LED Disco Table Project - Introduction

I’ve always got a side project on the go, I enjoy doing something a bit different from my usual day job and working with electronics (especially LEDs) can be pretty interesting.

Back in 2004, Daft Punk designed a coffee table for Habitat which featured a 5x5 grid of red LEDs mounted under smoked glass which would light up and animate in time with an external music source. I always wanted one of these but could never afford it. Fast forward to 2009 and a few people started building 8x8 LED matrix coffee tables. These featured 64 RGB LEDs arranged in a 8 by 8 pattern which would animate and generally look awesome. Soon after that people started adding touch sensing capabilities to tables to enable some cool interactive effects. I want to draw from all these projects and build my own ultimate LED coffee table.

Here’s a little spec I put together:

  1. 8x8 RGB LED matrix to display simple animations, effects (e.g plasma demo).
  2. Synced to external music source.
  3. Multitouch capable.
  4. Gesture-based interface.
  5. Completely standalone operation - Table doesn’t need to be plugged into a PC. The only wire connected will be the power supply.
  6. Remote control via iPhone over WiFi.*

* This last feature depends on how much time I have free to program it.

Getting started

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The base of the table will be formed out of an Ikea Magiker coffee table.These haven’t been on sale for the past few years but my old flatmate generously donated his for the project. They are almost the perfect size (75cm x 75xm x 45cm) but I’m still going to be making some modifications. The two open ends will be boarded up to stop light leakage and then the sides clad in clear 6mm Perspex. The Perspex will have a white vinyl backing on the inside giving it a similar effect to the first generation iPod Nano and Nintendo DS Lite. Inside the table I’m constructing a 8x8 grid out of 1mm PVC foamboard to divide up each LED and form what I’m calling a “cell”. I’ll probably replace the original glass top which has a frosted border with some low iron clear stuff which doesn’t have that usual green tint you get with glass. Where the glass sits on the wood I’m going to add a white rubber strip to form a (fairly) watertight seal, just in case a drink gets knocked over on top, I don’t want it seeping down into the electronics. The final element is the diffusion film to even out the LEDs, I’ve found some white frosted self adhesive film which works a treat.

Driving the LEDs

In a RGB LED matrix, each LED is actually three combined in a single package, this means that in a 8x8 matrix there’s 192 LEDs to drive. Rather than trying to power all LEDs at once with some crazy power hungry LED driver, I’ll instead be using a multiplexing approach. This technique involves only lighting one column at a time, by switching very quickly between the columns your brain perceives that they are constantly on due to persistence of vision. I’ll be using a Rainbowduino to drive the LED array, being controlled by the main Arduino over I2C. Each cell will have three 10mm diffused RGB LEDs. The cheap Chinese LEDs which I’ve purchased, although bright, aren’t particularly high quality and the colour varies slightly between each one. By using three in a cell running at a slightly lower power I’m hoping to even out this problem (even though it means a load more soldering). It also evens out the light spread so there’s no bright spots on the diffusion film.

Touch sensitivity

A capacitive or resistive panel on this scale would be too expensive for my budget so I’ve decided to go for a low tech optical solution involving infrared light. Each cell will have a IR LED and a matching IR photodiode. The LED will fire infrared light up out of the cell, if something is placed above it (a hand / cup / face), the IR light is bounced back and detected by the photodiode. At least that’s how it should work in theory. I’m expecting lot of problems with crosstalk (where adjacent cells are detecting their neighbours reflected light), reduced IR emission (due to the light diffusion film on the bottom of the glass) and interference from ambient lighting.

Each photodiode would will need to be connected to an analog pin on the Arduino to take a reading. Since the the Arduino doesn’t have 64 analog inputs I’ll be using an eight channel demultiplexer and an eight channel multiplexer to achieve this. The multiplexer supply power to one column at a time via a transistor. The demultiplexer will be connected to the photodiodes on each row. Working much like the LEDs, only one column is on at a time. This allows the demux to read each row individually, the next column is lit up and another reading taken. This happens over and over, scanning the entire table around 20 times a second.

Syncing to music

They key to syncing lights to music is beat detection. A kick drum (which in most dance music sounds on the beat) is in the 60–120hz frequency area, by using a filter it’s possible to pull out just that frequency from an audio source and then do something when it happens. I spent a bit of time looking into active and passive low pass filters and beat detection and it turns out it’s a lot harder than first appears. Luckily I came across the MSGEQ7 chip; it takes a line level input and reports back the amplitude of seven different frequency bands. It has a built in demultiplexer so it only takes up 3 pins on the Arduino. One of the bands is 63hz which means I can do the beat detection very easily. Another positive about this approach is that I can include a graphic equaliser animation mode without needing to plug the table into a PC running a Processing sketch. I’ve bought a little pre-built board with an electret mic, built in pre-amp and gain control to feed into the MSGEQ7.

This post summarises where I’m at with the initial design of the Disco Table. I’ve started ordering parts in for the construction process. My next post will outline my progress on modifying the Ikea table and some prototype circuits I’ve built on a breadboard.

James Moss

I’m a freelance full-stack engineer with over 15 years experience. Currently taking on new React based opportunities, drop me a line 👋

Installing delicious bookmarks extension in Firefox 4 RC

(Update 4th May: The recent Firefox 4.0.1 update has caused issues with my original workaround, Ive now made changes below so that the plugin continues working even after future updates)

I’m now using Firefox 4 RC as my main browser; it’s stable, fast and the UI changes feel like a big step forward. I haven’t had much problem getting my addons working but the delicious bookmarking extension didn’t want to play ball. I use it on a daily basis (check out my last few bookmarks over on the right hand sidebar) so this was a real dealbreaker for me.

