How to Build an RGB MegaTree


23' RGB Megatree, in blue and white.

Happy Friday!

Fall is finally here.  Love this season.

A lighting designer here in town was considering a giant Christmas tree as part of a December production.  So very late last night, we hauled some gear over to his rehearsal space and set up a demo system.

The twenty three foot tall tree (it could be more, but we ran out of flying space) is based 48 StellaGreen RGB strings and 3 of our new E16-II node controllers.

Complete control over the tree requires 24 universes of DMX data.  That’s more than twelve thousand control channels. However, since we left ‘practical’ behind several years ago, this is not a problem at all. Frame rate is 44 Hz.

More details about the green strings and controller will be posted very shortly.  For now, though, here’s some stills and video from the evening:

Note: I wish I’d remembered to take a photo with a person standing next to tree, just to give some sense of scale.  This tree is enormous.  And beautiful.  For rev2, the base will be bigger and the strings held with more tension.  In theory, the result will look a bit less like the famous Sorting Hat.


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E16-2 Test Rig

This handy board (16 StellaGreen strings, each 85 nodes long) will be used to test each and every E16-2 controller shipped out this season.  Shown are 4,080 control channels, and about 48.0 amps DC at full power.  44 Hz refresh rate is fully supported.

E16-2 is available with E1.31 (streaming ACN) or Art-Net 2 firmware.


StellaSparks (Sneak Peak)

Here’s something fun we’ve been working on lately:

Yclept ‘StellaSparks’, each contains 3 super-bright white LEDs inside a waterproof chassis.  Super bright!  Here’s a clip of them running.  The tree is decorated with 6 of our ‘StellaGreen’ RGB node strings (85 nodes per string) and a set of StellaSparks (30 strobes on 1′ centers, plus an 8′ leader).

Strobe pricing is $135 for a 38′ string.  These can be directly controlled by our E16, E16-2 or E4 controllers.  Preorder now, or wait for off-the-shelf shipments the shelf in 4 weeks.

RGB Nodes and Controllers for Ricky Martin Tour

Engineering Solutions was pleased to provide ~8,000 RGB nodes and 12 E16 controllers (plus an appropriate stack of spare parts) to Ricky Martin’s 2011 tour.  We worked closely with Illinois-based Upstaging, who provided the larger lighting rig, and ShowFX in Los Angeles, who fabricated the scenic pieces on which the nodes were installed.

John travelled to LA to assist with patching and configuring the nodes and controllers.  On tour, the nodes would be controlled by a Hippo Critter pixel mapping engine, so a demo Hippo was set up in the shop for testing.  The lighting network was designed so that the Hippo sent data over a dedicated fiberoptic cable to the stage, where it was converted back to copper to feed the 12 E16s.  Somewhere between 36 and 44 universes of DMX are used to drive all the nodes.  The remainder of the lighting rig was controlled with other equipment, and on an isolated network.

The E16’s web-based configuration tool made it very easy to assign each node string to its proper address, based on the paperwork generated by the Bryan, the Hippo programmer.

As an interesting side-note, an Art-Net testing suite called ‘DMX Workshop’ has been published by Artistic License.  Free to use, it contains utilities for sending and receiving Art-Net data on any channel of any universe.  At one point during system testing, the entire pixel map was acting rough and choppy.  The frame rate was slow (way, way less than our regular 44 Hz throughput) and it didn’t look good at all.

So to test whether the problem was related to the Hippo, the E16s, or something in the middle, we disconnected the Hippo, plugged in a Windows laptop, and ran a ‘bandwidth test’ utility against the E16s.

We were able to totally load up the network by enabling universes 1 – 44.  Then we sent an ‘r g b’ walking pattern to the entire system.  That is, each node of each string was in red, then green, then blue.  The test started at a 1 Hz refresh rate.

At this speed, we couldn’t see any delay between nodes or strings.  All of the set pieces were changing color in exact synchrony.  This proved that the issue laid neither with the E16s nor the network switch.

Just for fun, we sped up the chase to 44 Hz and set it to ‘strobe’ (black white black repeating).

The many thousand RGB LEDs chased in unison with our throbbing eyeballs.

This high-speed test was promptly discontinued.

After a quick phone call to Hippo tech support, the jitter problem was traced to an errant setting in the software.

Most of the photos below were taken at the scenery shop.  However, the one of the top left was snapped during production rehearsals in Puerto Rico at the end of March.  Click any photo to enlarge.



Starting at 0:35, this video clip shows the nodes displaying content.  There’s other interesting looks at 5:00 and later.


Stay tuned for an upcoming post describing the ‘Tour Hardened’ E16 Controller and node string system we’ll be offering in a month or so.  We’ve added features specifically designed to make the system strong and road-worthy.  Bless their hearts, roadies can be rough on gear.  You’ll see that we’ve eliminated every potential ‘pinch point’ in the new hardware release.

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New Year’s Eve Tree

Just fooling around with cheesy transitions in the video editing program.  At any rate, the New Year’s Eve guests thought the tree was fun, even though (especially since?) the patterns displayed weren’t as subdued as what played throughout the Christmas season.

On a happy note, the waterproof E16 chassis withstood a week of nearly continuous rain, snow, warm and freezing weather between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Thanks, everyone, for your support and comments throughout the year.  It’s been a wild ride for sure.

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O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree!

