2013 Lights, First Clip

More clips coming soon, but here’s one to start with.  This version is quite heavily compressed, but was uploaded in a hurry so that some out-of-town folks could take a look.

And some still photos from a different song:

IMG_7228 IMG_7221


There was quite a bit more traffic this year than we’d seen before.  We learned a few days ago that the lights were featured in one of the 2 large newspapers in the area: Places in Utah to See Christmas Lights

…as well as a second ‘local activities’ site: 8 Local Must-See Christmas Lights


Ragnar Wasatch Back Light Vests

We, along with local gym Rage Fitness were asked to sponsor a relay team for the 2013 Ragnar Wasatch Back relay race.  Teams of 12, 6 or 3(!) take between 17 and 48 hours to run almost 200 miles through Utah’s mountain ranges.

Since 1/3 of the race takes place at night, the team wanted an easy way to identify their support vehicles and team members.  They asked us to come up with a neat LED display of some sort.

For the two cars (both of which had roof racks) the choice was fairly easy.  We installed strings of RGB pixels around the roof perimeter.  They were controlled by portable playback boxes and sealed lead-acid batteries.  We’d designed this portable system several years ago for a theme park on the east coast.  As the playback boxes moved through the park, an on-board GPS system would trigger various patterns and colors, depending on where the system was currently located.  It gave the park entertainment group a way to match the moving lights with local decorations, which was pretty neat.

In this case, we had a pair of the playback boxes left over, and they were perfectly suited for the job.  The lights ran a ~15 minute loop of different looks, and the batteries easily powered the system through the night.

The runners all loved having such and easy-to-find landmark amidst a sea of other vehicles and people.  Over 250 teams participated, each with 2 vans and 6-12 people.  Makes for some crowded mountain roads and parking lots.



For the runners themselves, we needed a different approach.  The result had to be durable, fairly lightweight, resistant to the elements and cleanly executed.  And, we had about 36 hours to complete them.

Last year, we designed the pixel-mapped jogging jacket.

It was awesome.  However, it was form-fitted to a single person, and that wouldn’t be convenient for an overnight team to share.  So we started differently for the team vests.  Race rules said that each night runner had to wear a yellow reflective safety vest, so we purchased a handful of them from Lowes.


 A somewhat flexible grid of lights seemed like a good idea.  So I grabbed some bits and pieces from the local craft store.

Plastic Yarn Grid
Plastic Yarn Grid


Fake Leather & Sheer Synthetic Fabric
Fake Leather & Sheer Synthetic Fabric
Clear Vinyl, Heavy Gauge
Clear Vinyl, Heavy Gauge

A 7 x 7 grid of smart pixels was attached:


DMX Playback Card
DMX Playback Card

The circuit board was left over from a different project.  It was designed to record incoming DMX, save it to an SD card, then drive 7 x RGB ‘dumb’ strips (ie, add +12v, then ground the red, green or blue lines to build different color mixes).  It was easy enough to rewrite the firmware and bypass the FET output stages in order to drive the smart pixels.  Plus, using old stock saves $300 in overnight PCB charges.

IMG_6444Add velcro, diffusing layers and sew the whole pouch to the stock jacket.

Test Pattern
Test Pattern

The vests worked wonderfully well.  Tons of compliments from other runners. There was no chance that our team’s runners would pass the support vans in the middle of the night unnoticed.

Running Vest at Night
Running Vest at Night
Night w/ flash
Night w/ flash


The lights were crazy bright, even though I’d compressed their maximum intensity to just 68% of normal.  The attached LiPo battery packs were easy to recharge and contained more than enough power to get through the night.  44 frames per second of DMX playback made the patterns and transitions silky-smooth.

All in all, a great success.  The runners vow to return next year for another round.

If there’s any interest, I’ll track down some video clips of the vests in action later this week.


Christmas 2012

Cinderella’s Castle

In the fall of 2011, we were lucky enough to visit Walt Disney World in Orlando.  We spent the day and evening there, and were gathered around Cinderella’s castle for the evening lighting ceremony.  It was a magical moment, and the shaky cell phone photo taken above became the inspiration for our decorations this year.