After a bit of searching on Google I couldn’t find a simple tutorial so I thought I’d put this one together and help out anybody else looking for a solution to this problem. Please note, this is for OSX but the process will be very similar on Windows too. I’m also assuming you have upgraded from FF 3.6 and already had the delicious extension installed. If not you might need to download/install it before taking the following steps.

  1. From the menus select Help > Troubleshooting information
  2. On this new tab, near the top, you’ll see a field called Profile Directory. Click the button in the field to launch Finder (File Explorer for Windows).
  3. In the window which has popped up navigate to the extensions folder. Inside that should be another folder named “{2fa4ed95–0317–4c6a-a74c–5f3e3912c1f9}”. Inside this is a file called install.rdf
  4. Open install.rdf in any plain text editor.
  5. Around line 8 you should see some XML which looks like this: em:maxVersion="4.0b3pre" />
  6. Update this to em:maxVersion="5.0" /> (See we changed “4.0b3pre” to “5.0”)
  7. Save the file and restart Firefox.
  8. Boom. The delicious extension will now work.

The toolbar icons look a little funky and don’t fit the new UI in FF4 but apart from that it seems to work perfectly and should keep you going until delicious release their own update for FF4.

James Moss

I’m a freelance full-stack engineer with over 15 years experience. Currently taking on new React based opportunities, drop me a line 👋

Introducing jamesmoss.co.uk version 3

It’s been a long time coming but this weekend I finally got round to finishing off my WordPress theme and, as you can see, have now got it live.  This new design also includes a drastic restructuring of the content within my site.  Previously the homepage was just a list of my most recent blog posts but I wanted it to speak to potential clients and employers so Ive introduced a new layout outlining who I am and what I do.  Hopefully it should give a clearer overview to new visitors who want to find out more.

Ive also made quite a few technical changes, here’s an overview of the most important ones:

  • HTML5 markup.  I've used the Starkers theme as a base and built on top of it with the Toucan reset stylesheet (I've added a few tweaks to handle the new HTML5 elements). I'm also using Modernizr 1.6 to help older browsers to deal with the HTML5 pages properly. It's refreshing to use HTML5 after working with XHTML Strict for years, rather than worrying about ridiculous validation rules you can get on and make great looking sites.
  • Minified and combined my external CSS and JS to make the pages load a bit quicker.  Apache is also gzipping everything.  Currently my Google page speed ranking is 93, I could improve upon this but it quickly becomes a game of diminishing returns (No, Google I don't want to run every PNG on the site through pngcrush just to save 93 bytes) and the pages are generally loading below 500ms anyway which is acceptable.
  • Web fonts - You'll notice the familiar (and probably overused) but brilliant Museo Sans for headings and titles.  This is courtesy of CSS3's powerful @font-face.

There’s still a bit more work to do; I’d like to make my social media links more prominent by placing them on every page and introduce a jQuery powered image slider on the homepage but this will have to wait until I have another spare few hours.

Any feedback in the comments is greatly appreciated.

James Moss

I’m a freelance full-stack engineer with over 15 years experience. Currently taking on new React based opportunities, drop me a line 👋

Something a bit silly - The Electro DJ Name Generator

I’ve always found name generators pretty funny, the ones where you enter your real name and it gives you a comedy name based on a certain subject like Brazilian footballers or Jedi knights.

A year or so ago, myself and a friend were trying to come up with names for our DJ partnership and I put together this electro DJ name generator as a bit of fun using parts of the names of popular acts at the time. It combines them together with pretty hilarious results. Here’s a few of my favourite:

  • Fantasy French
  • Horrorwax
  • Mr DJ
  • Diabolical Crunk

Warning: Potentially NSFW

The Trendy Electro DJ Name Generator.

Make sure you post your favourite results in the comments.

James Moss

I’m a freelance full-stack engineer with over 15 years experience. Currently taking on new React based opportunities, drop me a line 👋

Character encoding headaches

I recently worked on a project with a strange character encoding issue. The application in question was an old CMS system which had originally been developed using a Latin–1 character set both for storing it’s data and in regards to the pages being served by Apache. More recently it had been updated to use UTF8 to eliminate lots of encoding problems which were arising, especially as more non English speaking users started to utilise the system.

There was however an odd issue occurring; the database and it’s tables had been setup correctly to store everything as UTF8; PHP and Apache had been configured to correctly serve UTF8 content and the application itself had been updated to use PHP’s set of [mb_ string functions][]. However when I viewed the database using Navicat it still looked like the data was being stored as Latin–1.

After a bit of digging I discovered that when the connection to the database was being made, [mysql_set_charset()][] wasnt being called which meant PHP was defaulting to Latin–1. I fixed this but in doing so, Latin–1 characters were being displayed as UTF8, and everything ended up looking like a mess. I set about writing a script to fix the data in MySQL and came across this great snippet on stackoverflow:

UPDATE table SET col = CONVERT(CONVERT(CONVERT(col USING latin1) USING binary) using utf8);

I wrote a quick PHP script which iterated over the database ran this query on any text, varchar or char columns and the problem was solved. There are other ways to achieve the same effect which involve dumping the database without any encoding information and then re-importing it, specifying UTF8 but I prefer this approach. As a word of warning, remember to backup any databases before running this. Also be aware if you have a lot of data it could take some time.

James Moss

I’m a freelance full-stack engineer with over 15 years experience. Currently taking on new React based opportunities, drop me a line 👋