Late last night my amazing wife returned from delivering Christmas goodies to the neighbors.  She held out the five fingers on her right hand and asked, “Do you know what this is?”

Instinctively, I flinched, expecting a heart-stopping, up-close-and-personal demonstration of how cold her hands actually were.  This has happened before.

“That’s how many of the neighbors complained that you don’t have any lights up this year.”

Through an ironic and frustrating turn of events, I’d been too busy to hang or program anything for Christmas 2010.

Fortunately, today’s schedule was totally open.  I found enough inventory in the workshop (an E16 ethernet bridge + 16 strings) to assemble a nifty little triangle tree.  It measures 12′ tall and 11′ wide at the base.

After letting it run for a few hours, I checked the control statistics (the E16 contains an internal webserver which allows for easy field configuration and feedback) and was pleased to see that one point one million Art-Net packets had been successfully received and processed for each of the E16’s four universes.


Stills (click to enlarge):


(Note that YouTube was supposed to swap out the regular audio for a bouncing happy Christmas track.  But I don’t think it’s working for all playback locations.  Do you hear music or just road noise?)

From the Field

Florida Artist Jeff Slack built this amazing star for a local church service using 4 strings of RGB nodes, a T3 controller, precisely cut art glass and lots of patience.  It appears to be about 4′ in diameter.

Jeff's Christmas Star

Landy in Oklahoma (and author of the nifty and free .Matrix Art-Net Pixel Mapping Software sent over these fun clips.  His system includes 8 node strings and a couple T3 controllers.

Christmas Lights – 4 – Christmas Jam from Landy Bible on Vimeo.

Christmas Lights – 3 – Mad Russians Christmas from Landy Bible on Vimeo.

Christmas Lights – 1 – Christmas In The Air from Landy Bible on Vimeo.

Thanks, Jeff and Landy, for sharing your work.

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Federation Square – Melbourne, Australia.

We recently supplied about 2400 nodes and 4 E16 controllers to a lighting designer working in Melbourne, Australia.  This project is an interactive community display located in the city’s Federation Square.  It runs evenings through the end of December.

Mrpackethead captured some test video clips of the tree in action.  These, I’m sure, represent only a tiny fraction of the tree’s different looks.

They even have a webcam which points toward the main area.  When I checked this link this morning, I could see the tree flashing merrily away in (nearly) real time.

If you find yourself in Melbourne this month, it’s definitely worth a visit.

More Video

Mrpackethead presents 84 strings * 42 pixels = 3,528 RGB nodes (10,584 DMX-over-ArtNet channels), synchronized and ready for a summer (down under!) yard party.

Madrix software runs on a quad core 3.4 Ghz Windows 7 beast of a computer.

Video captured with a Canon EOS 7D & 10-22mm zoom lens.

Video clip #2

RGB Node Delivery Dates, E16 Production Photos and More.

What an amazing few weeks.

The only real way to describe interest in this project is ‘humbling.’  We’ve seen orders and inquiries pour in from around the globe.  Here’s a public ‘thank you’ for your interest and your trust.

I’ve included in this post several odds, ends & items of interest.

1.  Comment Spam

All comments on this site are held for moderation, unless something you’ve written has been previously approved.  A few days ago, this gem turned up in the queue:

My partner and I harmonise with all your data and can hungrily look forward to the following updates. Simply expressing thanks will never merely end up being enough, for the exceptional readability within your writing. I will straightaway seize your rss to keep up-to-date with all messages. Great work and much success with your business endeavors!

Sadly, it also contained links to an Internet get-rich-quick scheme, which I’ve thoughtfully deleted.

Moving on…

One of our customers sent a link to this YouTube clip.  He’s got a T3 bridge and string of RGB nodes connected to a Light-O-Rama iDMX-1000 controller:

E16 Production

The E16 Ethernet Controller went through 21 different PCB revisions before the final design was approved.  Of those 19, we ran actual circuit boards for 3 or 4.  And for each those designs, 3-4 board sets were populated and tested.

For these short runs, this was all done by hand.  Looking back on the process, it’s probably fair to estimate 3 hours per board for applying solder paste, loading components, cooking the board, then testing.

Yesterday mrpackethead snapped a few quick pictures at the factory where the E16s are now being produced.  The assembly robots (sadly, because of the factory schedule, we apparently were stuck with the slow one) churn out a panel of 3 logic boards every 4.5 minutes).


Field Installations

If you’ve already purchased nodes or controllers, we’d love to see your end results.  Feel free to add a comment to the bottom of this page with a short description, plus links to your own site, video clips or still images.  Some time in the future, we’ll condense the relevant replies into a new article.

Node & Controller Availability

In an attempt to wind down the bulk of production, shipping and tech support before December begins, we’re strongly urging that all node and controller orders be placed by Saturday, November 6.  Request a quote here, visit the online store here.

This gives us time to place our requests with the factory for more bits and pieces, should we run out of local stock.  Having played the ‘Pay FedEx a Fortune to Deliver Heavy Heavy Boxes Around the Globe at Lightning Speed’ game before, and having then been presented with the freight bill…

Note that November 6 isn’t by any means a hard deadline.  We’ll do our best to fill any order that comes in.  But life will be easier and much less expensive – for all parties – if we’re given time to work.

In Summary…

  • T3 Controller works with Light-O-Rama’s iDMX interface
  • Robots, even the slow ones, are blindingly fast
  • Send in your project photos and links
  • Order soon for best delivery



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