(All photos in this post may be enlarged with a single click.)

Cool Lights w/ Green.
2012 House + Lights. 
Green + Warm Walls


Our goal this time was to create something beautiful, classy and memorable.  We wanted still images which could stand on their own, plus  sequences which could gracefully flow and be complemented by music.

I think we succeeded in grand style.

A couple of still photos are included above, and the boring technical details below.  I’ll post some video and more stills in a week or two.


  • The stone face of the house is covered with warm and cool white LED panels.  We lost track of the exact number installed.  The CAD guy in our builder’s office claims that there’s about 944 square feet of stone which need to be covered.  Each panel of lights measures 2 meters x 1 meter.  Total LED count here is somewhere in the 22,000 – 24,000 range.
  • 240 watts of LED floodlight.
  • ~4,100 discretely controlled RGB bulbs on the 25′ tree.
  • ~150 ‘sparkle’ lights (higher power, 3 x RGB emitters in a single package), also on the façade.
  • More RGB bulbs on the rooflines.  Maybe 250 – 300?
  • 28 (?) universes of DMX over ethernet, totaling ~ 5 megabits per second of data throughput.
  • Custom designed DC dimmers and Art-Net–> DMX bridge interfaces.
  • Lighting computer jam syncs to time code generated by audio computer, which keeps things nicely locked together.
  • Small radio transmitter broadcasting in stereo on 87.7 MHz.


A huge challenge was figuring out how to attach the lights to the house’s stone walls.  It’s done in ‘dry stack’ style, which means that most of the stone sections stick out 1/2″ to 3/4″  in front of the mortar.  So there’s lots of area to grab on to, but the shapes are very irregular, with often non-parallel sides.

I considered C clamps (too much money, didn’t want scratched rock) and plastic alligator work clamps (didn’t open wide enough, except for the super expensive ones).  At 200-300 pieces required, cost starts to increase in a hurry.

Plastic Conduit – 2.5″ and 3″ sections

While trolling through Lowes I found a perfect solution.  Plastic gray PVC electrical conduit is available in many diameters.  I bought 10′ sections of 3″ and 2.5″ pipe to test.  Using a chop saw, I cut a section of pipe in narrow bracelet-sized pieces, with widths varying between 3/16″ and 1/4″.  Then, I used the same saw, I cut about 50 degrees out from each circle, leaving me with a section of plastic which looked a bit like PacMan.

These sections were both very flexible and very strong.  They easily stretch to the width of a stone section, but also grab tightly when released.

Pipe Clamp Grabbing the Rock

For $40 in pipe (and a lot of annoying plastic powder kerf), I’m absolutely thrilled with the results.


I designed a daughtercard which, through a short section of ribbon cable, mates with Parallax’s Spinneret ethernet module.  And thus, a two universe Art-Net to DMX bridge was born.  Parts cost for the daughtercard was just a few dollars.  It works beautifully, running at an easy 44 frames per second on both outputs.  If I get some time in January, and if there’s any interest, I’ll release the .spin code I used..  Size of the card is only about 1″ x 3″, which is nice and compact.

In this case, the panel lights use one universe and the floodlights are on the other.

Art-Net Bridge Card for Parallax Ethernet Module
Art-Net bridge module, mates with Parallax’s ethernet / Propeller development board, the Spinneret. Includes 2 x XLR5 output jacks and proper RS485 drive stages.

2 universe Art-Net bridge. Not shown is the ribbon cable which connects the two.

The house face lights use 120 channels of  one universe and the flood lights 12 of another.  Crazy that it’s easier – at least in this case – to add a universe than to run more cable between here and there.

The stone face lights are controlled by five DC DMX dimmers I designed.  Each drives 24 discrete outputs or 12 warm/cool pairs.  Everything except the 24v/2.5A power supply fits on a 3″ x 5″ PCB card, which is nice and compact.  The drive stages are rated at 2A each, but the panels only draw about 80 mA each.  That leaves plenty of headroom, and no noticeable heat is generated anywhere on the card.  Connectors on the left are for Neutrik’s Ethercon series.

