Just over 2 weeks later, we delivered about 70 small controllers.  They looked like this:

LED Flash Driver for Superbowl 2011 Halftime

The flash-speed adjustment is inside the enclosure, hidden away from well-meaning but not-to-be-trusted performers.  These controllers drove the ‘cube hat’ costumes which were seen at the very end of the show.  Apparently the choreographers or directors chose not to use the flashing feature, as the hats glowed constantly.

However, it was fun seeing them live on stage.

Shortly after these controllers were delivered, we learned that they also needed more complicated control equipment.  The 8-bit DMX Driven RGB Nodes discussed elsewhere on this site seemed like an ideal fit, so we designed a battery powered system which could receive DMX data (from a costume designer’s lighting console), store it to an SD card, then replay the patterns on command.  4 strings of 42 nodes would be driven and refreshed at about 30 frames per second.

Here’s a photo of the system’s enclosure and bare circuit board, before all the components and wiring harnesses were added:

Portable Controller for 4 Strings of RGB Nodes

After these controllers were designed and prototyped, but before they shipped to the customer, we learned that the 8-bit nodes were the wrong form factor for the two costumes.  They were nice and bright, but didn’t fit like in the costume like they needed to.

So, the LED vendor suggested using two other products: a ‘smart’ strip containing RGB LEDs and HL1606 control chips (nice for discrete LED control) and a ‘dumb’ strip containing RGB LEDs wired in parallel.

'Smart Strip' LEDs With HL1606 Controller

'Dumb' RGB LED Strip With 5050 LEDs

The 1606 controller is an interesting beast, as nicely described by Alan on his website.  Each chip uses a pseudo-SPI interface and drives two RGB LEDs.  5 meters of strip includes 160 SMD-5050 LEDs.  Each LED can can be set to any of the seven major colors (R,G,B,R+G,R+B,B+G,White), and each LED can also be told to fade between major colors at a specific fade rate.  The downside is that the LEDs can’t be set to arbitrary colors outside the major 7.  If you want 80% red and 10% blue, you’ll only see it for an instant as the fade progresses.

In this regard, it’s not a terribly useful controller for our purposes, which is displaying live content.  But, it was available in the time we had to work.  And that’s what engineering as all about.

The costume designers deemed the form factor appropriate and the 7-color limitation acceptable, so we moved ahead.

Pity our regular 8-bit nodes didn’t fit properly.

In any case, the green cube controller from above was reworked to drive 2 strings of HL1606 LEDs.  Each string could have up to 256 LEDs, consuming an entire universe of 512 channels.  As each channel’s level is increased, the LED color cycles between red, redgreen, green, greenblue, blue, bluered and white.

For the costume based on the ‘dumb’ RGB strips, the designers requested that 16 discrete RGB outputs be available.  So, we (very very quickly) designed and produced a much larger controller. 48 output drivers / 3 drivers per strip = 16 LED strips total.  Controlled by 48 consecutive DMX channels.  Due to the extremely tight time frame we worked in, the output stage is massively over-engineered.  5A switches per color, per output. But it worked beautifully.

Again, regular DMX data can be captured at 30 frames per second, is stored to permanent memory, and then plays / loops on cue.

16 Channel RGB Strip Light Controller

This controller drove several hundred LEDs in Taboo’s suit.

The smart strip LEDs and controller were sewn into apl.de.ap’s costume.  During the show, they ran a series of color-changing ‘spectrum analyzer’ type effects.  Sadly, they were somewhat overpowered by the other stage lighting, and only visible if you looked quite closely.  Thanks to GrandMA programmer Jerry McVay for some amazing work.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to drive the suit live with wireless DMX?  Yes, absolutely.  However, it wasn’t allowed inside the venue, probably due to hundreds and hundreds of other transceiver sets competing for the same radio space.  I’d hate to be the RF guy charged with mapping the spectrum and making sure everyone’s bits played nicely together.

So at the beginning of the halftime show, the head costume technician received a cue from the broadcast truck 22.5 seconds before the performers took the stage.  On that cue, a rigger high up in the steel of Cowboy stadium’s roof switched on both playback controllers. Each suit flashed a quick ‘hello world’ to confirm its operation, and the Peas descended from the ceiling.

Watching your small company’s custom-designed equipment run flawlessly in front of 110,000 live fans, plus another 100 million television viewers, is a massively humbling experience.

Thanks to those who worked with us through the last month.  The costume technicians and seamstress crew did amazing work when faced with monumental deadlines.  You know who you are.

 Posted by at 6:44 pm

  15 Responses to “Portable LED Control – Superbowl XLV Halftime Show”

  1. […] We were honored this year to work with costume designers of the halftime show.  Since most of the project relates to DMX recording & capture (and only almost included our 8-bit RGB nodes), a description has been posted elsewhere on our site. […]

  2. Excellent work!

    We watched the half-time show over here in the UK, having no real idea about American Football, but a keen interest in the use of portable LED in performance. We bought a few of your RGB pixels a few years ago and they often appear in the shows I work on as a great solution to getting a tiny form factor bit of controllable light in the right place, with minimal fuss. Have been monitoring your progress on this website ever since, keep up the good work.


    Dan (and Peter who did the purchasing!)

  3. I watched the halftime show, and as any electronics engineer with a bent for LED control would, thought to myself: “Wow, I would have loved to be the one to design those costumes!”. It blew my mind when I received an automated email from your website today about this very thing! I inquired about a job a couple years ago, and have been on your mailing list ever since. Great to see that you’re living the dream!

  4. Thanks for the great write-up on what you used! I’m not sure I’m used to reading the words “from a costume designer’s lighting console”, but it looks like it all worked out in the end. Way to go!

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by iSquint, 4Wall Entertainment and Neil koivu, Mike Mallinson. Mike Mallinson said: RT @isquint: RT @floody90: http://bit.ly/gM0eMU Interesting blog from the people that built all of the LED costumes for the Halftime show. […]

  6. […] to myself…”How did they do that?”  So I did some homework and I found a blog by Engineering Solutions Inc. one of the companies who actually helped design the […]

  7. […] cube-heads and the Black Eyed Peas costumes’ electronics were made by Engineering Solutions, Inc in Lehi, UT, under some direction by Creative Lighting […]

  8. […] cube-heads and the Black Eyed Peas costumes’ electronics were made by Engineering Solutions, Inc in Lehi, UT, under some direction by Creative Lighting […]

  9. So now that you guys are a massive hit on the world wide market does this mean your prices are going up???
    Congrats on a awsome collaboration. Those suits were unreal and I bet the control available exceeded any of the designers expectations.
    I dont think I’ve ever seen a larger light show than that of the superbowl.
    Where too now for engineering soutions??? World domination? MWAHAHA

  10. @Michael – thanks for the kind words. With any luck, there’s space on the Internet for expensive world-dominating R&D corporations as well as quick & nimble little shops like us.

  11. Thank you for the props on my programming.
    It was a mad dash, but we did it!
    All my best,

  12. how do you purchase these outfits or more so the led lights along with the switch to operate them??

  13. These were custom built for the show, and were the product of a collaboration between a costume design group, choreographers and electronic designers. I doubt that this exact costume is, or will ever be, available for sale to the general public.

  14. […] 1.Engineering Solutions Inc. (2011). Portable LED Control- Super bowl XLV Halftime Show. Retrieved from http://response-box.com/gear/2011/02/led-control-superbowl-xlv-halftime-show/ […]

  15. […] it’s possible to make any desired shape.  Placing some RGB lighting tape leftover from the 2011 Superbowl project made an interesting effect.  However, where the LEDs touched the plastic, their shape and spacing […]

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