Earlier this summer I previewed some different styles of net light.  I was concerned because all of the AC-driven ones flickered annoyingly when I glanced my eyes back and forth across them.  The flicker was at either 60 or 120 Hz, and it bothered me.  It’d be easier, I reasoned, to go with custom panels which could be directly DC powered.

So I asked the factory to modify an existing design for +24v DC operation, which they did nicely.  The dimming engine runs at a 5 KHz refresh cycle, which means the light output is both camera- and eyeball friendly.

Power Draw: 4 LED wash lights + 24 channels of house panel light.

Power Draw – 4,080 RGB nodes on tree

Total data rate is ~ 5 megabits per second sustained.

Questions?  Comments?  It’s truly beautiful to see at night.




Pixel Mapping a Jogging Jacket

Blue and White Stripes

Because why not?

A few weeks ago one of my wife’s friends invited her to run an In-the-Dark-5K race, the proceeds of which benefit the Olive Osmond Hearing Fund.  The late Olive was the mother of the famous singing Osmonds, and the grandmother of several of our friends in high school.

The race website said

We encourage everyone to wear their brightest colored running gear!  Don’t forget your glow sticks and body paint! We will have black lights on the course to be sure that everyone will GLOW for HEARING!

Plus, other friends from long ago live in the same city (Logan, Utah).  So we decided to take a road trip.

Back when she first heard about the race, I’d just taken delivery of 150 meters of white EL wire, which will be used in a Halloween project next month.  I was testing the EL inverter in the workshop when she walked in.  I suggested – half in jest – that we wrap her jacket in glowing wire for the run.

“But can it change color?”

“Well, not really,” I said sadly, recalling that that with a bit of electronic sorcery the phosphorescent hue can be shifted a bit to the left or right.  And with some even more clever math, it can be dimmed.   But that’s about it.

“No thanks then.  Maybe we could use some of your extra lights from the yard tree instead?”

This seemed like a lovely idea.  We sketched out some rough plans.  Later that afternoon, she took a trip to a nearby outdoor equipment retailer and returned with great handfuls of flat black webbing, plus an assortment of plastic clips, latches and turnarounds.

The drawings and loose parts sat neatly on the shelf until yesterday, the day before the race.


We designed a form fitting vest / jacket skeleton using the webbing, white marking pens and a stapler.  Once all the pieces were in the right place, the staples were replaced with machine stitching.

Color Changing LED Running Vest
LED Running Vest

She also fabricated a small pouch to hold the controller and battery pack, and attached it to the vest’s rear, just below the shoulder blades.

Pouch for Battery Pack
Close Up – LED Mounting with Zip Ties

The controller board was a a saved prototype from a different project.  It was originally designed to drive 6 sections of RGB LED tape (18 channels total, 2A peak per channel, that’s a lot of LED tape) using either live DMX or data stored on an SD card.  However, it was easy enough to repurpose a pair of pins to drive the LED node string.

Controller and DC-DC Power Supply


Controller and PSU Inside Protective Pouch


Battery Pack – LED Vest

Plus, it was free.  Because as any accountant will attest, massive sunk costs can be completely ignored a few months later.

The card contains a DMX input stage, plus a few pushbuttons and LEDs for user feedback.  I wrote a tiny program which captured incoming DMX at 44 frames per second,  then saved the data to an SD card.

An interesting quirk of memory cards is that although they can be read from very quickly and consistently, the write process is not always as smooth.  Even when writing entire sectors (512 bytes at a time) to the card, there can be random and variable delays incurred by the card’s internal electronics.  300 mS isn’t at all uncommon.

So the DMX capture code actually copies data to a very large circular buffer (at very precise intervals), and the SD write routine is triggered each time new data is ready.  Since the input buffer is big enough, the two routines never step on each other’s toes.  The result is perfectly stable recording and playback, even though both processes are running at different – and sometimes variable – speeds.

It’s an elegant bit of code, if only in a ‘you really had to be there’ sort of way.

Also extremely vital, because dropped frames are ugly and visually jarring.

An  8-AA, 2400 mA-H, NiMH battery pack supplies power.  Its output feeds a cute little 7-16v input, 5V/2A DC-DC converter, which then powers the controller and LED string.  Testing showed that the 42 LEDs pulled between 800 – 1500 mA depending on their state.  The battery pack was tested for an hour under load, with no problems.  The DC-DC converter didn’t become appreciably warm, which was nice.

Using a copy of Madrix Professional (again, sunk costs), I built a rough facsimile of the jacket’s LED layout.

Patch – 42 RGB Nodes on a Running Jacket


The rest was easy.  I arranged a cuelist of about 30 different looks, then let them cycle through over about 14 minutes total.  Madrix output DMX through an ENTTEC USB Pro interface, and the jacket controller, in DMX capture mode, recorded each and every packet.  In regular playback mode, the file is read and (if needed) looped.



RGB Running Vest Plus Large Blacklight Fixtures

“Are you wearing a bomb?” asked a curious onlooker before the race started, and while the vest was turned off.

(How do you answer that question, anyway?)

This comment piqued the interest of a nearby campus police officer.  After we turned on the lights, he wasn’t as concerned.

2+ hour run time on a single battery pack

Not nearly as uncomfortable to wear as we expected it might be.

My wife, recovering from a shoulder injury, made good time through the run.

Overkill?  Certainly.  But it was fun to see people watch and smile.

Here’s some video from the race, then a few minutes inside which show some of the different patterns displayed.

John’s 2011 RGB Megatree


Click to Enlarge

While last year’s triangle tree worked out fairly well, it was definitely a last-minute design.  12 feet tall and containing 16 x 42 node strings, it was fun to watch for the last couple weeks in December.

But there’s always room for improvement.

This time, we decided to start earlier in the year, in order to end up with something extra special.

During October’s indoor tree demo, we confirmed that 48 full strings of light added about 100 pounds of weight.  At that trim height, the wiring represents a substantial load & leverage force.  So based on Walter & Jackie Monkhouse’s detailed plans I build a rebar-reinforced concrete base weighing 120 pounds.  This was fitted with sturdy eyebolts as designed, then securely  anchored in the ground with a quartet of 3/4″ concrete stakes 36″ long.

On top of the base I added a two-part pole assembly based on 10′ sections of 2″ and 1.5″ rigid EMT conduit.  From the friendly folks at christmaslightshow.com I procured a 24″ star frame, a megatree hook set and a pully head.  From Lowes I bought, then installed, a geared winch on the pole.  This way the main tree assembly could move up and down for repairs, testing and potential bad weather.

Then, because of the recent 102 mph windstorm not far from our home, I added three external guy wires made of 3/16″ wire rope (rated at 800 pounds minimum breaking strength).  These attached to the top of the 2″ pipe, then anchored in the ground with more 36″ stakes, heavy turnbuckles and a handful of shackles.

The entire post assembly (20′ of pipe, less 2′ of overlap, plus about 2.5′ of star) was assembled on the ground, then tilted into place and anchored securely.

Using a 10′ A-frame ladder, I attached three StellaGreen strings to each of the hook head’s 16 angle brackets.  At this time, the pully head was resting at the top of the 2″ pipe section.  Had I used 1.5″ and 1.0″ pipe for the entire assembly, the hook head would have moved freely to the ground.  However, the sturdiness of the thicker pipe is reassurring.

Once the foundation was set and stable, the hook head was cranked up to full working height.

Finally, I built a base ring from 60′ of 1/2″ PCV pipe, joined together with simple sleeve fittings.  The string spacing at the base of the tree is about 15″ on center, and it’s a nice balance.  Our StellaGreen strings contain 85 RGB nodes on 10 cm (3.93700787 inch) spacing, plus an 2.5 meter pigtail at the beginning for convenient connection to a controller.  Thus, the strings offer more or less 28′ of light to work with.  In this installation, I didn’t want our home or the neighbor’s home to be damaged if the tree somehow tipped over.  So the tree is a bit shorter than it could be, per Mr. Pythagoras and some catenary sagging.  There’s about 3′ of node string at the base of the tree, arranged in a neat inverted sunburst pattern.

The tree is driven by a trio of E16-II Ethernet controllers.  Total power draw is around 800 watts peak.  85 nodes per string x 3 channels per node x 48 strings equals 4,080 nodes and 12,240 total control channels.  With a 44 Hz refresh rate across the entire system, color fades are as smooth as silk.

Neighbors say that at night, when they enter the neighborhood from 1/4 mile away, the top section of the tree peeks through the other houses like an iridescent spaceship.


Hoping to post some video clips in a day or so.  Click any of these photos above to enlarge.


E16-II Photos

Here’s photos of the new StellaBlack E16-II controller.  It’s designed to drive up to 16 strings of 85 nodes (1,360 RGB dots) from either Art-Net II or E1.31 ethernet input.  The demo megatree we filmed a few weeks ago was based on three of these controllers fully loaded.

The internal power supply (~300 watts) is UL listed, properly vented and power factor corrected.  It autoswitches between 90-265v AC, 50-60 Hz, so worldwide operation is no problem.

The system has no problem at all refreshing all 16 strings at 44 frames per second.

Note the waterproof cable entry glands, durable chassis and shielded power supply breathing holes.

The internal web interface provides easy configuration of each string, plus generates test patterns for system debugging.

We’re proud to call this a ‘plug & play’ system.  It’s proven very stable, durable and trouble-free.  The node pigtails (shown here terminated with waterproof circular connectors) can also be fitted with Neutrik HD-series 4-pin ends.  These are waterproof, very durable, gold plated and designed for installations which frequently change, such as for touring environments.

Click any photo to enlarge.

If you’re interested, contact us for a precisely-tailored complete system quote.

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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2011 Fire Sale

E16 RGB Node Controller

Current Stock (updated as quantities change): More than 30 20


We’re cleaning out the factory & need to move a stack of last year’s E16 controllers.

When the E16 was introduced in mid-2010, it was hard to know how popular it would be.  Since then, hundreds of them have been deployed in some very challenging situations, from the hot Australian sun to the bone chilling mountain winter of the USA.

However, it’s now April and there’s a limited number of E16 controllers that need to be cleared from stock.

This is your opportunity to get them at a fraction of what they sold for last year.

The E16 system drives our up to 16 strings of our RGB LED pixels.  Refresh rate is 44 frames per second across the entire system.

All configuration is handled by an internal web server, so you simply need to use a web browser for easy system setup.

There’s no need to install special software.

Light control is via ethernet using industry standard Art-net or E1.31 protocols.

Simply plug in some strings, add power and you’re blinking!

We’ve bundled up a package which includes:

* The Top ‘control’ circuit board, which accepts ethernet data.

* The Bottom ‘drive’ circuit board, which contains high-current connectors for the power supply, 16 fuses for the output strings, and .156″ 4-conductor Molex headers for each output.

* 1 male high-current power connector plus a pair of crimp pins. You provide suitably heavy wire (10 gauge at least) for connecting to your 5V power supply. This matches the female connector on the ‘bottom’ board.

* 16 1′ pigtails which connect to the Molex headers and have 4 pin circular waterproof connectors for direct connection to node strings or node extension cables.

* A wiring guide showing you what needs to be connected to where.

However, this package does not include a waterproof housings or the 5V 50A power supply that are normally supplied.  We can of course design a fully turn key package if that’s what you need.

We thought that some of our more technically inclined customers will appreciate this kit set approach and will be easily able to handle the required wiring and setup.

We’ll confirm proper operation of each individual system in our workshop before it ships. And you’ll get a 30 day, no-questions-asked money back guarantee if you’re not completely delighted.



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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